Cittaslow: Is the time ripe for an India entry?

Cittaslow: Is the time ripe for an India entry?

Cittaslow, meaning slow city, is the antithesis of the fast culture increasingly pervading modern life. It is a counter philosophy, expressed through a different lifestyle and attitude to life. If war and peace were the black and white of hippie perception, globalisation and homogenisation are the enemies of Cittaslow, seeking to protect things natural and local.

There has been growing, but mostly dormant, discontentment with efficiency-centric and mechanical human activities made fashionable by the industrial revolution. As perpetrators of homogeneity, MNCs have always been perceived as villains of the globalisation piece. Some of this discontentment found expression in 1986, when McDonald's planned their first outlet in Italy, near the historic Spanish Steps in Rome.

Locals saw this as a cultural invasion, threatening local biodiversity, food habits and way of life. Following protracted protests and negotiations, McDonald's opened for business, but missing from the brand display even today is the familiar red and yellow. Meanwhile, the spirit of the protest consolidated as the slow movement now claims a membership of 1,00,000 in over 130 countries.

A third of them are in Italy where the movement is known as Cittaslow, with slow agriculture (and the almost interchangeable slow food) the most active branch. In the fertile outskirts of Orvieto are farmlands the government gifted to locals after their Israeli owners migrated to the Promised Land.

These are showpieces of slow agriculture. The farmers use modern farm equipment to increase productivity, but what defines slow agriculture is the emphasis on local varieties and local markets.

Firstly, they have resisted monoculture followed by American farms and even in parts of Italy, notably in Po valley and in the Puglia region. Consciously protecting biodiversity, these farmers preserve and use local seeds.

The idea is to create and protect an 'Ark of Taste' for each bioregion. The strength of the movement flows from the Convivia, or local chapters, and the members. Praesidia is a special economical project of slow food that employs thousands of farmers who produce unique, traditional food, often low quantity high quality, for local markets and mass consumption institutions. This is promoted through farmer markets called 'Mercati della Terra' in the Cittaslow squares and villages, and at supermarkets, through'slow corners'.

With some sweet results, as Oliveti points out: "Italy grows 196 different species of local grapes and over 600 varieties of DOC wines. We also produce about 410 different kinds of cheeses." Eco-friendly, and lots of jet miles saved, but how does this help the farmer?

The locally-used seeds, Oliveti argues, are the outcome of natural matchmaking over centuries, best suited to each territory and soil. It is proven and sustainable. The consumer is spared transportation cost and delays, and he buys from a known source, enjoying seasonal variety.

With a 26-hector piece of land, Angelo is, in Italian terms, a medium-size farmer. (Italy's average cultivated land is 7.9 hectares per farmer.) Farmers have to pay for electricity and water, Angelo tells me, correcting the general Indian impression. He grows olive and grapes; he also rears 17 cows. He sells milk at 0.38 a litre though the ultimate customer pays 1.40. (That sounds familiar, doesn't it?)

Is he better off now? He is not so sure. Angelo's problem exemplifies the heterogeneous compound called the European Common market. The European Common Agriculture Policy, influenced by the large milk-producing countries of France and Germany, is loaded against small and medium-size farmers, points out Oliveti. Slow food's solution is to encourage Italian farmers to produce local cheese and create a market for it. Oliveti is also intent on advocacy to insert in the new agricultural policy for the next decade the 'greening' concept. "Each farm will be obliged to respect the ecological principles, to save soil, water, plants, etc."

The movement has taken economic forms but the underlying argument is human, almost spiritual - and unexceptional. Prof Guttorm FlAistad, one of the ideologues, urges people to get off the ever-accelerating treadmill of life. As he notes, the basic human needs remain unchanged.

"The need to be seen and appreciateda¦ the need to belong. The need for nearness and care, and for a little love!" All these require "slowness in human relations", he argues. "In order to master changes, we have to recover slowness, reflection and togetherness."

Not unexpectedly, the movement's forays are into countries marked by high economic growth - and the by-products of consumption-centric modern life. So, is the time ripe for an India entry?

India always had a non-materialistic streak, with 'mindfulness' and relaxed alertness being familiar concepts. Oliveti knows that. When India is ready, it will happen, he says. But he would not force or accelerate it. It's the slow movement, remember!

By: Thomas T Abraham