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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

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Seeing the growers of our food and where they are

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Where the food that we eat is grown, who the growers of our food are, these are the sort of questions that independent Bharat ought very early to have made central to our understanding of the growing of food crops and the uses to which harvested food crops are put. Instead, we have an administrative understanding, weighed down completely by the bits and pieces of method left by an imperial British administration – whose interests were exploitative and fully colonial.

And assisting this anachronistic administrative view of food and agriculture is a more recent ‘market’ view. This is even more distanced from the farming household and the consuming household than the colonial view was, because its engine is constructed according to the blueprints drawn by a western macro-economics which has served neither the populations of the western countries nor the post-colonial populations of former colonies. The ‘market’ view survives till today only because of the continuous creation of new consumers for food ‘products’ – which is quite different from the seasonal consumption of raw food staples provided by local cultivators.

For these and allied reasons the ability of the central government administration of Bharat – from the time of the First Five Year Plan of 1951-56 – to consider agriculture and food as something other than a ‘sector’, a contributor to gross domestic product (GDP), as an activity through which employment could be supported and poverty kept at bay, has been crippled. There is no reason for it to continue being crippled today. It has continued only because of the legions of planners, advisers, economists and econometricians, academics and researchers, bankers and financiers, and to which assembly must now be added the social entrepreneurs, fin-tech (finance technology) start-ups, and ‘innovators’ who derive dubious means and transient currency out of it.

For this reason I have in a number of articles, papers and writings such as this one sought to describe ways in which the circumstances of the food grower should be, and must be, seen – very often by using the public data and statistics freely available. Some of the indicators we need to have in the foreground – and these are very much more important than the area-produce-yield obsession of our agricultural science establishment and economics planners – are: how many rural households does it take to feed an urban household? Where are farmers, food growers and cultivators a large part of those who work? What role do the smallest urban settlements (census towns) have in the growing and consuming of food?

This is the result of a very small attempt, using Census 2011, to answer such questions.

1. There are 152 districts in which the ratio of the number of rural households to urban households is 8 and above. This means that in 152 districts, rural households outnumber urban households by a factor of at least 8. In 102 of these districts, the ratio is 10 and above, in 45 of these districts the ratio is 15 and above, and in 24 districts the ratio is at least 20.

Among districts which have a high ratio are Ramban in Jammu and Kashmir has a ratio of 24.7 to 1, Sheohar in Bihar has a ratio of 24.6 to 1, West District of Sikkim has a ratio of 23.7 to 1, Anjaw in Arunachal Pradesh has a ratio of 23.7 to 1, Bhabua in Bihar has a ratio of 23.6 to 1 and Baudh in Odisha has a ratio of 22.5 to 1. Whereas Bhabua has some 2.4 lakh rural households, West District has only about 27,000 rural households.

2. There are 174 districts in which the rural farming population, that is, the number of working adults who are engaged in cultivation of their plots or as agricultural labour, is 80% and more of the total rural working population of that district. In 90 of these districts the percentage is 85% and above, in 25 districts it is 90% and above.

Among districts which have a high percentage of cultivators and agricultural labour in their rural working population are Washim and Nandurbar in Maharashtra (90.7% and 90.5%), Dhar, Khandwa and Khargone in Madhya Pradesh (90.6%, 90.5% and 90.5%), and Jashpur and Surguja in Chhattisgarh (both 90.4%).

3. There are 211 districts in which the number of rural households is 3 lakh and above. Of these in 161 districts the number of rural households is 3.5 lakh and above, and in 129 districts the number of rural households is 4 lakh and above. From among these 129, there are 29 in Uttar Pradesh, 19 in Bihar, 15 in West Bengal, 15 in Maharashtra and 13 in Andhra Pradesh.

Among districts with large numbers of rural households are Krishna in Andhra Pradesh with about 7.53 lakh households, Mahbubnagar in Telengana with 7.43 lakh households, Ahmednagar in Maharashtra with 7.39 lakh households, Malda in West Bengal with 7.34 lakh households, Darbhanga in Bihar with 7.29 lakh households, Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh with 7.21 lakh households and Belgaum in Karnataka with 7.19 lakh households.

