Resources Research

Making local sense of food, urban growth, population and energy

The FAO mask slips further

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Family farming is a descriptive phrase that rings well with environmentalists, with anthropologists and ethnologists who have had anything to do with food and its cultivation, with naturalists and especially with the many groups promoting agro-ecological farming all over the world. What could be wrong with recognising and valorising family farming?

The FAO's view of smallholder farming, agri-business and markets, rendered in textbook business school fashion.

The FAO’s view of smallholder farming, agri-business and markets, rendered in textbook business school fashion.

Quite a lot, when it comes through the machinery of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s propaganda mill. The most cited of the FAO’s ‘flagship’ publications, the State of Food and Agriculture in 2014 has as its theme family farming, but this theme carries a passenger, which the FAO has described as ‘Innovation in family farming’. And that is how the mask has slipped further.

[The State of Food and Agriculture, FAO’s major annual flagship publication has as its 2014 theme 'Innovation in family farming' (the full report here and a summary here).]

The publication needs to be read not for the assertions of how important smallholder farming is, but for the conceptual machinery that has been assembled so that a technical take-over of small farms can be achieved with limited opposition. This is the scheme of the FAO of 2014, which is sadly a very different agency from what it was even a decade ago.

SOFA 2014 in its prose swings rather schizophrenically between sugary pronouncements about how family farms are “the custodians of about 75 percent of all agricultural resources in the world”, and therefore why they should be the new focus for an innovation that is techno-centric. The publication has made liberal use of terms such as “improved ecological and resource sustainability” and where the word ‘sustainable’ is used ‘vulnerable’ is surely not far behind. It isn’t, and SOFA 2014 goes to some lengths to convince its readers that most family farms are vulnerable in one or many ways.

The spin doctors employed by the FAO have come up with what the publication has called a triple challenge for family farming (challenges are most intimidating when they come in threes). This is: “yield growth to meet the world’s need for food security and better nutrition; environmental sustainability to protect the planet and to secure their own productive capacity; and productivity growth and livelihood diversification to lift themselves out of poverty and hunger”. The answer, according to the machine men of international crop science, is that they must innovate (or, better still, nominally hold the title to the factors of crop production while the innovation is administered by outside agents).

FAO_SOFA_2014_coverThis very brief canning of the publication’s main objective helps to place in context the main messages of this year’s State of Food and Agriculture, which include:

“Family farms are part of the solution for achieving food security and sustainable rural development; the world’s food security and environmental sustainability depend on the more than 500 million family farms that form the backbone of agriculture in most countries.”

Here the device of a very large number, 500 million, is used to reassure the critics that the forces that would control the world’s crop staples are unlikely to homogenise such a number. But indeed it is their number and variety that are being studied carefully in order to find approaches that – to use the acidic terms of the multi-lateral banks – boost investor confidence. Hence the considered advice from FAO: “Family farms are an extremely diverse group, and innovation systems must take this diversity into account.”

There is more on complexity and diversity with specific regard to the institutions for crop science (and for food retail and sales, the porcine twin of formal modern agriculture research). The SOFA has said: “The challenges facing agriculture and the institutional environment for agricultural innovation are far more complex than ever before; the world must create an innovation system that embraces this complexity.” What the FAO means by “more complex than ever before” is the growing opposition to industrial agriculture, agricultural biotechnology and the use of genetic modification techniques. So, the embracing that is called for is one that should sound acceptable, non-threatening, inclusive, participatory and all the other terms that the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal-setters so volubly use.

FAO_SOFA_2014_cover_bwInstitutions cost money, which will come from where exactly? The FAO has a ready answer. “Public investment in agricultural R&D and extension and advisory services should be increased and refocused to emphasise sustainable intensification and closing yield and labour productivity gaps.” That is to say, leave the innovation bit to the private sector, turn your research centres (built and run with public monies) over to us, dismantle your nationalist agricultural extension service but give us the network, and look how we close yield and productivity gaps. That’s the pitch, in a nutshell, ignoring the several blunt cautions raised by other UN agencies (including the previous Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food) that we have quite enough food but far too little equity and fairness concerning how it reaches those who need it.

This publication, the State of Food and Agriculture, is the latest that has been outfitted to serve FAO’s new interest, camouflaged though it is. The usual empowering wordiness that has become so tiresomely characteristic of the UN system is on view here too: family farmers need an enabling environment, good governance, stable macroeconomic conditions, transparent legal and regulatory regimes, secure property rights, risk management tools, market infrastructure, capacity development through investment in education and training, participatory agricultural research, emphasise sustainable intensification, closing the yield and productivity gaps.

Until the next major report, this one will be turned into a mini-curriculum to be referenced by client governments so that a technologically obsessed industrial agriculture and seed industry annexes larger shares of old markets (India and South-East Asia) and totally subordinates small new ones (African countries). ‘Fiat panis’ (let there be bread) is the FAO motto and after a reading of SOFA 2014 one could be excused for considering that this motto be switched with ‘fiat food oligarchs’, for that is the direction the FAO, under Jose Graziano da Silva, is firmly pursuing.

