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.
It 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.
Drought 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.
In 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.
Equations 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.
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.
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.
In the district of Hingoli, Maharashtra, the allocation of cultivated land between food crops and non-food crops is somewhat in favour of non-food crops. That is, for every hectare planted with a food crop 1.3 hectares is planted with a non-food crop. The broad categories we have under food crops are: cereals, pulses, vegetables and fruit. Under non-food crops there are: oilseeds, sugarcane, fibres, spices and fodder.
The Agricultural Census 2010-11 detailed data for Hingoli shows that at the time of the survey 493,927 hectares were under cultivation for all kinds of crops, both food and non-food. As this is a count of how much land was under cultivation by crop, the total land under cultivation for all crops taken together is more than the total land under cultivation when measured according to land use. This is so because of crop rotation during the same agricultural year, inter-cropping and mixed cropping – for a plot, the same land may raise two kinds of crops in a year.
The 493,927 hectares under cultivation in Hingoli are divided under 213,286 hectares for food crops and 280,640 hectares under non-food crops. This gives us the overall picture that the farming households of Hingoli choose to give more land for crop types under the ‘non-food’ category. As the settlement pattern of Hingoli is very largely rural – that means, few towns and these are the district headquarters and two more taluka centres – do the farming households of Hingoli grow enough to feed themselves comfortably? Do the farming households have the labour needed to continue cultivating so that they can feed themselves and their village communities? How are choices relating to land use and crop made?
Using the publicly available information from a variety of government sources, we are able to find parts of answers. The Agricultural Census 2010-11 is one such source, the Census of India 2011 is another, so are the tables provided by the Department of Economics and Statistics of the Ministry of Agriculture. The graphical representation I have prepared here helps provide the land use basis upon which to layer the district information from other sources.
The Indian summer monsoon in 2016, for the months of June to September, will be normal to better-than-normal in almost all of the 36 meteorological sub-divisions. This is my reading of the seasonal climatic predictions provided by five different sources. Should the conditions that presage such a rainy season continue to be favourable, a normal monsoon coming after two years of faltering rain, and with drought conditions have set into many districts, will be a vast relief.
My outlook for the June to September 2016 monsoon period is based on an initial study of the three-monthly and seasonal predictions which are in the public domain, from the following agencies: The Climate Prediction and Monitoring Group of the India Meteorological Department (IMD), Ministry of Earth Sciences, Government of India; the Climate Forecast System Version 2 (CFSv2) by the Climate Prediction Center of the National Centers for Environmental Prediction (NCEP), USA; regionalised Multi-Model Ensemble (NMME) forecasts from the Climate Prediction Center which are based on models of the NOAA and NASA; and the Meteorological ‘Met’ Office of Britain which is a World Meteorological Organisation climate research centre.
Combining the indications from this early set of forecasts we see that after typical monsoon conditions have set in over southern and peninsular India, the June and July rainfall (quantities) should be normal for June with an increase in average rainfall for July (in the southern peninsula, the west coast, north-eastern states and the north India mountainous states). The five models currently also point to the August and September period recording above normal rainfall over most of India, and normal rainfall in central India.
Predictive capabilities have increased over the last few years, and a number of national weather service agencies collaborate to share data and expertise on climate models. There is much collaboration particularly for the Asian monsoons – our Indian summer monsoon and the monsoon of south-east Asia – because of the implications for the volumes of food crops, in particular rice and wheat, that are likely to be sown and then harvested.
The climatic prediction models whose forecasting products I examined make their predictions for 90-day periods (such as May, June and July together) based on conditions observed and calculated for a given month (January, February and March so far). Later in April and then twice again in May I will consolidate and expand the scope of this initial prognosis – which is of a normal to above normal monsoon – as the forecasts are updated. [This is also posted at India Climate Portal.]
The Census 2011 helps us understand where the great farming populations are: Nashik, Paschim Medinipur, Ahmadnagar, Guntur, Mahbubnagar, Purba Champaran, Belgaum, Kurnool, Madhubani, Jalgaon and 90 other districts are found in this chart, which shows the relationship between the populations of farmers and the total working populations of these districts.
Many of the districts in this chart, represented by the circles (click for full resolution version), lie between the population markers of 750,000 and 1.1 million. They also lie within the percentage band of 60% to about 85%. This shows how important agriculture is – and will continue to be as long as annual budgets and five-year plans support it – for the districts that give us our staple foods.
