Shaktichakra, the wheel of energies

Culture and systems of knowledge, cultivation and food, population and consumption

Posts Tagged ‘farmer

Farmers’ protest and the shaping of public perception

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Rioting and violence took place in New Delhi on 26 January 2021, Republic Day, allegedly by members of the farmers’ groups that have since November 2020 been protesting the three farm acts (‘reforms’) that were passed through Parliament.

My reading of the day’s incidents in Delhi – the destruction of corporation commuter buses by tractors, the videos of the Indian tricolour being dishonoured and a Khalistani flag being hoisted in its place, scores of Delhi police being injured and hurt – points to the beginning of a signal shift concerning India’s perception of ‘farmer’.

The Samyukta Kisan Morcha – the umbrella organisation for the protesting farmers’ associations and groups – had for several days earlier said that the intentions of the movement were confronted from the outset by the central government which first stopped them from coming to Delhi, then by defaming the movement, using the Supreme Court to dilute the movement’s objectives.

It had for several days prior to today called for several events leading up to 26 January, such as a people’s ‘Kisan Sansad’ (farmers’ parliament), since the normal winter session of Parliament was cancelled.

The farmers’ organisations have been demanding a full repeal of the three recent agriculture related acts: the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020, the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020, and the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020. These have been dubbed the ‘APMC Bypass Act’, ‘ECA Amendment’ and ‘Contract Farming Act’ respectively.

The grave dangers to our systems of agriculture posed by these acts – individually, when read together, and when read against the background of legislation and policy over the last 20 years that has favoured the food industry over farmers – has been well written about and discussed in many fora and channels.

An example of the effects of changed perceptions about farmers

An example of the effects of changed perceptions about farmers

The new worry that has today come out of the shadows is that of perception: how the Indian citizen and particularly the middle-class urban citizen, considers the farmer. Until now the tone towards the protesting farmers’ organisations has been either neutral or somewhat supportive. This is so despite consistent efforts by the ruling BJP-NDA and its many forward cells in social media to paint the protesting farmers’ as ‘privileged’ by being beneficiaries of lavish subsidies, users of free electricity who don’t pay income-tax, incited by opposition parties, accompanied by anti-national groups and so on.

The Samyukta Kisan Morcha and the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee represent some 130 farmers’ associations and groups that have come together in protest. The chief coordinating organisations are the All India Kisan Sabha and the Centre for Indian Trade Unions, both of which have studied and analysed the causes of agrarian distress in India since the mid-1990s (after liberalisation began in earnest in 1991) and which have consistently mounted campaigns to forestall the corporate take-over of crop cultivation and food distribution in India.

Placed on such a time-line, the protests against the three destructive new ‘reform’ acts of 2020 represent the latest stage of a continuum.

What has however happened is the hijacking of a legitimate protest and its expression by forces about which at this point I know very little, but whose agenda is revealed. The distance between especially India’s middle-class urban citizens and the sources of their food has only widened in recent years. As long as sorted, graded, cleaned and packed raw foodstuffs are available in local markets (or from online marts) little or no thought is given by urban India to farmers.

There is a residual respect (‘jai jawan, jai kisan’ was the slogan coined by Lal Bahadur Shastri, prime minister during 1964-66) that has continued to remain. If this residual respect continues to fuel sympathy for the farmer and his lot, then it also is a potential source of support to farmers’ organisations protesting further ‘reforms’. The previous term of the BJP-NDA, 2014-19, saw the introduction of a number of policy measures (called ‘reforms’) that taken together point to the intent to corporatise cultivation and the movement of harvested crop, to a much greater degree than is currently done.

Examples of mainstream media's reporting

India’s urban based mainstream media not only is removed from the concerns of the rural population but also is absent the experience to understand the cumulative impacts of nearly 40 years of neo-liberal economics on agriculture and food cultivation.

