The Great Fats Domino
Last week my daughter Devika who lives in the United States sent me a message whether I had listened to Fats Domino’s Blueberry Hills.
Of course, I have. I said to myself. And memories rolled by.
I prepared a glass of gin and tonic and wrote this blog. Hope you like this story.
It was around 1999 I remember. Conservation finance was a topic coming up in the international discussions.
Conservation Finance is the practice of raising and managing capital to support land, water, and resource conservation. Conservation financing options vary by source from public, private, and non-profit funders; by type from loans, to grants, to tax incentives and to market mechanisms.
On an annual basis, it was estimated in 2018 that investors must allocate $300 to $400 billion to meet worldwide conservation needs. Sources such as private, philanthropic capital in the form of solicited donations, foundation grants, etc., and public, governmental funds provided only $52 billion per year to conservation finance.
Innovative financing arrangements are required to meet this huge gap. The non-traditional sources of “conservation capital” include debt-financing, tax benefits to private equity investments and hybrid project financing. These additional sources help enlarge the pool of financial capital available to fund conservation work worldwide and, as this financial capital is invested, the asset portfolio of conserved land, water and natural resources is grown.
Today, a lot is happening across the world, especially in the developing countries that conservation finance is mobilized linking livelihoods and ownership of the communities, offsetting GHG emissions and enhancing the “ecosystem services”. The year of 1999 was a bit early then to think of conservation finance – although few pilots had taken place such as debt for nature swap in Bolivia and Payment for Ecosystem Services in Vietnam, Brazil and Costa Rica,
I remember one of the Saturdays in the Ministry of Environment and Forests in New Delhi (there was no Climate Change then!). I was sitting in the chamber of one of enlightened bureaucrats of the Ministry (whom I fondly remember and hold a great respect). I was discussing with him the need to pilot conservation finance in India. I was illustrating options such as Debt for nature, Green bonds and Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) etc.
In 1998, Rs 1,000-million municipal bond was issued by the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC). This bond was a landmark as it was first instrument issued in India without a State guarantee. The proceeds of the issue were to be used to fund the city’s water supply and sewerage project. The bond got oversubscribed. (Read Article on Ahmedabad Municipal Bond – Lessons and Pointers by Chetan Vaidya and Brad Johnson)
I was quite bullish about the success of the AMC’s Municipal Bond. When I argued to the bureaucrat on the case that MoEF should pilot a project on conservation finance, he suggested that I go across to the State of Kerala and speak to his bureaucrat colleague of a high rank and propose a pilot for Vembanad Lake.
Vembanad is the longest lake in India, and the largest lake in the State of Kerala. It is a home to more than 20,000 waterfowls – the third largest such population in India. It is also an ideal habitat for shrimps. Major livelihood activities of the people living on the shores of the lake include agriculture, fishing, tourism, inland navigation, coir retting, lime shell collection. Uncontrolled mining of shells from the lake bed and discharge of sewage and wastes from cities were responsible for the impairment of the lake water quality and its ecosystem.
I thought Vembanad can be an excellent pilot or the project on conservation finance. I studied the work published that was carried out on the lake ecosystem. I met some of the key stakeholders involved and gathered statistics on the economic activities. I spent a few days in the city of Kottayam that is adjoining the lake.
A meeting was organised with a senior bureaucrat. I was to meet him with a presentation at 3 30 pm at the secretariat. I was told that this man was a person of details, a student of economics and a sharp and well-read person. I reached Trivandrum a day before in the evening not to risk taking a morning flight from Mumbai.
I checked in the hotel that was walking distance from the Secretariat. It was around 6 30 pm that I walked into the bar. The Chief told me that this was a time for happy hours and there would be some live music on the piano.
Thomas (I learnt his name later) played rock and roll of 1950s and 60s. He was a regular at the hotel. I enjoyed listening to him, especially his choice of the songs and style on Piano. I was charmed with his voice modulation too. At the end of the show, I sent a glass of beer to him as a complement. While thanking me, Thomas said, “Sir, do come tomorrow if you are around. I will be playing Fats Domino – and of course his Blueberry Hill”
Sure, I will be there Thomas, I responded. I was confident that my meeting at Secretariat would end much earlier, latest by 4 30.
