Resources Research

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

Why our kisans must make sustainable crop choices

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The 2015-16 fourth advance estimates for commercial crops, when compared with the annual averages for five year and ten year periods, visibly displays the need for more rational crop choices to be made at the level of district (and below), in agro-ecological regions and river sub-basins.

RG_2016_cashcrops4_201608For this rapid overview of the output of commercial crops for 2015-16 I have compared the Fourth Advance Estimates of agricultural production, which have just been released by the Ministry of Agriculture, with two other kinds of production figures. One is the five-year average until 2014-15 and the second is the ten-year average until 2014-15.

While a yearwise comparison is often used to show the variation in produced crops (which are affected by price changes, policies, adequacy of the monsoon and climatic conditions), it is important to compare a current year’s nearly final crop production estimate with longer term averages. Doing so allows us to smooth the effects of variations in individual years and so gauge the performance in the current year against a wider recent historical pattern. (See ‘How our kisans bested drought to give 252.2 mt’.)

The output of the nine oilseeds taken together is less than both the five-year and ten-year averages. Significant drops are seen in the production of soyabean, groundnut and mustard and rape – these three account for 88% of the quantity of the nine oilseeds (castorseed, sesamum, nigerseed, linseed, safflower and sunflower are the others). Between the fibre crops – cotton, and jute and mesta – the output of cotton is considerably under the five-year average, while that of jute and mesta is under both the five and ten year averages.

It is in the figures for sugarcane that the message lies. The 2015-16 output of sugarcane is marginally above the five-year average and handily above the ten-year average. This needs to be considered against the background of two drought years (2014 and 2015) and the drought-like conditions that were experienced in many parts of the country during March to May 2016.

As these are near-final estimates, this only means that the allocation of water for such a large crop quantity – 352 million tons of sugarcane is about 100 mt more than the foodgrains output of 252 mt – was assured even during times of severe shortage of water.

This is a comparison that needs urgent and serious study, not with a view to change overall policy but to decentralise how crop – and therefore inputs and water – choices are determined locally so that self-sufficiency in food staples and the sustainability of cash crops can be achieved. These are quantities only and do not tell us the burdens of inputs (chemical fertiliser, hazardous pesticides, malignant credit terms) or the risks (as cotton cultivators have experienced this year) but where these are known from past experience their effects can well be gauged.

Written by makanaka

August 13, 2016 at 12:47

How our kisans bested drought to give 252.2 mt

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RG_2016_foodgrains3_201608Bharat has maintained a level of foodgrains production that is above 250 million tons for the year 2015-16. This is the most important signal from the Fourth Advance Estimates of agricultural production, which have just been released by the Ministry of Agriculture. The ‘advance estimates’, four in the agricultural year, mark the progression from target production for the year to actual output.

For this rapid overview I have compared the 2015-16 fourth estimates, which will with minor adjustments become the final tally, with two other kinds of production figures. One is the five-year average until 2014-15 and the second is the ten-year average until 2014-15. While a yearwise comparison is often used to show the variation in produced crops (which are affected by price changes, policies, adequacy of the monsoon and climatic conditions), it is important to compare a current year’s nearly final crop production estimate with longer term averages. Doing so allows us to dampen the effects of variations in individual years and so gauge the performance in the current year against a wider recent historical pattern.

In this way we see that for all foodgrains (rice, wheat, coarse cereals and pulses) the production for 2015-16 is about three million tons below the five-year average but about 13.5 million tons above the ten-year average. These two comparisons need to be considered against the growing conditions our kisans dealt with during 2015 and 2014, both of which were drought years. They also need to be viewed against economic and demographic conditions, which have led to migration of agriculturalists and cultivators from villages into urban settlements (hence less available hands in the field), and the incremental degradation of agro-ecological growing regions (because of both urban settlements that grow and because of increased industrialisation, and therefore industrial pollution and the contamination of soil and water).

That the total quantity of foodgrains is adequate however has been due to the production of rice and wheat (चावल, गेंहूँ) both being above the five and ten year averages. There is undoubtedly regional variation in production (the February to May months in 2016 were marked by exceedingly hot weather in several growing regions, with difficult conditions made worse by water shortages). There is likewise the effects of more transparent procurement policies and stronger commitments being followed by state governments to adhere to or better the recommendations on minimum support prices. The host of contributing factors require inquiry and study.

