Resources Research

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

May Day 2015

leave a comment »

Garment workers take part in a protest calling on the government to raise wages during a march to mark Labour Day in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Garment workers take part in a protest calling on the government to raise wages during a march to mark Labour Day in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

All the substantial issues confronting the working class today — the rapid growth of social inequality, a tattered veneer of ‘democracy’ behind which ever more rapacious forms of neo-liberal economics rule over peoples and the environment, the explosion of police violence within countries (as in the USA) and of armed conflict between countries and regions — all these are bound up with the struggle against new forms of dominance.

The dangers of war loom more menacing today than they did in 1914 and in 1939. But for many workers in many countries on this May Day in 2015, war has never gone away. It persists because of the division of the world into what are called competing economies (as if ‘country’ and ‘economy’ are synonymous: they are nothing of the kind). On May Day, the subordination of the productive forces of households, families, communities and villages to the corporate and financial elite is protested and revoked.

Workers carry banners with messages in support of workers' rights during a march to mark Labour Day in Yangon, Burma (left). Members of the Group of the National Confederation of Trade Unions, raise their fists and shout slogans during their annual May Day rally in Tokyo.

Workers carry banners with messages in support of workers’ rights during a march to mark Labour Day in Yangon, Burma (left). Members of the Group of the National Confederation of Trade Unions, raise their fists and shout slogans during their annual May Day rally in Tokyo.

The world of work has been reshaped by globalisation. Today, much of global trade involves global buyers and suppliers, which has implications for workers’ welfare. Multinational enterprises source from a network of suppliers, who, in turn, compete with one another to obtain business. The task of providing compensation is therefore left to the supplier of the product or service, who is under considerable pressure with regard to the wages and conditions they can offer workers.

There are no mechanisms within the political system (there are scant differences between political systems installed today, for their methods are so similar) through which any of the grievances of the vast majority of the population can find expression. These democratic demands should be linked to programmes that advances the social rights of the working class. Chief amongst these must be a massive redistribution of wealth, which has been snatched away by what is mockingly called the ‘market’, itself a ghastly amalgam of banks, technocrats, commodity speculators, global finance capital, lobbyists and consultants, the multi-lateral lending organisations (like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank), and all their cronies and cabals fostered by politicians.

Technological advancements and the expansion of the internet have caused temporal and physical distances to vanish. They have accelerated sweeping and damaging changes in the organisation of production and work. There has been a growth in the number of hours that enterprises operate (24 by 7 has become a household term) and therefore in the times when workers at all levels of service and production must be available to work. If they are not they are summarily sacked, fired, dismissed.

Protesters from the trade union PAME hold red flags during the May Day rally in front of the parliament building in Athens, Greece (left). People march in Moscow marking Labour Day.

Protesters from the trade union PAME hold red flags during the May Day rally in front of the parliament building in Athens, Greece (left). People march in Moscow marking Labour Day.

Since the 1980s, but especially in the 2010s, under the pressures of ‘competition’ but in fact as a strategy to create an ever-greater pool of consumers who are otherwise disenfranchised, companies and corporations run by the financial puppeteers have demanded greater flexibility in production and organisation. This has abandoned the traditional employment relationship which, for all its faults, has been one that has survived the Modern Era. It was the basis for labour protection measures. No longer. Non-standard employment arrangements have become common features in what are now cynically called labour markets, no matter where they are – Argentina, Micronesia, Scandinavia, sub-Saharan Africa. Work has become unstable and frighteningly insecure for families. Work has in fact been deliberately caused to become chronically unpredictable.

A concerted assault on the domination of our societies by this putrid but dangerous financial aristocracy is needed. For this enemy is determined to maintain its stranglehold through violence and through the punishment of poverty. This grip over our economic and political lives must be broken, for only when our societies are based on public ownership and democratic control of the forces of production and the means with which to safeguard ecology, natural resources and cultural values can genuine ‘development’ (a grossly abused term) take place.

Monsoon 2015 could be 93% with ifs and buts

leave a comment »

RG_monsoon_forecast_20150422

The India Meteorological Department has just released it’s long-awaited forecast for the 2015 Indian monsoon. In terms of the quantity of rainfall over the duration of the monsoon season (June to September) the IMD has said it will be 93% of the ‘Long Period Average’. This average is based on the years 1951-2000.

What this means is the ‘national’ average rainfall over the monsoon season for India is considered to be 89 centimetres, or 890 millimetres. So, based on the conditions calculated till today, the ‘national’ average rainfall for the June to September monsoon season is likely to be 830 millimetres.

There are caveats and conditions. The first is that the 93% forecast is to be applied to the long period average for each of the 36 meteorological sub-divisions, and a ‘national average’ does not in fact have much meaning without considerable localisation. The second is that the forecasting methodology itself comes with a plus-minus caution. There is “a model error of ± 5%” is the IMD’s caution.

IMD_categories_201504This first forecast and the model that the forecast percentage has emerged from are thanks to the efforts of the Earth System Science Organization (ESSO), under the Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES), and the India Meteorological Department (IMD), which is the principal government agency in all matters relating to meteorology. This is what the IMD calls a first-stage forecast.