Preparing for cyclone Hudhud

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Insat-3D’s view of the path inland of Hudhud at 1730 IST (5:30pm IST) on 12 October. The cyclonic storm is now moving north-northwest through Odisha into Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and south Bihar. Image: IMD

Insat-3D’s view of the path inland of Hudhud at 1730 IST (5:30pm IST) on 12 October. The cyclonic storm is now moving north-northwest through Odisha into Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and south Bihar. Image: IMD

12 Oct – The IMD has issued its evening alert on cyclone Hudhud. The 1700 IST (5:00pm IST) alert contains a heavy rainfall warning and a wind warning.

Heavy rainfall warning: Rainfall at most places with heavy (6.5-12.4 cm) to very heavy falls (12.5-24.4 cm) at a few places and isolated extremely heavy falls (>24.5 cm) would occur over West and East Godavari, Visakhapatnam, Vijayanagaram and Srikakulam districts of north Andhra Pradesh and Ganjam, Gajapati, Koraput, Rayagada, Nabarangpur, Malkangiri, Kalahandi, Phulbani districts of south Odisha during next 24 hrs. Rainfall would occur at most places with heavy to very heavy rainfall at isolated places over Krishna, Guntur and Prakasham districts of Andhra Pradesh and north Odisha during the same period. Rainfall at most places with heavy falls at a few places would occur over south Chattisgarh, adjoining Telangana and isolated heavy to very heavy falls over north Chattisgarh, east Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand and Bihar.

Cyclone Hudhud will degrade into a severe cyclonic storm, then a cyclonic storm and by 13 October morning into a deep depression. Until 14 October it will continue to pose a danger with heavy rainfall and high winds. This IMD table explains why.

Cyclone Hudhud will degrade into a severe cyclonic storm, then a cyclonic storm and by 13 October morning into a deep depression. Until 14 October it will continue to pose a danger with heavy rainfall and high winds. This IMD table explains why.

Press Information Bureau distributes very useful railway helpline numbers.

Press Information Bureau distributes very useful railway helpline numbers.

Wind warning: Current gale wind speed reaching 130-140 kmph gusting to 150 kmph would decrease gradually to 100-110 kmph gusting to 120 kmph during next 3 hours and to 80-90 kmph during subsequent 6 hours over East Godavari, Visakhapatnam, Vizianagaram and Srikakulam districts of North Andhra Pradesh. Wind speed of 80-90 kmph gusting to 100 kmph would prevail over Koraput, Malkangiri, Nabarangpur and Rayagada districts during next 6 hrs and 50 to 60 kmph during subsequent 12 hrs. Squally wind speed reaching upto 55-65 kmph gusting to 75 kmph would also prevail along and off West Godavari and Krishna districts of Andhra Pradesh, Ganjam and Gajapati districts of Odisha, south Chattisgarh and adjoining districts of north Telangana during next 12 hours.

 

Andhra Pradesh helpline numbers here. (Thanks to Ankur Singh ‏@ankurzzzz)

Andhra Pradesh helpline numbers here. (Thanks to Ankur Singh ‏@ankurzzzz)

Odisha district control room phone numbers have been distributed thanks to eodisha.org.

They are: Mayurbhanj 06792 252759, Jajpur 06728 222648, Gajapati 06815 222943, Dhenkanal 06762 221376, Khurda 06755 220002, Keonjhar 06766 255437, Cuttack 0671 2507842, Ganjam 06811 263978, Puri 06752 223237, Kendrapara 06727 232803, Jagatsinghpur 06724 220368, Balasore 06782 26267, Bhadrak 06784 251881.

There are reports on twitter that the leading edge of cyclone Hudhud crossed the coast at around 1030 IST (0500 UTC). The reported maximum wind speed is just above 200 kmph which means the destructive force threatens structures too.

This tweet means that western ‘wall’ of the cyclone has crossed. It took just under two hours. The eastern ‘wall’ crossing of the coast, accompanied by severely high winds and very heavy rain, is under way now.

Navy officials warn that there will be a lull in the storm at around 11.30 am, but the storm will again intensify after that for a few hours.
Zee News has a list of cancelled and curtailed trains.
At least 400,000 people have been evacuated from the coastal areas of Andhra Pradesh and Odisha states as authorities aimed for zero casualties.

Insat-3D's view of Hudhud at 2:30pm on 11 October. The leading edge of the 'eye' of the cyclone is about 150 kilometres off Srikakulam in Andhra Pradesh.

Insat-3D’s view of Hudhud at 2:30pm on 11 October. The leading edge of the ‘eye’ of the cyclone is about 150 kilometres off Srikakulam in Andhra Pradesh.

11 Oct – Where is Cyclone Hudhud and how fast is it moving towards land? The India Meteorological Department has said in its most recent alert – 1430/2:30pm on 11 October – that “the Very Severe Cyclonic Storm” is now about 260 kilometres south-east of Visakhapatnam and 350 km south-south-east of Gopalpur. IMD expects the cyclone to travel north-west and cross the coast of north Andhra Pradesh, near Visakhapatnam, by mid-morning on 12 October 2014.