4. There are 202 districts in which the farming population both rural and urban, that is, the number of working adults who are engaged in cultivation of their plots or as agricultural labour, is 70% or more of the total working population of that district. In 116 of these districts the percentage is 75% and above, in 58 of these districts it is 80% and above.

Among districts with a high combined percentage of rural and urban households engaged in agriculture are Pratapgarh in Rajasthan (83.8%), Mahasamund in Chhattisgarh (83.6%), Mandla in Madhya Pradesh (83.6%), Katihar in Bihar (83%), Khunti in Jharkhand (83%), Uttar Bastar Kanker in Chhattisgarh (83%), Malkangiri in Odisha (82.9%) and Dohad in Gujarat (82.8%).

Written by makanaka

April 4, 2017 at 20:47

Villages in their splendid talukas

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As part of my continuing and long term study on the relation between populations both rural and urban, the land base upon which they depend for the growing of food, and the socio-economic changes taking place in our districts, I have begin an examination of how households are distributed in administrative regions, that is, districts and talukas. This graphed plot describes one kind of finding. (Click here for a full size plot that lets you explore each data point.)

rg_nrega_pics_201612States are administratively divided into districts (earlier the concept of a ‘division’, which was a group of districts, was more common – the ‘division’ is still used, for revenue determination but also for home affairs) and these are divided into talukas. How many talukas does the typical district have? Some have four, others as many as 12. There are talukas whose households are entirely rural as there is not a single census town, let alone a municipal council, within its precincts. The taluka contains villages and these can be numerous. Some talukas may have 50-60 villages whereas others may have 200 and more.

It is always an interesting matter to ponder. How did households in a small sub-region – at the confluence of a stream and a river for example or at the edge of a plain and at the margins of hills – become villages and what determined the distribution of such hamlets in a very local habitat? The factors were always environmental and there was often a strong cultural reason, such as proximity to a sacred site, a mandir or a venerated shrine, historical sites (such as those mentioned in the Ramayana and documented in detail thereafter in numerous local commentaries).

From the set of districts analysed so far a few guiding figures have emerged. The number of rural households in a taluka varies from 7,200 to 96,800; the number of villages in a taluka varies from 28 to 338; the average number of households in a village is 330; there is one urban household for every 3 rural households.

Where the agro-ecological conditions are favourable, there is to be found a denser gathering of villages and these will have larger populations. This can easily be understood. It is less clear how the toil of the households accommodated in a large number of villages are required to maintain, in many ways, urban households which are now clustered in a town or two of the same taluka. This dependence is what a study of not only the rural-urban population, but also how it is distributed within agro-ecological boundaries, can help uncover. The graphed plot included here is one step towards that understanding.

Sizing up rural and urban settlements in Maharashtra

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rg_maharashtra_districts_builtup_201610The districts of Jalna, Osmanabad, Hingoli, Satara, Ratnagiri, Washim, Nandurbar, Gondiya, Gadchiroli and Sindhudurg in Maharashtra all enjoy a rural built-up to urban built-up ratio of more than 2 (where the built-up area of the district’s rural settlements are at least twice the area of its urban settlements).

In the chart, the light green bars show a district’s rural built-up area, the light maroon its urban built-up area. The number associated with the name of the district is the ratio between the two kinds of built-up area.

Such a comparison helps us understand the dependency of the two kinds of populations in a district, rural and urban, upon the natural resources (as classified by land types). The chart shows us that some districts (see Jalgaon, Sholapur, Satara and Ratnagiri) have total rural built-up areas of 150 square kilometres and above. But whereas the urban built-up areas of Jalgaon and Sholapur are more than 100 sq km each this is not so for the other two districts.

