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.
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.
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.
The recent history of “global” approaches to the environment has shown that they began full of contradictions and misunderstandings, which have continued to proliferate under a veneer of internationalisation. To provide but a very brief roster, there was in the 1970s the “Club of Rome” reports, as well as the United Nations Conference on Human Environment in 1972 (which produced the so-called Stockholm Declaration). In 1992, the UN Conference on Environment and Development (Rio de Janeiro) was held and was pompously called the “Earth Summit,” where something called a “global community” adopted an “Agenda 21.” With very much less fanfare also in 1992 came the Convention on Biological Diversity, and signing countries were obliged to “conserve and sustainably manage their biological resources through global agreement,” an operational conundrum when said resources are national and not international.
In 2000 came the “Millennium Summit,” at which were unveiled the Millennium Development Goals, which successfully incubated the industry of international development but had almost nothing to do with the mundane practice of local development. In 2015 came the UN Sustainable Development Summit, which released a shinier, heftier, more thrillingly complex list of sustainable development goals. During the years in between, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and its associated satellite meetings (three or four a year) spun through every calendar year like a merry-go-round (it is 22 years old, and the very global CO2 measure for PPM, or parts per million, has crossed 400).
Looking back at some five decades of internationalisation as a means to some sort of sensible stock-taking of the connection between the behaviors of societies (ever more homogenous) and the effects of those behaviors upon nature and environment, I think it has been an expensive, verbose, distracting, and inconclusive engagement (but not for the bureaucratic class it sustains, and the “global development” financiers, of course). That is why I find seeking some consensus between countries and between cultures on “ecocide” is rather a nonstarter. There are many differences about meaning, as there should be if there are living cultures left amongst us.
Even before you approach such an idea (not that it should be approached as an idea that distinguishes a more “advanced” society from one apparently less so), there are other ideas, which from some points of view are more deserving of our attention, which have remained inconclusive internationally and even nationally for fifty years and more. Some of these ideas are, what is poverty, and how do we say a family is poor or not? What is economy and how can our community distinguish economic activity from other kinds of activity (and why should we in the first place)? What is “education,” and what is “progress”-and whose ideas about these things matter other than our own?
That is why even though it may be academically appealing to consider what ecocide may entail and how to deal with it, I think it will continue to be subservient to several other very pressing concerns, for very good reasons. Nonetheless, there have in the very recent past been some efforts, and some signal successes too, in the area of finding evidence and intent about a crime against nature or, from a standpoint that has nothing whatsoever to do with law and jurisprudence, against the natural order (which we ought to observe but for shabby reasons of economics, career, standard of living, etc., do not).
These efforts include Bolivia’s Law of the Rights of Mother Earth, whose elaborate elucidation in 2010 gave environmentalists much to cheer about. They also include the recognition by the UN Environment Programme, in incremental doses and as a carefully measured response to literally mountainous evidence, of environmental crime. This is what the UNEP now says, “A broad understanding of environmental crime includes threat finance from exploitation of natural resources such as minerals, oil, timber, charcoal, marine resources, financial crimes in natural resources, laundering, tax fraud and illegal trade in hazardous waste and chemicals, as well as the environmental impacts of illegal exploitation and extraction of natural resources.” Quite frank, I would say, and unusually so for a UN agency.
Moreover, there is the Monsanto Tribunal, which is described as an international civil society initiative to hold Monsanto-the producer of genetically modified (GM) seed, and in many eyes the most despised corporation ever-“accountable for human rights violations, for crimes against humanity, and for ecocide.” In the tribunal’s description of its rationale, ecocide is explicitly mentioned, and the tribunal intends to follow procedures of the International Court of Justice. It is no surprise that Monsanto (together with corporations like Syngenta, Dow, Bayer, and DuPont) is the symbol of industrial agriculture whose object and methods advance any definition of ecocide, country by country.
