Thursday, December 25, 2008

Romanes Lecture at Oxford University - “A Poverty Free World – When? How?” by Dr.Muhammad Yunus

It is not often that we hear bold, audacious statements being made that can inspire a generation and prod us to take a deeper look at future. A future that is free from the constraints of the past. A future that calls us to action. A future that is possible. This was exactly what Dr.Muhammad Yunus did when he gave the prestigious annual Romanes lecture at the Oxford University. The 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner said “Poverty belongs only in the museum where our children and grandchildren can go to see what inhumanity people had to suffer, and where they will ask themselves how their ancestors allowed such a condition to persist for so long.”

                It was my privilege to be able to listen to Prof.Yunus at the Sheldonian theatre. A large number of members of the university had assembled braving the cold winter evening to listen to his speech. Dr. Yunus is now renowned for the Grameen Bank that he set up to provide credit to poor people in Bangladesh and thereby transformed the lives of millions in the last few decades. The Grameen Bank model and its social impact apart, this lecture was an occasion to listen to his vision of the future of world and his opinion on the current financial crisis.

                A few things stood out from the speech personally for me. He drew our attention to the fact that Capitalism has failed to create a social impact on such a vast section of the world. He said that one reason for this is that we look at human beings only in a singular dimension; as a selfish being. In the new market place he suggests that profit making must be combined with social impact and that the collective intelligence of the business world must be employed to solve some of the biggest problems facing humanity today. Social business is the new mantra.

                While, speaking of the current financial crisis, he said that markets must be self-correcting. He suggested that there must be mechanisms firstly to flush out toxic assets out of the system through a participatory structure and secondly to identify bubbles and keep shooting them on an ongoing basis. This he says will lead to long term stability.

                Finally, he shared his vision of a future when generations will ask how their ancestors could tolerate something as cruel as poverty to inflict such a large population of the society when it could have been eradicated. Yes, we live in times when we have accepted it to be a reality in our society. True, there were times when people thought we could never land on the moon, that slavery cannot be abolished and that the earth was the center of the universe. It takes courage to think beyond.

                After the lecture I bought his new book, “Creating a world without poverty” not knowing what was coming up next. As I walked out of the theatre it was the Vice Chancellor Dr. John Hood who noticed some of us students with the book in our hands asked if we wanted Prof. Yunus to autograph it. We were thrilled at the prospect and joined him to meet the Nobel laureate himself. We were touched by Dr.Yunus’ smile as he autographed the book, made pleasant enquiries and also gave us an opportunity to take pictures with him. The evening was inspiring and will be cherished for long.

PS: The text of the speech can be read at,en/ . The audio and video of the lecture is available at . A video clip of his interview is available at

Monday, December 22, 2008

Simplicity is gentle

It was unlike any other day. I was taking a stroll on the banks of the river Isis in the Christ Church meadows. I paced up the last stretch of an avenue lined with beautiful English Elms that had shed much of its foliage. There was stillness and freshness in the lush green meadows. Along the Broad walk there are very few wooden benches. And on one of them, I noticed an old woman with a big white canvas spread over her lap. She wore a woolen cap, a sweater and a thick over coat to cover her fragile body from the cold of the Oxford winter. If not for all the paraphernalia spread around her on that bench, I would have passed her off as an old woman with dirty clothes who might ask for some spare change if you looked her way. I did look her way and she very gently asked “Are you from India ?”. I said “Yes” and there began a conversation that I will remember for a long time to come. I went nearer from where I got a closer look of the large canvas spread on her legs and held by her delicate wrinkled hands on which she was drawing beautiful, large pencil sketches of the big deciduous trees lined in front of her. As she made enquiries of what I study and how long I have been in the city, she told me she was herself an Economist who had devoted her recent life time drawing sketches of trees, writing stories and poetry around them and contributing in her own way to the literature on environmental issues. She told me she was a European of mixed ancestry. She was well read, philosophical, soft and bestows a memorable conversation. She also showed me her collection of books, poems and hand crafted cards with beautiful messages that she sells to passers-by. I bought one of them as a souvenir of the beautiful afternoon at the meadows, of the intelligent conversation in a chance encounter, of the perspective a stranger could offer me on life and of the gentleness in the simplicity of this old woman. She said “You have a gentle soul” and I acknowledged her with a smile. Zoe Peterssen was her name.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

