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Archive for January 2010

Can you read this map Mr Ramesh?

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Surface temperature change map

This map shows the 10-year average (2000-2009) temperature anomaly relative to the 1951-1980 mean. The largest temperature increases are in the Arctic and the Antarctic Peninsula. (Image credit: NASA/GISS)

Scientific jingoism has reached a new peak with India’s minister for environment and forests, Jairam Ramesh, announcing that his ministry will provide new funding for climate research done by Indians for India, which in effect is a nationalistic science agenda. Ramesh – whose penchant for making sweeping and irresponsible statements is matched only by his ability to reckon all events as PR opportunities – seems to not realise or not care that climate change is not a region-specific phenomenon. His ministry’s carefully timed attacks on climate science has reached a new pitch with India’s mainstream english dailies now broadcasting a daily barrage of reports sceptical of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Fourth Assessment Report and on what Ramesh is now calling “western science”!

There has been evidence aplenty of the growing impacts of climate change throughout this decade of 2000-2009 and this evidence has been seen, and reported on, as affecting all sectors so important to our daily lives: agriculture, water resources and health. This month alone, there are two news reports on AlertNet Reuters that tell us so explicitly.

‘India’s northern nomads hit by changing weather’ tells us about how the nomads of the high Ladakh mountain ranges (in the state of Jammu and Kashmir) have been herding sheep, goats and yak for generations. But now hundreds are now being forced to abandon their traditional way of life as wide variations in winter snowfall threaten their livestock. Researchers in the region say that climate change is alternately bringing unusually heavy snow that prevents livestock from reaching fodder and, more often, very little snow, which leads to drought and changes in traditional pastures. A researcher with the World Wildlife Fund based in Leh said that grasses have started to die out due to less level of snowfall in the region, a continuing phenomenon for a decade or so, which now has become alarming.

Surface temperature change map India

Surface temperature change map India

‘Cold wave kills scores, destroys crops across South Asia’ tells us about a cold wave across parts of South Asia has killed scores of people – mostly children and the elderly – in India, Nepal and Bangladesh. The Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, both bordering Nepal, as well as New Delhi have been amongst the worst affected areas with temperatures falling as low as 5 degrees Celsius (41 degrees Fahrenheit). In Bangladesh, low temperatures coupled with fog and cold winds in northern and southwest parts of the country have killed over 40 people and resulted in over 3,400 being hospitalised, according to the United Nations. In Nepal, weather officials said the southern plains bordering India were reeling below normal temperatures for more than two weeks causing cold waves in the region.

Global land ocean temperature index

Earth's surface temperatures have increased since 1880. The last decade has brought the temperatures to the highest levels ever recorded. The graph shows global annual surface temperatures relative to 1951-1980 mean temperatures. As shown by the red line, long-term trends are more apparent when temperatures are averaged over a five year period. (Image credit: NASA/GISS)

Reports such as these only support what careful research has been saying loudly for all the last decade. 2009 was tied for the second warmest year in the modern record, a new NASA analysis of global surface temperature shows. The analysis, conducted by the Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), USA, also shows that in the Southern Hemisphere, 2009 was the warmest year since modern records began in 1880. January 2000 to December 2009 was the warmest decade on record. Throughout the last three decades, the GISS surface temperature record shows an upward trend of about 0.2°C (0.36°F) per decade. Since 1880, the year that modern scientific instrumentation became available to monitor temperatures precisely, a clear warming trend is present, though there was a leveling off between the 1940s and 1970s. What’s significant about the GISS method is that it builds in the importance of anomalies – such as the severe cold weather in South Asia – to arrive at its findings.

The image of a map with this post is one that can be generated by anyone visiting the GISS website. It shows the planet’s surface temperature change from 1959 to 2009. Where India is concerend, the two temperature change bands that cover the sub-continent are 0.5-1ºC and 1-2ºC. It’s plain to see that the Himalaya also lie across both these temperature change bands. The absurd, ill-timed, motivated and arrogant attack by Ramesh’s ministry (and its media servants) on the evidence that glaciers in the Himalaya are in danger of melting ignores the big picture that this map presents: climate change is taking place in the region. The question is: can they read this map?