This ecocidal corporation (whose stock is traded on all major stock markets, which couldn’t care less about the tribunal) is responsible for extinguishing entire species and causing the decline of biodiversity wherever its products are used, for the depletion of soil fertility and of water resources, and for causing an unknown (but certainly very large) number of smallholder farming families to exit farming and usually their land, therefore also exiting the locale in which bodies of traditional knowledge found expression. Likewise, there is the group of Filipino investigators, a Commission on Human Rights, who want forty-seven corporate polluters to answer allegations of human rights abuses, with the polluters being fossil fuel and cement companies, including ExxonMobil, Chevron, and BP, and the allegations include the roles of these corporations’ products in causing both “global warming and the harm that follows.”
Such examples show that there is a fairly strong and active manifestation of the movement to recognise ecocide as a crime under international law. However, to find such manifestations, one has to look at the local level. There, the questions pertain more tangibly to the who, what, and how of the ecological or environmental transgression, and the how much of punishment becomes more readily quantifiable (we must see what forms of punishment or reparation are contained in the judgments of the Monsanto Tribunal and the Philippines Commission).
Considering such views, the problem becomes more immediate but also more of a problem-the products of industrialised, mechanised agriculture that is decontextualised from culture and community exists and are sold and bought because of the manner in which societies sustain themselves, consciously or not. It is easier to find evidence for, and easier to frame a prosecution or, the illegality of a corporation, or of an industry, than for the negligence of a community which consumes their products. So the internationalisation (or globalisation) of the idea of ecocide may take shape in a bubble of case law prose and citations from intergovernmental treaties but will be unintelligible to district administrators and councils of village elders.
My view is that searching for the concept which for the sake of semantic convenience we have called ecocide as an outcome of an “internationally agreed” idea of crime and punishment will ultimately not help us. I have such a view because of a cultural upbringing in a Hindu civilisation, of which I am a part, and in which there exists an all-embracing concept, “dharma,” that occupies the whole spectrum of moral, religious, customary, and legal rules. In this view, right conduct is required at every level (and dominates its judicial process too), with our literature on the subject being truly voluminous (including sacred texts themselves, the upanishads, various puranas, and works on dharma).
Perhaps the best known to the West from amongst this corpus is the Arthashastra of Kautilya, a remarkable legal treatise dealing with royal duties which contains a fine degree of detail about the duties of kings (which may today be read as “governance”). This treatise includes the protection of canals, lakes, and rivers; the regulation of mines (the BCE analogue of the extractive industries that plague us today); and the conservation of forests. My preference is for the subject of ecocide and its treatment to be subsumed into the cultural foundation where it is to be considered for, when compared with how my culture and others have treated the nature-human question, it becomes evident that we today are not the most competent arbiters, when considering time frames over many generations, about how to define or address such matters. The insistence on “globalising” views in fact shows why not.
(This comment has been posted at the Great Transition Initiative in reply to an essay titled ‘Against Ecocide: Legal Protection for Earth’.)
The 2015-16 fourth advance estimates for commercial crops, when compared with the annual averages for five year and ten year periods, visibly displays the need for more rational crop choices to be made at the level of district (and below), in agro-ecological regions and river sub-basins.
For this rapid overview of the output of commercial crops for 2015-16 I have compared the Fourth Advance Estimates of agricultural production, which have just been released by the Ministry of Agriculture, with two other kinds of production figures. One is the five-year average until 2014-15 and the second is the ten-year average until 2014-15.
While a yearwise comparison is often used to show the variation in produced crops (which are affected by price changes, policies, adequacy of the monsoon and climatic conditions), it is important to compare a current year’s nearly final crop production estimate with longer term averages. Doing so allows us to smooth the effects of variations in individual years and so gauge the performance in the current year against a wider recent historical pattern. (See ‘How our kisans bested drought to give 252.2 mt’.)
The output of the nine oilseeds taken together is less than both the five-year and ten-year averages. Significant drops are seen in the production of soyabean, groundnut and mustard and rape – these three account for 88% of the quantity of the nine oilseeds (castorseed, sesamum, nigerseed, linseed, safflower and sunflower are the others). Between the fibre crops – cotton, and jute and mesta – the output of cotton is considerably under the five-year average, while that of jute and mesta is under both the five and ten year averages.
