Thursday, 27 September 2007

Hunger Stalks Rising India

Hunger Stalks Rising India

It makes for poignant reading. At a time when newspapers are agog with reports of billions of dollars of foreign investment flowing in, and the daily projections of an unprecedented growth rate that will eclipse poverty, the cries of a 12-year-old Jabila in the Kalahandi belt of Orissa lies buried in the resulting din and euphoria.

In the first week of September, within a matter of five days, first her younger brother died from hunger related ailment, and the very next day her father succumbed to hunger. Unable to buy grains, he had been living on green leaves for the past few days. No sooner had the pyre cooled, Sonai, her mother too died unable to cope with hunger. Jabila now sits in front of her hut, empty-eyed and perhaps waiting for her turn.

This is not an isolated case. Writing in the web magazine Neeraj says that as many as 20 people in the Telnagi hamlet in Rampur in Kalahandi have died from hunger or hunger-related ailment. Talk to any villager and he starts counting the names on his fingers. Parshuram Ray of the New Delhi-based Centre for Environment and Food Security says that over 500 hunger deaths have occurred in Raigada, Kashipur, Kalahandi, and Koraput regions of western Orissa in the past few months.

Orissa is not the only state, which continues to downplay growing hunger and malnutrition and at the same time adopt lopsided polices in the name of development. The situation in Chhatisgarh, Jharkhand, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh in the cow belt is no better. Hunger stalks the entire northern parts of the country (and for that matter in the rest of the country but not as glaring as in north). The only cover up being that the respective governments continue to either ignore or deny or ward them as deaths from diseases like cholera and malaria.

An estimated 320 million people are languishing in hunger. My understanding is that this is an understatement. If the projections of National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector are correct, 836 million people are somehow surviving on less than Rs 20 or less than half-a-dollar a day. With Rs 20, it is not possible to manage two square meals a day. The number of hungry therefore is 836 million – almost equal to the 852 million hungry that the UN Millennium Development Goals (and the FAO) wrongly computes as the number of people living in hunger throughout world.

Shocking reports of hunger deaths pour in at a time when the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution estimates that 53.3 per cent of wheat and 39 per cent of rice worth Rs 31,500-crore (Rs 315,000 milion) that was meant for distribution to the poorest of the poor has been siphoned off in the past three years. For the past three decades, despite numerous studies and reports, the pilferage from the Public Distribution Scheme remains colossal. This is not a crime but treason.

Although the per capita availability of food has climbed down to a level that existed at the time of the Great Bengal Famine in 1943, the nation seems unperturbed. The need to make PDS effective has remained outside the gamut of political expediency.

Knowing that the food meant for the poor is not reaching them, and undeterred by reports of hunger and malnutrition that continue to pour in, the Department of Food and Public Distribution under the same Ministry is now planning another brave act. It plans to double the price of foodgrains meant for the mid-day meal programme for school children. In simple words, the Department is making it difficult for the states to provide mid-day meals for 12-crore (120 million) children. After all, resource crunch will ensure that the Ministry of Human Resources is unable to shell out in future Rs 12000-per metric tonne as against Rs 5,650 at present.

In a country where 5000 children die every day from malnutrition or its related ailments, and 46 per cent of children under the age of 3 years suffer from acute malnutrition, the importance of further expanding mid-day meal programme needs no emphasis. But by making it beyond the reach of the official machinery, the Ministry of Human Resources may now find it difficult to run the existing programme what to think of expanding it to reach additional 3-crore (30 million) children.

The paradox of plenty – acute and widespread hunger amidst abundant foodstocks – exists at a time when the country is poised towards a high-growth trajectory. Policy makers, planners and economists have been telling us that even if poverty increases in the short term, this is a price that has to be paid for long-term stability and growth. In other words, Jabila needs to accept that her parents paid for the growth the country is witnessing!

It is primarily for this reason that we feel satisfied at the National Rural Employment Guarantee programme that provides 100 days employment for the poor and vulnerable. We know that 100 days wages cannot keep the poor alive and kicking for the rest of the year. And yet, none of those who form part of the growing tribe of intellectuals are even willing to raise their voice against this glaring human inequality. After all, if we in the urban centres cannot survive if paid only for 100 days in a year how do we expect the poor to survive?

No wonder, even with the largest number of hungry in the world, hunger and starvation no longer evokes compassion and reaction. News of hunger and starvation no longer adorns the front pages of newspapers. Hunger is, in reality, a non-issue. It is something that we must despise, something that we must close our eyes to. So how does it matter if the PDS doesn’t work or the mid-day meal programme is eventually scrapped for want of adequate funds?

What we don’t realise is that an empty stomach cannot wait. With the passage of time it will lead to social upheavals and the repercussions can be more damaging to the society at large. What I fail to fathom is the growing indifference of the elite, the intelligentsia and the policy-makers and planners towards hunger and deprivation. What a tragedy.

Saturday, 15 September 2007

Cat Among Pigeons - US Farm Bill 2007

US Farm Bill 2007 :
Cat among pigeons

As a child I had always wondered as to why pigeons shut its eyes when it sees a cat. After all, how naïve or stupid depending on how you perceive the act, can the pigeons be to think that a visible threat to its life, which is as sure as death, can be simply warded-off by keeping eyes wide shut.