India’s misplaced glacier row

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India’s central government is making triumphant noises about what it sees as a vindication of its stand concerning Himalayan glaciers. The central Ministry of Environment and Forests had refuted the widely held scientific view that the glaciers of the Himalaya were shrinking, posing a grave – if not catastrophic – threat to the water security of millions downstream.

The mainstream English press in India (a majority of whose readers are urban salaried, self-employed or professional) has been toeing the central government line on the matter and has placed on front pages the story: “IPCC admits ‘Himalayan’ blunder” said Business Standard; “IPCC expresses regret over glacier melting conclusion” said The Hindu; and “West uses ‘glacier theory’ to flog India on climate change” said The Times of India.

What has the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) actually said?

Here is the full statement (dated 20 January 2010) made by the Chair and Vice-Chairs of the IPCC, and the Co-Chairs of the IPCC Working Groups.

“The Synthesis Report, the concluding document of the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (page 49) stated: ‘Climate change is expected to exacerbate current stresses on water resources from population growth and economic and land-use change, including urbanisation. On a regional scale, mountain snow pack, glaciers and small ice caps play a crucial role in freshwater availability. Widespread mass losses from glaciers and reductions in snow cover over recent decades are projected to accelerate throughout the 21st century, reducing water availability, hydropower potential, and changing seasonality of flows in regions supplied by meltwater from major mountain ranges (e.g. Hindu-Kush, Himalaya, Andes), where more than one-sixth of the world population currently lives.’ ”

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)“This conclusion is robust, appropriate, and entirely consistent with the underlying science and the broader IPCC assessment.”

“It has, however, recently come to our attention that a paragraph in the 938-page Working Group II contribution to the underlying assessment refers to poorly substantiated estimates of rate of recession and date for the disappearance of Himalayan glaciers. In drafting the paragraph in question, the clear and well-established standards of evidence, required by the IPCC procedures, were not applied properly.”

“The Chair, Vice-Chairs, and Co-chairs of the IPCC regret the poor application of well-established IPCC procedures in this instance. This episode demonstrates that the quality of the assessment depends on absolute adherence to the IPCC standards, including thorough review of ‘the quality and validity of each source before incorporating results from the source into an IPCC Report’. We reaffirm our strong commitment to ensuring this level of performance.”

The text in question is the second paragraph in section 10.6.2 of the Working Group II contribution and a repeat of part of the paragraph in Box TS.6. of the Working Group II Technical Summary of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report. The quoted text in the fourth para is verbatim from Annex 2 of Appendix A to the Principles Governing IPCC Work.

What makes the episode ugly is that this is a central government, and a ministry, which has right through 2008 and 2009 worked extra hard to push all aspects of economic growth measured by GDP. The Ministry of Environment and Forests has steadily diluted legislation protecting environment and natural resources, given opportunities to industry to sidetrack checks and balances relating to clearances (especially in forest areas) and which has gone to great lengths to cobble together a scientific-cum-economic consensus to show that GDP growth at 9% a year for the next generation will not harm the global environment nor add very much to global emissions. The hypocrisies in pressurising the IPCC into this corner are staggering. The pity is that India’s scientific community – in which true independence is rare – will do little to help the citizen understand more.

The Lahori astrolabist

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Image from Archnet, Lahore collectionLahore is the city of Mughal heritage. Grand buildings with delicate landscaping express the story of a splendid era of building construction. Some chapters of this monumental architecture have been torn or distorted by subsequent rulers and others are slowly turning to ruin but still stand as a witness of Mughal grandeur, as these wonderful images from the architectural website Archnet demonstrate. Lahore contains three gems of Mughal architectural treasure: Lahore Fort, Jehangir’s tomb and Shalimar Gardens. The fort and gardens were declared Unesco World Heritage Sites in 1981.

Raza Rumi, a freelance writer from Pakistan, writes an evocative diary of Lahore at ‘Lahore Nama’ (he also writes regularly for the Pakistani weekly The Friday Times, The News and Daily Dawn).

