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Archive for the ‘Ecology and environment’ Category

Inside the deepest tourist murk of Goa

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What I will describe in the next few paragraphs has to do with a spot along the coast in Goa, the small state in coastal western India where I live. It’s called Calangute, and was once a village close to the sea. There’s a beach nearby. To the immediate north is Baga, to the immediate south is Candolim, and farther south is Sinquerim, and then the headland of Aguada and its Portuguese-era fort.

Facets of ugliness: insta-tattoos, beach shirts and behind them, a typical tourist lodging.

But it is Calangute about which I write. It has for some years now, and by that I mean certainly 15 years, come to mean all that is ugly about tourism in Goa. If it was ugly in 2005, its ugliness is simply off the scale, off any sort of chart, today. Its ugliness is breath-taking. The ugliness of what is absurdly called tourism in Calangute, Goa, is outright paralysing.

These photographs show you why I think so. There is a bus stand in Calangute, by which is meant an open plot into which buses from other states make their way and then halt. These buses arrive crammed with tourists from those states. (I will call them ‘tourists’, for now, only because to describe them more fully will surely require an essay.) The Calangute market zone, which extends for about half a kilometre, and perhaps a bit more, in all directions, is packed with small shops and all manner of hostelries, that is, places in which tourists can stay a few nights. There are hotels too, some style themselves as resorts. But for the most part, where tourists stay in Calangute are modest lodgings, what to the generation preceding my own were known as guest houses.

Bazaar by the beach: throwaway accessories, throwaway food.

The din in Calangute is deafening. There is in the first place the sounds of traffic. For non-Indian readers of this irregular journal (i dislike the neologism ‘blog’) who have not travelled in India, traffic in India is synonymous with the sound of horns, because you see, the Indian driver of a vehicle, any vehicle, simply cannot drive without tooting the horn every few seconds.

There is the constant rumble of tourist buses, which crawl through lanes that really shouldn’t accommodate more than a couple of bicycles. Every bus like this is trailed by several demon taxi drivers trying to pass the bus, and leaning on their horns in the belief that their horn blasts will magically dissolve the bus in their path. There is also nowadays the rumble of powerful SUVs, in which the more well-to-do tourists travel, shiny and ugly new vehicles which to me seem the size of small Goan houses. There are scooters and motorcycles, ridden either by kamikaze tourists or by semi-somnolent bell boys going home after their shift or by maniac delivery boys speeding chicken biryani to a room on the second floor of the Top A-1 Seashore Residency hotel.

Holiday mobility: this large-format jeep variant can pack in 10 people.

Right in front of what used to be quite simply, in the late 1970s, called the tourist hostel and cottages in Calangute (but which today sports some grandiose title) is a sort of quadrangle. The vehicular entrance to this quadrangle is marked off by not one but two small blocks of what in India are called Sulabh Shauchalaya, that is, public urinals and toilets. That these form modern Calangute’s landmarks tell one how far, how very far and how fast, this once idyllic seaside village has fallen.

The quadrangle is a large parking space, two rows in parallel on either side of a median. Why did they have it here? Perhaps to accommodate tourist buses, perhaps to accommodate the ever growing number of large private vehicles (jeeps and vans) in which groups of mostly men travel to Calangute. Whatever the muddled first reason, space in the cursed quadrangle is taken over by any vehicle can be driven in there and parked, at times for days on end. For a category of ‘tourist’ group that makes its way to Calangute, the vehicle becomes a sort of satellite camp. Plastic containers of water, bags and satchels, soiled clothes, are all stored in the vehicle, whose roof and bonnet are used to dry clothes washed at one of the Sulabh Shauchalayas.

Costumes a gogo: groups of touristing young men don their beachwear uniform before equipping themselves.

The sides of the quadrangle are lined, most of all, with liquor shops. These do a constant business and it is common to see groups of men in them, arguing about what sort of liqour and which brands they should collectively buy, what they should take back with them, and what beer to drink on the spot while these decisions are being taken. There are restaurants, all of them without exception rude and cheap, whose rough menus – overspiced, oversalted, overoiled – are intended only to fill deadened tourist stomachs in the shortest possible time.

There are vendors, who sell all that is tawdry and throwaway: floppy hats, sunglasses, absurd plastic trinkets for women, shorts and T-shirts, flip-flops. There are tattoo ‘parlours’, holes in the wall with two stools and internet trance channel music. There are rows of brightly painted scooters for the tourists to rent, some with A4-sized sheets of paper carrying only a name and mobile phone number, flapping in the breeze.

There are boarding houses and guest houses. These are truly, and not only here but on every road and side street of Calangute, and likewise in every alley and side-street all across the Sinquerim to Baga beach strip, the ugliness generator of Goa. Usually two storeys, at times one more, they have been cheaply built, iron rebar protruding, water pipes and electricity cables and internet wires snake in open confusion up external walls and through stairwells and around dusty verandahs and into rooms.

A glimpse of sand and sea: a new construction faces a higgledy-piggledy jumble of shops.

They sport any shade of paint that was available to their reckless owners at a discount, or was mooched from another site. They are festooned with boards and signs advertising themselves. External units of air-conditioners are jammed into masonry whever they fit, their rusty water drip making muddy puddles below. Lines of varicoloured ‘fairy’ LED lights are looped from one unfinished unpainted beam to another, behind ragged awnings and around long-empty flowerpots. Their staff are indifferent to the tourists (who are very likely more so to them), surly, unkempt, engrossed by the flicker of their mobile phones, uncaring and unmindful of anything outside their grimy walls.

Why do they still come, ever more, ever fickle, ever banal, an endless tide of human ephemera? Do they not see and feel the rampant ugliness, which stretches like a giant sore right over ten kilometres of the north Goa beach strip, with Calangute its howling, festering centre? Or are they in fact escaping a far gloomier, far darker, ugliness of the urban Indian rot from whence they travelled?

Scootermania: lines of them, all for a daily fee, choke the sandy pathways.


Written by makanaka

November 11, 2022 at 21:31

Blocking a new GM Trojan horse in India

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Illustration from the publication ‘Seed Stories’, La Via Campesina

On 15 November 2021, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) issued a draft regulation called the Food Safety and Standards (Genetically Modified or Engineered Foods) Regulations, 2021.

This draft regulation, through the medium of a regulatory agency (the FSSAI) is the latest attempt by the agricultural biotechnology multinationals and their Indian subsidiaries and partners to trick Indians into consuming foods made from genetically modified or genetically engineered crops. Altogether the opposite of protecting the citizen, the draft regulation of the FSSAI is a Trojan horse which, the industry has built and deployed to pave the way for the easier entry of GM foods into India.

The first section of my response to the FSSAI follows, and the full document is available as a file at the end of this post.

Section 1, intent of the regulations

At the outset, I completely reject modern biotechnology in India’s farming and food. There is no case now, and there never has been a case, for its inclusion, based both on sound science and on public interest. Genetically modified/edited seed and crop of any kind is a threat to the health of Indian citizens. It is a threat to the environment and to the existing agricultural biodiversity of India. It is a threat to the socio-cultural traditions that our agriculture and food rests upon. The Union Government of India and every state and union territory government must prohibit genetically modified/edited seed and crop. There can be no compromise on this matter.

What then is this draft legislation brought for? Nowhere in the text of the draft legislation do I find any reference to any work carried out by the FSSAI or commissioned by it from independent authorities, nor any reference to such work carried out by either the Ministry of Agriculture or the Ministry of Environment – as both these are subject areas associated with the subject of this draft legislation – that assesses the need for such products in India.

In the same way, nowhere in the text of the draft legislation do I find evidence of the precautionary principle applied. The precautionary principle is central to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety which India has ratified. Thus the precautionary principle is an obligation, hence a draft legislation about genetically modified or engineered foods must explicitly state that such foods manufactured from, and such foods that contain ingredients derived from (whether in small part or larger part) genetically modified/edited seed and crop will under no circumstances be allowed into India, whether by import of finished goods, or by manufacture (food processing) based on such ingredients or by cultivation within India.