The return of budgetary focus towards agriculture and the economies of rural India will help deepen our understanding about where crops are grown and for whom. These are still more often described in national aggregate terms of annual estimates, than by season, state and the growing appetites of urban agglomerations.
This could change over the next few years, especially as the so-called services sector shrinks both by the number of people it employs and by its importance to the national economy. Services – a peculiarly invented term that was quite unknown and unused when I was a teenager – has come about because of the financialisation of those portions of social activity which were done at small scale, informally and as adjunct activities to the work of the public sector, the manufacturers and factories, and the great numbers of cultivators (and those working on agricultural produce). The many enforced errors of contemporary economics means that this will continue to change – not without pain and confusion – but that social activity that has some economic dimension will return to what it was two generations earlier.
While it does, we find there are differences in the concentration of food staples produced – that is, how much by quantity do certain regions grow our food staples as a significant fraction of national production of that food staple. This is more readily available as state quantities instead of district. I have suggested to the Ministry of Agriculture that this ought to be monitored not only at the level of the district but also by the agro-ecological zone, or region, for we have 120 in India, and they represent varying climatic conditions, soil typologies, river basins and cultivation systems.
At present, what we see then is that for rice and wheat, the top three producing states account for 36.7% (rice) and 62% (wheat) of the country’s production. This distribution – or concentration – should cause a review of the crop choices that our kisans make in the growing districts and agro-ecological zones. For a simple pointer such as this tells us that 37 out of every 100 quintals of rice grown in India are grown in West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh and that 62 out of every 100 quintals of wheat grown in India are grown in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Madhya Pradesh.
The corresponding distribution/concentration with coarse cereals is better than wheat but not better than rice for 45.4% of total coarse cereals are grown in Rajasthan, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Likewise, 48.8% of all pulses are grown in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Maharashtra. The tale is similar with oilseeds (63.8% in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat), with sugarcane (73% in Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Karnataka) and cotton (69.8% in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh).
With horticulture – that is, vegetables and fruit – there is less state-level concentration to be seen. India’s kisans grow about 170 million tons of vegetables and about 85 million tons of fruit a year and their concentrations vary – West Bengal and Odisha grow a great deal of brinjal, Maharashtra grows onions, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal lead in potatoes, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka grow the most tomatoes, and so on. Overall however, the range of distribution amongst the large states of their produce of vegetables and fruit is not as concentrated as with the food staples. The reasons for this difference can tell us a great deal about the need for district and watershed-level food security, employing as always sound zero budget farming techniques (no external inputs) and local and indigenous knowledge of cultivation techniques.
The matter that faces us now concerning the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) is: how should we consider what its activities represent? Like other UN agencies, the FAO works according to a mandate, which is agreed upon by its member states. Where the FAO is concerned, that mandate has to do with agriculture, not in the form of crops produced per hectare or acre, but in terms of who the cultivators and growers are, what their living and working conditions are, and the manner in which the crop and food they produce reaches the hands of those who need it.
Looked at in this way, an organisation such as the FAO has as one of its responsibilities the provision of support, in as many ways as possible, of the majority of those who grow food and the majority of those who buy food. In recent years however, the UN FAO has set aside this responsibility, deliberately and according to a plan. This dereliction of duty – in fact it is a duty agreed upon by FAO member states, of which there are 197 – can only be explained in one way: the FAO of today no longer represents the smallholder cultivator and farmer and peasant, and no longer represents the rural communities for whom agriculture is a dominant part of their biocultural life.
If the FAO now functions as an industry association (that is, representing the interests of a range of industries and technologies within the agriculture and food sector) then that is the choice of the organisation, presumably with the consent of the member states. However, such a deviation from its role hitherto then calls into question the funding it receives from said members, for that funding has for the 70 years of the organisation’s existence been predicated upon the FAO fulfilling its responsibility towards smallholder and peasant farmers, wherever in the world they may be. If the FAO is today an industry organisation – which its recent actions proclaim it to be – then the 197 member states must stop giving the organisation an annual contribution.