I gave up as I grew. But now I realise that the educated elite, especially if they happen to be macro-economists or trade negotiators are a step ahead of pigeons. The only difference being that while pigeons meet a gory end, whereas the trade negotiators and economists are clever enough to escape by ensuring that the axe falls on the poor and marginalized.

No wonder, as the trade negotiators from 150 member countries of World Trade Organisation (WTO) assemble at Geneva to resume negotiations, I am told the ‘mood’ seems to be upbeat and ‘just right’. There are enough indications that developing country negotiators will brush aside all threats to agriculture and industrial sector and instead join the rich and industrialised countries to sing paeans of virtues in favour of what is known to be an unequal and unjust multilateral trade regime.

It sure is an unequal world. Giving a damn to the outcome of the ongoing multilateral negotiations, the United States has thrown yet another protective ring around its heavily fortified agriculture. Knowing that the developing country negotiators are weak-kneed and lack the courage to even raise their voice, the House of Representatives has passed the US Farm Bill 2007. This prompted the House Agriculture Chair Colin Peterson to say: “I want to write a Farm Bill that’s good for (American) agriculture.
If somebody wants to sue us (at the WTO), we’ve got a lot of lawyers in Washington.

Although the notorious Bill awaits clearance from the US Senate, it means that over the next five years the American farmers will receive a federal support of US $ 286 billion. Irrespective of the volatility of the global markets, and the advantages of ‘free market’ economy that the macro-economists in the developing world never feel tired of reiterating, the US farmers have preferred to rely on government support.
While the US is forcing the developing world to turn its agriculture ‘competitive’ by removing all safety nets for farmers, it does exactly the opposite at home.

Let me make it clear. The ‘comparative advantage’ in agriculture that the US flaunts about is actually because of subsidies.
Remove the subsidies and American agriculture falls flat. It is because of these heavy subsidies that farmers in the suicide-belt of Vidharba in Maharashtra or cotton farmers in western Africa are priced out. And despite the outrage against monumental cotton subsidies, for instance, the US has made no effort to make even a nominal cut under the proposed Farm Bill 2007.

Traditionally, the US farmers have survived all these years on government support. Under the Farm Bill 2002 (which expires on Sept 30, 2007), the US government had till March 2007 spent US $ 271 billion. Which means that in just 10 years – between 2002 and 2012 – US agriculture will receive approximately US $ 557 billion.
This is more than the total gain of US $ 539 billion that was anticipated for the 110 developing country members from full trade liberalisation in agriculture at the beginning of the WTO negotiations. It is however another matter that the total gain for developing country agriculture is now estimated at a paltry US $ 6.7 billion.

It is not as if the US farmers were dependent upon free trade earlier. Since 1933, Farm Programmes have been in place. It was, however, the US Farm Bill 1996 that was expected to bring about a structural change. It actually required most farm subsidies to be phased out by 2001. By bringing in the concept of ‘decoupled’ farm payments, which meant that farm payments were de-linked from production, the expectation was to rectify a historical mistake. “Decoupling” however resulted in price collapse thereby bringing in “emergency” payments. Call it ‘counter-cyclic’ payments it has now become a permanent feature of the farm policy.

And that reminds me what a former World Bank Chief Economist Nicholas Stern, while travelling through India, denounced subsidies paid by rich countries to their farmers as "sin ...on a very big scale" but warned India against any attempts to resist opening its markets. “Developing countries must remove their trade barriers regardless of what is happening in the developed countries.”

Much of the government support is for six primary commodities : corn, wheat, soybeans, cotton, rice and grain sorghum. In addition, the 2007 Farm Bill provides US $ 1.1 billion for vegetables. For biofuels, the subsidy support will heighten investment by 600 per cent.
To give a boost to organic cultivation, the Bill provides US $ 5 million as cost-sharing component with 17 states to bring in organic certification. It will help defray the cost of certification for farmers to the tune of 75 per cent, to a maximum of $ 750. Subsidy provisions also exist under the conservation programmes for not growing anything.

And yet, the real beneficiaries of the US government support are not the family farms. Much of the support goes to increase the profits of agribusiness majors like ConAgra, Cargill, ADM and Tyson. Among the beneficiaries are big landowners farmers, including Ted Turner and David Rockefeller. It is primarily the agribusiness corporations that have gained the maximum since the US Farm Bill 1996. The Farm Bill results in over-production of the six major crops resulting in price slumps, which makes it easier for the food corporations to dump the commodities in world markets .

The Institute for Agricultural Trade and Policy has estimated that dumping of wheat has increased from an average of 27 per cent per year before Farm Bill 1996 to 37 per cent after that; soybean from 2 to 11.8 per cent; maize from 6.8 to 19.2 per cent; cotton from 29.4 to 48.4 per cent and rice from 13.5 to 19.2 per cent in the consecutive period. Cheaper imports in developing countries pushes small farmers out of production thereby accentuating unemployment and hunger.

Saturday, 23 June 2007

Displacing Indian Farmers

Displacing Indian farmers : UPA Coalition Government Prepares Blueprint
India will have 400 million agricultural refugees :

It was on the cards. With Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announcing the formation of a new rehabilitation policy for farmers displaced from land acquisitions, it is now official -- farmers have to quit agriculture.

