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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

The deadly threat of gene drives

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The UN Biodiversity Conference began on 13 November 2018 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, and until its close on 29 November will call on decision makers from more than 190 countries to step up efforts to “halt biodiversity loss and protect the ecosystems that support food and water security and health for billions of people”.

On 17 November, the Conference of Parties to the Cartagena Protocol of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity begins. On the agenda is a vital subject that has been moved to the centre of the meeting’s deliberations: a technology called ‘gene drives’. This part of the UN Biodiversity Conference will discuss several key draft decisions about the risks it poses and how to deal with them, including through a moratorium on the technology.

What are ‘gene drives’? Gene drive organisms are supposed to ‘force’ one or more genetic traits onto future generations of their own species. The term for gene drives used by French scientists, ‘Forçage Génétique’ (genetic forcer) makes the intention clear: to force an engineered genetic change through an entire population or even an entire species. If permitted, such organisms could accelerate the distribution of corporate-engineered genes from the lab to the rest of the living world at dizzying speed and in an irreversible process.

As a must-read explainer of this menacing new technology, prepared by the ETC Group and the Heinrich Böll Stiftung, has put it, such organisms “are designed, over time, to replace non-gene drive organisms of the same species in a population via an uncontrolled chain reaction – this ability may make them a far more dangerous biohazard than genetically modified organisms (GMOs)”. [The report, released in October 2018, is ‘Forcing The Farm: How Gene Drive Organisms Could Entrench Industrial Agriculture and Threaten Food Sovereignty’.]

Recently, a study by the Bundesamt für Naturschutz, which is the central scientific authority of the German federal government for both national and international nature conservation, warned that “with gene drives, GMO applications are moving directly from crop plants to modifying wild species. Major consequences on semi-natural and natural ecosystems are expected.” The research concludes that “a clear understanding
and analysis of these differences is crucial for any risk assessment regime and a socially acceptable and
ethical evaluation that is vital for the application of [GDO] technology”.

More pertinent to the current model of the transnational cartelisation of industrial agricultre, a group of French researchers recently concluded: “The time frame of gene drive perfectly fits the economic development strategies dominant today in agribusiness, with a focus on short-term return on investments and disdain for long-term issues. The current economic system based on productivity, yields, monoculture, and extractivism is a perfect match for the operating mode of gene drive.” [From ‘Agricultural pest control with CRISPR‐based gene drive: time for public debate’ by Virginie Courtier‐Orgogozo, Baptiste Morizot and Christophe Boëte in EMBO Reports.]

Reading these warnings helps form better clarity about what GDOs are and are not. From what I have been able to understand, normal reproductive biology gives the offspring of sexually reproducing organisms a 50:50 chance of inheriting a gene from their parents. The gene drives however is an invasive technology to ensure that within a few generations, all that organisms offspring will contain an engineered gene!

Why the phase shift from the already dangerous GMO to the threatening of an entire species by GDO? Thanks to rising consumer awareness of the dangers of GMO food crops, vegetables and fruit – which is now visible even in India (a generation-and-a-half later than Europe) where the central and state governments have put not a rupee into educating consumers about pesticide and synthetic fertiliser poisoning, let alone GMOs) – the uptake of GMOs is levelling off as the predicted risks have become evident, such as the intensification of the treadmill of increased use of toxic chemicals. The so-called ‘gene editing’ techniques, and particularly GDOs, has given the industrial agriculture-biotech-seed multinational corporations a strategy to regain the pace of their domination of food cultivation and therefore food control.

Recognising the extreme danger, the UN Biodiversity Conference which is now under way in Egypt, and particularly the part of the conference beginning on 17 November which is the Conference of Parties to the Cartagena Protocol of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), have placed gene drives on the agenda. [The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the Convention on Biological Diversity is an international agreement which aims to ensure the safe handling, transport and use of living modified organisms (LMOs) resulting from modern biotechnology that may have adverse effects on biological diversity, taking also into account risks to human health. It was adopted on 29 January 2000 and entered into force on 11 September 2003.]

The meeting will discuss, under ‘Risk assessment and risk management’ (which are Articles 15 and 16 of the Protocol) draft decisions on gene drives and, we must hope, take them while imposing a moratorium on this evil technology. [Draft decision document CBD/CP/MOP/9/1/ADD2]. The draft decisions are:

3. Also recognises that, as there could be potential adverse effects arising from organisms containing engineered gene drives, before these organisms are considered for release into the environment, research and analysis are needed, and specific guidance may be useful, to support case-by-case risk assessment;

4.Notes the conclusions of the Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group on Synthetic Biology that, given the current uncertainties regarding engineered gene drives, the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples and local communities might be warranted when considering the possible release of organisms containing engineered gene drives that may impact their traditional knowledge, innovation, practices, livelihood and use of land and water;

5. Calls for broad international cooperation, knowledge sharing and capacity-building to support, inter alia, Parties in assessing the potential adverse effects on the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity from [living modified organisms produced through genome editing,] living modified organisms containing engineered gene drives and living modified fish, taking into account risks to human health, the value of biodiversity to indigenous peoples and local communities, and relevant experiences of individual countries in performing risk assessment of such organisms in accordance with annex III of the Cartagena Protocol;

The concerns of the CBD and the warnings of scientists have been entirely ignored by the agricultural biotechnology corporations and by the inter-connected funding organisations and research groups engaged in synthetic biology. As the report, ‘Forcing The Farm’, has said, multimillion-dollar grants for gene drive development have been given by Gates Foundation, the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health, the Open Philanthropy Institute, the Wellcome Trust and the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. These include generous allowances for what is called ‘public message testing’ and ‘public engagement exercises’ – making GDOs sound beneficial to society and glossing over the dangers – and lobbying of governments and policy-makers.

