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To discipline a rogue ministry

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On 23 March, Ministry of Environment, Government of India, issued a draft notification, called the Environment Impact Assessment Notification, under the Environment Protection Act of 1986. This draft notification brought in proposed changes to the way environmental clearance for projects (industrial, infrastructure, commercial) would be given and changes to violations and transgressions of rules and regulations.

Whether the ministry, as ministries usually are, was partly or not at all in possession of its wits at the time is not known, because it gave Indian citizens 60 days to read the draft notification (83 pages) and reply with objections and suggestions, and when the national ‘lock down’ was announced the next evening, remained silent about the 60 days, until 11 April, when the draft was published in the official gazette.

How were people expected to read, analyse, discuss and respond to the notification when they were locked down and fearful? The ministry wasn’t bothered. How were people already affected by the many projects all over India that have degraded their natural habitats to take stock of the new measures? Not our problem, was the ministry’s attitude.

On 7 May, two weeks before the expiry of the deadline for citizens to write in with their objections and suggestions, the ministry relented, and then only because of the outcry over issuing an important draft notification during a ‘lock down’. The deadline was pushed back to 30 June, with the usual ‘cover my backside’ language that bureaucrats use because they know no other: “The Ministry is in receipt of several representations for extending the notice period expressing concern that the draft EIA Notification 2020 was published during the lockdown imposed due to the Corona Virus (COVID-19) pandemic. Therefore, the Ministry after due consideration, deems it fit to extend the notice period …”

I have sent in my objections, and there are many. The only suggestion I have is that they all be sacked and have their pensions and gratuity cancelled, but I have not included that in my reply because it is off topic. Here’s the opening section:

“There have been more than 39 amendments and 250 office memorandums diluting the EIA 2006 Notification. The primary work of a ministry of environment is protection of our natural habitat in all its forms and for all the benefits it gives us. The responsibilities given to the ministry devolve from the citizens, from the many living beings that inhabit our natural habitats and especially from the spiritual and philosophical guidance given to us by previous generations about our prakruti, that is, nature in all its forms as it exists and in all the forms it must reach unhindered by our activities. I remind the MoEF&CC is reminded of this responsibility.

“Any change to existing law or regulation under the purview of the ministry, and amendment or addition, has perforce to continue to adhere to the principle and the scope of the responsibility, considered in its widest sense, that the ministry bears.

“At the same time, I remind the ministry that its responsibilities are defined administratively, as part of the institutions of governance of the state, and in accordance with the inalienable rights of the citizens of India, present and future, to enjoy our natural habitats and derive from it benefits, that in no way diminish the natural habitats, that relate to their health and bodily well-being, their spiritual and psychological well-being, their livelihood and household economic activities which are conducted by responsible dependence on the natural habitat.

“Therefore, the full scope of environmental responsibility includes all citizens of India, a pool of knowledge and practice that, under the principles just outlined, is manifold greater than that which can be commanded by the ministry. I remind the ministry that it is fundamental to understand and explicitly recognise this difference in scope of responsibilities.”

Here is my full reply to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change on its draft EIA notification 2020.

Written by makanaka

June 29, 2020 at 15:18

The year of the mask

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'Safe Dream' by Alex Falcó Chang

Illustration by Alex Falcó Chang, courtesy Cartoon Movement

Psychologically, the face mask is a powerful prop. Flimsy and cheap, when it is worn, it tells the wearer that he or she is separated from all others whoever they are, family or strangers or colleagues. The mask wearer is reminded, every day and as many times a day as the television is switched on, that the mask is one’s protection against the deadly virus.

The face mask does more than this. It covers completely the mouth and chin and most of the wearer’s cheeks. These are what we use to signal to each other, through a great variety of smiles and grimaces, how we feel and how we empathise and how we laugh. The face mask has blocked these, just as surely as it is claimed to block a virus.

The masked society, fearful, with visible emotions trussed up, shuffling around to maintain, in obedience to unseen and unknown experts, the invisible boundaries called social distancing, has in the short space of 60 days, replaced the society that came before it.

This is called ‘new normal’. It is new, yes, but it cannot be anything except extremely abnormal. Not for a moment, 60 days ago, did I think India’s unruly and complex myriad of societies would obey and comply. But they did and they have.

How did this happen?

Around the end of January, a case of coronavirus infection was reported by the press. Between then and the middle of March, India barrelled along happily, perhaps in search of the tryst with the five trillion dollar economy. Elsewhere, the condition we would come to know as ‘lock down’ was being enforced.

On the evening of 24 March, ‘lock down’ came to India. The corona had landed.

By the second week of April, the face mask had become the equivalent of the identity pass. Policemen at road corners wore them, black ones. So did the Central Reserve Police Force who had been brought in to enforce the lock down. The few pharmacies that were open had no more to sell. I used a large handkerchief for severals days, like many others.

In our housing block, I spotted other residents, at times in their balconies, sometimes at a window, with masks. Why had they tied masks inside their homes, I wondered, where did they think the coronavirus was going to attack them from? Most of Goa, where I live, is a rural landscape. Rice fields, coconut and arecanut orchards, low coastal hills with light mixed forest, village settlements whose residential density is very low. With road borders between states shut, where do these people think the virus is going to travel from?

Televisions in most homes were switched on (are still switched on) all day. We don’t have one at home, haven’t had one for many years. From what I saw and heard, glimpses and short audio snatches of news bulletins caught from loud TVs on lower floors, there was nothing but coronavirus on every channel, every language. The children who would every evening gather in the building compound to play, were absent. The elderly folk, who took their morning and evening walks along the narrow green strips by the boundary walls, were absent. There was silence and stillness. You could sense the fear.

But outside, everything that normally ran, trotted, flew and crawled and wasn’t human was busy. Even more so, with every single open space traversed by humans now entirely free of them. The coastal skies that are usually clear and lucent, so unlike the soupy brown miasma of the cities, were now even more so. The winds blew in fresh from the sea. It was the perfect tonic for health. Yet it was the opposite that had been ordained, through two central acts. Remain indoors, shun the life-giving sunlight. Remain masked, repel the vital force that is clean air.

We had survived the first eight days of lockdown on the meagre stores at home. I say survived because the worry for those first eight days was not a virus, however malignant, but the shortage of food all over the state of Goa. Why was there no food to be had? Because the state government had issued orders that all shops, large or small, which sold any food staples must not open. Looking back at those anxiety-ridden days, I see that as having been the first sign of the hallucinations that had gripped administrations, whether in a state or in the central government. Nothing was allowed to open, not even the humblest kirana shop selling biscuits and wafers. We ate two spare meals a day.

The mask is worn by some as if it is a badge, to mean that you are fully conversant and up-to-date with the latest guidelines broadcast by your state government on saving yourself, that you are responsible about your family’s health, that you are a participant in how ‘India fights corona’. By others, it is tied perfunctorily, yet another demand by the authorities for which a minimal fulfilment threshold is calculated so that one may carry on – as far as it is possible to carry on – with a business, a trade, a profession, a wage earning activity, a family duty.

Policemen applied choke-holds to road junctions. They swung their lathis indiscriminately at youth who still thought they could contract theselves out for a day of labour and earn a wage, they swung their lathis at ragpickers. They swung their lathis at sons taking a parent to a clinic or a hospital, not knowing whether it was open or whether there would be a doctor in attendance, for every kind of complaint other than those said to be caused by the corona virus.