Ever since the Congress led UPA Coalition assumed power after an angry rural protest vote threw out the erstwhile BJP-led NDA combination in May 2004, the Prime Minister had initiated a plethora of new policies for the spread of industrialization. After having laid the policy framework that allows private control over community resources – water, biodiversity, forests, seeds, agriculture markets, and mineral resources -- the UPA government finally looked at the possibility of divesting the poor people of their only economic security – a meagre piece of land holding.

“Special Economic Zone (SEZ) is an idea whose time has come,” the Prime Minister had said at an award ceremony in Mumbai sometimes back. Supported by all political parties, including the Left Front, he has actually officiated a nationwide campaign to displace farmers. Almost 500 special economic zones are being carved out (see The New Maharajas of India What is however less known is that successive government’s are actually following a policy prescription that had been laid out by the World Bank as early as in 1995.

A former vice-president of the World Bank and a former chairman of Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), a body that governs the 16 international agricultural research centers, Dr Ismail Serageldin, had forewarned a number of years ago. At a conference organised by the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai a few years back, he quoted the World Bank to say that the number of people estimated to migrate from rural to urban India by the year 2015 is expected to be equal to twice the combined population of UK, France and Germany.

The combined population of UK, France and Germany is 200 million. The World Bank had therefore estimated that some 400 million people would be willingly or unwillingly moving from the rural to urban centres by 2015. Subsequent studies have shown that massive distress migration will result in the years to come. For instance, 70 per cent of Tamil Nadu, 65 per cent of Punjab, and nearly 55 per cent of Uttar Pradesh is expected to migrate to urban centres by the year 2020.

These 400 million displaced will constitute the new class of migrants – agricultural refugees.

Acerbating the crisis are the policy initiatives that promotes privatization of natural resources, take over of farm land, integrating Indian agriculture with the global economy, and moving farmers out of agriculture – in essence the hallmark of the neo-liberal economic growth model.

Agricultural reforms that are being introduced in the name of increasing food production and minimising the price risks that the farmers continue to be faced with, are actually aimed at destroying the production capacity of the farm lands and would lead to further marginalisation of the farming communities. Encouraging contract farming, future trading in agriculture commodities, land leasing, forming land-sharing companies, direct procurement of farm commodities by amending the APMC Act will only drive out a majority of farmers out of subsistence agriculture.

Although the land holding size is diminishing, the answer does not lie in allowing the private companies to replace farmers. Somehow the entire effort of the policy makers is to establish that Indian agriculture has become a burden on the nation and the sooner the country offloads the farming class the better it will be for economic growth.

Contract farming therefore has become the new agricultural mantra. Not realising that private companies enter agriculture with the specific objective of garnering more profits from the same piece of land. These companies, if the global experience is any indication, bank upon still more intensive farming practices, drain the soil of nutrients and suck ground water in a couple of years, and render the fertile lands almost barren after four to five years. It has been estimated that the crops that are contracted by the private companies require on an average 20 times more chemical inputs and water than the staple foods.

Sugarcane farmers, for instance, who follow a system of cane bonding with the mills, actually were drawing 240 cm of water every year, which is three times more than what wheat and rice requires on an average. Rose cultivation, introduced a few years back, requires 212 inches of groundwater consumption in every acre. Contract farming will therefore further exploit whatever remains of the ground water resources. These companies would then hand over the barren and unproductive land to the farmers who leased them, and would move to another fertile piece of land. This has been the global experience so far.

Allowing direct procurement of farm commodities, setting up special markets for the private companies to mop up the produce, and to set up land share companies, are all directed at the uncontrolled entry of the multinational corporations in the farm sector. Coupled with the introduction of the genetically modified crops, and the unlimited credit support for the agribusiness companies, the focus is to strengthen the ability of the companies to take over the food chain.

I have always warned that agribusiness companies in reality hate farmers. Nowhere in the world have they worked in tandem with farmers. Even in North America and Europe, agribusiness companies have pushed farmers out of agriculture. As a result, only 7,00,000 farming families are left on the farm in the United States. Despite massive subsidies in European Union, one farmer quits agriculture every minute. Knowing well that the markets will displace farmers, the same agriculture prescription is being applied in India.

A Planning Commission study has shown that 73 per cent of the cultivable land in the country is owned by 23.6 per cent of the population. With more and more farmers being displaced through land acquisitions, either for SEZ or for food processing and technology parks or for real estate purposes, land is further getting accumulated in the hands of the elite and resourceful. With chief ministers acting as property dealers, farmers are being lured to divest control over cultivable land. Food security and food self-sufficiency is no longer the country’s political priority.

The government has very conveniently taken refuge behind an NSSO study that says some 40 per cent of the farmers have expressed the desire to quit farming. After all, what the government is facilitating is to make it easier for the farmers to abandon their land. It believes that a rehabilitation policy for the farmers therefore is the need of the hour. What is however not being seen through is that an agrarian economy like India cannot afford large-scale displacement of farmers. It will lead to social unrest the kind of which has not been witnessed. What India needs desperately is a policy paradigm that restores pride in agriculture, stops take-over of agricultural lands, and ensures sustainable livelihoods for 600 million farmers.