“Mughal Empress Noor Jehan (d. 1645) was prophetic when she composed the epitaph for her own grave,” he writes. “It runs thus: ‘Pity us, for at our tomb no lamp shall light, no flowers seen/ No moth wings shall burn, no nightingales sing’. What she did not foresee was that a similar fate would befall the nearby tombs of her brother Asif Khan and husband Emperor Jehangir at Shahdara.”

Image from Archnet, Lahore collection“They too were laid to rest in the empress’s once delightful and sprawling Dilkusha Gardens across the Ravi river from the imperial Lahore Fort. The legendary Mughal couple so cherished Lahore that both chose it as their last abode. Little did they know that in times to come, an indifferent archaeology department would be made the custodian of their tombs.”

But there is an astonishing tale obscured in the Mughal history of Lahore. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in northwest India a Lahori family maintained a remarkable workshop that, through four generations, produced numerous well-made scientific instruments, in particular planispheric astrolabes and celestial globes.

Lahore, on the upper course of the Indus river, was then the capital of the Mughal province (or suba) of the same name, later called the Punjab. The activity of these metalworkers covered the reigns of the second through the ninth Mughal rulers of India, who spoke the vernacular Turki but maintained Persian as the official language of the court.

Islamicate celestial globe

Globe dated 1055 H/AD 1645-1646, by Diya-al-Din Muhammad of the Lahore workshop

“The earliest extant instrument by this family is an astrolabe made in 975 H/AD 1567-1568 by the apparent founder of the workshop, Allahdad. He called himself simply Ustadh Allahdad Asturlabi Lahuri, that is. Master-craftsman Allahdad, the Astrolabist from Lahore.’

“Three extant astrolabes were made by him, only one of which is dated. The name Allahdad is a compound of Allah (God) and dad (gift),” wrote Emilie Savage-Smith in her extraordinary research work, ‘Islamicate Celestial Globes: Their History, Construction, and Use’ (Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C., 1985).

“It is only from other members of the family—his grandsons and greatgrandsons—that further information about Allahdad can be gathered.”

“In the name as it is written by later family members, Shaykh Allahdad Asturlabi Humayuni Lahuri, it is likely that Humayuni was intended to indicate the fact that the founder of the workshop had lived at the time of Humayun, who ruled India from 1530 to 1556 as the son and successor of Babur, the Timurid conqueror who had come from Kabul in the Afghan mountains into the Indus plain to found the Mughal dynasty in India.”

Asia’s food-oil-inflation roller-coaster

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These people are already hit by the food price rise

In South-East Asia the price of Thai fragrant rice has surged by 26 per cent since 01 Nov 2009, thanks to storms in the Philippines and drought in southern China. At these levels, physical hoarding is seen taking place among Thai rice exporters, which means they probably have expectations that rice prices will go up even higher. And it is not just rice. Soya beans and edible oils like palm oil are also seeing a rise in prices, which in turn may make livestock more expensive since these crops go into animal feed.

Food prices are also rising in China – prices of vegetables shot up by as much as 10 per cent since 01 January 2010 as extreme cold weather damaged crops and transportation problems hampered delivery. Oil prices have been rallying in line with the global recovery, hitting levels above US$83 a barrel earlier this week, near a 15-month high. Food prices are also rebounding from their 2009 lows, potentially increasing price pressures in Asian countries that are already seeing asset bubbles build up.

Vegetable vendor

There’s already evidence from Kerala that the combination of food price rise specifically and inflation generally is hurting:

“The National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation (Nafed) will join hands with the State government to implement an ‘Easy Market’ scheme to provide solace to consumers in the event of spiralling prices of essential commodities. The Union government has approved a subsidy of around Rs.600 crore [Rs 6 billion = US$ 133.34 million, Jan 2010] to provide ‘Easy Market’ kits containing 20 items of daily use to consumers at a discount ranging between 30 and 40 per cent. In Kerala, Nafed will use the Triveni and Neethi chain of stores to implement the scheme.
The scheme had been approved by a Cabinet sub-committee and 60 million kits would be distributed in the first phase. These kits contain rice, wheat, whole wheat flour, pulses, sugar, edible oil, etc, he said. Nafed would procure wheat and rice from the Food Corporation of India and distribute them at reasonable rates. Wheat flour would also be distributed similarly.”
Read more here.

