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Archive for December 2010

The man who (almost) sold his mother for fertiliser

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Five recent news features from the IPS (Inter Press Service) network describe problems of agriculture and livelihood in Africa and South America. The report from Malawi is shocking – of how a young man attempted to sell his mother so as to buy fertiliser!

Thou Market, southern Sudan. Across the Sahel, women generate income from balanites seeds, which are about half oil and a third protein. After processing at home, they can be turned into many tasty items, including roasted snacks and a spread not unlike peanut butter. They also supply a vegetable oil that is a prized ingredient in foods as well as in local cosmetics. (From 'Lost Crops of Africa: Volume III: Fruits', The National Academies Press. Photo: Caroline Gullick)

Thou Market, southern Sudan. Across the Sahel, women generate income from balanites seeds, which are about half oil and a third protein. After processing at home, they can be turned into many tasty items, including roasted snacks and a spread not unlike peanut butter. They also supply a vegetable oil that is a prized ingredient in foods as well as in local cosmetics. (From 'Lost Crops of Africa: Volume III: Fruits', The National Academies Press. Photo: Caroline Gullick)

Climate Change Means New Crop Health ConcernsIn Brazil, the Climapest project has brought together 134 researchers from 37 institutions to evaluate the potential effects of climate change on crop health, and to guide policies and provide options so that this South American and global agricultural leader can adapt. The changes in climate “will not necessarily aggravate the crop diseases” in all cases, because warmer temperatures or increased carbon gases could impede the proliferation of certain microorganisms, but it is important to be ready for future scenarios because “generating solutions takes time,” explained Raquel Ghini, project leader.

Funguses, viruses and other agents that are harmful to agriculture are among the organisms that react fastest to changes in the climate, because of their short life cycles and their ability to reproduce quickly. Climapest began in January 2009 and has a four-year mandate to study 85 problems of plant health affecting 16 crops, including major exports like coffee, soybeans and fruit (banana, apple and grape), as well as African palm and castor oils, both of which are gaining ground as raw material for biodiesel.

Small Scale Farmers Face Uphill Battle – “Small farmers need substantial infrastructure to be competitive. If not, we can’t deliver according to our clients’ needs,” said Alan Simons, an emerging small-scale farmer in South Africa. “Big farmers kill you, they flood the market,” he added.

“Bigger farmers have an advantage over smaller farmers because smaller farmers face bigger obstacles to getting into the market,” said Chair of the Department of Agricultural Economics at the University of Stellenbosch, Professor Nick Vink. “Geographically they are mostly further away from the market, infrastructure is often geared to working with large quantities of produce, the transaction costs of working with small amounts of product are higher, and last but not least they get no support from the state.”

Zinder, Niger Republic. Aizen occupies some of the hottest, driest locations ever faced by plant life in the modern era. Yet it not only survives, it yields enough useful products to sustain human life almost by itself. In at least a dozen countries, people virtually live off aizen fruits, seeds, roots, and leaves. The bushes typically give a lot of fruits, which mostly ripen at once. The fruits shown here are unripe, and would normally be collected only after they turn yellow. But because of the food shortage, people are often unable to wait that long. ((From 'Lost Crops of Africa: Volume III: Fruits', The National Academies Press. Photo: Eden Foundation)

Zinder, Niger Republic. Aizen occupies some of the hottest, driest locations ever faced by plant life in the modern era. Yet it not only survives, it yields enough useful products to sustain human life almost by itself. In at least a dozen countries, people virtually live off aizen fruits, seeds, roots, and leaves. The bushes typically give a lot of fruits, which mostly ripen at once. (From 'Lost Crops of Africa: Volume III: Fruits', The National Academies Press. Photo: Eden Foundation)

So how do small farmers cope? “Marketing holds the key to making profits”, said Jeptha. “You need to have contracts and a proper market. Your produce should be sold before you plant them. You must know where you are going to deliver it before you plant that seed,” he said. Farming short cycle crops is also key. Simons farms green beans, baby marrows and gem squash – crops that can be harvested within eight weeks. Small farmers don’t venture into fruit farming. It can take up to three years for fruit trees to bear fruit, a major risk for the emerging small farmer who has little start up cash.

Desperation Over Subsidies – Many needy farmers are being left out of a government fertiliser and seed subsidy programme in Malawi, and are employing desperate measures in order to access these commodities. A 21-year-old man, Jolam Ganizani, from Malawi’s central district of Ntchisi, is in police custody after he attempted to sell his own mother to use the money to buy fertiliser and seed.