As with all complex models, this one comes with several considerations. The ESSO, through the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM, which is in Pune), also runs what it calls an ‘Experimental Coupled Dynamical Model Forecasting System’. According to this, the monsoon rainfall during the 2015 monsoon season (June to September) averaged over India “is likely to be 91% ±5% of long period model average”. (The IMD forecast is available here, and in Hindi here.)

This is a lower figure than the 93% headline issued by the IMD. This too should be read with care as there are five “category probability forecasts” that are calculated – deficient, below normal, normal, above normal and excess. Each is accompanied by a forecast probability and a climatological probability (see the table). The maximum forecast probability of 35% is for a below normal monsoon, while the maximum climatological probability is for a normal monsoon.

As before, time will tell and the IMD will issue its second long range forecast in June 2015. Our advice to the Ministry of Earth Sciences and to the IMD is to issue its second long range forecast a month from now, in May, and also to confirm these forecasts two months hence in June, when monsoon 2015 will hopefully be active all over the peninsula. [This is also posted on India Climate Portal.]

What the WTO-FAO alliance on food portends

with 2 comments

Campaign material by GRAIN and Via Campesina to stop seed laws that criminalise farmers and to defend local seeds.

Campaign material by GRAIN and Via Campesina to stop seed laws that criminalise farmers and to defend local seeds.

A convergence that the agri-business multinationals have long looked for is now beginning. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation – whose constitution includes “bettering the condition of rural populations” as one of its four main purposes – has joined forces with the World Trade Organisation, whose concern for rural populations is precisely zero.

Both organisations call it a collaboration, but that term is a smokescreen. The FAO is technically being run under the supervision of its eighth director-general (since 1948; their tenures are far too long and Asian and South American members especially ought to have corrected this error long ago). José Graziano da Silva, the number eight, has since 2013 increased the pace at which the FAO also collaborates with the private sector – which means the international grain traders, the agricultural commodity cartels, the food and beverage multi-nationals, and last but not least the exceedingly powerful agricultural biotechnology corporations.

The WTO has described the new alliance as a “step up” on the issue of “trade and food security, as well as other issues”. The first item of collaboration by the trade body with the FAO will be to participate in the annual State of Agricultural Commodity Markets report, which this year will focus on trade and food security, and which the WTO has mischievously described as “the FAO’s flagship publication”. It isn’t, for the FAO’s State of Food and Agriculture is the flagship report, but that misappellation is a sign of the changes to come.

Grain_defend-local-seeds_201503_2What is being sought, from the WTO point of view, is “evidence and greater clarity on a range of issues related to trade and food security”. This is ingenuous, for the WTO’s ‘greater clarity’ has only meant more trade, justified with make-believe macro-economical models that pretend trade is good for low income consumers and smallholder farm producers alike, and to ignore ground truth. For the FAO on the other hand, ‘greater clarity’ on the question of food and trade has long been available in-house in the form of the food balance sheets maintained for every country in FAOstat, which is the voluminous FAO database.

But the tone is being set by the WTO, which has said: “Considering the important role of open and strengthened food markets in supporting food security objectives, the two directors-general discussed how trade and the multilateral trading system could help in creating a more favourable global environment for food security and sustainable agriculture.” It obviously doesn’t occur to WTO Director-General Roberto Azevêdo and his secretariat that ‘the multilateral trading system’ and ‘sustainable agriculture’ are fundamentally incompatible.

The FAO’s description of its new alliance is couched in milder terms. The organisation has said the collaboration offers “mutual assistance on critical themes such as the functioning of international grain markets” but also invokes “evidence and greater clarity” on “the governance of trade flows and the pursuit of broader food security”. FAO has resorted to using the non sequitur that food security is closely linked to trade and therefore this alliance is important. As with the WTO, internal contradictions don’t matter – if FAO is discussing smallholder family farms, then food security doesn’t include trade; if FAO is discussing organic cultivation, then food security doesn’t include trade. But under an alliance with WTO, unquestionably it does.

Grain_defend-local-seeds_201503_1FAO Director-general José Graziano da Silva has insisted that “food security and trade can together play a very important role to help fulfil FAO’s mandate”. What part of the mandate could be ‘helped’ by this alliance? The FAO member states are committed under its constitution to (1) raising levels of nutrition and standards of living of the peoples under their respective jurisdictions; (2) securing improvements in the efficiency of the production and distribution of all food and agricultural products; (3) bettering the condition of rural populations; and (4) contributing towards an expanding world economy and ensuring humanity’s freedom from hunger.

If called upon to do so by FAO member states – and I wish the G77 would summon up the critical voice to do so – the new alliance will probably be explained by the WTO and FAO as helping to fulfil the second and fourth objectives. Thus ‘improving the distribution’ of food and contributing to ‘expanding the world economy’ is what the alliance will use to show that the FAO’s mandated objectives (problematic as hey are already) are being followed.