There is a voluminous international record of more than 25 years which shows conclusively that GM foods carry with them biosafety risks during production and health risks during consumption. No Indian citizen should be presented such foods, in whatever form, for consumption. Vulnerable sections of the public such as infants, children, pregnant and lactating mothers, the elderly and people with existing morbid conditions should more particularly be protected from such foods.

I find there is no recognition whatsoever – let alone the provision to act upon such recognition – of these first principles in the text of the draft legislation.

Illustration from the publication ‘Seed Stories’, La Via Campesina

Where something can cause serious irreversible harm, it is right and proper for scientists to demand evidence demonstrating that GM is safe beyond reasonable doubt. This is also an approach that is contained by the precautionary principle (for scientists and for the public, it is just common sense). Scientific evidence is no different from ordinary evidence, and should be understood and judged in the same way. Evidence from different sources and of different kinds has to be weighed and combined to guide policy decisions and actions. That’s good science as well as good sense.

Genetic modification/ engineering/ editing involves recombining, that is, joining together in new combinations, DNA from different sources, and inserting them into the genomes of organisms to make ‘genetically modified organisms’. GMOs are unnatural, not just because they have been produced in the laboratory, but because many of them can only be made in the laboratory, quite unlike what nature has produced in the course of millions of years of adaptation and change. Thus, it is possible to introduce new genes and gene products, many from bacteria, viruses and other species, or even genes made entirely in the laboratory, into crops, including food crops. We have never eaten these new genes and gene products, nor have they ever even been part of our food chain.

The artificial constructs are introduced into cells by invasive methods that result in random integration into the genome, giving rise to unpredictable, random effects, including gross abnormalities in both animals and plants, unexpected toxins and allergens in food crops, and unknown effects on humans and animals. This problem is compounded by the overwhelming instability of transgenic lines, which makes risk assessment virtually impossible.

None of these risks are acknowledged by the draft legislation which therefore fails completely to establish why in the first place the provisions and mechanisms it contains are needed or are suitable for India. It also fails as a protective legislation by not prohibiting foods based on or derived from genetically modified/edited seed and crop.

You can find a pdf file of the full document here, or an open document format text file here.

Written by makanaka

January 12, 2022 at 21:13

Culture’s silenced exiles

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Detail from a photograph of Toda men, from ‘An account of the primitive tribes and monuments of the Nilagiris’, James Wilkinson Breeks, 1873

FIVE WEEKS after Italy imposed a lock down on its citizens, the United Nations on 15 April 2020, which is ‘World Art Day’, explained that “with billions of people either in lockdown or on the front lines battling the covid19 pandemic”, the day picked to celebrate world art (the birth anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci) “is a timely reminder that art has the power to unite and connect in times of crisis”.

The agencies of the United Nations system have for over seven decades busied themselves, when not pondering or influencing the fates of humanity, with inventing days, years and even decades for all sorts of projects and concepts: environment, education, the girl child, oceans, AIDS, indigenous peoples, Africa, science and so on. Since these demand sometimes lengthy preparations for worldwide events for a particular day, or even better, for a specially designated year, they are popular with UN agencies for their ability to swell budgets.

Like many other messages from the UN and its agencies about its celebratory days and periods, the message that accompanied World Art Day 2020 was maternally saccharine. “Throughout self-isolation, art has nonetheless been flourishing. Pointing to performers tapping into their creativity to relay health guidelines and share messages of hope – as well as neighbours singing to each other on balconies, and concerts online,” gushed UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). The Mona Lisa was “revisited in a variety of ways, including images of her self-isolating in the Louvre Museum, or covering her enigmatic smile with a surgical mask” which according to UNESCO “is how, despite the crisis” showed “art is demonstrating its resilience”.

But culture and resilience have other dimensions, many of them very different to what is envisioned by the world’s cultural authorities. By early May 2020, it had become clear to all those in the throbbing tourist hotspots of South-East Asia that the squadrons of flights bringing tourists were not going to resume soon. When they would resume, no-one could say. The popular markets of the region, to which tourists thronged and from which local families derived their regular incomes, fell silent – Chatuchak in Bangkok, Kuta in Bali, Phsar Chas in Siem Reap, Ben Thanh in Saigon, Divisoria in Manila, Glodok in Jakarta.

Calabashes of the Thonga tribe, eastern coast, southern Africa. The smallest are used for keeping medicinal powders. Those with long handles are used as bottles or for drinking. From ‘The life of a South Africa tribe’, Henri A Junod, 1912

These are the famous ones, the ones that get written about in glossy travel magazines and are the subjects of tens of thousands of pithy ‘reviews’ by travellers. For each of these, there are hundreds of local markets that cater to local needs. In these humbler but no less important smaller and provincial markets, the wares on offer and mix of stalls is decidedly different, the accent being on what rural and small town households need and can afford. Curio kiosks and pop art counters, fingernail salons and smoothie bars are not part of these marketscapes.

Regardless of the difference in these two kinds of markets, the “resilience” that UNESCO mentioned is very much more a characteristic they can claim than can the Louvre, the Uffizi Gallery, the Tate Modern, the Rijksmuseum or any of Europe’s most visited cultural and art centres. But while state-funded museums (whose capacious treasuries are well attended to also by private art foundations) can survive closures that are months long, local markets cannot, because their resilience must be renewed every day. This is what the wave upon wave of lock downs all around the world have damaged, in some places likely permanently. The lock downs are, for those familiar with the marketscapes and the creative ambiances they include, culture killers of a kind never before seen.

The lock downs that began in February 2020 did not pause to discriminate between the commonly recognised grades of culture: high culture, contemporary (or even pop) culture and folk culture. In Europe especially, ‘high culture’ is surrounded by government, arts foundations, arts councils, academic institutions. Where it manifests or is nurtured, in cities, are awe-inspiring structures designed to project pomp and power. Orchestra houses, national galleries and museums are typical of such structures. A great deal of money is mobilised every year to maintain them. In France and Germany, spending by government under the head of culture approaches some 2.3% of the annual budget. In the USA, the comparative figure is under 1%, but American arts foundations tend to be better endowed.

IN CONTRAST IT IS THE OTHER TWO GRADES – contemporary and folk culture – which receive very little of the culture budgets that remain, and compete or struggle for the small grants and project funds that city councils and private foundations give out. Between these two, it is folk culture, in all its diversity, that is the worse off, not least because it straddles so many subjects at the same time, such as indigenous peoples’ rights, environment and ecology, traditional knowledge systems, living heritage. It is also folk culture that is the fountainhead of the world’s handicrafts, hand weaves and household arts traditions and products. These include basketry, rugs and carpets, woodwork and wood carving, canecraft, the spinning and dyeing of yarn, the weaving of fabric on shuttle looms or waist-looms, incense sticks and aromatic oils, decorative metalware, lacquer, tapestries, traditional toys and games, jewellery as the most common.

The lock downs choked not only the world’s tourist flows (which spur the making of handicrafts) but also, in every metropolis, city, town and district centre, choked the normal commerce that provides the baseline sustenance that local artisans and creative collectives depend upon. What has been seen often in the last 15 or so years, with the establishing of ‘creative cities’ networks (notably in Europe), is the blending of the three typical grades of culture in festivals, extending the benefits of state sponsorship which flows disproportionately to the top cultural tier, to the other two as well. When museums shut their gates, galleries downed their shutters and theatres switched off their lights, the locales for such festivals disappeared from urban landscapes.

A Chuktia Bhunjia home in Odisha, India. Mud walls and thatched roof.

A Chuktia Bhunjia home in Odisha, India. Mud walls and thatched roof.

‘High’ culture moved online, fitfully and awkwardly. Museums essayed everything from virtual tours to guided meditation and home children’s workshops. Symphonic orchestras began to run livestreamed performances. Avant garde design studios experimented with commissioning works that were supposed to represent responses to the pandemic. Literary societies hosted weekly online reading groups. Indie film-makers mixed and spliced footage from a smorgasbord of ‘on location’ cast members filming at home. Musicians did the same, collaborating by being patched in to sound studios.

