Resources Research

Culture and systems of knowledge, cultivation and food, population and consumption

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.

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.)

The wholesale fibs party and its propaganda

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(This article was first published by Vijayvaani and is available here.)

The Congress disinformation machine is up and running so hard that now it’s reinventing economics. An article in The Hindustan Times, dated Jan. 15, 2019 on the wholesale price index (WPI), with a wild headline, “Worst price slump in 18 years shows scale of farm crisis”, shows the Congress-plus-opposition agitprop firing on all cylinders. The trouble with this shoddy report and its very obvious promoters is that the wholesale price index (a) hasn’t behaved the way they claim it has (b) is not an indicator of the income health of the kisan household.

These minor inconveniences did not stop The Hindustan Times report from pronouncing that “This financial year, 2018-19 could end up being the worst year for farm incomes in almost two decades, government data indicates in a revelation that emphasises the gravity of the ongoing agrarian crisis”. The government data cited is the WPI which, as the name makes clear, is an index of the change in prices at the level of bulk sale, which for primary agricultural produce is at the mandi, or “farm gate”, as this reporter calls it fashionably. “The WPI sub-component for primary food articles has been negative for six consecutive months beginning July 2018. This means their prices are falling,” says the report.

This is false. Here are the WPI numbers for the category ‘primary articles – food articles’, for the months July to December (the latest month) 2018: July 144.8, August 144.8, September 144.5, October 145.9, November 146.1 and December 144.0 – where is the “negative for six consecutive months”?

Even the simple math the report claims to have done – based on a misreading of the WPI – is wrong. “The WPI sub-component for food components was -0.1% in December. It was -2.1%, -4%, -0.2%, -1.4% and -3.3% in the preceding five months,” says the report. Also false. The sequence of change, from December running backwards to July, is -2.1, 0.2, 1.4, -0.3, 0 and 3. And the change is a number, not a per cent, because the WPI and its components are indices.

But the HT report ploughs on unmindful: “The last time WPI for primary food articles showed negative annual growth for two consecutive quarters was in 1990. The disinflation in farm prices has also led to a collapse in nominal farm incomes, which was last seen in 2000-01.”

So many non-sequiturs in two sentences. A sequence of WPI numbers over several months is not an indicator of annual growth or contraction for what is being measured. As any Food Corporation of India warehouse manager could have told the reporter, what is indexed is the change.

Did the newspaper scrutinise WPI data back until 1990? If it did – and if the sponsors of this “data revelation” did – they would not have failed to notice that the current WPI series has the base year (from which index numbers of 697 different components are calculated) of 2011-12. The previous base year was 2004-05, before that it was 1993-94 and before even that it was 1981-82.

What happened instead is that The Hindustan Times was told to reference the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy which maintains the WPI data back to the 1981-82 series, but has shown a chart with the news report that draws the 2004-05 series. The rider while comparing indices from different series – that they be recalculated with a specific linking factor that makes two series intelligible to each other – is not mentioned at all by the reporter nor by those interviewed by the paper, and they are, in order of appearance: Himanshu, an associate professor of economics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University; Niranjan Rajadyaksha, research director and senior fellow at IDFC Institute, Mumbai; Praveen Chakravarty, chairman of the Congress data analytics department. And last, BJP spokesperson Gopal Agarwal.

Their quotes, and the confused graphs thrown in, are meant to prop up the sagging storyline – that the Doubling Farmers’ Income programme of the BJP is not working, that there is ‘agrarian distress’ all over India (the reason given for the INC-Left-NGO morcha to Delhi in November 2018), that the boost to minimum support prices are not working.

“To be sure,” the report says, so that we get the point that the data certainly does not make, “the current crisis in farming is related more to a crash in farm prices rather than output growth.” And immediately adds that in July 2018, “the central government increased the minimum support prices (MSPs) of 14 crops to give farmers a 50% return over their cost of production”. In fact, the MSP was raised so that it is now no less than 50% above the cost of production. Several crops have their MSPs pegged at 60% and even 70%.

Not content with the bashing of the BJP government by those the reporter has interviewed, the newspaper then brings in still another angle, GDP (gross domestic product) data. “That disinflation in farm-gate prices has put a squeeze on farm incomes can be seen from a comparison of growth in agricultural GDP at current and constant prices,” blithely says the report.

