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Posts Tagged ‘agrarian distress

How the crop cultivation and food habits of 1.21 billion are being hijacked

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A woman sells small seasonal fruit from her basket on a bust main road in Mumbai (Bombay).

In both 2009 and well as this year, 2012, there were droughts. The impact of one drought on rural cultivating households is considerable, and we have known of the severity of these impacts ever since the chronicling of the famines of 1943-44. What happens when over a five-year period, there are two droughts? Before the end of 2012, we shall begin to know, and this will be a grim learning – drawing from the conclusions of several surveys conducted on drought and its impacts between 1970 and 2002, rural cultivating households suffer annual income losses of at times more than 60% in drought years. Can they recover enough in three years to withstand such drastic income erosion a second time in quick succession? We will learn soon enough, but the circumstances in which we learn is already being influences by major changes afoot.

Let us consider the global concern about drought and the need expressed for support to cultivating (and rural food consuming) populations experiencing drought (and food price inflation) stress. “We cannot allow these historic price hikes to turn into a lifetime of perils as families take their children out of school and eat less nutritious food to compensate for the high prices,” said World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim in a recent statement concerning high food prices. “Countries must strengthen their targeted programmes to ease the pressure on the most vulnerable population, and implement the right policies.” The World Bank, together with other multi-lateral lending organisations and many governments worried about agrarian distress and chronic food price inflation, has spoken often about “measures and policy to protect the most vulnerable against future shocks”.

The immense sprawl of Mumbai, with over 20 million inhabitants, a food magnet that drains food producing districts up to 500 kilometres inland.

What sort of measures have been and are being discussed and implemented? They include agriculture-related investment, policy advice, fast-track financing, support for safety nets, the multi-donor food security programmes, and risk management products. The Government of India has also talked about cash transfers and increased investment in agriculture, in the same breath that it has talked about technological ‘solutions’ (the introduction of drought-resistant crop varieties, they like to call it) to surmount the yield per hectare limits currently experienced in food crop staples. How sensible or opportunistic are these measures? How true are they towards being ‘inclusive’ and ‘participatory’ (terms our government and major line ministries, including the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Rural Development, like to use)? How much are they driven by the demands of industry rather than the needs of the food insecure and price vulnerable?

Before I indicate some of the answers, it is useful to look at the conditions in the same sector in our neighbour, the People’s Republic of China.

Inside China, the country is fast approaching the limit of its own available farmland resources – the so-called ‘red line’ for food security of 120 million hectares of arable land, set by the government. China’s typical solution has been to import cheaper agriculture commodities like soybean and maize while saving its farmland for higher-value exports like fish and vegetables. But there is another force driving the rise in soybean and maize imports: the rise in meat consumption in China (a reduced example of which we are seeing in the cities and towns of India, in which the middle class diet includes a growing meat component, usually poultry). In China, meat is increasingly coming from large-scale commercial farms – not small-scale or household farmers – and is therefore dependent on animal feed rather than food waste (which has and continues to be an important portion of animal feed – think goats and chicken – for India’s small agricultural households).

From a growers’ collective in India’s Western Ghats region, a visual aid to help urban consumers identify vegetables that can be grown organically in cities.

Looking back at the pronouncements of India’s planners – whether in the Ministry of Agriculture, in the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilisers, the directorates in states for major crops and horticulture – and its lobbyists (mostly in the chambers of commerce and trade associations) one comparison made frequently with China is seen: that our per hectare use of fertiliser is low. What they conceal is the tremendous ecological damage that has taken place in China as a result of unregulated growth in the use of synthetic and inorganic fertilisers, which has rendered toxic and sterile vast farming tracts in China. To even consider such an approach in India ought to be anathema to our farmers – but they are being pressured and coerced by a business-centric lobbying front which is alas being supported by the central government and by the governments of major states.

“Smallholder farmers are capable of producing the food necessary to feed their country, but face increasingly difficult barriers,” concluded a recent report from the international NGO Grain, which campaigns for farmers’ rights worldwide. The report by Grain added that government decisions to rely on agricultural commodity imports serve the interests of agribusiness and its need for cheap sources of feed “but threaten the land, livelihoods and local food systems of communities”. It is this linkage that lurks behind the recent ‘reform’ (a distorted and dangerous term) that now has permitted foreign direct investment (FDI) in India’s (and Bharat’s) agriculture and food retail sector.

