Earth Day: Millennia-old Prithvi Sukta more relevant today than ever

[This piece I wrote was first published 25 years ago. I think the Prithvi Sukta will forever be relevant. It is probably the earliest known document on caring for the environment.]
The world of three, perhaps four thousand years ago was different. A cocktail of toxic chemicals were not spewed out into the air every day. Auto exhausts did not cause a wheezing Pranayama. Nuclear and chemical pollution did not produce deformed babies. Deforestation did not cause desertification and men did not render creatures extinct at the rate of a species a day.
Yet in those truly clean, green times, an ancient, learned sage, voiced his concerns for the well-being of the earth, while thanking her profusely for giving mankind and the creatures that she sustains all she has, so generously and unhesitatingly.
A chapter in the ancient Atharvaveda, the last of the four Vedas, the Prithivi Sukta (or Song of the Earth) is a collection of sixty-three verses in praise of the earth and her environment, a fine and touching work of deep gratitude. According to tradition, the verses were composed by the seer Rishi Atharvan, who is also credited with much of the compilation of the Atharvaveda. The verses are full of both poetic and metrical elegance and besides thanking the earth for everything, convey many concerns about man’s relationship with her, in many places, presaging modern times.
Reading through the verses, one sees that the Prithivi Sukta is much more than an ancient poet breaking into inspired song, imbued with respect and gratefulness.
The verses show that the author has observed, deeply reflected on and carefully analysed the interpenetration of the earth’s ecosystem with her myriad life forms. He wonders at the cyclic patterns of her many processes like the tides and the seasons and then underscores the importance of not upsetting her fragile balance: “May none of our activities, as we go about our daily tasks, cause injury or grief to mother earth.”(v.28) Then again, the seer, on behalf of the agrarian Vedic community, says: “May we till your soil in a way that does not harm you nor disturb any vital ingredient in you.” (v.35) He follows up this verse with a prayer to mother earth to bless mankind with her seasons regularly and favourably. (v. 36)
The Prithivi Sukta is among the earliest texts where the earth is referred to as mother and her relationship with man as one between mother and child. “Like a mother, may the earth nourish us and spur our growth.” (v.10) The earth, her creatures and the ecosystem are seen as family: “May the earth hold us close, like a mother protects her sons and may the rain-filled dark clouds, like a father, water us and see to our growth.” (v.12) In some verses, the Rishi Atharvan prays to mother earth to protect mankind from beasts, inclement weather and the other fierce forces of nature as a mother would protect her helpless children. In others, he advises his fellowmen not to do anything that would upset her “internal calm” quite obviously referring to the spectre of geological upheavals and natural calamities.
The importance of commerce and economics in life, too, was not lost on the ancient sage. In the later verses, Rishi Atharvan describes the earth as a goddess and praises her with the choicest of superlatives in keeping with the Vedic tradition of deifying and eulogising natural phenomena. He prays to her to give mankind some of her immense wealth –gold and jewels (v. 44) and asks her to let good fortune flow like a thousand incessant streams of milk from Dhenu, the divine cow (v. 45)
Perhaps the single most important idea in the Prithivi Sukta that is more relevant today than it might have been when it was composed is that of understanding among us humans in preserving nature’s pristine purity. “May whatever is decided in assemblies of men, in villages and towns, be in accordance with your rules, not contrary to them, O Mother,” (v.56) is how the author counsels good sense to prevail in our dealings that could affect the earth and her environment. In another verse he says, “May we have the good sense to perform only those actions that will keep the waters of the earth pure and unpolluted.”
“Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam”, the simple idea that foreshadowed today’s catchwords like “global village”, “lonely planet” and “one world” by three millennia, has been referred to in a very contemporary manner by the ancient seer: “May we, the children of Mother Earth, have the wisdom to speak to each other pleasantly and in a manner that is understood well, in spite of our different tongues and cultures. May our interaction among ourselves and Mother Earth be harmonious. (v.16)

‘But there’s onion in the upma’

You’ve got to be pristine in thought, word and deed when Ganapati Bappa’s visiting. And that goes for the food, too. The fridge is purged of all taamasik stuff a few days ahead. The onion and garlic drawer is out of bounds. So when gen Y pulls out some leftover upma from the fridge for breakfast on chaturthi morning gen X says, “But there’s onion in the upma!”

For decades, our annual family Ganesh in Mumbai used to come from the idol-making Khanvilkar family deep in the innards of Girgaum. They would make murtis big and small all year long from Pen’s famous clay, locally called chikaN maati, for sale on this special day.

Khanvilkar Senior would talk to my uncle and father saying how idol making was “God’s work,” as we waited for him to hand over our murti to us. Their work was worship – for worship. Everything was pristine in and around the workshop, he would say.

I understand there isn’t much demand for chikaN maati these days because they don’t make too many idols in Mumbai. They come from cheap, cheap China, I hear. When a Chinese-made bappa visits a home does gen X stop to think if the worker who put him together had had pork dumplings in his lunch break?

Here in New Zealand an exporter has retrofitted a factory to comply with halal requirements before exporting poultry to the Middle East. I wonder if a consumer there worries that a Kiwi factory worker may have wolfed down a ham sandwich for lunch.

Pristineness can’t hold candle to profit. Bappa knows. If he doesn’t mind a post-chow tamaasik burp while a worker gives him the finishing touches in a faraway land, I’m quite sure he won’t mind onion in the upma.

I don’t know about you but I’m off to help myself to some really pristine modaks.

