Archive for December 2014
It started in early August, the extraordinary slide in petroleum prices. Until then, the international crude oil price of the ‘Indian Basket’ (of crude oils, as it is called) had swung between US$ 110 and US$ 105 per barrel.
The rupee-dollar exchange rate, and the effective price of a barrel of crude oil in Indian rupees (both measures also appear on this chart), fluctuated but little for most of the first half of 2014. In early June 2014, the rupee-dollar rate turned around from 59 and has been rising since, while in early July the rupee price per barrel descended from its plateau of 6,300-6,600 and has been dropping since.
The cost of oil-derived energy has had a number of effects upon our everyday lives in the second half of 2014. It has helped the new NDA-BJP government during its first year by dampening overall inflation (the consumer price index) and particularly food price inflation. This has been particularly fortunate for the NDA-BJP government as the deficient monsoon of 2014 has meant a drop in the production of food staples, and market forces being what they are, food price inflation especially would have been well into the 13%-14% range (last quarter 2014 compared with last quarter 2013).
Galloping consumer price inflation has been forestalled by the plunging price of crude oil. The data I have used for this startling chart is courtesy the Petroleum Planning and Analysis Cell (PPAC) of the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas which computes several times a week the “global crude oil price of Indian Basket in US$ per bbl” – which means the average price we pay per barrel for the various kinds of crude oil we purchase.
A barrel of crude oil is 42 gallons or around 159 litres. This crude, when refined, is turned into diesel, petrol, lighter fuels, feedstock for the manufacture of various plastics, and other products. Typically, up to 70% of the oil we buy is converted into diesel and petrol (and carbon from all those exhaust pipes). Also typically, a barrel of crude oil (which is an extremely dense form of packaged energy) contains around 5.8 million BTUs (British thermal units). More familiar to us is the kilowatt hour (or kWh) and these 5.8 million BTUs are about 1,700 kWh – at current national average rates of per head electricity consumption this is worth about 26 months of electricity!
From early August till the end of December the price we paid for a barrel of crude has dropped from around US$ 103 to US$ 54 and correspondingly (factoring in the rupee-dollar exchange rate) the rupee price of a barrel of crude has dropped from 6,300 to around 3,500. Put another way, the INR 6,300 we paid in early August for 5.8 million BTU could buy, in mid-October 7.1 million BTU and by end-December, 10.4 million BTU.
Most of us tend not to be profligate with energy (our electricity comes mainly from the burning of coal, but the sale of automobiles has continued at a steady pace, or so the industry tells us). The question is whether this windfall energy saving (in terms of petroleum energy units per rupee) has been well used by the sector that can spread the benefit the most – agriculture and food. It will take another three months to judge, and we will keep a wary eye for the next quarter on the Indian crude oil Basket.
This rather nice infographic (all our own work) shows the variation in average fat intake per capita across fractile classes of monthly per capita expenditure (MPCE) at the all-India level for the rural and urban populations. It also shows the variation in fat intake between rural and urban populations of 17 major states.
We find that the average fat intake for India was about 46gm per rural person per day and 58gm per urban person per day (in 2011-12). But averages hide a great deal, and our intriguing fat-finding meter brings out, with alarming clarity, the (somewhat greasy) details.
This graphic is based on the average daily fat intake per capita in 2011-12. The data is found in the National Sample Survey Office report No. 560 on ‘Nutritional Intake in India, 2011-12’. This report is based on the 68th round survey (July 2011 to June 2012) of the National Statistical Organisation, Government of India.
The NSS report found that the 10th and 11th rural population fractiles consume twice as much fat per day as those in the 3rd rural fractile class (members of a fractile numbered lower spend less per month than members of those numbered higher). Likewise, the 8th and 9th urban population fractiles consume 1.5 times as much fat per day as those in the 3rd and 4th urban fractile classes.