Thursday, 21 June 2007

Water Crisis

Before Water Disappears

An Australian TV journalist asked me the other day: “Rice farmers in India are drilling millions of tube wells in a desperate search for water. Isn’t such over-exploitation of groundwater going to lead to a catastrophic situation in the years to come?”

The question was loaded, and coming from an Australian journalist whose own country was reeling under a serious drought for the sixth year in a row, it clearly showed that water had already turned into a major global problem. The magnitude of the emerging water crisis is such that it transcends national borders, and even continents.

It isn’t that only rice farmers are to blame. While rice farmers in India are consuming about 5000 litres of water to produce one kilo of rice, Australian farmers cannot shrug-off their role in over-exploiting the groundwater by saying that they do not produce much rice. Australia is a major beef-producing nation, and studies show that a kilo of beef requires 70,000 litres of water.

If you are rearing cattle only for milk, you are using more than 900 litres of water to produce a litre of milk. Wheat requires about 3,168 litres of water to produce one kilo of golden grain. Globally, a thousand tonnes of water is required to produce one tonne of grain.

Take the case of wheat and rice, the most common cropping pattern that is followed in the irrigated regions of the country. Both the crops require a little more than 8000 litres of water in a year to produce one kilo each of wheat and rice. This is a huge waste of water resources you will say. Now you know why the groundwater table has been steadily on the decline. There is an urgent need to change the cropping pattern goes the common refrain. Policy makers and business houses ask farmers to shift from wheat and rice to cash crops.

Shift to cotton or sugarcane or cut flowers. Somehow it is presumed that shifting the cropping pattern to these crops will ease the water crisis. The industry steps in, propagates a change in cropping pattern, without telling the nation that the alternative being suggested are going to suck the ground water supplies dry in a terribly short time. Irrigated cotton alone consumes as much water as is required by wheat and rice. Water requirement for sugarcane is four times more. And cut flower cultivation requires 20 times more water than cotton.

Over the years, first the induction of green revolution technology, including the high-yielding crop varieties, resulted in more and more mining of the underground water. Small farmers have drilled more than 22 million tube wells hundreds of meters below the surface. Water is being mined ruthlessly. As a result water table has plummeted to alarming levels. Despite the alarm bells ringing for quite sometime now, the fact remains that no one has cared to set the water balance right.

We all know that high-chemical input based technology has already exhausted the soils and ultimately led to the lands gasping for breath. With water-guzzling crops (hybrids and Bt cotton) sucking the groundwater aquifer dry, agriculture has collapsed. Indian farmers are drawing out 200 cubic kilolitres of water from the underground strata every year. Not even a fraction of this is being added back to the groundwater resource.

Instead, the Ministry of Agriculture has been unabashedly advocating crop diversification, mostly cut flowers. Tamil Nadu is the latest among the States beckoning farmers to have a share in the US $ 40 billion global floriculture trade. Karnataka, Maharashtra, Punjab, Haryana and Gujarat have already done the damage. Sops are being announced to attract farmers to cultivate roses, carnations, gerbera and other cut flowers. State governments are providing attractive and handsome financial packages including subsidies, technical backstopping, extension and post-harvest management support.

What the Ministry is not telling is that the cut flower cultivation will hasten the process of water depletion leading to desertification. Rose cultivation requires on an average about 212 acre inch or 212 inches of water in an acre of land.

Let us now look at the damage already done. In Punjab, the food bowl of the country, of the 138 development blocks, 108 have already been declared dark zones. The level of groundwater exploitation in these blocks has been in excess of 98 per cent against the critical limit of 80 per cent. In Uttar Pradesh, the Central Ground Water board has identified 22 overexploited and critical blocks in the state, of which 19 blocks are located in western UP (comprising the sugarcane belt). Similarly, out of the 53 semi-critical blocks identified, 28 are located in western UP. Water table has already plummeted to a level that agriculture is becoming an unviable proposition.

Faulty cropping pattern is amongst the main reasons for the resulting water crisis. All these years, the dryland regions of the country, which comprise nearly 75 per cent of the total cultivable area, have increasingly come under the hybrid crop varieties. While the crop yields from the hybrid varieties was surely high, the flip side of these varieties – these varieties are water guzzlers – was very conveniently ignored. For the sake of comparison, let us take the example of rice.

The high-yielding varieties of rice normally require about 5000 litres of water under drylands to produce one kg of rice. Common sense tells us that the rice varieties cultivated in the dryland regions of the country should be those that require less amount of water. What is in reality happening is just the opposite. Large proportion of the cultivable lands in drylands are now sown with hybrid rice varieties which require still more water for growing, its requirement of water touches 7000 litres for one kilo of rice grain.

Strange that in Punjab, which has assured irrigation, only high-yielding rice varieties are cultivated which require relatively less water. In the rainfed parts of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, hybrid rice varieties, which require roughly twice the quantity of irrigation water (than Punjab), are grown abundantly.

