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Archive for February 2012

Nuclear power in India and Prime Minister Singh’s ‘foreign’ slander

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Manmohan Singh, the prime minister of India, has accused non-government organisations and citizens’ groups in the country opposed to nuclear power as serving a foreign agenda. Singh said this recently referring to the steadfast opposition to the two new 1,000-MW nuclear reactors proposed to be built in Koodankulam, Tamil Nadu (southern India) with Russian help. The first of these reactors was to be commissioned in December 2011 while the second was to follow six months later. The continuing local protests since August 2011 – supported by dozens of NGOs and voluntary groups all over India – have halted the project.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Cartoon by Saurabh Singh / India Today

Singh’s vilification of the protesting NGOs did not come as part of a speech at home or an aside to the Indian media – it was part of an interview conducted with him by the US magazine Science, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It is therefore worth understanding the deeper context in which Singh expressed his frustration over public opposition to his government’s dangerous nuclear power plans.

At the Indian Science Congress held in 2012 January, Singh talked about increasing the R&D budget in India from 1% of GDP to 2% by the end of the Twelfth Five Year Plan period (that is, 2017 March). In the USA, this is seen as being equivalent to a rise from US$ 3 billion last year to US $8 billion in 2017. He specifically mentioned the increasing contribution of private sector funding that will make this possible. The increase is meant to be used for the creation of elite research institutions (which will help bring expatriate Indian scientists home, mainly from the USA), to enrich science education, and equip smart new laboratories.

According to the journal Science, included in this push is South Asia’s first biosafety level–4 lab for handling the most dangerous pathogens. Over the next 5 years, an estimated US $1.2 billion of public money will be used to set up and run a new National Science and Engineering Research Board. Modelled upon the National Science Foundation of the USA, the board will fund competitive grants.

For all the fawning that has been done over the “scholar-prime minister” who “aims for inclusive development”, Singh’s government is anything but inclusive. During the second term of the ruling United Progressive Alliance, concerned Indian publics have demanded a universal entitlement to food under a food security act – and have been denied. They have demanded accountability from elected representatives – and are being denied. They have demanded local right to accept or reject industrial and urban development, which is part of Constitutional provisions and is an essential part of the village self-governance framework – and are being systematically denied all over India but especially in the mineral-rich regions. They have agitated against steadily rising food prices and fuel prices with some rural households having to spend over 65% of their income on food – and been rewarded for annual food inflation rates of over 10%.

Singh and his ministers and his government have at the same time permitted multinational retail food chains to begin business in India, over the considered opposition by tens of thousands of small traders. Singh and his ministers and his government have opened up the health, insurance and banking sectors to multinationals, guaranteeing thereby the demise of the public sector institutions which served this sector since India’s independence in 1947. The prime minister of India has complained about what he dreams is “foreign” interference in his nuclear plans – while his government’s consorting with foreign carpetbaggers of every description is wrecking the futures of millions of poor households in India.

And that is not all. In ‘Koodankulam: An Open Letter to the Fellow Citizens of India’ the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (distributed on 28 February 2012) has said:

“There is no foreign country or agency or money involved in this classic people’s struggle to defend our right to life and livelihood. Our fishermen, farmers, workers and women make small voluntary donations in cash and kind to sustain our simple Gandhian struggle. Our needs are very few and expenses much less. We only provide safe drinking water to the hunger strikers and visitors. People from all over Tamil Nadu (and sometimes from other parts of India) come on their own arranging their own transportation. For our own occasional travel, we hire local taxis. Instead of understanding the people’s genuine feelings and fulfilling our demands, the government has foisted serious cases of ‘sedition’ and ‘waging war on the Indian state’ on the leaders of our movement. There are as many as 180-200 cases on us. There have been police harassment, intelligence officers’ stalking, concocted news reports in the pro-government media, abuse of our family members, hate mail, death threats and even physical attack.”

[Read the full Open Letter here, also the read the Citizens’ Statement Against Prime Minister’s Malicious Comment on Koodankulam Struggle]

Atomic energy and nuclear power plants, sites, institutes and agencies in India. Source: Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), Government of India

Here is a selection of press reports on the matter:

The Hindu – When Dr. Singh, who has a reputation for reticence on sensitive subjects, drops dark hints about a foreign hand, it is surely something that needs to be substantiated and, if necessary, followed up with action. As if to bolster his argument, the licences of three NGOs have been cancelled and the foreign remittances received by them are being investigated. Meanwhile, the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy, the organisation spearheading the anti-Kudankulam protests, has rejected the charge and demanded the Prime Minister substantiate his remarks. Adding to the mix, Jairam Ramesh has also clarified that his decision as Environment Minister in 2010 to place a moratorium on Bt Brinjal was not influenced by NGOs, but was based on objective factors.

However, the idea that NGOs with ‘foreign’ links are fuelling the protests seems more expedient than convincing. The charge is also, at some level, quite irrelevant. For what it’s worth, tens of thousands of ordinary Indians around Kudankulam, Jaitapur and other areas where reactors will be sited are apprehensive about what the placement of large nuclear installations in their backyard might mean for their health, environment and livelihood. The government needs to engage with them in a transparent and constructive manner and allay their fears with facts and arguments rather than innuendo and slander.

The Indian Express – In an interview to Science magazine, the Prime Minister had said that these NGOs do not appreciate India’s need to make use of high-technology like nuclear energy or genetically-engineered crops to move forward on its growth agenda. “You know, for example, what is happening in Koodankulam. The atomic energy programme has got into difficulties because these NGOs, mostly I think based in the United States, don’t appreciate our country to increase the energy supply,” Manmohan Singh said.