Illustration by Marco de Angelis, courtesy Cartoon movement

Illustration by Marco de Angelis, courtesy Cartoon movement

They swung once at me, and I avoided the blow by accelerating my scooter out of reach. That is when I learnt that what the state had enforced was not a ‘lock down’, it was the mandatory incarceration of the healthy, it was the criminalisation of all movement by the citizen, with full and final interpretation of the extraordinary powers given left to the masked visage and twitching lathi-hand of the sub-inspector you were unlucky enough to have run into.

Pharmacies had no more masks. If you could get to one, and if it was open, they told you there were no masks, while wearing one themselves. Perhaps they needed to wear such masks, I had reasoned to myself, since if they come face to face with people who come looking for medication, they they should protect themselves from someone who just may be carrying the virus.

Looking back at that first week of April, I find that was the only time – two days when I set off on scooter-borne reconnaisance for pharmacies with shutters open, my face below my spectacles wrapped in a handkerchief tied behind my head – that I was sympathetic to the notion that an epidemic was sweeping through India.

It was the new atmosphere, one never before experienced by us, that made us believe the very currents of air could be hijacked by a malevolent virus. And this was north Goa, whose villages are sparsely populated, whose landscapes are those of fallow fields awaiting the rain so that rice can be grown in them, of coconut orchards, of hillsides covered with jambul, mango, silk cotton, moringa, tamarind and jackfruit trees.

Until then, we would rise at dawn and would set off looking for vegetables, milk, bread and whatever else we could purchase from villagers – from our own and in neighbouring villages – who had something to sell. I worried constantly about petrol for the scooter, for the little more than half a tank of fuel would not run the engine for more than a week. When raw foodstuffs became less scarce, I was able to consider again the messages about the epidemic, our environment, and what more than half a lifetime of experience seemed to point to.

Even until mid-March, mornings were cool till about 9 am, and evenings were pleasant as soon as the sun dipped behind the low coastal hills directly to the west. But seven or eight days into April, the mid-day sun had pushed the temperature above 30 celsius, humidity was rising and the winds from the sea began to blow with the gentle insistence that, by early June, would become the tile-rattling, whistling-through-window-cracks force that was the harbinger of monsoon.

One of those mornings, a peacock (for there are many which roost in the nearby hill) alit at the end of its long shallow flight from a perch on a tree and into the grass of the fallow rice field. The heavy bird touched down in the somewhat ungainly run and as it did so, a few puffs of dust rose up in its trail.

That is the sight which led directly to form the question which had shimmered, like a wraith, above the daily roll-call of news about the ‘global pandemic’ and ‘India’s epidemic’. How could any virus that they say can be airborne, and can be infectious after travelling along air currents, survive in our conditions? Doesn’t sunlight, direct and now unfiltered by smog and industrial emissions, end its career? Doesn’t its exposure to the open sky and breezes, which carry a myriad organisms, become a risk to its own survival? Does not the daily rise in the average temperature, fraction by fraction of a degree celsius, shorten its infectious life?

The home page of the Press Information Bureau, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, has created several special sections only on covid19. India’s existing disease burden has not been treated in anything like the same way ever since the PIB went online.

The emails I sent with these and other questions to the Indian Council of Medical Research have remained unanswered since the middle of April. A month later, I could see why. The ICMR was doing nothing other than covid19. It had replaced its website home page with a covid-only page that was crammed full of test data, cases data, testing protocols and instructions to testing laboratories.

It looked very convincingly like a specialised health agency’s war room against the great menacing power of the global pandemic. That is exactly what it is meant to look like, for the central government’s own information and public broadcasting units were blaring out, with social media-ready hash tags ‘India fights corona’.

I could see what was occupying the ICMR scientists and administrators full time. They were producing guidelines and protocols at the rate of two and three a week: ‘Specimen Referral Form (SRF) ID information for COVID-19 (SARS-CoV2), in RT-PCR app’, ‘Standard guidelines for Medico-legal autopsy in COVID-19 deaths in India 2020’, ‘Revised Strategy for COVID19 testing in India (Version 5)’, ‘Advisory for use of Cartridge Based Nucleic Acid Amplification Test (CBNAAT) using Cepheid Xpert Xpress SARS-CoV2’, ‘Performance evaluation of commercial kits for real time PCR for COVID-19 by ICMR identified validation centres’, ‘List of IgG ELISA kits for COVID-19 validated by ICMR identified validation centres’, ‘ICMR Specimen Referral Form for COVID-19 (SARS-CoV2)’, ‘ICMR-DCGI Guidelines for Validation and Batch Testing of COVID-19 Diagnostic Kits’, ‘Establishing of a network of Biorepositories in India’.

All very impressive, all unquestionably showing the country’s premier medical research agency in the best light possible for being technically on the ball, all showing that India’s handling of the virological and epidemiological aspects of the dreaded pandemic is at par internationally with the best.

By the first week of May the effects of the around-the-clock barrage of fear-mongering by the media, television and print, with both making heavy use of their social media channels, started becoming noticeable. In my home state of Goa, I began seeing residents of our village attaching masks to their ears or tied behind their heads even while walking on interior roads or, more commonly, while on scooters and motorcycles. Our village roads aren’t city throughfares. If one isn’t driving past a house and garden every now and then, or a small apartment block, one is usually skirting a hill slope thick with vegetation or a cocnut orchard or a rice field. It was peak summer, the afternoon winds were strong, the swiftly moving air was full of all manner of microscopic objects swept up from the fields and blasted out from the orchards.

Every single time I was out, either on my scooter looking for provisions or taking an evening walk, I looked at fellow village residents (with a few honourable exceptions) their faces masked and harassed. Did they really think the coronavirus was lying in wait above them on the mango tree waiting to strike? Did they really think it was riding a fragment of dried leaf and would launch itself at them as soon as it flew past?

A few of the conversations I pursued told me that their fear had invented a life of its own. “Better to be safe no? Who can say?” “Don’t go out of the house mama, my daughter in the Gulf told me, you can catch it anywhere.” “Yesterday on TV they showed so many new cases in Mumbai. Better nobody comes from Mumbai here to Goa, then we’ll be safe.” This was new to me. Village folk are amongst the most practical of people, stubborn about what they hold to be true and stubborn about what they’re sure is untrue. They’ll give you an ear but not their agreement. They make up their own minds in their own time, preferring to be guided by the signs and symbols they find in the natural world around them.

The Mumbai municipal corporation got into the act, two acts, one the Epidemic Disease Act 1897 and Disaster Management Act 2005, to threaten doctors with the cancellation of their license to practice. Ergo, medical martial law

But this too had changed. Had I underestimated greatly the power of 24-hour television, and the social media rumour mill that reaches everyone with a smartphone? Yes I had. Nor were the Goans of my village exceptional. For by that first week of May, the national news media had begun to run news reports about what I recognised as a new behaviour, a phenomenon given the name ‘covid vigilantism’ in the west and in USA.

It wasn’t long before I saw it wielded here too. “Kindly place your mask properly” I was told curtly by a supermarket orderly one day. “No mask no service” I was told while waiting in a queue of scooter to fill petrol in mine. But it’s hot and we’re outdoors and there’s a breeze blowing, I argued. It was no use. “Put on mask or no petrol”. And one morning while waiting outside a groceries store one morning to buy milk, with no more than two other people nearby, a priggish young man smug in his fashionable mask barked “Please practice social distancing”. Practice social distancing? Whatever did that mean and what sort of language is that anyway?