Police prosecutor Sub Inspector Peter Njiragoma told local journalists last month that Ganizani had confessed to the police that he was so poverty- stricken that he felt that selling his mother would be the solution to his problems. “He had wanted to use the money obtained from selling his mother to buy farm inputs which would assist him to grow a lot of crops and harvest more,” explained Njiragoma.

Few trees on earth engender respect like baobab. Millions believe it receives divine power through the branches that look like arms stretching toward heaven. The baobab is entrenched in the folklore of much of Africa. This is partly because of its singular appearance but also because of the cures and the foods it provides. ((From 'Lost Crops of Africa: Volume III: Fruits', The National Academies Press. Photo: Jerry Wright)

Few trees on earth engender respect like baobab. Millions believe it receives divine power through the branches that look like arms stretching toward heaven. The baobab is entrenched in the folklore of much of Africa. This is partly because of its singular appearance but also because of the cures and the foods it provides. (From 'Lost Crops of Africa: Volume III: Fruits', The National Academies Press. Photo: Jerry Wright)

According to the police, Ganizani was working with a herbalist in Mozambique who advised him that his mother could be used as a slave by businesspeople. Malawi is highly susceptible to human trafficking because of high levels of poverty, low literacy levels and HIV/AIDS, according to a local NGO, the Malawi Network Against Child Trafficking, MNACT.

New Vegetables in Kenya’s Food Markets – Kale is also popularly known as “sakuma wiki”, a name that loosely translated means that it can sustain people throughout the week due to its extreme affordability, particularly for those who earn a dollar and below a day. It is thus the single most popular and available vegetable. “In spite of its popularity, varieties of kale available to farmers are generally of poor quality, yield easily to diseases and their production is also low,” explains Catherine Kuria.

Vegetables are grown by an estimated 90 percent of Kenyan households, with Kale accounting for the highest production. In a bid to improve food security and consequently alleviate hunger, new varieties of kale have been developed that are more productive and can cope better with the unpredictable climatic changes across the country. These new varieties are expeted to aid a government programme called ‘Njaa Marufuku Kenya’ which basically means eliminating hunger in Kenya. This programme supports agricultural development initiatives targeting the poor in rural areas, where an estimated 60% live below a dollar a day.

Dantokpa market, Cotonou, Benin. “Mustard” made from seeds of the savanna tree commonly called locust in English is essential for making nutritious soup. Across West Africa locust bean is a major item of commerce, as is its major processed form, dawadawa, a nutrient-dense, cheese-like food. These together constitute an important economic activity for women. Production of the pungent paste is a traditional family craft and although most is produced for home use, some ends up being sold in local markets. ((From 'Lost Crops of Africa: Volume II: Vegetables', The National Academies Press. Photo: L.J.G. van der Maesen)

Dantokpa market, Cotonou, Benin. “Mustard” made from seeds of the savanna tree commonly called locust in English is essential for making nutritious soup. Across West Africa locust bean is a major item of commerce, as is its major processed form, dawadawa, a nutrient-dense, cheese-like food. These together constitute an important economic activity for women. Production of the pungent paste is a traditional family craft and although most is produced for home use, some ends up being sold in local markets. ((From 'Lost Crops of Africa: Volume II: Vegetables', The National Academies Press. Photo: L.J.G. van der Maesen)

Rain May Disappear from South American Breadbasket – South America still has vast extensions of land available for growing crops to help meet the global demand for food and biofuels. But the areas of greatest potential agricultural production – central-southern Brazil, northern Argentina, and Paraguay – could be left without the necessary rains. Every deforested hectare in the Amazon – a jungle biome extending across the northern half of South America – weakens the system that has been protecting the region. “We don’t know where the point of no return is,” when forest degradation will become irreversible, and lands that benefited from the rains generated in the Amazon turn to desert, said the scientist Antonio Nobre, of the Brazil’s national space research institute, INPE.

The Amazon forest and the barrier created by the Andes Mountains, which run north-to-south through South America, channel the humid winds, now known as “flying rivers.” Those winds ensure rainfall for a region that is the continental leader in meat, grain and fruit exports, and a world leader in sugar, soybeans and orange juice. The flying-river phenomenon, as established by climate researchers, led Nobre and other scientists around the globe to a new theory, the “biotic pump,” which explains climate phenomena, equilibrium and disequilibrium in the Earth’s natural systems and in which forest biomes play an essential role. A large tree in the Amazon can evaporate up to 300 litres of water in a day. One measure suggests that the Amazon generates 20 billion tonnes of water vapour daily. The Amazon River, in comparison, churns out 17 billion tonnes of water into the ocean.