Asked whether nuclear energy had a role to play in India’s energy sector despite last year’s accident in Fukushima, Japan, he said, “Yes, where India is concerned, yes. The thinking segment of our population certainly is supportive of nuclear energy.” He blamed these NGOs for his government’s 2010 decision to put an indefinite hold on the commercialisation of Bt brinjal as well. “There are NGOs, often funded from the United States and the Scandinavian countries, which are not fully appreciative of the development challenges that our country faces.”

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Cartoon by Amauri Alves / Toonpool

Business Standard – The Congress, in its communication to Minister for PMO V Narayanasamy, noted that it had been experiencing similar protests from various NGOs and political organisations. “Till now, with few exceptions, the reasons were generally observed to be for financial gains of the NGOs and either personal and financial benefits or pure political gains to the leaders and workers of the political organisations,” it said. “We have seen in the past protests against the Dabhol power project by the Shiv Sena and many other projects by various NGOs and political parties.” The party said now a new threat has emerged considering the anti-Kudankulam demonstrations, asking the Centre to take them seriously.

Hindustan Times – Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has blamed American and Scandivanian NGOs for fuelling protests at the Kudankulam nuclear power plant in Tamil Nadu, according to media reports. The Prime Minister has also blamed these NGOs for opposing genetically modified foods and the use of biotechnology to increase food production in the country.

India Today – The Prime Minister’s statement, in an interview to the prestigious journal Science, attributing anti-nuclear protests at Kudankulam to non-governmental organisations based in the United States, has stirred a familiar hornet’s nest, that of “the foreign hand”. The foreign hand of the CIA was of course frequently deployed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to deflect attention from domestic problems and, most memorably, to justify the imposition of the Emergency. It is deeply ironical coming from a Prime Minister whose government’s policies can be divided into two handy categories: those, such as employment guarantee and food security, that have the imprint of the Congress’s aam aadmi hand symbol; and those, such as its economic and nuclear policies, that bear the generous imprint of the foreign hand. It is amusing that the policy perspective of the US government should be so enthusiastically embraced, even as the views attributed to NGOs in that country are derisively dismissed. This has to be more than the common hypocrisy of everyday politics.

Clearly, what makes the government bristle is opposition to official initiatives. Popular protest provokes it to send its minions scurrying to sniff out a foreign conspiracy. The assumption is that any developmental project the government undertakes must be an unambiguous national good, and the support of its citizens for such projects must be the prime test of their loyalty.

The very odd macro-economics of food prices and food inflation in India

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Food inflation has hurt, but we have just the prescription for it. So says the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister of India. This group of the country’s seniormost macroeconomic planners is considered to be as heavyweight as they come, and have considerable influence on policy in India. The major ministries listen to the pronouncements of the EAC very attentively – finance, commerce and industry, power, steel, agriculture, infrastructure. India’s industry associations and business interest groups do the same – they are the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (Assocham) and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Ficci).

But amongst the five members of the EAC (all ‘Drs’, naturally) there are no women. There is no trade union member, there is neither nurse nor teacher, there is no housewife and there is no bus driver, there is no municipal sweeper and no roadside food vendor, there is no-one from a ‘scheduled caste’ or a ‘scheduled tribe’, in fact there is no tribal at all, there is neither artist nor essayist, there is no-one to speak for the old folk of India and none to explain the dreams of India’s youth. Still they call it a council to which the country’s prime minister listens. What he and his ministerial colleagues learn from these five cosseted greybeards in their ivory tower I can hardly imagine.

The price of a kilo of rice, from 2006 to 2011, in 49 urban centres in India.

Let us see why it is so difficult to find utility (the word classical economists make much of) in the pronouncements of this cabal.

They said: “Very high rates of inflation have characterized the last two years. Much of the inflationary pressure came from primary foods, including cereals in the initial months.”

True.

They said: “While, open market intervention and large releases under the public distribution system (PDS) helped to stabilize the price of cereals, pressure continued to come from rising prices from other primary food items – especially pulses, milk, eggs, meat & fish.”

What does “open market intervention” mean? If it means the central government buying foodgrain to funnel into the public distribution system, this is a method riddled with corruption and crippled by speculation. There are no “large releases” different from the normal schedule of releases which in a country like India are large anyway. Cereal prices have not stabilised – not in 2011 and 2010 and not at any time in the last five years.

They said: “Greatly improved output of kharif pulses in 2010 combined with marketing of imported pulses at controlled prices, helped to curtail the inflation in pulses by July 2010. However, prices continued to rise for fruit, milk, eggs and meat & fish.”

Inflation in the prices of pulses has by no means been curtailed, controlled or even understood. Many kinds of pulses in India are consumed in many different ways, and there is demand not only from final household consumers but also from the dispersed and very varied small foods and snacks manufacturers for whom pulses are a necessary ingredient. Fruit, milk, eggs, meat and fish – all scarce items in the food basket of the poor but high-margin items for the food retail stores in urban India. The EAC has made no mention of why prices for these foods rose – homework not done.

They said: “The prices of vegetables took an unexpected turn in December 2010 and January 2011, resulting in an increase in the wholesale price index of vegetables by 34 and 67 per cent respectively in these two months. In consequence, primary food price inflation stayed in the double digits.”

Not only in December 2010 and January 2011. Several staple vegetables have been the actors in price volatility operas in all the 49 urban centres for which  India’s Food and Consumer Affairs Ministry monitors retail prices. To blame, in my view, is the steady ingress of the food logistics sector (itself part of the corporatisation of food and agriculture in India) into urban centres beyond the major metropolises. The “cold chain” and “value chain” evangelists work for the retail food and processed foods industry, and can exercise degrees of arbitrage which are wholly ignored by the EAC. Inside the market, there was no hint of the “unexpected”.

The price of a kilo of wheat, from 2006 to 2011, in 49 urban centres in India.