What requires more urgent attention are the production figures for coarse cereals and pulses. Coarse cereals (which includes jowar, bajra, maize, ragi, small millets and barley – ज्वार, बाजरा, मक्का, रागी, छोटे अनाज, जौ) at just under 40 million tons is 4.4 million tons under the five-year average and 1.4 million tons under the ten-year average. Likewise pulses (which includes tur or arhar, gram, urad, moong, other kharif and other rabi pulses – अरहर, चना, उरद, मूँग, अन्य खरीफ दालें, अन्य रबी दालें) is 1.6 million tons under the five-year average and only 0.3 million tons above the ten-year average. The low total production of these crop types, coarse cereals and pulses, have continued to be a challenge for over a generation. The surprisingly good outputs of wheat (9.3 mt above the ten-year average) and rice (5.5 mt above the ten-year average) should not be allowed to obscure the persistent problems signalled by the outputs of coarse cereals and pulses.

The relative speeds of urban inflation

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How to read this chart. The light grey bars are the current month's CPI-IW (consumer price index for industrial workers) for each urban centre plotted to the left scale (the current data is for 2016 May). The green square marker is the reading for the difference between the current month's CPI and the average of the previous six months. The yellow square marker is the reading for the difference between the current month's CPI and the average of the previous 12 months. And the red square marker is the reading for the difference between the current month's CPI and the average of the year previous to 12 months ago. These are all plotted to the right scale, and their vertical separation helps tell us whether overall consumer inflation is rapid (or not) compared with other cities. You will find accompanying this chart a table. This associates a city code, such as ST21, used for the charting process, with a city: ST21 the city is Shimla in Himachal Pradesh. Data only (not method or treatment) are from Labour Bureau, Ministry of Labour and Employment.

How to read this chart. The light grey bars are the current month’s CPI-IW (consumer price index for industrial workers) for each urban centre plotted to the left scale (the current data is for 2016 May). The green square marker is the reading for the difference between the current month’s CPI and the average of the previous six months. The yellow square marker is the reading for the difference between the current month’s CPI and the average of the previous 12 months. And the red square marker is the reading for the difference between the current month’s CPI and the average of the year previous to 12 months ago. These are all plotted to the right scale, and their vertical separation helps tell us whether overall consumer inflation is rapid (or not) compared with other cities. You will find accompanying this chart a table. This associates a city code, such as ST21, used for the charting process, with a city: ST21 the city is Shimla in Himachal Pradesh. Data only (not method or treatment) are from Labour Bureau, Ministry of Labour and Employment.

Belgaum and Mysore in Karnataka with 12 points. Warangal, Telengana with 12 points. Panaji, Goa with 12 points. Munger, Bihar with 11 points. Bangalore, Karnataka with 11 points. Salem, Coimbatore and Coonoor in Tamil Nadu with 10 points. Rourkela, Odisha with 10 points. Sholapur, Maharashtra with 10 points. Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh with 10 points.

Charting process codes used for urban centres and the cities they correspond with.

Charting process codes used for urban centres and the cities they correspond with.

These are not Swachch Bharat rankings nor are they ‘ease of doing business’ scores. They are, for each urban centre, the number of points its consumer price index (CPI) increased in May 2016 over the average for the previous quarter. The data is collected and distributed by the Labour Bureau, Ministry of Labour and Employment. This is one of the ways in which the monthly CPI numbers for industrial workers (a somewhat dated term which suited an era when the public sector dominated the economy, but which still relates to urban households) can usefully indicate the acceleration in inflation of household staples.

The picture changes when the CPIs of urban centres for a month (the latest available being 2016 May) are compared with their own averages for the last six months, the last 12 months or the year which ended 12 months ago. When the frame of comparison is the average of the previous 12 months, I find that in 30 of the 78 centres for which a CPI-IW is calculated, the increase is 10 points or more. Warangal in Telengana, Kollam in Kerala and Mysore in Karnataka are 16 points above their previous 12 month average while Munger in Bihar, Rajkot in Gujarat and Jamshedpur in Jharkhand are 15 points above.

This is the relativist picture that perhaps makes the most illuminating use of a monthly index, whatever its faults and shortcomings. The well-appointed chart that I have drawn helps show why the speeds and acceleration, between a current measure and an earlier set of measures, are more important to consider than the absolute numbers themselves. This is an experimental way to help visualise a subject that is alas rather dry but of great import for every single household. I will update this as new CPI numbers are released by the Labour Bureau every month.

