Resources Research

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

Archive for May 2014

The fitful pulse of an Indian food staple

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The history of consumer price indices for pulses in India’s ordinary shops and bazaars since 2006 January is one of five periods. The first, from 2006 January to 2008 June, is of a rise in some pulse foods, a decline in a few, and little movement in others. The second period is one of a rise in concert from 2008 June to 2010 January, some pulse foods rising very steeply and not others – whole moong did but not whole urad, masur dal did but peas did not, horse gram did but not rajmah.

The third period, from 2010 February to 2011 August, is an overall lowering of the price indices for almost all pulse foods. This happened when the general food price index rose quickly and stayed high – but pulses remained relatively unaffected. That insulation, the fourth period, didn’t last long, from 2011 September till around 2012 May (even shorter for some pulse foods).

The fifth period began around 2011 July for some pulses, and two months later for others, and is continuing. This is a period of volatility in the price indices of the pulses group to an extent not seen in the previous seven years – peas rises but not gram, horse gram and rajmah shot up but raungi and white gram dipped, whole masur and whole moong soared while besan fell and papad remained flat.

The data I have taken from the monthly itemised retail consumer price indices, weighed to be all-India, for industrial workers with their base of 100 being in 2001, and compiled by the Labour Bureau, Ministry of Labour and Employment, Government of India.

At the end of the second quarter of 2014, the spread of price index values for the pulses group of our staple foods is wider than at any time in the last eight years. It is this food group that provides the nutritional balance and is a culturally rich source of protein in everyday meals and popular home-made snacks. The overall price rise these charts graphically illustrate, and the uncertainty about their availability (which is what the recent volatility of the individual index lines show) are evidence of the threat to the nutritional security of many millions of rural and urban households in India.

Written by makanaka

May 23, 2014 at 20:39

Where the big rivers are

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The biggest river deltas are flat and that’s why the cities which occupy some of the have expanded so much, so quickly. The last 50 years has seen a big population expansion on deltas – cities like Dhaka in Bangladesh. Twelve megacities on deltas have expanded in terms of populations from 62 million in 1975 to 153 million in 2010, an expansion that is not slowing.

‘Global Change’, which is the magazine of the International Geosphere Biosphere Programme (IGBP), has brought out a special number of deltas and the risks borne by city administrations that occupy deltas. The IGBP, in its own words, “coordinates international research on global-scale and regional-scale interactions between the Earth’s biological, chemical and physical processes, and their interactions with human systems”.

Flooding both from rivers and the sea is increasing. There was a storm surge in the Irrawaddy in Myanmar in 2008 when 200,000 people were killed. But people are still living on the delta. However, the estimate is that two million people have left the Indus delta in Pakistan to move to higher ground as salt water has invaded the farming zone. [A larger version of the graphic above can be found here (1.4MB). The original IGBP infographic which I have modified can be found here – caution, big file (12.7MB)].

The Po delta (near Venice in Italy) subsided largely because methane was being pumped from underground. They stopped the pumping and the delta is sinking 10 times less fast than it was. But the land surface is not actually rising, and it’s still below sea level. The Chao Phraya River Delta (along which Bangkok is built) subsided because of groundwater being pumped out to supply Thailand’s thirsty capital. So they introduced a tax on water use, such as showers. In Shanghai, the local government slowed the rate of pumping water out of the ground.

However, when countries set up commissions to look at the natural environment, it’s often water/river courses they’re concerned about, like with the Rhine. There is not so much focus on the delta. Where countries have tried geo-engineering, they can scarcely bear the prohibitive costs. It is estimated that China in the 15th to 18th centuries used 12-15% of its historical GDP in attempts to control the Yellow River from spilling out into its floodplain, but these gigantic efforts were never really successful.

The 400 million mark in urban India

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Urban_India_400million_201405By the end of 2014 June, a group of cities will cross important population thresholds. This upward procession of population numbers – for districts, cities and states – is scarcely observed by administration or by citizens, but continues apace. There is – in India’s 4,041 statutory towns (large cities included) and 3,894 census towns – little by way of monitoring and regular assessment of their populations.

Such an attitude simply means that policies and measures drawn up by administrations, universities, civic groups and voluntary organisations are out-of-date the instant they are final – because they are based on the population recorded in 2011 by the Indian Census of 2011 (which fixes the population in March of that year).

Measures to control and lower growth rates of population has become a subject on which there appears to be an unmentioned taboo, just as the subject of migration has become taboo, for as long cities and urban areas continue to absorb citizens who are forced to consume more, the growth rate of GDP can be maintained.

The implications of India’s urban population rising unchecked are not forecast or discussed by central and state planning agencies, nor is this done regularly by the many think-tanks and academic research units. Industry does so only insofar as estimating the size of various markets, for example the processed food, consumer finance, vehicle purchasing numbers, or dwelling units.

In 2011 March, the Census of India recorded the country’s population as 1,210.2 million – the rural population at 833.1 million (up by 90.47 million from 2001) and the urban population at 377.1 million (up by 91 million from 2001). The population growth rate for India between 2001 and 2011 was 17.64%, but while the rural population grew over the decade by 12.18% the urban population grew by 31.8%.