What is particularly worrying for us in India is the role of the Tata Trusts in financing research on GDOs. In 2016 October an American university, the University of California San Diego, received a US$70 million commitment from the Tata Trusts (which now is the umbrella organisation for what earlier were the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust, the Sir Ratan Tata Trust and the Tata Education and Development Trust, and in terms of funding capacity is probably the largest in India) to establish the Tata Institute for Active Genetics and Society (TIAGS).

This new institute is described as a collaborative partnership between the university and research operations in India. A university press release had said: “UC San Diego, which will be home to the lead unit of the institute (TIAGS-UC San Diego), will receive US$35 million in funding, while the remainder of the committed funds is anticipated to support a complementary research enterprise in India (TIAGS-India).”

India is a signatory to the Cartagena Protocol of the Convention on Biological Diversity (signed 23/01/2001, ratified 17/01/2003, entered into force 11/09/2003) and its reporting to the Protocol on risk assessments of GMOs (which have officially not been used on food crops) has been worse than desultory – the five risk assessments submitted by India are all in 2012 for Bt cotton hybrids.

The shameful co-option of the statutory Genetic Engineering Approval Committee by India’s biotech companies, which was fully revealed in 2016 during the furore over the Committee’s bid to have GM mustard approved, has shown that the entire biosafety assessment process in India and its ability to actually protect our environment and citizens’ health from the profoundly menacing risks of biotechnology, is compromised.

The Gates Foundation, which has graduated from influencing central and state government policy in health and agriculture to becoming an implementing agency, and which has invested heavily in synthetic biotechnology and GDOs (such as ‘Target Malaria’, which uses gene drives against mosquitoes) is now collaborating with the Tata Trusts in health, nutrition and crop cultivation together with the American aid agency USaid and other foundations that claim philanthropic intentions. The risks to our agro-ecological methods, our local crop cultivation knowledge, our food and our public healthcare system have now become far more threatening.

How the Swatantra Divas 2018 pankha came to be

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A year ago, those privileged enough to be invited to the Swatantra Divas (Independence Day) celebrations at Red Fort, New Delhi, finding the weather warm and the nearest pedestal fans too far away to be of any comfort, gripped their invitations firmly and used the stiff, printed souvenirs as fans while listening to Prime Minister Narendra Modi speak.

They were under-secretaries, deputy secretaries, directors, joint secretaries, additional secretaries and secretaries of what are called by the Ministry of Defence (it’s their show on 15 August) “attached and subordinate offices, commissions, public sector undertakings, autonomous bodies” of the Government of India. (Officers below the rank of under-secretary who are “desirous of witnessing this ceremony” may be accommodated “subject to availability of seats”.)

The defence brass (from the rank of Lieutenant General and above, and their equivalents from the three services, but also from the Armed Forces Tribunal, Inter Services Organisations, Armed Forces Medical Services, Border Roads Organisation, Directorate General of Quality Assurance, Kendriya Sainik Board, etcetera) were also present. They, being rather more used to sultry conditions outdoors than the babus, seldom fan their faces.

There are several thousand invitees, and a good number of them are fanning themselves with the expensively printed souvenir, but why not give them a true fan, a beautiful pankha (a hand fan), which they can use and which will do the work of keeping them cool and which they can take home with pleasure. So thought Jaya Jaitly (of Dastkari Haat Samiti) to herself and resolved that on Swatantra Divas of the next year, 2018 and the 72nd Independence Day, there must be a pankha at hand for every one of those invited.

On 15 August 2018, there will be a pankha for each invited guest to the Swatantra Divas celebration. This is the outcome of a lanmark collaboration between Trifed (an autonomous organisation under the Ministry of Tribal Affairs) and the Ministry of Defence.

“This demonstrates the government’s care and concern for sustaining simple livelihoods practiced in the rural and under-developed areas that are home to India’s tribal population,” Trifed has explained. “It also brings into focus eco-friendly goods. The pankhas we create use natural materials, unlike plastic and non-biodegradable products which only add to our crisis of pollution.”

The pankhas of Swatantra Divas 2018 helps to keep the crafts alive which would otherwise languish because of the lack of demand. When the turn of a switch can set a desk fan running, who gives the humble, but beautifully painted and designed pankha a second look? “The pankhas offer comfort and dignity in the heat and humidity,” says Tribes India of the handicraft, which have been sourced from many artisans in Rajasthan, Odisha, West Bengal, Bihar, Gujarat and Jharkhand.

Tribes India supports almost 70,000 tribal artisans all over India by directly buying from them at at fair and remunerative prices, paying them in full for their work and then retailing the products through 92 retail outlets. spread far and wide in the country. If you are not likely to be the babu getting hot under the collar on 15 August 2018, nor the retired brasshat embellishing your memoirs with one last tale that the pankha in your hand reminded you about, then Tribes India can provide you one from its online store, which is sure, as it says, “to bring back memories of childhood when these pankhas were a permanent fixture in every household with stories woven around it by your grandparents”.

Those familiar with Dilli Haat will recognise right away the source of the creative leap needed to turn a seat in the middle of an Independence Day celebration into podium for the simple yet attractive tribal pankha. It is the Dastkari Haat Samiti, a national association of Indian crafts people established in 1986 by social and political activist, writer, and crafts patron Jaya Jaitly. It consists of a large membership of crafts persons as individuals, family units, cooperatives, associations and societies.