What could the immediate implications be of the WTO now having a hand in setting the FAO’s ‘development’ agenda concerning the production of food staples and their use? Here is a short list:

1. The FAO overtly supporting the push, through the WTO, by the USA and other major grain exporting countries, for developing countries to increase their ‘trade facilitation’ measures – which means their physical and policy readiness to receive grain and manufactured food, no matter what the cost is locally.

2. This push will become stronger and energetic very quickly. So far, the Bali decision on public stockholding for food security purposes is to remain in place until a permanent solution is agreed and adopted. The WTO, the USA and the European Union want negotiations (which in their parlance means that all other countries accept their proposal) to be agreed to and adopted by 31 December 2015.

3. The new WTO-FAO alliance will immediately start exerting pressure on India, countries of the South and the G77 on Bali decisions concerning agriculture: tariff-rate quota administration, export competition and phasing out of cotton subsidies.

4. The FAO using trade-related arguments to defend the unacceptable biases in the existing WTO Agreement on Agriculture, and to beat down the developing countries stand (taken at the Bali ministerial meeting of the WTO in 2013) on the issue of public food reserves for food security.

5. The WTO using the FAO’s long experience in the field to sharpen its attack on the public food reserves systems of developing countries – which the US Trade Representative and its allies in the OECD calls ‘trade distorting’ – so that the socio-ecological institution of the smallholder farmer, and family farms, are done away with.

No Shri Javadekar, India won’t gamble with carbon

leave a comment »

Coal will account for much of India's energy for another generation. How does the BJP calculate its 'value' at international climate talks? Image: PTI/Deccan Chronicle

Coal will account for much of India’s energy for another generation. How does the BJP calculate its ‘value’ at international climate talks? Image: PTI/Deccan Chronicle

There is a message New Delhi’s top bureaucrats must listen to and understand, for it is they who advise the ministers. The message has to do with climate change and India’s responsibilities, within our country and outside it. This is the substance of the message:

1. The Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government must stop treating the factors that contribute to climate change as commodities that can be bartered or traded. This has been the attitude of this government since it was formed in May 2014 – an attitude that says, in sum, ‘we will pursue whatever GDP goals we like and never mind the climate cost’, and that if such a pursuit is not to the liking of the Western industrialised world, India must be compensated.

2. Rising GDP is not the measure of a country and it is not the measure of India and Bharat. The consequences of pursuing rising GDP (which does not mean better overall incomes or better standards of living) have been plain to see for the better part of 25 years since the process of liberalisation began. Some of these consequences are visible in the form of a degraded natural environment, cities choked in pollution, the rapid rise of non-communicable diseases, the economic displacement of large rural populations. All these consequences have dimensions that deepen the impacts of climate change within our country.

3. There are no ‘terms of trade’ concerning climate change and its factors. There is no deal to jockey for in climate negotiations between a narrow and outdated idea of GDP-centred ‘development’ and monetary compensation. The government of India is not a broking agency to bet a carbon-intensive future for India against the willingness of Western countries to pay in order to halt such a future. This is not a carbon casino and the NDA-BJP government must immediately stop behaving as if it is.

RG_coal_201503_1The environment minister, Prakash Javadekar, has twice in March 2015 said exactly this: we will go ahead and pollute all we like in the pursuit of our GDP dream – but if you (world) prefer us not to, give us lots of money as compensation. Such an attitude and such statements are to be condemned. That Javadekar has made such a statement is bad enough, but I find it deeply worrying that a statement like this may reflect a view within the NDA-BJP government that all levers of governance are in fact monetary ones that can be bet, like commodities can, against political positions at home and abroad. If so, this is a very serious error being made by the central government and its advisers.

Javadekar has most recently made this stand clear in an interview with a foreign news agency. In this interview (which was published on 26 March 2015), Javadekar is reported to have said: “The world has to decide what they want. Every climate action has a cost.” Worse still, Javadekar said India’s government is considering the presentation of a deal – one set of commitments based on internal funding to control emissions, and a second set, with deeper emissions cuts, funded by foreign money.

Earlier in March, during the Fifteenth Session of the African Ministerial Conference on Environment (in Cairo, Egypt), Javadekar had said: “There has to be equitable sharing of the carbon space. The developed world which has occupied large carbon space today must vacate the space to accommodate developing and emerging economies.” He also said: “The right to development has to be respected while collectively moving towards greener growth trajectory.”

Such statements are by themselves alarming. If they also represent a more widespread view within the Indian government that the consequences of the country following a ‘development’ path can be parleyed into large sums of money, then it indicates a much more serious problem. The UNFCCC-led climate change negotiations are infirm, riddled with contradictions, a hotbed of international politics and are manipulated by finance and technology lobbies.

RG_coal_201503_2It remains on paper an inter-governmental arrangement and it is one that India is a part of and party to. Under such circumstances, our country must do all it can to uphold moral action and thinking that is grounded in social and environmental justice. The so-called Annex 1 countries have all failed to do so, and instead have used the UNFCCC and all its associated mechanisms as tools to further industry and foreign policy interests.

