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Saturday, November 10, 2012

Eat, pray, love--slow food v/s fast food

With Slow Food, the world’s most important contemporary food movement created to counter fast food and fast lifestyles, gathering momentum, here’s a look at the movement’s biggest event held in Turin, Italy, recently.
The singing begins at night. Every night. Words are inconsequential. Emotion and rhythm don’t require language. Sometimes Palestine begins with hand drums, their verses punctuated with whoops and whistles. Sometimes it’s the group from the Philippines, dancing in a circle to gongs and guitars. Sometimes it’s the boys from Sierra Leone, with their distinctive painted wooden hats, all big smiles and bright scarves. The song always gathers strength. It rings through the marketplace, drawing in Swiss men in suspenders, Moroccan women with dramatic kohl-rimmed eyes and petite Korean cooks.
We’re in the Terra Madre arena titled ‘Market Place’, a space hosting 400 food communities from 100 countries. Next door the Salone del Gusto, a theatre of taste that began in 1996, operates from three massive pavilions, displaying Italy's gastronomic diversity.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Colombian hope for stability

A breakthrough in the recently launched talks between the Colombian government and FARC rebels raises hopes of an orderly transition to stability
The recently launched peace talks in Oslo between the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government are the fourth such attempt in 30 years. Will they bear fruit this time around? If so, why?
Much is at stake. This is the longest standing armed conflict in the Western Hemisphere. The FARC were founded in 1966 as part of the wave of guerrilla movements that spawned in the wake of the Cuban Revolution. Though many of their counterparts in the rest of Latin America were defeated, some were not. The Sandinistas brought down the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua, and one of their leaders, Daniel Ortega, is now President. The Frente Farabundo Marti de Liberacion Nacional (FMLN) in El Salvador, after quitting the armed struggle and morphing into a political party, elected their candidate, Mauricio Funes, to the presidency in 2009. Elsewhere, former urban guerrilla leaders who spearheaded the fight against military rule in the Southern Cone (and spent time in prison for it), like Presidents Jose (“Pepe”) Mujica in Uruguay and Dilma Roussef in Brazil, serve now as elected heads of state.
Yet, a military defeat of the Colombian state by FARC, or the Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional (ELN), the other guerrilla group active in Colombia (and one not taking part in these talks), was never on the cards. With a population of 45 million and a land mass of over one million square kilometres, Colombia is much too big a country to fall prey to a band of armed insurgents that has never been larger than some 20,000 to 30,000 men and women (though, amazingly, they managed to control as much as a third of the national territory at one point in time). The question, rather, is how they have managed to survive for so long.

Geographical factors

One reason is the fragmented and rough nature of the extensive and extreme Colombian geography, marked by the high Andes mountains (the second highest in the world, after the Himalayas) and enormous rivers like the Magdalena. Vast swathes of land, some of seemingly impenetrable jungle, have never been under the effective authority of the Colombian state. This leaves ample space for insurgent groups to ply their trade, in provinces like Putumayo, Narino and Caqueta in the South, but also in the rest of rural Colombia. On the other hand, the drug trade has allowed FARC to access ample financial resources (hence the term “narco-guerrillas”). This is supplemented by kidnappings, extortions and other such unsavoury activities, though the latter have been drastically reduced under relentless assault by the Colombian military. Reported kidnappings have dwindled from 3,572 in 2000 to 305 in 2011. The murder rate is at a low of 32 per 100,000 (in Honduras, it is at 82 per 100,000 and in El Salvador it is at 66 per 100,000; the average worldwide rate is 8 per 100,000). Still, according to some estimates, the FARC, described by BBC as “the world’s richest rebel movement”, have already stashed away so much money that they could go on for a long time, making do just with the interest on it.
If so, why this renewed attempt at making peace?
As a recent report of the International Crisis Group (“Colombia: Peace at Last?”) concludes, a stalemate obtains. Thanks to the considerable build-up of the Colombian military (whose numbers have gone up from 132,000 in 2002 to 283,000 in 2010, with the police reaching 132,000) and the U.S.-supported Plan Colombia, which has provided about 7 billion dollars in military hardware and training programmes over the past decade, and their sweeping, nationwide actions, the FARC are on the defensive. Many of their leaders, from Manuel (“Tiro Fijo”) Marulanda, to Raul Reyes, el “Mono Jojoy” and Alfonso Cano, have fallen in the battlefield. Vast numbers of guerrillas have been killed, captured or otherwise demobilised. No more than 8,000 to 9000 FARC members are estimated to be in the field, down from 16,000 in 2001.
For President Juan Manuel Santos, bringing peace would be quite a feather in his cap. A former Defence Minister during the presidency of Alvaro Uribe (2002-2010), in his short two years in office, he has shown his mettle (and made the cover of TIME Magazine). Aware that more inclusive social policies are needed to redress Colombia’s abysmal inequality, he has moved in that direction on a variety of fronts. This includes legislation to provide compensation to over 4 million victims of violence. With a 0.55 Gini coefficient, Colombia has one of the most unequal income distributions in the world’s most unequal region (in India, the Gini, as measured in 2004, is 0.36 —probably higher today — in Norway, the least unequal society, 0.25 ). Colombia’s current economic boom, driven by massive foreign investment in mining and oil exploration projects in lands long considered off-limits because of the armed conflict, would acquire an additional impetus from a successful peace process. In fact, the Colombian economy is doing so well that the country is being considered for OECD membership (the “rich countries’ club”).