Not only rice hybrids, all kind of hybrid varieties that require higher doses of water – whether it is of sorghum, maize, cotton, bajra, and vegetables are promoted in the dryland regions. In addition, agricultural scientists have misled the farmers by saying that the dryland regions were hungry for chemical fertilisers. Add to this the thrust on contract farming, which requires more chemical inputs and water will turn the dryland regions barren in the years to come. Water table will plummet beyond reachable limits, as a result of which the impact of deficient rainfall will become more pronounced forcing farmers to abandon agriculture and migrate. This is what normally leads to famines.

We want to encourage cash crops farming because we want the farmers to earn more from international trade. This makes sense only if crops (including food crops) were being hydroponically cultivated in the Indian Ocean. To produce crops for export therefore defies any sensible logic. A former Vice-Chancellor of the Punjabi University, Patiala, Dr S S Johl, puts it more succinctly. He says that when Punjab exported 18 million tonnes of surplus wheat and rice in 2003-04, it actually exported 55.5 trillion litres of water. Feeding this surplus grain to the domestic population obviously makes sense, but exporting such huge quantities of scarce water to the foreign countries comes with a huge social and environmental cost.

Commerce Minister Kamal Nath will surely like to turn a deaf ear to these words of wisdom from Dr Johl. He is happy reiterating in Parliament that the speedier completion of the Doha Development Round of the World Trade Organisation will give a boost to agriculture exports. Unfortunately, the gains in trade are not at all being measured in terms of the water crisis ahead. The cost of production of wheat and rice (and other crops as well) does not include the cost of water. Imagine if 5000 litres of water that is required to produce one kilo of rice were to be measured as an input cost, rice would go beyond the reach of even Mukesh Ambani and Sunil Mittal.

The urgent need therefore is to draw a cropping pattern based on the availability of groundwater and the surface water irrigation. Instead of looking up to grandiose schemes like US $ 200 billion Interlinking of Rivers to distribute water, the thrust should be to draw a balance sheet for agriculture linked to water availability. Britain had also considered inter-linking of rivers as a solution to water crisis but dropped the idea when it became know that it wouldn’t serve the purpose.

Interlinking of rivers is being pushed in the name of ushering in a second Green Revolution. A similar grandiose irrigation scheme, called the Sharada Sahayak Irrigation network was launched at the time of Mrs Indira Gandhi to bring about a green revolution in eastern parts of Uttar Pradesh. While eastern UP still is looking for that elusive green revolution, the same will be the outcome of the flawed plan to inter-link India’s rivers. The latest report of the Comptroller and Auditor-General of India (CAG) for the State of Gujarat is a pointer to the shape of things to come.

The CAG report for the period ending March 31, 2006 shown that bulk of the water from the Sardar Sarovar Project meant for the drought-prone villages of Kachchh have been diverted to non-drought prone areas of the region and to the industries of Gandhinagar. The most glaring diversion was of 255 million litres per day to Gandhinagar, which was not covered under the master plan.
It is no use stressing on popular water conservation schemes without first taming the industry. Few know that to produce a tonne of steel, we require about 1 lakh litres of water. Each golf course (and there are nearly two dozen in the National Capital Region of Delhi) consumes an equivalent quantity of water daily that would have sufficed the need of 18,000 middle-class households. What is the use of saving water in the parched and arid lands of Rajasthan if we allow the marble industry, producing almost 91 per cent of total marble in India, to guzzle every hour around 2.75 million litres of water. No wonder the majestic lakes of Rajasthan have all gone dry.
But who cares?
It is easy to blame the politicians and policy makers. What we forget is that you and me too are responsible for the water crisis. As long as we don’t look beyond the statistics and analysis that appears in the newspapers, we too are part of the conspiracy of silence.

Friday, 15 June 2007

India US Wheat Row - Wheat and Weeds

Indo - US Wheat Row - Weeding Out Wheat

It is a queer case of double standards. Claiming highest quality standards in the world when it comes to agricultural imports, the United States has no qualms in exporting sub-standard wheat to India. In fact, diplomatic pressure is being built upon India to import weed-infested wheat.

Failing to reach an agreement after recent bilateral discussions on plant health, a statement from the US Embassy in New Delhi said “… Substantial hurdles still remain, as the US cannot agree to import standards that are impossible to certify and are not in line with international norms.” At the heart of the row are the quarantine norms that do not allow wheat consignments with dangerous weeds beyond the permissible limit.

The American wheat comes laced with 21 obnoxious and alien weeds, which are not known to exist in India. As per the weed risk analysis done by the Ministry of Agriculture, all these weeds are of quarantine importance and carry high risk. More worrying is the presence of two weeds Bromus rigidus and Bromus scealinus -- better known as foxtail wheat, which is similar in appearance to wheat and therefore difficult to identify.

Already, surreptitiously imported along with wheat, several weeds and pests have turned into a national menace. India is spending crores of rupees every year in fighting these alien invasive species.

Earlier too, India had in 1996 rejected wheat imports from America on reasons of inferior quality, and had instead imported one million tonne from Australia. In 2006, when India imported 5.5 million tones of wheat from Australia and some other countries, the US was unable to find a foothold into India’s burgeoning wheat market. Aware that India is likely to turn into a major wheat importer in the years to come, the US has stepped up diplomatic and political efforts to exert pressure.