Such changes come against a legacy of corruption concerning access to and misuse of foodgrains that deeply affect our public distribution system and with it, equitable and affordable access for our population to nutritious food. A recent report in Bloomberg, the international news agency, exposed one such fraud, which found that Rs 2,700 crore worth of foodgrain “was looted by corrupt politicians and their criminal syndicates over the past decade” in Uttar Pradesh alone. The report quoted Naresh Saxena, a commissioner to the Supreme Court who monitors hunger-based programmes across India, as having said: “This is the most mean-spirited, ruthlessly executed corruption because it hits the poorest and most vulnerable in society. What I find even more shocking is the lack of willingness in trying to stop it.” How can they begin to stop it when, in a country whose agricultural production in absolute numbers has reached ecological limits, the food retail and processed food industry continues to demand more? And will pay more for new supplies and will gratify the looters more?

A one-kilo packet of ‘ragi’ (finger millet) from an organic farm in Andhra Pradesh state, central India, packaged and labelled in a manner that provides an alternative to the premium rice brands (mostly basmati) sold in urban centres.

Imagine the psychological effect of this sort of fraud on those who work in and for our agriculture markets. The number of regulated (secondary) agricultural markets (‘mandis’) stood at 7,157 as of March 2010 (compared to just 286 in 1950). There are also reckoned to be about 22,200 rural periodical markets, about 15% of which function under the ambit of APMC (Agricultural Produce Market Committees) regulations (there are at least 27 such acts in different states). It is against this density of local collection and distribution that the impact of agri-business on inflation (both direct and indirect) may be viewed. The direct impact of agribusiness is visible in the form of food price inflation, as the Reserve Bank of India has also observed. There is demand arising from increasing population and (especially in urban and urbanising centres – see this report in a business daily, which ignores entirely the food demand footprint of urbanising India) prosperity has outstripped the growth of agricultural output, hence food inflation in India will certainly to persist and deepen (in rural areas as a result of the agri-business-led escalation of marketing channels and investment in infrastructure to move crop and food – the current government and its industry partners are doing all they can to convince middle-class urban India this is good for ‘growth’).

There is a dictatorial emphasis on food processing, on trading (consider the number of commodity exchanges today compared with ten years ago, and the much enlarged scope of their futures trading business, all of which requires access to stored raw crop that serves as the basis of such trade) and on marketing. The growing demand for protein-rich and what are called “high-value foods” (fruit, vegetables, edible oil and meat) is simultaneously raising the demand for what the food industry (processed food manufacturers, food retailers, crop terminal markets promoters, exporters) calls “high quality, safe and convenient (frozen, pre-cut, pre-cooked and ready-to-eat) foods”. Hence the view now shared by the central government, planning agencies and business and industry associations is that meeting these demands will facilitate growth (of national GDP and of the agriculture sector; see the National Summary Data Page for growth rates, however meaningless these are to the cultivating households of rural Bharat) and moderate inflation (in complete disregard of evidence from countries all over the world in which the growth of modern food retail has contributed to inflation in the prices of food staples).

The strength of the ‘growth’ totem does not diminish, and nor does the artificially inflated appeal of the ‘growth is good, more growth is better’ fiction. This is wholly and utterly misguided and mischievous and is responsible for deepening the agrarian distress in Bharat. How entrenched this fiction is can be seen in allegedly authoritative pronouncements that can be found even by the RBI, which recently said: “There is, however, near unanimity, amongst all that agriculture and agri-business growth is a necessary prerequisite for moderation of inflation, particularly food inflation, as well as for acceleration and sustenance of inclusive growth.” Growth as defined by the resource-intensive and ecologically destructive direction of the central government, Indian business and an urban middle class divorced from rural realities has directly caused this same inflation the RBI (and others) is complaining about. Yet in the policy space the contradiction is ignored – true reform that benefits Bharat rather than India is not considered.

A neighbourhood vegetable market in Bengaluru (Bangalore). How these small markets cope with the dictatorship of the food retail and food processing industry will depend on local consumers and their support.