Going by the book, Indians are incestuous by default

Hypocritical mores are at the heart of India’s sociocultural problems

The raw anger and frustration sweeping India after the Delhi rape and murder has generated more heat than light. While the outburst of emotions is completely understandable especially coming from a culture and ethos where heart rules over head, it would be worthwhile to dispassionately and rationally find one’s way to the core of the issue peeling layer after complex layer of Indian sociocultural mores. The issue of sexual discrimination – naked misogyny at its worst – is complex, indeed far too complex, to be discussed threadbare in a piece such as this one, let alone come up with solutions. But it is well worth it to try to find the root of at least one aspect of the problem, not be content with dealing with the symptom alone. Here is a brief attempt to peel off a few layers of the glorified hypocrisy of some social mores…

I was once reprimanded in school because I asked of my teacher if I wouldn’t be able to marry any Indian woman when I grew up. I referred to the paragraph called “Pledge” that was printed on the first page of every textbook of my time (it probably still is). It said, “India is my country. All Indians are my brothers and sisters… [and so on]”. If I take the pledge that all Indians are my brothers and sisters, I will perforce be incestuous in my physical relationship with any and every Indian woman and so would have to look outside the country, I said.

I was told to shut up by the scandalised though cheerfully disposed teacher because this was, as he told me, merely a metaphorical statement. What’s the point, then? What does it seek to prove or teach? No wonder no one ever bothers to read the pledge*. If they haven’t already, the government should dispense with it just as it dispensed with the national anthem being compulsorily screened at the end of every movie in a theatre.

Welcome to the phony world of Indian hypocrisy.

The heart-over-head mentality (perhaps ‘heartality’?) – that permeates Indian sociocultural mores is what causes an eternal conflict between symbolism and reality – metaphor mistaken for reality. Metaphor is the constant crutch of traditional Indian teachings. In ancient philosophical texts where a point is sought to be made, the teacher or the text has something like “Just as you discard old clothes and get new ones, so does the soul discard an old body and find a new one,” connecting symbolic metaphor to practical reality. Modern gurus of every persuasion use metaphor to drive home a point. It works like sleight of hand. You believe you’re seeing what you’re seeing, though you know it isn’t true. Metaphor undoubtedly drives home a point exceedingly well. But as semanticist Alfred Korzybsky said, “the map can never be the territory”.

For Indians metaphor isn’t restricted to literature, poetry or philosophical and religious teaching. It permeates everyday lives moulding the very worldview. Looked at analytically, much of Indian sociocultural mores seem deeply hypocritical because they see metaphor as reality. Therefore, hypocrisy imbues every ‘acceptable’ social interaction. By default then, every woman is a mother, sister, daughter, grandmother or even ‘Devi’. She is rarely, if at all, ever acceptable as a partner, friend or simply a woman for who she is. She is immediately deemed suspect with all sorts of aspersions cast. So complete strangers can comfortably be Behenji, Maa, Bhaiyya, Maasi, Uncle, Auntie and so on (of course you will never call a man other than your father a “baap” – that is absolutely sacrosanct). But a man and a woman cannot be partners or friends without overtones of the relationship being “najayz” and something seriously black in the daal.

Doesn’t calling all and sundry brothers, sisters and mothers greatly devalue the real blood relationship between mothers, children and siblings? Why would you want to equate strangers with your mothers, sisters and daughters? Aren’t they special? After all, you won’t do the same with ‘father’! What does it do except devalue real relationships? Is it not hypocritical nonsense in the very extreme?

I’ve known so many of my mates who ended up dating and marrying their “maani hui” of “muh boli behen” when the warming of their hearts’ cockles transmogrified the hypocritical sibling love into something natural – Kaamdev’s precision arrows cutting the threads of the raakhi. The lovebirds were vilified for a time (often teased, “din mein sister, raat mein bistar”), but what the heck – the muh boli phase actually helped them get closer together blossoming into love in times when it was not the norm for a boy and girl to be just friends. Ooh, the sweet rewards of subterfuge!

The cover of every woman being a mother, sister, daughter is a convenient handle for justifying the male role as the “protector”, therefore actualising an illusion of physical superiority over the “fair sex”. Thanks to modern laws, women have long ceased to be treated as property legally, but attitudinally, they still are. There is any number of Hindi and other Indian language films that have reinforced this for generations and continue to do so, to speak nothing of the utterly nonsensical, mind numbing “family” TV soaps that plague the airtime on dozens of channels.

Women are still referred to as “Maal” or “Saamaan” [property] in men’s conversations (including in movies where, incidentally, chhed-chhad is a legitimate, sure-shot technique of winning female hearts). And perfectly decent and educated, well-heeled families still use the expression that loosely translates as “we’ve given away our daughter to so-and-so family in so-and-so town” – as if the daughter were a thing. But of course she is – a thing of liability, which must be gotten rid off either before she sees the light of day (when the sex detection clinician utters ‘Jai Mata Di’ – imagine uttering the all powerful Mataji’s name to convey the ‘sandesa’ for killing off the female foetus. Many would think nothing of appeasing goddesses for the favour of a son the next time.) – or as soon as it is possible to palm her off, with money and gifts if necessary.

Favouring males over females is by no means unique to Indian culture – it is in fact prevalent in nearly every culture (there always are sons of bitches – never daughters of philanderers, remember?). It begins with guns and swords for boys and dolls and play utensils for girls, where traditional roles are embedded into their respective psyches at a young age.

But Indian culture, thanks to its great proclivity for taking hypocrisy to absurd levels by twisting logic using emotional casuistry ingeniously, finds justification for soft-pedalling gender discrimination, even misogyny.

The most popular version of the epic Ramayana in northern India is the one credited to the authorship of Tulsidas. One of the verses says: “Dhol Ganwaar Shudra Pashu Naari Sab Taadan ke Adhikari”. Simply translated, it reads: Dhol [folk rhythmic instrument], illetarate [persons], lowest caste [persons], animals and women deserve to be beaten. Indian feminists have long used this verse to prove their point about deeply embedded and institutionalised, even spiritualised misogynistic thinking in Indian literature, religion and culture.

But scholars have countered this by suggesting punctuation at convenient points while adjectivising alternate nouns in the verse, in another instance of a spectacularly failed attempt in defending the indefensible using flawed logic. According to one expert, the verse should read Dhol, Ganwaar Shudra, Pashu Naari – meaning dhol, illiterate lowest caste persons and animal [like] women deserve to be beaten. This makes it even worse, raising many more questions of the so-called social equity that was supposed to exist in the golden age of Ram Rajya. The fig leaf flies off even with the feeblest gust of logic.