Will such a cessation of financial support make a difference to the FAO of 2016? Let us examine how the organisation is funded. The total FAO Budget planned for 2016-17 is US$ 2.6 billion. Of this amount, 39% comes from contributions paid by member countries, whereas 61% is to come from what are called “voluntary contributions from members and other partners”. Some countries pay more than others, some very much more, some not at all. The USA maintains an outstanding towards the FAO that is ludicrous – it is US$ 96.97 million in arrears.
But what is of concern to us is the alteration in the balance of the members’ contributions and the so-called voluntary contributions, in the rough ration of 40 to 60. This means that 6 out of 10 dollars that the FAO receives is used for what the organisation calls “support technical and emergency (including rehabilitation) assistance to governments for clearly defined purposes linked to the results framework” and which is different from the activities provided for under the “regular budget”.
Under the circumstances that I have just described therefore, the FAO-hosted international symposium, titled ‘The Role of Agricultural Biotechnologies in Sustainable Food Systems and Nutrition’, which is under way 15-17 February 2016, is what any trade organisation would call an interest group gathering with an intent to change policy and practice in a manner that profits and benefits the members of that interest group.
It is opaque to us for now, based on the information provided by the FAO on this symposium, whether the money spent on transporting to Rome “over 400 scientists, representatives of government, civil society, the private sector, academia, farmers’ associations and cooperatives” for a conference to “explore how agricultural bio-technologies can benefit family farmers, particularly those in developing countries, who need to improve nutrition and food systems while facing the challenges of poverty, climate change, and population growth” – whether the money spent to do so comes out of the regular budget or out of a voluntary contribution. An answer either way must only lead to further very critical questions asked of the FAO senior management.
These questions must be asked of FAO at all levels – particularly in FAO member states whose contributions to the organisation’s regular budget may be minuscule, but whose food and agriculture line ministries and departments, whose institutions and laboratories are induced or coerced into accepting an “inter-governmentally mandated package of best practices” that does everything to help the international agriculture biotechnology and industrial crop cultivation corporations and traders, and nothing whatsoever for those member countries’ peasant and smallholder farmers.
What the FAO is doing with this bio-technology symposium is worse than unconscionable and worse than being wilfully unmindful about the evidence of the harm – to animal populations, ecosystems and humans – caused by biotechnologies and especially those employed for agricultural purposes. The serious harm to health and the ecological and agronomical impacts of glyphosate and glyphosate tolerant crops for example are the most thoroughly researched. The same kind of evidence has now emerged for Bt crops and Bt toxins. Evidence that genetic modification per se is harmful is as broad and unimpeachable, with the uncontrollable processes of genetic modification having led to the phenomena of antibiotic resistance (reported from all over the world), the creation of new pathogens, the incidence of cancers, and the hijacking of the human body’s natural nucleic acids to do harm.
It is deliberately misleading and deeply cynical for the FAO to claim, with a banal insouciance, that this symposium “focuses mainly on the broad range of biotechnologies that could result in yield increases, better nutritional qualities, and improved productivities of crops, livestock, fish and trees benefitting family farmers and their food systems, nutrition and livelihoods”. This is the sort of cartoonish PR piffle that the UN sustainable development goals (the SDGs) have been wrapped in to appeal to the social media tendencies of the world’s teenagers.
For the last two years out of the four that José Graziano da Silva has been at the head of the organisation, the tilt towards industrial agriculture and biotechnology has become very much more pronounced compared with the already sorry condition the organisation was during the second term of Jacques Diouf (the Senegalese diplomat who was director-general from January 1994 to 31 December 2011). Under da Silva the “agriculture for nutrition” campaign line has become very much more prevalent, and has been supported – voluntary contributions facilitated by the FAO’s Partnerships and Advocacy Branch (an office by itself, and a very industrious one) – by a host of private sector networks and consortia whose interests encompass biofortification, pharmaceuticals, and agricultural biotechnologies.
The symposium has been condemned fiercely and jointly by 42 international and regional organisations with 131 national and local organisations (173 in all) led by La Via Campesina, Grain and ETC Group. “It is clear that, through the FAO, industry wants to re-launch their false message that genetically engineered crops can feed the world and cool the planet, while the reality is that nothing has changed on the biotech front,” is Via Campesina’s statement which adds that GMO use “throws farmers off the land” while “the industrial food system that it promotes is one of the main drivers of climate change”.