“We believe in sustaining traditional skills and livelihoods and in ensuring the continuity of India’s cultural heritage through crafts, arts and textiles by according respect and dignity to practitioners of handwork,” says the Samiti about its view and purpose. “We work to raise the social and economic status of crafts persons by infusing innovation and introducing new modes of creativity to widen the perspective of crafts persons so that they can be part of the contemporary world and marketplace.”

Those characteristics that were seen as weaknesses in the craft sector, such as lack of standardisation, the inability to provide large quantities of any one given item, inexpensive and sometimes earthy packaging methods, are areas of strength in a world where everything else is homogenous, synthetic (and boring). Today in India there is a new awareness of eco-friendly lifestyles, organic products and vegetable-dyed fabrics, the incredible potential of embroideries and jute ware, and the use of silk floss, banana fibre and other such materials to produce handmade paper.

I see the Swatantra Divas 2018 pankha as the most authentic proof that ‘Make in India’ emerges first and foremost from our rural homes and our local knowledge systems, to provide handmade products from a vast resource base that exists nowhere else in the world.

Three views of monsoon 2018

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The India Meteorological Department (IMD) on 16 April had issued its first long range forecast for the 2018 South-West Monsoon season, which the IMD has historically taken to be 1 June to 30 September. The IMD had said that the “monsoon seasonal rainfall is likely to be 97% of the Long Period Average with a model error of ± 5%”. The IMD had also said that its forecast “suggests maximum probability for normal monsoon rainfall (96%-104% of the long period average) and low probability for deficient rainfall during the season”.

In early June, the IMD will issue its second long range forecast for the 2018 monsoon. Until then, I have studied three of the more reliable (in my view) international multi-model ensemble forecasts for the monsoon. What are ensemble forecasts? Each consists of several separate forecasts (some ensembles use 50) forecasts made by the same computer model – these are run on super-computers such as the High Performance Computer System of the Ministry of Earth Sciences (one is at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology in Pune with 4.0 petaflops capacity and the other at the National Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasting in Noida with 2.8 petaflops capacity).

The monsoon 2018 forecast for three-month blocks of the Multi-Model Ensemble (MME), USA National Centers for Environmental Prediction

The separate forecasts that make up one ensemble are all activated from the same starting time. The starting conditions for each differ from each other to account as far as possible for the staggering number of climatological, atmospheric, terrestrial and oceanographic variables that affect and influence our monsoon. The differences between these ensemble members tend to grow as the forecast travels two, three, four and more months ahead of the present.

I have considered the ensemble forecasts for the 2018 monsoon of the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecast (ECMWF), the NOAA Climate Prediction Center and the Multi-Model Ensemble (MME) of the USA National Centers for Environmental Prediction. In this order, I find that the ECMWF forecast is somewhat pessimistic, the NOAA CPC is largely neutral and the MME is optimistic. The forecasting periods are in blocks of three months.

I have considered the ensemble forecasts for the 2018 monsoon of the Multi-Model Ensemble (MME) of the USA National Centers for Environmental Prediction, the NOAA Climate Prediction Center and the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecast (ECMWF). In this order, I find that the MME is optimistic, the NOAA CPC is largely neutral and the ECMWF forecast is somewhat pessimistic.

Here are the details:

(1) The MME forecast, precipitation anomalies relative to the period 1993-2016, based on initial conditions calculated at the beginning of May 2018.
June July August (JJA) – west coast and Konkan, coastal Andhra Pradesh and Odisha, West Bengal, part of the North-East, the entire upper, middle and lower Gangetic region (Uttarakhand, Himachal, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand), Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Telengana to have up to +1 mm/day. Rest of India other than Gujarat (-0.5 mm/day) normal.
July August September (JAS) – Gujarat to have up to -1 mm/day, Rajasthan up to -0.5 mm/day, Sikkim, Brahmaputra valley and Arunachal Pradesh up to -0.5 mm/day. Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand up to +0.5 mm/day, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and West Bengal up to +0.5 mm/day. Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu up to -0.5 mm/day.
August September October (ASO) – Gujarat up to -0.5 mm/day. Tamil Nadu up to -1 mm/day. Kerala and adjacent Karnataka up to -0.5 mm/day. Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, West Bengal up to +1 mm/day. Tripura, Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh up to +0.5 mm/day
September October November (SON) – Tamil Nadu, Kerala and adjacent Karnataka up to -1 mm/day. Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, West Bengal, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand up to +0.5 mm/day.

(2) The NOAA CPC forecast, seasonal precipitation anomalies using initial conditions of 30 April 2018 to 9 May 2018.
May June July (MJJ) – for most of India a normal reading (+0.5 to -0.5 mm/day fluctuation) and for the west coastal, Konkan, Kerala, south Tamil Nadu and coastal Andhra Pradesh areas variation of up to +1.5 mm/day.
June July August (JJA) – for most of India a normal reading (+0.5 to -0.5 mm/day fluctuation).
July August September (JAS) – normal for most of India. Some areas in the central Deccan plateau, on the west coast and east coast variation of up to -1 mm/day.

(3) The ECMWF forecast, mean precipitation anomaly based on climate period data of 1993-2016 and initial conditions as on 1 May 2018.
June July August (JJA) – all of the southern peninsula and part of the Deccan region (Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, part of Telengana) up to -100 mm for the period. West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh up to +100 mm for the period.
July August September (JAS) – all of the southern peninsula and the Deccan region – Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, part of Telengana and Maharashtra up to -100 mm for the period.
August September October (ASO) – Maharashtra, Telegana, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka up to -100 mm for the period.
September October November (SON) – Central and western India, eastern states and entire Gangetic region up to -50 mm for the period.