If one can justify beating illiterate lowest caste persons, why spare the illiterate higher caste persons? And pray, what are animal-like women? Can’t think of any women even remotely animal like compared to the Delhi rapists who ravaged a sister, a future mother (as described even in the mainstream media) – and undoubtedly now a goddess in the making, with shrines very probably set to mushroom in many parts of the country.

In the wake of the Delhi tragedy, several remedies have been suggested – legislating capital punishment, life imprisonment and chemical castration for convicted rapists, sensitising the executive and tightening up its enforcement machinery; speeding up judicial processes and so on. No one though is talking about holding a mirror to Indian sociocultural mores, taking a long hard look at the anachronistic rot of hypocritical attitudes that will stare every Indian in the face.

Unless a close, self-critical look is taken at their own selves, their beliefs, their sociocultural mores, their attitudes toward women, castes, classes, religions, little can ever change at the individual, family and community levels – and of course nationally.

A bold willingness to eschew hypocrisy is required. A spade must be called a spade – not worshipped as some god’s implement. A woman must be seen and treated as a person, an individual not a metaphorised behen, maa, beti or devi. Just as no man other than a biological father will ever be referred to as baap.

Of course this is no silver bullet. It will not magically bring down the incidence of rape and murder. But then so won’t tighter legislation, more policing and faster justice. And neither will protests no matter how widespread and how intense.

What it has potential to do is perhaps usher in an attitudinal change at different levels of India’s highly stratified society. For the malaise does not afflict any single stratum – it seems to be spread out across the spectrum with an obvious greater concentration at the lower levels. Only attitudinal change can in time ensure changes at the governmental and administrative levels.

As the old adage goes, people only get the government they deserve.

* I have a hunch about how the “All Indians are my brothers and sisters” bit came into the “Pledge”. It probably has reference to Swami Vivekananda’s address in Chicago where he referred to the audience as “Dear Brothers and Sisters”, which is believed to have drawn thunderous applause because it was a novelty for westerners to be addressed in that manner. But it’s just my hunch.

‘Aho Nadkarni, Dahaa-Baaraa Tandoori Chicken Maagwaa’ – our encounters with Thackeray

Dev Nadkarni

During its early days, Esselworld, Mumbai’s first major amusement park, was faced with all sorts of roadblocks – governmental, municipal, opposition from local residents, environmentalists, wildlife and heritage groups, the whole lot.

I was in the corporate communications team handling external communications and my job was to work with opinion leaders to sell them the then relatively nascent concept of amusement parks and get them over the line to make positive noises in their circles and in the media. I escorted dozens of celebrities to the newly built park.

The park’s promoter Subhash Chandra (of Zee fame) picked me to escort Bal Thackeray and his family to the park one fine day. “Dev, aap Marathi achche jaante ho, aap hi chalo.” I met the Thackeray family at the park on the appointed morning. He was with his wife Meena and a brood of 5-6 young children, presumably grandchildren and their friends or relatives. And of course there were more than a couple of gun-toting bodyguard types.

The family tried many of the rides and attractions for several hours and I could see Thackeray take great delight in the way the kids were enjoying the visit. I seized the opportunity to tell him about some of the governmental and bureaucratic hurdles that were nearly deeming the operation illegal because of anachronistic entertainment tax laws.

“Kaalji karu nakaa Nadkarni, mee Sharad shi boleen.” Sharad Pawar was the chief minister of Maharashtra then. By then, despite my best efforts at speaking Marathi and my ooh so Marathi sounding last name, Thackeray had picked up that I was a faux Marathi Manoos. When I told him he said, “Kokni mahnze aamchech ki ho.” (It would’ve made more sense if he had said “Kokni mhanze amchi ki ho”). (And again, that’s not the first time I had heard that sort of comment – and thereby hangs another tale but for now I’ll stick to the tiger’s tale).

Soon it was time for lunch and park general manager Rajesh Singh (now writer, blogger and filmmaker) had organised a spread after previously consulting with Sena officials. The park was very basic then and there were no offices thanks to development control rules that prevented the construction of any permanent structures. Lunch, therefore, was organised in one of the porta cabins.

When the family was comfortably seated in the air-conditioned cabin, I asked if we could serve lunch. Because of the basic canteen and serving facilities then, we had the lunch pre packed with cellophane wrapped paper plates – nothing fancy. When the trays with the plates were brought in, Thackeray asked me not to serve it to them.

“Aho Nadkarni, Daha-Bara Tandoori Chicken Maagwa… ekaach tray madhye. Hae nako.” I hurriedly got on the intercom and ordered his bidding. We chatted while the order was getting ready. He was perfectly pleasant, even soft spoken, as he engaged in discussions on a wide range of topics. Then he asked for a phone. I got him a cordless handset. He motioned to one of his bodyguards saying, “Sharad laa lavoon de.”

The man got Chief Minister Sharad Pawar on the line within minutes. Thackeray spoke: “Sharad, mee ithay Esselworld laa alelo aahe. Kiti sundar jaaga ahe hee. Mulaansaathi kiti chhan ahe… Arey, tyaana itka traas ka detos? Karun taak naa tyancha kaam…” and went to chat for a few more minutes. He ended with “Theek aahe nantar bolto tujhyashee.”

Obviously the two were the best of friends, as most suspected then but a fact that everybody knows now (and which Pawar’s daughter Supriya Sule alluded to when condoling Thackeray’s death last week). The bitter political rivalry was for the consumption of us hoi polloi. In fact all politicians would have to be extremely good friends with one another outside the political arena. They’re all in it for power and money – it is what unites them.

The dozen tandoori chicken plates arrived and he handpicked 4-5 plates at random and asked for the rest to be taken away. The Thackerays left after spending a few more hours at the park.