Vegetable vendor

But elsewhere in India’s government mindspace, the ‘spend more’ school of thought is dreaming up still more schemes that have to do with food:

“Speaking at the National Retail Summit 2010 “Modern Retail: Towards Sustainable Growth and Profitability” Subodh Kant Sahai, Minister for Food Processing Industry, said that the Union Government is coming out with a series of initiatives to “increase the share of modern retail”. Sahai stated that the centre has planned to upgrade 70 cities in India by 2012 having all the modern facilities that of metros like Mumbai and Delhi. “With the amendment of the Agriculture Produce Market Act or the APMC act, farmers would become the largest beneficiaries. With 70 percent of our population also dependent on agriculture this would also get in 3rd party investors interested in Retail to patronize the farmers,” he said. According to Mr Sahai growth of the food processing industry is directly linked to the growth in retail industry.” Read more here.

Vegetable vendor

It’s typical that India’s administrators, planners, policymakers and legislators don’t bother to look around at the conditions of our fellow Southasians:

“Burma had been the world’s largest exporter of rice as recently as the 1930s, but rice exports fell by two thirds in the 1940s, with the country never again reclaiming its dominant status in the internatinal rice trade. Thailand and Vietnam now lead the world in rice exports. For fiscal year 1938/39, rice accounted for nearly 47 percent of Burma’s export receipts. However, by 2007/08 the corresponding figure had sunk to less than two percent. Dr. U Myint [an economist] said the reintegration of the rice industry into the world market would provide incentives to increase both the quantity and quality of rice and thereby lead to higher incomes and employment opportunities for the rural population, who constitute 65 percent of the population of 58 million. An estimated 31 million acres of land is cultivated in Burma, of which more than 16 million acres are devoted to rice.” Read more here.

Commodity chains took powerful shape in the steam age to give a large number of local products geographically expansive identities. Opium, jute, and indigo are prime examples of nineteenth century Bengal farm products generated by world markets where the ups and downs of prices impinged sharply on local experience in some locales but not others.

Tippoo's Dominions, 1794

“By 1900, commodity production defined South Asia as a region of the world economy, defined regions in South Asia, and defined localities in regions. Ceylon, Malaysia, Assam, Fiji and Mauritius were for plantations. Ceylon first produced coffee; then tea, rubber, cocoanut, and cinchona. Assam was tea country. Ceylon and Assam replaced China as top suppliers of English tea. Fiji and Mauritius meant sugar plantations. Labour supplies posed the major constraint for plantation capitalists who found the solution in eventually permanent indentured labour migration from labour export specialty areas in Bihar, Bengal, and southern Tamil districts.”

“Sites of commodity production demanded more commodities. Circuits of moving commodities linked commodity producers and consumers to one another in spaces that surpass the spatial imagination of national history. Modern Indian history has circulated in the space/time of capitalism, in the manner of globalization today, for over a century. Far-flung plantations in Malaysia, Fiji, Mauritius and the West Indies, as well as cities and farms in Burma and Africa developed circuits of commodity production and capital accumulation anchored in India. Tamil Chettiyars became local financiers on the rice frontier in Burma’s Irrawaddy River delta, which generated huge exports of rice for world consumers, including Indian cities that needed Burma rice so much that when Japan’s conquest of Burma cut rice exports, it precipitated the 1943-4 Bengal famine. In 1930, Indians composed almost half Rangoon’s population. In East and South Africa, Gujarati merchants and workers arriving from Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras provided labour and capital for railways and import-export dependent urbanism. The Indian diaspora was well underway a century ago: between 1896 and 1928, seventy-five percent of emigrants from Indian ports went to Ceylon and Malaya; ten percent, to Africa; nine percent, to the Caribbean; and the remaining six percent, to Fiji and Mauritius.”