Not that the Australian wheat is much superior. In 2006, bending backwards to allow the highly contaminated wheat shipments from Australia, Indian Food and Agriculture ministry had turned a blind eye to the presence of 14 weeds, two fungal diseases and one insect pest that the import consignments contained. Of the 14 weeds, 11 species are not found in India.

Interestingly, while the US accepts that its wheat contains 21 weeds, it has expressed its helplessness in cleaning wheat shipments to bring it in tune with the Indian threshold limits. At the Portland port from where much of its wheat is exported, the US grain merchants were unable to clean wheat of the menacing weeds. The US is seeking import norms of 0.3 per cent weed infestation, India is insisting on not more than 100 weeds in a consignment of 200 kg of wheat.
At 0.3 per cent weed infestation, the total number of weed seeds per 200 kg of wheat comes to a massive 12,000.

Although the US is publicly claiming that its “wheat is among the highest quality in the world and is safely shipped to over 110 nations including every importer of significance except India”, the fact remains that much of the American wheat imported by rich and developed countries like Japan is actually for milling purposes. In India, wheat imports are used as grain by farmers and therefore the worry that the weeds will take roots.

Several of the minor weeds that came along with PL-480 wheat shipments into India in past have turned into biological nuisances, often the weed becoming a national menace. Lantana camera was among such weeds, which entered India three decades ago. Today, it has spread wide and wild, and has withstood all control measures. Being poisonous, not even the cattle feed on it. Phalaris minor too came with the wheat consignments from the United States. This weed, already resistant to chemicals in the US and Australia, has established itself as a strong competitor of wheat in India. The weed has also become resistant to chemicals in India and is responsible for reducing wheat yields by an estimated 25 per cent.

It is not the first time that the US is trying to export sub-standard agricultural products. In September 2000, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) sent a delegation to press for opening up the Indian market for what would have turned into the first major import consignment of genetically modified soybeans. If allowed, the soybean imports would have brought along five exotic weeds and at least 11 viral diseases, of which two are economically dangerous. The US did insist that the accompanying pests would not pose any problem for Indian agriculture.

Earlier too, during 1998-99, the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (NBPGR) had received 359 samples of transgenic soybean from the USA for quarantine. Nearly 143 of these were rejected because of the presence of downy mildew fungus (Peronospora manshurica), which is known to cause serious losses and is not known to occur in India. Bulk imports, however, fail to eliminate the threat of import of nematodes, viruses and several fungi.

For reasons unexplained, the Food and Agriculture ministry appears more eager to allow for sub-standard imports. In 2006, it relaxed most quality norms for Australian wheat by asking the exporting country to provide a certificate saying that the imports are “essentially free from weeds”. At the time of tender, the requirement was “free from weeds”. Over-ruling all objections raised by the plant quarantine directorate to import of exotic weed species, the Food and Agriculture Ministry has relaxed the provisions of Plant Quarantine Order 2003.

After the din dies down, India might relax quality norms for American wheat. Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar has already been quoted as saying: “It is true that talks have been held with the US government. We want that the US should also participate in our wheat import process.” What is however not being perceived is that the US participation cannot be at the cost of softening the quarantine standards.
At a time when international quality parameters are being tightened the world over to ensure that invasive alien species do not use the vehicle of commodity trade to enter into a country, India should not relax the quality norms thereby opening the floodgates to noxious weeds, deadly insect pests and dreaded plant diseases.

What Sharad Pawar needs to understand is that the same wheat that we imported from Australia (or we plan to import from America) if exported back would not be accepted for reasons of the same quality standards that we are being asked to do away with.

Tuesday, 5 June 2007

NDC - Right Language Wrong Direction

NDC and Agriculture
Right Language, Wrong Direction

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had time and again promised to launch a major initiative for the revival of the ailing farm sector. Addressing recently the 53rd meeting of the National Development Council (NDC) in New Delhi, he used the right vocabulary to highlight the enormity of the prevailing agrarian crisis.

If words alone could deliver, Congress-led UPA Coalition would have done it long ago. But like the story of the four blind men and the elephant, the Prime Minister, his Cabinet colleagues and the 29 chief ministers who were present continued to shoot in the dark. Three years into power, it is quite apparent the government has no clue as to what needs to be done to resurrect agriculture.

It was almost a year back when Mr Manmohan Singh had visited the suicide-prone belt of Vidharbha and announced a relief package of Rs 3,750-crores. Embarrassed at no let-up in the number of farmer suicides, he had subsequently said that the relief measures would begin to show results after six months. It sure did. Six months after the Prime Minister’s visit, the suicide rate doubled. From one farmer suicide every eight hours, it is now one every four hours.

The Rs 25,000-crore booster for new farm initiatives to be launched by states in the next four years, and the 14-point resolution adopted by the NDC which aims at achieving four per cent growth in agriculture by the end of the 11th five-year plan, falls in the same category. With the entire focus on integrating domestic agriculture with global economy, and bringing in agribusiness, corporate agriculture and food retail as the saviour, the roadmap being chalked out is likely to lead to further despair.