I wondered why he had insisted on ordering a dozen plates and randomly picked a few of them. Then I remembered my father’s encounter with Thackeray in the days after Indira Gandhi declared her draconian Emergency in 1975.

As a director of information with the Maharashtra Government, my father was ordered to act as the chief censor of news for Mumbai’s newspapers in the days just after the Emergency was declared. News editors were obliged to get an endorsement from my dad as “OK to publish” before putting the paper to bed. Every news editor had to turn up to his office and he had a bevy of translators to advice him if the language papers were “clean”.

(Dad was hauled up for questioning at dawn from home because of the famous classified ad in the obituaries column, which signaled the death of democracy. It went something like this: “D’Ocracy D.E.M. Son of T Ruth, Justicia….” And so on. It had escaped the censors’ eyes and dad had to spend a night at the police station to explain how it had slipped through… that’s another story and I digress again).

Thackeray turned up at dad’s office with an issue of Marmik, his magazine (there was no Saamna then). Dad offered him a Coke (that was before George Fernandes’ Janata government banned the drink two years later). When the office boy brought a bottle with a straw in it, Thackeray declined and asked for a whole crate so he could pick a sealed bottle at random. The boy did as he was told and Thackeray picked a bottle at random and then sipped from it.

Exactly like the way he was to ask for “Daha bara Tandoori Chicken” to choose a couple from, more than a decade and a half later!

The Fourth Estate stoush

What is it that incites Pacific media owners, journalists, media academics and students to go ferociously for one another’s jugular every so often? The short history of journalism in the Pacific Islands is littered with numerous episodes of media proprietors, scribes and tertiary teachers lunging at one another’s throats, polarising the student community at an enormous cost to their study.

These confrontations always tend to begin with ideological differences, which is not a bad thing at all, given that the raison d’etre of journalism is to question the status quo in an informed and collegial manner, but the debate quickly degenerates into unabashed personality clashes.

Before long, the quality of the discourse spirals out of control into petty name calling, questioning of credentials and antecedents, abusive comments—right down to racist remarks directed at all concerned.

In years past, such quarrels were restricted largely to the print medium and points and counterpoints were to a large extent reasoned and measured. But the popularity and accessibility of the online medium and the lack of editorial control, particularly on blog sites, reduces the level of debate to little more than the raucous, expletive filled exchanges in a bar brawl.

The latest episode in this continuing sordid saga involves Marc Edge, the current head of the University of the South Pacific’s Journalism Programme; David Robie, one of his predecessor;, Graham Davis, the twin hat wearing journalist cum consultant to the PR company rendering services to the Fiji government; and a bunch of journalism students hopelessly divided across the continuing unseemly stoush that is spreading to all sorts of Pacific centric websites—all at the cost of their study.

At the Pacific Islands News Association’s biennial meet earlier this year, questions about journalistic ethics were raised and inconclusively argued between Edge and Davis resulting in frothy debates on websites for several months following.

Then again at last month’s USP hosted media freedom symposium, what started out as a an extremely interesting debate about what style of journalism is best suited for the region’s realities, quickly deteriorated into another unseemly spat with the washing of copious amounts of dirty linen in the public domain.

Last month’s debate began around something that has been a subject of discussion among media academics in the region for some time now: whether journalism in the Pacific should be based on the ‘social responsibility’ or  ‘deliberative’ model—which Robie favours—or whether the more libertarian ‘western style’—which Edge seems to prefer—suits it better. Associated with the former are what go by the labels ‘peace journalism’, ‘development journalism’, ‘guided’ and ‘collaborative’ journalism.

The discussions around this interesting debate would have been collegial and conducted in an atmosphere that would churn some great ideas one would think, but if one goes by the posts on a range of websites and blogs one can see that the discourse has moved away from this topic and degenerated into name calling, accusations and even unbecomingly petty racist remarks.

Parties slugging it out on these websites and blogs have cast aspersions on one another’s credibility, exhumed past skeletons going back decades, accused one another of impropriety, reproduced leaked work emails and correspondence, and have even called for people to pack up and leave, to say nothing of all sorts of veiled threats and counter threats.

Students have waded in to the controversy and added their own bit of venom to the arguments. In the process, the debate has veered light years away from where it began, resembling a street fight rather than an informed collegial discussion.

The no holds barred highly personal exchanges have exposed the poor regard these journalists and academics have for one another—which, reading through some of their vitriolic responses, is probably justified.

For instance, prolific Fijian affairs commentator Davis is hard put to defend his work as a consultant to an overseas public relations outfit engaged by the Fiji government while being a journalist at the same time. Small wonder then that his arguments in defence of juggling two hats and justifying the charade look like the proverbial fig leaf.

Such obvious as daylight conflict of interest would scarcely, if ever, have gone unchallenged in the country where this commentator lives and works from. But apparently, as we have known all along, everything is fair game in the Pacific. This only goes to show the poor regard that these sparring individuals have for the people of the region.

Edge, on the other hand, has been accused of using western, developed world yardsticks to instruct and evaluate his students.

He has been criticised for insisting on punctuality and discipline, which according to his opponents are rather harsh given the “realities” in the Pacific islands region.

On an unrelated matter, his integrity has been questioned for not adequately explaining the arrangement about his involvement in an endorsement for a commercial entity in Suva.

In another raging controversy with Fiji journalists, which also gained currency during last month’s symposium, Edge insists that self-censorship is rampant in Fiji, which Fiji’s journalists rather unconvincingly refute.

Again, this is an important topic for wider discussion—but the fact that it quickly descends to the level of personal attacks and even abuse in the form of comments written anonymously, many times quite obviously the same person assuming multiple online identities, robs the region of healthy, informed debate.

In Samoa last month, Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi gratuitously offered the services of his head spin doctor and former scribe Terry Tavita to his former employer, Samoa Observer publisher Savea Sano Malifa. Malifa publicly refused spewing out a range of reasons why he thought it was a bad idea, while going over Tavita’s employment foibles in great detail.