From ‘Agricultural Production, South Asian History, and Development Studies’, edited by David Ludden, Oxford University Press, September 2004

India’s decade of wheeled deities

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In the period 2002-03 to 2008-09 the average annual growth rate in sales for the basic four categories of vehicles – commercial vehicles (lorries/trucks and buses), three-wheeled vehicles (that includes autorickshaws, which are short-distance transport in almost every Indian town and city), two-wheeled vehicles (that includes motorcycles, scooters and mopeds), and cars – has become the stuff of manufacturing legend.

India auto market (Reuters graphic)

India's vehicle market, Jan to Nov 2009, credit Reuters

Yearly sales growth of 17.46% for commercial vehicles, 13.51% for three-wheeled vehicles, 25.69% for cars, and 10.97% for two-wheeled vehicles have turned India into a market which has the potential to become a US$145 billion auto bazaar by 2016, say the Automotive Component Manufacturers Association (ACMA), the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM) who have jointly organised the expo.

These are the numbers that have caused every single major automaker from anywhere in the world to descend on New Delhi. Ten years ago, in 1999-2000, auto factories in India had made 574,000 cars – in 2008-09 the annual figure is 1,620,000. In ten years the number of commercial vehicles built has more than doubled, from 299,000 to 635,000. In ten years the number of two-wheelers built has more than doubled, from 3,778,000 to 8,394,000.

“Why India?” asks the promotional literature of the Auto Expo, and the organisers (supported by the Government of India and representing too the interests of the global auto giants) smugly provide the answers: “India is the second largest two-wheeler market in the world”, “Fourth largest commercial vehicle market in the world”, “Eleventh largest passenger car market in the world, and expected to be the seventh largest by 2016”

There are twin reasons for the rise of the Indian automobile bazaar. First, since 2006, globally the automobile industry has suffered what it plaintively calls “severe demand shock” on account of the economic slowdown and credit crunch in western markets (OECD + North America).

Auto sales, China vs USA, Reuters graphics

Auto sales, China vs USA, Reuters graphics

The drop in demand for 2008 and 2009 has been 38% in the US, 18% in Europe and 13% in Japan. In contrast the Indian passenger vehicle market maintained its demand during 2008-09 and is rising sharply for 2009-10. This is why most of the big names in the global automobile industry (GM, Toyota, Ford, Hyundai, Suzuki, Honda, Skoda, Volvo, Mercedes Benz, BMW, Volkswagen) are planning what industry analysts call “significant capacity build-up for the Indian markets”.

The triumphant notes being sounded by the automobile czars in New Delhi ignore entirely India’s worryingly uneven and imbalanced sectoral distribution of ‘growth’. What the comprador media calls “the India growth story” has only marginally touched agriculture, with evidence that over a prolonged period starting in the early 1990s, the per capita output of foodgrains was on the decline for the first time in the country’s post-Independence history, as economist C P Chandrasekhar has pointed out. Around 55 per cent of the increment in GDP over the last decade has come from the services sector, and just less than half of that contribution was due to an expansion of organised services, public administration and defence.

This gigantic exercise in furthering the cult of the car in India is underwritten by the Government of India. The industry has as its guidebook the ‘Automotive Mission Plan 2006-2016: A Mission for Development of Indian Automotive Industry’. This is a policy document from India’s Ministry of Heavy Industries and Public Enterprises which says, clearly and unambiguously in its ‘vision’ statement: “To emerge as the destination of choice in the world for design and manufacture of automobiles and auto components with output reaching a level of US$145 billion accounting for more than 10% of the GDP and providing additional employment to 25 million people by 2016.”

There’s more in the full article I wrote for Energy Bulletin here.

How many onions in this mandi?