It is not in India’s nature and it is not in India’s character to to the same, but Javadekar’s statement and the government of India’s approach – now made visible by this statement – threatens to place it in the same group of countries. This is a crass misrepresentation of India. According to the available data, India in 2013 emitted 2,407 million tons of CO2 (the third largest emitter behind the USA and China). In our South Asian region, this is 8.9 times the combined emissions of our eight neighbours (Pakistan, 165; Bangladesh, 65; Sri Lanka, 15; Myanmar, 10; Afghanistan, 9.4; Nepal, 4.3; Maldives, 1.3; Bhutan, 0.7).

When we speak internationally of being responsible we must first be responsible at home and to our neighbours. Javadekar’s is an irresponsible statement, and is grossly so. Future emissions are not and must never be treated as or suggested as being a futures commodity that can attract a money premium. Nor is it a bargaining chip in a carbon casino world. The government of India must clearly and plainly retract these statements immediately.

Note – according to the UNFCCC documentation, “India communicated that it will endeavour to reduce the emissions intensity of its GDP by 20-25 per cent by 2020 compared with the 2005 level. It added that emissions from the agriculture sector would not form part of the assessment of its emissions intensity.”

“India stated that the proposed domestic actions are voluntary in nature and will not have a legally binding character. It added that these actions will be implemented in accordance with the provisions of relevant national legislation and policies, as well as the principles and provisions of the Convention.”

The slowing motion of India’s quick mobility

leave a comment »

RG_vehicles_households_20_years

This is a chart whose lines drift downwards as time goes by, quite the opposite of all the usual depictions of India’s rising GDP, rising income, rising purchasing power, and so on. But in the two dropping lines is the proof that India’s households are tying themselves up in stifling vehicular knots.

This chart shows what we call two-wheelers (scooters and motor-cycles) and cars (four-wheeled passenger vehicles, formally). It also shows number of households and a span of 20 years. The two lines show the number of households to a car (the orange line) and the number of households to a two-wheeler (the blue line). As there are many more two-wheelers than there are cars, they are on different scales, so the left axis is for the two-wheelers and the right for cars.

vehicles_2012I have taken the data from two sources. One is the Census of India, for the census years 2011, 2001 and 1991. The other is the Road Transport Yearbook (2011-12) issued by the Transport Research Wing, Ministry Of Road Transport and Highways, Government Of India. The yearbook includes a table with the total number of registered vehicles (in different categories of vehicle – two-wheelers, cars, buses, goods vehicles, others) for every year. The number of households is from the census years, with simple decadal growth applied annually between census years. I have not yet found the detailed data that will let me refine this finding between urban and rural populations.

This is what the chart says: in 1992, there were 10 households to a two-wheeler and 48.7 households to a car. Ten years later in 2002 there were 4.8 households to a two-wheeler and 26.2 households to a car. Another ten years later in 2012 there were 2.2 households to a two-wheeler and 11.8 households to a car.

vehicles_2005The implications are several and almost all of them are an alarm signal. Especially for urban areas – where most of the buying of vehicles for households has taken place – the physical space available for the movement of people and goods has increased only marginally, but the number of motorised contrivances (cars, motor-cycles, scooters and more recently stupidly large SUVs and stupidly large and expensive luxury cars) has increased quickly. Naturally this ‘growth’ of wheeled metal has choked our city wards.

But there are other implications. One is the very idea of individual mobility in and through a town or city. The connection – foolishly maintained by one government after another, and foolishly defended by macro-economists and industrial planners – between the automobile industry and gross domestic product (GDP) has crippled common sense.

vehicles_1995More motorised conveyance per household also means more fuel demanded per household, and more fuel (and money) wasted because households are taught (by the auto industry with the encouragement of the foolish cohorts I mentioned earlier) that they are entitled to wasteful personal mobility. Over 20 years, the number of cars per household has increased 4.1 times but the number of buses per household has increased only 2.8 times. That is embarrassing proof of our un-ecological and climate unfriendly new habits.

In 2012, there were 1.67 million buses (of all kinds and configurations), there were 7.65 million goods vehicles (to move all those appliances demanded by households, food crops, fertiliser, retail food, etc), 13.16 million other vehicles (which as the ministry says “include tractors trailers, three-wheelers (passenger vehicles)/LMV and other miscellaneous vehicles which are not classified separately”), 21.56 million cars (including jeeps and taxis), and 115.41 million two-wheelers. There are far too many of some kinds and not enough of others. More than 20 years after ‘liberalisation’ began, India’s household mobility is crawling along in first gear for having made too many wrong choices.

India’s writing of the urbanised middle-class symphony

with one comment

The maintaining of and adding to the numbers of the middle class is what the growth of India’s GDP relies upon. Photo: Rahul Goswami 2014

The maintaining of and adding to the numbers of the middle class is what the growth of India’s GDP relies upon. Photo: Rahul Goswami 2014

The occasional journal Agenda (published by the Centre for Communication and Development Studies) has focused on the subject of urban poverty. A collection of articles brings out the connections between population growth, the governance of cities and urban areas, the sub-populations of the ‘poor’ and how they are identified, the responses of the state to urbanisation and urban residents (links at the end of this post).