“The first advance estimates of GDP figures for 2018-19, which were released by the Central Statistical Office (CSO) last week, show that the difference between current and constant price growth in Gross Value Added (GVA) in agriculture and allied activities was -0.1 percentage point. This differential is 4.8 percentage points for overall GVA.”

It is surprising that The Hindustan Times appears to have no access to any of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research’s agronomists, who could have been asked to clarify what the connection is, if any, between GDP growth rates, gross value added and the income of a kisan household in any of our 350 (and rising) districts that produce food for markets near and far. What matters to that household is the income realised for crop grown and sold, and this is where eNam, the electronic national agriculture market, is making a difference with, till date, 585 markets in 16 states and 2 union territories being integrated.

But the newspaper wants to press every available economics button in its frantic attempt to convince its readers that there is an agrarian crisis being engineered by the BJP government. And so it enlists the Reserve Bank of India, too, claiming that “The failure of MSP hikes to arrest the decline in farm-gate prices was taken note of by RBI as well”. What has been quoted from the RBI monetary policy committee meeting held during 3-5 December 2018 does not say so at all.

“The prices of several food items are at unusually low levels and there is a risk of sudden reversal, especially of volatile perishable items,” is how the RBI has been quoted. And what this means is that the consumer of food could find the weekly food bill rising; as with the other crutches this report leans on heavily, the RBI has not said what The Hindustan Times tells readers it has. The risk of the price of some food items rising is not a “decline in farm-gate prices”.

Likewise, the second quote from the RBI meeting – “available data suggest that the effect of revision in minimum support prices (MSPs) announced in July on prices has been subdued so far” – is an encouragement, far from the burden it is made out to be by the report.

Typically, a rise in the MSP would have been transferred, at least some if not most of it, by the layers of crop collection, retail and distribution, to the consumer. This transfer, said the RBI, has been subdued, which shows that the measures taken by the government to cut out profiteering middlemen are working.

Six months in 1990 are not six months in 2018. Gross value added whether at constant or current prices is in no way a measure of income for harvested crop a kisan earns at a mandi or through eNam. These and every other trick used in this report show why it is a shabby, confused, hodge-podge of opposition party innuendo that is meant to ride on data which the reading public scarcely notice. Except, when it is noticed, the whiz-bang falls flat.

Written by makanaka

January 26, 2019 at 08:38

A scientist recants, or can he really?

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M S Swaminathan today (right), and during his fieldwork years (left). Photos from MSS Research Foundation

M S Swaminathan during his fieldwork years, and today. Photos from MSS Research Foundation

During the dialogue between Maitreyi and the sage Yajnavalkya, the great sage in one of his answers to her difficult series of questions, explains what validity is. Yajnavalkya said that man-made law is temporal law, valid only as long as people who are concerned with it agree that it is valid; when not agreed upon, its validity ceases.

In one of his 1934 lectures J B S Haldane, one of the early 20th century’s founding evolutionary geneticists, and a political leftist, observed: “Put a Jersey cow and a South Africa scrub cow in an English meadow. The Jersey will give far more milk. Put them on the veldt, and the Jersey will give less milk. Indeed she will probably die.”

At 93, one of our scientists who is known for knowing about crops, is I am sure familiar with both, for he should have passed into the stage of sanyasa some years ago, in which stage he would profitably contemplate lessons from these and other thinkers. But the scientist seems strangely reluctant to do so, having had fashioned for himself a vanaprastha which resembles a field biology laboratory.

It has been fashioned for himself not by the kisans of India who are grateful for having carried out the results of his researches, but by the industries of food and the merchants of the technological cornucopia that surrounds all that we call food today. It is in short, a very elaborate golden handshake whose fine print contains a few tasks which Padma Shri Padma Bhushan Padma Vibhushan Monkombu Sambasivan Swaminathan has been entrusted with.

If he disregards the fine print, even today, he is scolded and upbraided by those half and even a third his age, for he is still governed by the proctors of industrial agriculture who pay not the slightest attention to the glittering heap of accolades and awards (73 honorary doctorates at last count) that accompany his name. And this is what happened when M S Swaminathan, as co-author of a rather reflective paper in the journal Current Science, questioned the sustainability, safety, and regulation of genetically modified crops.