The two organisations that are assumed to be advising the central government’s cabinet ministers and the prime minister’s office on coronavirus are the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and the Indian Council of Medical Research.

The Ministry has a union minister (Harsh Vardhan, with five staff), a minister of state (Ashwini Kumar Choubey, with four staff), a secretary of health and family welfare (Preeti Sudan, with three staff), a special secretary (Arun Singhal), three additional secretaries (Dharmendra Singh Gangwar, Arti Ahuja, Vandana Gurnani), thirteen joint secretaries (Vandana Jain, Preeti Pant, Sudhir Kumar, Rekha Shukla, Vikash Sheel, Nipun Vinayak, Sunil Sharma, Lav Agarwal, Alok Saxena, Manohar Agnani, Mandeep Kumar Bhandari, Gayatri Mishra, Padmaja Singh), an officer on special duty (Sudhansh Pant), two economic advisers (Preeti Nath, Nilambuj Sharan), and five senior official posts (chief controller of accounts, director, two deputy directors general, chief director).

The ICMR has 28 institutes all over India with a headquarters in Delhi. It has on its rolls a total of 153 Council scientists (separately, each institute and the centre has its own complement of scientific staff). Their domains of work include allergies, immunology, antimicrobial diseases, bio-statistics, biochemistry and molecular biology, bioinformatics, malaria and dengue, cardiovascular diseases, epidemiology, clinical medicine, communicable diseases, non-communicable diseases, vector borne diseases, zoonotic diseases, epigenetics and endocrinology, genomics and molecular medicine, cellular and molecular biology, kala-azar, leprosy and tuberculosis, maternal and child health, oncology, pharmacology, parasitology, vector biology and control, virology.

What did they understand about this thing called covid19, what advice were they giving the central and state governments, what were they communicating to the 1.3 billion Indians whose lives had been turned utterly upside down?

Written by makanaka

May 23, 2020 at 23:35

Hindu ‘ganita’ and the maximum number

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Ganita‘ literally means “the science of calculation” and is the Hindu name for mathematics. The term is a very ancient one and occurs copiously in Vedic literature. The Vedanga Jyotisa (about 1200 BCE) gives it the highest place of honour among the sciences which form the Vedanga: “As the crests of peacocks, as the gems on the hoods of snakes, so is ganita at the top of the sciences known as the Vedanga.”

भारतीय ज्योतिष का इतिहास

Books such as भारतीय ज्योतिष का इतिहास (Bharatiya Jyotish Ka Itithas) by Gorakh Prasad (published 1956 by the Publications Bureau of the state government of Uttar Pradesh), have been shunted to the sidelines, or entirely out, of curricula. Jyotish (ज्योतिष) and Ganita (गणित) are inseparable.

The appreciation of mathematics, although it comes at a much later time than the time of the Vedic literature, is from Mahavira (CE 850) a towering mathmatician of his time: “In relation to the movements of the sun and other heavenly bodies, in connection with eclipses and conjunctions of planets, and in connection with the triprasna (direction, position and time) and the course of the moon, indeed in all these it is utilised. The number, the diameter and the perimeter of islands, oceans and mountains, the extensive dimensions of the rows of habitations and halls belonging to the inhabitants of the word, of the interspace between the worlds, of the world of light, of the world of the gods and of the dwellers in hell, and other miscellaneous measurements of all sorts, all these are made out by the help of ganita.” (In the Ganita-sara-samgraha of Mahavira, Rangacharya’s edition.)

It is characteristic of India that from a very early date there were long series of number names for very high numerals. While the Greeks had no terminology for denominations above the ‘myriad‘ (10^4), and the Romans above the ‘mille‘ (10^3), the ancient Hindus dealt freely with no less than 18 denominations. In modern times also, the numeral language of no other civilisation is as scientific and perfect as that of the Hindus.

In the Yajurveda Samhita (यजुर्वेद संहिता) (Vajasaneyi वाजसनेयी) the following list of numeral denominations is given: eka (1), dasa (10), sata (100), sahasra (1,000), ayuta (10,000), niyuta (100,000), prayuta (1,000,000), arbuda (10,000,000), nyarbuda (100,000,000), samudra (1,000,000,000), madhya (10,000,000,000), anta (100,000,000,000), parardha (1,000,000,000,000).

The same list occurs at two places in the Taittiriya Samhita (तैत्तिरिय संहिता). The Maitrayani (मैत्रयनि संहिता) and Kathaka Samhitas (कथका संहिता) contain the same list with minor alterations. The Pancavimsa Brahmana has the Yajurveda list up to nyarbuda inclusive, and then follows nikharva, vadava, aksiti. The Sankhyayana Srauta Sutra continues the series after nyarbuda with nikharva, samudra, salila, antya and ananta (10 billion). Each of these denominations is ten times the preceding one, so that they were aptly called dasagunottara samjna.

Pythagoras and Boethius

In this painting called ‘Arithmetica’, by Gregor Reisch (CE 1503), Boethius, a 5th century translator of works of Greek logic and mathematics, and Pythagoras (about about 569-570 BCE) are engaged in a mathematical competition. Pythagoras uses an abacus, while Boethius uses “numerals from India”. Boethius looks very proud, he is ready while Pythagoras is still trying to find the solution.

In later times, about the 5th centry BCE, there is evidence of number names based on the centesimal scale (based on a 100-fold increase). A well-known Buddhist work of the 1st century BCE recounts the dialogue between Arjuna, the mathematician, and prince Gautama (as given in the Lalitavistara, ed. by Rajendra Lal Mitra, Calcutta, 1877).

The mathematician Arjuna asked him: O young man, do you know the counting which goes beyond the koti on the centesimal scale?
Gautama: Yes, I know.
Arjuna: How does the counting proceed beyond the koti on the centesimal scale?
Gautama: Hundred kotis are called ayuta, hundred ayutas a niyuta, hundred niyutas a kankara, hundred kankaras a vivaha, hundred vivahas a utsanga, hundred utsangas a bahula, hundred bahulas a nagabala, hundred nagabalas a titilambha, hundred titilambhas a vyavasthana-prajnapati, hundred vyavasthana-prajnapatis a hetuhila, hundred hetuhilas a karahu, hundred karahus a hetvindriya, hundred hetvindriyas a samapta-lambha, hundred samapta-lambhas a gananagati, hundred gananagatis a niravadya, hundred niravadyas a mudra-bala, hundred mudra-balas a sarva-bala, hundred sarva-balas a visamjna-gati, hundred visamgjna-gatis a sarvajna, hundred sarvajnas a vibhutangama, hundred vibhutangamas a tallaksana.

Thus a tallaksana is 10^53 and this example shows that the Hindus anticipated Archimedes by several centuries in the matter of evolving a series of number names which “are sufficient to exceed not only the number of a sand heap as large as the whole earth, but one as large as the universe.” (Smith and Karpinski, ‘Hindu Arabic Numerals’, 1911).

In the Anuyogadvara-sutra (circa 100 BC), a Jaina canonical work, the total number of human beings in the world is given thus: “a number which when expressed in terms of the denominations, koti-koti, etc, occupies 29 places (sthana), or it is beyond the 24th place and within the 32nd place, or it is a number obtained by multiplying sixth square (of two) by (its) fifth square (2^96) or it is a number which can be divided by two 96 times.”

