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The origins of spiritual agriculture, 2

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In his ‘The twelve ‘ayagars’ of village community in medieval Karnataka’, K S Shivanna has explained how the office of these ‘ayagars’ was hereditary, hence this hereditary character infused in each ‘ayagar’ a devotion and love towards his own village.

In his ‘The twelve ‘ayagars’ of village community in medieval Karnataka’, K S Shivanna has explained how the office of these ‘ayagars’ was hereditary, hence this hereditary character infused in each ‘ayagar’ a devotion and love towards his own village.

Generations of spiritual farmers of Bharat, who have safeguarded the ‘parampara’ of dharmic cultivation, have shown us the worship that ties together the cultural, religious and biological richness of our civilisation. This article follows my earlier writing on the subject, ‘Old krishi for new Bharat’ (part 1 of the krishi series), and ‘How we almost lost our growing tradition’ (part 2). This article was written for the Indic and Indology study website Indiafacts and here is the first part, The origins of spiritual agriculture, 1.

Taking the ‘yajnas‘ and the injunctions about “annadana” as pointers to the size of a society that placed demands upon agricultural production, and of the size and vibrancy of the cultivators to meet that demand, we find that the practice of spiritual agriculture in Vedic, ancient, earlier and later medieval periods, and during the periods of foreign occupation (Muslim, Mughal and British, such as it was able to continue) required a supporting web of knowledge types. These included knowledge of the organisation and administration of the ‘gramas’ and their groups, of the varieties of crops and their properties (for nutrition under several circumstances, for ritual purposes, for medicinal purposes, etc.), of the soils and the cycles of water, of the calendrical and astrological observances and influencers of the seed and its growth.

The study of epigraphs and inscriptions of the different eras, which the Indologists of the modern era (from the mid-nineteenth century) have served us through their laborious researches, have given us a picture that adds to the profundity and breadth of information contained very much earlier in the ‘shruti’ and ‘smriti’. These do in the first place highlight in many ways the size of the populations of the earlier eras and the vitality of the agricultural practices that sustained such large populations. In our times, our view of population and its growth is ordinarily linked to the decadal censuses that began to be undertaken from 1901. The overall trend of these censuses taken together is to show rapid growth in a century, but the trend cannot, in the face of the evidence gathered even by the time of the end of the nineteenth century, be similarly extended backwards.

The records of inscriptions, often copper plates, are from different eras and from a number of locations in Vedic, ancient and medieval Bharatvarsha, include the assigning, by grants, villages, for purposes such as the maintenance of temples and places of religious learning, for senior or high officials of a raja, the maintenance of the families of those who had died on the battlefield. These provide a rich source for understanding the administrative structures to which the ‘gramas’ belonged, and their relationships with the administrators. Under the Chandellas, villages were grouped into ‘vishayas’ or ‘pathakas’, while the heirs of the Pratiharas (of the middle Ganga region) also mention ‘vishayas’ and ‘pattanas’ for towns (as is brought out in ‘The Struggle for Empire’, volume five of ‘The History and Culture of the Indian People’). In dakshin Bharata, under the Chalukyas, there were regions (corresponding to southern Maharashtra) in which the number of ‘gramas’ were grouped into 500, 1,000 and 2,000 under officers whose title was ‘mahamandaleshwara’. Farther south, the number of ‘gramas’ in large groupings rises to 12,000 and more (there are two recorded instances of a Chalukya queen having administered such a large group, and a Chalukya princess having done so).

With ‘vishayas’ and ‘mahamandalas’ containing within their administrative boundaries, several thousand ‘gramas’, and the kingdoms and empires of Bharatavarsha encompassing an area from Kabul to the river Airavati (Irrawaddy) in present-day Burma, the number and density of provincial divisions and the ‘gramas’ and ‘pattanas’ they sustained can only, pending painstaking research, be surmised. The fertility of the soil, which was already legendary in the wider world of the ancients (as evinced by exports to the regions of Babylonia and Rome), and the application of the interlinked modes of spiritual agriculture are the factors that made this astonishing scale of sustenance possible.

In the 'gramas' were the practitioners of spiritual agriculture, which included as a practice the manner in which they maintained both their own autonomy and the autonomies of the religious institutions – the temples and associated 'mathas'.