These attempts to maintain a facade of activity were at best cosmetic, a falling in line by the centres and institutions that embody ‘high’ culture not only with lock down restrictions but also to have their regular visitors receive the same bland yet menacing message – stay safe, stay home – but from a source that is not government, not medical authority and not administration, a source which until January 2020 represented the very core of what is meant by ‘civilisation’ in ways that are fundamentally and necessarily different from what is meant by ‘economy’ and ‘technology’. The lock downs and their restrictions did not remove from households and families either economy or technology, but they did remove culture.

This removal finally, in late December 2020, when the “cancelling” of Christmas became one more administrative cudgel, was recognised by the UN and UNESCO. “It is not only the sector itself that has been hit hard, people have also lost access to cultural events. Since covid19 hit, many concerts, art events and festivals have been taking place online. However almost one in two people globally cannot access them due to issues such as lack of internet connectivity,” said UNESCO. Its choice of words was mendacious, for what had removed culture was not a respiratory disease but lock downs.

Its grudging admission of the elemental connexion between culture and social life was quickly given an economic cast. “The culture sector, which employs more than 30 million people globally, has been hit much harder than expected by the coronavirus pandemic and its fallout. The film industry alone could lose about 10 million jobs this year, while a third of world’s art galleries could cut their staffing by half or more. What has been in effect a six-month closure of concerts and performance, could end up costing the music industry more than $10 billion in lost sponsorships, while the global publishing market could shrink by 7.5 per cent,” UNESCO said.

The UN system agencies that have anything at all to do with creative community energies and the knowledge systems of communities – chief among them being the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the World Health Organization (WHO, especially where traditional medicinal systems are concerned) and UNESCO – trot out the term ‘resilience’ very often. They use this term usually in conjunction with the Sustainable Development Goals and with Agenda 2030. It is designed to sound caring and humanistic.

A woman of the Badjao (the sea gypsies of South-East Asia) cooks in the kitchen of a stilt house in Borneo. Photo: David Kaszlikowski

A woman of the Badjao (the sea gypsies of South-East Asia) cooks in the kitchen of a stilt house in Borneo. Photo: David Kaszlikowski

In so saying, UNESCO sounded much more like an economics thinktank than an organisation that has worked on cultural matters for 74 years, works through seven international conventions on culture, and also through dozens of regional programmes. Perhaps it took its cue from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which with a squarely macro-economic bent had said plainly in September 2020 that culture has to do with economics: “Cultural and creative sectors are important in their own right in terms of their economic footprint and employment. They are among the hardest hit by the pandemic, with large cities often containing the greatest share of jobs at risk. The dynamics vary across sub-sectors, with venue-based activities and the related supply chains most affected.”

WHAT CONNECTS THE WORLDVIEW of the OECD, the institutions and centres of ‘high’ culture, UNESCO, and the gigantic ‘development’ industry that the UN Sustainable Development Goals have become is that peoples’ cultures and ways of life, their everyday artefacts, their folk arts and expressions, all in fact that they derive meaning and identity from, fall outside what is called ‘cultural industry’. This is nothing but the full formalisation of community creativity and its translation into economic units. There is no place in a cultural industry view for the traditional knowledge systems that give a non-monetary value to a basket, that give a ritual value to a silken shawl, that give children delight in the form of puppet theatre, that fulfil a cosmological tradition when unleavened bread is baked for a feast day.

The Inuit of the Arctic, the White Mountain Apache of Arizona, the Yanomami and the Tupi People of the Amazon, the Gujjar and Bakerwal nomadic herders of the Indian Himalaya, the Bontoc of Philippines Cordillera are not cultural industrialists and have no use whatsoever for the distinction between formal and informal economy. In the same way, living heritage such as the collective fishing rite of the Sanké in Mali, the Enawene Nawe people’s ritual for the maintenance of social and cosmic order in Brazil, the making of the Noken woven bag by the people of Papua in Indonesia, the making of the Ala-kiyiz and Shyrdak traditional felt carpets in Kyrgyzstan, all these are unreachable by the economic formulae that would assign them a minimum wage, turn them into ‘resilience’ courseware, patent their medicinal herbs.

But the lock downs have gravely assaulted their patterns of life, and these were already tenuous. Their systems of knowledge, and the products and objects that emerge from these systems, could not and cannot be virtualised and livestreamed. The meanings and symbolism of everyday and ritual objects – which assume the avatar of handicrafts in a market – must be transmitted and the receipt of those transmissions must be tested.

The generation that receives the world’s great stores of traditional knowledge does so through what is so carelessly called ‘informal education’, but which is a teaching channel that has stood the test of time. The lock downs separated hand-made goods from markets, and when they did, they brought down a new wall between peoples who still fashion a hand-made world and those who have the sensitivity to sample some of it. The lock downs masked and imprisoned a youth that was ready to receive wisdom and learning from their elders, and chained them to laptop screens, and when that happened, the elders retreated into an exile of silence.

Written by makanaka

June 8, 2021 at 14:18

To discipline a rogue ministry

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On 23 March, Ministry of Environment, Government of India, issued a draft notification, called the Environment Impact Assessment Notification, under the Environment Protection Act of 1986. This draft notification brought in proposed changes to the way environmental clearance for projects (industrial, infrastructure, commercial) would be given and changes to violations and transgressions of rules and regulations.

Whether the ministry, as ministries usually are, was partly or not at all in possession of its wits at the time is not known, because it gave Indian citizens 60 days to read the draft notification (83 pages) and reply with objections and suggestions, and when the national ‘lock down’ was announced the next evening, remained silent about the 60 days, until 11 April, when the draft was published in the official gazette.

How were people expected to read, analyse, discuss and respond to the notification when they were locked down and fearful? The ministry wasn’t bothered. How were people already affected by the many projects all over India that have degraded their natural habitats to take stock of the new measures? Not our problem, was the ministry’s attitude.

On 7 May, two weeks before the expiry of the deadline for citizens to write in with their objections and suggestions, the ministry relented, and then only because of the outcry over issuing an important draft notification during a ‘lock down’. The deadline was pushed back to 30 June, with the usual ‘cover my backside’ language that bureaucrats use because they know no other: “The Ministry is in receipt of several representations for extending the notice period expressing concern that the draft EIA Notification 2020 was published during the lockdown imposed due to the Corona Virus (COVID-19) pandemic. Therefore, the Ministry after due consideration, deems it fit to extend the notice period …”

I have sent in my objections, and there are many. The only suggestion I have is that they all be sacked and have their pensions and gratuity cancelled, but I have not included that in my reply because it is off topic. Here’s the opening section:

“There have been more than 39 amendments and 250 office memorandums diluting the EIA 2006 Notification. The primary work of a ministry of environment is protection of our natural habitat in all its forms and for all the benefits it gives us. The responsibilities given to the ministry devolve from the citizens, from the many living beings that inhabit our natural habitats and especially from the spiritual and philosophical guidance given to us by previous generations about our prakruti, that is, nature in all its forms as it exists and in all the forms it must reach unhindered by our activities. I remind the MoEF&CC is reminded of this responsibility.

“Any change to existing law or regulation under the purview of the ministry, and amendment or addition, has perforce to continue to adhere to the principle and the scope of the responsibility, considered in its widest sense, that the ministry bears.

“At the same time, I remind the ministry that its responsibilities are defined administratively, as part of the institutions of governance of the state, and in accordance with the inalienable rights of the citizens of India, present and future, to enjoy our natural habitats and derive from it benefits, that in no way diminish the natural habitats, that relate to their health and bodily well-being, their spiritual and psychological well-being, their livelihood and household economic activities which are conducted by responsible dependence on the natural habitat.

“Therefore, the full scope of environmental responsibility includes all citizens of India, a pool of knowledge and practice that, under the principles just outlined, is manifold greater than that which can be commanded by the ministry. I remind the ministry that it is fundamental to understand and explicitly recognise this difference in scope of responsibilities.”