It is in the figures for sugarcane that the message lies. The 2015-16 output of sugarcane is marginally above the five-year average and handily above the ten-year average. This needs to be considered against the background of two drought years (2014 and 2015) and the drought-like conditions that were experienced in many parts of the country during March to May 2016.
As these are near-final estimates, this only means that the allocation of water for such a large crop quantity – 352 million tons of sugarcane is about 100 mt more than the foodgrains output of 252 mt – was assured even during times of severe shortage of water.
This is a comparison that needs urgent and serious study, not with a view to change overall policy but to decentralise how crop – and therefore inputs and water – choices are determined locally so that self-sufficiency in food staples and the sustainability of cash crops can be achieved. These are quantities only and do not tell us the burdens of inputs (chemical fertiliser, hazardous pesticides, malignant credit terms) or the risks (as cotton cultivators have experienced this year) but where these are known from past experience their effects can well be gauged.
Bharat has maintained a level of foodgrains production that is above 250 million tons for the year 2015-16. This is the most important signal from the Fourth Advance Estimates of agricultural production, which have just been released by the Ministry of Agriculture. The ‘advance estimates’, four in the agricultural year, mark the progression from target production for the year to actual output.
For this rapid overview I have compared the 2015-16 fourth estimates, which will with minor adjustments become the final tally, with two other kinds of production figures. One is the five-year average until 2014-15 and the second is the ten-year average until 2014-15. While a yearwise comparison is often used to show the variation in produced crops (which are affected by price changes, policies, adequacy of the monsoon and climatic conditions), it is important to compare a current year’s nearly final crop production estimate with longer term averages. Doing so allows us to dampen the effects of variations in individual years and so gauge the performance in the current year against a wider recent historical pattern.
In this way we see that for all foodgrains (rice, wheat, coarse cereals and pulses) the production for 2015-16 is about three million tons below the five-year average but about 13.5 million tons above the ten-year average. These two comparisons need to be considered against the growing conditions our kisans dealt with during 2015 and 2014, both of which were drought years. They also need to be viewed against economic and demographic conditions, which have led to migration of agriculturalists and cultivators from villages into urban settlements (hence less available hands in the field), and the incremental degradation of agro-ecological growing regions (because of both urban settlements that grow and because of increased industrialisation, and therefore industrial pollution and the contamination of soil and water).
That the total quantity of foodgrains is adequate however has been due to the production of rice and wheat (चावल, गेंहूँ) both being above the five and ten year averages. There is undoubtedly regional variation in production (the February to May months in 2016 were marked by exceedingly hot weather in several growing regions, with difficult conditions made worse by water shortages). There is likewise the effects of more transparent procurement policies and stronger commitments being followed by state governments to adhere to or better the recommendations on minimum support prices. The host of contributing factors require inquiry and study.
What requires more urgent attention are the production figures for coarse cereals and pulses. Coarse cereals (which includes jowar, bajra, maize, ragi, small millets and barley – ज्वार, बाजरा, मक्का, रागी, छोटे अनाज, जौ) at just under 40 million tons is 4.4 million tons under the five-year average and 1.4 million tons under the ten-year average. Likewise pulses (which includes tur or arhar, gram, urad, moong, other kharif and other rabi pulses – अरहर, चना, उरद, मूँग, अन्य खरीफ दालें, अन्य रबी दालें) is 1.6 million tons under the five-year average and only 0.3 million tons above the ten-year average. The low total production of these crop types, coarse cereals and pulses, have continued to be a challenge for over a generation. The surprisingly good outputs of wheat (9.3 mt above the ten-year average) and rice (5.5 mt above the ten-year average) should not be allowed to obscure the persistent problems signalled by the outputs of coarse cereals and pulses.
Belgaum and Mysore in Karnataka with 12 points. Warangal, Telengana with 12 points. Panaji, Goa with 12 points. Munger, Bihar with 11 points. Bangalore, Karnataka with 11 points. Salem, Coimbatore and Coonoor in Tamil Nadu with 10 points. Rourkela, Odisha with 10 points. Sholapur, Maharashtra with 10 points. Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh with 10 points.