Around 100,000 people have been evacuated in Andhra Pradesh to high-rise buildings, shelters and relief centres, with plans to move a total of 300,000 to safety. Authorities in Odisha said they were monitoring the situation and would, if necessary, move 300,000 people most at risk.

The evacuation effort was comparable in scale to the one that preceded Cyclone Phailin exactly a year ago, and which was credited with minimising the fatalities to 53. When a huge storm hit the same area 15 years ago, 10,000 people died.

The projected path of the cyclone and its outer rainbands, which in the case of Hudhud are around 80 km thick measured from the eye. Image: GDACS

The projected path of the cyclone and its outer rainbands, which in the case of Hudhud are around 80 km thick measured from the eye. Image: GDACS

Authorities have been stocking cyclone shelters with dry rations, water purification tablets and generators. They have opened up 24-hour emergency control rooms and dispatched satellite phones to officials in charge of vulnerable districts.

The AP government has cancelled leaves of employees and has asked everyone to remain on duty on the weekend.  In Vizag, where the cyclone is expected to make landfall, the administration has opened 175 shelters and moved close to 40,000 people from the coastal villages. In Srikakulam, people of 250 villages in 11 mandals which may be affected have been evacuated.

IMD's table of wind speeds at the surface (sea level) brought by Hudhud. Note the exceptionally strong winds between 2330/11:30pm on 11 October and 1130/11:30am on 12 October.

IMD’s table of wind speeds at the surface (sea level) brought by Hudhud. Note the exceptionally strong winds between 2330/11:30pm on 11 October and 1130/11:30am on 12 October.

While human casualties are not expected due to the massive evacuation, power and telecommunication lines will be uprooted leading to widespread disruption. A warning has been issued that flooding and uprooted trees will cut off escape routes, national and state highways and traffic is being regulated to ensure that no one is caught in the flash floods caused by heavy rains.

Vishakhapatnam, Bhimunipatnam, Chittivalasa and Konada are expected to face storm surges of over 1 metre. Source: GDACS

Vishakhapatnam, Bhimunipatnam, Chittivalasa and Konada are expected to face storm surges of over 1 metre. Source: GDACS

Officials said that National Disaster Response Force teams have been strategically placed along the coast to be deployed wherever they are required. Railways has cancelled all trains passing through the three districts which are likely to be affected.

The IMD has issued a “Heavy Rainfall Warning” which has said that driven by the cyclonic winds, rainfall at most places along the AP and Odisha coast will be heavy (6.5–12.4cm) to very heavy (12.5–24.4 cm). These places include West and East Godavari, Visakhapatnam, Vijayanagaram and Srikakulam districts of north Andhra Pradesh and Ganjam, Gajapati, Koraput, Rayagada, Nabarangpur, Malkangiri, Kalahandi, Phulbani districts of south Odisha.

10 OctThe India Meteorological Department said on the evening of 10 October that the “Very Severe Cyclonic Storm” is centered near latitude 15.0ºN and longitude 86.8ºE about 470 km east-southeast of Visakhapatnam and 520 km south-southeast of Gopalpur. This was the fix IMD had on the centre of the cyclone at 1430 IST on 10 October 2014.

Here are the salient points from news reports released during the afternoon of 10 October:

Cyclone Hudhud will cross the north Andhra Pradesh coast on October 12 and is expected to make landfall close to Visakhapatnam, according to the Cyclone Warning Centre (CWC) at Visakhapatnam. “It is forecast that Hudhud, which is already a severe cyclonic storm, will intensify into a very severe cyclonic storm in next 12 hours. Hudhud is likely to make landfall on October 12 close to Visakhapatnam,” said IMD’s Hyderabad centre.

This panel of four images shows the wind patterns of the cyclone at different altitudes. Top left is at 1,000 millibars (mb) of atmospheric pressure which is around sea level, top right is at 850 mb which is at around 1,500 metres high, bottom left is at 700 mb which is at around 3,500 metres, and bottom right is at 500 mb which is at around 5,000 metres. The direction of the greenish lines shows the winds rushing into the cyclonic centre. The visualisations have been collected from the 'earth.nullschool.net', which visually processes global weather conditions forecast by supercomputers and updated every three hours.

This panel of four images shows the wind patterns of the cyclone at different altitudes. Top left is at 1,000 millibars (mb) of atmospheric pressure which is around sea level, top right is at 850 mb which is at around 1,500 metres high, bottom left is at 700 mb which is at around 3,500 metres, and bottom right is at 500 mb which is at around 5,000 metres. The direction of the greenish lines shows the winds rushing into the cyclonic centre. The visualisations have been collected from the ‘earth.nullschool.net’, which visually processes global weather conditions forecast by supercomputers and updated every three hours.

Cyclone Hudhud has moved closer to the coast of Odisha and eight districts of the state are likely to be affected by it. The districts likely to be affected by the cyclone are Ganjam, Gajapati, Rayagada, Koraput, Malkangiri, Nabarangpur, Kalahandi and Kandhamal. All these districts have been provided with satellite phones for emergency and constant vigil was being maintained on the rivers like Bansadhara, Rusikulya and Nagabali as heavy rain is expected in southern districts.