During the first term of the UPA government (2004-09), farming was seen as unremunerative and a drag on the growth rate of India’s GDP. This is a position held by central government planners and economics advisers that did not change during the two following governments (UPA2 and NDA2), both of which added laws and policy to accelerate the industrialisation of food, and which the current NDA3 government (from 2019) wants to further fast track. Hence the three disastrous ‘reform’ laws of 2020 have predecessors going back more than 15 years.

A commentary published three years ago had stated: “The government also expanded the definition of industrial corridors to include land up to one kilometre on either side of designated roads or railway lines serving these corridors. Organisations such as the AIKS had called for provisions to ensure acquisition of land to the extent required and legal safeguards for landowners. However, the rights of landowners and those dependent on land and community rights were all diluted and the basic tenets of transparency were ignored. Food security safeguards were done away with, and even fertile multi-cropped land and productive rain-fed land could be acquired without any restriction.”

Yet there is a series of hurdles that have come in the way of national governments since 2004 in their bid to justify and ram through farm and agriculture ‘reforms’. The hurdles are the conditions, created by poor policy and government’s subservience to the demands of Indian and foreign agritech industry, which from the early 1990s came to be called ‘agrarian distress’, which through the 2000s intensified as the national crisis of farmers’ suicides, and which during the last decade has taken the shape of an ‘unperforming’ sector that is seen as an albatross around the neck of an Indian economy but which is claimed to have great promise.

CITU statement

Part of CITU’s statement on the 26 January 2020 incidents.

The responsibility for the human and community consequences of India’s agrarian distress is the state’s, but none of the central governments from 2004 onwards has acknowledged it has such a responsibility.

Further ‘reform’ has been given a distinct shape and plan over the last four years. It includes encouraging (or coercing) the cultivators and agricultural labour to migrate with family to towns and cities, leaving behind their lands. It includes dramatically increasing corporate denominated farming (under contract) and corporate controlled collection, sorting and movement of food, instead of by farmers’ cooperatives and consumers’ cooperatives. It includes the plan to introduce genetically modified seed and crop. It includes the full conversion of human labour on the farm to automation (using GPS, internet-of-things, 5G, drones, real time remote sensing and robotics).

To begin to do this, the residual respect and fraying connect between urban consumer and farmer must be severed. This severance began on 26 January 2021, with the farmers’ protest movement being hijacked. The casualty will be the citizen’s regard for and trust in the farmer. That casualty will be exploited to offer to the citizen the ‘reliability’ of food that promises to be produced in an ‘agricultural reform’ regime, in which the farmer will have no place.

It is unclear to me as of now who the prime actors are of this hijacking and where the state’s interest is. India’s commentariat has little knowledge of the 30-year-old saga of agrarian distress. Its mainstream media has done everything possible to aid the demonising of the protest and has given no airtime worth the name to farmer representatives and coordinators. Both commentariat and media appear ignorant of the greater arena, that of the gradual outlawing of the hereditary farmer, and his systems of cultivation and crop management, from farming.

Written by makanaka

January 27, 2021 at 00:12

Seeds and knowledge: how the draft seeds bill degrades both

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Rice farmer in north Goa

[ This comment is published by Indiafacts. ]

The central government has circulated the Draft Seeds Bill 2019, the text of which raises several red flags about the future of kisan rights, state responsibilities, the role of the private sector seed industry, and genetic engineering technologies.

The purpose of the 2019 draft bill is “to provide for regulating the quality of seeds for sale, import and export and to facilitate production and supply of seeds of quality and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto”. The keywords in this short statement of the draft bill’s objectives are: regulate, quality, sale, import, export.

This draft follows several earlier legislations and draft legislations in defining and treating seed as a scientific and legal object, while ignoring entirely the cultural, social, ritual and ecological aspect of seed. These earlier legal framings included the 2004 version of the same draft bill, the Protection of Plant Variety and Farmers Right Act of 2001, the 1998 Seed Policy Review Group and its recommendations (New Policy on Seed Development), the Consumer Protection Act of 1986, the National Seeds Project which began in 1967 (under assistance/direction of the World Bank), the Seeds Act of 1966 (notified in 1968, fully implemented in 1969), and the establishing of the National Seeds Corporation under the Ministry of Agriculture in 1961.