Districts may have similar ratios between rural and urban built-up areas – see Ahmednagar, Akola and Dhule – but whereas the built-up areas of both types are more than 100 sq km in Ahmednagar they are smaller in the other two districts. There are only three districts for which the total rural built-up area is less than 50 sq km: Parbhani, Hingoli ad Washim.

There are 15 districts in which there is at least 1.5 sq km of rural built-up area for 1 sq km of urban built-up and this indicates that in these districts the base of agricultural and allied activities is still strong and therefore needs continuous encouragement. There are 7 districts for which this ratio is between 1.5 and 1 and these therefore must be watched for signs of quickening urbanisation which will need to be curbed in the interests of sustainability and indeed of the provision of food.

I have taken the data from the land use and land change information for 2011-12 collected by the Resourcesat-2 satellite with land classification and calculation carried out by the National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSC), Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), Department of Space, under the Natural Resources Census Project of the National Natural Resources Repository Programme. It is available through Bhuvan, the geo-platform of ISRO.

Urban areas are non-linear built-up areas covered by impervious structures adjacent to or connected by streets. This class includes residential areas, mixed built-up, recreational places, public and private utilities, communications, commercial areas, reclaimed areas, vegetated areas within urban zones, transportation infrastructure, industrial areas and their dumps, and ash/cooling ponds. Rural built-up areas are the lands used for human settlement in which the majority of the population is involved in agriculture. These are built-up areas, small in size, mainly associated with agriculture and allied sectors and non-commercial activities. They can be seen in clusters both non-contiguous and scattered.

The last 4 districts – Nagpur, Nashik, Thane and Pune – have their urban built-up bars coloured differently to indicate that their scales are beyond, and very much above, the 150 sq km of the chart. Mumbai city and suburban is omitted entirely.

Disband the ministry for women and children

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Perhaps better known for her penchant to find ways to police social media, the ministry headed by Maneka Gandhi has accommodated NGOs and their agendas easily.

There have in 2016 been several occasions when the work of the Ministry of Women and Child Development has come into the public glare. Not for reasons concerned with the welfare of women and children but instead for the words and actions of its minister, Maneka Sanjay Gandhi, on matters such as abuse of women in social media and paternity leave.

It is however with regard to the subjects that this ministry is concerned with – women and children of Bharat – that the most serious questions arise. As a separate ministry it is only a little over ten years old, having earlier been a department in the Ministry of Education (as the Ministry of Human Resources Development was earlier known) and with the department having been created in 1985.

What does this ministry do? In its own words: “The Ministry was constituted with the prime intention of addressing gaps in State action for women and children for promoting inter-Ministerial and inter-sectoral convergence to create gender equitable and child-centred legislation, policies and programmes.” The programmes and schemes run and managed by the ministry deal with welfare and support services for women and children, training for employment and the earning of incomes, gender sensitisation and the raising of awareness about the particular problems faced by women and children.

The ministry says that its work plays “a supplementary and complementary role to the other general developmental programmes in the sectors of health, education, rural development etc” so that women are “empowered both economically and socially and thus become equal partners in national development along with men”.

In my view there are several problems afflicting this ministry, not only in terms of what it says its work is, but also in how it goes about its work. As was the case in other countries that were once called the Third World (later called “under-developed” or “developing” countries and now called “emerging markets”), the creation of such departments or ministries came about as an adjunct to the worldwide concern about population growth, and which in Bharat had been through a particularly contentious phase in the 1970s.

Programme promotion material from the WCD. Nice pictures of children, but where are the families they belong to?

Programme promotion material from the WCD. Nice pictures of children, but where are the families they belong to?