Our central problem in the near future will continue to be the divide between Bharat and India, between food growers and the food consuming populations they support (usually unseen and unheard, often unrepresented). The English-language media that represents the interests of the well-off urban elite have become uniformly uncritical of the different aspects of agri-business and the ‘supply chain’ (another loaded term that spells danger for rural Bharat) which are being transformed (to be fair, major regional language media can be equally uncritical). Reports such as these, one from an Indian business and finance daily, Mint (which holds up GM food as the panacea for India’s food insecurity, and the other from the Wall Street Journal, which is read and quoted in business circles (which said the new ‘reforms’ are not comprehensive enough), reflect the aspirations and tendencies of urban upper middle class India and the disproportionate influence this minority enjoys over national policy, especially policy concerning agriculture and food.

These media views celebrate “rural prosperity” which is “thanks to government job schemes” (no mention of the labour distorting effect of MGNREGA (the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) that is now widespread and which has pushed up farm labour costs to benefit the manufacturers of agricultural machinery – see this report for one of the implications of this cost rise, and see this compilation [pdf] by the Indian Social Institute on NREGA-related wages news), the drive for more “domestic demand from rural areas” (to benefit the consumer goods companies and their financiers primarily), the need for “better private-sector jobs in manufacturing and services”, the obsession with how to “boost purchasing power” and the tiresome illogic of “a virtuous cycle of growth”.

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Food inflation crippled India’s households in 2010

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Vegetables, fruits and cereals market in in the city of Surat, Gujarat state, IndiaThe price of a basket of staple foods has become crippling in rural and urban India. The government’s response is to favour agri-commodity markets, greater retail investment and more technology inputs. For food grower and consumer alike, the need for genuine farm swaraj has never been greater.

The retail prices of staple foods rose steadily through 2010, far exceeding in real terms what the Government of India and the financial system call “headline inflation”, and exceeding also the rate of the rise in food inflation as calculated for the country. These calculations ignore the effective inflation and its increase as experienced by the rural and urban household, and they ignore also the considerable regional variations in India of a typical monthly food basket.

Vegetables, fruits and cereals market in in the city of Surat, Gujarat state, IndiaMoreover, from a household perspective an increase in the prices of food staples is not seen as an annual phenomenon, to be compared with some point 12 months in the past. It is intimately linked to employment (whether informal or seasonal), net income, and the pressures on the food budget from competing demands of medical treatment, education and expenses on fuel and energy.

When real net income remains unchanged for over a year or longer, the household suffers a contraction in the budget available for the food basket, and this contraction – often experienced by rural cultivator families and agricultural labour – is only very inadequately reflected by the national rate of increase in food inflation.

An indicator of the impact on households is provided by the price monitoring cell of the Department Of Consumer Affairs, Ministry Of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution. This cell records the retail and wholesale prices of essential commodities in 37 cities and towns in India. Data over a 36-month period (2008 January to 2010 December) for the prices of cereals, pulses, sugar, tea, milk and onions reveals the impact of the steady rise in the Indian household’s food basket.

In 33 cities and towns for which there are regular price entries, the price per kilo of the “fair average” quality of rice has risen by an average of 42% over the calendar period 2008 January to 2010 December. In 12 of these urban centres the increase has been over 50% (Vijayawada, Thiruvananthapuram, Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Patna, Cuttack, Bhubaneshwar, Indore, Bhopal, Shimla, Karnal and Hisar).

The average price rise over the same period for a kilo of tur dal, for 32 cities for which there is regular price data, is 46%. In 11 of these urban centres the increase in the price of tur dal has been over 50% (Puducherry, Bengaluru, Patna, Agartala, Nagpur, Mumbai, Indore, Ahmedabad, Shimla, Jammu and New Delhi). Where wheat is concerned, from among the 27 cities and towns for which there are regular price entries over three years, in 10 the per kilo price rise is 30% and more.

Vegetables, fruits and cereals market in in the city of Surat, Gujarat state, IndiaIf in search of a comforting cup of tea over which to rue the effect of the steady price rise, this too will cost a great deal more than it did three years ago. For 25 urban centres with regular price data, the average increase over the same period of 100 grams of loose tea leaf is 38% and in 11 of these cities and towns the increase is between 40% and 100%.

The sugar with which to sweeten that cup of tea has become prohibitively expensive over the January 2008 to December 2010 period. For the 32 cities and towns for which there is regular price data, the average price increase for a kilo of sugar is 102%, the range of increase being between 76% and 125%.

This increase for sugar – relatively homogenous for the price reporting centres – exhibits the countrywide nature of the price rise of the commodity. Nor is there a household economy case for substituting sugar for gur, or jaggery. For the 17 towns and cities reporting data for gur prices over the same 36-month period, the increase in price over the period has been an average 118% with 11 of these centres recording an increase of over 100%.