In the ‘gramas’ were the practitioners of spiritual agriculture, which included as a practice the manner in which they maintained both their own autonomy and the autonomies of the religious institutions – the temples and associated ‘mathas’.

At its base lay the ‘grama’. Around the ‘grama’ lay its ‘khettas’ or pastures, and its woodland or uncleared jungle. Agricultural land is considered among the ten kinds of external possessions (other being buildings, gold, seeds of grain, collected wood (for fuel), grass, friends and relatives, means of conveyance, furniture and utensils). The ‘khetta’ was divided into ‘setu’ and ‘ketu’, the former being irrigated by water-wheels (also called Persian wheels, or ‘arahatta’) and the latter by rainfall. Agriculture was required ploughing. There was a ploughing deity (‘Sita-janna’ is one such given name) in whose honour a festival was held. “In a prosperous country, the land was ploughed with hundreds of thousands of ploughshares; and sugarcane, barley and rice were cultivated by ‘karisaya’ (farmers),” as explained in ‘Life in Ancient India as Depicted in the Jain Canons’. “There is mention of the limiting of the cultivable land for each plough could plough one hundred ‘nivartana’ of land (as stated by Baudhayana), which is described as an area sufficient to support one man by its produce.”

Indian farmers in their wisdom have followed certain precepts throughout history. For example, on sowing of seeds, a handful bathed in water and a piece of gold was sown first with the following mantra (as transmitted by the Arthashastra):

Prajápatye Kasyapáya déváya namah.

Sadá Sítá medhyatám déví bíjéshu dhanéshu cha. Chandaváta hé.”

(“Salutation to God Prajápati Kasyapa. Agriculture may always flourish and the Goddess (may reside) in seeds and wealth. Chandaváta hé.”)

They likewise took guidance from Rishi Parashara (about 400 BCE), who wrote a general text on field crop agriculture and whose contents are so arranged that they may with scarcely any alteration be followed today as a book on introductory agriculture:

“Even the rich who possess a lot of gold, silver, jewels, and garments have to solicit farmers as earnestly as a devotee would pray to God.”

“An agriculturist, who looks after the welfare of his cattle, visits his farms daily, has the knowledge of the seasons, is careful about the seeds, and is industrious, is rewarded with the harvests of all kinds and never perishes.”

“Even a fourfold yield of crops procured at the cost of the health of the bullocks perishes soon by the sighs of their exhaustion.”

As the predominant grain harvest was rice of different varieties, the methods for its storage was a science unto itself. The paddy was sown during the rains and when ripe was harvested with newly sharpened sickles, threshed, winnowed and then taken to the granary, where it was stored in new earthenware jars, says the Vyavahara Bhasya. Elsewhere, piles of rings (‘valaya’) made from interwoven straw and leaves also served as receptacles for the grain. The floor beneath these receptacles was coated with cow dung and dried. Such heaps of grain were arranged close to the wall, besmeared with ashes, sealed with cow dung and screened with straw and bamboo. In the monsoon, the grain was stored in a variety of ways: in earthen containers, in receptacles of woven straw and bamboo, in granaries that stood on pillars, in upper storeys of houses, always well sealed with fresh clean mud and cow dung, often sealed with earthen seals. ‘Kumbhi’, ‘karabi’, ‘pallaga’, ‘muttoli’, ‘mukha’, ‘idura’ and ‘alindaa’ are among the more common forms of storage. “Those, who stored crores and crores of ‘kumbhas’ of these grains in their granary were called ‘naiyatikas’,” the Vyavahara Bhasya has tantalisingly mentioned, indicating the great yields and the equally great responsibilities of those, the ‘naiyatikas’, in whose care the stored grains reposed.

Such a person represented the harmonious combination of a practitioner, administrator, and a religious institution (in the form of a temple or a temple complex with an associated seat of learning, a ‘matha’) that characterised agrarian-centred life in Bharat. Crop production, ownership, land tenures, assessment and revenue were the subjects that brought together the three parties locally and the fourth, the administration of the desa or the kingdom, distantly. Two kinds of land tenure, ‘agrahara’ and ‘devadaya’, were followed in the lands being utilised and belonging to one of the better known of such temple complexes in dakshina Bharata, that of the Somanathapura, on the banks of the Kaveri, in Mysore district. Teachers attached to the temple were given land grants in lieu of salaries, thereby illustrating the continuum of education, sustenance from the produce of the land, the crop cultivation knowledge ‘parampara’ of the region, and the support of the ‘parampara’ scripturally with the participation of the teachers.