Cows returning from their evening grazing, upland Tamil Nadu.

With that paper, he strayed across the Yajnavalkya boundary that marks out ‘validity’. He ceased being the English meadow in Haldane’s example and became instead the south African veldt. These are transgressions not permitted by the fine print that accompanies, along with awards and accolades, all scientists whose practice of science is determined by industry and foreign policy, as food and the cultivation of crop has been since the European monarchies funded the annexation of territories not their own to convert into colonies.

It is possible that Swaminathan and his co-author, P C Kesavan (a researcher at the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai, India, which is the elder scientist’s field biology lab) were actuated by considerations other than scientific.

What might these considerations have been? First, political, because from around mid-year in 2017, a broad front of diverse groups – the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee – with several of its constituents claiming to represent kisan organisations and associations in different states, others including activist organisations protesting genetically engineered crops, have been launching marches and agitations against the NDA government using agriculture and kisan welfare as their platform.

The connection, between this episodic haranguing on the streets (not in fields) and Swaminathan is that he supplied, through the recommendations of the National Commission of Farmers (in 2004), their primary talking points today. Even today, his is seen as India’s most authoritative academic imprimatur on a campaign, programme or policy about sustainable agriculture.

It is a remarkable balance to have maintained for a man who helped usher into India an alien, short-stemmed, lab-tinkered, input-hungry rice variety to replace – with disastrous long-term effects on our agro-biodiversity and soil health – our own magnificent families of rice.

His second consideration for doing so is undoubtedly a blend – an academic setting right of the record, and an acknowledgement of the soaring unsustainability of industrial, fossil fuel-driven, retail oriented agriculture that relies on biotechnology and artificial intelligence. Any field researcher who tramped past rice seedling nurseries in the mid-1960s would absorb sustainability in all aspects of crop cultivation, sustainability should infuse his every utterance.

Picking cotton in Saurashtra, Gujarat. Bt cotton remains the only legally cultivated GM crop in India

But when Swaminathan was turned towards genetics, and away from the science of selection which our kisans have practiced ever since (and likely before) Rishi Parashar composed his smrti on the subject, he was parted forever from the simple essence of sustainability. Yet now there loom before the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, of which Swaminathan has been an éminence grise, the effects of climate change and the demands of the sustainable development goals, and modern agriculture cannot comply with even the skeletal interim standards of these goals.

For all his misdemeanours since the 1960s – including the unforgiveable plundering of our Central Rice Research Institute’s extremely valuable varieties from Odisha and Chhattisgarh, to stock the gene banks of the International Rice Research Institute with – I doubt that Swaminathan cares to be remembered by the generations to come in India as one of those who bestowed scientific legitimacy upon an agro-ecologically illiterate programme, the Green Revolution.

The lorry-load of awards he has accumulated over four decades have for the most part been supplied by the industry and nation-state powers that make food and its supply an economic weapon or a foreign policy instrument. That makes him not a visionary scientist receiving the admiration of multitudes (which the Padma awards were supposed to represent) but a paid general upon whose person battlefield decorations are pinned every now and then to please the troops.

He made his Faustian bargain nigh a half-century ago, but if a retreat into sanyasa and a twilight of less untruth than what he has guarded was Swaminathan’s wish, it is not one he will have granted. For swift and pitiless came the censure of his paper in Current Science. “The specific instances where results are selectively omitted, selectively represented or misrepresented are rife,” grated out K. VijayRaghavan, Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India, in his note to Swaminathan.

“Indeed, the bulk of the scientific points made in this part of the review have been raised previously and have been scientifically discredited widely and one has to only study the literature to see this.” Others, who have made similar bargains, on terms more demanding, were much more unkind and derisive.

The co-authors have been attacked for having “relied on papers and statements by individual scientists that run against the collective weight of peer-reviewed data and in-depth assessments by respected scientific organisations such as the Royal Society (UK), the National Academy of Sciences (US), the US Food and Drug Administration and the European Food Safety Authority”. In short, for having deviated from the industrial-agri-biotech party line the international GMO politburo must enforce.