These are not Swachch Bharat rankings nor are they ‘ease of doing business’ scores. They are, for each urban centre, the number of points its consumer price index (CPI) increased in May 2016 over the average for the previous quarter. The data is collected and distributed by the Labour Bureau, Ministry of Labour and Employment. This is one of the ways in which the monthly CPI numbers for industrial workers (a somewhat dated term which suited an era when the public sector dominated the economy, but which still relates to urban households) can usefully indicate the acceleration in inflation of household staples.
The picture changes when the CPIs of urban centres for a month (the latest available being 2016 May) are compared with their own averages for the last six months, the last 12 months or the year which ended 12 months ago. When the frame of comparison is the average of the previous 12 months, I find that in 30 of the 78 centres for which a CPI-IW is calculated, the increase is 10 points or more. Warangal in Telengana, Kollam in Kerala and Mysore in Karnataka are 16 points above their previous 12 month average while Munger in Bihar, Rajkot in Gujarat and Jamshedpur in Jharkhand are 15 points above.
This is the relativist picture that perhaps makes the most illuminating use of a monthly index, whatever its faults and shortcomings. The well-appointed chart that I have drawn helps show why the speeds and acceleration, between a current measure and an earlier set of measures, are more important to consider than the absolute numbers themselves. This is an experimental way to help visualise a subject that is alas rather dry but of great import for every single household. I will update this as new CPI numbers are released by the Labour Bureau every month.
In an exercise to help determine how reports of the MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act or Nrega) can inform us, I have used the records of what the programme calls ‘outcomes’ in the form of ‘physical assets’ created for the community (or conditional use by groups of individuals, depending on the kind of asset) over a financial year.
The year is 2015-16 and the districts are those of Maharashtra (34, Mumbai excluded). There are at present 17 categories of physical assets and these are: rural connectivity, flood control and protection, water conservation and water harvesting, drought proofing, micro irrigation works, provision of irrigation, renovation of traditional water bodies, land development, any other activity approved, sewa kendra, coastal areas, rural drinking water, fisheries, rural sanitation, anganwadi, playground, food grain.
‘Works’ are recorded under each kind of physical asset, with these classified as having been ‘approved’, ‘taken up’ and ‘completed’ (with ‘taken up’ presumably meaning commenced but incomplete at the end of the financial year). What matters therefore is to study those that have been completed, as the kind of community asset created and certified as being completed would serve to indicate what the community has decided it needs as a priority.
When so filtered, the number of completed physical assets in the 34 districts of Maharashtra for the year 2015-16 totalled 71,554 – a large number that helps describe why the Nrega records are so very voluminous: 1,376 ‘works’ completed every week in 34 districts, with tens of thousands of Nrega beneficiary individuals and households working to build, repair, revive, create them, and with a complex inventory of raw materials being required to be transported and paid for so that these works may take shape.
What the list of completed works – type and number – describe is very instructive. Of the 17 categories, four (fisheries, anganwadi, playground and food grain) were recorded with not a single instance of having become a ‘work completed’ in any district. On the other hand, four kinds of physical assets accounted for a full 85% of the 71,554 works completed in Maharashtra’s 34 districts for 2015-16 and these were, in ascending order: drought proofing (8,110 and 11% of the total works), rural sanitation (12,234 and 17%), water conservation and water harvesting (14,384 and 20%), and provision of irrigation (26,496 and 37%).
The popularity of the latter four can be well understood, as much for how they are all linked as for the precarious living conditions that every taluka in Maharashtra’s semi-arid districts face when the winter months end. These biases towards certain works but not others still do however need to be read with conditions, and keeping in mind that these are the works for but one financial year out of the last ten (albeit the definition of what constitutes an asset under Nrega has been altered and added to several times).
The question that remains is: Maharashtra’s districts and blocks and villages occupy varying agro-ecological, hydrological and meteorological regions. Do their geographic and environmental circumstances not have a role to play in the decisions taken about what Nrega works should be taken up (and completed) as a priority over other kinds?