Written by makanaka

July 23, 2016 at 22:25

What works, and doesn’t, in Maharashtra’s districts

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In an exercise to help determine how reports of the MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act or Nrega) can inform us, I have used the records of what the programme calls ‘outcomes’ in the form of ‘physical assets’ created for the community (or conditional use by groups of individuals, depending on the kind of asset) over a financial year.

RG_nrega_MAH_dists_G1_201607The year is 2015-16 and the districts are those of Maharashtra (34, Mumbai excluded). There are at present 17 categories of physical assets and these are: rural connectivity, flood control and protection, water conservation and water harvesting, drought proofing, micro irrigation works, provision of irrigation, renovation of traditional water bodies, land development, any other activity approved, sewa kendra, coastal areas, rural drinking water, fisheries, rural sanitation, anganwadi, playground, food grain.

RG_nrega_MAH_dists_G2_201607‘Works’ are recorded under each kind of physical asset, with these classified as having been ‘approved’, ‘taken up’ and ‘completed’ (with ‘taken up’ presumably meaning commenced but incomplete at the end of the financial year). What matters therefore is to study those that have been completed, as the kind of community asset created and certified as being completed would serve to indicate what the community has decided it needs as a priority.

RG_nrega_MAH_dists_G3_201607When so filtered, the number of completed physical assets in the 34 districts of Maharashtra for the year 2015-16 totalled 71,554 – a large number that helps describe why the Nrega records are so very voluminous: 1,376 ‘works’ completed every week in 34 districts, with tens of thousands of Nrega beneficiary individuals and households working to build, repair, revive, create them, and with a complex inventory of raw materials being required to be transported and paid for so that these works may take shape.

RG_nrega_MAH_dists_G4_201607What the list of completed works – type and number – describe is very instructive. Of the 17 categories, four (fisheries, anganwadi, playground and food grain) were recorded with not a single instance of having become a ‘work completed’ in any district. On the other hand, four kinds of physical assets accounted for a full 85% of the 71,554 works completed in Maharashtra’s 34 districts for 2015-16 and these were, in ascending order: drought proofing (8,110 and 11% of the total works), rural sanitation (12,234 and 17%), water conservation and water harvesting (14,384 and 20%), and provision of irrigation (26,496 and 37%).

RG_nrega_MAH_dists_G5_201607The popularity of the latter four can be well understood, as much for how they are all linked as for the precarious living conditions that every taluka in Maharashtra’s semi-arid districts face when the winter months end. These biases towards certain works but not others still do however need to be read with conditions, and keeping in mind that these are the works for but one financial year out of the last ten (albeit the definition of what constitutes an asset under Nrega has been altered and added to several times).

RG_nrega_MAH_dists_G6_201607The question that remains is: Maharashtra’s districts and blocks and villages occupy varying agro-ecological, hydrological and meteorological regions. Do their geographic and environmental circumstances not have a role to play in the decisions taken about what Nrega works should be taken up (and completed) as a priority over other kinds?

The charts presented here in groups of districts arranged according to their location amongst the six agro-ecological regions that Maharashtra occupies, indicate whether the Nrega ‘works’ process takes cognisance of the fundamental environmental factors upon which the village (and so panchayat, taluka, district) rest. The charts have been constrained to 200 on the vertical axis in order to preserve readability – values are given for each ‘work’ recorded by each district. The abbreviations for the ‘works’ (horizontal axis) are for the full forms found in the second paragraph.

Written by makanaka

July 12, 2016 at 22:28

How we almost lost our growing tradition

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Part one, ‘Old krishi for new Bharat’ is here.

This came to be known as a ‘development paradigm’ which countries like India and civilisations like Bharat were given prescriptions for. Many of these prescriptions were and continue to be the equivalent of chemotherapy and radiation as used for the treatment of cancer – destroy in the name of curing. This is why in our regions (they are entirely ecological regions, our river valleys and plains, we saw no reason to call them anything but the old names they had been given, for words like ‘ecology’ and agro-ecology only now convey similar meaning that कृषि संस्कृति does) which grew rice, millets, barley, sorghum, wheat, pulses, seasonal fruits and vegetables, a new identity was announced.