Why Rajapakse of Lanka wants to throw out 70,000 Colombo families

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Taking its cue from India, the government of Sri Lanka is targeting urban poor to force them out of their homes in shanty towns, grab the land, and re-develop it for profit.

Using the well-worn routes of citing the home owners’ lack of land titles, and changes in urban planning regulations which are exclusionist, the residents of shanty-towns such as Wanathamulla and Maligawatta in central Colombo are on the point of being forced out of their homes by a government bent on crude accumulation by forced dispossession.

Over 70,000 families – more than 50% of central Colombo’s population – are to be removed and their homes demolished by the Sri Lankan government.

The mass evictions are part of plans by President Mahinda Rajapakse to free-up nearly 390 hectares of inner city land and transform the country’s capital into what his government calls “a South Asian financial hub” (the city of Mumbai, on India’s west coast, is doing just that already).

Via the World Socialist Web Site, which has been following the struggles of the residents, this photo essay provides a glimpse into the harsh living conditions of shanty-dwellers in central Colombo, Sri Lanka.

The pictures were taken by Sri Lankan photojournalist Shantan Kumarasamy.

The government has placed the Urban Development Authority and the Land Reclamation and Development Board — two civilian bodies — under the authority of the defence ministry, which has already deployed soldiers and police to forcibly carry out evictions.

A number of shanty dwellers, with the assistance of the Sri Lankan Socialist Equality Party, have formed an Action Committee to Defend the Right to Housing (ACDRH) and issued an appeal to all workers and youth to support their struggle to protect their homes.

The World Socialist Web Site has more on the struggle here. Shantan Kumarasamy’s portraits of the people of Wanathamulla and Maligawatta, and their living conditions is here.

Statement of Binayak Sen

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Dr Binayak Sen, and the co-accused Pijush Guha and Narayan Sanyal, have been sentenced to life imprisonment, under Sec. 124(A) of CrPC (Code of Criminal Procedure) and Sec 39 of UAPA (Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act). Sanhati has carried Dr Sen’s statement at the conclusion of the trial.

“I am a trained medical doctor with a specialization in child health. I completed my MBBS from the Christian Medical College, Vellore in 1972, and completed studies leading to the award of the degree of MD (Paediatrics) of the Madras University, from the same institution in 1976. After this, I joined the faculty of the Centre for Social Medicine and Community Health at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi and worked there for two years, before leaving to join a field based health programme at the Friends Rural Centre, Rasulia in Hoshangabad, MP.”

“During the two years I worked there, I worked intensively in the diagnosis and treatment of Tuberculosis and understood many of the social and economic causes of disease. I was also strongly influenced by the work of Marjorie Sykes, the biographer of Mahatma Gandhi, who lived at the Rasulia centre at that time. I came to Chhattisgarh in 1981 and worked upto 1987 at Dalli Rajhara (district Durg), where, along with the late Shri Shankar Guha Niyogi and the workers of the Chhattisgarh Mines Shramik Sangh, I helped to establish the Shaheed Hospital, that continues to practice low cost and rational medicine for the adivasis and working people of the surrounding areas upto the present.”

“After leaving Dalli Rajhara, I worked to develop a health programme among the Adivasi population in and around village Bagrumnala, which today is in Dhamtari district. This work depended on a large group of village based health workers who were trained and guided by me. When the new state of Chhattisgarh was formed, I was appointed a member of the advisory group on Health Care Sector reforms, and helped to develop the Mitanin programme, which in turn, became the role model for the ASHA of the National Rural Health Mission.”

More here.

People’s Union for Civil Liberties statement on Binayak Sen judgement

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This via Countercurrents.

24th December, 2010

Dr Binayak Sen

The People’s Union for Civil Liberties is deeply disappointed at the miscarriage of justice reflected in the judgement of Raipur Additional District and Sessions Judge B. P Verma sentencing our National Vice President Dr. Binayak Sen to life imprisonment under charges of sedition 124 (A) of the IPC read with conspiracy (120-B IPC) along with convicting him concurrently u/s 8-(1), (2), (3) and (5) of the Chhattisgarh Vishesh Jan Suraksha Adhiniyam,2005 (Chhattisgarh Special Public Safety Act, 2005) and u/sec 39 (2) of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 2004 (amended). It is a sad day for the PUCL and all human rights defenders in the country and a black day for the Indian Judiciary.

Dr. Binayak Sen was charged with being a courier of letters from co-accused Narayan Sanyal to Piyush Guha. All through the trial not a single Jail authority appearing as prosecution witness confirmed this. In fact, there was no substantive evidence to confirm any of the allegations of the prosecution.