That a prime minister can even think of suggesting that his PR man should work for what is truly the nation’s truly independent newspaper speaks volumes for how poorly regional politicians think of the national and regional media.

And why wouldn’t they when regional media stalwarts, academics, journalists and media organisations continually indulge in ugly and very public stoushes as is now being played out in Fiji?

The media’s role is said to be to hold a mirror to the government and to society without fear or favour. But Pacific media practitioners and academics are doing a disservice to their professions and to media consumers at large as they continue blackening one other’s faces putting their narrow egotistic interests above the greater good, reflecting the rot in their lot. And in the process, only fuelling politicians’ proclivity to ride roughshod over themselves and the powerless public.

First appeared as a “We Say” in Islands Business October 2012

A few rays of hope at the Rio+20 jamboree

By all accounts, last month’s mega global jamboree Rio+20 has been expectedly labeled a huge failure. Few would have anticipated anything concrete to emerge, what with the precedent set by the string of similar spectacular failures at reaching consensus about dealing with the world’s interrelated environmental, social and economic problems at previous such mega jamborees in Bali, Copenhagen, Cancun and elsewhere.

The complexity and magnitude of these intimately connected problems among the peoples of the world are not only a challenge to comprehend in itself, but the competing forces driven by commercial, religious, economic and aspirational vested interests that influence them make them look like an unsolvable conundrum – at least in the manner and mechanisms in which the solutions are being sought today.

Previous conferences have repeatedly shown that multilateralism has failed. That was exactly the case at Rio+20 as well. Delegations from 188 countries including more than a hundred heads of state (minus the biggest of them all – Barack Obama) and some 45,000 delegates drawn from across all persuasions in life had little by way of anything concretely positive for the 4000 attending journalists to report to the world.

But it would be too early to treat Rio+20 as a complete write-off in the sense that previous such conferences were. There are a few reasons why. For one, the preparatory steps to Rio+20 took on board a grassroots approach. It had a system for information and communications technology infrastructure to involve the wider community. People from anywhere in the world could participate in pre-summit deliberations using simple web technology. Submissions, which could be made on a range of listed topics, were to be taken aboard for greater consideration in leaders’ deliberations.

It is not known how much this system contributed to the three day deliberations or if it added any value to the general discourse at all. There has been next to nothing about the workings of the system in post event news releases, so there is no knowing how useful it was. But the important point is that the very thought of such a process and the attempt to put it in place was a step in the right direction. For one thing that has not been attempted at previous conferences is a bottom up approach and this was the first time that there was a semblance of it.

At the end of Rio+20, however, no binding agreements were arrived at or signed on. None of the overarching commitments that have been repeatedly sought after at such mega events previously were to be seen. Rather, a feel good document was put out, with several initiatives agreed to, mostly informally, by the more serious minded and well meaning forces from all sectors including large business houses.

In fact it is these small measures that hold out any hope of achieving anything significant in moving towards sustainable practices in future human endeavour: more than a flicker hope for the growing collaborative movement across sectors for sustainable development. Some 700 commitments worth more than $500 billion were publicly announced at the summit. None of these are under any agreed upon framework but are by and large voluntary.

Other voluntary measures, which in some cases also had corporate and government support were initiatives like planting 100 million trees by the year 2017 to greening 10,000 square kilometers of desert – and empowering thousands of women entrepreneurs in green economy businesses in Africa.

This is a refreshingly bottom up approach rather than the ever elusive statutory, over-arching agreement approach that world leaders have been pursuing for the better part of two decades since the first Rio summit in 1992. All these conferences have been cast in the top down mould – driven by policy suitable to competing vested interests based on the holy grail of economic growth. Having done that, the idea was to then set about thinking up programmes that would fall under the top down policies – and finally finding funding to make them happen.

History tells us that tack has not worked. If at all it did, it was patchy. For instance, repeated earmarking of funding for adaptation and mitigation to counter climate change in countries and regions deemed most vulnerable, like Kiribati in the Pacific Islands region, at previous conferences has brought a mere trickle of assistance to the suffering regions, if at all.

If anything ought to work, it is this bottom up approach that will. That is because the people, NGOs, individuals and parties involved are bound together in their belief that something needs to be done seriously and the only way to do it is through a multi disciplinary approach rather than a multilateral one at top governmental levels. To borrow a phrase from an unsavoury historical context that was used in the Middle East by a former American President, the only thing that will work is a ‘coalition of the willing’.

The other positive outcome is the willingness shown by likeminded businesses that have come to realise that adopting sustainable practices in whatever they do is the only way forward. Sustainability has turned out to be the big mantra for businesses over the past decade or so and such bottom up initiatives will give impetus to more businesses across the board to adopt sustainable practices as they begin to realise that ultimately these practices have a positive effect on the bottom line.

The popularity of the idea will begin to evolve scales to ‘measure’ sustainability. That will be followed by standards and perhaps certification systems – all of which will add immensely to the aura of an enterprise both through the bottom line and through reputational value. After all, any human enterprise can make sense only if there a discernible gain is seen in it.

One way to achieve this is to put a value on sustainable practice. And that is perhaps the single most significant though informal outcomes of Rio+20: One of the innovative initiatives agreed to at last month’s event is Natural Capital Declaration. Its idea is to get as many layers and sectors of society across the world to agree to the idea of affixing an economic value on nature. This is in direct contrast to previous approaches that did not put an economic value on nature. This is a novel concept that will help measure sustainable strategies and therefore encourage businesses to develop them – not just because they are good for the environment but also because they promote profitability.

It is an idea whose time has come and if it gains critical mass, may well point the way ahead to a sustainable future.

First appeared in Islands Business, July 2012 as a opinion piece ‘We Say’

Geopolitics may be a bigger headache for islands than climate change

That the Pacific islands region will be the theatre of action in the next big global race for geopolitical hegemony is not a question of if as much as it is of when. And that when may be soon. Once it breaks out, the race could stay a cold war for a long time, with all sorts of posturing from all parties, or it could escalate into a full blown battle. No matter how it finally turns out, the next big theatre for the big powers’ global machinations will be the Pacific and its epicenter could well be Fiji’s capital Suva.