With 53 clauses spread over 10 chapters, the draft bill sees seed as being governed by a central and state committees (chapter 2), requiring registration (including a national register, chapter 3), being subject to regulation and certification (chapter 4), with other chapters on seed analysis and testing, import and export and the powers of central government. (The draft bill is available here, 68mb file.)

In such a conception of seed and the various kinds of activities that surround the idea of seed today, the draft bill reproduces a pattern that (a) has remained largely unchanged for about 60 years, and (b) is far more faithful to an ‘international’ (or western) legal interpretation of seed than it is to the Indic recognition of ‘anna‘ (and the responsibilities it entails including the non-ownership of seed).

The 2019 draft bill is attempting to address three subjects that should be dealt with separately. These are: farmers’ rights, regulation and certification, property and knowledge. Each of these exists as a subject closely connected with cultivation (krishi as expressed through the application of numerous forms of traditional knowledge) and the provision of food crops, vegetables and fruit. But that they exist today as semantic definitions in India is only because of the wholesale adoption of the industrially oriented food system prevalent in the western world (Europe, north America, OECD zone).

‘Farmers’ rights’ became a catchphrase of the environmental movement that began in the western world in the 1960s and was enunciated as a response to the chemicalisation of agriculture. When the phrase took on a legal cast, it also came to include the non-ownership and unrestricted exchange of seeds, as a means to demand its distinguishing from the corporate ownership of laboratory derived seed. But farmers’, or kisans‘, rights in India? As a result of what sort of change and as a result of what sort of hostile encirclement of what our kisans have known and practised since rice began to be cultivated in the Gangetic alluvium some eight millennia ago?

Regulation and certification (which includes the opening of a new ‘national register’ of seeds) is fundamentally an instrument of exclusion. It stems directly from the standpoint of India’s national agricultural research system, which is embodied in the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), and which is supported by the Ministry of Science and Technology and the Department of Biotechnology, and is designed to shrink the boundaries of encirclement inside which our kisans are expected to practice their art. The draft bill exempts kisans from registering their seeds in the proposed national registry and sub-registries (an expensive, onerous process designed for the corporate seed industry and their research partners) as a concession.

But in doing so the bill prepares the ground for future interpretation of ‘certified’ and ‘approved’ seed as looking only to the registers – and not kisans‘ collections – as being legitimate. This preparatory measure to exclude utterly ignores the mountainous evidence in the central government’s own possession – the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources – of the extraordinary cultivated, wild, forest and agro-ecological biodiversity of India.

In the cereals category (with 13 groups) the NBPGR gene bank lists 99,600 rice varieties, 30,000 wheat varieties, 11,000 maize, 8.075 barley varieties. In the millets category which has 11 groups there are 57,400 total varieties. How have all these – not exhaustive as they are – become known? Through the shared knowledge and wisdom of our kisans, whose continuing transmission of that knowledge is directly threatened by the provisions of the draft bill, once what they know is kept out of the proposed registers, designated as neither ‘certified’ nor ‘approved’ and turned into avidya.

Vital to regulation and certification are definitions and a prescription for what is ‘acceptable’. The bill says, “such seed conforms to the minimum limit of germination and genetic, physical purity, seed health and additional standards including transgenic events and corresponding traits for transgenic seeds specified… “. The term ‘transgenic event’ is one of the synonyms the international bio-tech industry uses to mean genetically modified. The draft bill’s definition of seed expressly includes ‘synthetic seeds’.

The aspect of property and knowledge taken by the draft bill is as insidious as the brazen recognition of GM technology and produce. The taking of such an aspect also signals that the bill’s drafters have side-stepped or ignored even the weak provisions in international law and treaties concerning agriculture and biodiversity which oblige signatory countries to protect the traditional and hereditary customary rights of cultivators and the protection of biodiversity. These include the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV, 1961, revised in 1972, 1978 and 1991), the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture and Food (ITPGRFA, 2001), and the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Nagoya Protocol (entered into force in 2014).