'the' Oxford Union

12th October 2008, Sunday

Today was a quiet day. It was unlike most of the days in the last two weeks when I had self-inflicted a ‘being driven’ attitude to accomplish things, or rather to get a sense of something being accomplished. The Fresher’s fortnight of the Michaelmas term have been fresh but not very refreshing after all. There are an umpteen things that every new student at the University of Oxford is to take note of, act and then tick off on his/her ‘things to do list’. This is most part reflects on the innumerable activities happening in the University town and the wide array of activities that one can participate and enrich oneself in. The Fresher’s fair was a window to the world of a student at Oxford. There was everything from a Communist Society, Rowing and Cricket to singing, and dancing and Cultural clubs.

One of the rewarding choices I made today is to seek a life membership at the Oxford Union . The Oxford Union is host to some of the best debates in the world and eminent personalities have come and either debated or delivered speeches in this august place. The Union describes the origin well as follows “The Union is the world's most prestigious debating society, with an unparalleled reputation for bringing international guests and speakers to Oxford. It has been established for 182 years, aiming to promote debate and discussion not just in Oxford University, but across the globe.

The Union is steeped in history. It was founded in 1823 as a forum for discussion and debate, at a time when the free exchange of ideas was a notion foreign to the restrictive University authorities. It soon became the only place for students to discuss political topics whilst at Oxford. W.E. Gladstone, later to become one of the greatest British Prime Ministers, was one of the leading figures of the Union's early years. Gladstone was President of the Union in 1830, shortly before entering the House of Commons. Many others have followed him into politics, and the Union can boast dozens of former members who have been active in its affairs whilst at Oxford and then gone to become both nationally and internationally prominent figures.

After having read their literature and heard from its members personally (most others in Oxford recommend its membership too), I was sure this will be one of those ‘must experience’ things at Oxford. I am looking forward to witness No Confidence Debate this coming Thursday.

I look forward to sharing more on these experiences in future.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Tea Break

Yesterday, it was like any other evening. Dark clouds hovered over in my neighbourhood. I just drove, wanting to be back home before it poured. Amma promptly brought me my evening cuppa chai. She was impervious to the irritability that I bring home from office these days. As I sat sipping my tea, something provoked me. It was irresistible. There was no place for second thoughts. I just braved myself out through the front door, into the sheets of water. Walking into those fierce showers, out on the deserted street, was out of the ordinary for me. It was a sprout of my impulsiveness. With bare feet and a few clothes on, I walked around unarmed in the rain, stretching my arms out in thin air and water. Until then, I was a stranger to the capriciousness in me.

Putting my face to the sky with closed eyes, as rain came down in sheets was such fun. When life could get at its monotonous best, small pleasures can kick in energy. Yesterday was one such. I came back and my half-empty cuppa chai was still there waiting to be finished.


Friday, March 28, 2008


StartingBloc aims at fostering a generation of leaders trained with a systems framework for understanding how each sector - public, private, and social - can work together to create a just global economy. Each year they select a cadre of young leaders to become StartingBloc Fellows. StartingBloc Fellows are trained in the most cutting edge theories and industry best practices towards sustainability, social entrepreneurship, and corporate social innovation. The 2007 Global Institute for Social Innovation event happened at London Business School, located at from July 18, 2007 – July 22, 2007.

The 2008 edition will happen in July at London Business School. From July 16th to July 20th, young leaders from across the globe will come together to attend sessions taught by leading academics, corporate innovators, social entrepreneurs, activists, and government officials.
The Global Institute for Social Innovation will be an opportunity to network with dedicated, entrepreneurial, like-minded people.

Read more :

Here are some pics from the 2007 institute...

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Dr.Rajkumar – A phenomenon and after

© Vinay Nagaraju

“When a big tree falls, the earth is bound to shake”. Circa 1984; Rajiv Gandhi allegedly made this remark in the aftermath of his mother Indira Gandhi’s death. He was obliquely justifying the anti-Sikh riots that followed Indira Gandhi’s assassination. The following gallimaufry of words will not do anything of that breed. It will only throw a few questions in an attempt to analyse on what ensued the death of Dr.Rajkumar in Bangalore and elsewhere and also attempt to paint the larger jigsaw puzzle of life.

