Fish & Rice – A Fishy Twist in the Tale

To a Bengali like me nothing in the world is more delicious than a plate of fish and rice. We just love it. The variety is simply endless and the different ways this delicacy may be cooked and presented are simply mindbloggling. Well, you can never feel the excitement unless you start enjoying this delicacy.

But do fishes have any deeper connections with rice than the obvious connection on the dining table?

I did not realize this connection till I was traveling down a state highway last week to visit one of my clients in the state of Chattisgarh, which lies in the eastern part of India. The land was undulating but had patches of lush green paddy fields here and there. Elsewhere, though the recent monsoon has left its bright green cover it wasn't fertile to grow paddy.

Why was that? Isn't it a waste of land? Why such vast tracts of land don't bear paddy that might have helped some of the farmers grow in that region?

I was curious to find out an answer to this vexing problem of livlihood. So I started looking for some patterns in what I saw. Soon a pattern emerged from what I observed. Quite close to the few paddy fields there were ponds both big and small.

"So, is there a relationship between the ponds and the paddy fields?" I asked my knowledgeable co-passenger, Shri Vishnoo Dubey, General Manager, Technical Services, Grasim Cement, who was traveling along in the same car.

He replied excitedly, 'Yes, there is a deep connection between the ponds and the paddy fields. I heard about this from my friend – a well known scientist who studies ecology.'

The mystery deepened. I was dying to know the truth. 

He then revealed a fascinating secret of Nature. During heavy monsoon, which signals the beginning of the paddy season (since paddy needs standing stagnant water to grow), the ponds overflow and the fishes, who are by that time ready and eager to mate literally jump out of the pond and enter the nearby paddy fields as soon as the ponds and the nearby paddy fields are connected. They then mate with fishes from other ponds and spawn eggs in the shallow, calm and relatively undisturbed water. Soon thousands of baby fishes are born. They feed on the mosquito larvae and other small pests that also hatch in the stagnant water. The bigger fishes feed on the baby fishes. Mother fishes try to protect their babies from harm. A great drama is enacted. It is intensely engaging. Some survive, some are eaten and many die in the process. This goes on for a few months and then after three to four months a few sharp showers follow. This signals the fishes to go back the ponds. The late Sept/early October showers create the passage between the paddy fields and the ponds and the fishes gladly swim back to the comforts of the deeper waters till the next monsoon when this big drama would be repeated. The paddy does not need the stagnant water any more. The water is released and the paddy grows to display its beauty swaying in natural melody in the gentle autumn breeze. Soon the paddy is cropped and it is a time for celebration marked by the two great celebrations of India — the Durga Puja and Deepavali.

I sat stunned in awe and shock as he completed the story! I marveled and contemplated about the beauty of natural systems  — the beauty of movement, birth, renewal and development not cancerous exponential growth we are so used to in our industrial unsustainable societies. 

But what was the connection/relationships between this big drama of the fishes and the fertility of the paddy fields? There are many which are as follows:

1. The fish waste and the masses of dead fish actually fertilize the land through 'nitrogen fixing' while the baby fishes grow in relative safety and cool shade of the growing paddy. This rejuvenates the land, makes it sustainable year after year and help the unhindered growth of the paddy.
2. The presence of fish in the paddy water changes the PH of the water and makes it most suitable for growing paddy (rice). It decides the taste and the neutrient value of rice.
3. The fish eat on the parasites and fungus that would have otherwise spoiled the crop. They also save human beings by controlling the population of the deadly mosquitoes by eating on the larvae. And much more.
4. It also controls the size of the fishes when they go back to the ponds. How is that? Scientists tell us that when males of any species increase their reproductive effort with unfamiliar mates — a phenomenon known as the 'Coolidge effect' takes place. So, when male fishes regularly try to mate with new females throughout their lives, they spend less time looking for food and more time pursuing females. This increases the chance of the baby fishes to grow without being attacked by too many predators. The scientists further tell us that males living with unfamiliar females also grow more slowly and to a smaller adult size and tended to die sooner. In contrast, males living with a single partner ate regularly, grew steadily and lived longer. Well the promiscuity of fishes helps in a critical way. The ponds can't accommodate too many large fishes and the resources can't sustain them for long. The balance between resources and the fish population is automatically maintained by males fishes running after many female fishes to mate — perfect sustainable solution. I could now relate as to how 'Helen of Troy', 'Cleopetra', 'Draupadi' and other beauty queens of human history helped to contain and prune human population at regular intervals. That is quite a sustainable solution! Though told in jest, exponential population growth can't make any society sustainable. 