My contribution to this issue has described how the urbanisation of India project is being executed in the name of the ‘urban poor’. But the urban poor themselves are lost in the debate over methodologies to identify and classify them and the thicket of entitlements, provisions and agencies to facilitate their ‘inclusion’ and ‘empowerment’. I have divided my essay into five parts – part one may be read here, part two is found here, and this is part three:

A small matrix of classifications is the reason for such obtuseness, which any kirana shop owner and his speedy delivery boys could quickly debunk. As with the viewing of ‘poverty’ so too the consideration of an income level as the passport between economic strata (or classes) in a city: the Ministry of Housing follows the classification that a household whose income is up to Rs 5,000 a month is pigeon-holed as belonging to the economically weaker section while another whose income is Rs 5,001 and above up to Rs 10,000 is similarly treated as lower income group.

Committees and panels studying our urban condition are enjoined not to stray outside these markers if they want their reports to find official audiences, and so they do, as did the work (in 2012) of the Technical Group on Urban Housing Shortage over the Twelfth Plan period (which is 2012-17). Central trade unions were already at the time stridently demanding that Rs 10,000 be the national minimum wage, and stating that their calculation was already conservative (so it was, for the rise in the prices of food staples had begun two years earlier).

The contributions of those in the lower economic strata (not the ‘poor’ alone, however they are measured or miscounted) to the cities of India and the towns of Bharat, to the urban agglomerations and outgrowths (terms that conceal the entombment of hundreds of hectares of growing soil in cement and rubble so that more bastis may be accommodated), are only erratically recorded. When this is done, more often than not by an NGO, or a research institute (not necessarily on urban studies) or a more enlightened university programme, seldom do the findings make their way through the grimy corridors of the municipal councils and into recognition of the success or failure of urban policy.

Until 10 years ago, it was still being said in government circles that India's pace of urbanisation was only 'modest' by world standards. Photo: Rahul Goswami 2014

Until 10 years ago, it was still being said in government circles that India’s pace of urbanisation was only ‘modest’ by world standards. Photo: Rahul Goswami 2014

And so it is that the tide of migrants – India’s urban population grew at 31.8% in the 10 years between 2001 and 2011, both census years, while the rural population grew at 12.18% and the overall national population growth rate was 17.64% with the difference between all three figures illustrating in one short equation the strength of the urbanisation project – is essential for the provision of cheap labour to the services sector for that higher economic strata upon whom the larger share of the GDP growth burden rests, the middle class.

And so the picture clears, for it is in maintaining and adding to the numbers of the middle class – no troublesome poverty lines here whose interpretations may arrest the impulse to consume – that the growth of India’s GDP relies. By the end of the first confused decade following the liberalisation of India’s economy, in the late-1990s, the arrant new ideology that posited the need for a demographic shift from panchayat to urban ward found supporters at home and outside (in the circles of the multi-lateral development lending institutions particularly, which our senior administrators and functionaries were lured into through fellowships and secondments). Until 10 years ago, it was still being said in government circles that India’s pace of urbanisation was only modest by world standards (said in the same off-the-cuff manner that explains our per capita carbon dioxide emissions as being well under the global average).

In 2005, India had 41 urban areas with populations of a million and more while China had 95 – in 2015 the number of our cities which will have at least a million will be more than 60. Hence the need to turn a comfortable question into a profoundly irritating one: instead of ‘let us mark the slums as being those areas of a city or town in which the poor live’ we choose ‘let us mark the poor along as many axes as we citizens can think of and find the households – in slum or cooperative housing society or condominium – that are deprived by our own measures’. The result of making such a choice would be to halt the patronymic practiced by the state (and its private sector assistants) under many different guises.

Whether urban residents in our towns and cities will bestir themselves to organise and claim such self-determination is a forecast difficult to attempt for a complex system such as a ward, in which issues of class and economic status have as much to do with group choices as the level of political control of ward committees and the participation of urban councillors, the grip of land and water mafias, the degree to which state programmes have actually bettered household lives or sharpened divisions.

It is probably still not a dilemma, provided there is re-education enough and awareness enough of the perils of continuing to inject ‘services’ and ‘infrastructure’ into communities which for over a generation have experienced rising levels of economic stress. At a more base level – for sociological concerns trouble industry even less, in general, than environmental concerns do – India’s business associations are doing their best to ensure that the urbanisation project continues. The three large associations – Assocham, CII and FICCI (and their partners in states) – agree that India’s urban population will grow, occupying 40% of the total population 15 years from now.

[Articles in the Agenda issue, Urban Poverty, are: How to make urban governance pro-poor, Counting the urban poor, The industry of ‘empowerment’, Data discrepancies, The feminisation of urban poverty, Making the invisible visible, Minorities at the margins, Housing poverty by social groups, Multidimensional poverty in Pune, Undermining Rajiv Awas Yojana, Resettlement projects as poverty traps, Participatory budgeting, Exclusionary cities.]