That in our case a department was turned into a ministry needs to be considered against a background that has become very relevant now, for the year was 2006 and the Millennium Development Goals (or MDGs) had gone through their first set of comprehensive reviews and ‘corrections’. It is relevant because the problems concerning how the Ministry of WCD is now going about its work has to do with the successor to the MDGs, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Looking back even only as far as recent weeks, the view, conduct and agency of this ministry calls into question, in my view, the need for it to continue as a separate ministry. Do read TS Ranga who provides a trailer into the bewildering whims and fancies of the minister. And here is a short list of the very substantial problem areas:

1. “Healthy Food to Pregnant Women-Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS)”. This means provision of supplementary nutrition to children (6 months to 6 years), pregnant women and lactating mothers. A variety of measures are needed to ensure provision: ‘Take Home Ration’, a conditional cash transfer scheme to give maternity benefit, ‘Village Health and Nutrition Days’ held monthly at anganwadi centres, tackling iron deficiency anaemia, a national conditional cash transfer to incentivise institutional delivery at public health facilities.

2. “Universal Food Fortification”. Fortification of food items like salt, edible oil, milk, wheat and rice with iron, folic acid, Vitamin-D and Vitamin-A “to address the issue of malnutrition and to evolve a policy and draft legislation/regulation on micronutrient fortification”.

3. “Beneficiaries of Supplementary Nutrition Programme under ICDS”. The increase in the number of beneficiaries is linked to the “Development Agenda for 2016-2030 of the United Nations” (the SDGs). The ministry delivers three of six ICDS services through the public health infrastructure under the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare.

4. “National Plan of Action for Children 2016”. The draft plan is based on principles contained in the National Policy for Children 2013 and categorises the rights of the children under four areas. The draft is being developed by ministries, state governments, and civil society organisations.

5. “ICDS Being Completely Revamped To Address The Issue Of Malnutrition”. The ministry is undertaking a complete revamp of the ICDS programme as the level of malnutrition in the country continues to be high. The digitisation of anganwadis is being taken up for real-time monitoring of every child and every pregnant and lactating mother. The ministry wants supplementary nutrition to be standardised through both manufacturing and distribution.

A great deal about 'nutrition', but nothing about the agricultural environment which supplies the nutrition. Unless by 'nutrition' the WCD considers only what MNCs produce as supplements and food 'fortification'.

A great deal about ‘nutrition’, but nothing about the agricultural environment which supplies the nutrition. Unless by ‘nutrition’ the WCD considers only what MNCs produce as supplements and food ‘fortification’.

6. “WCD Ministry and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation sign Memorandum of Cooperation”. The memorandum is for technical support to strengthen the nutrition programme in Bharat and includes ICT-based real-time monitoring of ICDS services. The motive is for national and state capacities to be strengthened to deliver nutrition interventions during pre-conception, pregnancy and first two years of life. There will be technological innovation, sharing best practices and use of data and evidence.

7. “ICT enabled Real-Time Monitoring System of ICDS”. The web-enabled online digitisation “will strengthen the monitoring of the service delivery of anganwadis, help improve the nutrition levels of children and help meet nutrition goals”. This will help draw the nutrition profile of each village and address the problem of malnutrition by getting real-time reports from the grassroot level. It will start with a project assisted by International Development Association (IDA) in 162 high burden districts of eight states covering 3.68 lakh anganwadis.

8. “Draft National Policy for Women, 2016”. The policy is being revised after 15 years and is expeceted to guide Government action on women’s issues over the next 15-20 years. “Several things have changed since the last policy of 2001 especially women’s attitude towards themselves and their expectations from life”.

9. “Stakeholders Consultations Held For Policy On Food Fortification“. A consultation with stakeholders was held to evolve a comprehensive policy including draft regulations on micronutrient fortification.

What do these tell us?

a) The ministry does not consider either women or children to be part of a family, or an extended family, or a joint family, nor are they part of a village community consisting of peers and elders. The extremely essential months during which women conceive, the post natal period, and the life of the infant until the age of two or three is – under this view – to be monitored and governed by the ministry and its agents. There is in neither of the draft plans mentioned in the points above the briefest mention of culture or community.

b) Such a view, distasteful and profoundly disruptive as it is to the institution of family, has come about because of the influences upon the ministry. Women and children are seen in this view as factors of consumption even within the family, and the decisions pertaining to what they consume, how much and when are to be controlled for lengthy periods of time by implementers and partners of the ministry’s programmes and schemes, which themselves are shaped by an international list called the SDGs in whose framing these women, children and their families played no part.