Death and grieving : Death, cannot be better described than with the clichés of being a great leveler or the only thing certain in this world. However, certain sections of the humankind have also not given up on holding steadfast to beliefs of immortality et cetera. Dr.Rajkumar’s death brought in an unforeseen jounce with a flavour of sorrow, shock, despair, distraught and a sense of loss to entire masses in Karnataka. In many cases it was a medley of such emotions. The immediate reaction of disbelief translated into helplessness to many.

It was around 2:30pm in the afternoon when I received a call from my home with the usual imperviousness. Amma was on the other end trying to share the ‘incredulous’ news with me. She just asked if I had heard of the news of Dr.Rajkumar. She never even mentioned the word death in her conversation. It was understood. She was being appropriate. I said no and turned to Google to help me. Within the next few minutes the air was filled with messages carrying the incredulous news through SMS and phone calls. Many of my friends at office were on their feet in their own territorial cubes. Then they huddled to share, express and tried to assimilate the news. Strange are the ways of the civilized or the educated. We always like being appropriate. We have invented, practiced and bequeathed appropriate ways of grieving. So much so that crying in public view is an embarrassment for many, unlike another diametric emotion of laughing. This isn’t true for all classes of our society. The not so educated and the not so ‘conditioned’ classes do not consider it inappropriate to express their emotions in public. They do not consider any public display of anger, sorrow, distraught or elation improper. A common example may be a woman abusing her drunkard husband which each one of us has seen an umpteen times. Similarly, during times of death we have seen people grieve without any qualms on how they are occurring to others.

In Cultural perspectives of grief: an expanded concept analysis, Cowles KV of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Nursing writes and I quote “The concept of human grief has been of interest to scholars and practitioners for many years. However, there are many aspects of grief about which little is known. One of these is the role that cultural heritage plays in influencing the individual, intrapersonal experience of grief. Through the use of six focus groups, each consisting of persons from a specific cultural background, the investigator explored the concept of grief. The data were thematically analysed and the findings then compared to the findings from a previous concept analysis of grief drawn from professional literature. The findings indicated that individuals from a variety of cultural backgrounds whose knowledge of grief was derived primarily from their personal experiences defined grief in much the same way as had the authors of the professional literature. Most importantly, the findings also clearly indicated that although cultural differences are perceived to exist in mourning rituals, traditions and behavioural expressions of grief, there are no particular differences in the individual, intrapersonal experience of grief that can be attributed to cultural heritage or ethnicity alone. Implications for future research and considerations for practising nurses as they pertain to the highly individual and pervasive nature of grief are presented.” Some researchers such as Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and others have posited sequential stages including denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

In the case of Rajkmar, for millions of homes across Karnataka it was a personal loss. The land was bereaved of its beloved hero. He was a hero who had transcended his area of work to shine as a leader, representing the ethos of the Kannada culture. He was synonymous with Kannada and Karnataka for decades. One main reason for this was the timeline of his career and that of the state. Rajkumar entered the movie world in 1954 and Karnataka was formed in 1956. In many ways his growth can draw parallels in the milestones on the state. He came to stand up for the cause of the local culture innumerable times. Few culturati or intelligentsia from other fields came to acquire the charisma that he had. So, the sense of loss to the common man was palpable. They had lost the last icon on the horizon of Kannada culture.
“There is a historic aspect to Rajkumar’s artistic contribution. His first film Bedara Kannappa was three years before the state of Mysore was born. He gave shape to the Kannada consciousness through his movies, his music and his values.’’ “Litterateurs and journalists played a key role during the formation of state of Mysore. But their writings touched only the educated. However, Rajkumar’s role was greater as he reached the illiterate masses. He gave a new dimension to Kannada pride.” - Jnanapith awardee Litterateur Girish Karnad

State in the neo-liberal world: In the neo-liberal world, economic liberalisation has not gone hand-in-hand with social progress. Political-economic philosophies of free market have shaken the high tenets of social progressivism that were supposed to govern societies. Aggressive affirmative action has not been appreciated by the elite.

