It was a productive year on several counts. It was also a year when the pandemic became a fixture and most of life and work kept getting rearranged around it. I can’t recollect a single decision taken in 2021 that wasn’t adjusted for Covid-19. There were daily realizations of how uncertain and fleeting life can be. Beneath a thin layer of predictable daily routines and calendars, everything else could plunge into chaos within days. It did turn chaotic in various ways- from economic downturns to international conflicts to personal crises.
The learning from the year is perhaps this – the legibility that we seek from the world around us and from our internal lives, is futile. Maybe, it doesn’t exist. One has to work with the way things are. It involves continuous adaptation and adjustments. The ability to do this is more likely to be dependent on a person’s life stage and outlook. While it seems easy at a certain stage, it may be extremely stressful at another. Despite this, the ability to adapt seems very useful as the year indicates.
The past two years of the pandemic have been spent as though life was getting crash tested like a car. Each impact (wave?) brought home lessons on improving the design and surviving crashes. The year gave an opportunity to reorient – professionally and personally. There were things that progressed rapidly and there were choices that were determined not by the apparent benefit or long term consequences of it, but also factoring whether that really was a direction given that the current disruptions have disrupted previously held notions. There have been a substantial number of departures from norm and expected, in this year. While I wrote these year roundups on the last day of the year, the roundup post of 2021 comes a week later, and well into the new year.
2021 began with a long road trip covering a south-north expanse from Karnataka to Himachal Pradesh. Driving through the length of this country, it seemed an overwhelmingly complex country, in every aspect of life. It is not easy to keep all the interests and cater to them. Someone, somewhere is always left out! The regional tensions, inequities, people’s ideas and their outlook… All of these have determined the way Covid-19 has impacted us. Who could argue against the necessity of letting Kumbh Mela happen even as a highly infectious virus prevailed in the population? Science has its reasons, politics has its own. The two have not easily aligned.
Speaking of science, a personal departure from a previously held idea has been to head back to science. I crossed over from biotechnology into development studies, public policy and allied social sciences. I use ‘science’ for social science at the risk of annoying my friend Ramjee who sees no science in ‘social’. Falsifiability! I can hear him shout. I began reading more of science – journal articles, published research and fundamental texts in comparison to social science. Some of the most satisfying moments have been to reconnect to molecular biology, plant breeding science and agriculture. This felt satisfying because given a small farm and year round farming activity going on, these readings connected into a neat theory-application-observation process. One of the deep dives was in soil health. Rattan Lal’s papers have been a fascinating read. His research on soil carbon sequestration and the relationship between soil health and agroeconomy are particularly useful.
On the research front, work on studying the gig economy – workers, working conditions and wages, continued through the year with an interim report and workshop in December. This work at the Institute of Public Policy continued this year too. I have often thought of the reason to continue this research engagement given that I have no academic career aspiration or expectation. The answer seems similar to what Paul Samuelson said in a reflective piece ‘My Life Philosophy’ in 1983. He wrote, ‘Mine is a simple ideology that favours the underdog and (other things equal) abhors inequality. In a broader way, that’s where I locate myself now. It has been satisfying to be associated with a team that favours reason over ideology and allows for explorations from multiple perspectives. The learning continues.
Consulting gigs continued through the year. Remote working, at least in my area of work, has brought an interesting focus on outcomes. Work life has become devoid of any unnecessary travel for meetings and conferences. Who knew that the same conferences and subjects would get discussed and actions taken without requiring even a single physical signature. I am sure there are many sectors where things are unfolding differently. To the limited case of consulting in policy and development sectors, life has become better from those draining in-person meetings.
The year also saw rapid developments in the farming venture. From finishing construction of a 50 metric ton warehouse in January, the experiments expanded to several bits and pieces of agricultural activity in a village located in a not so economically or socially happening region in Central India. By the end of harvest in January, the warehouse proved its worth in terms of cost arbitrage we gained on our crops of soybean, chickpea and pigeonpea. We sold several months later when the prices gained by at least 30% on all of these crops.
By July, we bought a 65 HP tractor, a first in our block of villages. The utility economics looked favourable in a broader sense. To that we added more equipment to do earth works. A backhoe and a frontloader attached, our farm excavator was ready by the end of July. It reclaimed over 5 acres of fallow land for our operations and since then worked for over 600 hours by the year end. Economic viability of a compact tractor suggests that it should have to work for at least 350-400 hours a year. The addition of a high power earthmoving equipment in the region has helped improve over 100 acres of farmland in the cluster of villages around our farm. As the remainder of the year progressed, we moved into setting up a processing unit to add value to our crops and try to not be dependent on the primary market to sell the produce. In December, we purchased a milling machine to process pulses. We intend to process chickpea and pigeonpea from our farms. The retail packaging is being tried out. The unit will be functional by the third week of January 2022.To work on these additions meant a rapid pace of activity on the farms as well as frequent moving between the city and our town.
On the personal front, the year saw much more time spent outdoors with hikes, running and cycling long distances. Recovering from a leg surgery, brevets and trail rides became frequent. It has been a mix of realizations from an injury that limited my ability in a partial way and then the pandemic driven sense of urgency about time and uncertainty of life. There were months when the sense of having limited time became overbearing. I ran my first post-injury long run at Malnad Ultra in November. The 80 km trail run was an exhilarating experience that remains to be written about. Malnad Ultra was also one of the first organized events to happen since the pandemic in India. Three 200 km brevets around Bangalore helped regain a complete sense of healing from previous year’s setback. In all the days spent in Bangalore, the evening runs at Cubbon have been an anchor. The existence of these spaces in the city is appreciated after such a year. In March, I took a small step into climbing. A climbing trip to Friendship peak ended in us getting stuck in an unrelenting and heavy snowfall that continued for two straight days. We could not summit the peak after setting up the advance base camp and sitting it out for three days. But, climbing felt like an engaging sport with constant reading of the weather and drawing up the endurance to climb those elevations.
The year on the whole got patterned into short sprints. These sprints were guided by the variety of work and personal engagements that came up, with each sprint being time bound. A sprint down to the farm to get some work done or a process set up, or a sprint to the city to put in a few days of research work at the Centre, or a sprint up to the Himalayas for a cycle ride. Things didn’t overlap. They often were dives with conducting bare minimum of anything else that required immediate attention. These sprints seemed a better way to organize days and weeks. The downside of the sprints was that very little energy remained to write. So, daily writing, blog posts and reading suffered.
As the year went by, these sprints added up. By the end, it seems that these sprints have made life better and meaningful.