c) Sheltering behind the excuse of delivering the services of the ICDS, the ministry through its association with the Gates Foundation plans to collect at an individual level the medical data of millions of infants and mothers, for use as evidence. By whom? By the partners of the Gates Foundation and its allies which are the multi-national pharmaceutical industry, the multi-national agriculture and crop science industry and the multi-national processed foods industry. Hence we see the insistence on biofortification, micronutrients, ready-to-eat take-home rations and the money being provided (by the government through cash transfers) to buy these substances. The ICDS budget for the duration of the Twelfth Five Year Plan which ends in March 2017 is Rs 1,23,580 crore – a gigantic sum distributed amongst several thousand projects with a few hundred local implementing agencies including NGOs.

d) These objectives alone are reason enough to have the officials concerned, including the minister, immediately suspended and charge-sheeted for conspiracy against the public of Bharat. It is far beyond shameful that the valid reasons of malnutrition and gaps in the provision of essential services are being twisted in a manner that can scarcely be grasped. The 10.3 million children and women that are in the ICDS ‘supplementary nutrition’ net today form potentially the largest legitimised medical trial in the world, but with none of the due diligence, informed consent and independent supervision required for such trials in the so-called developed countries.

e) The ministry is entirely in thrall to its foreign ‘development partners’ – UNICEF, World Bank, DFID, WFP and USAID. For this reason the ministry has had the closest and cosiest of arrangements, from amongst all central ministries, with non-government organisations (NGOs) foreign and national. The international bodies such as UNICEF and the World Food Program (WFP) and the large national aid agencies (Britain’s DFID and the USA’s USAID) provide programme funding to NGOs international and national who work with and advise the WCD ministry. In the 2000s this was in order to comply with the Millennium Development Goals, now it is for the SDGs, and this is why the policy view of the ministry aligns with the UN SDGs rather than with the needs of our families whether rural or urban.

What is the remedy? The ministry manages several programmes that are critical for a large number of families all over Bharat. However these are programmes that have much in common with the aims and programmes of three ministries in particular: the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, and the Ministry of Human Resources Development (for matters pertaining to regulation and policy, the Ministry of Law and justice). These three ministries become the natural recipients of the responsibilities borne thus far by the Ministry of Women and Child Development and when such a transfer of allied duties is effected, some of the most important years in the lives of the children and women of Bharat will not become data points and consumption instances for corporations but return to being families.

Written by makanaka

August 30, 2016 at 22:43

The ideologies about knowledge

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RG_TERI_terragreen_201605

The few paragraphs that follow are taken from my recent article for the TERI (The Energy and Resources Institute) magazine, Terragreen. Published in the 2016 May issue, the article links what we often call traditional knowledge with the ways in which we understand ecology and the ways in which we are defining ‘sustainable development’.

quotes-blueSustainable development has today become a commonly used term, yet it describes a concept that is still being considered by different kinds of societies, by each in a manner of its choosing. This has happened because while historically how societies grew to be ‘developed’ was a process that took a variety of pathways, today the prescribed pathway to the ‘modern’ scarcely changes from one country to another.

Hence culturally what these societies have considered as being ‘sustainable’ behaviour – each according to its ecological context – is being replaced by a prescribed template in which interpretations are discouraged. Such a regime of prescription has led only to the obscuring of the many different kinds of needs felt by communities that desire a ‘development’ that makes cultural sense, but also of the kinds of knowledge which will allow that ‘development’ to be sustainable.

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Click for image pdf (600kb) of article

Some of this knowledge we can readily see. To employ labels whose origin is western, these streams of knowledge and practice are called traditional knowledge, intangible cultural heritage, indigenous wisdom, folk traditions, or indigenous and local knowledge. These labels help serve as gateways to understand both the ideas, ‘development’ and ‘sustainable’. It is well that they do for today, very much more conspicuously than 20 years earlier, there is a concern for declining biodiversity, about the pace and direction of global environmental change, a concern over the unsustainable human impact on the biosphere and the diminishing of community identity.