Ploughing Rs 25,000-crore into agriculture may seem like a mammoth effort to double the growth rate in agriculture. For each of the 29 states, the average support will not exceed Rs 1000-crore, which is nothing more than a drop in the ocean. Moreover, what is not being visualised is that the farm crisis has nothing to do in terms of growth rate. It essentially revolves around declining sustainability in agriculture and the economic viability of farming. Whatever be the new location-specific schemes the states may launch, nothing significant can be expected unless the real farm income goes up.

Take Punjab, the food bowl of the country. Farm indebtedness, both in the formal and informal sector, is around Rs 26,000-crore, more than the Centre’s total pledged allocation for the entire country. No amount of renewed thrust on increasing crop productivity, and that too without restoring the highly devastated natural resource base, as well as raising farm incomes, will revive agriculture. However, the 14-point resolution dividing responsibilities between the Central and the State governments makes little mention of sustainability and boosting farm incomes.

To expect the agricultural universities and the state extension machinery to draw up research plans considering region specific priorities taking agro-climatic conditions, natural resource issues and technology into account is a tall order given that the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) has already moved away from subsistence to commercial agriculture. The Indo-US Knowledge Initiative in Agriculture Research, Development and Marketing, launched in early 2006, provides for a diametrically opposite research direction.

The crucial issue of technology fatigue cannot be addressed without first ascertaining what and where has the 1st Green Revolution gone wrong. Instead of pushing 2nd Green Revolution (read agribusiness), the effort should have been to draw a balance sheet and then prepare a cropping pattern plan based on the availability of natural resources. For instance, it does not make any sense to cultivate sugarcane and cotton in the arid and parched lands of Rajasthan.

The action plan only focuses on improved seed supply, fertiliser availability and revamping of state agriculture extension system to reduce yield gaps. It also makes it mandatory for states to make amendments in Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee Act by March 2008, which will allow a variety of marketing trappings including contract farming and corporate agriculture. In essence, the entire focus of the farm strategy is to allow the private sector to take control of agriculture.

Although till date, 16 states have amended the APMC Act, some wholly and others partially, the fact remains that the entire effort of the government is to dismantle the food procurement and public distribution system in the days to come. By amending the APMC Act, the government is actually encouraging development of linkages to markets through a variety of instruments including contract farming and corporate agriculture. Such a system has already played havoc with wheat procurement forcing the country to turn into the world’s biggest importer of the golden grain.

Setting up a time-bound Food Security Mission by enhancing production of wheat, rice, pulses and edible oils comes at a time when the UPA government itself is lowering the custom tariff thereby allowing cheaper imports. Integrating Indian agriculture with global economy defeats the very purpose of ensuring food security. Take the case of edible oils. India was almost self-sufficient in edible oils in 1993-94. Ever since the government began lowering the tariffs, edible oil imports have multiplied turning the country into the biggest importer. Small farmers growing oilseeds and that too in the rainfed areas of the country had to abandon production in the light of cheaper imports.

Autonomous liberalisation of the farm sector has already seen import surges. Agriculture commodity imports have gone up by 300 per cent between 2000-2004. Coconut oil imports for instance increased from 7291 metric tonnes in 2004-05 to 22,307 metric tonnes in 2005-06. The import of pepper similarly increased from 2186.3 tonnes in 1995-96 to 17,725.3 tonnes in 2004-05. These are not isolated cases. Imports of spices and plantation crops including tea and coffee have been on an upswing. Importing food commodities is like importing unemployment.
Not even remotely concerned, the government is planning to further open up farm imports under the Free Trade Agreement with the ASEAN countries. In the years to come, import tariffs on wheat, rice, pulses and edible oils – the crops that are considered crucial for food security – are to be further lowered. Cheaper imports will negatively impact food security. Unless of course the government thinks food security can be assured by buying food off-the-shelf.

For a country like India, with 60-crore farmers, such a policy imperative will spell doom. Indian farmers are not only producers but also consumers. What is needed is a farming system that allows production by the masses in a sustainable and viable way.

Tuesday, 8 May 2007

Escape from Punjab - Hidden Numbers

Escape from Punjab : By Devinder Sharma

I was at a dinner with a Punjabi family in the outskirts of London. Mohinder Singh’s youngest brother who had only a few months before made it to England was visibly upset : “You are the only Punjabi I know who keeps on going back to India. Why don’t you stay here permanently ?”

When I told him that I am often invited to UK to speak at various conferences, and yet I don’t want to settle here legally or illegally, he couldn’t believe me. “There are instances when I am abused on the streets by the whites if that is what you are meaning, there was also this bizarre incident of one of the white teenager’s pissing on me while I lay on the beach one day but bhai ji this is still heaven. Come on, think about it again !”

Surinder Singh, the youngest brother in the Punjabi family I am talking about, is not the only one who feels he has crossed over to heaven. Millions of Punjabis’ cherish the dream to escape from Punjab. Legally or illegally, they are willing to take all kinds of risks. Such is the desire and desperation to escape that scores of villages in the ‘migration belt’ of Punjab -- Phagwara, Jalandhar and Kapurthala districts – are empty. Almost all houses in these villages remain locked throughout the year.