They said: “Such a lengthy period of sustained high food price inflation had its expected impact on money wage rates and other cash expenses, which in turn began to get passed into the price behaviour of manufactured goods. Year-on-year inflation for manufactured goods rose from around 5 per cent to 8 per cent in September and October 2011.”

Shouldn’t fossil fuel products and the prices we pay for them share the blame? I think a cursory study of the prices for OPEC and non-OPEC crude products will explain a lot. And besides, “wages” are wages to people who – being mostly in the informal sector and unorganised labour – cannot bargain collectively nor are represented in policy-making bodies (like the EAC), so their money wage rates have not risen in tandem with inflation. Quite the contrary, for rural labour (agricultural and non-farm both) the average household spends 65% of its income on food.

[You can get the EAC Review of the Indian Economy 2011-12 document (pdf) here] [You can get a plain text file of the paragraphs on food and agriculture, prices and inflation (txt) here]

They said: “The net effect was that the headline rate of inflation stayed close to 10 per cent for an extended period of twenty two months.”

True, even for whatever is meant by “headline rate”.

They said: “It should not be forgotten that throughout this period there has also been a suppression of the headline rate insofar as the prices of several refined petroleum products, especially diesel, continued to be restrained by policy – which has had an adverse impact on the subsidy bill and therefore on government finances and also on the finances of the public sector oil companies.”

Oh we are so distressed by the hurt caused to government finances, especially coming on top of the enormous tax write-offs (called “forgone tax revenue” in India’s quaint public accounts jargon) given to the esteemed members of CII, Assocham and Ficci, many of whom are direct beneficiaries of the measures that led to a high “headline rate” of inflation in the first place. Money for jam, I would call it.

They said: “The effort of public policy, especially monetary policy, seems to have had its desired effect. The headline rate dropped to 9.1 per cent in November and further to 7.5 per cent in December and has dropped further in January 2012.”

Now I know that the spreadsheet program supplied to the EAC for such calculations is provided by Messers Alice in Wonderland GmBH.

They said: “The welcome developments in the easing of inflationary pressures will enable the RBI to adjust its monetary stance over the next several months. However, the continued pressure from the fiscal side will continue to impose some limitations. Hopefully the extent of the fiscal burden may ease in 2012-13 and create conditions that are more conducive to investment and economic growth.”

Ah yes, in case we were momentarily misled, this is to remind us that the purpose of high-level panels of greybeards is to prove circuitously to the proletariat that conditions conducive to investment and economic growth matter (so very much) more than our shrinking wages and the spiralling prices we pay for our daily bowl of rice and scraps of vegetables. We stand educated.

Food crisis in the Sahel

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UN-OCHA map of vulnerability to food insecurity in the Sahel.

ReliefWeb has a series of backgrounders, assessment reports and maps to explain the malnutrition and food crisis in the Sahel. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has said that the Sahel is characterised by long standing chronic food insecurity and malnutrition, poverty and extreme vulnerability to drought. “The localised deficit recorded for the agropastoral season 2011-12 and increasing cereals prices in Mali and Niger could bring millions of people at risk of food insecurity,” said the UN-OCHA briefing.

Throughout the Sahel, acute malnutrition in children reaches its annual peak during the hunger season. Children under two years of age have the highest risk of becoming sick or dying during this period. Malnutrition is caused by inadequate food quality and quantity, inadequate care, as well as unhealthy household environment and lack of health services.

The prevalence of global acute malnutrition met or exceeded the critical threshold of 10% in all of the surveys conducted in the hunger season of 2011 (from May to August). If food security significantly deteriorates in 2012, the nutrition conditions for children could surpass emergency levels throughout the Sahel region.

Affected countries are: Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Gambia (the), Mali, Mauritania, Niger (the), Nigeria and Senegal.

Food insecurity and malnutrition chronically affect a significant part of the Sahel population. However, several events came in 2011 which exacerbate this vulnerability:

1. In 2011 many parts of the region received late and poorly distributed rains, resulting in average harvests and serious severe shortfall in some areas. Consequently, the Government of Niger as an example has estimated that the 2011 agro pastoral season will record a deficit of 519,600 tons of cereals and of over ten million tons of fodder for livestock.
2. In Mauritania, authorities expect a decrease of more than 75% of the agriculture production and a strong fodder deficit.
3. In areas where harvests are weak, households will run out of food stocks faster than usual and will be forced to rely on markets for supplies, contributing to maintaining the already high prices at the same level.

UN-OCHA map of expected cases of severe acute malnutrition in the Sahel.

Furthermore, the purchasing power of the most vulnerable populations is likely to deteriorate. In addition the lean season is estimated to begin earlier than usual, probably as early as January 2012 in Chad, two months in advance. As the situation gets worse by spring 2012, there will be an increase of infant acute malnutrition, already beyond emergency thresholds in four wilayas in southwestern Mauritania.

Several countries in the Sahel have already announced measures taken to curb the negative effects of the food insecurity and malnutrition on vulnerable populations; who have not had enough time to recover from the 2009-10 crisis, despite the good harvest registered last year. Three countries (Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Mali) have also requested for assistance from the humanitarian community. In late November, the United Nations Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), administered by OCHA, allocated US$ 6 million to three organisations in Niger – the World Food Program, UNICEF and the Food and Agriculture Organization – for emergency operations to fight food insecurity and malnutrition.

According to a ‘Humanitarian Dashboard – Sahel’ dated 12 January 2012 released by UN-OCHA, early indicators point to a likely food crisis in localised areas of the Sahel in 2012, with people at particularly high risk in Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, Chad, and localized areas of Senegal. These are:

1. Acute food insecurity already noted in southeastern Mauritania.
2. Deficits in 2011, in agro-pastoral production led to higher market prices, resulting in an earlier than usual need for food aid.
3. Resilience to food insecurity is low in most vulnerable groups.
4. High poverty level in Sahel (51%) impacting on food accessibility due to high prices.