Bharat and its billionaires

with one comment

RG_new_India_inequality_panelSeveral times a year, one money-minded organisation or another publishes a ‘rich list’. On this list are the names of the extraordinarily wealthy, the billionaires. Such a list is compiled by Forbes magazine. In this year’s list of billionaires, there are 90 Indians.

Perhaps it is the largest contingent of Indians on this list ever, perhaps their wealth is greater, singly and together, than ever before, perhaps the space below them (the almost-billionaires) is more crowded than ever. What must be of concern to us is the inequality that such a list represents. In the first two, perhaps three, Five Year Plans, cautions were expressed that the income (or wealth) multiple between the farmer and the labourer on the one hand and the entrepreneur or skilled manager on the other should not exceed 1 to 10.

In practice it was quite different, but the differences of the early 1990s – which is when economic liberalisation took hold in India – are microscopic compared to those of today. What’s more, the astronomically large differences in income/wealth of 2015 are actually celebrated as being evidence of India’s economic superpowerdom.

The current per capita national income is 88,533 rupees and it will take, as my disturbing panel of comparisons shows, the combined incomes of 677,713 such earners to equal the wealth of the 90th on the Forbes list of Indian billionaires. Likewise, there are six on the list of 90 with median incomes, and a median income is Rs 11.616 crore, which is equal to the entire Central Government budget outlay for agriculture (and allied activities) for 2015-16.

Written by makanaka

March 5, 2015 at 22:03

Counting the great Indian agricultural mosaic

leave a comment »

There is not a ‘bigha‘ of Bharat that has not been cultivated, used as orchard, or as pasture, or at one time or another over the centuries, times tumultuous or peaceable, belonged in part or wholly to a nearby ‘agrahara‘. The measurement of our land is a science that is as ancient as are the sciences of tending to and cultivating the land, and what today we reckon in hectares and acres (not ours these measures, but left behind and used through administrative inertia) were counted, re-counted, assessed and taxed as being a certain number of guntha, bigha, biswa, kanal, marla, sarsaai or shatak. In these wondrously named parcels of land – bunded and their perimeters shaded, so that the kisans of old could sit under a leafy canopy and enjoy a mid-day meal and a short snooze – grew our foodgrain.

There are 138.35 million operational holdings in India. (Uttar Pradesh has 23.33 million, Bihar 16.19 million, Maharashtra 13.70 million, Andhra Pradesh 13.18 million.) The small and marginal holdings taken together (below 2 hectares) constitute 85.01% of all holdings. This treemap represents the number of holdings, relative in size to each other, in each category of land holding area.

There are 138.35 million operational holdings in India. (Uttar Pradesh has 23.33 million, Bihar 16.19 million, Maharashtra 13.70 million, Andhra Pradesh 13.18 million.) The small and marginal holdings taken together (below 2 hectares) constitute 85.01% of all holdings. This treemap represents the number of holdings, relative in size to each other, in each category of land holding area.

Whether Gupta or Vijaynagar, Hoysala or Kakatiya, Mughal or British colonial, these fields every so often received visitors, at times unwelcome but usually businesslike, for the Bharat of old and of medieval times alike was profoundly productive, and these officials had much ground to cover. In later eras they were known as tehsildar, naib tehsildar, kanungo and patwari and they prepared records such as the ‘shajra nasab‘ (always with the help of a typically tattered ‘jamabandi‘), followed by the ‘khatauni‘ – a laborious task that required the patwari to measure each ‘khasra‘ and appropriately mark it with pencil (a rough marking, to be inked only after final tallying) on the ‘mussavi‘. And to be administratively infallible, for land revenue and land settlement is the most serious of a government’s business, the kanungo re-measured the land and added his observation to the ‘mussavi‘.

And so it went, from one panchayat to the next, from one circle to another, from one tehsil (or mandal or taluka) to the next, passing under the tired eyes and across the cluttered desks of assistant settlement officer (where is the inspection diary, these officers would ask), then to the assistant collector (grades II and I) and then to the spacious chambers (supplied with punkahs and water coolers) of the district collector.

The total cultivated area is 159.59 million hectares, the average size of an operational holding has declined to 1.15 hectare in 2010-11 as compared with 1.23 hectare in 2005-06. (Rajasthan has 21.14 million hectare, Maharashtra has 19.77 million, Uttar Pradesh 17.62 million, Madhya Pradesh 15.84 million.). This treemap represents the cultivated agricultural area, relative in size to each other, in each category of land holding.

The total cultivated area is 159.59 million hectares, the average size of an operational holding has declined to 1.15 hectare in 2010-11 as compared with 1.23 hectare in 2005-06. (Rajasthan has 21.14 million hectare, Maharashtra has 19.77 million, Uttar Pradesh 17.62 million, Madhya Pradesh 15.84 million.). This treemap represents the cultivated agricultural area, relative in size to each other, in each category of land holding.

It was so then, in the time of my grand-parents (two sets, at opposite ends of British India), and it was so in the time of their great grand-parents. During my lifetime it has come to be called – this detailed measuring of our land with a benign view to assessing fairly – the agricultural census, and it is the most recent one, 2010-11, which gives us many points to ponder, but is somewhat lacking when it comes to the labyrinthine histories of the administering of what for so many centuries has been measured and recorded.