This was done early in the ‘green revolution’, a programme that to our ‘annadaatas’ is no less devilish than the industrial revolution in western Europe was to the very fabric of those societies. The new identity was ‘high yielding variety’ and these new hybrids were in no way better than what they were given the power to replace. They neither yielded more than the current varieties, nor did they contain more nutritive elements, nor did their plant matter prove to have more uses than what they replaced, nor could they survive during inclement phases of a seasonal climate with a cheery hardiness the way our traditional varieties could. They were inferior in every way; how could they not be for they had emerged from a science whose very gears and levers were designed by the global market which ruled, paid for and determined that science.

RG_krishi_series2_pic2_201607Youngsters in the India of the 1970s, whether in cities, towns or villages, knew little of these changes and what they portended. Our preoccupations were study, work and attending to the daily and seasonal chores of family. But already, the difference between us and them was being introduced into our quite impressionable lives. Cola, hamburger, popcorn, blue jeans, rock music and behavioural accessories that accompanied such produce had appeared in our midst, via many illicit routes (in those days the Coca Cola company had been expelled). Looking back, such products and behaviours seemed desirable because two important factors worked together – the impact of ‘western’ (mainly American) popular culture vehicles and in particular its motion picture industry, and the accounts of those Indians, young and old, who had left their country to become (mainly) American. It was a time when our world was still considered to be dominated by superpowers and lesser power blocs (we were neither), but the friendship India had with the Soviet Union, the USSR, at no time became manifest through food and drink, behaviours and attitudes.

Why did one influence but not the other? Years later, when working with the Ministry of Agriculture on a lengthy programme intended to strengthen our agricultural extension system, I found a part of the answer. Even in the early 1950s, what became our national agricultural research system, under the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (itself a nationalised version of the Imperial Council of the British colonial era), had been partially designed and implemented by the US Agency for International Development and facilitated by the Rockefeller Foundation. A full decade before the mechanics of the ‘green revolution’ set to work in the plains of northern India, the state agricultural universities and the specific crop institutes they cooperated with were organised along operational lines drawn up by foreign advisers (the early FAO was present too). And that early indoctrination led to one of the most invisible yet long-running collaborations between ‘formal’ crop science personnel from India and the American land grant colleges with their extensive networks of industry interests.

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As a young man in my early twenties, I would often hear about the ‘brain drain’, which is the term we used to describe those students and scholars who had earned degrees from our Indian Institutes of Management or our Indian Institutes of Technology and who had made their way abroad, most of them to the USA. These were publicly funded institutes, and the apt question at the time was: why were we investing in their education only to lose them? I had been utterly unaware at the time that a similar ‘brain drain’ had taken place in the agricultural sciences, which by the first decade of the 2000s did not require the ‘drain’ aspect at all, for by then the mechanisms of globalisation, aided by the wiles of technology and finance, meant that the agendas of industrial agriculture could be followed by our national agricultural research system in situ. Of ecology, agro-ecology, environment and organic there was barely a mention, so successfully had the ‘food security’ threat begun to be spun.

It is a recent history that has taken shape while our urban and rural societies have worried themselves about how to escape monetary poverty, to escape hunger, to escape deprivations of every conceivable kind, and to pursue ‘development’ of every conceivable kind. While this has happened, the historians that we needed – I call them historians loosely, they needed only to observe and record and retell, but from the point of view of our joint families and our villages – to record such a change were very much fewer than we needed.

It may seem inconceivable that in a country of our size and population – which crossed one billion about a year before the 2001 Census – we lacked appropriate recordists but this too is a matter of selective exclusion (like the story about the hybrid seeds) for there are essays and tracts aplenty in our major languages and in regional scripts that detail the erosion of tradition because of the assaults of modern ‘development’ on our societies. But these are not in English, they are not ‘formal’, they carry no references and citations, they are published in local district towns, they are read by farmers, labourers, retired postmasters and assistant station masters but not by internationally recognised macro-economists or nationally feted captains of industry; they are not considered chronicles of social change and of the studied, deliberate, ruthless dismantling from our societies their traditions, amongst which is the growing of food.

[This article is the second part of a series of four.]