The PUCL holds that Dr Binayak Sen is a victim of the vendetta of the Chhattisgarh government for his bold and principled opposition to state sponsored vigilante operation Salwa Judum, which has been held unacceptable even by the Supreme Court. His conviction is one more example of the state succeeding in securing the conviction of an innocent person on the basis of false evidence. It is an occasion for the nation to demand drastic reform of the criminal justice system to ensure that it is not manipulated by the state to persecute, prosecute and victimize innocent persons.

The PUCL will continue to work towards Dr. Binayak Sen release and take all legal measures in this regard. It will also work towards building public opinion against the ongoing persecution of activists and Human Rights Defenders in the country.

Prabhakar Sinha ( President), Pushkar Raj ( General Secretary), Mahipal Singh ( National Secretary), Kavita Srivastava ( National Secretary), Kavita Srivastava (General Secretary) PUCL Rajasthan

Address for correspondence: 76, Shanti Niketan Colony, Kisan Marg, Barkat Nagar, Jaipur-302015 Tel. 0141-2594131 mobile: 9351562965

Early price indicator for 2011 foodgrain

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Agrimoney has reported that London wheat for January delivery hit £198.40 a tonne on Thursday, beating the previous record for a spot contract of £197.50 a tonne set in September 2007.

“The peak came despite an uncertain performance by Chicago wheat, the global benchmark, which dipped in and out of negative territory in thin pre-holiday trade, and after disappointing US weekly export sales data. However, in London, prices continued to be boosted by data showing a doubling in UK wheat shipments in 2010-11, at a time when domestic demand has been lifted too by fresh capacity at plants converting the grain into ethanol.”

The buying was reflected too in wheat prices in Paris, where the January contract touched a two-year high of E250.00 a tonne, a two-year high and a “big psychological level for many in the market”, according to a grains analyst Agrimoney spoke to.

The market was finding that, despite the rises in prices of more than 80% in Paris since June, and more than 90% in London, “demand for wheat, and in particular milling quality wheat, has simply not been rationed”. And fundamentals both inside and outside the European Union “seem to offer little hope for a half to further price increases.

On 20 December, Reuters had reported (this is via Futurespros) that Chicago wheat futures rose more than 1 percent on Monday, taking the monthly gains to around 18% as weather concerns in top exporters United States and Australia continued to underpin the market.

“Chicago Board of Trade March wheat rose 1.45% to $7.64 a bushel.  CBOT front-month wheat has risen nearly 18% so far in December, the biggest monthly gains since July when the grain market jumped more than 40% as a severe drought ravaged crops across the Black Sea region. CBOT wheat is on track to post its first annual gain in three years after dropping 42% in the past two years, helped by a drought which decimated the Russian crop and halted exports and rains which reduced the quality of Australian wheat.”

Written by makanaka

December 24, 2010 at 11:19

A Christmas troika from the ILO

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Three excellent titles have been released by the International Labour Organization (ILO) since November, the Global Wage Report 2010-11, World Social Security Report 2010-11 and Extending Social Security to All.

Global Wage Report 2010-11. Social security represents an investment in a country’s “human infrastructure” no less important than investments in its physical infrastructure. At an early stage of economic development the priority is, of course, to put in place a basic level of provision; the evidence adduced in this Guide points to its affordability for, essentially, every country. While this message lies at the heart of the Guide, it is important to keep in mind that, at a later stage, the basic level can and should be augmented, and the ILO’s long-standing approach to social security offers the framework to do so.

While the financial, fiscal and economic affordability and sustainability of social protection systems has become – rightly or wrongly – a major concern for countries at all stages of economic development, the Guide provides testimony showing that some level of social security can be afforded even at early stages of national development. Social security systems remain affordable moreover when economies mature and population age. Hence, a country’s national investment in social security can be well justified, whether or not an extensive social security system has already been developed.

More on the title here. Get the pdf here.

World Social Security Report 2010-11. This is the first in a new series of biennial reports that aim to map social security coverage globally, to presenting various methods and approaches for assessing coverage, and to identifying gaps in coverage. Backed by much comparative statistical data, this first report takes a comprehensive look at how countries are investing in social security, how they are financing it, and how effective their approaches are. The report examines the ways selected international organizations (the EU, OECD and ADB) monitor social protection and the correlation of social security coverage and the ILO Decent Work Indicators. The report’s final section features a typology of national approaches to social security, with a focus on countries’ responses to the economic crisis of 2008 and the lessons to be learned, especially concerning the short- and long-term management of pension schemes.