In most of the mathematical works, the denominations are called ‘names of places’, and 18 of these are generally enumerated. Sridhara (CE 750) gives the folowing names: eka, dasa, sata, shasra, ayuta, laksa, prayuta, koti, arbuda, abja, kharva, nikharva, mahasaroja, sanku, sarita-pati, antya, madhya, parardha and adds that the names proceed even beyond this. Mahavira (CE 850) gives 24 notational places: eka, dasa, sata, shasra, dasa-sahasra, laksa, dasa-laksa, koti, dasa-koti, sata-koti, arbuda, nyarbuda, kharva, mahakharva, padma, mahapadma, ksoni, mahaksoni, sankha, mahasankha, ksiti, mahaksiti, ksobha, mahaksobha.

My reference for this short note on the greatness of Hindu ganita is the ‘History of Hindu Mathematics, A Source Book’, by Bibhutibhushan Datta and Avadhesh Narayan Singh, Lucknow, 1935.

And finally, Pierre-Simon Laplace, the French mathematician, astronomer and physicist (1749-1827) on Hindu mathematics: “The ingenious method of expressing every possible number using a set of ten symbols (each symbol having a place value and an absolute value) emerged in India. The idea seems so simple nowadays that its significance and profound importance is no longer appreciated. Its simplicity lies in the way it facilitated calculation and placed arithmetic foremost amongst useful inventions. the importance of this invention is more readily appreciated when one considers that it was beyond the two greatest men of antiquity, Archimedes and Apollonius.”

Written by makanaka

March 1, 2020 at 20:57

Posted in history

Tagged with , ,

India’s material burden, gigantic and unseen

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Mumbai, view from a descending aircraft

Mumbai as seen from an aircraft coming in to land. Neither city households nor wards care about the material throughput they cause and live with every day, week, month. Electricity and water, packaging and food, all contribute to the household footprint.

Should a trend continue as it has done for the last ten years, then in February or March of 2021 India’s annual extraction of material will cross 7.5 billion tons. It was in 2011, only eight years ago, that the country’s material extraction had crossed six billion tons. This stupendous mass comprises what are called non-metallic minerals, most of it limestone, structural clays, and the several kinds of mixtures of sand, gravel and crushed rock that are used for construction, which in 2017 amounted to an estimated 3.2 billion tons.

[This article was published in The New Indian Express.]

There was biomass, by which is meant harvested crops – foodgrain, horticultural crops, pulses, sugarcane and plantation crops – and crop residues, both straw and leaves, which was an estimated 2.8 billion tons (sugarcane accounting for nearly 370 million tons), coal of 732 million tons and wood of an estimated 242 million tons (of which about 210 million tons were used as fuel). Collated from data provided by national agencies, the International Resource Panel of UN Environment maintains the material use profiles of nearly every country.

Apportioned by household, at the beginning of 2020 this vast material budget can be atomised to about 26 tons for each, in much the same way as per capita income is calculated, as a notional distribution, for each individual of India. Yet material allocation is a measure that, for all its tangible bulk, is treated as nearly invisible. Money and income, wages and savings, credit and assets are calculated and assessed to the third decimal by the financial services industry. But there is no corresponding industry to measure, assess and pronounce upon the solvency of the material intake of a household, whether in quintals or in kilograms, whether as fluid diesel or as grain or as burnt brick.

When it comes to the physical basis for the household’s shelter, its roster of daily consumption, the durable goods purchased and disposed of, its tribe of electronic gadgets, there is no literacy effort to be found run by any industry, or by government, or even by centres of higher education. The Indian household – whether amongst the estimated 96 million in urban centres or the 183 million in villages – is transiting from circumspection born of scarcity to profligacy in material accumulation.

Landscape of Pondicherry region from aircraft

The forms and vegetal densities of a typical ruralscape of coastal Tamil Nadu, this being near Pondicherry. Unlike the overground forms of a town, here there is no disharmony. Dwellings, orchards, crop fields, bunds, tracks, ponds all blend in material balance.

That the consequences of such a trend cannot be contained or managed in a meaningful way was already being signalled to us a generation ago, when our mega-metropolises (cities and adjacent urban agglomerations with a combined population of 10 million and more) found no alternative to the small hills of refuse and compacted rubbish that towered over some unfortunate outlying ward. Those hills have only become larger at a faster pace, and they are joined – as a new category of topological landform – by the waste and rubbish pits (‘landfills’ in the American vernacular) that the great majority of our class 1 cities (population of 100,000 and more) turn to as their means to deal with the accumulation of unwanted material.

How did the material burden of our settlements grow so quickly? Part of the reason must be ascribed to the collective race away from poverty, both monetary and of basic goods. It is rare to find today a discussion about whether a poverty line is reasonable or not, although a generation ago it was an important subject just as it was in the previous generation. The race has been set as one by the intentions and terminologies of a kind of economics based almost wholly on the concept of development. Thus one of the standard references for many years, the Cambridge Economic History of India, advised that “the declared goals of development policy were to bring about a rapid increase in living standards, provide full employment at an adequate wage, and reduce inequalities arising from the uneven distribution of income and wealth.”

Yet the development policies of the socialists, of those who designed the ‘command economy’, of the licence raj mandarins, of the globalisers, of the commodities capitalists, of the services barons, of the infotech-biotech persuasions, not one of these policy pathways has advised where sufficiency lies, and what to do after we have consumed our way out of poverty and into maintenance. None of these can, because ‘growth’ and market control is the engine that motivates their methods. Sufficiency – or consumption stability – also has the accompanying corollaries of societies making purchases last (by repairing and reusing them) and not purchasing at all.

A closer look at the Beed syndrome

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The villages of Ashti taluka, Beed district, arranged by indices of land sufficiency and usage

New indicators and measures are needed if we are to better understand how villages allocate and use land, and whether their households survive or thrive through such use.

There is a great diversity of practices concerning the environment and land within the administrative unit we call a district. A typical district of India is often more than 10,000 square kilometres and will be divided into a number of talukas or tehsils – it could be eight or less, it could be 15 or more.

As a district like Beed has many hundreds of gramas – it has 1,368 gramas (11 uninhabited) by the count of Census 2011 – the local practices of land management, cultivation, maintaining micro watersheds, administering pastures and grazing lands, following the traditions of handicrafts, hand weaves and village industries, are many and only cursorily documented if at all they are.

The Beed syndrome – of the rapid change in crop choice and its impact on land use – is a sum of its parts. While those parts have as much to do with the physical characteristics, they have also to do with behaviours, perceptions and choices. But for the latter kind of factors there is hardly any data. For physical uses and changes, there is data (as I showed in the linked post).

Just as districts are the sum of diverse talukas (and towns) so too talukas are the sum of villages. With 176 gramas, the taluka of Ashti has a diversity of knowledge systems enough to occupy a bus-load of social scientists for a decade, if only they would be interested enough to visit what sounds like a humdrum taluka in a hot and dusty zilla of Maharashtra.

Beed district map with talukasThe land use and crop choice changes in Beed are the result of a widespread change. But with a district of this complexity – 1,368 gramas, 11 talukas, 9 towns, 534,278 households with a population of 2,585,049 – how feasible is it to identify the major factors among several that have caused such change?

My attempt in these posts is to show, through the available data at taluka and grama levels, that tracing such changes is possible, and that a new, quite different, set of measures should be adopted if district administrations and other planning bodies are to look ahead, two to three generations ahead, and provide guidance.