Old कृषि for new भारत

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For a civilisation whose agricultural traditions are some ten millennia old, ‘agro-ecology’ is but yesterday’s word, and although well-meaning, pales before the vistas of meaning that have been encoded into our cultivating practices. These are profoundly spiritual, and until a few generations ago, embodied a philosophy about nature, ‘prakruti’ (प्रकृति), that ranged far beyond the definitions that have become en vogue over the last few decades: ecological, sustainable, holistic and so on. This brief itinerary traces some of the causes that have led to the vulgarisation of agriculture (कृषि) in Bharat, and describes the means with which to find renewal.

RG_krishi_bharat_1_201606Menus at fast food restaurants and counters are today as mystifying as the ‘apps’ that are to be found crowding on the screens of young people’s mobile phones. There are now, in our bigger cities in India, ‘apps’ to buy food with (or through). These seem to be popular with a generation that is young – usually 20 to 30 years old – and which lives in shared rented flats near their places of work, which often is the info-tech industry, and is otherwise the finance, retail, services, logistics or trading industries. If there is one aspect common to where these food ‘app’, or menu ‘app’, users work then it is that they do not work in what my generation knew with some familiarity as the manufacturing or the public sectors.

This is a distressing trend, for we have always been a civilisation that counted our farmers, rivers, forests, temples and traditions. In Sanskrit there is a word used to describe the farmer. It is ‘annadaata’, which is, the giver of grain (अन्नदाता). This reverential word is found in every major language spoken and written in India today. The ‘annadaata’ fed his or her family, fed those who needed rice, gave the rice to be used for the ceremonies and religious observances in the temples, sold the rice to the dealers in grain. For many generations, the forms in which our farmers harvested the crops they cultivated were the forms in which they were bought, stored, cooked and eaten. Even during the formative decades of ‘modern’ India – that is, the years after our Independence and until the time when we began to be considered by the Western world as a country becoming a ‘market economy’ – a household rarely owned a refrigerator.

RG_krishi_bharat_2_201606We bought rice, vegetables and the occasional fish or poultry from the market, cooked them fresh at home, and ate our meals fresh. A vegetarian meal may keep overnight to serve as a breakfast for the following morning, and in north and parts of central India, so will ‘roti’ (रोटी) made out of wheat or barley. To keep food longer, it had to be processed, that is, its nature had to change so that it would not spoil in the climate. Thus, rice was commonly parboiled and stored, or parboiled and flattened to become ‘puffed’. Every rice-growing and rice-consuming region, from a single valley to a river basin, had its own methods and preferences of keeping food from spoiling, and finding ways to store that semi-prepared food. This was a kind of processing and most of it was done in our homes.

Surely it wasn’t that long ago? But memories such as these, so vivid to 50 and 60 year olds, are today seen as evoking times of hardship, want and shortage, are seen as recalling times that an agrarian country suffered ‘hunger’ before it became globalised and a ‘market’ of some kind. Such sharp experiences, for that is what the most vivid memories are made of, are considered to be uncomfortably close to the era when famines were recorded, one after another, during the 19th century especially (but also the Bengal famine of 1943-44).

Those appalling records are presented as the rationale for the set of ideas and practice (technical and economic in approach and intent) that came to be called self-sufficiency in foodgrain, which I remember first hearing as a boy, and which much later has come to be known as food security. The links were taught to us early – famine, food shortage, hunger – but what was left out was more important, and that was the policies of the colonial occupiers (the East India Company and then Great Britain, as the country used to be called) and the consequences of the Industrial Revolution in Europe and particularly in western Europe.

RG_krishi_bharat_3_201606Like the devastating famines in India of the 19th century, the Bengal famine of 1943-44 was an artificial shortage of foodgrain, for what had been harvested was shipped out instead of being sold or distributed at home. These aspects of the relatively recent famines of India, which robbed our ancestors of parents and children, were hidden until we uncovered them out of curiosity about food histories that must have been written (or retold) but were scarcely to be found.

Even today, after so much research (especially by the last generation) has become available about the effects of colonial policies on the movements and shortages of food in India, the bogey of food shortage and hunger is still dressed in the garb of technical shortcoming, that our farmers (किसान) do not know how to increase yields because their knowledge is deficient, insufficient, inefficient. It is a slander of a collective that has supported through its efforts and wisdom a civilisation (भारतवर्ष) for centuries.