Aside from the desultory and perfunctorily monitored obligations placed upon India by these and other international and multi-lateral treaties that have to do with agriculture and biodiversity, the draft bill aggressively seeks to promote not only the import and export of ‘approved’ seeds (including seeds that are the result of GM and later gene editing bio-technologies), it submits the interpretation of its provisions to sanctioned committees and sub-committees which by design will be controlled by the the twinned proponents of industrial and technology-centric agriculture: the ICAR and supporting government agencies, and the food-seed-fertiliser-biotech multinational corporations and their subsidiaries in India.

Very distant indeed is the intent of this draft bill – and of India’s administrative and scientific cadres for the last three generations – from the consciousness that was given to us in our shruti: “Harness the ploughs, fit on yokes, now that the womb of the earth is ready, sow the seed therein, and through our praise, may there be abundant food, may grain fall ripe towards the sickle” (Rgveda 10.101.3)

यु॒नक्त॒ सीरा॒ वि यु॒गा त॑नुध्वं कृ॒ते योनौ॑ वपते॒ह बीज॑म् ।

गि॒रा च॑ श्रु॒ष्टिः सभ॑रा॒ अस॑न्नो॒ नेदी॑य॒ इत्सृ॒ण्य॑: प॒क्वमेया॑त् ॥३॥

Masses of cotton but mere scraps of vegetables

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The sizes of the coloured crop rectangles are relative to each other based on thousand hectare measures. The four pie charts describe the distribution of the main crops amongst the main farm sizes.

For a cultivating household, do the profits – if there are any – from the sale of a commercial crop both enable the household to buy food to fit a well-balanced vegetarian diet, and have enough left over to bear the costs of its commercial crop, apart from saving? Is this possible for smallholder and marginal kisans? Are there districts and talukas in which crop cultivation choices are made by first considering household, panchayat and taluka food needs?

Considering the district of Yavatmal, in the cotton-growing region of Maharashtra, helps point to the answers for some of these questions. Yavatmal has 838,000 hectares of cultivated land distributed over 378,000 holdings and of this total cultivable area, the 2010-11 Agriculture Census showed that 787,000 hectares were sown with crops.

Small holdings, between 1 and 2 hectares, account for the largest number of farm holdings and this category also has the most cultivated area: 260,000 hectares. Next is farms of 2 to 3 hectares which occupy 178,000 hectares, followed by those of 3 to 4 hectares which occupy 92,000 hectares.

The district’s kisans allocate their cultivable land to food and non-food crops both, with cereals and pulses being the most common food crops, and cotton (fibre crop) and oilseeds being the non-food (or commercial) crops.

How do they make their crop choices? From the agriculture census data, a few matters immediately stand out, which are illustrated by the graphic provided. First, a unit of land is sown 1.5 times in the district or, put another way, is sown with one-and-a-half crops. This means crop rotation during the agricultural year (July to June) is practiced but – with Yavatmal being in the hot semi-arid agri-ecoregion of the Deccan plateau with moderately deep black soil – water is scarce and drought-like conditions constrain rotation.

Second, land given to the cultivation of non-food crops is 1.6 times the area of land given to the cultivation of food crops (including the crop rotation factor), a ratio that is made abundantly clear by the graphic. This tells us that the food required by the district’s households (about 647,000 of which about 516,000 are rural) cannot be supplied by Yavatmal’s own kisans.

The vegetables required by the populations of Yavatmal’s 16 talukas (Ner, Babulgaon, Kalamb, Yavatmal, Darwha, Digras, Pusad, Umarkhed, Mahagaon, Arni, Ghatanji, Kelapur, Ralegaon, Maregaon, Zari-Jamani, Wani) can in no way be supplied by the surprisingly tiny acreage of land allocated to their cultivation. Nor do they fare better for fruit, which has even less land (although this is a more complex calculation for fruit trees, less so for vine fruits).