The path over the Bay and after landfall as forecast by the IMD's Regional Specialised Meteorological Centre (RSMC). Note that within the large circle of heavy rainfall expected inland are the cities of Nagpur, Nanded, Amravati, Bhilai, Raipur and Karimnagar.

The path over the Bay and after landfall as forecast by the IMD’s Regional Specialised Meteorological Centre (RSMC). Note that within the large circle of heavy rainfall expected inland are the cities of Nagpur, Nanded, Amravati, Bhilai, Raipur and Karimnagar.

With cyclone Hudhud fast approaching the states of Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh today spoke to the chief ministers of the three states on the steps being taken to deal with the situation. Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik sought satellite phones which could be used in case high-speed winds disturbed the telecommunication system.

According to the India Meteorological Department, the wind speeds of cyclone Hudhud will be less than what the east coast experienced during Phailin in October 2013. The wind speed during cyclone Phailin was nearly 210 kmph, which made the cyclone the second-strongest ever to hit India’s coastal region. The country had witnessed its severest cyclone in Odisha in 1999.

Frequent updates and advisories can also be found at GDACS – the Global Disaster Alert and Coordination System (a cooperation framework under the UN umbrella). GDACS provides real-time access to web-based disaster information systems and related coordination tools.

Cities that will directly be affected by cyclone Hudhud are Vishakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh, Jagdalpur in Chhattisgarh, Vizianagaram in AP, Bhogapuram in AP, and Anakapalle in AP.

The sweeping of Bharat

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RG_Modi_jhadoo_6_smIt is as customary in politics as it is in administration to expect a new dispensation to sweep clean the debris and dust of the old order. It is just as customary to fix such sweeping with a suspicious eye and mutter that new brooms after all must sweep, for such is their calling.

Yet what we now see in India appears to be no ordinary broom and no ordinary sweeping. There is a movement afoot to clean the country and its chief cleaner and founder had this to say on 2 October (the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi): “Does the job of getting rid of filth belongs to municipal cleaners only? Isn’t it the duty of all the 1.25 billion Indians? We have to change this situation. All of us are responsible for no longer keeping our country like this.”

RG_Modi_jhadoo_7_smThe exhortation was delivered by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has set a benchmark for plain speaking in his government. The tone was set and early adopters proved to be, not the average Indian weary of garbage in her neighbourhood, but practically every government department.

Against a background of apathy by government departments that has been painfully familiar for two decades and more, this is unusual but not surprising. The new Bharatiya Janata Party government has impressed upon bureaucrats and government servants that they too are responsible citizens first, which is why every day after 2 October, one ministry after another has advertised its eagerness to sweep India clean through press releases, posed photographs and stilted promises.

The campaign, called ‘Swachh Bharat’, or clean India, has at best left ordinary citizens both bemused and amused. To set the ball rolling, Modi invited nine well-known citizens to begin a high-profile sweeping. Amongst them is Sachin Tendulkar, the cricketer, who quickly sent for a bunch of the typically ordinary brooms that Indian households use, rounded up some of his friends, and set to work in his Mumbai neighbourhood with at least as much technique as he once used to score runs on the cricket pitch.

RG_Modi_jhadoo_8_smBut the clean India campaign is also proving to have reached places that no such campaign before it has. The governor of the Reserve Bank of India, who ordinarily ponders monetary policy and interest rate adjustments, is reported to have turned his attention to how new toilets in rural India can be financed. Moreover, India’s University Grants Commission, the apex body that coordinates higher education in the country, has instructed all the universities to ensure clean and green campuses.

Preferring the questionnaire to the broom, Delhi University has decided to sociologically study the impact of Modi’s campaign (will Delhi’s residents actually stop littering, they have asked). The Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (whose job it is to monitor the gigantic Indian economy) has been asked to “develop an appropriate statistical framework” so that the government can judge whether the campaign is working and how it may be adjusted. And the first smartphone application has been released with which litter-averse Indians can tag unclean places in their city wards, upload pictures to a dedicated portal, and perhaps wait for a municipal cleaner to turn up, armed with a now very familiar broom.

An erratic monsoon with late spikes

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RG_IMD_rain_deficit_chart_20140924From the first week of June 2014 until the middle of September 2014, there have been floods and conditions near drought in many districts, but for India the tale of monsoon 2014 comes from individual districts and not from a national ‘average’ or a ‘cumulative’.

The weekly rainfall variation table for Maharashtra's districts. The period of the last week of August and the first two weeks of September is the only period during which these districts received rainfall at or above normal. But overall, the second deficient category, coloured light rose, dominates (this table uses my modified monsoon measure methodology, see text for link)

The weekly rainfall variation table for Maharashtra’s districts. The period of the last week of August and the first two weeks of September is the only period during which these districts received rainfall at or above normal. But overall, the second deficient category, coloured light rose, dominates (this table uses my modified monsoon measure methodology, see text for link)

This revealing chart tells some of that tale. It shows that for the first six weeks of monsoon 2014, most districts recorded rain below their normals for those weeks.