Written by makanaka

May 12, 2018 at 20:31

Why India needs a national culture policy

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‘Culture’ in India is an idea influenced by two contrasting views.

Either, India possesses a superabundance of culture and a great pool of talent – which takes inspiration from excellent Akademis – to work at preserving traditions, re-inventing them with new orientations and new media, and supplying burgeoning cultural industries with material.

Or, India has a creaky government framework to interpret culture and administer it, which is headed by the Ministry of Culture – a framework entirely without policy direction, surviving at whim on a shoestring national budgetary allocation.

Both these views are true, each incumbent upon where ‘government’ is located vis-a-vis culture. The former view is what we find the Ministry of Culture preferring to portray, ignoring the latter view, with which it does not engage. The ministry has since the years following Independence occupied a high ground and, having fortified itself with institutions and centres, is unable to speak a language other than the rosily administrative.

For this reason, because India in 2018 has a Ministry of Culture so utterly out of touch and out of tune with the teeming types of current discourse about culture (expressions, industries, media, collaborations), the insistence that a culture policy is needed, and needed quickly, is a welcome one. This need was given substance by an article in Swarajya titled, Whose Culture Is It Anyway? Why India Needs A Comprehensive National Cultural Policy by Vikram Sampath, and I am thankful to both the magazine and the writer for having opened a space to consider, debate and act on the subject.

To the question – why should India not have a national policy on culture? – the most dismissive replies have come from a constituency which says that we are a civilisation whose recorded histories stretch back at least five millennia, whose puranic histories reach back further still, and therefore have no need for such new artifices like culture policies.

This article was published by Swarajya in January 2018. It is a shortened version of the commentary available in full here: click for the pdf.

Whereas for artistes and practitioners, who are entirely submerged in their fields, the question of such integration is superfluous, there is the matter of Indian society: our families and households inhabiting more than 4,041 ‘statutory’ towns (465 of which have populations of above 1 lakh), and about 597,000 villages. It is for these families and households, and for the many kinds of social, community, economic, geographic and occupational networks that link and support them, that a cultural policy is to be considered.

Defining culture is certainly not what the policy is for. Doing so is unnecessary and will also lead to contentious arguments over definitions, which will inevitably distract one from why a policy is needed in the first place, as Sampath has set out in detail in his article. But a policy needs a statement about the subject it is setting a direction for, and in such a spirit, distilling the many excellent statements which our Akademis, artistes and intellectuals have given us, what emerges is that in India, culture is elaborated by us as expressions of our creativity and spirituality, including our language, architecture, literature, music and art.

It is also the way we live, conduct ourselves with each other, before nature and before god, the way we think, and the way in which we see and perform the world through attitudes, customs, and practices. Our cultures transmit to us an intrinsic understanding of the way our world works, and leads us to see what is important within that world, thus our values.

This is an organic view. The Ministry of Culture, the institutes and centres it runs directly and those autonomous to it, and state government cultural departments take a state view, seeking a connection with the Constitution of India. Article 29 of the Constitution states that “Any section of the citizens residing in the territory of India or any part thereof having a distinct language, script or culture of its own shall have the right to conserve the same” and Article 51 A(F) of the Constitution states that “It shall be the duty of every citizen of India to value and preserve the rich heritage of our composite culture”.

The language and import of these Articles have very much to do with the Constitution’s overall message of rights and duties, and therefore it is not able to embrace the creativity, ways of living, understanding between human and nature and traditions of expression that contribute to ideas about and practices of cultures.

In his article (based on a concept paper submitted to the Ministry of Culture and NITI Aayog) Sampath has listed and explained the important elements a national policy on culture must contain. These are: (1) Complete overhaul, rationalisation and effective management of existing cultural bodies under the government, (2) Enhanced funding for India’s cultural industry, (3) Bringing culture to young minds by allowing education to inculcate a sense of national identity, pride and self-worth, (4) Enabling skills development and vocational training so that artisans, weavers, artists, painters and craftsmen find markets, (5) Integrating culture with tourism, (6) Disseminating cultural knowledge to the public through media including digital, and (7) Educating an international audience about India’s culture, heritage, traditional knowledge, performing and visual arts.

This is a sound list as it blends current concerns (they have been current since the early 1960s!) with contemporary ideas of arts management, the place of cultural industries and the need to place culture more centrally in education. As part of my work for the UNESCO 2003 Convention on Intangible Cultural Heritage, the management of creative products and goods, the matter of livelihoods and incomes (not only of artistes but what the Convention refers to as tradition bearers), and infusing formal curricula in schools and universities with an understanding of cultures and their practicing, are all indeed central.

Moreover, it is over a decade since UNESCO itself began to not only re-frame but to act towards greater cooperation and collaboration between its cultural conventions and between several long-running programmes in which culture is central. These are the 2003 ICH Convention, the 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, the 1972 World Heritage Convention, the UNESCO Man and Biosphere Programme, and the UNESCO Memory of the World programme. Whereas earlier these functioned quite isolated from one another (largely because of the structural barriers in the ways they were conceived to work and be administered) today integration has become visible.

I mention this because governments often look to an inter-governmental system for guidance or direction, and India takes a justifiable pride in being a member of UNESCO since 1946, with 36 monuments, sites and structures on the World Heritage List, with 13 elements listed by the ICH Convention, with 10 protected areas and natural reserves under the Man and Biosphere programme, and with nine archival and textual repositories in the Memory of the World programme.