I was outside the chamber with my presentation (soft and hard copy). The copies where shared two days before. I was told to wait as the Secretary was with the CM on some urgent matters. It was a long wait as the he showed up only by 430. He had some additional matters to clear, so I was asked to wait further. At around 5 pm I was in his cabin.
I made a presentation on “Project Vembanad – A Pilot for Conservation Finance through Nature Bonds”. While I was amidst of my presentation, I saw that Secretary was losing interest and his body language did not show any keenness to listen further. He stopped me abruptly without sounding rude and said “Dr Modak, your approach sounds interesting. However, I am not sure whether the State as well as Central Government is ready to take a risk of launching a pilot of this size and complexity right now.” He was right – The General election were scheduled in 1999.
Wrapping up, he said ‘Dr Modak, but I have serious questions regarding the calculations you have presented, and I have concerns about the institutional model that you are suggesting for operation of the “asset” and the cost-benefit sharing. And I am sorry – I disagree on most of your suggestions”.
The bureaucrat did not give me a chance to defend or explain. He seemed to be in a hurry. He excused and abruptly left the chamber, instructing his secretary that I should be looked after.
I was disappointed.
It was around 6 pm that I returned to the hotel. I took a shower and headed to the bar to have a stiff drink.
When I saw Thomas on the piano, I remembered that he was to sing today Fats Domino. I got for me some whisky on the rocks and chose a place close to the Piano.
Thomas was doing great and he rolled out some of the memorable and outstanding songs of Fats Domino. I changed to my second glass of whiskey and I was eagerly waiting for the Blueberry Hills.
Just then a person appeared in a Tee shirt, goggles and a sport trouser as if he was coming after a workout in the Gym. He took a table right next to me. Soon I realized that this person was none other than the bureaucrat I just saw in the Secretariat. It took a while for me to recognize as he was in the casuals.
As if he was waiting for the arrival of this man, Thomas started singing Blueberry hills. That rendering was extraordinary. The Secretary said “Encore” – and so yelled many of us. Thomas was gallant in accommodating our request.
After the break, I walked to the table of the Secretary and said “Sir, I did not know that you were a fan of Fats Domino’s Blueberry Hill? This one is my favourite too. A great rock and roll piece isn’t it? Would you agree?”
The Secretary was surprised to see me. He smiled and said “Well Dr Modak, I told you that I completely disagree with your model of conservation finance, but here is something that I fully agree with you. Let us speak after the happy hours”.
And we spoke in detail about my proposal after the happy hours in the lobby of the hotel. The Secretary heard me this time.
He got up from the Sofa to leave and shook hands “Well Dr Modak, I am a bit convinced now but not good enough that I take your ideas further on. But I wish you the best”. I could see that he had captured the essence of my argument but there was something he could sense “beyond” that I could not see in terms of risks. Experience does matter.
I walked with him to the exit door. He turned around and said “Well Dr Modak, you should remember our meeting whenever you will listen to the Blueberry Hills. Indeed, it was really nice conversing with you.”
I said “Thank you Sir. Goodbye”
I did not see him again.
The Government of India has identified the Vembanad wetland under the National Wetlands Conservation Programme. The Vembanad Wetland system was included in the list of wetlands of international importance, as defined by the Ramsar Convention for the conservation and sustainable utilization of wetlands in 2002. To my knowledge, no effort has taken place on conservation financing.
Who Was Fats Domino?
Born in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1928, singer and pianist Fats Domino was a pioneering rock ‘n’ roll star. Domino was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, but refused to attend the ceremony; likewise, he turned down an invitation to perform at the White House, though he accepted the National Medal of Arts from President Bill Clinton in 1998. Fats Domino died of natural death in his favourite city of Louisiana in 2017.
The song “Blueberry Hill”
Blueberry Hill was is a popular song published in 1940 best remembered for its 1950s rock and roll version by Fats Domino featuring his famous piano triplets and sly Cajun accent. The song reached number two for three weeks on the Billboard Top 40 charts, becoming Fats biggest pop hit, and ruled eight non-consecutive weeks at number one on the R&B Best Sellers chart.
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