Ashti taluka mapTurning more locally to Ashti, one of Beed’s 11 talukas, I found using the Census 2011 data (the District Census Handbook and its detailed tables) that it is in terms of area the second largest taluka (after Beed taluka). Its population count of 243,607 places it as 7th among Beed’s 11 talukas (it was at this rank within the district by Census 2001 data too).

What has changed in Ashti is that whereas in 2001 the entire population of the taluka was rural, Census 2011 had Ashti town as home to 11,972 urban residents (just under 5% of the taluka population).

Through a first extraction of the District Census Handbook data I found that Ashti’s villages are by no means homogenous. They vary widely by population, land use and sown area.

To better illustrate how the changes in The Beed syndrome came about, for the examination of taluka-level data I am creating a new ratios and indicator types, a few of which I have applied to Ashti (and will extend the application to the other 10 talukas of Beed).

The grama level data is extensive and for my purposes I selected population, spatial area, number of households and net area sown. How varied the gramas are for each of these can be seen in the adjoining table.

Variations apart, since Census 2011 allows us to see the ways in which collections of even 200 households use land, decide labour and secure their food, I calculated the following: (1) percentage of sown area (hectares under cultivation) to total village area, (2) number of households per hectare of sown area (hectare under cultivation). This let me see at the grama level how critical cultivated land was to the household and grama economy through the percentage of total, and how well each hectare was being utilised by very broadly finding out how many household ‘units’ the hectare was supporting.

The main chart I drew therefore plots the gramas using both these – a ratio and an indicator. These is in the chart a density of gramas in the south-eastern quadrant. More pertinently, the densest concentration of the gramas of Ashti taluka occur within and near the grid square that reads 2 to 3 households per cultivated hectare and 75% to 80% of the grama land being under cultivation. (There are a few other zones of concentration but this is the heaviest.)

Written by makanaka

December 25, 2019 at 20:50

The Beed syndrome

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Outline of Beed district, Maharashtra

Outline of Beed district, Maharashtra: 11 talukas, 1,368 villages and population of 2.585 million in 2011.

Wandering through the rural districts of Maharashtra as a teenager I can recall well how villages were laid out, as collections of homes and in also in relation to the fields and natural features nearby. These early impressions were strengthened by travels over the years, in neighbouring states (Gujarat, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh) and a window seat in a state transport bus was the best vantage point to have to watch how the landscape unfolded and how it was being attended to.

Outside the ‘circle’ of dwellings and small institutional buildings (school, public health centre, panchayat block, mandir) – ‘circle’ is not the typical shape, which is irregular and in our motorised time follows more the alignment of a panchayat road than the dictates of topography and planning – is the land to be looked after by the village, the ‘grama’, and which provides it sustenance of every kind.

There is the land allocated to grow crops and these provide food and are also what used to be called cash crops, there is land to be shared by those who keep cattle, buffaloes, goats and sheep so that these animals can graze, plots in which fodder is grown, there is land for orchards (such as mango, amla, guava) and land for the organised cultivation of vegetables.

There is also the land in which grow densely and undisturbed a variety of local trees and bushes, and which may be called forested or wooded. These tracts are just as important to the grama as are the cultivated fields and grazing grounds, for they contain the wild relatives of much that grows in the precincts of the grama and offer to the husbanded animals varieties of grasses and plants that the ruminants seek at certain times. The forested area may or may not include a sacred grove (guarded by snakes that are well respected).

There are the waterforms – ponds and tanks, natural channels for monsoon streams and a few shallow-cut and narrow canals from which water is shared, several low check dams used to impound water at the start of a growing season, and dug wells, some of which are indeed old and lined with stone from earlier eras. (The pumpset and borewell have dramatically disturbed and altered the grama’s relation with water and the meanings of its waterforms, and what I saw in the late 1970s has mostly vanished.)

How these different uses of a grama’s land are decided upon by its cultivator households determines its swarajya nature – that is, its capacity to be largely independent and self-sufficient in most material needs. Whether from a bus window at a halt or when on foot, I could make out a distribution of land use that was designed to serve the ‘grama’ as wisely as possible.

Cropping pattern for Beed district

Comparing land allocated to major crop groups in Beed, 2010-11 and 1995-96, in hectares.

Ratios could perhaps have been calculated even then in the 1970s (they were done, much earlier, as large-scale and very authoritative planning guidelines in some of the princely states such as Gwalior, Mysore and Patiala). With today’s remote sensing, doing so has become very much easier while at the same time being theoretical only, the advent of ‘market forces’ having weakened the commune-like ‘grama’ social and economic structure through an appeal to the individual.

The ratios – one could see even then, 40 years ago – would vary because of the influence of three factors: the watershed or the manner in which water became manifest in the ‘grama’ precincts, the manner in which plant species dominated and were distributed together with how they were shaped by climate (‘agro-ecology’ in today’s parlance), and the soil characteristics together with the underlying shallow geological features.

How would and how did a grama respond? At the time, being observant but unschooled in such matters, I took no notes. Today, the only sources of such information are old administrative records (such as the district gazetteers of the British colonial era) and more recently the data collected by the periodic agricultural census.

Using the agricultural census data, I set out to examine if and how the land use of a district (Beed, in central Maharashtra) had changed, and in what way. Records at the level of grama cannot be found other than locally (if they have not been consumed by termites or become mouldy compost). But in the databases of the agricultural census one gets a clue of how much is changing and in what direction.

The available time-span for comparison is a small one, 1995-96 and 2010-11, these being two different agricultural census series. For Beed district, the difference in cultivated land (including that land that was fallow at the time the census was taken) was 100,000 hectares with the increase being from 903,672 hectares in 1995-96 to 1,004,006 hectares in 2010-11. This is a very large increase over so short a period and we shall see why.

The agricultural census records the distribution of land to various kinds of crops which is called a cropping pattern. Examining the cropping pattern for Beed district in 1995-96 and in 2010-11 I found several major changes. First, about 100,000 hectares had been brought under cultivation. From where? The census does not tell us. We would have to look at other records. It is likely that these new cultivation areas were earlier what are called ‘waste land’ (this is a British-era term invented to disparage grazing grounds and their importance to our desi cow).

The most striking change is the reduction, in 2010-11, by a whopping 196,879 hectares, in land used to cultivate cereals. The next big change is the addition in 2010-11 of 143,659 hectares of land given to the cultivation of fibre crops (that is, cotton). Third, is the increase by 50,365 hectares (from 15,240 in 1995-96) of land for sugarcane. And fourth are the increases by 45,617 hectares of land for pulses and by an almost similar area – 44,993 hectares – for oilseeds.

Worksheet to calculate district cropping pattern

My worksheet for the ‘Beed syndrome’

Without any other kind of information that could be used to better explain these changes, I might infer: (a) that the change in the land allocated to cereals has happened because the kisans of Beed’s gramas decided that having a surplus of cereals is not as lucrative as having a surplus of cash crops, (b) that cotton as a cash crop is the district’s most valuable ‘export’ of cultivated biomass, (c) that the more than four-fold increase in land under sugarcane means that more water has been made available for the district (as sugarcane needs more water than most crops), (d) that the central government’s programmes to increase the cultivation of pulses and of oilseeds are working well in Beed.