The charts presented here in groups of districts arranged according to their location amongst the six agro-ecological regions that Maharashtra occupies, indicate whether the Nrega ‘works’ process takes cognisance of the fundamental environmental factors upon which the village (and so panchayat, taluka, district) rest. The charts have been constrained to 200 on the vertical axis in order to preserve readability – values are given for each ‘work’ recorded by each district. The abbreviations for the ‘works’ (horizontal axis) are for the full forms found in the second paragraph.
This came to be known as a ‘development paradigm’ which countries like India and civilisations like Bharat were given prescriptions for. Many of these prescriptions were and continue to be the equivalent of chemotherapy and radiation as used for the treatment of cancer – destroy in the name of curing. This is why in our regions (they are entirely ecological regions, our river valleys and plains, we saw no reason to call them anything but the old names they had been given, for words like ‘ecology’ and agro-ecology only now convey similar meaning that कृषि संस्कृति does) which grew rice, millets, barley, sorghum, wheat, pulses, seasonal fruits and vegetables, a new identity was announced.
This was done early in the ‘green revolution’, a programme that to our ‘annadaatas’ is no less devilish than the industrial revolution in western Europe was to the very fabric of those societies. The new identity was ‘high yielding variety’ and these new hybrids were in no way better than what they were given the power to replace. They neither yielded more than the current varieties, nor did they contain more nutritive elements, nor did their plant matter prove to have more uses than what they replaced, nor could they survive during inclement phases of a seasonal climate with a cheery hardiness the way our traditional varieties could. They were inferior in every way; how could they not be for they had emerged from a science whose very gears and levers were designed by the global market which ruled, paid for and determined that science.
Youngsters in the India of the 1970s, whether in cities, towns or villages, knew little of these changes and what they portended. Our preoccupations were study, work and attending to the daily and seasonal chores of family. But already, the difference between us and them was being introduced into our quite impressionable lives. Cola, hamburger, popcorn, blue jeans, rock music and behavioural accessories that accompanied such produce had appeared in our midst, via many illicit routes (in those days the Coca Cola company had been expelled). Looking back, such products and behaviours seemed desirable because two important factors worked together – the impact of ‘western’ (mainly American) popular culture vehicles and in particular its motion picture industry, and the accounts of those Indians, young and old, who had left their country to become (mainly) American. It was a time when our world was still considered to be dominated by superpowers and lesser power blocs (we were neither), but the friendship India had with the Soviet Union, the USSR, at no time became manifest through food and drink, behaviours and attitudes.
Why did one influence but not the other? Years later, when working with the Ministry of Agriculture on a lengthy programme intended to strengthen our agricultural extension system, I found a part of the answer. Even in the early 1950s, what became our national agricultural research system, under the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (itself a nationalised version of the Imperial Council of the British colonial era), had been partially designed and implemented by the US Agency for International Development and facilitated by the Rockefeller Foundation. A full decade before the mechanics of the ‘green revolution’ set to work in the plains of northern India, the state agricultural universities and the specific crop institutes they cooperated with were organised along operational lines drawn up by foreign advisers (the early FAO was present too). And that early indoctrination led to one of the most invisible yet long-running collaborations between ‘formal’ crop science personnel from India and the American land grant colleges with their extensive networks of industry interests.
As a young man in my early twenties, I would often hear about the ‘brain drain’, which is the term we used to describe those students and scholars who had earned degrees from our Indian Institutes of Management or our Indian Institutes of Technology and who had made their way abroad, most of them to the USA. These were publicly funded institutes, and the apt question at the time was: why were we investing in their education only to lose them? I had been utterly unaware at the time that a similar ‘brain drain’ had taken place in the agricultural sciences, which by the first decade of the 2000s did not require the ‘drain’ aspect at all, for by then the mechanisms of globalisation, aided by the wiles of technology and finance, meant that the agendas of industrial agriculture could be followed by our national agricultural research system in situ. Of ecology, agro-ecology, environment and organic there was barely a mention, so successfully had the ‘food security’ threat begun to be spun.
It is a recent history that has taken shape while our urban and rural societies have worried themselves about how to escape monetary poverty, to escape hunger, to escape deprivations of every conceivable kind, and to pursue ‘development’ of every conceivable kind. While this has happened, the historians that we needed – I call them historians loosely, they needed only to observe and record and retell, but from the point of view of our joint families and our villages – to record such a change were very much fewer than we needed.