Here is my full reply to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change on its draft EIA notification 2020.

Written by makanaka

June 29, 2020 at 15:18

The year of the mask

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'Safe Dream' by Alex Falcó Chang

Illustration by Alex Falcó Chang, courtesy Cartoon Movement

Psychologically, the face mask is a powerful prop. Flimsy and cheap, when it is worn, it tells the wearer that he or she is separated from all others whoever they are, family or strangers or colleagues. The mask wearer is reminded, every day and as many times a day as the television is switched on, that the mask is one’s protection against the deadly virus.

The face mask does more than this. It covers completely the mouth and chin and most of the wearer’s cheeks. These are what we use to signal to each other, through a great variety of smiles and grimaces, how we feel and how we empathise and how we laugh. The face mask has blocked these, just as surely as it is claimed to block a virus.

The masked society, fearful, with visible emotions trussed up, shuffling around to maintain, in obedience to unseen and unknown experts, the invisible boundaries called social distancing, has in the short space of 60 days, replaced the society that came before it.

This is called ‘new normal’. It is new, yes, but it cannot be anything except extremely abnormal. Not for a moment, 60 days ago, did I think India’s unruly and complex myriad of societies would obey and comply. But they did and they have.

How did this happen?

Around the end of January, a case of coronavirus infection was reported by the press. Between then and the middle of March, India barrelled along happily, perhaps in search of the tryst with the five trillion dollar economy. Elsewhere, the condition we would come to know as ‘lock down’ was being enforced.

On the evening of 24 March, ‘lock down’ came to India. The corona had landed.

By the second week of April, the face mask had become the equivalent of the identity pass. Policemen at road corners wore them, black ones. So did the Central Reserve Police Force who had been brought in to enforce the lock down. The few pharmacies that were open had no more to sell. I used a large handkerchief for severals days, like many others.

In our housing block, I spotted other residents, at times in their balconies, sometimes at a window, with masks. Why had they tied masks inside their homes, I wondered, where did they think the coronavirus was going to attack them from? Most of Goa, where I live, is a rural landscape. Rice fields, coconut and arecanut orchards, low coastal hills with light mixed forest, village settlements whose residential density is very low. With road borders between states shut, where do these people think the virus is going to travel from?

Televisions in most homes were switched on (are still switched on) all day. We don’t have one at home, haven’t had one for many years. From what I saw and heard, glimpses and short audio snatches of news bulletins caught from loud TVs on lower floors, there was nothing but coronavirus on every channel, every language. The children who would every evening gather in the building compound to play, were absent. The elderly folk, who took their morning and evening walks along the narrow green strips by the boundary walls, were absent. There was silence and stillness. You could sense the fear.

But outside, everything that normally ran, trotted, flew and crawled and wasn’t human was busy. Even more so, with every single open space traversed by humans now entirely free of them. The coastal skies that are usually clear and lucent, so unlike the soupy brown miasma of the cities, were now even more so. The winds blew in fresh from the sea. It was the perfect tonic for health. Yet it was the opposite that had been ordained, through two central acts. Remain indoors, shun the life-giving sunlight. Remain masked, repel the vital force that is clean air.

We had survived the first eight days of lockdown on the meagre stores at home. I say survived because the worry for those first eight days was not a virus, however malignant, but the shortage of food all over the state of Goa. Why was there no food to be had? Because the state government had issued orders that all shops, large or small, which sold any food staples must not open. Looking back at those anxiety-ridden days, I see that as having been the first sign of the hallucinations that had gripped administrations, whether in a state or in the central government. Nothing was allowed to open, not even the humblest kirana shop selling biscuits and wafers. We ate two spare meals a day.

The mask is worn by some as if it is a badge, to mean that you are fully conversant and up-to-date with the latest guidelines broadcast by your state government on saving yourself, that you are responsible about your family’s health, that you are a participant in how ‘India fights corona’. By others, it is tied perfunctorily, yet another demand by the authorities for which a minimal fulfilment threshold is calculated so that one may carry on – as far as it is possible to carry on – with a business, a trade, a profession, a wage earning activity, a family duty.

Policemen applied choke-holds to road junctions. They swung their lathis indiscriminately at youth who still thought they could contract theselves out for a day of labour and earn a wage, they swung their lathis at ragpickers. They swung their lathis at sons taking a parent to a clinic or a hospital, not knowing whether it was open or whether there would be a doctor in attendance, for every kind of complaint other than those said to be caused by the corona virus.

Illustration by Marco de Angelis, courtesy Cartoon movement

Illustration by Marco de Angelis, courtesy Cartoon movement

They swung once at me, and I avoided the blow by accelerating my scooter out of reach. That is when I learnt that what the state had enforced was not a ‘lock down’, it was the mandatory incarceration of the healthy, it was the criminalisation of all movement by the citizen, with full and final interpretation of the extraordinary powers given left to the masked visage and twitching lathi-hand of the sub-inspector you were unlucky enough to have run into.

Pharmacies had no more masks. If you could get to one, and if it was open, they told you there were no masks, while wearing one themselves. Perhaps they needed to wear such masks, I had reasoned to myself, since if they come face to face with people who come looking for medication, they they should protect themselves from someone who just may be carrying the virus.

Looking back at that first week of April, I find that was the only time – two days when I set off on scooter-borne reconnaisance for pharmacies with shutters open, my face below my spectacles wrapped in a handkerchief tied behind my head – that I was sympathetic to the notion that an epidemic was sweeping through India.

It was the new atmosphere, one never before experienced by us, that made us believe the very currents of air could be hijacked by a malevolent virus. And this was north Goa, whose villages are sparsely populated, whose landscapes are those of fallow fields awaiting the rain so that rice can be grown in them, of coconut orchards, of hillsides covered with jambul, mango, silk cotton, moringa, tamarind and jackfruit trees.

Until then, we would rise at dawn and would set off looking for vegetables, milk, bread and whatever else we could purchase from villagers – from our own and in neighbouring villages – who had something to sell. I worried constantly about petrol for the scooter, for the little more than half a tank of fuel would not run the engine for more than a week. When raw foodstuffs became less scarce, I was able to consider again the messages about the epidemic, our environment, and what more than half a lifetime of experience seemed to point to.

Even until mid-March, mornings were cool till about 9 am, and evenings were pleasant as soon as the sun dipped behind the low coastal hills directly to the west. But seven or eight days into April, the mid-day sun had pushed the temperature above 30 celsius, humidity was rising and the winds from the sea began to blow with the gentle insistence that, by early June, would become the tile-rattling, whistling-through-window-cracks force that was the harbinger of monsoon.

One of those mornings, a peacock (for there are many which roost in the nearby hill) alit at the end of its long shallow flight from a perch on a tree and into the grass of the fallow rice field. The heavy bird touched down in the somewhat ungainly run and as it did so, a few puffs of dust rose up in its trail.

That is the sight which led directly to form the question which had shimmered, like a wraith, above the daily roll-call of news about the ‘global pandemic’ and ‘India’s epidemic’. How could any virus that they say can be airborne, and can be infectious after travelling along air currents, survive in our conditions? Doesn’t sunlight, direct and now unfiltered by smog and industrial emissions, end its career? Doesn’t its exposure to the open sky and breezes, which carry a myriad organisms, become a risk to its own survival? Does not the daily rise in the average temperature, fraction by fraction of a degree celsius, shorten its infectious life?

The home page of the Press Information Bureau, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, has created several special sections only on covid19. India’s existing disease burden has not been treated in anything like the same way ever since the PIB went online.

The emails I sent with these and other questions to the Indian Council of Medical Research have remained unanswered since the middle of April. A month later, I could see why. The ICMR was doing nothing other than covid19. It had replaced its website home page with a covid-only page that was crammed full of test data, cases data, testing protocols and instructions to testing laboratories.