There is widespread acknowledgement of the urgency of the situation – this is perceived across cultures, geographical scales (that is, from local units such as a village, to national governments), and knowledge systems (and this includes both formal and non-formal ways of recognising these systems). The need for such a new dialogue on the situation is expressed in several global science-policy initiatives, both older and recent, such as the Convention for Biological Diversity (CBD) which is now 22 years old, and the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), whose first authoritative reports became available in 2015.

Development whose sustainability is defined locally and implemented locally means that the ‘investment’, ‘technology’ and ‘innovation’ (terms that have become popular to describe development efforts) comes from the people themselves. Many diverse agencies at this level – civil society, youth groups, vocational networks, small philanthropies – assist such development and provide the capacities needed. This is the level at which the greatest reliance on cultural approaches takes place, endogenously.

In domains such as traditional medicine, forestry, the conservation of biodiversity, the protection of wetlands, it is practitioners of intangible cultural heritage and bearers of traditional knowledge, together with the communities to which they belong, who observe and interpret phenomena at scales much finer than formal scientists are familiar with. Besides, they possess the ability to draw upon considerable temporal depth in their observations. For the scientific world, such observations are invaluable contributions that advance our knowledge about climate change. For the local world, indigenous knowledge and cultural practices are the means with which the effects of climate change are negotiated so that livelihoods are maintained, ritual and cultivation continue, and survival remains meaningful.

Bharat at 1.3 billion

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RG_states_popn_2016_256colIn July 2016, the population of Bharat will cross one billion three hundred million. In 1937, the population of what was then British India was 300 million. Seventy-nine years later, there are a billion more.

This numerical landmark is based on the 2011 Census of India total population (which was 1.21 billion) and the growth rate of the population, or what demographers refer to as the rate of natural increase.

For a country of the size of Bharat – and for that matter, even for the states with large populations – any ‘total’ or ‘final’ is no more than an estimate that is subject to variability. The population count of any administrative unit (such as a state or district) can be estimated with census data modified by health data (birth rate, death rate) and by seasonal changes (migration).

There are several extenuating reasons why this exercise needs to be done automatically at least every month by the states and the central government ministries and departments. Perhaps the 1.3 billion landmark can goad them into doing so. The carrying capacities of our river basins, the watersheds, the valleys and floodplains, the ghats both Western and Eastern, the plateaus and grasslands, the deltas and the hill tracts cannot be ignored.

RG_population_age_bands_20160427Equations that govern these are simpler than they are typically made out to be by science. There is only so much water, land, forest, and vegetation (or biomass) available to support us. The 2001 Census found that the population of Bharat had crossed a thousand million. At that point at least the consequences of a steadily growing population (182 million had been added since 1991, and 345 million – which was the population at the time of Independence – since 1981) needed to have become the subject of monthly reflection and policy.

With Bharat at 1.3 billion being barely three months away, the new state population counts (in the chart) show why such monthly reflection and policy is vital, indeed a matter of urgency. We now have ten states whose population is more than 50 million – the comparisons of the sizes of our state populations with those of various countries around the world are now well-known.

West Bengal in May 2016 has a population of 97.7 million and will cross 100 million by the same time in 2017. In May 2016 the population of Bihar is 111.4 million, Maharashtra is 120.3 million and Uttar Pradesh is 214 million. These are gigantic numbers and it is because they are gigantic that they seem to escape planning notice – but the population of these four states is very much more than the population of the European Union of 28 countries.

The table shows the current estimated population (2016 May) for the age bands (from Census 2011 and adjusted for simple growth), which helps us understand the populations of infants, children, adolescents, youth, early adults, mature adults, the middle-aged and the elderly. About 257 million are under nine years old (19%), about 271 million are between 10 and 19 years old (20%) and about 111 million (8%) are 60 years old and older.