Punjabis are by nature enterprising. Defying all academic norms of ‘distress migration’ or the ‘pull or push factor’ in migration, most Punjabis believe that migration is the best form of economic growth.
They have seen this happening with generations of migratory workers who made it to the plantation sector in Southeast Asia or as industrial workers in England, Canada and to some extent as farm workers in New Zealand, California, Germany and Italy.

It was in early 1980s that I first tracked a group of asylum seekers who had landed in East Berlin (than part of the German Democratic Republic). Once in East Berlin, they would crossover to West Berlin by train where with the help of some lawyers they would have their papers ready. A majority of those who followed this escape route were apprehended at West Berlin. While their papers were being scrutinised, these migrants would be lodged in what was then popularly called ‘flower houses’ – an apology for a dingy accommodation herding some 20-25 people in one room.

The German government provided them with subsistence allowance as long as they were in the ‘flower houses’. Realising that migrants were ‘saving’ from even such paltry amounts ostensibly to send some money back home, the government finally provided them with food stamps that could be exchanged in the grocery stores. I remember asking one of the Punjabi migrants who was awaiting deportation back to India as to why did he take the risk. His reply still reverberates in my ears: “My parents have sold off the land to collect money for my travel.
They are under the impression that within months of my landing in Europe, I will start minting money. I therefore save as much as possible from my daily allowance so that I don’t let their dream die.’

The unsavoury trend still continues. After the collapse of the Berlin Wall, illegal trafficking has found new escape routes. Whether it is through Morocco, Egypt or Turkey or whether it is through sports and culture, the fact remains that Punjabis are more than eager to escape. After all, what makes them so desperate that they are willing to take the risk of their life? Why is that Punjabis, who are economically well off as compared to the rest of the country, are still not satisfied? Is something terribly wrong with the underbelly of Punjab that we don’t see?

Punjab is undoubtedly the food bowl of the country. It is the harbinger of the Green Revolution that swept through well-endowed regions of the country.
For 40 years now, ever since Green Revolution began, the nation has eulogised the Punjab farmer. Newspapers have reported time and again about the visible prosperity ushered in through intensive agriculture. Magazine articles have featured the opulent life style of prosperous Punjabi farmers.
Not many of the feature writers however tried to look beyond the false sense of pride the farmers exhibited. Not many journalists tried to explore the reasons behind the new- found prosperity -- not because of agriculture but because of monthly remittances or their side business activities.

Punjab’s underbelly was gradually caving in. Agriculture had turned not only unremunerative but also highly unsustainable. Intensive farming had led to the collapse of Green Revolution. Farmers were pumping in more chemical inputs to maintain their crop harvests.
Over the years indebtedness began growing to phenomenal levels. A recent Punjab Agricultural University shows as many as 89 per cent of Punjab farm households are reeling under debt. The per farm family debt today stands at a staggering Rs 1,78,934. In other words, for every hectare of land holding, the outstanding debt is Rs 50, 140.

Still worse – tractors -- the symbol of prosperity have now turned into a symbol of suicides. Tractor owners are more heavily indebted with the average outstanding exceeding Rs 2 lakh. Marginal and small farmers owning tractors are still worse off. With the input prices climbing year after year and the output prices remaining static, Punjab farmers became a victim of the same economic policies that projected them as country’s heroes. No wonder, the average income of a Punjab farm family hovers around Rs 3,000 a month.

Over the years, intensive farming practices have pushed farmers deeper into debt. High-chemical input based technology has already mined the soils and ultimately led to the lands gasping for breath, with the water-guzzling crops (hybrids and Bt cotton) sucking the groundwater acquifer dry, and with the failure of the markets to rescue the farmers from a collapse of the farming systems, the tragedy is that the human cost is entirely being borne by the farmers. In Punjab, of the 138 development blocks, 108 have already been declared dark zones, the level of groundwater exploitation in these blocks has been in excess of 98 per cent against the critical limit of 80 per cent. The resulting destruction wrought on the natural resource base – soil health deteriorating, water table plummeting and pesticides contaminating the environment – agriculture has turned into a losing proposition. More and more Punjab farmers therefore began to abandon agriculture. With no job opportunities coming in handy, escape from Punjab became a viable alternative.

What is intriguing are the missing numbers. In 1990-91, there were 2.95 lakh marginal and 2.03 small operational landholdings. In ten years time, by 2000-01, these had come down to 1.23 lakh marginal and 1.73 lakh small operational holdings.
A careful perusal would show that nearly 1.20 lakh farm families had moved out of agriculture in the ten years period. Where have these families gone? What alternative employment opportunities have they adopted? No one knows about that.

I am not suggesting that they had migrated in search of greener pastures. But with rampant corruption keeping them out of government jobs, the only avenue open for the Punjabi youth is to migrate. Whether they apply for a police constable job or for a bus conductor, they are invariably asked to cough out money. “If I have to pay Rs 20 lakh to Rs 35 lakh for a Class III government job, what do you expect me to do?” asks Manpreet Singh, a resident of Ropar district. “Isn’t it better that I spend the same money to pay to the travel agents to find me an escape to Europe or Canada?”

Punjab’s underbelly is certainly in an unforeseen crisis. It is time to feel the pain and anguish the youth are faced with. It is time to put the house in order. The sooner the better.
Indian Farm Exit Policy -
Farm Debt -
Land Acquisition -