I went to see my Professor friend last week in his office. He was busy as usual with two mobile phones ringing. He was having a tough time in moving between conversations.
Behind his large desk, there was a wooden panel with hooks. A large number of conference registration tags were hanging there. Some with thick green nylon strings and a plastic pouch, some with a clip with laminated cover. On the side of the desk was a chest of drawers. A heap of conference folders was placed on the top that seem to gather some dust. Some conference folders were of plastic and few were made from jute that stood out. There was a large mug on the desk that was full with all kinds of pens– mostly ball points. I realized that the Professor was on a conference spree. No wonder I did not spot him at our usual coffee place lately.
I asked him and he said “Well, Prime Minister’s Office asked me to attend all important conferences on Environment & Sustainability in India over past 3 months. Phew – it was hell of a job. I had to travel almost all corners of the country as everyone seems to be holding a conference on environment. And I realized that it was not just me alone who was travelling – it included speakers and participants as well.I found the same speakers and same participants at these events but at different places! To some attending and speaking at conferences seems to be a profession or an addiction!
Oh I see-I said, I was wondering how large will be the carbon footprint of these conferences. Fewer of such events could indeed help environment and sustainability.
But how did you find the presentations and discussions I asked. Something new, interesting, innovative?
Well well. Professor said lighting his cigar. Most topics were standard and repetitive like Waste to Energy, Corporate Social Responsibility, Business & Sustainability, Green Buildings, and Climate Change – only difference being that some conferences are run by CII, some by FICCI, some by BCCI and some by IMC. These chambers and associations take turns and keep revisiting these topics. The titles are kept different because of the competition. Good part is that these organizations book different hotels as venue each time so you feel that the conference is different although the topics are the same.
Sad part however is that these hotels offer the same lunch menu like panneer tikka masala, jeera rice, mixed vegetables, nan and ras malai even when the conference is held in South India. I developed indigestion by eating food at these conferences over the last three months. I have been telling the organizers that I don’t mind that the presentations to repeat or are drab but the food should be innovative and interesting to keep the participants engaged during the lunch breaks. FICCI and CII are seriously looking at this suggestion.
But how do the sessions happen?
Oh, that’s another story. Professor said. There is a chairman for the session, generally an IAS officer from the Government, or an Industrialist who has cosponsored the event or a Professor from IITs if the first two are not available. The Chairman generally appears to be redundant. Speakers are called one by one. As the speaker profiles are often given only minutes before the session, the Chairman struggles reading these profiles and ends saying “Dr Modak is so well known that he needs no introduction – so without further adieu let me invite him to the dais etc etc – .” Some chairman dominate the session and behave like a speaker. Some Chairmen are strict on time and all they do is keeping ringing the bell after 8 minutes. The session ends with Chairman saying that “Sorry – we have already overrun the allocated time and I don’t want to stand between you and the lunch. So no questions please. Meet the speakers in the lobby and ask your questions bilaterally”. In most conferences, sessions end on such a note. Participants don’t mind. Who has questions and who have answers when it comes to the topic of Environment and Sustainability?
And what about the speakers? I asked. (I was worried because I was a speaker on one of the recently held conferences)
Generally, the speakers are good. But many speak what we already know or say something that is not relevant. They often forget to update the slide date – so we see presentations that they or their assistants prepared few years ago. Speakers come up with a 50 slide presentation for a 10 min slot so they keep moving the slides like a fast train – apologizing to the audience. And often there are slides that can be seen only by the first two rows because of the small fonts or poor quality pictures. The speaker apologizes once again. That’s typical. Some speakers try to show video clips that don’t run on the first click. It then becomes a “technology issue” and few minutes are spent to fix the issue with no success! The speaker then looks like wounded eagle who cannot fly!
A Group photo is taken of the Session speakers along with Chairman. This photo reaches you in a week which you promptly put on the Facebook.
Then of course there is an important benefit of networking. This happens in the corridors and in the loos. You catch up on the business buzz and get update on people who changed jobs. New visiting cards get exchanged. Some gossips happen. I find this as the most rewarding benefit of the conferences. Professor said.
I was wondering what if we had a 2 hour lunch (instead of 1 hour) and 1 hour Tea/coffee break instead of usual half hour and cut down the so called technical sessions. This may make the conferences much more effective.
What about the conference kits? I asked Professor this “material question”.
Well, most organizers now a days give you a pen drive with papers or presentations. Later you can erase this content and use the pen drive to store movies. That’s the material benefit. Since the conference bag does not contain papers, it is filled with publicity material, information on tourists’ spots as must visit or coupons for discounts on shopping nearby. This is very useful. The bags are often made out of jute to show commitment of the organizers/sponsors on environment. Participants however don’t like these “cheap bags” as they prefer a good quality leather bag or a pouch considering the high fees.
So given this scenario, why were you asked to attend such conferences? I could not resist but ask.
Well, the Government wants to know what people discuss in conferences when it comes to Environment & Sustainability. This is in view of the modernization of Environmental Governance the Government is busy with.
After attending 30 conferences over last 3 months in the country, my report conclusively shows that there is indeed nothing to worry for the Government. Conferences do not bring out anything new, all mundane stuff, few ripples here and there but no storms. Conferences are not there to change India’s outlook, infuse knowledge from practice, inspire or influence the world. Airlines, hotels and conference kit providers will continue to remain the principal stakeholders of the Conference Game.
Cover image sourced from http://www.iaspaper.net/international-conferences-on-united-nationsindia-indian-ocean/