And so the elder scientist had to disavow his recantation, first to the government man: “There has been some misunderstanding about my views to ensure sustainable productivity by avoiding the spread of greed revolution resulting in the undermining of the long term production potential.” And likewise in a letter (on his foundation’s website) to the biotech industry’s army of invigilators the world over: “I wish to conclude by reiterating my total commitment and support to modern technologies including genetic modification and gene editing.”

This episode has shown that in some matters there can be no renunciation. Sri Krishna explained to Arjuna that under his direction and control, nature brings out this mighty universe of living and non-living beings and “thus does the wheel of this world revolve”. Fatefully, it seems that a sanyasa spent in contemplation of this wheel will elude M S Swaminathan, who once knew rice fields.

Written by makanaka

January 4, 2019 at 09:14

The deadly threat of gene drives

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The UN Biodiversity Conference began on 13 November 2018 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, and until its close on 29 November will call on decision makers from more than 190 countries to step up efforts to “halt biodiversity loss and protect the ecosystems that support food and water security and health for billions of people”.

On 17 November, the Conference of Parties to the Cartagena Protocol of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity begins. On the agenda is a vital subject that has been moved to the centre of the meeting’s deliberations: a technology called ‘gene drives’. This part of the UN Biodiversity Conference will discuss several key draft decisions about the risks it poses and how to deal with them, including through a moratorium on the technology.

What are ‘gene drives’? Gene drive organisms are supposed to ‘force’ one or more genetic traits onto future generations of their own species. The term for gene drives used by French scientists, ‘Forçage Génétique’ (genetic forcer) makes the intention clear: to force an engineered genetic change through an entire population or even an entire species. If permitted, such organisms could accelerate the distribution of corporate-engineered genes from the lab to the rest of the living world at dizzying speed and in an irreversible process.

As a must-read explainer of this menacing new technology, prepared by the ETC Group and the Heinrich Böll Stiftung, has put it, such organisms “are designed, over time, to replace non-gene drive organisms of the same species in a population via an uncontrolled chain reaction – this ability may make them a far more dangerous biohazard than genetically modified organisms (GMOs)”. [The report, released in October 2018, is ‘Forcing The Farm: How Gene Drive Organisms Could Entrench Industrial Agriculture and Threaten Food Sovereignty’.]

Recently, a study by the Bundesamt für Naturschutz, which is the central scientific authority of the German federal government for both national and international nature conservation, warned that “with gene drives, GMO applications are moving directly from crop plants to modifying wild species. Major consequences on semi-natural and natural ecosystems are expected.” The research concludes that “a clear understanding
and analysis of these differences is crucial for any risk assessment regime and a socially acceptable and
ethical evaluation that is vital for the application of [GDO] technology”.

More pertinent to the current model of the transnational cartelisation of industrial agricultre, a group of French researchers recently concluded: “The time frame of gene drive perfectly fits the economic development strategies dominant today in agribusiness, with a focus on short-term return on investments and disdain for long-term issues. The current economic system based on productivity, yields, monoculture, and extractivism is a perfect match for the operating mode of gene drive.” [From ‘Agricultural pest control with CRISPR‐based gene drive: time for public debate’ by Virginie Courtier‐Orgogozo, Baptiste Morizot and Christophe Boëte in EMBO Reports.]

Reading these warnings helps form better clarity about what GDOs are and are not. From what I have been able to understand, normal reproductive biology gives the offspring of sexually reproducing organisms a 50:50 chance of inheriting a gene from their parents. The gene drives however is an invasive technology to ensure that within a few generations, all that organisms offspring will contain an engineered gene!

Why the phase shift from the already dangerous GMO to the threatening of an entire species by GDO? Thanks to rising consumer awareness of the dangers of GMO food crops, vegetables and fruit – which is now visible even in India (a generation-and-a-half later than Europe) where the central and state governments have put not a rupee into educating consumers about pesticide and synthetic fertiliser poisoning, let alone GMOs) – the uptake of GMOs is levelling off as the predicted risks have become evident, such as the intensification of the treadmill of increased use of toxic chemicals. The so-called ‘gene editing’ techniques, and particularly GDOs, has given the industrial agriculture-biotech-seed multinational corporations a strategy to regain the pace of their domination of food cultivation and therefore food control.