Social security systems play a critical role in alleviating poverty and providing economic security, helping people to cope with life’s major risks and adapt to change. They can have a remarkable effect on income inequality and poverty in developing countries through income transfers. The 2008-09 financial crisis has shown that they are also powerful economic and social stabilizers, with both short- and long-term effects. However, there are serious problems of access to social security around the world which the crisis has shown into sharp relief, and the financing of systems has been put at risk by shrinking national budgets.

More on the title here. Get the pdf here.

Extending Social Security to All. The second in a series of ILO reports focusing on wage developments, this volume reviews the global and regional wage trends during the years of the economic and financial crisis of 2008 and 2009. In Part I, the report highlights the slow down in the growth of monthly average wages as well as some short-term fluctuations in the wage share. These changes happened against a backdrop of wage moderation in the years before the crisis and a long-term trend of rising wage inequality since the mid-1990s. Part II of the report discusses the role of wage policies in times of crisis and recovery. Collective bargaining and minimum wages can help achieve a balanced and equitable recovery by ensuring that working families share in the fruits of future economic growth.

At the same time, preventing the purchasing power of low-paid workers from falling can contribute to a faster recovery by sustaining aggregate demand. The report shows that policy strategies and design are crucial to ensure that low-paid workers benefit from union representation and minimum wages, and argues that wage policies must be complemented with carefully crafted in-work benefits and other income transfers. Part III concludes with a summary of the report and highlights issues that are critical for improving wage policies.

More on the title here. Get the pdf here.

How a farmer who killed himself a year ago appeared in a political ad

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A protest in Karnataka against the political advertisement

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) state government in Karnataka has run a political advertisement featuring a photograph of a farmer. The ad is part of a campaign to get votes for the party’s candidates during elections to village panchayats, to be held later in December. The farmer whose picture was used in the ad committed suicide on 27 May 2009, well over a year ago.

Either the BJP did not know the farmer in the picture was dead, or did not care in its hurry to get the campaign out in time for the elections. Either way, the outrage in Karnataka has turned into protest and all-round condemnation. The point however is that whether it is the BJP or the Congress, this sort of carelessness reflects how little real attention is given to those who grow food in India.

Extracts from press reports:

The family of Nagaraju from a village about 80 km from Bangalore in Mandya district says he killed himself in 2009 after he was unable to pay off massive debts. He left behind a wife and two young children who are in school. “He died one and a half year ago. Our relatives are coming and asking if he is still alive,” says Bhavya, his daughter. The Opposition says the ad proves how little the government is in touch with the state’s farmers. “Does the chief minister have any concern? You can know the government’s true colours are looking at that ad,” says HD Kumaraswamy of the JD(S). The government says it is looking into the matter. “We will take necessary steps to see that it is corrected if it is wrong,” says Chandra Gowda, a BJP MP.

The BJP on Tuesday withdrew a controversial advertisement with the picture of a farmer highlighting B S Yeddyurappa government’s achievements after it learnt that the farmer had committed suicide, and apologized to his family. The farmer in the ad had committed suicide, unable to repay his debts. B H Nagaraju, a native of Babaurayanakoppalu village, barely 3km from Srirangapatna, had killed himself on May 27, 2009. His family was shocked to see his face in the BJP’s poll ads. In the ad, Nagaraj, who holds sugarcane and a sickle, smilingly talks of his fortune changing after the BJP government took over in Karnataka. His family members claimed Nagaraju committed suicide after he was caught in a debt trap. He is survived by his parents, wife Lakshmi and children Bhavya and Umesh. His father Hanumegowda said his family did not own any land and his son was an agriculture labourer. His daily wages weren’t adequate to support the family.

The BJP issued the advertisement in a few Kannada dailies Sunday ahead of the Dec 26 and Dec 31 polls in 176 taluka (sub-district) and 30 zilla (district) panchayats. The enraged villagers and family members of Nagaraju, who is survived by his parents, wife and two children, are planning to block the Bangalore-Mysore highway Wednesday as the BJP has not apologized for the goof up. “We will stage a dharna on the Bangalore-Mysore highway on Wednesday as no one from the BJP has come to the village to apologise to Nagaraju’s family,” said B.S. Sandesh, former president of Srirangapatna taluka. The farmers staged a demonstration in Baburayanakopplu on the Mysore-Bangalore highway on Monday, protesting against the advertisement, and raised slogans denouncing the government.

The luxury auto madness of Aurangabad and Kolhapur

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Aurangabad city's Shahganj area: the wide and clear avenues, spacious squares, well-regulated traffic and absence of pesky pedestrians and vendors make it a pleasurable drive for the privileged BMW/Mercedes owner.