How tenable are these inferences? The first, about cereals, needs to be seen through the region’s cereal preferences. In Beed, like in many districts of Maharashtra and the dryland areas of the north Deccan plateau, it is jowar and bajra that are grown and eaten. By weight, jowar and bajra together account for 80% of the cereals Beed grows (about 50% jowar and 30% bajra). These are not surplus cereals but staple foods. Second, it is possible that Beed’s kisans decided that the income from their two cash crops, sugarcane and cotton, could be partly used to purchase staple cereals grown elsewhere and so balance their diet.

This needs more investigation, although my guess is that they were incorrect in their choices as sugarcane not only takes scarce water away from other needs, the political control of local sugar economies makes income from the crop volatile and unreliable. Likewise cotton, which is controlled by traders and the big players in mechanised looms – with the seeds and inputs being controlled by the biotech industry if Beed’s kisans were persuaded to choose bt cotton over desi varieties. The one bright spot is the last inference, for even today, nearly every cultivating district is deficit in pulses and every addition is a welcome one. It is the same for oilseeds (the intention being to reduce India’s import of palm oil) provided the oilseeds suit the agro-ecology and are processed and used locally.

The final aspect of this change in how Beed has allocated its cultivable land has to do with the amount of food the district’s population (that means the 11 talukas with their 1,368 gramas and eight urban centres) needs. In 1995-96 the district had 713,196 hectares of land under food crops and by 2010-11 that area had reduced to 562,029 hectares. In the other direction, in 1995-96 the district had 190,335 hectares under non-food crops and by 2010-11 that area had increased to 429,352 hectares.

Aside from calculations about yield and income, I treated this as an indicator of hectares of food growing capability per unit of population. In 1991 the district population was 1.822 million and in 2011 it was 2.585 million. The indicator I have designed is a quite simple one: food-growing hectare/consumer unit. (A consumer unit is a head of population weighted by quantity of food typically consumed, adapted from the National Sample Survey method.)

Using this indicator, the difference between 1995-96 and 2010-11 is large and stark. The 713,196 food hectares in Beed in 1995-96 provided a cultivable base of 0.47 hectare per population consumer unit. But 15 years later in 2010-11 the food hectares available was 562,029 and those provided a cultivable base of 0.26 hectare per population consumer unit.

What led to such a precipitous reduction? There could be a combination of many factors. Based on what I learned while working on a central government programme, swarajya or self-sufficiency whether for a grama or a district is never part of the intention that guides a ministry of agriculture scheme. Nor is swadeshi – that what is entirely local and indigenous as much as for a material input as for a practice.

Where Beed is concerned, with its 11 talukas there is the possibility that one or more large and more populated talukas (like Georai, Beed, Ashti) are skewing the district’s overall indicator. I will shortly, time permitting, post an update which examines the talukas (Patoda, Shirur and Manjlegaon are entirely rural) and how they contribute to (or not) the ‘Beed syndrome’.

Seeds and knowledge: how the draft seeds bill degrades both

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Rice farmer in north Goa

[ This comment is published by Indiafacts. ]

The central government has circulated the Draft Seeds Bill 2019, the text of which raises several red flags about the future of kisan rights, state responsibilities, the role of the private sector seed industry, and genetic engineering technologies.

The purpose of the 2019 draft bill is “to provide for regulating the quality of seeds for sale, import and export and to facilitate production and supply of seeds of quality and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto”. The keywords in this short statement of the draft bill’s objectives are: regulate, quality, sale, import, export.

This draft follows several earlier legislations and draft legislations in defining and treating seed as a scientific and legal object, while ignoring entirely the cultural, social, ritual and ecological aspect of seed. These earlier legal framings included the 2004 version of the same draft bill, the Protection of Plant Variety and Farmers Right Act of 2001, the 1998 Seed Policy Review Group and its recommendations (New Policy on Seed Development), the Consumer Protection Act of 1986, the National Seeds Project which began in 1967 (under assistance/direction of the World Bank), the Seeds Act of 1966 (notified in 1968, fully implemented in 1969), and the establishing of the National Seeds Corporation under the Ministry of Agriculture in 1961.

With 53 clauses spread over 10 chapters, the draft bill sees seed as being governed by a central and state committees (chapter 2), requiring registration (including a national register, chapter 3), being subject to regulation and certification (chapter 4), with other chapters on seed analysis and testing, import and export and the powers of central government. (The draft bill is available here, 68mb file.)

In such a conception of seed and the various kinds of activities that surround the idea of seed today, the draft bill reproduces a pattern that (a) has remained largely unchanged for about 60 years, and (b) is far more faithful to an ‘international’ (or western) legal interpretation of seed than it is to the Indic recognition of ‘anna‘ (and the responsibilities it entails including the non-ownership of seed).

The 2019 draft bill is attempting to address three subjects that should be dealt with separately. These are: farmers’ rights, regulation and certification, property and knowledge. Each of these exists as a subject closely connected with cultivation (krishi as expressed through the application of numerous forms of traditional knowledge) and the provision of food crops, vegetables and fruit. But that they exist today as semantic definitions in India is only because of the wholesale adoption of the industrially oriented food system prevalent in the western world (Europe, north America, OECD zone).

‘Farmers’ rights’ became a catchphrase of the environmental movement that began in the western world in the 1960s and was enunciated as a response to the chemicalisation of agriculture. When the phrase took on a legal cast, it also came to include the non-ownership and unrestricted exchange of seeds, as a means to demand its distinguishing from the corporate ownership of laboratory derived seed. But farmers’, or kisans‘, rights in India? As a result of what sort of change and as a result of what sort of hostile encirclement of what our kisans have known and practised since rice began to be cultivated in the Gangetic alluvium some eight millennia ago?

Regulation and certification (which includes the opening of a new ‘national register’ of seeds) is fundamentally an instrument of exclusion. It stems directly from the standpoint of India’s national agricultural research system, which is embodied in the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), and which is supported by the Ministry of Science and Technology and the Department of Biotechnology, and is designed to shrink the boundaries of encirclement inside which our kisans are expected to practice their art. The draft bill exempts kisans from registering their seeds in the proposed national registry and sub-registries (an expensive, onerous process designed for the corporate seed industry and their research partners) as a concession.

But in doing so the bill prepares the ground for future interpretation of ‘certified’ and ‘approved’ seed as looking only to the registers – and not kisans‘ collections – as being legitimate. This preparatory measure to exclude utterly ignores the mountainous evidence in the central government’s own possession – the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources – of the extraordinary cultivated, wild, forest and agro-ecological biodiversity of India.

In the cereals category (with 13 groups) the NBPGR gene bank lists 99,600 rice varieties, 30,000 wheat varieties, 11,000 maize, 8.075 barley varieties. In the millets category which has 11 groups there are 57,400 total varieties. How have all these – not exhaustive as they are – become known? Through the shared knowledge and wisdom of our kisans, whose continuing transmission of that knowledge is directly threatened by the provisions of the draft bill, once what they know is kept out of the proposed registers, designated as neither ‘certified’ nor ‘approved’ and turned into avidya.

Vital to regulation and certification are definitions and a prescription for what is ‘acceptable’. The bill says, “such seed conforms to the minimum limit of germination and genetic, physical purity, seed health and additional standards including transgenic events and corresponding traits for transgenic seeds specified… “. The term ‘transgenic event’ is one of the synonyms the international bio-tech industry uses to mean genetically modified. The draft bill’s definition of seed expressly includes ‘synthetic seeds’.