At the turn of the millennium, this twenty first century was touted as the century of the Asia Pacific. The promise was great: the Pacific Rim countries’ confidence brimmed powered by their blitzing growth rates, the Asian tigers were on a roll, the Pacific islands were redrawing the extents of sovereign oceanic territories as new mineral discoveries were being made on land and the seabed.

The first decade of this century saw sustained forays by the Asian giants into the Pacific islands region, establishing new outposts in tiny island nations, helping build infrastructure and doling out loans and grants with a firm eye on the vast natural resources that the islands are thought to possess. All this happened as the Pacific islands’ traditional western world partners were progressively downsizing their long held commitments to the islands.

Throughout the first decade of this century, China had a fairly open run of the Pacific Oceanic region. It upped its financial assistance and infrastructure building programmes around the region in schemes and arrangements that were different from the ones Pacific island governments were used to when such assistance came from Western friends.

Pacific islands leaders spoke approvingly of China’s ‘no strings attached’ approach to aid, in marked contrast to the West’s more structured and highly conditions-based manner of dealing with assistance programmes. This was enticement enough for most Pacific island countries to happily get into bed with China for several ‘development’ initiatives in return for poorly documented (at least in the media) concessions in tapping natural resources and fisheries.

Simultaneously, political developments like those in Fiji forced leaderships to evlove strategies like Fiji’s ‘look North policy’ where almost every new realm of economic and developmental activity became closely aligned to China, Korea and several other countries of the Pacific Rim, gaining precedence over traditional ties to Australia and New Zealand.

China has played its game in the Pacific cleverly. It has employed what commonly goes for ‘soft power’ to win influence. It has extended the hand of unconditional friendship and one cannot say that there has been coercion or threatening of any sort. That is one of the reasons why its influence has grown so rapidly over such sweeping swathes of the Pacific – under the radar as it were.

Meanwhile, the United States was busy with its endless war mongering in the Middle East for the better part of the past two decades and all but ignored China’s growing influence in the Pacific islands region. As if awoken suddenly from a deep slumber, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton made a knee jerk statement during one of her Pacific whistle stop tours a few years ago that the US would not “cede” territory to anybody – obviously implying that it wouldn’t take China’s machinations in the region lying down.

As the world now progresses towards the middle of this century’s second decade, it is becoming increasingly apparent that this is the century of the Asia Pacific for many more reasons than those that were touted at the turn of the millennium. And some of these reasons are undoubtedly a cause for worry – not just for the region but also for the world.

China has already begun protesting against the US’ planned joint exercises in the Pacific this year that involves some 22 nations including several of the Pacific Rim including Australia and New Zealand and even distant powers like Russia. China has pointedly been excluded from these exercises that will include a range of nuclear submarines besides other sophisticated naval hardware and armaments.

China is also dealing with a number of more regional geopolitical and territorial problems – particularly the one involving the Philippines in the South China Sea. The Philippines has a strong US connection for historical reasons. This is one instance of how these local problems have the potential to polarise the region across the two superpowers vying for the region’s favours.

The joint naval exercises are obviously a bold and firm statement directed at China that the US wants to make that it well and truly means business in the region. In including 22 nations in its exercises including South Korea and Japan, it has thumbed its nose at the Asian superpower. In fact the US started this sort of posturing when it rebuilt its embassy in Fiji’s capital Suva.

In ages gone by, kings and emperors announced their hegemony by building towers and monuments on the territories they conquered. In modern times, countries can’t conquer and can’t build towers and monuments. Instead, they build embassies in the countries they want to win favour from in helping them expanding their influence. So when China rebuilt its embassy into a bigger facility in Fiji, the US decided to follow suit almost immediately.

For both countries realise the strategic, geopolitical importance of Fiji, just as colonial powers in bygone eras had. In any aggression that takes place in the Pacific Ocean in the near future, Fiji will undoubtedly catapulted into centre stage because of this.

What has begun as benign posturing could quite easily escalate into a cold war but could a cold war result in a full blown conflict? Consider this: the arms industry is the engine of the US economy. With action in the Middle East all but over, there are few places left for war mongering. The Pacific Ocean is an extremely suitable candidate to kickstart the arms industry and pull the country out of the recession. The development of a whole new suite of weapons suited for vast stretches of ocean would be a challenge worth pursuing and investing in. And thanks to the sparseness of the population, collateral damage would be negligible.

Fanciful though this may sound, the possibility can scarcely be discounted. Unfortunately for the Pacific islands and their citizens, they have already been reduced to pawns. Geopolitics may well grow to be a more pressing worry than the ravages of climate change.

First appeared in Islands Business, July 2012 as an opinion piece in ‘We Say’

Sectarian politics affects Indians globally

By Dev Nadkarni

Religion is the currency of politics in India. Without religion and caste no political party can ever grab the attention of the voting public before an impending election. Creating or engineering religious issues out of thin air before an election is an old trick politicians have repeatedly used – but the sad fact is that even after six decades of independence, masses of people are still fall prey to such trickery.

Politicians, their lackeys and individuals who are after cheap publicity think nothing of wading into even a mere whiff of a controversy, making mountains out of molehills simply because of the publicity it generates and their grossly erroneous belief that it polarises people enough to strengthen their support base. Creating an ‘us versus them’ schism is their only stratagem to get the flock together – or so goes their belief.

In two instances last week the Indian government decided to wade into events it would probably not have bothered to even consider had it not been for state elections which are round the corner. Its hasty, poorly though out stands on the controversy generated at the literary festival at Jaipur – where British author of Indian origin Salman Rushdie was to have delivered an address – and TV host Jay Leno’s show in which he made a reference to the Golden Temple have proved once again that Indian politicians have a long way to go in separating real life issues confronting people as against peripheral but emotional ones that they believe deliver votes.