It looked very convincingly like a specialised health agency’s war room against the great menacing power of the global pandemic. That is exactly what it is meant to look like, for the central government’s own information and public broadcasting units were blaring out, with social media-ready hash tags ‘India fights corona’.

I could see what was occupying the ICMR scientists and administrators full time. They were producing guidelines and protocols at the rate of two and three a week: ‘Specimen Referral Form (SRF) ID information for COVID-19 (SARS-CoV2), in RT-PCR app’, ‘Standard guidelines for Medico-legal autopsy in COVID-19 deaths in India 2020’, ‘Revised Strategy for COVID19 testing in India (Version 5)’, ‘Advisory for use of Cartridge Based Nucleic Acid Amplification Test (CBNAAT) using Cepheid Xpert Xpress SARS-CoV2’, ‘Performance evaluation of commercial kits for real time PCR for COVID-19 by ICMR identified validation centres’, ‘List of IgG ELISA kits for COVID-19 validated by ICMR identified validation centres’, ‘ICMR Specimen Referral Form for COVID-19 (SARS-CoV2)’, ‘ICMR-DCGI Guidelines for Validation and Batch Testing of COVID-19 Diagnostic Kits’, ‘Establishing of a network of Biorepositories in India’.

All very impressive, all unquestionably showing the country’s premier medical research agency in the best light possible for being technically on the ball, all showing that India’s handling of the virological and epidemiological aspects of the dreaded pandemic is at par internationally with the best.

By the first week of May the effects of the around-the-clock barrage of fear-mongering by the media, television and print, with both making heavy use of their social media channels, started becoming noticeable. In my home state of Goa, I began seeing residents of our village attaching masks to their ears or tied behind their heads even while walking on interior roads or, more commonly, while on scooters and motorcycles. Our village roads aren’t city throughfares. If one isn’t driving past a house and garden every now and then, or a small apartment block, one is usually skirting a hill slope thick with vegetation or a cocnut orchard or a rice field. It was peak summer, the afternoon winds were strong, the swiftly moving air was full of all manner of microscopic objects swept up from the fields and blasted out from the orchards.

Every single time I was out, either on my scooter looking for provisions or taking an evening walk, I looked at fellow village residents (with a few honourable exceptions) their faces masked and harassed. Did they really think the coronavirus was lying in wait above them on the mango tree waiting to strike? Did they really think it was riding a fragment of dried leaf and would launch itself at them as soon as it flew past?

A few of the conversations I pursued told me that their fear had invented a life of its own. “Better to be safe no? Who can say?” “Don’t go out of the house mama, my daughter in the Gulf told me, you can catch it anywhere.” “Yesterday on TV they showed so many new cases in Mumbai. Better nobody comes from Mumbai here to Goa, then we’ll be safe.” This was new to me. Village folk are amongst the most practical of people, stubborn about what they hold to be true and stubborn about what they’re sure is untrue. They’ll give you an ear but not their agreement. They make up their own minds in their own time, preferring to be guided by the signs and symbols they find in the natural world around them.

The Mumbai municipal corporation got into the act, two acts, one the Epidemic Disease Act 1897 and Disaster Management Act 2005, to threaten doctors with the cancellation of their license to practice. Ergo, medical martial law

But this too had changed. Had I underestimated greatly the power of 24-hour television, and the social media rumour mill that reaches everyone with a smartphone? Yes I had. Nor were the Goans of my village exceptional. For by that first week of May, the national news media had begun to run news reports about what I recognised as a new behaviour, a phenomenon given the name ‘covid vigilantism’ in the west and in USA.

It wasn’t long before I saw it wielded here too. “Kindly place your mask properly” I was told curtly by a supermarket orderly one day. “No mask no service” I was told while waiting in a queue of scooter to fill petrol in mine. But it’s hot and we’re outdoors and there’s a breeze blowing, I argued. It was no use. “Put on mask or no petrol”. And one morning while waiting outside a groceries store one morning to buy milk, with no more than two other people nearby, a priggish young man smug in his fashionable mask barked “Please practice social distancing”. Practice social distancing? Whatever did that mean and what sort of language is that anyway?

The two organisations that are assumed to be advising the central government’s cabinet ministers and the prime minister’s office on coronavirus are the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and the Indian Council of Medical Research.

The Ministry has a union minister (Harsh Vardhan, with five staff), a minister of state (Ashwini Kumar Choubey, with four staff), a secretary of health and family welfare (Preeti Sudan, with three staff), a special secretary (Arun Singhal), three additional secretaries (Dharmendra Singh Gangwar, Arti Ahuja, Vandana Gurnani), thirteen joint secretaries (Vandana Jain, Preeti Pant, Sudhir Kumar, Rekha Shukla, Vikash Sheel, Nipun Vinayak, Sunil Sharma, Lav Agarwal, Alok Saxena, Manohar Agnani, Mandeep Kumar Bhandari, Gayatri Mishra, Padmaja Singh), an officer on special duty (Sudhansh Pant), two economic advisers (Preeti Nath, Nilambuj Sharan), and five senior official posts (chief controller of accounts, director, two deputy directors general, chief director).

The ICMR has 28 institutes all over India with a headquarters in Delhi. It has on its rolls a total of 153 Council scientists (separately, each institute and the centre has its own complement of scientific staff). Their domains of work include allergies, immunology, antimicrobial diseases, bio-statistics, biochemistry and molecular biology, bioinformatics, malaria and dengue, cardiovascular diseases, epidemiology, clinical medicine, communicable diseases, non-communicable diseases, vector borne diseases, zoonotic diseases, epigenetics and endocrinology, genomics and molecular medicine, cellular and molecular biology, kala-azar, leprosy and tuberculosis, maternal and child health, oncology, pharmacology, parasitology, vector biology and control, virology.

What did they understand about this thing called covid19, what advice were they giving the central and state governments, what were they communicating to the 1.3 billion Indians whose lives had been turned utterly upside down?

Written by makanaka

May 23, 2020 at 23:35

India’s material burden, gigantic and unseen

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Mumbai, view from a descending aircraft

Mumbai as seen from an aircraft coming in to land. Neither city households nor wards care about the material throughput they cause and live with every day, week, month. Electricity and water, packaging and food, all contribute to the household footprint.

Should a trend continue as it has done for the last ten years, then in February or March of 2021 India’s annual extraction of material will cross 7.5 billion tons. It was in 2011, only eight years ago, that the country’s material extraction had crossed six billion tons. This stupendous mass comprises what are called non-metallic minerals, most of it limestone, structural clays, and the several kinds of mixtures of sand, gravel and crushed rock that are used for construction, which in 2017 amounted to an estimated 3.2 billion tons.

[This article was published in The New Indian Express.]

There was biomass, by which is meant harvested crops – foodgrain, horticultural crops, pulses, sugarcane and plantation crops – and crop residues, both straw and leaves, which was an estimated 2.8 billion tons (sugarcane accounting for nearly 370 million tons), coal of 732 million tons and wood of an estimated 242 million tons (of which about 210 million tons were used as fuel). Collated from data provided by national agencies, the International Resource Panel of UN Environment maintains the material use profiles of nearly every country.

Apportioned by household, at the beginning of 2020 this vast material budget can be atomised to about 26 tons for each, in much the same way as per capita income is calculated, as a notional distribution, for each individual of India. Yet material allocation is a measure that, for all its tangible bulk, is treated as nearly invisible. Money and income, wages and savings, credit and assets are calculated and assessed to the third decimal by the financial services industry. But there is no corresponding industry to measure, assess and pronounce upon the solvency of the material intake of a household, whether in quintals or in kilograms, whether as fluid diesel or as grain or as burnt brick.

When it comes to the physical basis for the household’s shelter, its roster of daily consumption, the durable goods purchased and disposed of, its tribe of electronic gadgets, there is no literacy effort to be found run by any industry, or by government, or even by centres of higher education. The Indian household – whether amongst the estimated 96 million in urban centres or the 183 million in villages – is transiting from circumspection born of scarcity to profligacy in material accumulation.