Aurangabad and Kolhapur, both cities in the state of Maharashtra, western India, have begun an alarming new trend in conspicuous consumption which is extraordinary even by the profligate standards of India’s new urban rich. Groups of residents in both cities have banded together to set records for the number of luxury cars – BMW and Mercedes Benz – ordered in a single day!

In October 2010, a group of wealthy Aurangabad residents took delivery of 150 Mercedes Benz saloons, in a deal worth an estimated 650 million rupees for the auto brand and its regional dealer (based in the city of Pune, Maharashtra). Also in October 2010, a group of wealthy Kolhapur residents decided that if there is to be a mass purchase of luxury cars, their city should be second to none. In early December 2010, according to news reports, the group had swelled to 180 and they were aiming for 200, each of whom would place an order for a Mercedes Benz. Meanwhile, the wealthy residents of Aurangabad decided now to make a mass order of 101 BMW saloons (a deal worth an estimated 400 million rupees), which they expect to take delivery of in January 2011.

Aurangabad is a city of around 900,000 residents (2001 Census) while Kolhapur is home to around 500,000 residents (2001 Census). Until 15 years ago, both cities were centres of trade in agricultural produce, cotton and sugarcane being the respective dominant crops. The economic ‘liberalisation’ in India has clearly brought about the transformation whose effect we are seeing in the mass booking of luxury saloons. Why do these residents think their action is important?

Kolhapur city's Kasba Gate area: the wide and clear avenues, spacious squares, well-regulated traffic and absence of pesky pedestrians and vendors make it a pleasurable drive for the privileged BMW/Mercedes owner.

Sacheen Mulay is the president of the Aurangabad Chamber of Commerce and Industry and a Mercedes Benz owner. He is reported as saying that the group of car buyers wanted to change the image of Aurangabad as a backward, sleepy destination. “Buying a 150 Mercedes is not a joke,” Mulay insisted. “We wanted recognition in the world. Aurangabad is not a small place. We are potential buyers and there are very upcoming entrepreneurs in Aurangabad.” Reportage on the Aurangabad mass buyers also mentioned that a huge shopping mall that opened last month has quickly become popular with residents, who are asking for more luxury brands, a bowling alley, and a nightclub.

Anand Mane, president of the Kolhapur Chamber of Commerce, is the point person for his city’s group of mass luxury saloon buyers. “More than 180 people have already registered their names with us. After the models are displayed in the city, we expect more than 200 people to buy the car. This car is a status symbol and hence, the demand for the vehicle is higher compared to other cars,” said Mane. Kolhapur district has a number of sugar mills and industrial estates. The estimate is that the city already has a population of over 1o0 Mercedes Benz cars, but their owners have to send the vehicles to Pune to get them vehicles serviced. With the big order, Mercedes Benz has started building its first service station in Kolhapur.

If the wealthy Kolhapur residents reach their target of 200 for the Mercedes Benz mass purchase, that deal will be worth about 870 million rupees and together, the luxury auto-obsessed groups in Aurangabad and Kolhapur will have given the Pune-based dealers of Mercedes Benz and BMW business worth 1,920 million rupees. Who are the people who have made these purchase decisions in the name of collective status? Businessmen, young entrepreneurs, politicians, lawyers, doctors and other professionals, say the news reports. [That there is a powerful ‘status’ logic at work in these two cities has been touched upon in an earlier post on the subject of automobiles in India.]

The car-buying groups are using their business skills to pressure the dealers and banks to giving them concessional terms for their record-breaking purchases. “We are negotiating with the dealers to find out what incentives they can give us,” Kolhapur businessman Yogesh Kulkarni told news media. “An insurance company has promised to insure the car at 50% of the normal rate. Some banks are also ready to give loans at discounted interest rates.”

Mercedes Benz and BMW dealers are being asked for discounts of 10-20%, the groups are negotiating with the State Bank of India (a nationalised scheduled commercial bank) to get a loan for seven years (against the normal five years) at 7% interest (well under the 10-11% effective rural rate of inflation), and an insurance company is said to be offering motor insurance at a 50% discount.

“We want to show the world that Aurangabad is no more backward but ahead of metropolitan cities,” said Pankaj Agrawal, an Aurangabad businessman and one of the mass purchase group. What do Agrawal, Mulay and Mane consider as being “backward”? The news reports don’t tell us. We also don’t know how the expense of 1.9 billion rupees on 450 luxury automobiles is seen as a step out of “backwardness” and a step ahead of the metropolitan cities.