Third, 125,000 hectares to wheat and 71,000 hectares to jowar makes up almost the entire cereals cultivation. Likewise 126,000 hectares to tur (or arhar) and 94,000 hectares to gram accounts for most of the land allocated to pulses. Thus while Yavatmal’s talukas are well supplied with wheat, jowar, gram and tur dal, its households must depend on neighbouring (or not so neighbouring) districts for vegetables, as a minimum of 280,000 tons per year is to be supplied to meet each household’s recommended dietary needs.

What the graphic helps us ask is the size of the costs associated with crop cultivation choices in Yavatmal. The cultivation of hybrid cotton in India’s major cotton growing regions (several districts each in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat) is associated with heavy chemical fertiliser and pesticides use. Whether the soil on which cotton has grown can be sown again with a food crop is not clear from the available data but if so such a crop would be saturated with a vicious mix of chemicals that include nitrates and phosphates.

The health of the soil in Yavatmal’s 16 talukas is probably amongst the most fragile in Deccan Maharashtra, and after years of coaxing a false ‘productivity’ out of the ground for cotton, it would be best for the district’s 516,000 rural households to take a cotton ‘holiday’ for three to four years and revert to the mixed and integrated cropping of their forefathers (small millets). But the grip of the financiers and the textiles intermediaries is strong.

Written by makanaka

May 10, 2017 at 16:13

Debt and kisan households

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rg_cultivator_hhs_debt_201612For the 21 larger states, this is the picture of how much average debt a cultivator household has incurred, and how many amongst cultivator households are in debt.

The data I have used for this chart are taken from the report, ‘Household Indebtedness in India’, which is based on the 70th Round of the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO), Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, Government of India, and collected during January to December 2013.

The states are plotted on average debt of such households, in lakh rupees on the left scale, and the proportion of such households, as a percentage of all such households, on the horizontal scale. The size of the circles are relative and based on the amount of average debt.

The average amount of debt per cultivator household seen in this chart is for most of the 21 larger states, lower than the overall rural household average debt of Rs 1,03,457. However the cultivator household is one of six types of rural household (the categories are: self-employed in agriculture, self-employed in non-agriculture, regular wage/salary earning, casual labour in agriculture, casual labour in non-agriculture, others). About 31.4% of all rural households are in debt.

The chart shows that cultivator households in Punjab and Kerala carry the highest amounts of debt, and that a highest percentage of cultivator households carrying debt are in Telengana and Andhra Pradesh. There are two distinct groups. One group of nine states occupies the right and most of the vertical area of the chart. The second group is of 12 states clustered towards the lower left corner of the chart panel.

This difference describes regional variation. In the first group are all the southern states. In the second are all the eastern and central states. Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand cultivator households exhibit the greatest similarity, with average debt of under Rs 40,000 and with less than 35% of cultivator households carrying debt.

Bihar, West Bengal and Odisha are likewise similar, their average debt being less than Rs 20,000. Assam, Jammu and Kashmir, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand cultivator households bear the lowest average debt and less than one in five of such households is in debt.

These are the broad brush strokes of debt amongst cultivator households in the 21 major states painted by the NSSO’s ‘Household Indebtedness in India’ report. A more detailed examination of such debt, and also the debt of the other kinds of rural households, will give us a deeper understanding of the subject.

Written by makanaka

December 16, 2016 at 09:24

Why our kisans must make sustainable crop choices

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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.

RG_2016_cashcrops4_201608For 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.

Written by makanaka

August 13, 2016 at 12:47

How we almost lost our growing tradition

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RG_krishi_series2_pic3_201607

Part one, ‘Old krishi for new Bharat’ is here.

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.

RG_krishi_series2_pic2_201607Youngsters 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.

RG_krishi_series2_pic1_201607

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.]

Old कृषि for new भारत

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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.

RG_krishi_bharat_1_201606Menus 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.

RG_krishi_bharat_2_201606We 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.

RG_krishi_bharat_3_201606Like 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.]

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.

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.

The uses of a Nobel prize in economics

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The 2015 Nobel prize for economics has been awarded to Angus Deaton, who is based in the Princeton University, in USA. Deaton’s work has been on poverty and his contemporaries in the field are Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze; all three have focused on poverty, malnutrition, consumption by households and how to measure these.