The aspect of property and knowledge taken by the draft bill is as insidious as the brazen recognition of GM technology and produce. The taking of such an aspect also signals that the bill’s drafters have side-stepped or ignored even the weak provisions in international law and treaties concerning agriculture and biodiversity which oblige signatory countries to protect the traditional and hereditary customary rights of cultivators and the protection of biodiversity. These include the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV, 1961, revised in 1972, 1978 and 1991), the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture and Food (ITPGRFA, 2001), and the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Nagoya Protocol (entered into force in 2014).

Aside from the desultory and perfunctorily monitored obligations placed upon India by these and other international and multi-lateral treaties that have to do with agriculture and biodiversity, the draft bill aggressively seeks to promote not only the import and export of ‘approved’ seeds (including seeds that are the result of GM and later gene editing bio-technologies), it submits the interpretation of its provisions to sanctioned committees and sub-committees which by design will be controlled by the the twinned proponents of industrial and technology-centric agriculture: the ICAR and supporting government agencies, and the food-seed-fertiliser-biotech multinational corporations and their subsidiaries in India.

Very distant indeed is the intent of this draft bill – and of India’s administrative and scientific cadres for the last three generations – from the consciousness that was given to us in our shruti: “Harness the ploughs, fit on yokes, now that the womb of the earth is ready, sow the seed therein, and through our praise, may there be abundant food, may grain fall ripe towards the sickle” (Rgveda 10.101.3)

यु॒नक्त॒ सीरा॒ वि यु॒गा त॑नुध्वं कृ॒ते योनौ॑ वपते॒ह बीज॑म् ।

गि॒रा च॑ श्रु॒ष्टिः सभ॑रा॒ अस॑न्नो॒ नेदी॑य॒ इत्सृ॒ण्य॑: प॒क्वमेया॑त् ॥३॥

A lost vocabulary of cultivation

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Even until just about one hundred years ago – which is a trifling length of time for a civilisation such as ours whose record of cultivation goes back to some eight millennia before the Common Era – there was in the drier regions of Maharashtra a very vivid vocabulary to describe soils, and a very large glossary to describe the tools and implements required for agriculture. But modern India has caused a great portion of the vocabulary used in agriculture to be lost.

In the district of Ahmednagar, the three chief soils used to be called kali or black, tambat or red, and barad or gray including pandhri or white. The sub-types of these soils were numerous and the names used for the major divisions and their many sub-types differed from one taluka to another. There used to be known three divisions of the kali or black soil. There was black cotton soil but in Ahmadnagar this was more suited for wheat than for cotton. There was also a clayey loam soil called khalga, easier to work than the black soils and which was apt to cake in the rains and to crack in the hot weather. There was also a light soil or sandy loam called chopan, but which although light-coloured was not classified with the pandhri group.

A kind of soil very well suited for horticulture – which used to be commonly known as ‘garden crops’ during my grand-father’s generation – was called munjal, deep, rich, reddish and alluvial in some of the river basins. A friable soil, it wanted less moisture than others and could be more easily worked than others. Then there were the many tracts of poorer soil, flats of murum or gravelly land and khadkal or stony land. Bare ridges or water partings separating small streams were called mal, or upland.

Some of the late 10th century Bombay Presidency (British era) sub-divisions of Ahmednagar, such as Parner, Nagar, Shrigonda and Karjat, with cross-ranges of hills, were known for deep-soiled tablelands called pathar. The variety of landforms also hid, here and there, a few favoured plots of rich and moist alluvial soil called dheli. That we have such descriptions is due in no small part to the detail found in the district gazetteers, and I have been able to elaborate the names of soils and agricultural implements by referring to the 1884 Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency, volume XVII on Ahmednagar.

A detailed table from the 1884 Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency, volume XVII on Ahmednagar.

All cultivated land in Ahmadnagar used to be considered under the two great categories and they were jirayat which is dry crop and bagayat which is watered. The jirayat lands were either kharif (sown with early crops) or rabi (sown with late crops). Early crops were sown in June or July and reaped at the end of August, or in October or November. Late crops were sown in October and November and reaped in February and March.

The great variety of soils, the land forms in which they were found, determined the draught power and the kind of tilling, ploughing and levelling implements to be employed. Four or five generations ago, it required one to five pairs of bullocks – and sometimes in stiff soils as many as six and eight pairs – to drag a plough. Whereas in easier soils a pair of bullocks with a light plough would suffice, on stiff soils it used to be a common sight to see even 10 or 12 bullocks labouring heavily as they slowly dragged the big plough after them. Normally, a farming household kept one pair of bullocks, with the extra pairs as required borrowed and likewise their own lent out as needed.

The chief field-tools were the plough (nangar), the harrow (aut, vakhar, or kulav), the bullock-hoe (kulpa or joli), the drill (tiphan, moghad, or pabhar), the beam-harrow (phula or maing), the seed-harrow (rakhia or pharat), and the cart or gada. The plough or nangar used to be made from tough babul (acacia) wood. Naturally, the very large number of implements essential for cultivation kept busy an industry of village repairmen, as skilled with wood species as they were with metalcraft (the shoe of the plough was iron).

[Photograph: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London, ref PH.1269-1908]

Misreading monsoon

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Satellite image of evening cloud cover on 15 May 2019

As usual in May, there is a welter of forecasts and opinions about the monsoon, the great majority of which are short on understanding and shorter on elementary science. The media – newspapers, television news channels, their websites – are to blame for spreading half-baked forecasts and wild prognoses. Not one of the numerous newspapers and TV channels, whatever the language they employ, bother to provide their reporters a basic grounding in the climatological system that gives us our monsoon.

In the first place, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) issues an operational forecast for the south-west monsoon season (June to September) rainfall for the country as a whole in two stages. The first stage forecast is issued in April and the second stage forecast is issued in June. These forecasts are prepared using state-of-the-art Statistical Ensemble Forecasting system (SEFS) and using the dynamical coupled Ocean-Atmosphere global Climate Forecasting System (CFS) model developed under Monsoon Mission of the Ministry of Earth Sciences.

On 15 April 2019 the IMD issued its first stage forecast. Based on our own in-field observations from the west coast, from the patterns of maximum termperature bands and variations in the lower and central peninsular region, from the sea surface temperatures in the Arabian Sea particular its southerly reaches and ditto for the Bay of Bengal, and from the wind patterns that can be experienced at various places in the peninsula and on the west coast, we find the IMD first stage forecast to be reliable.

It is the chronically ignorant media – which over the last few years has displayed a tendency to prefer some so-called private sector weather forecasters instead of what the Ministry of Earth Sciences provides – found irresponsibly claiming that the monsoon of 2019 will be ‘deficient’ and will also begin ‘late’. Neither of these terms is sensible in any way, and we take no satisfaction in noting that only a media that is insensible to planetary and mesoscale events like climate, will employ such insensible terms in reporting that is meant to educate and benefit the public.

IMD’s April forecast used the following five predictors: 1. the Sea Surface Temperature (SST) Gradient between North Atlantic and North Pacific (in December and January), 2. the Equatorial South Indian Ocean SST (in February), 3. the East Asia Mean Sea Level Pressure (in February and March), 4. North-west Europe Land Surface Air Temperature (in January), and 5. Equatorial Pacific Warm Water Volume (in February and March).