The Blue Planet warning, and prescription

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Painting by Shraddha Satish Shenoy of St Columba School, Mumbai, India

This February in London, Britain, a group of the world’s leading scientists and experts in sustainable development called for urgent changes to policies and institutions to enable humanity to tackle environmental crises and improve human well-being. They had gathered to finalise a paper launched at the UN Environment Programme’s Governing Council meeting in Nairobi, Kenya, on 20-22 February.

Now available, the paper emphasises transformational solutions to key environment and development challenges. It highlights the policies, technologies and behaviour changes required to protect the local, regional and global environment, stimulate the economy and enhance the livelihoods of the poor. Called ‘Environmental and Development Challenges: The imperative to act’, this group wrote the paper as a prelude to the Rio+20 conference in Brazil in June, which marks the 20th anniversary of the historic UN Conference on Environment and Development (Rio Earth Summit).

The paper’s authors are all past winners of the Blue Planet Prize, an award presented to individuals or organisations worldwide in recognition of outstanding achievements in scientific research and its application that have helped provide solutions to global environmental problems.

“The challenges facing the world today need to be addressed immediately if we are to solve the problem of climate change, loss of biodiversity and poverty,” said Bob Watson, who is the Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), a Blue Planet Prize winner in 2010 and a co-author of the new paper.

Here are the salient messages from their paper:

There is an urgent need to break the link between production and consumption on the one hand and environmental destruction on the other. This can allow risking material living standards for a period that would allow us to overcome world poverty. Indefinite material growth on a planet with finite and often fragile natural resources will however, eventually be unsustainable. Unsustainable growth is promoted by environmentally-damaging subsidies in areas such as energy, transportation and agriculture and should be eliminated; external environmental and social costs should be internalized; and the market and non-market values of ecosystem goods and services should be taken into account in decision-making.

Painting by Siddhi Sudhakar Ghadi of St Agnes High School, Mumbai, India

The immense environmental, social and economic risks we face as a world from our current path will be much harder to manage if we are unable to measure key aspects of the problem. For example, governments should recognise the serious limitations of GDP as a measure of economic activity and complement it with measures of the five forms of capital, built, financial, natural, human and social capital, i.e., a measure of wealth that integrates economic, environmental and social dimensions.

Green taxes and the elimination of subsidies should ensure that the natural resources needed to directly protect poor people are available rather than via subsidies that often only benefit the better off.

The present energy system, which is heavily dependent on fossil fuels, underlies many of the problems we face today: exhaustion of easily accessible physical resources, security of access to fuels, and degradation of health and environmental conditions. Universal access to clean energy services is vital for the poor, and a transition to a low carbon economy will require rapid technological evolution in the efficiency of energy use, environmentally sound low-carbon renewable energy sources and carbon capture and storage. The longer we wait to transition to a low carbon economy the more we are locked into a high carbon energy system with consequent environmental damage to ecological and socio-economic systems, including infrastructure.

Painting by Sanchana Laxman Jadhav of St Agnes High School, Mumbai, India

Emissions of GHG emissions are one of the greatest threats to our future prosperity. World emissions (flows) are currently around 50 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide-equivalent (COe) per annum and are growing rapidly. As the terrestrial and oceanic ecosystems are unable to absorb all of the world’s annual emissions, concentrations (stocks) of GHG emissions in the atmosphere have increased, to around 445ppm of CO2e today and increasing at a rate of around 2.5 ppm per year.

Thus we have a flow-stock problem. Without strong action to reduce emissions, over the course of this century we would likely add at least 300 ppm COe, taking concentrations to around 750 ppm COe or higher at the end of the century or early in the next. The world’s current commitments to reduce emissions are consistent with at least a 3 C rise (50-50 chance) in temperature: a temperature not seen on the planet for around 3 million years, with serious risks of 5 C rise: a temperature not seen on the planet for around 30 million years. Given there are some uncertainties present in all steps of the scientific chain (flows to stocks to temperatures to climate change and impacts), this is a problem of risk management and public action on a great scale.

There are serious short-comings in the decision making systems at local, national and global levels on which we rely in government, business and society. The rules and institutions for decision making are influenced by vested interests, with each interest having very different access over how decisions are made. Effective change in governance demands action at many levels to establish transparent means for holding those in power to account. At the local level public hearings and social audits can bring the voices of marginalized groups into the forefront. At national level, parliamentary and press oversight are key.

Globally, we must find better means to agree and implement measures to achieve collective goals. Governance failures also occur because decisions are being made in sectoral compartments, with environmental, social and economic dimensions addressed by separate, competing structures.

Painting by Pooja Badhe of Udaychal High School, Mumbai, India

The Blue Planet laureates who gathered in London to work on the paper are:

Professor Sir Bob Watson, Chief Scientific Adviser of the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra); Lord (Robert) May of Oxford, former Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government and President of Royal Society of London; Professor Paul Ehrlich, Stanford University; Professor Harold Mooney, Stanford University; Dr. Gordon Hisashi Sato, President, Manzanar Project Corporation; Professor José Goldemberg, secretary for the environment of the State of São Paulo, Brazil and Brazil’s interim Secretary of Environment during the Rio Earth Summit in 1992; Dr Emil Salim, former Environment Minister of the Republic of Indonesia; Dr Camilla Toulmin, Director of the International Institute for Environment and Development; Bunker Roy, Founder of Barefoot College; Dr Syukuro Manabe, Senior Scientist, Princeton University; Julia Marton-Lefevre, Director-General of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature; Dr Simon Stuart, Chair of the Species Survival Commission of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature; Dr Will Turner, Vice President of Conservation Priorities and Outreach, Conservation International; Dr Karl-Henrik Robert, Founder of The Natural Step, Sweden.