The lines are percentile lines; they tell us what percent of districts recorded how much rainfall in a monsoon week relative to their normals for that week. This chart does not show how much rain – it shows distance away from a weekly normal for districts.

The left scale is a percentage – higher percentages indicate how much above normal districts recorded their rainfall, negative numbers show us how much below normal their rainfall was.

The dates (the bottom scale) are for weeks ending on that date for which ‘normals’ and departures from normal were recorded. The P_01 to P_09 lines are the percentiles (10th to 90th) of districts in every week.

The typical IMD map of 'normal' rainfall measured by the meteorological sub-divisions. The detailed weekly tables give us a very different picture.

The typical IMD map of ‘normal’ rainfall measured by the meteorological sub-divisions. The detailed weekly tables give us a very different picture.

The district weekly normal is an important measure for matters like sowing of crop and issuing water rationing instructions in talukas and blocks. In the week ending 23 July for example, we see that the 60th percentile line spiked above normal, and this means that in that week only four out of ten districts all over India received the amount of rain it should have based on the average of the last 50 years.

The districts overview chart is distilled from the detailed weekly tables I have assembled (see the image of the Maharashtra table). For the whole country, what the districts tell us about the monsoon so far is a very much more detailed and insightful tale than the typical offering by the Meteorological Department (see India sub-divisional map). These weekly district tables are coded using my modified monsoon methodology, geared towards aiding decisions for local administrations especially for prolonged arid conditions leading to drought.

Written by makanaka

September 24, 2014 at 10:06

How the Scot ‘no’ changed Europe and the UK

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Scotland_20140918_IndependentWith results from the 32 councils declared, the ‘no’ voters of Scotland carried referendum day and opted to stay in the union, that is, the United Kingdom. The margin – 55% ‘no’ to 45% ‘yes’ – still means that every other Scot wants independence of some sort from the UK and its London-centric Westminster government.

There are some immediate reliefs for London’s politicos who were besides themselves with worry until early today morning. The Union survives (but not in the same shape). Still, this means that the UK remains a G7 economic power and a member of the UN Security Council. It also means Scotland will get more devolution and David Cameron will not be forced out (which may be a disappointment to many more English people than the number of those who voted ‘yes’).

Those reliefs will not provide cheers until after this weekend. Monday morning, the United Kingdom will have to look back at the last few weeks of referendum mania, and the last few adrenalin and hope-filled days, and realise that the 307-year-old union must change course radically to stay in any shape at all (and even that will be on borrowed time). Here is why:

Scotland_20140918_TelegraphFirst, there has indeed been a victory for Scotland, for those who considered themselves patriots for voting ‘yes’ and for voting ‘no’. The victory is more devolution for Scotland. Scottish Nationalist Party leader Alex Salmond (who is also the governor of Scotland) is the one who initiated the referendum campaign and who had wanted three options on the ballot papers: independence; the status quo; or more devolution for Scotland.

Until mid-year, the British government led by prime minister David Cameron accepted only the independence question, for more powers to the regional government in Edinburgh was rejected outright, and at the time they thought so, polls were showing a comfortable majority against ‘yes’ – as high as 65% in 2013. That advantage dropped steadily, with a shock poll in early September 2014 putting the ‘yes’ camp for the first time in the lead. This is when Cameron and the leaders of the two other main parties in Westminster – Labour and the Liberal-Democrats – signed a pledge to give more powers to Scotland if its voters chose ‘no’. Cameron and the other leaders – Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg and the Labour party’s leader Ed Miliband – will now have to deliver on those promises and also face claims from the other regions – Wales, England and Northern Ireland – for more money and powers.

Scotland_20140918_HeraldSecond, the ‘yes’ camp had painstakingly put together the arguments its campaign needed to show that Scotland could be successful as an independent country. These arguments appealed to many and convinced a good number – just over 44% as it has turned out – to take the leap of faith and thereby stare down the ‘no’ placards which read, “It’s not worth the risk”. Where the SNP fell short was in convincing more Scots about the risks and how to hedge them. But even in falling short, the ‘yes’ camp has proved to UK (and to all those regions in Europe seeking self-determination) that to seek independence is a powerful and uplifting tonic, which is a substance in very short supply all over the continent.

In the end – for so the commentators and observers mutter – it is the respectable middle class in sober dress who have tended to vote ‘no’, and so have the Labour stalwarts of all ages for whom some idea of ‘solidarity’ is apparently more comforting and familiar than the gritty new business of making independence work and dealing with the more obvious contradictions of the Salmond plan. Scottish monetary union with the UK also meant an independent Scotland using the pound as its single currency, but having no control over it.

Scotland_20140918_GuardianThe Euro crisis taught Europeans that a monetary union without a political one is a debilitating project, and so the risks shrewdly exploited by the ‘no’ camp (and the banks and the petroleum industry, let’s not forget them) came to weigh more than placards. Even so, Scottish independence as an idea based upon an implicit assumption of Scottish national and ethnic uniqueness – incompatible with the British identity, as any gent in a kilt would swear – has been considerably strengthened, at the cost of the Westminster style of government, whose days are from today numbered.