There is much variation between the fat intake by rural populations of states. In both rural and urban, per capita intake was lowest in Odisha (rural: 27.1gm; urban: 37.7gm) and Assam (rural: 29.6gm; urban: 39.2gm). The states with highest fat intake were Haryana (rural: 68.6gm; urban: 74.7gm), Gujarat (rural: 61.5gm; urban: 73.1gm) and Punjab (rural: 70.3gm; urban: 69.2gm).
But the NSS report found that the increase in fat intake per capita with the rise in MPCE level is steeper than the corresponding increase for protein intake (we will link this finding with a forthcoming infographic). Per capita fat intake in the top fractile class of the urban sector was about 100gm, more than three times that in the lowest fractile class (about 27gm), while in the rural sector the intake of the top fractile class, at 92gm, was more than four times higher than that of the bottom class (21gm).
In contrast to the remarkable closeness of average protein intake across the rural-urban
divide, average urban fat intake is noticeably higher than rural intake in all the fractile
classes. Except for the lowest fractile class (bottom 5% of population ranked by MPCE), the
difference in per capita fat intake between a rural fractile class and the corresponding urban
fractile class is never less than 7.5gm.
An agricultural year begins at the beginning of July and ends on the last day of June the following year. What we know now, thanks to the data provided by the Situation Assessment Survey of Agricultural Households, carried out by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) of the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (MoSPI) is that in the agricultural year 2012-13, rural India had an estimated total of 90.2 million agricultural households.
These agricultural households were about 57.8% of the total estimated rural households. Uttar Pradesh, with an estimate of 18.05 million agricultural households, accounted for about 20% of all agricultural households in the country. Among the major states, Rajasthan had the highest percentage of agricultural households (78.4%) among its rural households followed by Uttar Pradesh (74.8%) and Madhya Pradesh (70.8%). Kerala had the least percentage share of agricultural households (27.3%) in its rural households preceded by other southern states like Tamil Nadu (34.7%) and Andhra Pradesh (41.5%).
The NSSO’s previous such survey (the ‘Situation Assessment Survey of Farmers’) was conducted in 2003. The differences between the two, a decade apart, have been explained by the NSSO. First, such surveys aim to gather an assessment of the situation of our farmers and farming households.
This assessment determines a standard of living as measured by consumer expenditure, income and productive assets, the indebtedness of farmers and farming households, farming practices and preferences, what resources are available to them, their awareness of technological developments and access to such technologies. The survey for the 2012-13 agricultural year also collected information on crop loss, crop insurance and awareness about the Minimum Support Price (MSP).
Second, the big difference between the two surveys is that the new survey has dropped the criterion of land possession for considering a household agricultural. “Recognising the fact that significant agricultural activity can be conducted without possessing any land, the definition of ‘farmer’ and ‘farmer household’ followed in NSS 59th Round was critically reviewed and the land possession as an eligibility criterion was dispensed with, replacing it with the concept of ‘agricultural production unit’ as one which produces field crops, horticultural crops, livestock and the products of any of the other specified agricultural activities,” is how the new survey (called the 70th Round) has explained its decision.
I find this puzzling and an aspect that needs careful probing. We know, from a close scrutiny of the Census 2011 data at the district level, that the number of people and households engaged in cultivation and farming has dropped when compared to the last census, in 2001, and the previous census, in 1991 (as a percentage of the rural working population but in several cases as absolute population numbers too).
What reason could the NSSO have had to amend the definition it used ten years earlier? “With a view to keep the large number of households with insignificant agricultural activities out of survey coverage, it was decided to have a minimum value of agricultural produce for a household to qualify as an ‘agricultural production unit’,” the NSSO has explained. I cannot follow this reasoning. Are urban households which make negligible contributions to the local gross domestic product to be kept out of surveys that ought to assess their conditions – such as those with pensioners and informally employed people who get by on job work?