Under the Hoysala (and subsequently the Vijayanagara), temple lands were managed by the ‘sthanikas’ or managers and the tenants of such lands were named differently from tenants of other cultivated land. Whereas the Somanathapura of Mysore was relatively large, well known and attracted large numbers of worshippers, its regular daily and festival consumption of agricultural and non-agricultural produce is common to all such temples and temple complexes. The ‘mahajans’, ‘sthanikas’ and ‘nambis’ of the Somanathapura temple purchased locally: rice, paddy, wheat, toor dal, green gram, black gram, soapnut powder, turmeric, jaggery, pepper, cardamom, sesame, arecanut, oil, sandalwood, ghee and curd. Where such temples and temple complexes thrived, they motivated agricultural expansion, mobilised and redistributed royal resources, linked ‘mandis’, gave employment to craftspeople and a great diversity of non-agricultural professions, all on the basis of the inseparable ties between the cultivator and the temple.

The complaint that though the Hindu rulers spent very little on themselves, they suffered from “two great vices”, which are the giving away of most of what they had to the Brahmins and to the temples, was made by an early governor-general of the British occupation, and by several of his predecessors and successors, as recorded by Dharampal. He has remarked that it is possible that the terms ‘Brahmin’ and ‘temple’ were used in a much wider sense and included all who were given to scholarship and support of one kind and another, and to institutions which catered not only to religious needs, but which also served purposes of scholarship, culture, entertainment and comfort. “It does imply that every person in this society enjoyed a certain dignity and that his social and economic needs were well provided for,” Dharampal has written. “Food and shelter seem to have been a natural right, given India’s cultural norms, and made easier by [the] fertility [of the soil].”

Hence, it is the village communities, by which term is meant the ‘grama’ with its cultivators, its professions and vocations agriculturally related and not, the associated temple (or where extant a temple complex with possibly a ‘matha’), with its intricate and mutually supportive webs of knowledge and scriptural practices, which altogether was later described as the agrarian institutions of Bharat. In his ‘The twelve ‘ayagars’ of village community in medieval Karnataka’, K S Shivanna has explained how the twelve ‘ayagars’ contributed to the growth and the self-sufficiency of the village. “The village hardly received anything in return from the towns. The village produced all its own needs from within. The affairs connected with agricultural production were conducted by the cooperation of a body of these twelve village functionaries. Each one of them rendered service to the economic well-being of the village. The office of these ‘ayagars’ was hereditary, hence this hereditary character infused in each ‘ayagar’ a devotion and love towards his own village. The British in the early 19th century were struck by the vitality and usefulness of this system.” Shivanna has quoted Mark Wilks, who spared no admiration for the timeless resilience of the system, he had beheld, one which no conquests, usurpations, or revolutions have been able to influence, whose whole frame of interior management remain unalterably the same, with “every state in India is a congeries of these little republics”.

Such self-sufficiency and insulation as ‘little republics’ can in no way be interpreted to mean that the ‘gramas’ stultified in any respect. On the contrary, particularly for cultivation (and animal husbandry) techniques, aspects concerning the employ of water and soil, and innovations in the use of the many materials of natural origin (furniture, vehicles, basketry and crafts), the network of markets served as mediums of exchange. The renown of regional and local varieties of cereals owed much to the exchange of method and modification between the ‘gramas’ that had been conveyed through such media. For example, in aromatic rice, following local varieties had attained renown: the ‘panarsa’ of parts of modern Himachal Pradesh, ‘laungchoor’ of Mirzapur and Sonbhadra in Uttar Pradesh, ‘ambemohor’ of Pune district in Maharashtra, ‘badsabhog’ of Paschimi Champaran in Bihar, ‘borjoha’ and ‘krishnajoha’ of Assam, ‘chinoor’ of Bhandara and Gondia districts in Maharashtra, ‘katanbhog’ of Coochbehar in West Bengal, and ‘vishnuparag’ of Barabaki and Bahraich districts of Uttar Pradesh. Aromatic rice varieties such as these, prized for centuries, require a depth of knowledge and application of practice that must nonetheless be added to with every season, to judge the ‘gunas’ of their favoured soils, supervise the passage of ‘jala’ into and from their fields, gauge the temperatures, plan their sowing by the ‘nakshatras’, time the festivals and then proceed to the labour.