Third, the nature of this long demise. Early on Saturday morning political scientists were already saying that for British politics, much thought now needs to be given to constitutional arrangements, that constitutional change will have to be delivered. Such work will have to begin on Monday morning to make a start towards reconciling all the interests – Scots, English, Welsh, Northern Irish and local (however local chooses to define itself in the UK). It is not the kind of “epochal opportunity” that the SNP was waving overhead as a flag until yesterday, but it is for similar movements all over Europe, and the project in UK will be watched very carefully indeed in those countries and territories.

Scotland_20140918_TimesSalmond and the SNP will still govern Scotland until 2016 and the party will need to decide whether to run in 2016 on a stronger pledge for full independence (a two-stage referendum was amongst the eminently sensible suggestion made earlier this year). The question of equality will be raised more pertinently than before – in the Linlithgow Palace, Scotland’s James V built an elaborate fountain to express his equal status with his English uncle, Henry VIII, and amongst the ruins the fountain survives as a vivid reminder of Scottish pride. As for the economics of independence, it was Salmond who told the BBC: “The central mistake that the ‘no’ campaign has made is to tell the people of Scotland that the land of Adam Smith is not capable of running its own matters financially.”

The Scottish ‘no’ therefore is but a punctuation mark in a strong statement of cultural identity that began to be written well over half a millennium ago. A more thoughtful UK may result, one whose political performers learn to understand the union they claim to love. If so, the Scots have indeed won.

[The Khaleej Times published my article here.]

India’s giant megawatt trap

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A panel of charts that show India’s energy consumption, imports, and dependence on fossil fuel.

A panel of charts that show India’s energy consumption, imports, and dependence on fossil fuel.

Electricity as fundamental right and energy convenience as the basis of ‘development’ in Bharat and in India. If this is what Piyush Goyal means when he says his government is “is committed to ensure affordable 24×7 power” then it will come as yet another commitment that supports energy provision and consumption as the basis for determining the well-being of Bharat-vaasis and Indians (the UPA’s Bharat Nirman was the predecessor). But the Minister of State (Independent Charge) for Power, Coal and New and Renewable Energy cannot, using such a promise, ignore the very serious questions about the kind of ‘development’ being pursued by the NDA-BJP government and its environmental and social ramifications. [This article is also posted at the India Climate Portal.]

Goyal has said, via press conferences and meetings with the media, that the NDA government is committed to ensuring affordable power at all times (’24 x 7′ is the expression he used, which must be banished from use as being a violent idea – like nature our lives follow cycles of work and rest and ’24 x 7′ violently destroys that cycle). Goyal has promised, pending the taking of a series of steps his ministry has outlined, that such a round the clock provision of electric power will be extended to “all homes, industrial and commercial establishments” and that there will be “adequate power for farms within five years”.

The summary of India’s power generation capacity, by type and by region. Source for data: Central Electricity Authority

The summary of India’s power generation capacity, by type and by region. Source for data: Central Electricity Authority

Some of the very serious questions we raise immediately pertain to what Goyal – with the help of senior ministry officials and advisers – has said. The NDA-BJP government will spend Rs 75,600 crore to (1) supply electricity through separate feeders for agricultural and rural domestic consumption, said Goyal, which will be used to provide round the clock power to rural households; and (2) on an “integrated power development initiative” which involves strengthening sub-transmission and distribution systems in urban areas. This is part of the “transformative change” the ministry has assured us is for the better. Goyal and his officials see as a sign of positive transformation that coal-based electricity generation from June to August 2014 grew by nearly 21 per cent (compared with the same months in 2013), that coal production is 9% higher in August 2014 compared with August 2013, and that Coal India (the largest coal producer company in the world which digs out 8 of every 10 tons of coal mined in India) is going to buy 250 more goods rakes (they will cost Rs 5,000 crore) so that more coal can be moved to our coal-burning power plants.

UN_Climate_Summit_2014_smWe must question the profligacy that the Goyal team is advancing in the name of round the clock, reliable and affordable electricity to all. To do so is akin to electoral promises that are populist in nature – and which appeal to the desire in rural and urban residents alike for better living conditions – and which are entirely blind to the environmental, health, financial and behavioural aspects attached to going ahead with such actions. In less than a fortnight, prime minister Narendra Modi (accompanied by a few others) will attend the United Nations Climate Summit 2014. Whether or not this summit, like many before it, forces governments to stop talking and instead act at home on tackling anthropogenic climate change is not the point. What is of concern to us is what India’s representatives will say about their commitment to reduce the cumulative impact of India’s ‘development’, with climate change being a part of that commitment. [Please see the full article on this page.]

Written by makanaka

September 13, 2014 at 18:33

Physics and fatality

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RG_Hawking_Higgs

Those working in the area of theoretical physics may have noticed that the mean time between being noticed by the rest of the world is about two years, give or take a year. For the last sic years, the upheavals in this rather rarefied field of study have been caused by a particle whose very existence had been questioned for the previous 55-odd years. That particle is the Higgs boson and it was in 2012 when evidence of its existence was discovered, fleetingly, by scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), in an enormous particle accelerator which has been built to look for what is supposed to not be there.