The same corporations (feted by FAO as valuable private sector partners) are going beyond conventional GMO plant varieties toward ‘extreme biotech’ strategies such as synthetic biology to create new genetic constructs, Via Campesina has warned. “Not only do they ignore the rights of farmers, they are using biotechnologies to patent plant genes that are already in peasants’ fields and that we have selected ourselves. They want to forbid us to produce our own seeds and oblige us to buy their patented GMOs every year as well as their toxic pesticides, indispensable to grow those GMOs. In animal husbandry and fisheries where transgenic salmon and pigs already exist, we see the same scenario, the strengthening of industrial production and the increase in the use of antibiotics.”
Grain, which works to support small farmers and social movements in their struggles for community-controlled and biodiversity-based food systems, has in its comments said that two of the FAO keynote speakers at the symposium are known proponents of GMOs, and the agenda and side events over the three days include speakers from the Biotechnology Industry Organization (a biotech trade group in the USA), Crop Life International (the global agro-chemicals trade association), DuPont (one of the world’s largest biotech seed companies) and CEVA (a major veterinary medicine corporation), among others.
“FAO has only invited one speaker or panellist openly critical of GMOs,” Grain has said (that one is from Via Campesina). “One of the two speakers at the opening session is a former assistant director general of FAO who has pushed for so-called Terminator seeds (GMO seeds programmed to die at harvest time forcing farmers to purchase new seeds every growing season), in opposition to FAO’s own public statements.”
Just when the biotech companies that make transgenic seeds are merging, the ETC Group has stated (with Syngenta having agreed to sell itself and its technologies to the government-owned China National Chemical Corporation, or ChemChina, only a fortnight ago), “the corporate vision of biotechnology is showing up at FAO” with the symposium being “another attempt by multinational agribusiness to redirect the policies of the UN agency toward support for GMOs”. ETC Group has demanded that FAO put an end to biopiracy and to its support for genetically modified crops, but as I have outlined earlier, the biotechnology purveyors in the FAO will have none of it because the structures of funding and control have been altered perhaps beyond the reach of the organisation’s member states.
What is left to do? Proscribe the UN FAO for its anti-small farmer and anti-peasant activities, encourage members states to demand that FAO mend its ways or step out of the organisation, and meanwhile demand that governments central and local ban all environmental releases of GMOs and synthetic biology. As the 173 signatories to the statement on the symposium show through their work, action can be taken locally in communities, villages, towns, municipalities, regions, as well as nationally and globally. As for the benighted symposium, here is a news article by FAO on the conference, this is the page for the event, the brochure, summaries of presentations (which provide one more confirmation of the fundamentally destructive intentions of the biotech industry), and a ‘key messages’ sheet from FAO whose manner and attitudes betray the extent to which an industrial mind now runs this particular UN agency.
Monkey-themed stamps are being issued by postal services all over the world to welcome the Year of the Monkey; Chinese television audiences are angry that a popular monkey king actor hasn’t been invited to big broadcaster CCTV’s Spring Festival gala; but they may be mollified by plans to release the fantasy epic ‘The Monkey King 2’ in 100 cities in 30 countries on or around 8 February; amidst the many festivities for the lunar new year, monkey-themed designs are found on stamps to commemorative coins, fashion and handicrafts; it is also the start of spring in the P R of China and there’s a lot to learn; folk artists are making traditional paper-cut monkeys to celebrate the new year (red paper, always red) as the paper cuts symbolise best wishes for the new year; figurines made out of dough of popular Chinese opera characters have been made to welcome the New Year; and Chinese ink painting masters have made monkey portraits in techniques that use few colors (black, yellow, and a bit of red) in a calligraphic manner; and if you are one of the 100,000 waiting for your train at the Guangzhou railway station, let’s hope you’re on your way home in time for the many new year activities. Welcome to the Year of the Monkey.
Ten years of a rural employment guarantee programme in India is well worth marking for the transformations it has brought about in rural districts and urban towns both, for the two kinds of Indias are so closely interlinked. The ten year mark has been surrounded by opportunistic political posturing of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of the ruling National Democratic Alliance and by churlish accusations from the Indian National Congress (or Congress party, now in the opposition).