As it was with the colonial era, so it is with the pervasive apparatus of trade and finance which finds its theatre in globalisation, or the integrated world economy. One of its first tasks was to denigrate and run down a complex and extremely rich tradition of agricultural knowledge – but even to call it ‘agricultural knowledge’ is misleading, for its diverse strands of knowledge, awareness and practice encompassed our relationship with nature and natural forces, and our duties towards state, for faith and religion, towards society – while simultaneously promoting a ‘scientific’ approach that could derive its authority only by first asserting that what it was replacing was not science.

[This article is the first part of a series of four. Part two, ‘How we almost lost our growing tradition’, is here.]

The ideologies about knowledge

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The few paragraphs that follow are taken from my recent article for the TERI (The Energy and Resources Institute) magazine, Terragreen. Published in the 2016 May issue, the article links what we often call traditional knowledge with the ways in which we understand ecology and the ways in which we are defining ‘sustainable development’.

quotes-blueSustainable development has today become a commonly used term, yet it describes a concept that is still being considered by different kinds of societies, by each in a manner of its choosing. This has happened because while historically how societies grew to be ‘developed’ was a process that took a variety of pathways, today the prescribed pathway to the ‘modern’ scarcely changes from one country to another.

Hence culturally what these societies have considered as being ‘sustainable’ behaviour – each according to its ecological context – is being replaced by a prescribed template in which interpretations are discouraged. Such a regime of prescription has led only to the obscuring of the many different kinds of needs felt by communities that desire a ‘development’ that makes cultural sense, but also of the kinds of knowledge which will allow that ‘development’ to be sustainable.

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Click for image pdf (600kb) of article

Some of this knowledge we can readily see. To employ labels whose origin is western, these streams of knowledge and practice are called traditional knowledge, intangible cultural heritage, indigenous wisdom, folk traditions, or indigenous and local knowledge. These labels help serve as gateways to understand both the ideas, ‘development’ and ‘sustainable’. It is well that they do for today, very much more conspicuously than 20 years earlier, there is a concern for declining biodiversity, about the pace and direction of global environmental change, a concern over the unsustainable human impact on the biosphere and the diminishing of community identity.

There is widespread acknowledgement of the urgency of the situation – this is perceived across cultures, geographical scales (that is, from local units such as a village, to national governments), and knowledge systems (and this includes both formal and non-formal ways of recognising these systems). The need for such a new dialogue on the situation is expressed in several global science-policy initiatives, both older and recent, such as the Convention for Biological Diversity (CBD) which is now 22 years old, and the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), whose first authoritative reports became available in 2015.

Development whose sustainability is defined locally and implemented locally means that the ‘investment’, ‘technology’ and ‘innovation’ (terms that have become popular to describe development efforts) comes from the people themselves. Many diverse agencies at this level – civil society, youth groups, vocational networks, small philanthropies – assist such development and provide the capacities needed. This is the level at which the greatest reliance on cultural approaches takes place, endogenously.

In domains such as traditional medicine, forestry, the conservation of biodiversity, the protection of wetlands, it is practitioners of intangible cultural heritage and bearers of traditional knowledge, together with the communities to which they belong, who observe and interpret phenomena at scales much finer than formal scientists are familiar with. Besides, they possess the ability to draw upon considerable temporal depth in their observations. For the scientific world, such observations are invaluable contributions that advance our knowledge about climate change. For the local world, indigenous knowledge and cultural practices are the means with which the effects of climate change are negotiated so that livelihoods are maintained, ritual and cultivation continue, and survival remains meaningful.

Dimensions of drought

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We lack not at all for experience with drought, yet have not grown used to treating water with the greatest of care. Drought does not strike in the manner a hailstorm does, yet our administrations seem unable to read the signals. Citizens and panchayats alike can contribute to our managing droughts better, provided all are willing to change both perception and behaviour.

RG_FC_drought_1_201605_smIt is because drought is such a forbidding condition for any state to fall into that it becomes at once threatening and emotive. Its every symptom becomes a new trial for a drought-afflicted population and simultaneously a likely indictment of the administration, whether local or regional. Food and crop, water and health, wages and relief: this is the short list for which action is demanded by a population concerned for those in the drought-affected districts and blocks.

The administration is bound to answer, as it is likewise bound to plan, prepare, anticipate and act. But where the interrogation of a government for its tardiness in providing immediate relief comes quickly, a consideration of the many factors that contribute to the set of conditions we call drought is done rarely, and scarcely at all when there is no drought. It is the gap between these two activities that has characterised most public criticism of the role of administration today when there is drought.