Now theoretical physics has again caused the encyclopaediae to be brought down from dusty shelves (or the electronic equivalent) for it is Stephen Hawking, perhaps our generation’s best known theoretical physicist, who has discussed the Higgs boson and its somewhat doom-laden proclivities. Hawking, formally the Director of Research at the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics and Founder of the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology at Cambridge, is otherwise recalled for stepping out of the realms of the strange with a book that artfully introduced his subject to the general reader, ‘A Brief History of Time’, which did remarkably well.

He has written several books since, and the latest, entitled ‘Starmus, 50 Years of Man in Space’, has the reference to the curious particle in the foreword. The Higgs boson, Hawking has written, “has the worrisome feature that it might become megastable at energies above 100bn giga-electron-volts (GeV)”. These are not energies that we can conceive of in our everyday routines, but the physicist has explained his concern: “This could mean that the universe could undergo catastrophic vacuum decay, with a bubble of the true vacuum expanding at the speed of light.” Put plainly, what this means is that the curiosity theorised by Peter Higgs in 1964 (and after whom it was named, despite having not been proven to exist) could if accelerated to high energy levels destroy the universe.

Are the worries of theoretical physicists our worries too? Not unless we are willing to cope with monstrously large numbers that represent energy and time. And Hawking’s warning carries a caveat. A machine to accelerate the Higgs boson to the point where it becomes troublesome, he decided, would need to be larger than Earth and, he added with more than a touch of mischief, “is unlikely to be funded in the present economic climate”. Until the next announcement about the Higgs boson and its unseen stablemates, a half hour with the umpteenth Star Trek sequel should suffice.

Where are Bharat’s local leafy greens in this chart?

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RG_IN_veg_2013_14_prodHere is the list of the principal vegetables grown, according to the third advance estimates for 2013-14 (the agricultural year is July to June) for horticultural crops. The figures are from the usual source, the Department of Agriculture and Cooperation, Ministry of Agriculture. The quantities are in million tons. Where’s the vegetable diversity? Where are the leafy greens? Are they included in that bland circle called ‘others’? The DAC won’t/can’t tell us.

The numbers are: Beans 1.213; Bitter gourd 0.971; Bottle gourd 2.192; Brinjal 13.842; Cabbage 9.109; Capsicum 0.156; Carrot 1.19; Cauliflower 8.585; Cucumber 0.69; Muskmelon 0.702; Okra/Ladyfinger 6.461; Onion 19.769; Peas 4.165; Potato 44.306; Radish 2.561; Sitaphal/Pumpkin 0.356; Sweet Potato 1.126; Tapioca 7.778; Tomato 19.193; Watermelon 1.827; Others 21.953.

Written by makanaka

September 4, 2014 at 21:18

What we know and don’t about the true price of dal

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If you look at only the official account (left), the price of dal has been comfortable, but the consumer experience (right) tells a quite different story.

If you look at only the official account (left), the price of dal has been comfortable, but the consumer experience (right) tells a quite different story.

How urgently our national food price measuring methods need a complete overhaul is best shown with the example of a staple everyone is familiar with: arhar or tur dal.

Price indexes or indices are useful because they help us view the change in the price of a particular food staple over time, not the price itself, but change in price when taken from a base year or month. Price records are useful because they log the price (per kilo for retail consumption) of a food staple in a week or month.

The three ministries concerned with food prices update their indices or actual price reports every month or week. These are: the Department of Consumer Affairs of the Ministry of Food and Consumer Affairs, the Directorate of Economics and Statistics of the Department of Agriculture and Cooperation of the Ministry of Agriculture, and the Labour Bureau of the Ministry of Labour. In addition, there is the wholesale price index prepared by the Office of the Economic Adviser, Ministry of Commerce.

arhar_true_price_chart_sm1Usually, movements and trends in these indices and price logs are examined by themselves, and conclusions are drawn about whether the price of a food staple has been held steady or is rising steadily or is rising seasonally and also annually (we never see prices and trends going downwards).

But this is not enough. We need also to examine whether these indices and price logs are describing what they are designed to in the same manner and – very much more important – whether their descriptions are reasonable or not.

In the two chart panels, I have plotted the descriptions for arhar/tur dal from several sources together. The left chart has solid coloured price lines from the Department of Consumer Affairs and from the Directorate of Economics and Statistics. Each has two lines, the higher at the 90th percentile and the lower at the 10th percentile of all monthly prices logged from 2009 January until 2014 June. The two dashed lines are indices – the wholesale price index for arhar/tur and the Labour Bureau’s retail price index for arhar/tur over the same period. The price logs are plotted against the left index and the price indices are plotted against the right index.