While there was no need whatsoever for the government to wade into these issues in the first place, it did so with gusto simply because there is an election at hand. In the process, it has not only tainted itself but Indians in every part of the globe as being hypersensitive, highly intolerant fundamentalists who have neither the intellectual capacity nor the broad outlook to take a different point of view in their stride.

Its stand on the Rushdie affair has been rightly compared to the authoritarian Chinese government’s style of clamping down on free thought and free speech in that country. Minister Vayalar Ravi’s ill-considered missive to the United States government on the Jay Leno affair got the curt response it so richly deserved. The Indian government has exposed itself as being a mercenary guardian of narrow minded, intolerant religious zealots, which receives its payments in votes. And India prides itself as being the world’s largest democracy.

The Indian ethos is one of the world’s most tolerant. India has been a melting pot of a range of religions, denominations, castes and creeds, which has not just survived but thrived over millennia. It has been the cradle of the eastern world’s four great religions, all of which have always lived in harmony, adopting one another’s practices and mores seamlessly.

But every society has its fringe groups who are big on bluster but essentially small in numbers. But it is common for the typical Indian politician to fall for the bluster, ignoring the silent but eminently sensible majority and jockey themselves to don the mantle of the great saviour of these intolerant, extreme, fringe groups and individuals who thrive on the pyrotechnics that controversies invariably generate.

The vast majority of people are only interested in getting on with their lives. A controversial author speaking at a literary festival or a highly popular television satirist making a passing comment can hardly affect their every day lives. But politicians taking up cudgels on behalf of the intolerant, publicity hungry lunatic fringe is what can severely affect their daily lives in many ways – something that the Indian political class fails to grasp.

By wading into such non-issues and needlessly glorifying them with their involvement merely for achieving their narrow political ends, Indian politicians are doing a disservice to Indians not only in India but all over the world in an increasingly globalised society.
The past week’s events have shown that the Indian politician and the government actually sponsors a narrow, sectarian mindset that is hardly representative of most Indians around the world.

First appeared in Indian Weekender, January 2012

The great Fijian Paradox

By Dev Nadkarni

Ever since Commodore Frank Bainimarama’s December 2006 action in which he toppled the Laisenia Qarase government and established his military backed administration, Fiji has been turned into a pariah – at least in the western world.

Next week, heads of government of all the Commonwealth nations will gather in Perth, Western Australia, for their periodic jamboree. Fiji will miss the event because it remains suspended from the Commonwealth. Just as it was absent from last month’s fortieth Pacific Islands Forum in Auckland – because it stands suspended from there as well.

Interestingly, the headquarters of the 16-nation Pacific Islands Forum is in the Fijian capital of Suva. The country’s suspension from the Forum, therefore, is quite like what it would be if the United Nations (which is headquartered in New York) were to suspend the United States from its membership.

The Forum and the Commonwealth are but two of the world’s international and regional clubs that Fiji has been suspended from. But despite being thus ostracised and in spite of the negative publicity perpetuated by governments and media in the western world – not to mention the continually ranting activists demanding its isolation – business is putting more and more faith into Fiji.

It’s quite counterintuitive, really. Consider this: first, we have had a relentless campaign in the western media about things progressively going pear shaped in the tropical island nation. There have been warnings against doing business in Fiji, investing there or even travelling there for holidays. There has even been an incredibly pigheaded campaign to shun Fiji Water, which has little to do with the government.

Then, the world has been in a recession. Real estate prices the world over have tumbled and are still scraping rock bottom. Credit is hard to come by and most economies seem to be in a tailspin.

Despite so much going against it, things are looking up in Fiji. Or so indicate news reports from Australia and New Zealand, where criticism about Fiji in official and government circles has been the most stringent.

According to a report about property investment in New Zealand’s leading business publication the National Business Review, successful real estate professionals are reporting increased sales in properties around Fiji.

Australian-born Fiji-resident Bob Lowres is quoted saying, “There are definite signs of improvement, with new buyers coming into the market from other countries.” He is advertising the latest stage of his Naisoso Island development – a NZ$500 million gated community off the coast of Fiji in Nadi Bay, scheduled for completion in 2014. He has already sold 73 of the 112 residential lots, of which five were sold in just the past month for NZ$3.9 million.

A whopping 85% of the land and house packages that start at half a million dollars has been sold to Australians and New Zealanders and the balance to North Americans. Which indeed goes to show that investors don’t quite buy into their governments’ stubbornly rigid stand on Fiji. Lores dismisses the scaremongering about investing in Fiji’s free hold real estate – and he is being proven right by the increasing sales.

And Naisoso is not an isolated case. The magazine says Fiji-born Auckland-based real estate agent Rick Kermode “is targeting the world’s wealthiest people for his listings. Mr Kermode’s listings include a $US6.95 million house on Wakaya Island … not too far from Mago Island where he sold a large area to actor Mel Gibson.”

A couple of years ago, media in New Zealand including the National Business Review raised concerns about repatriating funds from Fiji – particularly proceeds from time share revenues and the sale of property. But rules and procedures are far clearer now, say marketers. For instance, a new 10% capital gains tax has clarified obligations of investors.

Also, Suva based lawyer Satish Parshotam told the magazine, “There’s no written policy [about length of time in repatriation of property sale proceeds]. Inland revenue authorities are pretty ruthless anywhere. But if you have your records in order and you’ve completed the necessary forms there isn’t a problem I’m aware of. Time share income is only taxed once.” According to Mr Parshotam, tightening tax rules have resulted in the growth of government reserves – now higher than they have been for years.

The Anzac nations’ isolationist policy has compelled Fiji to increasingly look north and several resource hungry nations in the Pacific rim and beyond have been only to happy to oblige. Chinese investment in Fiji has been growing by leaps and bounds and Fiji had more Chinese tourists this year than ever before, boosting overall tourist numbers to record highs.

It’s not just China that is investing. Malaysia, Indonesia and even Russia and the Baltic states are showing interest. Russia’s Rusal, the world’s biggest aluminium company, is investing big into Fiji’s natural resources sector.