At the overall urban growth rates, here are the new population marks to be seen in 2014 June for a set of cities that will be familiar to many:

* Rohtak in Haryana will have a population of 406,400 (it was 294,577 in the 2001 Census); Gaya in Bihar 500,800 (394,945); Patiala in Punjab 501,600 (323,884); Rajahmundry in Andhra Pradesh 502,800 (413,616); Bilaspur in Chhattisgarh 506,400 (335,293).
* Udaipur in Rajasthan 509,900 (389,438; Nanded in Maharashtra 601,800 (430,733); Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh 1,006,400 (641,583); Hubli-Dharwad in Karnataka 1,006,700 (786,195).
* Aligarh in Uttar Pradesh 1,019,900 (669,087); Durg-Bhilai in Chhattisgarh 1,115,600 (927,864); Asansol in West Bengal 1,310,600 (1,067,368); Jamshedpur in Jharkhand 1,430,600 (1,104,713).
* Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh 1,526,500 (1,203,961); Meerut in Uttar Pradesh 1,532,400 (1,161,716); Vijayawada in Andhra Pradesh 1,607,900 (1,039,518); Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh 2,067,300 (1,458,416).

These increases show the immense scale of this residential transformation, as every year several million citizens move to cities and towns. For what we consider a bloc of urban population, there is a band – which is imprecise, rather than a particular forecast, which does not take into account variations in the growth rate after 2011 – that lets us estimate the annual addition to total urban population.

The upper bound is the 3.18% annual urban population growth rate of the 2001-2011 decade, while the lower bound is the 1.76% annual total population growth rate of the same decade. In 2014 June, the total urban population of India will be between 399 and 417 million. Here is the result:


An agency that has been specifically given the task of stabilising the country’s population is the Jansankhya Sthirata Kosh, an autonomous society of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.

The Kosh runs activities aimed that help states and districts find ways to stabilise their populations – this means, halt and where possible reverse the growth rates. But the Kosh is also limited in its aims (and possibly its abilities) by what the central government says is the need of sustainable economic growth, social development and environment protection – that ‘growth’ delusion again has intervened in so serious a matter as controlling population growth.

One of the aims of the Kosh is to “facilitate the development of a vigorous people’s movement in favour of the national effort for population stabilisation”. This cannot be done without a clear and firm statement that indefinite ‘growth’ must be abandoned as a central economic idea, for only then will population growth, environmental degradation and humane urban settlements take shape.

Holding our breath in India’s cities

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India's cities and PM2.5 - the official response has been to reject the WHO findings

India’s cities and PM2.5 – the official response has been to reject the WHO findings

The findings by the World Health Organisation on the quality of air in India’s cities are the strongest signal yet to our government (old and new, for the results of the 2014 general election will become known on 16 May) that economic ‘growth’ is a weapon that kills citizens through respiratory tract diseases and infections.

Amongst the 124 Indian cities in the new WHO database on urban air quality worldwide, one city only is at the WHO guideline for PM2.5 and one city only is just above the guidelines for PM10. As a bloc, the quality of air in India’s cities are at alarmingly high levels above the guidelines, above Asian averages (poor as they are, and even considering China’s recklessly poor record) and above world averages.

This is not a singular matter. Already, the WHO has warned that India has a high environmental disease burden, with a significant number of deaths annually associated with environmental risk factors. The Global Burden of Disease for 2010 ranked ambient air pollution as the fifth largest killer in India, three places behind household air pollution. Taken cumulatively, household and ambient air pollution constitute the single greatest risk factor that cause ill health -leading to preventable deaths – in India.

The WHO database contains results of ambient (outdoor) air pollution monitoring. Air quality is represented by ‘annual mean concentration’ (a yearly average) of fine particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5, which means particles smaller than 10 or 2.5 microns). The WHO guideline values are: for PM2.5 – 10 micrograms/m3 annual mean; for PM10 – 20 micrograms/m3 annual mean. The two charts show just how dangerously above the WHO guidelines the air quality of our cities are.

India's cities and PM10 - it is the latest amongst many signs that India's GDP growth fever is a killer.

India’s cities and PM10 – it is the latest amongst many signs that India’s GDP growth fever is a killer.

Half of India’s urban population lives in cities where particulate pollution levels exceed the standards considered safe. A third of this population breathes air having critical levels of particulate pollution, which is considered to be extremely harmful. “We are also running out of ‘clean’ places. Small and big cities are now joined in the pain of pollution,” commented Down To Earth, the environment magazine.

Typically, the official Indian response was to question the WHO findings (these were carried out in the same way in 91 countries, and we don’t hear the other 90 complaining) and to reject them. The reason is easy to spot. Global offender Number One for air pollution amongst world cities is New Delhi, a city that has been pampered as the showcase for what the Congress government myopically calls “the India growth story”.

Hence government scientists are reported to have quickly said that WHO overestimated air pollution levels in New Delhi. “Delhi is not the dirtiest… certainly it is not that dangerous as projected,” said A B Akolkar, a member secretary of the Central Pollution Control Board.

The same recidivist line was parroted by Gufran Beig, chief project scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (which otherwise does good work on the monsoon and on climate change). He is reported as having said that New Delhi’s air quality was better than Beijing’s, and that pollution levels in winter are relatively higher in New Delhi because of extreme weather events. Beig said: “The value which has been given in this (WHO) report is overestimating (pollution levels) for Delhi … the reality is that the yearly average is around 110 (micrograms).”

The WHO database has captured measurements from monitoring stations located in urban background, residential, commercial and mixed areas. The world’s average PM10 levels by region range from 26 to 208 micrograms/m3, with a world average of 71 micrograms/m3.

PM affects more people than any other pollutant. The major components of PM are sulfate, nitrates, ammonia, sodium chloride, black carbon, mineral dust and water. It consists of a complex mixture of solid and liquid particles of organic and inorganic substances suspended in the air. The most health-damaging particles are those with a diameter of 10 microns or less, which can penetrate and lodge deep inside the lungs. Chronic exposure to particles contributes to the risk of developing cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, as well as of lung cancer.

Central and state governments show no inclination to join the obvious dots. These are, that with more fuels being burned to satisfy the electricity and transport needs of a middle class now addicted to irresponsible consumption, the ‘India growth story’ is what we are choking to death on.