Such integration is a far cry from what we inherited as being legislated ‘culture’ which had to be ‘administered’. Hence young post-Independence India considered culture and heritage as being born out of enactments of government, an attitude that ossified itself so solidly it continues into 2018. As examples we have The Ancient Monuments Preservation Act, 1904, The Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites Remains Act, 1958 (and Rules, 1959), The Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972 (and Rules, 1973), The Delivery of Books’ and Newspapers’ (Public Libraries) Act, 1954, The Public Records Act, 1993 (and Rules, 1997). We even had The Treasure Trove Act of 1878!

Likewise, institutes and centres that have to do with manuscripts and books, archives, libraries, cultural objects and art holdings, museums, classical arts foundations are governed by acts and rules, and these include some of the most well-known centres of India: the Asiatic Society, the Victoria Memorial, the Salar Jung Museum, the Khuda Bakhsh library, the Kalakshetra Foundation and the Jallianwala Bagh National Memorial.

It may not be poetic licence to claim that imagining the forms of national cultural administration through these legislations, rules and acts would cause the younger generation of Indians to call to mind gloomy hallways filled with massive bookcases, whose great keys lie rusting on pegs in some dim anteroom, attended to by geriatrics who may have been the only readers if at all of the mouldering tomes they watch over.

It is a picture not altered by bright paint, shiny new racks and computer terminals because the vintage grip of these legislations has not relented, nor has the opportunity such cultural ‘legislation’ gives to those who would command and control centres as petty administrative fiefdoms. Sampath says as much: “everyone seems to be intent on rediscovering the same wheel, and that too over and over again” and “regional centres are set up as further money-guzzling mechanisms, with no sense of mission, objectives, or agenda”. This is what points to a signal difference between institutions established by legislative fiat, and those which emerge from an application of cultural policy, regardless of whether they are state-controlled or receive budgetary support from central or state governments.

In September 2015 when the UN member countries adopted what is called ‘Transforming our world: the 2030 agenda for sustainable development’ (the 2030 Agenda in short), also adopted were the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (or SDGs). UNESCO had since 2013 argued for the greater inclusion of culture, if not as a standalone SDG then as central to several SDGs. An SDG on culture did not materialise, but the efforts to have one did lead many countries to think more holistically – and inventively – about the place of culture in national development. Today, there are 111 countries that have adopted a national development plan or strategy, and out of these 96 include references to the cultural dimension.

It is far from a template adoption. The UNESCO 2018 report, ‘Re-shaping cultural policies: advancing creativity for development’, which explains how the 2005 Convention on Diversity of Cultural Expressions is being implemented, has sounded a note of worry that there are a large number of countries which acknowledge the cultural dimension “primarily as an instrumentality, as a driver of economic or social outputs” and moreover that “across the board, the environmental impact of cultural production and artistic practice itself is not yet taken sufficiently into account”.

How important are development – by which is meant a development that is ecologically harmonious and which contributes to social cohesion rather than inequity – and environment in the framing of a cultural policy? I would like to illustrate using two examples from my work for UNESCO in recent years.

Our neighbour Sri Lanka in 2017 embarked on a drafting of a national policy on intangible cultural heritage (ICH), which would supplement, enlarge and strengthen the work being done under the country’s National Cultural Policy and its National Policy of Traditional Knowledge and Practices. This drafting (advised by UNESCO) was steered by the Ministry of Education, Government of Sri Lanka, which ensured a wide-ranging series of consultations to assist and benefit the tradition bearers and practitioners of ICH and local knowledge systems in Sri Lanka. For the practitioners of these arts and crafts, every kind of material they use, every way in which it is fashioned, every place from where it is gathered, the functions which their creations fulfil, the meanings attached to those functions, all these are guidelines considered cultural.

The second example is from Cambodia, where UNESCO’s work towards deepening and strengthening the recognition of and support for traditional practices, knowledge and cultural expressions had as its backdrop the needs of a population for which four out of every five households lived in villages. Reliable sources of income throughout the year, securing multiple streams of livelihood for the members of a households, finding income and livelihood from activities that were tied closely to agriculture and cultivation or fishery, ascertaining the role and potential of handicraft and hand weaves – all these proved to be concerns that fundamentally tied culture with the environment, and the training, consultations and distillation of learning from meetings over six years (2011-16) had emphasised this tie.

In both countries – just as it is in India and throughout South-East Asia – the use of nature’s resources is as common as is its integration with culture and heritage. The connection with the natural world, for communities in Sri Lanka and Cambodia, has been particularly intimate. Traditional names of villages reflect their inhabitants’ perceptions of the environment that surrounds them. Place names incorporate kinds of vegetation. Paddy lands are classified in a number of ways, where the grain is threshed and winnowed are given specific names. So too are river floodplains, groves of low trees, highland and lowland cultivation areas. Biodiversity is the basis for indigenous and local systems of medicine and treatment, and are extremely significant in social practices.

Is such an approach possible with the government cultural machinery? I take as an answer a statement in the ‘Report of the High Powered Committee on the Akademis and other Institutions under the Ministry of Culture’, 2014: “What is most crucial today is that the Ministry of Culture accepts that it is stuck in antediluvian systems and that change is inevitable. Indeed, it must guide that change assiduously, else the bureaucratic control centre would be ‘out of sync’ with the outside environment.”

This latest report on the Ministry of Culture and its institutions was referred to by Sampath, who in an exasperated tone noted that its recommendations at the time of his article (2017) had not been acted upon, and such inaction followed exactly the same responses to predecessor reports completed in 1990, 1972 and 1964, all having made recommendations with none being acted upon. If cultural institutions such as the three Akademis (Sangeet Natak, Lalit Kala and Sahitya) are to be managed and budgeted for, and a training centre (the Centre for Cultural Resources and Training) is to be maintained, do we need a Ministry of Culture for the purpose?