Herewith my view which I set out in a series of 37 tweets:

1 – like every single Nobel award category, the one for economics is calculated recognition of the use of Western ideas.
2 – There is no Nobel in economics for, say, Pacific islander economics or nomadic/pastoral economics. The boundary is clear.
3 – There is the additional problem, and it is a weighty one, of what is being recognised: a science or a thought experiment?
4 – Western economics can only ever and at best pretend to be a science (ignore the silly equations). There’s more.
5 – It has to do with food and food consumption choices. Do remember that. For the last 5-6 years the food MNCs and their..
6 – collaborators in Bharat have moved from hunger to nutrition. Remember that we grow enough food for all our households..
7 – and there are in 2016 about 175 million rural and 83 million urban households. So, food is there but choice is not yet..
8 – as clear as the marketeers and retailers pretend. No one truly knows, but economists claim to, and this one does.
9 – What then follows is the academic deification of the thought experiment, done carefully over a decade. The defenders..
10 – of the postulations of Deaton, Dreze, Sen et al turn this into a handmaiden of poverty study. And India is poor..
11 – (but Bharat is not). So we now have consumer choice, poverty, malnutrition and a unified theory to bridge the mess..
12 – for such a third world mess can only find salvation through the scientific ministrations of Western economics. The stage
13 – was thus set some years ago, when the Congress/UPA strove abundantly to craft a halo for this thought experiment..
14 – and in the process, all other explanations concerning food and the manner of its many uses were banished from both..
15 – policy and the academic trend of the day. But Deaton’s experiment is only as good as his references, which aren’t..
16 – for the references, as any kirana shop owner and any mandi bania knows, are more unreliable than reliable. What our..
17 – primary crop quantities are have only ever been a best estimate subject to abundant caution and local interpretation..
18 – for a thought experiment which seeks to unify food, malnutrition, poverty and ‘development’ this one has clay feet..
19 – which nevertheless is good enough for the lords of food crop and seed of the world, for it takes only the shimmer of..
20 – academic respectability such as that accumulated by Deaton, Dreze and Sen to turn postulate into programme. What we..
21 – will now see is what has been seen in medicine (and therefore public health) and in ‘peace’ (hence geopolitics) because..
22 – of the benediction the Nobel aura confers. This work will be press-ganged into the service of the new nutritionists..
23 – whose numbers are growing more rapidly than, a generation ago, did the numbers of the poverty experts. It is no longer..
24 – food and hunger and malnutrition but consumer choice, nutrition and the illusions of welfare. This is the masala mix..
25 – seized upon by those who direct the Nobel committee as they seek to control our 105 million tons of rice, 95 of wheat..
26 – our 43 million tons of coarse cereals, 20 of pulses, 170 of vegetables and 85 of fruit and turn this primary wealth..
27 – of our Bharat into a finance-capital manifesto outfitted with Nobel armoury that is intended to strip choice (not to..
28 – support it) from our kisans who labour on the 138 million farm holdings of our country (85% of them small and marginal)..
29 – and from our 258 million households (as they will be next year) towards whose thalis is destined the biofortified and..
30 – genetically modified menace of hyper-processed primary crop that is digitally retailed and cunningly marketed. This..
31 – is the deft and cunning manoeuvring that has picked on the microeconomist of post-poverty food study aka nutrition..
32 – as being deserving of Nobel recognition (when five years ago the Nobel family dissociated itself from this category).
33 – And so the coast has been duly cleared. The troublesome detritus of poverty macro-economics has been replaced by the..
34 – big data-friendliness of a rickety thought experiment which lends itself admirably to a high-fashion ‘development’..
35 – industry that basks in ‘sustainable’ hues and reflects the technology-finance tendencies of the SDGs. Food is no longer..
36 – in vogue but the atomisation of community crop and diet choice most certainly is. The pirate pennant of Western macro-
37 – economics is all aflutter again, thanks to the Nobel wind of 2015, but I will not allow it to fly over my Bharat. Never.