Landscape of Pondicherry region from aircraft

The forms and vegetal densities of a typical ruralscape of coastal Tamil Nadu, this being near Pondicherry. Unlike the overground forms of a town, here there is no disharmony. Dwellings, orchards, crop fields, bunds, tracks, ponds all blend in material balance.

That the consequences of such a trend cannot be contained or managed in a meaningful way was already being signalled to us a generation ago, when our mega-metropolises (cities and adjacent urban agglomerations with a combined population of 10 million and more) found no alternative to the small hills of refuse and compacted rubbish that towered over some unfortunate outlying ward. Those hills have only become larger at a faster pace, and they are joined – as a new category of topological landform – by the waste and rubbish pits (‘landfills’ in the American vernacular) that the great majority of our class 1 cities (population of 100,000 and more) turn to as their means to deal with the accumulation of unwanted material.

How did the material burden of our settlements grow so quickly? Part of the reason must be ascribed to the collective race away from poverty, both monetary and of basic goods. It is rare to find today a discussion about whether a poverty line is reasonable or not, although a generation ago it was an important subject just as it was in the previous generation. The race has been set as one by the intentions and terminologies of a kind of economics based almost wholly on the concept of development. Thus one of the standard references for many years, the Cambridge Economic History of India, advised that “the declared goals of development policy were to bring about a rapid increase in living standards, provide full employment at an adequate wage, and reduce inequalities arising from the uneven distribution of income and wealth.”

Yet the development policies of the socialists, of those who designed the ‘command economy’, of the licence raj mandarins, of the globalisers, of the commodities capitalists, of the services barons, of the infotech-biotech persuasions, not one of these policy pathways has advised where sufficiency lies, and what to do after we have consumed our way out of poverty and into maintenance. None of these can, because ‘growth’ and market control is the engine that motivates their methods. Sufficiency – or consumption stability – also has the accompanying corollaries of societies making purchases last (by repairing and reusing them) and not purchasing at all.

A closer look at the Beed syndrome

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The villages of Ashti taluka, Beed district, arranged by indices of land sufficiency and usage

New indicators and measures are needed if we are to better understand how villages allocate and use land, and whether their households survive or thrive through such use.

There is a great diversity of practices concerning the environment and land within the administrative unit we call a district. A typical district of India is often more than 10,000 square kilometres and will be divided into a number of talukas or tehsils – it could be eight or less, it could be 15 or more.

As a district like Beed has many hundreds of gramas – it has 1,368 gramas (11 uninhabited) by the count of Census 2011 – the local practices of land management, cultivation, maintaining micro watersheds, administering pastures and grazing lands, following the traditions of handicrafts, hand weaves and village industries, are many and only cursorily documented if at all they are.

The Beed syndrome – of the rapid change in crop choice and its impact on land use – is a sum of its parts. While those parts have as much to do with the physical characteristics, they have also to do with behaviours, perceptions and choices. But for the latter kind of factors there is hardly any data. For physical uses and changes, there is data (as I showed in the linked post).

Just as districts are the sum of diverse talukas (and towns) so too talukas are the sum of villages. With 176 gramas, the taluka of Ashti has a diversity of knowledge systems enough to occupy a bus-load of social scientists for a decade, if only they would be interested enough to visit what sounds like a humdrum taluka in a hot and dusty zilla of Maharashtra.

Beed district map with talukasThe land use and crop choice changes in Beed are the result of a widespread change. But with a district of this complexity – 1,368 gramas, 11 talukas, 9 towns, 534,278 households with a population of 2,585,049 – how feasible is it to identify the major factors among several that have caused such change?

My attempt in these posts is to show, through the available data at taluka and grama levels, that tracing such changes is possible, and that a new, quite different, set of measures should be adopted if district administrations and other planning bodies are to look ahead, two to three generations ahead, and provide guidance.

Ashti taluka mapTurning more locally to Ashti, one of Beed’s 11 talukas, I found using the Census 2011 data (the District Census Handbook and its detailed tables) that it is in terms of area the second largest taluka (after Beed taluka). Its population count of 243,607 places it as 7th among Beed’s 11 talukas (it was at this rank within the district by Census 2001 data too).

What has changed in Ashti is that whereas in 2001 the entire population of the taluka was rural, Census 2011 had Ashti town as home to 11,972 urban residents (just under 5% of the taluka population).

Through a first extraction of the District Census Handbook data I found that Ashti’s villages are by no means homogenous. They vary widely by population, land use and sown area.

To better illustrate how the changes in The Beed syndrome came about, for the examination of taluka-level data I am creating a new ratios and indicator types, a few of which I have applied to Ashti (and will extend the application to the other 10 talukas of Beed).

The grama level data is extensive and for my purposes I selected population, spatial area, number of households and net area sown. How varied the gramas are for each of these can be seen in the adjoining table.

Variations apart, since Census 2011 allows us to see the ways in which collections of even 200 households use land, decide labour and secure their food, I calculated the following: (1) percentage of sown area (hectares under cultivation) to total village area, (2) number of households per hectare of sown area (hectare under cultivation). This let me see at the grama level how critical cultivated land was to the household and grama economy through the percentage of total, and how well each hectare was being utilised by very broadly finding out how many household ‘units’ the hectare was supporting.

The main chart I drew therefore plots the gramas using both these – a ratio and an indicator. These is in the chart a density of gramas in the south-eastern quadrant. More pertinently, the densest concentration of the gramas of Ashti taluka occur within and near the grid square that reads 2 to 3 households per cultivated hectare and 75% to 80% of the grama land being under cultivation. (There are a few other zones of concentration but this is the heaviest.)

Written by makanaka

December 25, 2019 at 20:50

The Beed syndrome

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Outline of Beed district, Maharashtra

Outline of Beed district, Maharashtra: 11 talukas, 1,368 villages and population of 2.585 million in 2011.

Wandering through the rural districts of Maharashtra as a teenager I can recall well how villages were laid out, as collections of homes and in also in relation to the fields and natural features nearby. These early impressions were strengthened by travels over the years, in neighbouring states (Gujarat, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh) and a window seat in a state transport bus was the best vantage point to have to watch how the landscape unfolded and how it was being attended to.

Outside the ‘circle’ of dwellings and small institutional buildings (school, public health centre, panchayat block, mandir) – ‘circle’ is not the typical shape, which is irregular and in our motorised time follows more the alignment of a panchayat road than the dictates of topography and planning – is the land to be looked after by the village, the ‘grama’, and which provides it sustenance of every kind.

There is the land allocated to grow crops and these provide food and are also what used to be called cash crops, there is land to be shared by those who keep cattle, buffaloes, goats and sheep so that these animals can graze, plots in which fodder is grown, there is land for orchards (such as mango, amla, guava) and land for the organised cultivation of vegetables.

There is also the land in which grow densely and undisturbed a variety of local trees and bushes, and which may be called forested or wooded. These tracts are just as important to the grama as are the cultivated fields and grazing grounds, for they contain the wild relatives of much that grows in the precincts of the grama and offer to the husbanded animals varieties of grasses and plants that the ruminants seek at certain times. The forested area may or may not include a sacred grove (guarded by snakes that are well respected).

There are the waterforms – ponds and tanks, natural channels for monsoon streams and a few shallow-cut and narrow canals from which water is shared, several low check dams used to impound water at the start of a growing season, and dug wells, some of which are indeed old and lined with stone from earlier eras. (The pumpset and borewell have dramatically disturbed and altered the grama’s relation with water and the meanings of its waterforms, and what I saw in the late 1970s has mostly vanished.)

How these different uses of a grama’s land are decided upon by its cultivator households determines its swarajya nature – that is, its capacity to be largely independent and self-sufficient in most material needs. Whether from a bus window at a halt or when on foot, I could make out a distribution of land use that was designed to serve the ‘grama’ as wisely as possible.

Cropping pattern for Beed district

Comparing land allocated to major crop groups in Beed, 2010-11 and 1995-96, in hectares.