Nonetheless the Agricultural Census of India 2010-11 serves us with a commentary that is contemporaneous and informative, for its primary fieldwork consisted of “retabulating the operational holding-wise information contained in the basic village records” which “would be done by the village accountant”, a gentleman (usually, for accounting has not experienced the gender equalising which panchayats have) known in different states by different names – he is the patwari but he is also the lekhapal, the talathi or the karnam. His work (always in progress, just as the seasons are) is supervised by the revenue inspectors.

These worthies (not as dour, I can assure you, as their title suggests, for they are just as often cultivators themselves, or veterinarians, and even ayurvedic practitioners) contribute to the most important part of our agricultural census, and that is the preparation of the list of operational holdings. It is a task far too wide and vast and complex for any revenue inspector, however dedicated and well disposed towards both the physical and mathematical aspects of it, for this officer must examine all the survey numbers in the basic village record, the ‘khasra register’ (or any other equivalent local record), classify the survey numbers held by operational land holders, often cross-reference this tentative list with other village records (like the ‘khatauni‘) which names the cultivators. Many consultations ensue, a few arguments, and a considerable amount of cross-confirmation in dusty stacks and mouldy cupboards.

This is the historical milieu to which our agricultural census belongs. We should savour it, for it is a unique undertaking, just as much as each of our thousands of varieties of rice (‘dhanyam‘ it was in the time of the ‘agraharas‘ and it is so today too) – the careful and ritual counting of the great Indian agricultural mosaic.

Why did food need cities at all?

leave a comment »

Cities may grow a few of their vegetables, but from where else can the cereal staples come if not the rural fields? Photo: Rahul Goswami, 2015

Cities may grow a few of their vegetables, but from where else can the cereal staples come if not the rural fields? Photo: Rahul Goswami, 2015

The industrialisation of the transfer of food produce from a food producing region to a net food consuming one is in my view the cause for what we have grown used to calling the rural-urban divide or difference. It is artificial and unfortunately this artifice is the basis for a number of untruths – such as ‘cities are the engines of growth / innovation / education’ and so on (arguments that have been spread vigorously by the globalisers, such as the World Economic Forum, most central banks, the commodity markets, and the international trading system).

From accounts about what we today call south and south-east Asia, the difference between a crop-producing region (managed by a group of villages) and a net food-consuming centre lay mainly in what that centre did for the villages. Markets for the sale and exchange of produce and livestock usually led to one village (with more political power than others) hosting the market, the associated food trading infrastructure, the finance needs (simple as they were, such as credit and insurance for the next season), the transport. These became the first urban centres – but it is important to recall that they existed as adjuncts to crop-growing regions, even when host to the apparatus of ruling regimes and (just as often) faith-based and spiritual enclaves.

In the Western Ghats, a termite mound next to a shrine is also venerated. Photo: Rahul Goswami 2014

In the Western Ghats, a termite mound next to a shrine is also venerated. Photo: Rahul Goswami 2014

There are examples that show how the balance of power was maintained – and corrected when necessary – between such centres on the one hand, and the needs of crop-growing communities supported by temple domains, on the other. Studies of the Hoysala period of southern India (1000-1350 CE) have explained how the ‘agraharas‘ – temple complexes to which belong villages and agricultural lands – were centres of crop collection, redistribution, storage and trade. Were these ‘agraharas‘ ‘urban’ in the sense we use the term today? To some extent, insofar as the priestly class and administrators did not actively cultivate crop staples. But there is another group which did not – the soldiery, and a standing army not only did not lend its labour for use in the fields, it also demanded a large amount of food. And so we have in our annals accounts of how the ‘agraharas‘ of southern India on occasion refused to continue feeding an enlarged standing army at the cost of what we today call the food security of the peasants. Naturally, the ruler had to comply.

I think this illustrates the ties between the cultivators of food staples and the consumers of produce. The trouble is that if in Hoysala times the adjustment was made by an ‘agrahara‘ (which embodied the religious aspect, devotional food, equitable distribution, and so on) in today’s scenario there is no such studied altruism. The market thinks short-term, uses financialisation as a means to yoke people to consumerism and has in many countries exploited the historical connection between food producer and consumer to boost, through the application of technology and the artifice of ‘retail’, GDP.

Written by makanaka

February 15, 2015 at 20:14

A new agenda for India’s agriculture

with 3 comments

Home, cattle, farming household and essential biomass in a hill village, Himachal Pradesh. Photo: Rahul Goswami 2014

Home, cattle, farming household and essential biomass in a hill village, Himachal Pradesh. Photo: Rahul Goswami 2014

Three weeks before the presenting of annual budget 2015-16 to the country (that is, us Bharatvaasis) and to the Parliament, the NDA-BJP government needs very much to recognise and respond sensibly to several truths. These are: that most Indian households and families are rural and agricultural, that the macro-economic fashion that has been followed since around 1990 elevates a uni-dimensional idea of economic ‘growth’ above all other considerations, and that several important factors both external and internal have rendered this idea of ‘growth’ obsolete.