How do these purchases compare with living conditions in Maharashtra? Annual median household income in rural Maharashtra is 24,700 rupees (2005 data from the India Human Development Survey – this will have not in my view changed substantially given the debt shocks, agricultural stagnation and overall conditions of employment and from 2007 onwards) while in urban Maharashtra it is 64,600 rupees. Thus the total amount spent in this period of 2010-11 by the wealthy luxury auto-obsessed groups in Aurangabad and Kolhapur is equivalent to the combined annual incomes of 29,721 households in urban Maharashtra and to the combined annual incomes of 77,732 households in rural Maharashtra.

By lanternlight in rural Asia

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The Shivalaya Bazaar, Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, India

One of the magazines of the CR Media group of Singapore interviewed me about energy needs in rural Asia. My responses to some thoughtful questions have been published, although I don’t have a link yet to any of the material online. Until then, here’s a selection of questions and replies.

Do you have a case study or know of an innovative instance when an Asian country has broken the mould successfully in generating energy for its citizens in a way that is remarkable?

When you travel in rural South Asia you see that in almost every unelectrified village there is a flourishing local trade in kerosene and kerosene lanterns for lighting, car batteries and battery-charging stations for small TV sets, dry cell batteries for radios, diesel fuel and diesel generator sets for shops and small businesses and appliances. It’s common to spot people carrying jerricans or bottles of kerosene from the local shop, or a battery strapped to the back of a bicycle, being taken to the nearest charging station several kilometres away. People want the benefits that electricity can bring and will go out of their way, and spend relatively large amounts of their income, to get it. That represents the opportunity of providing power for energy appliances at the household level (LED lamps, cookstoves, solar- and human-powered products) and of community-level power generation systems (village bio-gasification, solar and small-scale hydro and wind power).

Household income and electricity access in developing countries, IEA, World Energy Outlook 2010

Household income and electricity access in developing countries, IEA, World Energy Outlook 2010

In areas such as western China, the South American rainforest or the Himalayan foothills, the cost of a rural connection can be seven times that in the cities. Solar power has spread rapidly among off-grid communities in developing countries, only sometimes subsidised. A typical solar home system today in South Asia provides light, power for TVs, radios and CD players, and most important charges mobile phones. At US$ 400-500, such a system is not cheap for rural Asia, especially when households are struggling with rising food and transport costs. But targeted subsidies and cheap micro-credit has made this energy option more affordable.

How can Asian countries cooperate to bring a new energy reality into Asia and balance development with conservation?

Let’s see what some authoritative forecasts say. The Sustainable World Energy Outlook 2010 from Greenpeace makes projections of renewable energy generation capacity in 2020: India 146 GW, developing Asia 133 GW, China 456 GW. These are enormous quantities that are being forecast and illustrate what has begun to be called the continental shift eastwards of generation and power. India dwarfs developing Asia the way China dwarfs India – the conventional economies today reflect this difference in scale. It’s important to keep in mind, while talking about energy, that Asia’s committed investment and planned expansion is centred to a very great degree around fossil fuel.

Factory and high-tension power lines, Mumbai, India

Certainly there are models of regional cooperation in other areas from where lessons can be drawn, the Mekong basin water sharing is a prominent example. But cooperation in energy is a difficult matter as it is such an essential factor of national GDP, which has become the paramount indicator for East and South Asia. Conversely, it is because the renewables sector is still relatively so small in Asia that technical cooperation is flourishing – markets are distributed and small, technologies must be simple and low-cost to be attractive, and business margins are small, all of which encourage cooperation rather than competition.

What could be immediately done to help alleviate energy shortage in South Asia for the masses, at a low cost? Do you have a case study of this?

Let’s look at Husk Power Systems which uses biomass gasification technology to convert rice husk into gas. Burning this gas runs generators which produce relatively clean electricity at affordable rates. Rice husk is found throughout northern, central and southern India and is a plentiful fuel. While Husk Power says that the rice husk would otherwise be “left to rot in fields” that isn’t quite true, as crop biomass is used in many ways in rural South Asia, but the point here is that this entrepreneurial small company has successfully converted this into energy for use locally.

Household income and access to modern fuels in developing countries, IEA, World Energy Outlook 2010

Household income and access to modern fuels in developing countries, IEA, World Energy Outlook 2010

I think it’s important that access to energy be seen for its importance in achieving human development goals. Individuals in governments do see this as clearly as you and I, but disagreements over responsibility and zones of influence get in the way. Responsible private enterprise is one answer. If you look at micro-enterprise funders, like Acumen, they recognise that access to electricity is also about healthcare, water and housing, refrigerated vaccines, irrigation pumps and also lighting in homes so that children can study.