These are aspects that require as much study, comprehension and policy measures as we demand on subjects such as governance, corruption, the price of food, the extent of our forests, the supply of water, and the adequacy of monthly incomes. At the 1.3 billion mark, Bharat’s population is starkly in the foreground.

Food, climate, culture, crops and government

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The weekly standardised precipitation index of the India Meteorological Department (IMD) which is a running four-week average. This series shows the advancing dryness of districts in south India.

The weekly standardised precipitation index of the India Meteorological Department (IMD) which is a running four-week average. This series shows the advancing dryness of districts in south India.

In November 2015, the Departmentally Related Standing Committee on Agriculture of the Lok Sabha, Parliament of India, invited suggestions and submissions on the subject “Comprehensive Agriculture Research based on Geographical Condition and Impact of Climatic Changes to ensure Food Security in the Country”.

The Committee called for inputs on issues such as the need to evolve new varieties of crops which can withstand climatic fluctuation; requirement to evolve improved methods of irrigation; the need to popularise consumption of crops/fruits which can provide better nutrition; the need to develop indigenous varieties of cattle that can withstand extreme climatic stress; the need to develop a system for precision horticulture and protected cultivation; diversification of species of fish to enhance production from the fisheries sector; the need to strengthen the agriculture extension system; and means to focus on agriculture education.

I prepared a submission as my outline response, titled “Aspects of cultivation, provision of food, and use of land in Bharat today and a generation hence”. The outline I provided includes several issues of current urgency and connects them to scenarios that are very likely to emerge within a generation. My intention is to signal the kinds of pathways to preparation that government (central and state) may consider. It is also meant to flag important cultural and social considerations that lie before us, and to emphasise that economic and quantitative measurements alone are not equipped to provide us holistic guidance.

The outline comprises three sections.
(A) The economic framework of the agriculture and food sector and its imperatives.
(B) The social, ecological, and resource nature of crop cultivation, considering factors that influence it.
(C) Methods, pathways and alternatives possible to adopt with a view to being inter-generationally responsible.

In view of the current climatic conditions – heat waves in the central and eastern regions of the country, stored water in our major reservoirs which are at or near ten-year lows – I reproduce here the section on the economic framework of the agriculture and food sector and its imperatives. The full submission can be found here [pdf, 125kb].

This framework considers the agriculture and food sector, including primary agricultural production recorded, the inputs and products of industry based on agricultural raw material (primary crop whether foodgrain, horticulture, spices, plantation, ruminants and marine, oilseeds, fibres), agribusiness (processing in all its forms), supply chains connecting farmers and farmer producer organisations to primary crop aggregators, buyers, merchants, stockists, traders, consumers, as well as associated service providers. This approach is based on the connection between agricultural production and demand from buyers, processers and consumers along what is called the supply chain.

 

Water storage quantities in the 91 major reservoirs in the first week of April 2016. Blue bars are each reservoir's full storage capacity (in billion cubic metres, bcm) and orange bars are the current storage at the time. Data from the Central Water Commission, Government of India.

Water storage quantities in the 91 major reservoirs in the first week of April 2016. Blue bars are each reservoir’s full storage capacity (in billion cubic metres, bcm) and orange bars are the current storage at the time. Data from the Central Water Commission, Government of India.

If this framework is considered as existing in Bharat to a significant degree which influences crop cultivation choices, the income of cultivating household, the employment generation potential of associated service providers, then several sets of questions require answers:

* Concerning economic well-being and poverty reduction: what role does agricultural development need to play in promoting economic stability in rural (and peri-urban) regions thereby contributing to poverty reduction and how can the agrifood sector best contribute to jobs and higher incomes for the rural poor?

* Concerning food security: what role can agricultural and agro-industry development play in ensuring rural and urban communities have reliable access to sufficient, culturally appropriate and safe food?