For farmers and district or block-level administrators alike, drought is a normal and recurrent feature of climate in the dryland regions of India. It occurs in nearly all climatic zones – our long recording history of droughts and floods in particular show that whereas in eastern India (West Bengal, Odisha and Bihar) a drought occurs once in every five years, in Gujarat, East Rajasthan and western Uttar Pradesh the frequency is once in three years. Although the characteristics of what we call drought varies significantly from one meteorological sub-division to another, and indeed from one agro-ecological zone to another, the drought condition arises from a deficiency in precipitation that persists long enough to produce a serious hydrological imbalance.

RG_FC_drought_2_201605_smDrought is a complex phenomenon. There is first a need to distinguish between meteorological and agricultural droughts. A meteorological drought is a period of prolonged dry weather conditions due to below normal rainfall. An agricultural drought refers to the impact caused by precipitation shortages, temperature anomalies that lead to increased evapotranspiration by crops and vegetation, and consequently to a shortage of the water content in the soil, all being factors that adversely affect crop production and soil moisture. The National Commission on Agriculture has defined an agricultural drought differently for the kharif (monsoon cropping season, July to October) and rabi (winter cropping season, October to March).

What the country has witnessed during March and April is an agricultural drought, brought about by the high temperatures which raised mean and maximum temperatures into the heat-wave band. This we have witnessed in Odisha, Telengana, Vidarbha, Marathwada, north interior Karnataka, Rayalaseema, coastal Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, eastern Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and West Bengal.

[You can read the rest of this article at the Financial Chronicle. Page pdfs are here (2MB) and here (1.8MB).]

Written by makanaka

May 13, 2016 at 20:04

Bharat at 1.3 billion

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RG_states_popn_2016_256colIn July 2016, the population of Bharat will cross one billion three hundred million. In 1937, the population of what was then British India was 300 million. Seventy-nine years later, there are a billion more.

This numerical landmark is based on the 2011 Census of India total population (which was 1.21 billion) and the growth rate of the population, or what demographers refer to as the rate of natural increase.

For a country of the size of Bharat – and for that matter, even for the states with large populations – any ‘total’ or ‘final’ is no more than an estimate that is subject to variability. The population count of any administrative unit (such as a state or district) can be estimated with census data modified by health data (birth rate, death rate) and by seasonal changes (migration).

There are several extenuating reasons why this exercise needs to be done automatically at least every month by the states and the central government ministries and departments. Perhaps the 1.3 billion landmark can goad them into doing so. The carrying capacities of our river basins, the watersheds, the valleys and floodplains, the ghats both Western and Eastern, the plateaus and grasslands, the deltas and the hill tracts cannot be ignored.

RG_population_age_bands_20160427Equations that govern these are simpler than they are typically made out to be by science. There is only so much water, land, forest, and vegetation (or biomass) available to support us. The 2001 Census found that the population of Bharat had crossed a thousand million. At that point at least the consequences of a steadily growing population (182 million had been added since 1991, and 345 million – which was the population at the time of Independence – since 1981) needed to have become the subject of monthly reflection and policy.

With Bharat at 1.3 billion being barely three months away, the new state population counts (in the chart) show why such monthly reflection and policy is vital, indeed a matter of urgency. We now have ten states whose population is more than 50 million – the comparisons of the sizes of our state populations with those of various countries around the world are now well-known.

West Bengal in May 2016 has a population of 97.7 million and will cross 100 million by the same time in 2017. In May 2016 the population of Bihar is 111.4 million, Maharashtra is 120.3 million and Uttar Pradesh is 214 million. These are gigantic numbers and it is because they are gigantic that they seem to escape planning notice – but the population of these four states is very much more than the population of the European Union of 28 countries.

The table shows the current estimated population (2016 May) for the age bands (from Census 2011 and adjusted for simple growth), which helps us understand the populations of infants, children, adolescents, youth, early adults, mature adults, the middle-aged and the elderly. About 257 million are under nine years old (19%), about 271 million are between 10 and 19 years old (20%) and about 111 million (8%) are 60 years old and older.

These are aspects that require as much study, comprehension and policy measures as we demand on subjects such as governance, corruption, the price of food, the extent of our forests, the supply of water, and the adequacy of monthly incomes. At the 1.3 billion mark, Bharat’s population is starkly in the foreground.