It may seem inconceivable that in a country of our size and population – which crossed one billion about a year before the 2001 Census – we lacked appropriate recordists but this too is a matter of selective exclusion (like the story about the hybrid seeds) for there are essays and tracts aplenty in our major languages and in regional scripts that detail the erosion of tradition because of the assaults of modern ‘development’ on our societies. But these are not in English, they are not ‘formal’, they carry no references and citations, they are published in local district towns, they are read by farmers, labourers, retired postmasters and assistant station masters but not by internationally recognised macro-economists or nationally feted captains of industry; they are not considered chronicles of social change and of the studied, deliberate, ruthless dismantling from our societies their traditions, amongst which is the growing of food.
[This article is the second part of a series of four.]
For a civilisation whose agricultural traditions are some ten millennia old, ‘agro-ecology’ is but yesterday’s word, and although well-meaning, pales before the vistas of meaning that have been encoded into our cultivating practices. These are profoundly spiritual, and until a few generations ago, embodied a philosophy about nature, ‘prakruti’ (प्रकृति), that ranged far beyond the definitions that have become en vogue over the last few decades: ecological, sustainable, holistic and so on. This brief itinerary traces some of the causes that have led to the vulgarisation of agriculture (कृषि) in Bharat, and describes the means with which to find renewal.
Menus at fast food restaurants and counters are today as mystifying as the ‘apps’ that are to be found crowding on the screens of young people’s mobile phones. There are now, in our bigger cities in India, ‘apps’ to buy food with (or through). These seem to be popular with a generation that is young – usually 20 to 30 years old – and which lives in shared rented flats near their places of work, which often is the info-tech industry, and is otherwise the finance, retail, services, logistics or trading industries. If there is one aspect common to where these food ‘app’, or menu ‘app’, users work then it is that they do not work in what my generation knew with some familiarity as the manufacturing or the public sectors.
This is a distressing trend, for we have always been a civilisation that counted our farmers, rivers, forests, temples and traditions. In Sanskrit there is a word used to describe the farmer. It is ‘annadaata’, which is, the giver of grain (अन्नदाता). This reverential word is found in every major language spoken and written in India today. The ‘annadaata’ fed his or her family, fed those who needed rice, gave the rice to be used for the ceremonies and religious observances in the temples, sold the rice to the dealers in grain. For many generations, the forms in which our farmers harvested the crops they cultivated were the forms in which they were bought, stored, cooked and eaten. Even during the formative decades of ‘modern’ India – that is, the years after our Independence and until the time when we began to be considered by the Western world as a country becoming a ‘market economy’ – a household rarely owned a refrigerator.
We bought rice, vegetables and the occasional fish or poultry from the market, cooked them fresh at home, and ate our meals fresh. A vegetarian meal may keep overnight to serve as a breakfast for the following morning, and in north and parts of central India, so will ‘roti’ (रोटी) made out of wheat or barley. To keep food longer, it had to be processed, that is, its nature had to change so that it would not spoil in the climate. Thus, rice was commonly parboiled and stored, or parboiled and flattened to become ‘puffed’. Every rice-growing and rice-consuming region, from a single valley to a river basin, had its own methods and preferences of keeping food from spoiling, and finding ways to store that semi-prepared food. This was a kind of processing and most of it was done in our homes.
Surely it wasn’t that long ago? But memories such as these, so vivid to 50 and 60 year olds, are today seen as evoking times of hardship, want and shortage, are seen as recalling times that an agrarian country suffered ‘hunger’ before it became globalised and a ‘market’ of some kind. Such sharp experiences, for that is what the most vivid memories are made of, are considered to be uncomfortably close to the era when famines were recorded, one after another, during the 19th century especially (but also the Bengal famine of 1943-44).