A detractor

Although 74 per cent of Colombians support the peace process, former President Uribe does not. After falling out with Mr. Santos, he spends much of his time attacking him, often on Twitter, of which he is an avid user ( Twitter has taken off among Colombian politicians; another avid user is Gustavo Petro, the mayor of Bogota, and a former guerrilla himself, sometimes accused of spending more time tweeting than on running the capital city). Mr. Uribe, whose government was blamed for harbouring the paramilitary squads that have taken justice into their own hands in Colombia, leading to many human rights violations, does not consider FARC a legitimate interlocutor but a criminal organisation. He believes peace negotiations only give them time to regroup and get ready to fight another day.
Yet, as opposed to what happened in the past, this time there is no ceasefire on either side. In the early 2000s, under President Andres Pastrana, FARC secured a large sanctuary in Southern Colombia as part of the conditions for a previous peace negotiation. They used it for enhanced training and smuggling operations. On this occasion, the relentless military offensive of the government continues, and the FARC understand that these are the new rules of the game.
What role does the international community play in all this?
Although the negotiating parties are all Colombians, foreign countries are very much involved. Norway, an impartial and honest power-broker with no axe to grind in a far-away country, is hosting the first phase of these talks, and is one of its guarantors. Another is Venezuela, where the government of President Hugo Chavez has had an off-and-on relationship with FARC. A third is Cuba, where the talks will move to for the second phase. Havana is the only Latin American capital where FARC leaders feel safe, and the Castro brothers have been advising them for a long time to give up the armed struggle. Chile, as chair of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), and whose President, Sebastian Pinera, is a friend of Mr. Santos, is also part of the process.

Santos’ statecraft

It is a measure of Mr. Santos’ statecraft that he has not only repaired the frayed state of Colombia’s relations with Venezuela — left to him in a shambles after years of bickering over many issues, from border disputes to how to deal with FARC — but also with Cuba. In fact, Mr. Santos owes Cuba big time. The Sixth Summit of the Americas, held last April in the Colombian port city of Cartagena, almost blew up in the host country’s face. A number of countries questioned the absence of Cuba at the summit, and threatened to boycott the meeting. It was only after a visit by Mr. Santos to Havana and a hurried back-and-forth with Fidel and Raul Castro, that the Cuban government expressed it had no objection to not being invited to Cartagena, thus saving the meeting.
The conditions for a breakthrough in these peace negotiations are there. The ambitious agenda includes integrated agrarian development, political participation; termination of the conflict; solution to the problem of illegal drugs and preparation for lasting peace. The current Colombian government has the standing to offer credible guarantees to the FARC leadership. It must be kept in mind that in the 1980s, when another generation of guerrilla leaders, the M-19, gave up their weapons to form a political party, the Union Patriotica, and ran for office, several thousands of them, including their presidential candidate, and many elected Congressmen, were shot and killed by paramilitaries. In turn, despite the high turnover in their top leadership, FARC retain a significant degree of control of their membership and operations, making them a partner the government can do business with. An orderly transition to peace would be in everybody’s best interests, especially the Colombian population, exhausted after half a century of “la violencia”.
(Jorge Heine is CIGI Professor of Global Governance at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, Wilfrid Laurier University, and a Distinguished Fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, in Waterloo, Ontario. His Oxford Handbook of Modern Diplomacy, co-edited with A. Cooper and R. Thakur, is forthcoming in 2013 from Oxford University Press.)

Is congress should forg a secular front for 2014

The Congress which is congregating at Surajkund today should think of dissolving the UPA, and forging a new unity with progressive forces
The Congress leaders who congregate in Surajkund today for an internal conversation (samvad) have a fairly clear-cut task on their hands — how to start thinking and behaving like a political party. As it were, the Surajkund dialogue is taking place after the party performed a much-needed rite of democratic mobilisation last Sunday at the Ramlila Maidan in New Delhi. On that day, the Congress did manage to demonstrate an organisational temperament that behoves the oldest political formation in the country. It was arguably the first non-election mass rally the Congress leaders had felt excited enough to organise since the UPA’s birth in 2004, and, that too in defence of their own government’s policies. Above all, the Ramlila Maidan show sent out an unambiguous message that the party has rolled back its collective self-doubts on its own moral disintegration that was being sought to be imposed on it by a crafty cabal of civil society activists and sangh parivar conspirators.