If this is the basis for exclusion, what qualifies a household for inclusion in the survey? The NSSO has considered average Monthly Household Consumer Expenditure (MHCE) for “home grown consumption of some specific items” and adopted a cut-off value amount of 3,000 rupees worth of annual agricultural produce. The activities which provided such value are given as “cultivation of field crops, horticultural crops, fodder crops, plantation, animal husbandry, poultry, fishery, piggery, bee-keeping, vermiculture, sericulture etc” with such a household “having at least one member self-employed in agriculture either in the principal status or in subsidiary status during last 365 days”.
This cut-off value amount needs investigation. So does the idea of an ‘agricultural production unit’. And the NSSO for this survey has also excluded households which are entirely agricultural labour households, those households receiving income entirely from coastal fishing, as also the activity of “rural artisans and agricultural services”. Nonetheless, these data are important and useful for our understanding of the changes that have taken place in the food and agriculture domain.
It has become abundantly clear, with the release of part of the US Senate Intelligence Committee on CIA torture, that the practices and the planning were not confined to a handful of aberrational cases or techniques. This shadowy and sprawling artifice of evil was an officially sanctioned, worldwide regime of torture that had the explicit approval of the top members of both political parties in the US Congress. The evidence for all of this is conclusive and overwhelming. The implications must shake to their core what the American government has so often called “the international community”.
That part of the US Senate Intelligence Committee on CIA torture report which has been released has revealed that torture techniques were approved at the highest levels of the government of the USA and then employed in prisons around the world, that these were and are the CIA ‘black sites’.
The mainstream media in the USA – fulfilling their function as the propaganda mechanism of a government that from 2001 onwards paid even less heed to national and international law than during the foregoing century of conflict – for years refused to use the word ‘torture’ to describe any of what the Senate report details. The same media called these same techniques ‘torture’ when used by adversaries of America.
What has been released by the US Senate Intelligence Committee (in part) is the product of four years of work (2009-2013) and the full collection is estimated at running to some 6,000 pages. The released portion, which is a summary, runs to about 600 pages and some of that is redacted: the names of CIA agents participating in the torture, countries which agreed to allow CIA black sites, and other details.
Some of the key documents are posted here, barring the portion of the Senate report that has been released which is too large a file size to upload. Here are: the Senate CIA Torture Report Timeline (pdf, 162KB), the Obama Statement on the Senate CIA Torture Report (pdf, 41KB), the Feinstein Statement on the Senate Torture Report (pdf, 157KB), the Senate CIA Torture Report State Talk Points (pdf, 184KB), Senate CIA Torture Report Additional Views (pdf, 1.87MB), the CIA Response to Torture Report 1 (pdf, 5.39MB), the CIA Response to Torture Report 2 (pdf, 1.17MB, and here), the CIA Response to Torture Report 3 (pdf, 1.63MB and here), and the Globalising Torture report by the Open Society Justice Initiative (pdf, 1.08MB).
What can be read is an account of how the CIA viciously brutalised people, some of them entirely innocent, and described what they were doing as an art and a science. Senate investigators, who had access to millions of pages of original CIA cables and other source material, used most of the released portion to show one example after another of CIA officials doing gruesome things, then telling convenient falsehoods to each other, to their bosses, to the White House, to anyone who questioned them, and to Congress – all to prove to everyone that torture worked.
By mid-2003, the CIA constantly repeated the fiction that “enhanced interrogation tactics” had “saved lives,” “thwarted plots,” and “captured terrorists.” Saying otherwise was like blasphemy. What is most chilling is the complicity of those who have remained offstage by design, and this portion of the released report does in no way exonerate them, the architects.
By any standard with which crimes of this nature have been judged throughout the 20th century, all of these individuals and many others involved must be arrested and prosecuted. The crimes documented in the Senate report make those for which Nixon faced impeachment (forcing him to resign) appear insignificant. Yet those who are implicated, far from fearing that they will be held accountable, brazenly defend their actions.