Food, climate, culture, crops and government

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The weekly standardised precipitation index of the India Meteorological Department (IMD) which is a running four-week average. This series shows the advancing dryness of districts in south India.

The weekly standardised precipitation index of the India Meteorological Department (IMD) which is a running four-week average. This series shows the advancing dryness of districts in south India.

In November 2015, the Departmentally Related Standing Committee on Agriculture of the Lok Sabha, Parliament of India, invited suggestions and submissions on the subject “Comprehensive Agriculture Research based on Geographical Condition and Impact of Climatic Changes to ensure Food Security in the Country”.

The Committee called for inputs on issues such as the need to evolve new varieties of crops which can withstand climatic fluctuation; requirement to evolve improved methods of irrigation; the need to popularise consumption of crops/fruits which can provide better nutrition; the need to develop indigenous varieties of cattle that can withstand extreme climatic stress; the need to develop a system for precision horticulture and protected cultivation; diversification of species of fish to enhance production from the fisheries sector; the need to strengthen the agriculture extension system; and means to focus on agriculture education.

I prepared a submission as my outline response, titled “Aspects of cultivation, provision of food, and use of land in Bharat today and a generation hence”. The outline I provided includes several issues of current urgency and connects them to scenarios that are very likely to emerge within a generation. My intention is to signal the kinds of pathways to preparation that government (central and state) may consider. It is also meant to flag important cultural and social considerations that lie before us, and to emphasise that economic and quantitative measurements alone are not equipped to provide us holistic guidance.

The outline comprises three sections.
(A) The economic framework of the agriculture and food sector and its imperatives.
(B) The social, ecological, and resource nature of crop cultivation, considering factors that influence it.
(C) Methods, pathways and alternatives possible to adopt with a view to being inter-generationally responsible.

In view of the current climatic conditions – heat waves in the central and eastern regions of the country, stored water in our major reservoirs which are at or near ten-year lows – I reproduce here the section on the economic framework of the agriculture and food sector and its imperatives. The full submission can be found here [pdf, 125kb].

This framework considers the agriculture and food sector, including primary agricultural production recorded, the inputs and products of industry based on agricultural raw material (primary crop whether foodgrain, horticulture, spices, plantation, ruminants and marine, oilseeds, fibres), agribusiness (processing in all its forms), supply chains connecting farmers and farmer producer organisations to primary crop aggregators, buyers, merchants, stockists, traders, consumers, as well as associated service providers. This approach is based on the connection between agricultural production and demand from buyers, processers and consumers along what is called the supply chain.

 

Water storage quantities in the 91 major reservoirs in the first week of April 2016. Blue bars are each reservoir's full storage capacity (in billion cubic metres, bcm) and orange bars are the current storage at the time. Data from the Central Water Commission, Government of India.

Water storage quantities in the 91 major reservoirs in the first week of April 2016. Blue bars are each reservoir’s full storage capacity (in billion cubic metres, bcm) and orange bars are the current storage at the time. Data from the Central Water Commission, Government of India.

If this framework is considered as existing in Bharat to a significant degree which influences crop cultivation choices, the income of cultivating household, the employment generation potential of associated service providers, then several sets of questions require answers:

* Concerning economic well-being and poverty reduction: what role does agricultural development need to play in promoting economic stability in rural (and peri-urban) regions thereby contributing to poverty reduction and how can the agrifood sector best contribute to jobs and higher incomes for the rural poor?

* Concerning food security: what role can agricultural and agro-industry development play in ensuring rural and urban communities have reliable access to sufficient, culturally appropriate and safe food?

* Concerning the sustainability of food producing systems: how should agriculture and agro-industry be regulated in a participatory manner so as to ensure that methods of production do not overshoot or endanger in any way (ecological or social) conservative carrying capacity thresholds especially in the contexts of climate change and resource scarcity?

When viewed according to the administrative and policy view that has prevailed in Bharat over the last two generations, there is a correlation between agricultural productivity growth and poverty reduction and this is the relationship the macro- economic and policy calculations have been based upon. Our central annual agricultural (and allied services) annual and five-year plan budget and state annual and five-year plan budgets have employed such calculations since the 1950s, when central planning began.

However the choices that remain open to us are considerably fewer now than was the case two generations (and more) ago when the conventional economic framework of the agriculture and food sector took shape.

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