Ratios could perhaps have been calculated even then in the 1970s (they were done, much earlier, as large-scale and very authoritative planning guidelines in some of the princely states such as Gwalior, Mysore and Patiala). With today’s remote sensing, doing so has become very much easier while at the same time being theoretical only, the advent of ‘market forces’ having weakened the commune-like ‘grama’ social and economic structure through an appeal to the individual.

The ratios – one could see even then, 40 years ago – would vary because of the influence of three factors: the watershed or the manner in which water became manifest in the ‘grama’ precincts, the manner in which plant species dominated and were distributed together with how they were shaped by climate (‘agro-ecology’ in today’s parlance), and the soil characteristics together with the underlying shallow geological features.

How would and how did a grama respond? At the time, being observant but unschooled in such matters, I took no notes. Today, the only sources of such information are old administrative records (such as the district gazetteers of the British colonial era) and more recently the data collected by the periodic agricultural census.

Using the agricultural census data, I set out to examine if and how the land use of a district (Beed, in central Maharashtra) had changed, and in what way. Records at the level of grama cannot be found other than locally (if they have not been consumed by termites or become mouldy compost). But in the databases of the agricultural census one gets a clue of how much is changing and in what direction.

The available time-span for comparison is a small one, 1995-96 and 2010-11, these being two different agricultural census series. For Beed district, the difference in cultivated land (including that land that was fallow at the time the census was taken) was 100,000 hectares with the increase being from 903,672 hectares in 1995-96 to 1,004,006 hectares in 2010-11. This is a very large increase over so short a period and we shall see why.

The agricultural census records the distribution of land to various kinds of crops which is called a cropping pattern. Examining the cropping pattern for Beed district in 1995-96 and in 2010-11 I found several major changes. First, about 100,000 hectares had been brought under cultivation. From where? The census does not tell us. We would have to look at other records. It is likely that these new cultivation areas were earlier what are called ‘waste land’ (this is a British-era term invented to disparage grazing grounds and their importance to our desi cow).

The most striking change is the reduction, in 2010-11, by a whopping 196,879 hectares, in land used to cultivate cereals. The next big change is the addition in 2010-11 of 143,659 hectares of land given to the cultivation of fibre crops (that is, cotton). Third, is the increase by 50,365 hectares (from 15,240 in 1995-96) of land for sugarcane. And fourth are the increases by 45,617 hectares of land for pulses and by an almost similar area – 44,993 hectares – for oilseeds.

Worksheet to calculate district cropping pattern

My worksheet for the ‘Beed syndrome’

Without any other kind of information that could be used to better explain these changes, I might infer: (a) that the change in the land allocated to cereals has happened because the kisans of Beed’s gramas decided that having a surplus of cereals is not as lucrative as having a surplus of cash crops, (b) that cotton as a cash crop is the district’s most valuable ‘export’ of cultivated biomass, (c) that the more than four-fold increase in land under sugarcane means that more water has been made available for the district (as sugarcane needs more water than most crops), (d) that the central government’s programmes to increase the cultivation of pulses and of oilseeds are working well in Beed.

How tenable are these inferences? The first, about cereals, needs to be seen through the region’s cereal preferences. In Beed, like in many districts of Maharashtra and the dryland areas of the north Deccan plateau, it is jowar and bajra that are grown and eaten. By weight, jowar and bajra together account for 80% of the cereals Beed grows (about 50% jowar and 30% bajra). These are not surplus cereals but staple foods. Second, it is possible that Beed’s kisans decided that the income from their two cash crops, sugarcane and cotton, could be partly used to purchase staple cereals grown elsewhere and so balance their diet.

This needs more investigation, although my guess is that they were incorrect in their choices as sugarcane not only takes scarce water away from other needs, the political control of local sugar economies makes income from the crop volatile and unreliable. Likewise cotton, which is controlled by traders and the big players in mechanised looms – with the seeds and inputs being controlled by the biotech industry if Beed’s kisans were persuaded to choose bt cotton over desi varieties. The one bright spot is the last inference, for even today, nearly every cultivating district is deficit in pulses and every addition is a welcome one. It is the same for oilseeds (the intention being to reduce India’s import of palm oil) provided the oilseeds suit the agro-ecology and are processed and used locally.

The final aspect of this change in how Beed has allocated its cultivable land has to do with the amount of food the district’s population (that means the 11 talukas with their 1,368 gramas and eight urban centres) needs. In 1995-96 the district had 713,196 hectares of land under food crops and by 2010-11 that area had reduced to 562,029 hectares. In the other direction, in 1995-96 the district had 190,335 hectares under non-food crops and by 2010-11 that area had increased to 429,352 hectares.

Aside from calculations about yield and income, I treated this as an indicator of hectares of food growing capability per unit of population. In 1991 the district population was 1.822 million and in 2011 it was 2.585 million. The indicator I have designed is a quite simple one: food-growing hectare/consumer unit. (A consumer unit is a head of population weighted by quantity of food typically consumed, adapted from the National Sample Survey method.)

Using this indicator, the difference between 1995-96 and 2010-11 is large and stark. The 713,196 food hectares in Beed in 1995-96 provided a cultivable base of 0.47 hectare per population consumer unit. But 15 years later in 2010-11 the food hectares available was 562,029 and those provided a cultivable base of 0.26 hectare per population consumer unit.

What led to such a precipitous reduction? There could be a combination of many factors. Based on what I learned while working on a central government programme, swarajya or self-sufficiency whether for a grama or a district is never part of the intention that guides a ministry of agriculture scheme. Nor is swadeshi – that what is entirely local and indigenous as much as for a material input as for a practice.

Where Beed is concerned, with its 11 talukas there is the possibility that one or more large and more populated talukas (like Georai, Beed, Ashti) are skewing the district’s overall indicator. I will shortly, time permitting, post an update which examines the talukas (Patoda, Shirur and Manjlegaon are entirely rural) and how they contribute to (or not) the ‘Beed syndrome’.

Misreading monsoon

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Satellite image of evening cloud cover on 15 May 2019

As usual in May, there is a welter of forecasts and opinions about the monsoon, the great majority of which are short on understanding and shorter on elementary science. The media – newspapers, television news channels, their websites – are to blame for spreading half-baked forecasts and wild prognoses. Not one of the numerous newspapers and TV channels, whatever the language they employ, bother to provide their reporters a basic grounding in the climatological system that gives us our monsoon.

In the first place, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) issues an operational forecast for the south-west monsoon season (June to September) rainfall for the country as a whole in two stages. The first stage forecast is issued in April and the second stage forecast is issued in June. These forecasts are prepared using state-of-the-art Statistical Ensemble Forecasting system (SEFS) and using the dynamical coupled Ocean-Atmosphere global Climate Forecasting System (CFS) model developed under Monsoon Mission of the Ministry of Earth Sciences.

On 15 April 2019 the IMD issued its first stage forecast. Based on our own in-field observations from the west coast, from the patterns of maximum termperature bands and variations in the lower and central peninsular region, from the sea surface temperatures in the Arabian Sea particular its southerly reaches and ditto for the Bay of Bengal, and from the wind patterns that can be experienced at various places in the peninsula and on the west coast, we find the IMD first stage forecast to be reliable.

It is the chronically ignorant media – which over the last few years has displayed a tendency to prefer some so-called private sector weather forecasters instead of what the Ministry of Earth Sciences provides – found irresponsibly claiming that the monsoon of 2019 will be ‘deficient’ and will also begin ‘late’. Neither of these terms is sensible in any way, and we take no satisfaction in noting that only a media that is insensible to planetary and mesoscale events like climate, will employ such insensible terms in reporting that is meant to educate and benefit the public.

IMD’s April forecast used the following five predictors: 1. the Sea Surface Temperature (SST) Gradient between North Atlantic and North Pacific (in December and January), 2. the Equatorial South Indian Ocean SST (in February), 3. the East Asia Mean Sea Level Pressure (in February and March), 4. North-west Europe Land Surface Air Temperature (in January), and 5. Equatorial Pacific Warm Water Volume (in February and March).