There are two forecasts the IMD makes. One is based on the Monsoon Mission CFS Model, which considers global atmospheric and oceanic initial conditions up to March 2019 and use 47 ensemble members (or kinds of data). The forecast based on the CFS model suggests that the monsoon rainfall during the 2019 monsoon season (June to September) averaged over the country as a whole is likely to be 94% ± 5% of the Long Period Average (LPA).

The second is the forecast based on the operational Statistical Ensemble Forecasting system (SEFS). This shows that quantitatively, the monsoon seasonal rainfall is likely to be 96% of the Long Period Average (LPA) with a model error of ± 5%. The SEFS comprises five category probability forecasts for the June to September rainfall over the country as a whole:

Overall therefore the IMD forecast is for the 2019 monsoon rainfall to be near normal. The IMD has already pointed out (which can be seen from the probabilities of the categories given in the table) that there is only a small chance for the monsoon rainfall to be above normal or excess. In view of the weather events and the climatological changes that we are seeing from day to day in May, ascribing a ‘lateness’ to the monsoon is absurd. Monsoon conditions already exist in and over the Indian land mass and in and over the great watery zones extending southwards from latitude 8 degrees North – and that is why we will find rain-bearing clouds crossing the south-western coastline in the first week of June 2019.

(Reposted from India Climate Portal.)

Written by makanaka

May 16, 2019 at 18:14

Kashi, the oldest, the illustrious

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The Mahapuranas speak of 96 jalatirthas along the bank of Ma Ganga in Kashi. By the end of the 16th century, these were arranged as 84 ghats over what we today measure as 6.5 kilometres. Over the centuries, many of our greatest thinkers, philosophers and sants have walked the steps of these ghats and drawn inspiration from the trinity of Ma Ganga, Kashi and Lord Shiva.

The year was no later than 1971 when, as a small boy of six, I first heard of Kashi. We were visiting one of my father’s college friends, and although my recollection is dim, the babu-moshai lived in a spacious flat with a large airy verandah overlooking a backyard full of trees. The area was New Alipur, in Calcutta. My father’s friends included artists, theatre actors, film critics, a boxwallah or two, newspaper columnists. Some of them were there that day, and when I heard the names ‘Kashi’ and ‘Banaras’ I had no idea they were not two different places.

This is what I remembered them saying: you have to go to Kashi by the river or by the Grand Trunk road, and if you are a devout Hindu you have to approach Kashi the way it has been approached for more centuries than any of us can count, by cart or boat, or on foot. At the first sight of the temple towers of the holy city you must salute it with shouts of “Jai! Jai! Kashinath!”.

Morning reading in a stately home near the Gauri kund, Kedar ghat part of the city. The 17th century traveller Bernier stated: “The whole city is a university. Unlike classes, departments and colleges, every house belonging to a Brahmin is a centre of education.”

Years passed, and as a youth, travelling by train through north and central India, I would now and then find a conversation in which Banaras and Kashi figured. In every corner where a tree will grow, I once heard on the long dusty journey from Bombay to Allahabad, the peepal and the ‘vad’ find a place, and under their wide branches there will be heaps of carved stones, fragments from temples so very ancient, before which we pray and to which we offer flowers.

I was older, and had seen something of our Bharat, but not yet Kashi, which seemed still remote and, in some curious way, unapproachable to one without the requisite devotion and basic knowledge. More years passed, and every now and then I would find, when fortunate to have in my hands a copy of a large-format book of photographs of India, an arresting scene of the ghats of Banaras, or one of its streets, a sadhu framed in an akhada doorway, a boatman on the river, a cow dozing on temple steps. And then the instruction heard long years earlier in a Calcutta verandah would sound, as if from a distance, “Jai! Jai! Kashinath!”.

On 12 Phalguna, Krishna Paksha, Dwadashi, Kaliyug Varsha 5120 and Vikram Samvat 2075 (3 March 2019) at the age of 53, I approached Kashi (with jeevansaathi Viva Kermani, whose efforts had made this long-awaited journey possible). In the taxi to the city from the airport I silently asked the Goswamis who knew Kashi before me to please excuse my conduct, travelling through mechanical means rather than on foot. It is not a small matter, for by now I knew that when bicycles were first brought into and ridden in Banaras, Hindus were strongly discouraged from using them to complete the Panchakrosi yatra, a distance of just over 55 miles which had to be completed by foot in three to five days.

Throngs of devotees outside the Kashi Vishwanath mandir. Here is one of the 12 jyotirlingas of Bharat. Whenever damaged and even substantially destroyed, it is Vishwanath, or Vishveshwar (ruler of the universe), who has ensured its reconstruction.

From the descent off the last stretch of elevated road and into old Banaras, it is much like every city in north India. There are malls, flyovers, unzoned new development where everything from hardware shops and mithai shops to tuition classes and call centres are crammed. Past the British colonial water administration headquarters, a club, and the campuses of two of the city’s five universities. And then you sense the nearness of the great water which alone is older than Kashi, Ma Ganga. But still hidden beyond the buildings and structures that are both smaller, older, odder, more embellished with decoration, more festooned with signboards and hoardings and posters and loops of cables.

A pustakalaya named after Tulsidas in Bhadaini, Kashi. Gosvami Tulsidas lived in Kashi in the early 17th century. He was a great bhakta poet who wrote the Ramcharitmanas (the ocean of Sri Rama’s deeds), in Avadhi, dialect of Hindi.

We had our lodgings in what had once been a mansion that had belonged to the family of the Raja of Varanasi, now divided into two and turned into a hotel. It stood at the entrance to Assi Ghat, which is when counted from south to north, the first of the 84 ghats. It is from this ghat that I first beheld the vista of Ma Ganga sweeping around the great nagar. When you look downriver (but north, for it is in this stretch of Ma Ganga’s length only that she flows back towards the Himalaya) the immense arc of the ghats curves slowly out, in the morning hours disappearing into the mists that curl from the water.

It is a sight to transfix you. The oldest, the very oldest, city in the world. Illustrious Kashi of unrivalled sanctity, and of boundless renown. So great is its antiquity that tradition tells us it was Banaras that first existed, and then the rest of the world was arrayed around it. Sushruta, the pitamaha of ayurvedic surgery, was educated here – but naturally, for Sri Dhanvantari, the seventh in the lineage of the Manu of our age, was an early king of Kashi. The very forms of oldest Kashi are from ages perhaps revealed only in the mahapuranas – the well of Jnanavapi was dug with Shiva’s trishul, the river Asi, which gives its name to one of those of the city, Varanasi, was where Durgamata’s terrible sword struck the earth when she chose to rest here after a battle.

The evening Ganga aarti, which is led by the Gangotri Seva Samiti at Dashwamedha Ghat. The first verse is: ओम जय गंगे माता, मैया जय गंगे माता। जो नर तुमको ध्याता, मनवांछित फल पाता॥

As you stand thus, the sounds of the city of today and the nagar of tremendous ages past swirl past (for that is why we speak mantras), there is movement up and down the ghats, on stone steps, in boats, on the wooden platforms, of bathers, families, pujaris, cows, groups of youth, vendors, sants and sadhus, here and there a dom, tourists and the touts that they draw. There is light, as Surya bestows it in the recesses of small shrines or casts it to flash on the gilded metal flags and trishuls that surmount the temples. There is colour, in the saris and the flowers, the arrangement of brighter colours against the stone of the ghats changing with every moment. Time wheels on but Kashi, they say, is not of this world.

(To be continued.)