Between the two indices the WPI for arhar appears lower than the Labour Bureau index, but that has only to do with a difference base period. The overall pattern they describe is the same. The two sets of price logs shows the two different levels for the 90th and 10th percentiles – in both cases the prices recorded by the Directorate of Economics and Statistics are higher than those recorded by the Department of Consumer Affairs. However they all follow a similar pattern over the 66 months illustrated here.

arhar_true_price_chart_sm2And so to the question: how true is what these indices and price logs are describing?

The answer is in the right chart. Here, two more lines are seen. These are both ascending relatively evenly over the 66 months, one at a slightly steeper rate. These I have called the ‘real retail’ price lines, one low and the other high. They describe the prices paid by urban consumers for a kilogram of arhar/tur dal based on what has been charged by ordinary retail outlets in towns and cities, with the price readings collected informally. They have also been ‘straightened’ by applying a 12%-14% true inflation that has been experienced by urban food consumers over these 66 months.

The effect, as you can see, is startling. The ‘real retail’ price lines explain why the consumption of pulses has been dropping and continues to drop especially amongst urban households whose livelihoods depend on multiple informal jobs. At Rs 90 to Rs 110 per kilogram, this dal (like other pulses) is almost beyond reach. At Rs 120 to Rs 130 per kilogram – these are levels that began to be recorded by consumers, but not consistently by the government price monitoring agencies, even two years ago – the dal can be consumed only by the upper strata of the urban middle class.

The question that immediately arises is: why is the real food price inflation being experienced by consumers not reflected in the official food price logs and indices? I will take up this question in the next posting.

How ADB cooks the climate pot

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RG_ICP_pic_20140821

The Asian Development Bank has, amongst the world’s multilateral development banks, been a bit of a latecomer to the area of climate financing with the help of modelling. Its senior peers – the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development – have been at it for a while, with the World Bank being rather in its own league if one was to judge by the tonnage of reports it has printed. The ADB probably holds its own on the matter against the Inter-American Development Bank and the African Development Bank, but this latest effort, I think, pushes it ahead of the last two.

Not for any reason that would gladden a farmer or a municipal worker, for that is not the audience intended for ‘Assessing the costs of climate change and adaptation in South Asia’ (Asian Development Bank, 2014), which was released to the Asian world a few days ago. But the volume should immensely help the modelling crews from a dozen and more international agencies that specialise in this arcane craft. Providing the scientific basis around which a multilateral lending bank can plan its climate financing strategies will help the craft find a future. Rather less sunny is the outlook for states and districts, cities and panchayats, who may find an over-zealous administrator or two quoting blithely from such a report while in search of elusive ‘mitigation’.

Many reassuringly complex diagrams must only mean we need bigger loans?

Many reassuringly complex diagrams must only mean we need bigger loans?

In my view, this volume is useless. It is so because it is based on a variety of modelling computations which have their origin in the methods used for the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report (that was released in 2007). The permanent problem with all such ‘earth science’ modelling approaches is that it uses global data sets which must be ‘downscaled’ to local regions. No matter how sophisticated they are claimed to be by their inventors and sponsors, such models can only work with regular and large sets of well-scrubbed data that have been collected the same way over a long period of time and recorded reliably. This may serve a ‘global’ model (which is irrelevant to us in the districts) but in almost every single case of ‘downscaling’, a scaling down may make a smattering of sense if there is some comparable data relating to the region for which the scaling is taking place. And this correlation, I can assure you, is not possible 99 times out of 100.

But that doesn’t bother the ADB, because it is a bank, it must find a way for Asian countries to agree to taking loans that help them mitigate the effects of rampaging climate change, as this report tries to convince us about from 2030 to 2050 and 2080 (by which time those who have cashed in their climate technology transfer stock options will have passed on). Which is why the ADB has said its unimpeachable analysis is based on “a three-step modeling approach” and this is “(i) regional climate modeling (ii) physical impact assessment, and (iii) economic assessment”, the last aspect being what they’re betting the thermometer on.

The numbers that have emerged from the ADB’s computable general equilibrium model must be satisfyingly enormous to the bank’s thematic project directors and country directors. For the scenario modellers have provided the ammunition for the bank to say: “The region requires funding with the magnitude of 1.3% of GDP on average per annum between 2010 and 2050 under the business-as-usual-1 scenario. The cost could rise to up to 2.3% (upper range) of GDP per annum taking into account climate uncertainties. To avoid climate change impact under the business-as-usual-2 scenario, adaptation cost of around $73 billion per annum on the average is required between now and 2050.”

I could not, in this needlessly dense and poorly written volume, find a mention of which rice strains have been measured for their yields in the example given for India, when the ADB report makes some dire forecasts about how yields will be lowered or will plunge under several forecast conditions. Perhaps they were buried in some footnote I have overlooked, but considering that the International Rice Research Institute (one of the more dangerous CGIAR monster institutes) has in its genebank more than 40,000 varieties from India, and considering that rice conservationist Debal Deb cultivates 920 varieties himself, the ADB (and its modelling troupe) talking about rice ‘yield’ means nothing without telling us which variety in which region. And that sort of negligence naturally leads me to ask what sort of thermometers they consulted while assembling these models. [This is also posted at India Climate Portal.]

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