There are two forecasts the IMD makes. One is based on the Monsoon Mission CFS Model, which considers global atmospheric and oceanic initial conditions up to March 2019 and use 47 ensemble members (or kinds of data). The forecast based on the CFS model suggests that the monsoon rainfall during the 2019 monsoon season (June to September) averaged over the country as a whole is likely to be 94% ± 5% of the Long Period Average (LPA).

The second is the forecast based on the operational Statistical Ensemble Forecasting system (SEFS). This shows that quantitatively, the monsoon seasonal rainfall is likely to be 96% of the Long Period Average (LPA) with a model error of ± 5%. The SEFS comprises five category probability forecasts for the June to September rainfall over the country as a whole:

Overall therefore the IMD forecast is for the 2019 monsoon rainfall to be near normal. The IMD has already pointed out (which can be seen from the probabilities of the categories given in the table) that there is only a small chance for the monsoon rainfall to be above normal or excess. In view of the weather events and the climatological changes that we are seeing from day to day in May, ascribing a ‘lateness’ to the monsoon is absurd. Monsoon conditions already exist in and over the Indian land mass and in and over the great watery zones extending southwards from latitude 8 degrees North – and that is why we will find rain-bearing clouds crossing the south-western coastline in the first week of June 2019.

(Reposted from India Climate Portal.)

Written by makanaka

May 16, 2019 at 18:14

A scientist recants, or can he really?

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M S Swaminathan today (right), and during his fieldwork years (left). Photos from MSS Research Foundation

M S Swaminathan during his fieldwork years, and today. Photos from MSS Research Foundation

During the dialogue between Maitreyi and the sage Yajnavalkya, the great sage in one of his answers to her difficult series of questions, explains what validity is. Yajnavalkya said that man-made law is temporal law, valid only as long as people who are concerned with it agree that it is valid; when not agreed upon, its validity ceases.

In one of his 1934 lectures J B S Haldane, one of the early 20th century’s founding evolutionary geneticists, and a political leftist, observed: “Put a Jersey cow and a South Africa scrub cow in an English meadow. The Jersey will give far more milk. Put them on the veldt, and the Jersey will give less milk. Indeed she will probably die.”

At 93, one of our scientists who is known for knowing about crops, is I am sure familiar with both, for he should have passed into the stage of sanyasa some years ago, in which stage he would profitably contemplate lessons from these and other thinkers. But the scientist seems strangely reluctant to do so, having had fashioned for himself a vanaprastha which resembles a field biology laboratory.

It has been fashioned for himself not by the kisans of India who are grateful for having carried out the results of his researches, but by the industries of food and the merchants of the technological cornucopia that surrounds all that we call food today. It is in short, a very elaborate golden handshake whose fine print contains a few tasks which Padma Shri Padma Bhushan Padma Vibhushan Monkombu Sambasivan Swaminathan has been entrusted with.

If he disregards the fine print, even today, he is scolded and upbraided by those half and even a third his age, for he is still governed by the proctors of industrial agriculture who pay not the slightest attention to the glittering heap of accolades and awards (73 honorary doctorates at last count) that accompany his name. And this is what happened when M S Swaminathan, as co-author of a rather reflective paper in the journal Current Science, questioned the sustainability, safety, and regulation of genetically modified crops.

Cows returning from their evening grazing, upland Tamil Nadu.

With that paper, he strayed across the Yajnavalkya boundary that marks out ‘validity’. He ceased being the English meadow in Haldane’s example and became instead the south African veldt. These are transgressions not permitted by the fine print that accompanies, along with awards and accolades, all scientists whose practice of science is determined by industry and foreign policy, as food and the cultivation of crop has been since the European monarchies funded the annexation of territories not their own to convert into colonies.

It is possible that Swaminathan and his co-author, P C Kesavan (a researcher at the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai, India, which is the elder scientist’s field biology lab) were actuated by considerations other than scientific.

What might these considerations have been? First, political, because from around mid-year in 2017, a broad front of diverse groups – the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee – with several of its constituents claiming to represent kisan organisations and associations in different states, others including activist organisations protesting genetically engineered crops, have been launching marches and agitations against the NDA government using agriculture and kisan welfare as their platform.

The connection, between this episodic haranguing on the streets (not in fields) and Swaminathan is that he supplied, through the recommendations of the National Commission of Farmers (in 2004), their primary talking points today. Even today, his is seen as India’s most authoritative academic imprimatur on a campaign, programme or policy about sustainable agriculture.

It is a remarkable balance to have maintained for a man who helped usher into India an alien, short-stemmed, lab-tinkered, input-hungry rice variety to replace – with disastrous long-term effects on our agro-biodiversity and soil health – our own magnificent families of rice.

His second consideration for doing so is undoubtedly a blend – an academic setting right of the record, and an acknowledgement of the soaring unsustainability of industrial, fossil fuel-driven, retail oriented agriculture that relies on biotechnology and artificial intelligence. Any field researcher who tramped past rice seedling nurseries in the mid-1960s would absorb sustainability in all aspects of crop cultivation, sustainability should infuse his every utterance.

Picking cotton in Saurashtra, Gujarat. Bt cotton remains the only legally cultivated GM crop in India

But when Swaminathan was turned towards genetics, and away from the science of selection which our kisans have practiced ever since (and likely before) Rishi Parashar composed his smrti on the subject, he was parted forever from the simple essence of sustainability. Yet now there loom before the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, of which Swaminathan has been an éminence grise, the effects of climate change and the demands of the sustainable development goals, and modern agriculture cannot comply with even the skeletal interim standards of these goals.

For all his misdemeanours since the 1960s – including the unforgiveable plundering of our Central Rice Research Institute’s extremely valuable varieties from Odisha and Chhattisgarh, to stock the gene banks of the International Rice Research Institute with – I doubt that Swaminathan cares to be remembered by the generations to come in India as one of those who bestowed scientific legitimacy upon an agro-ecologically illiterate programme, the Green Revolution.

The lorry-load of awards he has accumulated over four decades have for the most part been supplied by the industry and nation-state powers that make food and its supply an economic weapon or a foreign policy instrument. That makes him not a visionary scientist receiving the admiration of multitudes (which the Padma awards were supposed to represent) but a paid general upon whose person battlefield decorations are pinned every now and then to please the troops.

He made his Faustian bargain nigh a half-century ago, but if a retreat into sanyasa and a twilight of less untruth than what he has guarded was Swaminathan’s wish, it is not one he will have granted. For swift and pitiless came the censure of his paper in Current Science. “The specific instances where results are selectively omitted, selectively represented or misrepresented are rife,” grated out K. VijayRaghavan, Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India, in his note to Swaminathan.

“Indeed, the bulk of the scientific points made in this part of the review have been raised previously and have been scientifically discredited widely and one has to only study the literature to see this.” Others, who have made similar bargains, on terms more demanding, were much more unkind and derisive.

The co-authors have been attacked for having “relied on papers and statements by individual scientists that run against the collective weight of peer-reviewed data and in-depth assessments by respected scientific organisations such as the Royal Society (UK), the National Academy of Sciences (US), the US Food and Drug Administration and the European Food Safety Authority”. In short, for having deviated from the industrial-agri-biotech party line the international GMO politburo must enforce.

And so the elder scientist had to disavow his recantation, first to the government man: “There has been some misunderstanding about my views to ensure sustainable productivity by avoiding the spread of greed revolution resulting in the undermining of the long term production potential.” And likewise in a letter (on his foundation’s website) to the biotech industry’s army of invigilators the world over: “I wish to conclude by reiterating my total commitment and support to modern technologies including genetic modification and gene editing.”

This episode has shown that in some matters there can be no renunciation. Sri Krishna explained to Arjuna that under his direction and control, nature brings out this mighty universe of living and non-living beings and “thus does the wheel of this world revolve”. Fatefully, it seems that a sanyasa spent in contemplation of this wheel will elude M S Swaminathan, who once knew rice fields.

Written by makanaka

January 4, 2019 at 09:14