Discourage sycophants

At Surajkund, the Congress leaders will do themselves a favour if they were, first, to recognise and acknowledge that after more than eight years in office at the Centre, there is no — nor can there be any — distinction between the party and the government. The self-styled loyalists and professional sycophants should be discouraged from attributing all political difficulties to the government and claiming all the redeeming impulses for the party leadership. That fiction was perhaps workable in 2009; it will not wash in 2014.
The Congress congregation will do well to remember that a decade in office at the Centre has spawned new rivals and enemies, who may have sufficient reason and enough resources to join hands with the party’s old adversaries. This, however, is a normal democratic process and a smart political party does itself a favour by keeping track of emerging aspirations and discontents in society. And, like any other government, UPA-I and UPA-II have had their share of aberrations and absurdities which did not find approval with the arbiters of political correctness.
Nor can the leaders wish away the simple fact: exercise of power, especially of the governmental kind, inevitably produces political consequences and ethical dilemmas. The UPA’s uninterrupted tenure at the Centre has necessarily bestowed undue advantages and benefits to some sections of society, and, similarly visited undeserved unhappiness and disadvantages on others. There are winners and losers, and there is a political economy of pleasure and pain.
Whether it likes it or not, the Congress will need to answer for the so-called sins of the Manmohan Singh government; the mature and sensible approach should be to assess calmly what the government has accomplished and to claim credit for its achievements. Especially, as a political party, the Congress is obliged to tell the voters how many of its promises it has kept. A government in a democratic context is anchored in public trust and acceptability; the citizens and voters expect to be told honestly and sincerely to what extent a party in power was able to fulfil the terms of its mandate.
The Congress, on its part, can take very legitimate credit for having refurbished the country’s secular ethos and edifice. The primary reason the sangh parivar has launched such a vicious attack on the party leadership is the UPA government’s success on the secular front. It is not only the minorities but also the vast majority in the law-abiding majority community who have reason to be thankful for the Manmohan Singh government’s becalming stewardship. Today, India is much more at peace with itself than it ever was in recent memory.
And, if the Congress leaders are inclined to think out of the box, they can toy with the strategic choice of declaring an intent to dissolve the UPA before the 2014 battle and putting in its place a Secular Front. It makes no sense for the Congress to remain overly burdened with too many unattractive allies. A Congress-led Secular Front will provide incentive for some sections of the left and other progressive voices to come together to beat back the challenge of right-wing authoritarian forces, masquerading as untainted “performers.”

Recover the voice

Meanwhile, Sujrajkund should help the party recover its voice. For too long, the party has allowed the noisy vendors of public morality in the media and civil society to set the discourse. In such a scenario, the advantage inevitably lies with the bogus preacher, hawking apocalyptic moralism. Imagine the Congress silence when a recently retired general, after having presided over the most coercive arm of the Indian state, joins the Anna Mob at Jantar Mantar and recites Ramdhari Singh Dinkar, the great poet of defiance! No one from the Congress had the courage to point out this democratic absurdity.
Admittedly, a marked personal pre-disposition for decency at the very top of the UPA establishment has discouraged the Congress from joining the political and policy arguments. The unhappy result is that many institutions, especially sections of the judiciary and the CAG, have periodically asserted a maximalist interpretation for their mandates. At Surajkund, the Congress leaders should recognise that their reticence and reluctance have combined to produce an unhealthy and undemocratic imbalance in our constitutional equilibrium.
Moreover, the Congress has so far been reluctant to debate governance issues internally. For too long, bureaucratic solutions have been sought for essentially political problems. Take, for example, the proposed National Investment Board. Apart from the administrative absurdity of having the Prime Minister preside over clearances for projects, the sticking point is one of political and ideological coherence. Is it not possible for Jayanthi Natarajan, Jairam Ramesh, Kishore Deo, P. Chidambaram, Kamal Nath, and Anand Sharma — ALL belonging to the Congress — to politically agree on terms of harmony and balance? Both the Prime Minister and the Congress have been unwilling to impose some kind of a balanced solution.

Prioritise party

But, if after eight years of exercising power at the Centre, the Congress Ministers do not have clarity on how to produce a harmonious and honourable trade-off between growth, equity and environment, they have no business seeking another five-year term. Similarly, why is it not possible to find the words and the courage to tell the nation that Jaipal Reddy, an honourable man, an honest man, had to be moved because he refused to accept the Prime Minister’s policy priorities? Or, why is a wilfully indecisive Defence Minister being allowed to slow down national defence preparedness? Maybe at the beginning of the UPA innings these differences, some contrived, some genuine, could have been a source of governmental wholesomeness; now, when the Congress is moving into slog overs, these serve no political or administrative purpose. What is more, none of these honourable ministers has felt strong enough to summon the courage of a believer to resign and walk. The Surajkund exercise will have justified itself if all participants can resolve to prioritise the party above their personal image and the interests of their bureaucratic and corporate cronies.
And, indeed, the most significant strategic dilemma before the Congress remains: how to project the potential of a Rahul Gandhi leadership without debunking the Manmohan Singh achievements and record? This is a delicate and inherently difficult task but the Congress leaders will do well to remember that capturing power for the party and its leadership cannot be an end in itself. Building on the UPA record of achievements and accomplishments these eight years, the Congress owes to itself to clarify its own sense of political purpose and, in the process, renew a shared sense of national destiny.
(Harish Khare is a veteran commentator and political analyst.)