Austerity and debt, the proletariat and protest – 1

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Archbishop Ieronymos, the head of the Church of Greece. Photo: ekathimerini

A round-up of reports on austerity and debt:

‘Head of Greek Church questions austerity, troika’ – Archbishop Ieronymos, the head of the Church of Greece, has taken the rare step of writing to Prime Minister Lucas Papademos to express serious concerns about the effectiveness of the government’s fiscal policy and the effect it is having on Greek people. In his letter, Ieronymos also raises doubts about the role of the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund – or troika – in the country and whether Greece should agree to further austerity measures to receive its next bailout, suggesting that they are “larger doses of a medicine that is proving deadly.”

“Greeks’ unprecedented patience is running out, fear is giving way to rage and the danger of a social explosion cannot be ignored any more, neither by those who give orders nor by those who execute their deadly recipes,” he wrote. “It seems clear now that our homeland’s drama will not finish here but may take on new, uncontrollable, dimensions,” he wrote. “There are, at the moment, demands for even tougher, more painful and even more unfair measures along the same ineffective and unsuccessful lines as in our recent past. There are demands for even bigger doses of a medicine which is proving deadly. There are demands for commitments that do not solve the problem but only put off temporarily the foretold death of our economy. Meanwhile, the put our national sovereignty up for collateral.”

‘Greek debt audit campaign calls new agreements impoverishing’ – The new International Treaty and Memorandum, which accompany the ‘haircut’ of Greek public debt, push the Greek people further into impoverishment. They mean a dramatic drop in both living standards and working conditions, and enslave us to the state’s creditors. The reductions in pensions and wages, the abolition of collective bargaining legislation (contrary to Article 22 of our Constitution), and the 150 000 public sector redundancies lead to mass hunger and wages of 300 or 400 euros a month.

‘Tanzanian govt rejects IMF plan on minerals royalties’ – The government has rejected a proposal by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to introduce a new system to calculate mining royalties because doing so would adversely affect tax collections. Had the government agreed to introduce the single royalty payment, the amount of tax the government collects from the mining firms would have dropped significantly.

‘Portugal unions slam IMF, EU’s “poverty agenda” ‘ – Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets of Lisbon to voice their opposition to government austerity policies. Unions organised the march in protest at spending cuts agreed in return for a seventy eight billion euro bailout. Armenio Carlos, the leader of the Confederation fo Portuguese Workers, said: “We are here to protest against exploitation, inequality and poverty. “That’s the agenda of the troika: the IMF, the EU and the European Central Bank.”

‘Hundreds of thousands rally in Portugal against austerity’ – Hundreds of thousands protested in Portugal Saturday against austerity measures ahead of next week’s talks with international creditors, with unions vowing to keep up the pressure. Officials from the so-called Troika — the European Union, European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund — will next week evaluate progress on the country’s bailout programme. Demonstrators arrived in Lisbon from across the country in the rally described as one of the country’s biggest in three decades. Many were brandishing banners such as “The struggle continues” and “No to exploitation, no to inequality, no to impoverishment.”

‘Greece to pledge 20% cut in minimum wage, draft accord shows’ – Greece will pledge permanent spending cuts, including lower pension payments and a 20 percent reduction in the minimum wage, as the economy contracts this year at a faster pace than originally estimated, according to the draft of a new financing deal with the European Union and International Monetary Fund. “To restore competitiveness and growth, we will accelerate implementation of deep structural reforms in the labor, product and service markets,” according to the letter of intent addressed to IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde in a document obtained by Bloomberg News.

[With thanks to the Bretton Woods Project for its compilation of these reports.]

Quiet numbers tell district tales – rural and urban India, part 6

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In north-east Mumbai (Bombay), open land under high-tension cables becomes a place for many cricket games on a Sunday afternoon.

Census 2011 also informs both the incumbent ‘sirkar’ and us that there are 22 districts in which literacy rates for the rural female population are above 74% (all 14 of Kerala’s districts are included). However, it is in the next 10% range of literacy rates – 74% to 64% – that gains since the 2001 census must be protected and this set includes 82 districts. It is a widely dispersed set, comprising districts from 21 states and union territories.

There are 11 from Maharashtra (including Sangli, Bhandara and Gondiya), 9 from Punjab (including Kapurthala, Gurdaspur and Sahibzada), 7 from Orissa (including Jagatsinghpur, Kendrapara and Bhadrak), 7 also from Himachal Pradesh (including Una, Kangra and Solan), 6 from Tamil Nadu (including Thoothukkudi and Nagapattinam) and 5 from Gujarat (including Navsari and Mahesana).

In the background, some of the most expensive office space in the world, Mumbai's Nariman Point business district. In the foreground, temporary shanties on the beach.

The Office of the Registrar General of India, which administers the Census, has cautioned that all the data releases so far are still provisional figures. However, the implications are now plain to see, and give rise to a set of socio-economic questions which demographic and field research over the 12th Plan Period (2012-17) will enlarge and expand upon. Is there for example a correlation between districts whose rural populations have unfavourable female to male gender ratios and districts in which female literacy ratios are low? Comparing the bottom 100 districts under both conditions shows that there are only 12 districts in which both conditions are present (5 in Uttar Pradesh, 2 in Rajasthan, and 2 in Jammu & Kashmir).

A valley in the western hills of Maharashtra state in summer, exhibiting denuded hillsides and scant grazing for shepherds. From villages such as this one, youth and families make their way to the cities.

Most encouraging is that there are 40 districts in which the ratio of the number of literate females to literate males (this is a different ratio from literacy rate), is 0.90 or better, ie there are 900 or more literate females to 1,000 literate males. In this set are all Kerala’s 14 districts but also 13 districts from the Northeast (from Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland).