In this, our agriculturists met and even excelled the expectations of the vaidyas, who had long ago enumerated the foods, their qualities and their uses based on the principle that there is no medicine comparable to food and it is possible to free a person of ailments solely through diet. One such compilation is the treatise, the Bhojanakutuhalam of Sri Raghunathasuri, which in 44 sections deals encyclopaedically with foods. In this, rice is classified as growing in burnt soil, wet lands, uncultivated soil, by cultivation, from fresh paddy, grown after harvesting. As major groups, they all have combinations of properties and tastes, and affect the three ‘doshas’ (‘vata’, ‘pitta’ and ‘kapha’) differently. The ‘kutuhalam’ dwells on certain rice species that are valuable from the perspective of ayurveda. Amongst these are the ‘rajanna’ of Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh; ‘krishnasali’, which is famed for growing on the banks of the river Godavari; ‘raktasali’, which is highly valued for its effect on all three ‘dosas’; ‘mundasali’, which treats poisoning and wounds; ‘sthulasali’ or ‘mahasali’, which is sweet and wholesome for children and youth; ‘suksmasali’, ‘gandhasali’, ‘tiriya’, ‘sastivasaraja’ and ‘gaurasali’.

These few examples is sufficient to illustrate the presence of wide range of crop varieties and their associated, abundantly spiritual webs of knowledge, throughout Indian history. This article and its earlier companion article provide a very brief outline of the spiritual basis of agriculture in Bharat, the characteristics of the ‘gramas’ in which the practitioners of such agriculture were to be found in earlier eras, and the manner in which they maintained both their own autonomy and the autonomies of the religious institutions – the temples and associated ‘mathas’ – with respect to the administration of the region and of the raja. The practice and the application of generationally transmitted knowledge, strengthened by the dharmic principles retold in each age, and the expectant resting of an exacting ayurvedic tradition (itself as ancient as the texts in which the nature of food is revealed to us) upon the methods of the cultivators, serves to illumine the integral whole that is ‘prana’, desh and ‘anna’.

Subhash Palekar, who is Bharat’s foremost ‘karyakarta’ of spiritual agriculture, has often, and in writing, rued the slow, but inexorable dismantling of the little republics so admired by Dharampal, Wilks and Shivanna. He has said that when farmers began purchasing their seeds from the towns, when fertilisers (instead of the ‘bijamrita’, ‘ghanjivamrita’ and ‘jivamrita’ that he makes) is bought from the town to be applied to the fields of the ‘grama’, when the flow of goods that was earlier from ‘grama’ to town has been reversed, that is when the natural order was upturned, and that is why spirituality in agriculture must be restored. Over the last three or four decades, ideas from the west, which are termed ‘agro-ecology’ or ‘organic farming’ or ‘bio-dynamic agriculture’ or ‘holistic farming’ have found currency in the Bharat, whose spiritual agricultural practices are superior to these concepts, in the way that a summit of the Vindhyas is superior to the just-assembled mound of the mechanical earthmover. Palekar and his peers (the late Bhaskar Save and late G Nammalwar among them), the generations of spiritual farmers of Bharat, who have safeguarded the ‘parampara’ of dharmic cultivation, have shown us the worship that ties together the cultural, religious and biological richness of our civilisation. Behind them stands Balarama, the eighth avatar of Vishnu, and on his shoulder is the plough.

Written by makanaka

January 4, 2017 at 14:39

The origins of spiritual agriculture, 1

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Our Hindu scriptural references provide a spiritual and dharmic basis for agriculture and for the harvesting, distribution, and the consumption of food. This article follows my earlier writing on the subject, ‘Old krishi for new Bharat’ (part 1 of the krishi series), and ‘How we almost lost our growing tradition’ (part 2). This article was written for the Indic and Indology study website Indiafacts.

"Without any foes in the world, their [farmers’] aim is [carrying out] plans of others; beaming with tender love of all the animal class, they are experts in 'just' thinking." From the text on farming called ‘Kashyapiyakrishisukti’, written around 800 CE.