The 2014 High Powered Committee report has explained that we do, because the Ministry has to work as a “point of coordination for cultural expression, and a catalyst for the dissemination of that expression through the encouragement and sponsorship of multifarious artistic activity”; it “has to guide the people towards higher expressions of the arts, and enable us to differentiate between mediocrity and excellence” and has also “to protect our heritage, both tangible and intangible, through research and documentation, and at the same time prepare us for new pursuits in the creative world.”

I agree with these reasons, but do not think it is or ought to be the prerogative of the Ministry alone (zonal cultural centres included of which there are six) to accomplish these tasks. Neither does this work become the responsibility of the constellation of centres, institutes, libraries, archives, arts foundations and research societies recognised by the Ministry. This is why a national policy on culture for India is needed, which will help explain the duties we have towards our inheritances, and will help construct a superstructure of competencies and human resources, supported by relevant pedagogies, financial channels, collaborations with allied sectors of the formal and informal economies, and which will inform policy and its implementation with the values that sustain our society.

It was as long ago as 1993, at a UNESCO-sponsored meeting held at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in New Delhi, that the basic distinctions that exist between anthropocentric and cosmocentric approaches to the question of cultural identity and development were reflected upon. The participants discussed what constitutes culture and development not individually, but as an integral holistic notion including linguistic, ecological and ways-of-living identities. It is in this spirit that I once again thank Swarajya and Vikram Sampath for reopening a discussion which should never have gone out of vogue, and which, I hope will take on both a new urgency and a new vibrancy.

[This article was published by Swarajya in January 2018.]

Written by makanaka

February 5, 2018 at 22:38

It’s time to rid India of the GDP disease

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A woman in the Aravalli hills of Rajasthan carries home a headload of field straw. India’s National Accounts Statistics is completely ignorant of the biophysical economy.

On 5 January 2017 the Central Statistics Office of the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, Government of India, issued a note titled “First advance estimates of national income, 2017-18”. The contents of this note immediately caused great consternation among the ranks of those in business and industry, trading, banking anf finance, and government who hold that the growth of India’s gross domestic product is supremely important as it is this growth which describes what India is and should be.

In its usual bland way, the Central Statistics Office said that this was “the First Advance estimates of national income at constant (2011-12) and current prices, for the financial year 2017-18” and then proeeded, after a short boilerplate explanation about the compilation of estimates, delivered the bombshell to the GDP standard-bearers: “The growth in GDP during 2017-18 is estimated at 6.5% as compared to the growth rate of 7.1% in 2016-17.” [pdf file here]

To me, this is good news of a kind not heard in the last several years.

But India’s business and financial press were thrown into a caterwauling discord which within minutes was all over the internet.

An example of one out of the many messages in a daily barrage delivered by the Government of India’s ‘GDP First’ corps. This is from what is called the Make in India ‘initiative’ of the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion, Ministry of Commerce. “Make in India is much more than an inspiring slogan,” the DIPP says. “It represents a comprehensive and unprecedented overhaul of out-dated processes and policies.” For this childish GDP rah-rah club, environmental protection, natural reserves, watershed conservation, handloom and handicrafts are all outdated practices and ideas.

‘GDP growth seen at four-year low of 6.5% in 2017-18: CSO’ said the Economic Times: “Most private economists have pared the growth forecast to 6.2 to 6.5 percent for this fiscal year, citing the teething troubles faced by businesses during the roll out of a goods and services tax (GST).”

‘7 reasons why FY18 GDP growth forecast should be viewed with caution’ advised Business Standard: “The fact that growth will be 6.5% is significant as it is even lower than the Economic Survey assumption of 6.75-7.5% for the year. Hence, it is not expected to be higher than the base mark which means that it would be lowest in the past three years. The effects of demonetisation and GST have played some role here.”

‘CSO pegs FY18 growth at 6.5%; why forecast is an eye-opener for Narendra Modi govt’ said Firstpost: “The healthy uptick in volumes displayed by many sectors in November 2017, is expected to strengthen in the remainder of FY2018, benefiting from a favourable base effect and a ‘catch up’ following the subdued first half. Accordingly, manufacturing is likely to display healthy expansion in volumes in H2 FY2018, which should result in a substantial improvement in capacity utilisation on a YoY basis.”

‘GST disruptions eat FY18 economic growth; GDP seen growing at 6.5%, lowest under Modi government’ huffed the Financial Express: “For a broad-based recovery the rural economy needs to recover and we can expect the upcoming budget to focus on alleviating some of the stress in the rural economy and concentrating on measures to augment the flow of credit in the economy. Overall growth is likely to improve in the coming year and possibly move up beyond the 7% mark in FY19.”

‘India’s GDP growth seen decelerating to 6.5% in 2017-18 from 7.1% in 2016-17’ said the Mint: “The nominal GDP, or gross domestic product at market prices, is expected to grow at 9.5% against 11.75% assumed in the 2017-18 budget presented last year. This may make it difficult for the government to achieve the fiscal deficit target of 3.2% of GDP in a fiscally tight year.”

‘India Sees FY18 GDP Growth At 6.5%’ observed Bloomberg Quint: “Growth in gross value added terms, which strips out the impact of indirect taxes and subsidies, is pegged at 6.1 this year, versus a revised 6.6 percent last fiscal. Both GDP and GVA growth were marginally below expectations. A Bloomberg poll had pegged GDP growth at 6.7 percent. The RBI had forecast GVA growth at 6.7 percent at the time of its last policy review in December.”