What issues (externalities etc) do Asian governments do not factor in when they go for new sources of energy?

The poverty factor has for years obscured many other considerations. Providing energy, infrastructure and jobs has been the focus of central and provincial governments, and in the process issues such as environmental degradation and social justice have often been overlooked. That has been the pattern behind investment in large, national centrally-funded and directed power generation plans and in many ways it continues to shape centralised approaches to renewable energy policy.

Developing Asia is still mired in the legacy bureaucracies that have dominated (and continue to) social sector programmes, which for decades have been the cornerstone of national ‘development’. Energy is still seen as a good to be allocated by the government, even if the government does not produce it. And it still takes precedence over other considerations – ecosystem health, sustainable natural resource management – because of this approach. If India has a huge programme to generate hydroelectricity from the rivers in the Himalaya, there is now ample evidence to show both the alterations to river ecosystems downstream and the drastic impacts of submergence of river valleys, let alone the enormous carbon footprint of constructing a dam and the associated hydropower systems. Yet this is seen as using a ‘renewable’ source of energy.

Allegro à la Cancún

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A woman hands out names of countries to participants at the United Nations climate change conference in Cancún, Mexico

A woman hands out names of countries to participants at the United Nations climate change conference in Cancún, Mexico. Photograph: Eduardo Verdugo/AP/Guardian

The Guardian has reported that Europe and a group of small island Pacific states have jointly proposed a new international treaty at the UN climate talks in Cancún, Mexico, to commit developing and developed countries to reducing their climate emissions, according to leaked documents. “The move has outraged many developing countries, including China and India, who fear that rich countries will use the proposal to lay the foundations to ditch the Kyoto protocol and replace it with a much weaker alternative,” reports the Guardian’s environment editor, John Vidal. “The new negotiating text could provoke the most serious rift yet in the already troubled climate talks because the Kyoto protocol is the only commitment that rich countries will cut their emissions.”

Environmentalists in India meanwhile are speculating about the reason for the change in the negotiating stand of the country’s environment minister, Jairam Ramesh. India’s Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) says: “The climate talks in Cancun CoP 16 is precariously poised with India announcing its willingness to subject its domestic mitigation actions to third-party verification and committing to binding emission targets, ‘under pressure from Brazil and South Africa’ (Jairam Ramesh, Indian minister for environment and forest, quoted)”. Sunita Narain, the head of CSE, writes from Cancún, “The aim is to replace the legal regime, needed to set targets based on historical and current responsibility with a soft regime based on domestic targets for all, measured, reported and verified to make it binding”.

The fact is that this regime change promoted by the USA and pushed by all its willing partners in the coalition is disastrous for the world’s fight against climate change, Narain has said. The USA wants its right to pollute. It has provided a perfect formula – it promises us the right to pollute, because it wants to legitimise its own pollution. In this way, the USA is not asked to take on targets (called commitments or actions) based on his historical contribution. In other words, it would have to reduce 40 per cent emissions below 1990 levels. Instead it can set its own domestic targets, based on whatever little it can do. It has initially committed to reducing 3 per cent below 1990 levels, and now says even that much is too much.

Japan reiterated that it will not extend cuts under Kyoto beyond 2012, a position that has angered developing nations, according to a Reuters report. Tokyo insists that all major emitters including China, India and the United States must instead sign up for a new treaty. Akira Yamada, a senior Japanese official, added that the talks were seeking “some good wording with which we can accommodate, not only Japan, but other countries. This negotiation is rather difficult. However, we think we can reach agreement.” Developing nations say that rich nations, which have emitted most greenhouse gases by burning fossil fuels since the Industrial Revolution, must extend Kyoto before the poor sign up for curbs that would damage their drive to end poverty.

The BBC reported that Bolivian President Evo Morales “confirmed his status as the darling of the conference with a rousing speech punctuated by several rounds of applause and cheers.” Morales is quoted: “We came to Cancun to save nature, forests, planet Earth. We are not here to convert nature into a commodity; we have not come here to revitalise capitalism with carbon markets. The climate crisis is one of the crises of capitalism.” Hear, hear! Morales has all my votes. But, the BBC also reported that there is a “diplomatic assault on Japan in the hope of softening its resistance to the Kyoto Protocol”. As many as 20 world leaders are in line to phone Prime Minister Naoko Kan to ask for a change of stance. Japan’s position is seen as the single biggest barrier to reaching a deal. Together with Russia and Canada, Japan is adamant it will not accept future cuts in carbon emissions under the 13-year-old Kyoto agreement.