The remainder are from island Union Territories, from the southern states (3 from Karnataka, 2 from Andhra Pradesh and one each from Tamil Nadu and the Union Territory of Puducherry), from hill states (2 from Uttarakhand, 2 from Himachal Pradesh) and one from Maharashtra. It is these districts that provide abundant reason for the allocation of a minimum 6% of GDP allocation for education – a long-standing commitment – which must begin to be fulfilled in the 2012-17 Plan period.

Thane district, north of the Mumbai metropolitan region, has experienced one of the fastest growths in population in India over the last decade.

How will the Government of India consider these early indicators from Census 2011? How will India’s civil society and the great breadth of organisations – voluntary groups, people’s movements, rural foundations and the like – which have been delivering development ‘outcomes’, year after year, without the benefit of budgetary support but motivated by the plain fact that inequity still exists, how will this group see these indicators?

The Government of India revels in presenting contradiction as a substitute for careful, evidence-based and inter-generational planning. When downward trends – such as those seen in female illiteracy and in the gender ratios of the 0-6 age-group – have been slow over the last 25 years, there is a need to set long-term objectives that are not tied to the end of the next available Plan period, but which use a Plan direction to help achieve them. In this, the Approach Paper to the 12th Five-Year Plan has failed quite signally, because its authors have not drawn the only possible conclusions from the Census 2011 data presented till date. Yet others have done so, notably India’s civil society and its more responsive group of academics. Hence the abundance of contradictions in all major documents – the Approach Paper being the most important, annual Economic Surveys being another type – which seek to reassure one section while in fact underwriting the ambitions of another.

Rural labour pitches camp. Mobile populations such as this one move from more disadvantaged districts to less, as even intermittent agricultural wages and harsh living conditions are better than debt.

So we see that a state which must ensure provision of Right to Education to every child up to the age of 14 years, because it is constitutionally bound to do so, complains in the planning phase itself that scarce resources constrain it from carrying out its duties and therefore advises its citizens that measures like public-private partnership (PPP) should be resorted to. How will such cunning better the lives and present culturally relevant opportunities for the rural populations in the remaining 591 districts which are under the 0.90 ratio for literate females to literate males? What will the emphasis on vocational training (for the urban job pools) instead of people’s empowerment mean for the rural populations in 403 districts where this ratio is less than 0.75 – which means the number of literate rural females is under three-fourths the number of literate males – and in 69 of these districts it is even under 0.60 (25 in Rajasthan, 14 in Uttar Pradesh, 9 in Madhya Pradesh, 6 in Jammu and Kashmir)?

[This is the sixth of a small series of postings on rural and urban India, which reproduces material from my analysis of Census 2011 data on India’s rural and urban populations, published by Infochange India. See the first in the series here; see the second in the series here; see the third in the series here; see the fourth in the series here; see the fifth in the series here.]

Come July, could an African or Asian head the World Bank?

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UN Millennium Development Goals 1 to 4

Who will head the World Bank after 2012 June? A global coalition of development activists and non-governmental organisations is calling on the World Bank’s governors to ensure that Bank President Robert Zoellick’s successor is chosen in an “open and merit-based process” that will give borrowing countries a major say in the selection.

In an open letter released shortly after the Bank’s announcement this week that Zoellick will step down at the end of his five-year term in June, some 60 groups and activists from around the world said any candidate should gain the “open support” of at least the majority of World Bank member countries and of the majority of low- and middle-income countries that make up most of its borrowers.

IPS News has reported that the arrangement which currently exists is absurdly called an informal “gentlemen’s agreement” (there are no gentlemen in this matter, now 68 years old, of leading poor countries into irredeemable debt and condemning their citizens to hardship and poverty). This agreement of exploitation, for that is what it is, exists between the USA and the countries of western Europe – specifically Britain, France and Germany – and provides that a national of USA will hold the top position at the World Bank Group, and that a national of Europe will hold the managing directorship of its sister institution, the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

“It’s a World Bank, not a US Bank. It needs the best candidate to get the job with support of wide Bank membership, not just the US,” IPS reported Collins Magalasi as having said. Magalasi is executive director of Afrodad, one of the lead NGOs which released the open letter calling for a change in the way the World Bank Group’s leader is chosen. The coalition includes Oxfam International, Civicus, and the African Forum and Network on Debt and Development (Afrodad).

The open letter has said: “The candidate must gain the open support from at least the majority of World Bank member countries, and from the majority of low and middle-income countries. As the Bank only operates in developing countries, and has most impact in low-income countries, any candidate that was not supported by these countries would seriously lack legitimacy. In addition to encouraging developing countries to nominate their own candidates, the best way to ensure that developing countries play a central role throughout the selection process is for the successful candidate to be required to gain the support of a majority of both voting shares and member countries.”

UN Millennium Development Goals 5 to 8

“This need not require any formal changes to the Bank’s articles of agreement, but could simply be agreed by the Board, to build on the limited proposals agreed in April 2011. To make this work, countries would need to vote independently, not through their constituencies, and declare their support publicly. It is time for the US to publicly announce that it will no longer seek to monopolise the Presidential position.” You can read the full letter at the website of the European Network on Debt and Development (Eurodad).

Bloomberg Businessweek has reported that China has called for the next World Bank chief to be picked based on merit. The next leader should be selected “based on the merit principle and open competition,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said at a briefing in Beijing. Liu was apparently responding to a question on whether the next head should be from a developing nation. Since according to the US Treasury, the largest foreign holder of US debt is China, which owns about US$1.2 trillion in bills, notes and bonds, that sounds like an ungentle nudge from across the Pacific that it’s time the old order was scrapped.