Concerning the interaction of the three points – there are 90.2 million farming households households in Bharat – the analyst and commentator Devinder Sharma has reminded Arun Jaitley, Jayant Sinha, Rajiv Mehrishi, Arvind Subramanian, Ila Patnaik, H A C Prasad and other senior officials of the Finance Ministry that there is a continuing crisis which needs specific attention.

Sharma has outlined eleven points for the Ministry of Finance to take note of in its preparations for annual budget 2015-16 and I have summarised these points hereunder, and added four adjunct points to elaborate his very thoughtful advice.

Called ‘An 11-point agenda for resurrecting Indian agriculture and restoring the pride in farming’, Sharma has said: “Indian agriculture is faced with a terrible agrarian crisis. It is a crisis primarily of sustainability and economic viability. The severity of the crisis can be gauged from the spate of farm suicides. In the past 17 years, close to 3 lakh farmers reeling under mounting debt have preferred to commit suicide. Another 42% want to quit agriculture if given a choice. The spate of farmer suicide and the willingness of farmers to quit agriculture is a stark reminder of the grim crisis.”

Item 1. Providing a guaranteed assured monthly income to farmers. “Set up a National Farmers Income Commission which should compute the monthly income of a farm family depending upon his production and the geographical location of the farm.”

Item 2. No more Minimum Support Price (MSP) policy. This has historically been used to ask about its impact on food inflation. “Move from price policy to income policy. The income that a farmer earn should be de-linked from the price that his crops fetch in the market.”

Item 2.5. About 44% of agricultural households hold MGNREGA job cards. Among agricultural households, depending on the size of land held, non-farm income is significant. The need is to strengthen rural employment sources and income reliability as a major plank of local food security.

Item 3. Strengthen immediately the network of mandis (market yards) in all states and districts which provide farmers with a platform to sell their produce. “Leaving it to markets will result in distress sale.”

Fruit and vegetables being sorted in a village collection centre, Himachal Pradesh. Photo: Rahul Goswami 2014

Fruit and vegetables being sorted in a village collection centre, Himachal Pradesh. Photo: Rahul Goswami 2014

Item 4. Provide a viable marketing network for fruits and vegetables (horticultural produce). “I see no reason why India cannot carve out a marketing chain (like the milk cooperatives) for fruits, vegetables and other farm commodities.”

Item 4.5. ‘Market’ does not mean ‘mandi’. The thrust of the ‘reform’ demanded in the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) Acts is to “remove deterrent provisions” and “dismantle barriers to agriculture trade”. This effort will ruin smallholder farmers and must be halted.

Item 5. Cooperative farming must be encouraged including with legal support to make cooperatives more independent and effective. “Small cooperatives of organic farmers have done wonders” which be replicated for the rest of the crops.

Item 6. Villages must become self-reliant in agriculture and food security. “Shift the focus to local production, local procurement and local distribution” throughout the country for which the National Food Security Act needs amendment.

Item 7. Green Revolution areas are facing a crisis in sustainability. “With soil fertility devastated, water table plummeting and environment contaminated with chemical pesticides and fertiliser, the resulting impact on the entire food chain and human health is being increasingly felt.” We need a country-wide campaign to shift farming to non-pesticides management techniques.

Item 7.5. The agro-ecological approach to cultivation under decentralised planning (panchayat cluster) must be promoted. This has long been identified as the primary rural guide: “In the Indian development strategy, self-reliance has been conceptualised … in terms of building up domestic capabilities and reducing import dependence in strategic commodities” (from the Seventh Five Year Plan, 1985-90).

Item 8. Agriculture, dairy and forestry should be integrated. “Agricultural growth should not only be measured in terms of increase in foodgrain production but should be seen in the context of the village eco-system as a whole.”

Item 9. The government must not yield to pressure exerted via free trade agreements signed and stop food imports. “Importing food is importing unemployment.” The government must “not accept the European Union’s demand for opening up for dairy products and fruits/vegetables by reducing the import duties.”

Item 10. Climate change is affecting agriculture. Don’t look “at strategies only aimed at lessening the impact on agriculture and making farmers cope with the changing weather patterns, the focus should also be to limit greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.” Reduce chemical fertiliser/pesticides in farming.

Item 10.5. The area-production-yield metric for agriculture is as outdated as ‘GDP growth’ is to describe a country. By adopting the principles of responsible and ecologically sound self-reliance, the whole system demands of agriculture need to be assessed with district planning being incentivised towards organic cultivation (expressly banning GM/GE).

Item 11. Localise the storage for foodgrains. In 1979 under the ‘Save Food Campaign’ grain silos were to be set up in 50 places. Localised and locally-managed foodgrain storage must be at the top of the agenda.

This is an agriculture and food agenda for the NDA-BJP government, to guide the strategies and approaches so that India does not compromise its food self-sufficiency, self-reliance (swadeshi) and return our farming households to dignity and self-respect.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 562 other followers