‘India’s FY18 GDP growth estimated at 6.5%, says CSO data’ said Zee Business: “Real GVA, i.e, GVA at basic constant prices (2011-12) is anticipated to increase from Rs 111.85 lakh crore in 2016-17 to Rs 118.71 lakh crore in 2017-18. Anticipated growth of real GVA at basic prices in 2017-18 is 6.1 percent as against 6.6 percent in 2016-17.”

So great is the power of the School of GDP and of its regents, who are as priests of the Sect of GDP Growth, that the meaninglessness of GDP is a subject practically invisible in India today. Just as it has no meaning at all to the woman in my photograph above, so too GDP has no meaning for all, including the 2.7% (or thereabouts) who pay income tax.

This tweet shows us the scale of the problem. An article by Klaus Schwab of the World Economic Forum (a club of powerful globalists) is posted on the website of Prime Minister Narendra Modi ! The head of the ruling BJP’s information unit broadcasts it.

India’s National Accounts Statistics presents every quarter and annually, estimates of the size of the country’s GDP, of the rate of GDP growth, of the size of ‘gross value added’, to which GDP is bound in ways as complicated as they are misleading. There are wages, interests, salaries, profits, factor costs, net indirect taxes, product taxes, product subsidies, market prices, industry-wise estimates and producer prices to juggle.

For the most part, these are prices and costs alone, upon which various kinds of taxes are levied and whose materials and processes may qualify for subsidies. All these are added and deducted, or deducted and added, and finally totalled show a GVA which then leads to a GDP. The prices are arbitrary and speculative, as all prices are, the arbitrariness and speculative nature being attributed to something called market demand, itself a creation of policy and advertising – policy to choke choices and advertising to spur greed. On this putrid basis does the School of GDP stand.

The GDP and GDP-growth frenzy in India spares not a minute for a questioning of its fundamental ideas, which in certain quarters had begun to shown as hollow and destructive in the early 1970s, when the effects of the material and consumption boom in Europe, North American (USA and Canada) and some of the OECD countries after the end of the Second World War became visible as environmental degradation.

Over 30 years later, sections of those societies inhabit and practice what are called ‘steady state’ economics, ‘transition’ economics (that is, transition to low energy, low consumption, recycling and sharing based ways of collective living) and ‘de-growth’, which is a scaling down of economic production and consumption done equitably and to ensure that a society (or groups of settlement and their industries) strictly observe the bio-physical limits of their environment (pollution and pollutants, land, water, biodiversity, etc).

But the Central Statistics Office of the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, Government of India, is ignorant of such critical thinking. It is just as ignorant of the many efforts at swadeshi living, production, cultivation (agro-ecological) and education (informal learning environments instead of reformatted syllabi lifted wholsesale from countries whose exploitative economies installed globalisation as the default economics mode) that are visible all over India today. The CSO and MoSPI are not entirely to blame for this abysmal blindness, because the Ministry of Finance (like every other major line ministry of the Government of India, and like every state government) has decided to be even more blind.

To read the insensate paragraphs disgorged every quarter from the CSO (and Ministry of Finance, likewise the Niti Aayog, the chambers of commerce and industry, the many economy and trade think-tanks) is to find evidence to pile upon earlier evidence that here is an administration of a very large, extremely populous country which cares not the slightest about the indubitably strong correlations between ‘GDP growth’ and more forms of environmental damage than have been reckoned.

The GDP-GVA-growth fantasy cares not the slightest about energy over-use and CO2 emissions, about the effects of widespread atmospheric and chemical pollution on the health of the 185 million rural households and 88 million urban households (my estimates for 2018) of India, and about the terrible stresses that the urban households in more than 4,000 towns, district headquarters and metros are subject to as a result of their lives – through mobile phone apps, banks, the food industry, the automobile industry and the building industry – being micro-regulated so that an additional thousandth of a per cent of GDP growth can be squeezed out of them.

The GDP asura has brought ruin to India’s environment, cities, farms, households, forests, rivers, coasts and hills. Let 2018 be the year we burn the monster once and for all.

The struggle for the soul of food

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There is food. There is no food. There is no contradiction in there being food and not-food at the same time.

But the not-food is not ‘no food’, it is primary crop that has been passed to food industry, instead of directly to households, and in that industry it is converted into a raw material that is entirely different from the cereals, vegetables, pulses and fruit forms that we consider food and which farmers grow.

That conversion is the food industry, and the demands of that conversion include the use of ‘high-response’ crop varieties, livestock and aquatic breeds, enormous doses of synthetic agro-chemicals and the flattening of ecosystems.

The food industry makes plants grow by applying pesticides and herbicides that sterilise all other life, takes those grown plants and reduces them to components, re-mixes and alters those components, infuses them with deadly formulations of chemicals so that they withstand the treatment of the supply and retail chain, packages them and sells them as ‘food’. This is the not-food that a majority of households in countries now eat.

The industrial food model is predicated on waste, on a false economy of surplus production of commodities rather than on the basis of ecological sustainability, on a biological science that has hideously distorted the rhythms of life.

In the last few weeks, several incisive new reports describe the problems with the industrial food model, and I have drawn quotes from four here. These are not the first. But the conditions they now describe for an old malady are not what we have seen before.

There is a fifth, which I call a pseudo-report. It describes the problems differently, as if they were disconnected from the source of the problems which the other four reports correctly identify. The FAO State Of Food And Agriculture 2017 report refuses to acknowledge the macro-economic, corporate science and finance capital causes for the problems.