The World Bank Group is quite top heavy. As its senior management the WB Group has: one president, three managing directors, a chief financial officer, two senior vice presidents, six vice presidents for the World Bank Group’s six operational regions, seventeen vice presidents for the Group’s divisions and departments, one director general. The IFC (International Finance Corporation) has one executive vice president and chief executive officer, nine vice presidents. The MIGA (Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency) has one executive vice president, one vice president and chief operating officer, five directors.

While from the three managing directors downwards it may look like the WB Group senior management is representative of the variety of countries to which it lends, this is illusory – these people are financiers first and are free-market standard-bearers and privatisation evangelists. At those positions in the World Bank, as in the IMF, there are no nationalities – there is only capitalism.

Written by makanaka

February 16, 2012 at 18:45

World agri estimates 2012 February – 692 mt of wheat, 462 mt of rice

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The World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates (WASDE) for 2012 February have been released by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA, through its Economic Research Service of the Foreign Agricultural Service).

Here are the important numbers: total wheat production 692.88 mt, total wheat exports 140.25 mt (of which 26.54 mt is US, the former Soviet Union countries (12) is 35.21 mt); total coarse grains production 1,142.19 mt (coarse grains include corn, sorghum, barley, oats, rye, millet, and mixed grains), total coarse grains exports is 119.81 mt; total world corn production is 864.11 mt; total world rice production is 462.75 mt.

Families queue for food at a feeding point in BadBado IDP camp in Mogadishu, Somalia. Photo: IRIN / Kate Holt

Here is what WASDE has said about global wheat, coarse grains and rice:

Wheat – Global wheat supplies for 2011-12 are projected 2.1 million tons higher with larger beginning stocks in Kazakhstan and increased production for India, Kazakhstan, and Morocco. Kazakhstan beginning stocks are raised 0.6 million tons with reduced domestic consumption for 2010-11. India production for 2011-12 is increased 0.9 million tons reflecting the latest government revisions, which increased yields for the crop that was harvested last spring. Kazakhstan production is raised 0.2 million tons based on the recent official estimate. Production for Morocco is raised 0.2 million tons also on official revisions to estimated yields in a crop that was harvested several months ago.

Global trade is raised slightly for 2011-12 with world imports increased 0.7 million tons. Small increases in imports are made for Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Chile, and Ethiopia. Export reductions for Ukraine, Canada, and India are more than offset by increases for Russia, the United States, Argentina, and Brazil. Global wheat consumption is reduced 1.0 million tons mostly reflecting a 1.6-million-ton reduction in India food use. Partly offsetting are small increases in food use for Australia, Chile, Ethiopia, and Kazakhstan. Global wheat feeding is nearly unchanged with a 1.0-million-ton reduction for Kazakhstan offset by increases for Ukraine, Saudi Arabia, Canada, and Mexico. Global ending stocks for 2011-12 are raised 3.1 million tons to a record 213.1 million. As projected, 2011-12 global wheat stocks would be 2.4 million tons higher than the previous record in 1999-2000.

A woman peels cassava in a village close to the northern Zambian town of Mpulungu. Photo: IRIN / Guy Oliver

Coarse grain – Global coarse grain supplies for 2011-12 are projected 3.1 million tons lower mostly reflecting reduced corn production prospects in Argentina and, to a lesser extent, Paraguay. Argentina corn production is lowered 4.0 million tons to 22 million as field reports confirm that high temperatures and extensive dryness during pollination in late December and early January resulted in irreversible damage to early corn in the central growing region. Late planted corn, which has been on the increase in recent years, will help offset some of the earlier losses, but additional rainfall is needed to stabilize production prospects. Corn production is lowered 0.4 million tons for adjacent Paraguay where hot, dry weather also reduced area and yields. Partly offsetting are small corn production increases for EU-27 and the Philippines. Global barley production is raised with Argentina production up 0.7 million tons on higher reported area and yields for the crop that was harvested during late 2011.

[You can get the data file here, and the pdf report here.]

Global coarse grain trade for 2011-12 is raised with higher corn imports for EU-27 and higher barley imports for Saudi Arabia, EU-27, and Jordan. Partly offsetting is a reduction in corn imports for Canada. Higher corn exports for a number of countries offset a 4.5-million-ton reduction for Argentina. Along with the projected increase for the United States, corn exports are raised 2.0 million tons for Ukraine, 0.5 million tons each for Brazil and EU-27, and 0.2 million tons for Russia. Barley exports are lowered 1.0 million tons for Ukraine, but raised 0.7 million tons for Russia, 0.5 million tons for Argentina, and 0.3 million tons each for Canada, EU-27, and Kazakhstan.

Global coarse grain consumption for 2011-12 is raised slightly with higher barley feeding in Ukraine and Jordan and higher corn feeding in Argentina and Ukraine. Corn feeding, however, is lowered for Canada and barley feeding is lowered for Kazakhstan and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is expected to rebuild stocks as world barley production has rebounded from a 40-year low in 2010-11. Global coarse grain ending stocks for 2011-12 are lowered, with a 2.8-million-ton reduction in corn stocks and a 0.6-million-ton reduction in barley stocks. At the projected 125.4 million tons, global corn ending stocks would be the lowest since 2006-07.

A woman tends to her goods while at a morning market in Kathmandu. Agriculture accounts for about 75 percent of the nation's workforce. Photo: IRIN / David Longstreath

pic

Rice – Global 2011-12 projections of rice production, consumption, trade and ending stocks are raised from last month. The increase in the global rice production forecast is due mostly to increases for India and the Philippines, which are partially offset by reductions for Brazil, Egypt, Argentina, and the United States. The U.S. rice crop (milled equivalent basis) is lowered slightly resulting entirely from the decrease in the average milling yield. India’s rice crop is forecast at a record 102 million tons, up 2 million from last month due to an increase in both harvested area and yield. According to the U.S. agricultural counselor in New Delhi, favorable 2011 monsoon rains coupled with overall good weather conditions in the major rice producing areas supported higher kharif rice acreage and productivity.