Egalitarian (in all connotations of the word) society does not seem to be the guiding principle of the democracy that we are. The state and its machinery are increasingly seen as a protector of the rich and the influential elite. The police force has not come out of the mindset of British Raj. Passive resistance movements expressing dissent have not acquired the required critical mass that it can dictate the ways of governance. The gap between the haves and have-nots has widened into a deep gulf. This in particular is perceptible in the big cities of developing nations. Bangalore is a good instance in the case.

What was seen in the aftermath of the demise of Dr.Rajkumar needs to be also seen in this light. The lynching of a policeman, torching of police vehicles, damage to property that are representative of the state are expressions of ire against the state. Private property was damaged without any consideration. People in general having subtle inklings of the ways of the new world where they are marginalised and their voices don’t transform into intelligible words that have impact find themselves indulging in acts of violence against the state and the elite.

“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum - even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there's free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate." - Noam Chomsky (The Common Good, 1998)

Bengalooru and Bangalore: The state of Karnataka came into existence with the passage of the States Reorganisation Act (1956), with the incorporation of districts under the dominion of Bombay, Hyderabad, Madras state and Coorg within the existing state of Mysore State. Linguistic reorganisation was the premise that drove the formation of the state. Bangalore located on the Mysore plateau (also known as the South Karnataka plateau), is located close to the three other southern states of India. The British setup the Bangalore Cantonment that resulted in a large influx of immigrant workers from neighbouring states. Bangalore’s character has always been evolving and assimilative in nature. However, in the last decade with the onset of neo-liberalism and the emergence of the city as a knowledge hub of the country in particular the IT industry, the city is more a city of implants with people from all over the country drawn to this place. In many senses it has become two cities, one land. The Bengalooru of the quintessential Kannadiga, and the Bangalore of the elite. ‘Bangalore’ has not made much effort in catalyzing the process of assimilating itself to the local culture. The original intention of the formation of the state seems to have been lost in crossroads. Dr.Rajkumar represented for millions in Bengalooru the pride of the evaporating Kannada culture. Some of the feeling of being thwarted in realising the intention of preserving and developing the local culture was evidently expressed in the aftermath of the thespian’s demise. There is no doubt that the image of the city took a beating. It brought into focus the fact that many stake holders of the city and its image were not in picture earlier.

Governance or the lack of it: The final angle that I am going to address is that of the state administration or the lack of it. And this is not not true in various other parts of the nation. The response of administration was termed guarded and restrained. Add to this the indomitable, evil designs of elements of the society who took advantage of the chaos. A state funeral without the chief minister ? Varanata deserved a more honorable farewell. The peaceful sea of humanity that turned up to witness the farewell did not draw attention. What drew attention was the chaos created by a seemingly smaller groups. Emergency responses were lackadaisical at its best. There have been few instances of exigencies being dealt with power and grace.

Dr.Rajkumar belonged to them… : Minutes after the news of the legend’s demise, his fans had laid siege to his house to catch a last glimpse of his mortal remains. On the one hand, the administration came forward to ‘conduct’ his funeral and the burial, claiming the actor to be Karnataka’s asset. On the other hand was a vast multitude of people who came from far and near to take part in his funeral. When there was confusion on where Dr.Raj will the laid at state for the public to pay their tributes and when the last journey had already begun, there were groups of people who visited his home demanding that they be allowed to catch a last glimpse. It was a heart rendering scene with Parvathamma Rajkumar, his wife pleading to them that ‘their’ Rajkumar was already being taken to the Kanteerava stadium. The people had taken over ‘benevolently’ upon themselves the task of performing the last duties and the last journey. Dr.Rajkumar no more remained his family’s man. He was the asset of the masses. Ravi Beligere said, “It is a day of shoka for all homes in Karnataka”. The legend’s sons had to jostle with the common man to be with their father. Their appeal to maintain calm fell on impervious ears. Perhaps never before was this disconnect evident than on the last day. It was a paradox. The legend was always listened to and emulated. Today, there was no other leader of that stature anywhere who would get the same listening as he did. It would be incredulous if it happened elsewhere. The maestro belonged to an entire generation. Celebrities elsewhere should perhaps just be willing to just give up on their privacy when they are alive. But, here not just in living but in death too.

After the demise of Dr.Rajkumar, someone rightly remarked that he was a phenomenon in Karnataka. Indeed he was. Annavru of the masses. Salutations to the cultural icon !