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Wordcloud credit: www.wordle.net

Wordcloud created at wordle.net from names of major crops and states

Who finds and collects the numbers – the enormous diverse sets of numbers – that help describe India’s agriculture? How these are found and used is an absorbing story. In their most encapsulated form, they are given to us as micro-tables by the Ministry of Agriculture in weekly briefings in New Delhi. Depending on the time of the year, these ar titled “rabi sowing progressing well” or “kharif sowing progressing well” (that didn’t happen in 2009, with the failed monsoon, but these habits are hard to break).

Our agri-bureaucracy is large and deep. It’s big enough to rival other countries’ entire administrations. Who in all that byzantine maze is responsible for keeping track of the dozens of foodgrain crops, dozens of commercial crops, the land use in 35 states and union territories, the vast network of departments, research institutes, agricultural extension offices, state agricultural universities, livestock, fisheries, boards and finally the tens of thousands of farmers’ cooperatives?

Here’s a short attempt at describing this universe. The Ministry of Agriculture consists of three departments: Department of Agriculture and Cooperation; Department of Animal Husbandry, Dairying and Fisheries; and Department of Agricultural Research and Education. Each department has its own statistical organisation and system, and I have my doubts about whether they exchange data and methods on subjects that matter.

There’s an Agriculture Census Division which is responsible for organising the quinquennial agricultural census and input surveys in the country in collaboration with the State Agricultural Census units. There are two main statistical activities of the Division: the Agriculture Census and the Input Survey. The Agriculture Census collects quantitative information about the structure of agriculture in India. So far, seven Agriculture Censuses from 1970-71 and six Input Surveys since 1976-77 have been completed.

Ploughing a field in Satara district, Maharashtra

Ploughing a field in Satara district, Maharashtra

The Directorate of Economics and Statistics (DES) is responsible for “collection, collation, dissemination and publication of statistical data on diverse facets of agriculture and allied sectors, required for planning and policy formulation by the Government”. The Agricultural Statistics Division maintains state-wise estimates of area, production and yield of 44 principal crops (27 major and 17 minor) under the two broad seasons of kharif and rabi. The estimates are updated annually in February or March after the release of final estimates of area, production and yield of the preceding agricultural year. This Division also estimates and measures demand and supply projections of foodgrains, oilseeds and other commercial crops. Agricultural wages constitute a major item towards cost of production. Data on agricultural wages in 17 states is collected by DES every month, the wage data relate to the agricultural year (July to June).

Then there is a ‘Timely Reporting Scheme’ which assesses the area sown under principal crops on the basis of what it calls “complete enumeration of 20% villages selected randomly”, which in country with 600,000 villages is a lot. This scheme is put to work in 16 land record states – Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu & Kashmir, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Jharkhand and Chattisgarh – and 2 Union Territories – Delhi and Puducherry.

The Cost Study Division implements the “Comprehensive Scheme for Studying the Cost of Cultivation of Principal Crops in India”. This division compiles cost data on principal agricultural crops grown in India: barley, gram, jute, lentils, peas, rapeseed and mustard, safflower, sugarcane, wheat, arhar (tur), bajra, coconut, cotton, groundnut, jowar, maize, moong, nigerseed, onion, paddy, potato, ragi, sesamum, soyabean, sunflower, tapioca, urad and tobacco. This division supplies cost estimates to the all-important Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP) which then makes “suitable recommendations” on the Minimum Support Prices of 24 agricultural commodities, which it is then the responsibility of the state governments to ensure that each state’s farmers are paid (at least) those prices for the major crops they bring to the procurement yards.

Finally, there’s the Prices and Markets Division, which collects data on wholesale prices, retail prices, farm harvest prices and market arrivals of selected agricultural commodities from all over India. The bulk of the daily and weekly commercial data is gathered by this division and the scale and scope is staggering: weekly wholesale prices of 154 agricultural commodities are collected from around 600 selected markets and centres; weekly retail prices of 45 food items and monthly retail prices of 43 non-food items from 87 selected markets and centres covering 32 states and union territories. The prices are collected every Friday. It also collects annual farm harvest prices for 26 principal crops from all major states and union territories.

That, in a nutshell, is the story of the numbers that (we hope) help describe India’s agriculture.