When the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act came about (it is now prefixed by MG, which is Mahatma Gandhi) ten years ago, it was only the newest in a long line of rural poverty alleviation programmes whose beginnings stretch past the Integrated Rural Development Programme (still a touchstone during the Ninth Five Year Plan) whose early period dates from the 1970s as a more coherent manifestation of the ‘Food For Work’ programme. Democratic decentralisation, which is casually dropped into central government communications nowadays as if it was invented only last week, was explained at length as early as the Sixth Five Year Plan. And in the Fourth Five Year Plan, in the guidance section it was stated that measures were needed for “widening opportunities of productive work and employment to the common man and particularly the less privileged sections of society” which “have to be thought out in a number of different contexts and coordinated in to effective, integrated programmes”.
This is only the barest glimpse of the historical precursors to the MGNREGA. The size of our rural population in the decade of the 2010s transforms any national (central government) programme into a study of gigantism over a number of dimensions, and so it is with the (MG)NREGA whose procedural demands for organising information over time and place became a discipline by itself, leading to the creation of a management information system whose levels of detail are probably unmatched anywhere in the world.
For its administrators, every week that the MGNREGA delivers money to households in a hamlet for work sanctioned by that small panchayat is one more successful week. There have over this last decade been considerably more successful weeks than unsuccessful ones. This has happened not because of politicians of whichever party of persuasion, but because of the decision made by many households to participate in the shape that NREGA (and later MGNREGA) took in their particular village. The politicians, like the parties they belong to, are incidental and transitory. At this stage of the programme’s life, it is to be hoped that it continues to run as a participatory pillar of the economy of Bharat, and assimilates in the years to come new concerns from the domains of organic (or zero budget) agriculture, sustainable development and ecological conservation.
At this stage the commentaries look back at the last year or perhaps two of the programme. “It is unclear, however, what the present NDA government thinks about the performance of the scheme,” commented the periodical Down To Earth. “Last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called MGNREGA a ‘monument of failure’. Now, the rural development ministry has termed it as ‘a cause of national pride’.” The magazine went on to add that MGNREGA “started losing steam when wages were kept pending, leading to the liability being carried forward to the following year”.
“What is relatively less known is the impact of MGNREGA on several other aspects of the rural economy, such as wages, agricultural productivity and gender empowerment,” a commentary in the financial daily Mint has pointed out. “While most critics lament the quality of assets created under MGNREGA, there is now increasing evidence based on rigorous studies, which suggest that not only has the asset quality been better than comparable government programmes, they are also used more by the community.”
The finance minister has been quoted by the daily Indian Express as follows: “A kind of indifference towards it (MGNREGA) was growing by 2013-14, when the scheme entered its seventh and eighth years. When there was a change of government in 2014-15, there was talk on whether the scheme will be discontinued, or its fund allocation curtailed,” Minister Arun Jaitley is reported to have said at the MGNREGA ‘Sammelan’ in New Delhi. “The new government [the BJP] not only took forward the scheme but also increased its fund.”
In a Press Information Bureau release, the Minister for Rural Development, Birender Singh, said that 2015-16 has seen a revival of the MGNREGA programme. He also said that more than 64% of total expenditure was on agriculture and allied activities and 57% of all workers were women (well above the statutory requirement of 33%), and that among the measures responsible for the “revival of MGNREGA are the timely release of funds to states to provide work on demand, an electronic fund management system, consistent coordination between banks and post offices besides monitoring of pendency of payments”.
So far so good. What MGNREGA administrators need to mind now is for managerial technology and methods to not get ahead (or around) the objectives of the programme because these tend to keep the poor and vulnerable out instead of the other way around. The evaluations and studies on NREGA – and there have been a number of good ones – have shown that the more new financial and administrative measures there are, the greater the decline in participation in the programme. Administrative complexity also provides fodder to those, like this pompous commentator, who try to find in data ‘evidence’ that NREGA does “not help the poor”.
The MGNREGA’s usefulness and relevance is not only about creating employment when it is needed and its generally positive impact on wages. For all its shortcomings the MGNREGA programme has also helped revitalise the need to understand labour dynamics in rural areas particularly as it pertains to agriculture and cultivation. At a time when the flashier sections of the modern economy have lost their shine (if ever there was a shine) and when the need for panchayat-led, village-centric development that is self-reliant in deed and spirit is growing in Bharat, a programme like the MGNREGA has all the potential to serve the country well for another generation.