Recognising the extreme danger, the UN Biodiversity Conference which is now under way in Egypt, and particularly the part of the conference beginning on 17 November which is the Conference of Parties to the Cartagena Protocol of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), have placed gene drives on the agenda. [The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the Convention on Biological Diversity is an international agreement which aims to ensure the safe handling, transport and use of living modified organisms (LMOs) resulting from modern biotechnology that may have adverse effects on biological diversity, taking also into account risks to human health. It was adopted on 29 January 2000 and entered into force on 11 September 2003.]

The meeting will discuss, under ‘Risk assessment and risk management’ (which are Articles 15 and 16 of the Protocol) draft decisions on gene drives and, we must hope, take them while imposing a moratorium on this evil technology. [Draft decision document CBD/CP/MOP/9/1/ADD2]. The draft decisions are:

3. Also recognises that, as there could be potential adverse effects arising from organisms containing engineered gene drives, before these organisms are considered for release into the environment, research and analysis are needed, and specific guidance may be useful, to support case-by-case risk assessment;

4.Notes the conclusions of the Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group on Synthetic Biology that, given the current uncertainties regarding engineered gene drives, the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples and local communities might be warranted when considering the possible release of organisms containing engineered gene drives that may impact their traditional knowledge, innovation, practices, livelihood and use of land and water;

5. Calls for broad international cooperation, knowledge sharing and capacity-building to support, inter alia, Parties in assessing the potential adverse effects on the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity from [living modified organisms produced through genome editing,] living modified organisms containing engineered gene drives and living modified fish, taking into account risks to human health, the value of biodiversity to indigenous peoples and local communities, and relevant experiences of individual countries in performing risk assessment of such organisms in accordance with annex III of the Cartagena Protocol;

The concerns of the CBD and the warnings of scientists have been entirely ignored by the agricultural biotechnology corporations and by the inter-connected funding organisations and research groups engaged in synthetic biology. As the report, ‘Forcing The Farm’, has said, multimillion-dollar grants for gene drive development have been given by Gates Foundation, the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health, the Open Philanthropy Institute, the Wellcome Trust and the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. These include generous allowances for what is called ‘public message testing’ and ‘public engagement exercises’ – making GDOs sound beneficial to society and glossing over the dangers – and lobbying of governments and policy-makers.

What is particularly worrying for us in India is the role of the Tata Trusts in financing research on GDOs. In 2016 October an American university, the University of California San Diego, received a US$70 million commitment from the Tata Trusts (which now is the umbrella organisation for what earlier were the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust, the Sir Ratan Tata Trust and the Tata Education and Development Trust, and in terms of funding capacity is probably the largest in India) to establish the Tata Institute for Active Genetics and Society (TIAGS).

This new institute is described as a collaborative partnership between the university and research operations in India. A university press release had said: “UC San Diego, which will be home to the lead unit of the institute (TIAGS-UC San Diego), will receive US$35 million in funding, while the remainder of the committed funds is anticipated to support a complementary research enterprise in India (TIAGS-India).”

India is a signatory to the Cartagena Protocol of the Convention on Biological Diversity (signed 23/01/2001, ratified 17/01/2003, entered into force 11/09/2003) and its reporting to the Protocol on risk assessments of GMOs (which have officially not been used on food crops) has been worse than desultory – the five risk assessments submitted by India are all in 2012 for Bt cotton hybrids.

The shameful co-option of the statutory Genetic Engineering Approval Committee by India’s biotech companies, which was fully revealed in 2016 during the furore over the Committee’s bid to have GM mustard approved, has shown that the entire biosafety assessment process in India and its ability to actually protect our environment and citizens’ health from the profoundly menacing risks of biotechnology, is compromised.

The Gates Foundation, which has graduated from influencing central and state government policy in health and agriculture to becoming an implementing agency, and which has invested heavily in synthetic biotechnology and GDOs (such as ‘Target Malaria’, which uses gene drives against mosquitoes) is now collaborating with the Tata Trusts in health, nutrition and crop cultivation together with the American aid agency USaid and other foundations that claim philanthropic intentions. The risks to our agro-ecological methods, our local crop cultivation knowledge, our food and our public healthcare system have now become far more threatening.