Lessons Learned:

1. Sustainable systems are cooperative and not competitive. We see here how the fishes, paddy and the Mother Earth cooperate with each other to create a sustainable solution for years. Why don't we get into networked cooperative systems rather than trying to do it all alone by leveraging financial powers only and competing fiercely? My understanding is that the old industrial age systems would soon be dismantled to give birth to an age of Creative networked cooperative economies. And what a difference in power it would make. The power of one to many or many to many network is 2 to the power n whereas the power of no network is just 1.
2. To go against natural cycles and living only means unnatural and unsustainable living — living without a purpose and damaging life. For example, teenagers are usually active in the night and their brains wake up usually by noon. But we keep forcing them to attend schools early in the morning when their brains are practically asleep in an effort to discipline them. We don't care about how much they actually learn. We just want them to be on time every time — a legacy of the industrial age — get rid of the body clock and conform to the mechanical clock of false discipline of time in everything we do even if it is without results.
3. The cycle of birth, death, renewal must be accepted as the most natural process for the sustainable society. After the 2008 economic crash or depression, the Obama administration thought that the giant relics of the industrial age can't be allowed to die. So they thought it to be a good idea to inject millions of tax dollars into these ailing firms as aid so that the few jobs these corporations sustained could be saved. But what happened? The firms were saved but job situation did not improve. It is actually grew worse. Public dollars were wasted in vain. Their death might have generated unexpected emergence of other economic possibilities that might have actually improved the situation. But societies with industrial mindsets can't accept surprises and death and therefore continue to do the wrong things in the right way. Without death there can't be any renewal. Soon Japan would be struggling with the heavy burden of an old and ailing population that would drain the resources to develop the potential of the younger generation.
4. Balance between the prey and the predator is a key to a sustainable economy — it limits size and turnover. The tragedy is that we constantly try to live in very simple predictable environments rather than learning to adapt to complex environments full of uncertainty and possibilities. To do that we go after predators (sometimes assumed) and try to wipe them off. Wrong. It is never the 'survival of the fittest' as we have had been forced to believe. It is always the 'elimination of the weakest'. In nature, the predator like a lion is not bothered whether it preys upon the best buffalo or the next best buffalo. Any buffalo would be good enough for dinner. Usually lions would attack the weakest and perhaps the oldest buffalo in the herd — elimination of the weakest. Because that is not only easy but also systemic for the overall development and sustainability of the delicate ecology. But as human beings we are always aiming at the best and probably the costliest. We try to measure and evaluate people, companies and things and try to go for the best. What an irony! Such decisions would destroy us for good and it would happen soon if we don't choose to change course.
5. Growth vs Development. Nature is not much concerned about growth. Because growth is always exponential, which means the resources to sustain would soon run out in no time. It therefore, looks at ways and means to contain the size and turnover. Not too many fishes in the same pond. Not too many big fishes in the same pond. So, it finds ingenious ways to achieve the delicate balance. When would as humans learn this trick from nature and act consciously?
6. Sustainable solutions emerge naturally in a local setting that is most suitable to that locale. 'One size fits all' and 'global solutions' would never work. Imagine using fertilizers in place of fishes. Would it have done the same tricks nature achieves? It won't. The local interdependence is to be carefully understood to boost development. Supposedly 'global solutions' or 'best practices' that have worked well elsewhere ironically does not work 'everywhere'. 
7. Productivity is always limited by resource capability and can't be boosted by artificial means. Productivity for the sake of productivity is downright meaningless. It can only grow as per the available resource capability of a place. It depends on the collective consciousness and wisdom of the people involved. And it is an organic process that grows at its own pace over time. Artificially trying to achieve productivity benchmarks, achieved elsewhere, by any means within a record time is simply not sustainable. We falsely believe that productivity is based on machines and technology. It is true to some extent but that is not the full story. It is also based to a greater extent on the capability of human beings to interface with the technology. And building collective consciousness, capability and wisdom does not happen overnight. Hence without continuous training and eduction in systemic understanding no industry can ever think of improving its coffers.
8. Restoration and adaptation rate are vital ingredients to success. Imagine a person who does not sleep and works all day long. He/she would soon become a lunatic and unfit for society. Restoration is closely linked to adaptation rate. If the rate of change goes past the rate of adaptation a system is capable of, it would soon be broken (lunatic) and would cease to be sustainable any further — just like a person who goes without sleep for days.

Are leaders, marketers, trainers and educators and all those who influence our societies in one way or the other listening to Mother Nature?

The art work of the fish was done by my 6 year old nephew, Rishi. I thank him for his networked contribution.


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