* Concerning the sustainability of food producing systems: how should agriculture and agro-industry be regulated in a participatory manner so as to ensure that methods of production do not overshoot or endanger in any way (ecological or social) conservative carrying capacity thresholds especially in the contexts of climate change and resource scarcity?

When viewed according to the administrative and policy view that has prevailed in Bharat over the last two generations, there is a correlation between agricultural productivity growth and poverty reduction and this is the relationship the macro- economic and policy calculations have been based upon. Our central annual agricultural (and allied services) annual and five-year plan budget and state annual and five-year plan budgets have employed such calculations since the 1950s, when central planning began.

However the choices that remain open to us are considerably fewer now than was the case two generations (and more) ago when the conventional economic framework of the agriculture and food sector took shape.

How a district employs land and crop

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A plotting of the cropland size categories with the number of holdings for the district of Hingoli in Maharashtra. The central group of rectangles displays the distribution, relative to each other, of the size categories of holdings (in hectares, ha.). The blue squares, also relative to each other, displays the number of holdings for each farm size category. The data source is the Agricultural Census 2010-11.

A plotting of the cropland size categories with the number of holdings for the district of Hingoli in Maharashtra. The central group of rectangles displays the distribution, relative to each other, of the size categories of holdings (in hectares, ha.). The blue squares, also relative to each other, displays the number of holdings for each farm size category. The data source is the Agricultural Census 2010-11.

In the district of Hingoli, Maharashtra, the allocation of cultivated land between food crops and non-food crops is somewhat in favour of non-food crops. That is, for every hectare planted with a food crop 1.3 hectares is planted with a non-food crop. The broad categories we have under food crops are: cereals, pulses, vegetables and fruit. Under non-food crops there are: oilseeds, sugarcane, fibres, spices and fodder.

Where Hingoli district is in Maharashtra state.

Where Hingoli district is in Maharashtra state.

The Agricultural Census 2010-11 detailed data for Hingoli shows that at the time of the survey 493,927 hectares were under cultivation for all kinds of crops, both food and non-food. As this is a count of how much land was under cultivation by crop, the total land under cultivation for all crops taken together is more than the total land under cultivation when measured according to land use. This is so because of crop rotation during the same agricultural year, inter-cropping and mixed cropping – for a plot, the same land may raise two kinds of crops in a year.

Size categories of farm holdings, with number of holdings and total area under each category for Hingoli district, Maharashtra.

Size categories of farm holdings, with number of holdings and total area under each category for Hingoli district, Maharashtra.

The 493,927 hectares under cultivation in Hingoli are divided under 213,286 hectares for food crops and 280,640 hectares under non-food crops. This gives us the overall picture that the farming households of Hingoli choose to give more land for crop types under the ‘non-food’ category. As the settlement pattern of Hingoli is very largely rural – that means, few towns and these are the district headquarters and two more taluka centres – do the farming households of Hingoli grow enough to feed themselves comfortably? Do the farming households have the labour needed to continue cultivating so that they can feed themselves and their village communities? How are choices relating to land use and crop made?

Using the publicly available information from a variety of government sources, we are able to find parts of answers. The Agricultural Census 2010-11 is one such source, the Census of India 2011 is another, so are the tables provided by the Department of Economics and Statistics of the Ministry of Agriculture. The graphical representation I have prepared here helps provide the land use basis upon which to layer the district information from other sources.

Where the farmers are in Bharat

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RG_agri_districts_201603

The Census 2011 helps us understand where the great farming populations are: Nashik, Paschim Medinipur, Ahmadnagar, Guntur, Mahbubnagar, Purba Champaran, Belgaum, Kurnool, Madhubani, Jalgaon and 90 other districts are found in this chart, which shows the relationship between the populations of farmers and the total working populations of these districts.

Many of the districts in this chart, represented by the circles (click for full resolution version), lie between the population markers of 750,000 and 1.1 million. They also lie within the percentage band of 60% to about 85%. This shows how important agriculture is – and will continue to be as long as annual budgets and five-year plans support it – for the districts that give us our staple foods.