The administration of American president number 44 has already ruled out any action in response to the Senate report. On Tuesday, Barack Obama released a prepared written statement repeating the position of his administration that there will be no accountability for these crimes. “Rather than another reason to refight old arguments,” he wrote, “I hope that today’s report can help us leave these techniques where they belong — in the past.” What he left unsaid was that the idea of accountability for such criminality would, insofar as this administration will attempt, remain only an idea.
The CIA torture programme, and the designed inability to hold anyone accountable exposes the breakdown of constitutional forms of rule in the USA. Crimes have been committed and exposed before the world, and, within the framework of official political channels, absolutely nothing can or will be done about it. That the USA was in the grip of a gigantic military-intelligence apparatus that acts outside of any legal restraint began to be known a generation ago. The sequential ‘wars on terror’, the NSA spying on the world and now the CIA torture have provided further damning and deeply frightening proof.
Some two years ago, it was calculated, the world firmly entered the urban age, for the available evidence pointed to a startling truth: more people now live in cities than outside them. The balance between urban and rural populations differs between countries, at times considerably. Chad and Congo have about the same number of people living in cities, 2.95 million and 2.96, but these urban populations are 22% of the total population for Chad and 65% of the total population for Congo.
Overall, the balance between urban and rural populations is thought, conventionally, to directly describe whether a country is likely to be in the high income or low income groups of countries. The Department of Economic and Social Affairs – a specialist agency of the United Nations – entrusts such calculations to its Population Division whose ‘World Urbanization Prospects’ found, in its 2014 revision, that the proportion of urban populations for high income countries was 80% while that for low income countries was 30%. This seems to lend weight to the conventional wisdom that it is cities that galvanise the creation of the sort of wealth which gross domestic product (GDP) growth depends on.
Cities are seen to harbour dynamism and vitality. For those who live in such cities, this is largely true. Residents of cities like Seoul (Korea), Lima (Peru), Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad (all India), Bogotá (Colombia), Nagoya (Japan), Johannesburg (South Africa), Bangkok (Thailand) and Chicago (USA) are very likely to agree that living and working in their respective cities has brought tham prosperity, and are less likely to ponder about this group of cities being the top ten in the world with populations under 10 million in 2014 (there are 28 cities worldwide with populations of at least 10 million).
There is however another aspect to the formation of cities. In 1927, the film Metropolis, conceived by Fritz Lang and delivered as an artfully stylised cinematic message, described the strains and dangers of the power that cities had already come to have over their residents. For Metropolis was a futuristic city where a cultured utopia existed above a bleak underworld populated by mistreated workers. Just over 50 years later, another film, Blade Runner (1982), blended science fiction with a disturbing portrait of a dystopian and dangerous cityscape that was both gigantic and technology-centric, through which the human element struggled to find meaning.
If Metropolis represented the post-industrial revolution European cityscape, then Blade Runner depicted the flagship of what has been called the Asian century, for its mesmerising and frightening urban backdrop was Tokyo then, and could well be China now. The Japanese capital remains in 2014 the world’s largest city with an agglomeration of 38 million inhabitants, followed by New Delhi with 25 million, Shanghai with 23 million, and Mexico City, Mumbai and São Paulo, each with around 21 million inhabitants. By 2030, so the projections say, the world will have 41 mega-cities of more than 10 million inhabitants.
For all their celebrated roles as centres of wealth, innovation and culture, these mega-cities and their smaller counterparts exert dreadful pressures on natural resources and the environment. These are already either unmanageable or uneconomical to deal with, more so in the rapidly growing urban centres of Asia and Africa. Despite the lengthening list of urban problems – most caused by rural folk flocking to cities faster than urban governance structures can cope with existing needs – demographers foresee that today’s trend will add 2.5 billion people to the world’s urban population by 2050. India, China and Nigeria are together expected to account for 37% of the projected growth of the world’s urban population between this year and 2050. It is there that the idea of the city, which so fascinated Fritz Lang, will be sorely tested.