Vegetables, fruits and cereals market in in the city of Surat, Gujarat state, IndiaAdding a third element of higher cost to the humble cup of tea is the price of milk. For the 25 towns and cities which recorded increases in the per litre price of milk over the 36-month period (one city recorded a drop) the average rise is 37%. In seven cities a litre of milk costs at least 50% more in December 2010 than what it did in January 2008 – Ahmedabad, Bhopal, Indore, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Patna and Hyderabad.

In conspicuous contrast are the rates of increase in price of cooking media – groundnut oil, mustard oil and vanaspati. Over the January 2008 to December 2010 period the 37 urban centres recorded average price increases of 10%, 9% and 10% respectively for groundnut oil, mustard oil and vanaspati.

Finally, the volatile allium cepa, or common red onion. In 29 cities and towns reporting regularly the per kilo prices of onion, the increase in price of the vegetable has been astonishingly steep. The average increase for 29 cities is 197.5% and in 14 the increase has been 200% and above – New Delhi, Shimla, Ahmedabad, Indore, Mumbai, Rajkot, Agartala, Aizawl, Bhubaneshwar, Cuttack, Kolkata, Chennai, Hyderabad and Vijaywada. In pale comparison is the otherwise worrying average increase of 39.5% for a kilo of potatoes – this is the 36-month average increase recorded by 27 urban centres.

How a farmer who killed himself a year ago appeared in a political ad

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A protest in Karnataka against the political advertisement

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) state government in Karnataka has run a political advertisement featuring a photograph of a farmer. The ad is part of a campaign to get votes for the party’s candidates during elections to village panchayats, to be held later in December. The farmer whose picture was used in the ad committed suicide on 27 May 2009, well over a year ago.

Either the BJP did not know the farmer in the picture was dead, or did not care in its hurry to get the campaign out in time for the elections. Either way, the outrage in Karnataka has turned into protest and all-round condemnation. The point however is that whether it is the BJP or the Congress, this sort of carelessness reflects how little real attention is given to those who grow food in India.

Extracts from press reports:

The family of Nagaraju from a village about 80 km from Bangalore in Mandya district says he killed himself in 2009 after he was unable to pay off massive debts. He left behind a wife and two young children who are in school. “He died one and a half year ago. Our relatives are coming and asking if he is still alive,” says Bhavya, his daughter. The Opposition says the ad proves how little the government is in touch with the state’s farmers. “Does the chief minister have any concern? You can know the government’s true colours are looking at that ad,” says HD Kumaraswamy of the JD(S). The government says it is looking into the matter. “We will take necessary steps to see that it is corrected if it is wrong,” says Chandra Gowda, a BJP MP.

The BJP on Tuesday withdrew a controversial advertisement with the picture of a farmer highlighting B S Yeddyurappa government’s achievements after it learnt that the farmer had committed suicide, and apologized to his family. The farmer in the ad had committed suicide, unable to repay his debts. B H Nagaraju, a native of Babaurayanakoppalu village, barely 3km from Srirangapatna, had killed himself on May 27, 2009. His family was shocked to see his face in the BJP’s poll ads. In the ad, Nagaraj, who holds sugarcane and a sickle, smilingly talks of his fortune changing after the BJP government took over in Karnataka. His family members claimed Nagaraju committed suicide after he was caught in a debt trap. He is survived by his parents, wife Lakshmi and children Bhavya and Umesh. His father Hanumegowda said his family did not own any land and his son was an agriculture labourer. His daily wages weren’t adequate to support the family.

The BJP issued the advertisement in a few Kannada dailies Sunday ahead of the Dec 26 and Dec 31 polls in 176 taluka (sub-district) and 30 zilla (district) panchayats. The enraged villagers and family members of Nagaraju, who is survived by his parents, wife and two children, are planning to block the Bangalore-Mysore highway Wednesday as the BJP has not apologized for the goof up. “We will stage a dharna on the Bangalore-Mysore highway on Wednesday as no one from the BJP has come to the village to apologise to Nagaraju’s family,” said B.S. Sandesh, former president of Srirangapatna taluka. The farmers staged a demonstration in Baburayanakopplu on the Mysore-Bangalore highway on Monday, protesting against the advertisement, and raised slogans denouncing the government.