But that’s not to say tourist numbers from its traditional markets – Australia and New Zealand – have declined. In fact quite the opposite has happened. Fiji’s flag carrier Air Pacific is looking at nearly doubling its services between Sydney and Nadi. The airline plans to operate 13 flights a week to Nadi from next year. This will give visitors a choice of morning and afternoon departures as well as same-day connections to Fiji’s outer-island resorts.

A representative of Australian online travel company has been quoted in the media saying, “[Fiji is] trying to demonstrate that they are a destination for all travellers, rather than trying to pin themselves to one market.” Which is extending its appeal from a traditional family holiday market to the highly lucrative weddings and honeymoons market as well as the whole gamut from adventure tourism to backpackers.

It’s completely counterintuitive.

Families on holidays, brides and grooms, industries, real estate investors and speculators all seem to be flocking to a nation where a coup is supposed to be in place; where for five years an unelected government has been presiding over a nation suspended from virtually every international and regional grouping worth the name; a country that a slew of aid agencies have summarily blacklisted.

As the world waits to see if the Fijian administration will ultimately carry out its promise of holding elections in 2014, the big question is who has got it wrong: the western governments who have painted the country and its people into a corner – or the growing hordes of common people who continue to flock to Fiji in ever bigger numbers despite all sorts of warnings from their own governments.

First appeared in Indian Weekender, October 21, 2011

Time to outgrow frog-in-the-well Kiwi mindset

By Dev Nadkarni

It was refreshing to see Prime Minister John Key determined not to let ideology get in the way of pragmatism in the best interests of New Zealand during his state visit to India last week.

It is easy to miss the wood for the trees when one looks at the fast changing world through the rose tinted glasses of twentieth century ideology, like some Kiwis – including those in the media – do.

While no one discounts the importance of standing one’s ground as regards one’s beliefs and values, it is rather naïve to jeopardise hard to come by economic opportunities under the false notion that doing business with nations that xo not share our world view compromises our values.

Mr Key regularly fielded questions from New Zealand media about doing business with India while it continued to refuse to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

New Zealand’s stand on matters nuclear is well known in the world and has won it some respect, while also icing its relationship with countries like the United States over the years, which is only now beginning to thaw. This change of heart is happening purely in the interest of geopolitical strategy – again, an instance of pragmatism taking precedence over ideology.

In daily media briefings during the India visit, the Prime Minister explained that New Zealand would continue to reiterate its anti-nuclear stance at all international platforms including his diplomatic meetings in India and during bilaterals but added that it was important not to let that get in the way of doing business with the second fastest growing economy in the world.

The stand that some in the New Zealand media took during a visit to India with former Prime Minister Helen Clark is a classic case of missing the wood for the trees. Rather than focus on the opportunities available to New Zealand technology companies to team up with Indian engineering talent, they chose to criticise Ms Clark for visiting a company that was involved in designing some components for India’s nuclear power set up as a peripheral ancillary supplier. So very 1970s.

We can see where Mr Key is coming from when he says a “twenty first century perspective” is needed to deal with these issues. Just as in human relationships, there has to be a sense of give and take in relationships between nations, if they are to work together for mutual benefit. Even the best of friends differ in their points of view and beliefs but they rarely let those differences come in the way of the relationship they share.

The Prime Minister was also disappointed at criticism in the New Zealand media for having travelled with his entourage and delegation of 28 businesspeople from New Zealand in a Royal New Zealand Air Force jet. The Prime Ministerial entourage was travelling at the invitation of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The Indian government also accorded the trip the status of a state visit, signaling the importance it places on its developing a closer relationship with New Zealand.

It was only in the fitness of things that the entourage flew in a state plane rather than a commercial service. If costs were an issue, it must be mentioned that the visit was by no means a freebie to accompanying New Zealand media and the business delegation. Though the flights were discounted considerably, the media and business paid for their stay and local transport in India.

On the other hand, the Indian government spent far more in terms of money and resources on this state visit than New Zealand did. It assigned an Air India Airbus 320 to ferry a part of the entourage to Agra and Mumbai from New Delhi. It closed down roads in both cities to ensure smooth and safe passage to the prime ministerial motorcade. Mind you, the loss in productivity because of stalled traffic in a fast growing economic environment like India is by no means small.

In Agra, the Indian government closed the Taj Mahal to visitors to accommodate the New Zealand state visit at considerable inconvenience not just to locals but also international tourists who would have to wait several hours, undoubtedly earning opprobrium for the local tourism authorities.

Why did India have to do it for a small country like New Zealand, with which, even when it signs an FTA, the gains can’t be a patch on what it stands to gain from similar deals with resource rich, fast emerging economies in Eastern Europe and South America? None in India’s vibrant and live wire media asked this question of the Indian authorities.

The reason is partly cultural as well. “Treat a guest like God,” goes an ancient Sanskrit saying, which has found its way into almost all Indian languages. But more than that, India understands the imperatives of doing business internationally and increasingly engaging with the world’s countries – no matter how big or small – better than to let ideology and petty mindedness to get in the way.

The key to doing business with India successfully and hitching the New Zealand economy to the Indian juggernaut is to accept that India is different, it has a range of problems – many of them unpalatable, even abhorrent – and you simply can’t wish them away. But if you learn to accept them and work around them, there are overwhelming positives about this extraordinary subcontinent that can bring the most handsome of rewards.

Sir Ken Stevens of one of New Zealand’s most successful global companies, Glidepath, admits that he at first believed he could never do business in India. Today, it is one of his biggest markets for airport baggage handling systems as India emerges as the world’s largest aviation market.

We need to look outside our cosy little well at the bottom of the world. The fast growing Indian economy may well be the apocryphal princess waiting with pursed lips poised for the kiss that’ll leapfrog us into princes of wealth.

With last week’s state visit, I suspect we’ve caught the princess’ eye.

First appeared in Indian Weekender, July 2011