Here are the summaries, with links:

Whereas historically the organisations’ proposal for agrarian reform referred particularly to land distribution and to access to productive resources, such as credit, financing, support for marketing of products, amongst others, the integral or genuine agrarian reform is based on the defence and the reconstruction of territory as a whole, within the framework of Food Sovereignty. The broadening of the object of agrarian reform, from land to territory also broadens the concept of the agrarian reform itself.

“Therefore the contemporary proposal for integral agrarian reform does not only guarantee the democratisation of land, but also takes into consideration diverse aspects that allow families to have a decent life: water, the seas, mangroves and continental waters, seeds, biodiversity as
a whole, as well as market regulation and the end of land grabbing. Furthermore, it includes the strengthening of agro-ecological production as a form of production that is compatible with the cycles of nature and capable of halting climate change, maintaining biodiversity and reducing contamination.”

From ‘Struggles of La Via Campesina, for Agrarian Reform and the Defense of Life, Land and Territories’, La Via Campesina, 2017

The Industrial Food Chain is a linear sequence of links running from production inputs to consumption outcomes. The first links in the Chain are crop and livestock genomics, followed by pesticides, veterinary medicines, fertilizers, and farm machinery. From there, the Chain moves on to transportation and storage, and then milling processing, and packaging. The final links in the Chain are wholesaling, retailing and ultimately delivery to homes or restaurants. In this text we use ‘industrial’ or ‘corporate’ to describe the Chain, and ‘commercial foods’ should undoubtedly be associated with the Chain. Just as peasants can’t be comprehended outside of their cultural and ecological context, the links in the Chain – from agro-inputs to food retailers – must be understood within the market economy. All the links in the Chain are connected within the financial and political system, including bankers, speculators, regulators and policymakers. The Chain controls the policy environment of the world’s most important resource – our food.”

From ‘Who Will Feed Us? The Peasant Food Web vs The Industrial Food Chain’, ETC Group, 2017

A significant horizontal and vertical restructuring is underway across food systems. Rampant vertical integration is allowing companies to bring satellite data services, input provision, farm machinery and market information under one roof, transforming agriculture in the process. Mega-mergers come in the context of an already highly-consolidated agri-food industry, and are ushering in a series of structural shifts in food systems. Agrochemical companies are acquiring seed companies, paving the way for unprecedented consolidation of crop development pathways, and bringing control of farming inputs into fewer hands.

“The mineral-dependent and already highly concentrated fertilizer industry is seeking further integration on the back of industry overcapacity and a drop in prices; fertilizer firms are also moving to diversify and integrate their activities via hostile takeovers, joint ventures, and the buying and selling of of regional assets– with mixed results. Meanwhile, livestock and fish breeders, and animal pharmaceutical firms, are pursuing deeper integration with each other, and are fast becoming a one-stop shop for increasingly concentrated industrial livestock industry. Leading farm machinery companies – already possessing huge market shares – are looking to consolidate up- and down-stream, and are moving towards ownership of Big Data and artificial intelligence, furthering their control of farm-level genomic information and trending market data accessed through satellite imagery and robotics.”

From ‘Too big to feed: Exploring the impacts of mega-mergers, concentration, concentration of power in the agri-food sector’, IPES-Food, 2017

Power — to achieve visibility, frame narratives, set the terms of debate, and influence policy — is at the heart of the food–health nexus. Powerful actors, including private sector, governments, donors, and others with influence, sit at the heart of the food–health nexus, generating narratives, imperatives, and power relations that help to obscure its social and environmental fallout. Prevailing solutions leave the root causes of poor health unaddressed and reinforce existing social-health inequalities.

“These solutions, premised on further industrialization of food systems, grant an increasingly central role to those with the technological capacity and economies of scale to generate data, assess risks, and deliver key health fixes (e.g., biofortification, highly traceable and biosecure supply chains). The role of industrial food and farming systems in driving health risks (e.g., by perpetuating poverty and climate change) is left unaddressed. As well, those most affected by the health impacts in food systems (e.g., small-scale farmers in the Global South) become increasingly marginal in diagnosing the problems and identifying the solutions.”

From ‘Unravelling the Food–Health Nexus: Addressing practices, political economy, and power
relations to build healthier food systems’, The Global Alliance for the Future of Food and IPES-Food, 2017

a) Industrialization, the main driver of past transformations, is not occurring in most countries of sub-Saharan Africa and is lagging in South Asia. People exiting low-productivity agriculture are moving mostly into low-productivity informal services, usually in urban areas. The benefits of this transformation have been very modest.
b) In the decades ahead, sub-Saharan Africa, in particular, will face large increases in its youth population and the challenge of finding them jobs. Workers exiting agriculture and unable to find jobs in the local non-farm economy must seek employment elsewhere, leading to seasonal or permanent migration.
c) The world’s 500 million smallholder farmers risk being left behind in structural and rural transformations. Many small scale producers will have to adjust to ongoing changes in “downstream” food value chains, where large-scale processors and retailers, who are taking centre stage, use contracts to coordinate supply and set strict standards to guarantee food quality and safety. Those requirements can marginalize smallholder farmers who are unable to adjust.
d) Urbanization, population increases and income growth are driving strong demand for food at a time when agriculture faces unprecedented natural-resource constraints and climate change. These increases have implications for agriculture and food systems – they need to adapt significantly to become more productive and diversified, while coping with unprecedented climate change and natural resource constraints.”

From ‘The State Of Food And Agriculture. Leveraging Food Systems For Inclusive Rural Transformation’, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, 2017