Those appalling records are presented as the rationale for the set of ideas and practice (technical and economic in approach and intent) that came to be called self-sufficiency in foodgrain, which I remember first hearing as a boy, and which much later has come to be known as food security. The links were taught to us early – famine, food shortage, hunger – but what was left out was more important, and that was the policies of the colonial occupiers (the East India Company and then Great Britain, as the country used to be called) and the consequences of the Industrial Revolution in Europe and particularly in western Europe.
Like the devastating famines in India of the 19th century, the Bengal famine of 1943-44 was an artificial shortage of foodgrain, for what had been harvested was shipped out instead of being sold or distributed at home. These aspects of the relatively recent famines of India, which robbed our ancestors of parents and children, were hidden until we uncovered them out of curiosity about food histories that must have been written (or retold) but were scarcely to be found.
Even today, after so much research (especially by the last generation) has become available about the effects of colonial policies on the movements and shortages of food in India, the bogey of food shortage and hunger is still dressed in the garb of technical shortcoming, that our farmers (किसान) do not know how to increase yields because their knowledge is deficient, insufficient, inefficient. It is a slander of a collective that has supported through its efforts and wisdom a civilisation (भारतवर्ष) for centuries.
As it was with the colonial era, so it is with the pervasive apparatus of trade and finance which finds its theatre in globalisation, or the integrated world economy. One of its first tasks was to denigrate and run down a complex and extremely rich tradition of agricultural knowledge – but even to call it ‘agricultural knowledge’ is misleading, for its diverse strands of knowledge, awareness and practice encompassed our relationship with nature and natural forces, and our duties towards state, for faith and religion, towards society – while simultaneously promoting a ‘scientific’ approach that could derive its authority only by first asserting that what it was replacing was not science.
[This article is the first part of a series of four. Part two, ‘How we almost lost our growing tradition’, is here.]
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’.
Sustainable 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.
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.
We lack not at all for experience with drought, yet have not grown used to treating water with the greatest of care. Drought does not strike in the manner a hailstorm does, yet our administrations seem unable to read the signals. Citizens and panchayats alike can contribute to our managing droughts better, provided all are willing to change both perception and behaviour.
It is because drought is such a forbidding condition for any state to fall into that it becomes at once threatening and emotive. Its every symptom becomes a new trial for a drought-afflicted population and simultaneously a likely indictment of the administration, whether local or regional. Food and crop, water and health, wages and relief: this is the short list for which action is demanded by a population concerned for those in the drought-affected districts and blocks.
The administration is bound to answer, as it is likewise bound to plan, prepare, anticipate and act. But where the interrogation of a government for its tardiness in providing immediate relief comes quickly, a consideration of the many factors that contribute to the set of conditions we call drought is done rarely, and scarcely at all when there is no drought. It is the gap between these two activities that has characterised most public criticism of the role of administration today when there is drought.
For farmers and district or block-level administrators alike, drought is a normal and recurrent feature of climate in the dryland regions of India. It occurs in nearly all climatic zones – our long recording history of droughts and floods in particular show that whereas in eastern India (West Bengal, Odisha and Bihar) a drought occurs once in every five years, in Gujarat, East Rajasthan and western Uttar Pradesh the frequency is once in three years. Although the characteristics of what we call drought varies significantly from one meteorological sub-division to another, and indeed from one agro-ecological zone to another, the drought condition arises from a deficiency in precipitation that persists long enough to produce a serious hydrological imbalance.
Drought is a complex phenomenon. There is first a need to distinguish between meteorological and agricultural droughts. A meteorological drought is a period of prolonged dry weather conditions due to below normal rainfall. An agricultural drought refers to the impact caused by precipitation shortages, temperature anomalies that lead to increased evapotranspiration by crops and vegetation, and consequently to a shortage of the water content in the soil, all being factors that adversely affect crop production and soil moisture. The National Commission on Agriculture has defined an agricultural drought differently for the kharif (monsoon cropping season, July to October) and rabi (winter cropping season, October to March).
What the country has witnessed during March and April is an agricultural drought, brought about by the high temperatures which raised mean and maximum temperatures into the heat-wave band. This we have witnessed in Odisha, Telengana, Vidarbha, Marathwada, north interior Karnataka, Rayalaseema, coastal Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, eastern Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and West Bengal.