The Brazil rice crop is lowered 340,000 tons due to the effects of drought in Rio Grande do Sul, an important rice producing State. Global exports are raised by 1.4 million tons, primarily due to an increase for India and Egypt, which are partially offset by reductions for Thailand, Vietnam, and the United States. Forecast India exports are raised 2 million tons to a record 6.5 million tons, while exports for Thailand and Vietnam are lowered 500,000 and 200,000 tons, respectively. Forecast imports are sharply raised for Egypt based on information from the agricultural counselor in Cairo. Global ending stocks are up slightly from last month to 100.1 million tons mainly due to an increase for the Philippines.

India estimates 250 million tons of foodgrain for 2011-12

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India’s Ministry of Agriculture has released it ‘second advance estimates’ for the 2011-12 crop season. These estimates (usually four) are released from around September or October until the following monsoon has set in by July.

The rice target of 102 million tons (mt) is the same as it was for 2010-11. The second advance estimate for rice is 90.18 mt for ‘kharif’ (sown in monsoon, harvested in autumn), the highest ever advance estimate, and 102.75 mt in total (both ‘kharif’ and ‘rabi’, the winter crop). The second advance estimate for 2011-12 is almost 10 mt higher, for the rice kharif crop, than the second advance estimate for 2010-11. The total rice estimate for 2011-12 is more than 8 mt higher than the advance estimate for the total rice crop in 2010-11.

The 2011-12 second advance estimate for wheat is 88.31 mt, more than 4 mt above the 2011-12 target of 84 mt. The wheat second advance estimate is also more than 2 mt above the fourth advance estimate for the 2010-11 season, of 85.93 mt. Coarse cereals (jowar, bajra, maize, ragi, small millets and barley) has been since 2008-09 set targets of over 40mt – 42mt in 2008-09 (the harvest was 39.48 mt), 43.1 mt in 2009-10 (the harvest was 33.77 mt), 44 mt in 2010-11 (the harvest was 42.22 mt). The 2011-12 coarse cereals target is 42 mt and the second advance estimates for the year for coarse cereals is 42.08 mt).

Total cereals for 2011-12 is 233.14 mt in the second advance estimate, almost 10 mt above the fourth advance estimate of 2010-11 (which was 223.47), and above the 228 mt target for 2011-12. Total pulses for 2011-12 is 17.28 mt in the second advance estimate, just above the 17 mt target for the year. This is still under the 18.09 mt fourth advance estimate for the 2011-11 crop year.

[You can find a four year data set from 2008-09 onwards here (xlsx)]

Thus, total foodgrain for the 2011-12 crop year is placed at 250.42 mt in the second advance estimate, over 5 mt above the target for 2011-12 – and the first time the total foodgrain harvest has been estimated at 250 mt. In the three previous crop years total foodgrains was 241.56 mt in 2010-11, 218.20 mt in 2009-10, and 233.88 mt in 2008-09.

Written by makanaka

February 12, 2012 at 21:55

The intangible cultural heritage of agriculture and food, via Unesco – rice ritual in Japan

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Ritual of transplanting rice in Mibu, Hiroshima, Japan. When most of the ploughing is completed, girls called Saotome begin to prepare for the transplantation. They wear colourful dresses, and hats called Suge-gasa. Photo: UNESCO / ©2009 by Kitahiroshima-cho

UNESCO – the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization – has a deep and wide view of traditional knowledge and practices of sustainability. Not readily apparent inside the labyrinthine UN system, Unesco’s Culture sector has within it the section on Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH), which helps preserve, conserve and revitalise these practices.

The term “cultural heritage” has changed content considerably in recent decades, with much of that change having come about thanks to the conventions developed by Unesco. Although “cultural heritage” is usually seen as monuments, buildings of antiquity and sites of historical importance or natural significance, it also includes traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts.

In this framework, the UNESCO 2003 Convention on the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage brings together such knowledge – sometimes well documented and living, sometimes in grave danger of being extinguished. These are organised under what are called the Lists of the Convention. In this series, I will pick out those practices and expressions of knowledge that have to do with cultivation systems, agricultural ecologies and the community cultures surrounding food.

The first in this series is ‘Mibu no Hana Taue’, the ritual of transplanting rice in Mibu, Hiroshima, Japan. This was inscribed in 2011 on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Ritual of transplanting rice in Mibu, Hiroshima, Japan. On the day of the ritual, villagers bring more than a dozen cattle to Mibu Shrine to be dressed with elaborately decorated saddles called Hanagura and a colourful necklace. Photo: UNESCO / ©2009 by Kitahiroshima-cho

‘Mibu no Hana Taue’ is an agricultural ritual in which people worship the deity of rice fields, and pray for a good growth and abundant harvest of the rice crops for the year through ploughing fields, and transplanting rice seedlings. The Mibu community, located in a mountainous area of Western Japan, has developed and transmitted “Mibu no Hana Taue.” Both the Mibu and neighbouring Kawahigashi communities have been areas of rice cropping for a long time.

‘Mibu no Hana Taue’ is carried out on the first Sunday of June every year after actual transplantations in the community are completed. Villagers gather at a large rice field, specially kept in reserve for the ritual. The deity of rice fields is welcomed, and a series of agricultural works such as ploughing, preparation for the transplantation and the actual transplantation are demonstrated in the presence of the deity. On the day of the ritual, villagers bring more than a dozen cattle to Mibu Shrine to be dressed with elaborately decorated saddles called Hanagura and a colourful necklace.