“Without any foes in the world, their [farmers’] aim is [carrying out] plans of others; beaming with tender love of all the animal class, they are experts in ‘just’ thinking.” From the text on farming called ‘Kashyapiyakrishisukti’, written around 800 CE.

“Pressed (by men at the helm of affairs) in the words ‘Let food be given again and again and (also) article of wearing apparel of various kinds’ many men in that sacrifice did as they were told (freely gave away food and raiment). Numerous heaps, resembling mountains, of rice cooked from day to day in the traditional way were seen on that occasion on the sacrificial grounds. The men as well as the hosts of women that had arrived from different lands were fully entertained at that sacrificial performance of the high-souled emperor.”

Early in the Valmiki Ramayana is the description of the great ‘asvamedhayajna’ of Raja Dasaratha, which required the preparation of the ‘yajna’ grounds on the northern bank of the river Sarayu that flows alongside Ayodhya.

This passage, from canto 14 in book one, the Bala-khanda, of the Srimad Valmiki Ramayana, is one of several in the Bala-khanda which describes the principles of the offering of food, with reverence and honour, with the care that the dignity of the receiver is maintained. The scale of Raja Dasratha’s ‘yajna’, with vast complexes having been built to accommodate the multitudes of visitors, huge cantonments having been constructed for the visiting rajas and their armies, also gives us some indication of the quantities of food that were required, cooked freshly and traditionally, served with care, and to the satisfaction of all.

The Srimad Valmiki Ramayana has been described as an epic that begins with the description of one great ‘yajna’, that of Raja Dasratha’s, and which concludes with the description of another great ‘yajna’, that of Lord Sri Rama’s. These are two great ‘annadanas’, the giving of food. While the ‘yajnas’ involve great ritual and recitation by the assembled priests and scholars, in both, the continuous activity that occurs throughout is the ‘annadana’, for all of the multitudes present – whether a great brahmana with hundreds of followers, whether a visiting raja’s army, or whether ‘tapasvins’ (those who practice penances), ‘sramanas’ (those who undertake austerities), ordinary folk, the old, the women and children – are tired and/or hungry. This indeed is one of the important lessons to be found in the Srimad Valmiki Ramayana and when considered closely, it reveals the centrality of ‘annadana’, the giving of food, and therefore that of the creation of food, its cultivation.

Thus, we find that the sages of Bharat, in their advice and counsel to the rajas, insisted upon the protection of ‘varta’ (which included agriculture, animal husbandry, and trade), with a special focus on the cultivation of crops. When the sage Narada, for example, visited Raja Yudhishthira, his concerns were very much more than ordinary (Mahabharata Sabhaparva, the second parva, chapter 5). In a series of questions, which are not couched in an interrogative tone nor are they in the form of any lofty diktat, but which combine simplicity and sound statecraft (among the essences of the Mahabharata), Narada asks:

“Have you had big water ponds constructed everywhere in your realm? Agriculture cannot be done only on the hope of good rains.”

“I hope that the farmers and the workers of your realm are not unknown to you. Are you aware of what they do? Are they happy with you? Their happiness is one single cause of social prosperity.”

“I hope that the crops and the seeds of farmers in your realm are not wasted. Do you do good to each farmer by giving him loans on one percent interest for agriculture?”

Likewise, in the Anushasanaparva (the thirteenth parva) of the Mahabharata, Bhishma pitamaha, instructs those gathered around him, thus:

“The absence of food makes the five principal elements of the body disintegrate, and with the loss of food, the strength of even the strongest is lost.”

“Food is man’s life and it is through food that the living beings are born. The whole world is based upon food. And therefore food is regarded as the highest.”

No advice that had travelled through the eras, sustained by the webs of knowledge that extended between the federations of gramas and the learning sanctuaries of the ‘mathas’ attached to mandirs large and small, was ever too inconsequential to be discarded.

No advice that had travelled through the eras, sustained by the webs of knowledge that extended between the federations of gramas and the learning sanctuaries of the ‘mathas’ attached to mandirs large and small, was ever too inconsequential to be discarded.

The Mahabharata speaks simultaneously of ‘annadana’ and ‘jaladana’, for the giving of food and water alike are regarded as the greatest of all sharing in life. There are detailed instructions on the giving of water (by constructing ponds, wells and reservoirs). Earth (‘bhoomi’) and trees (‘vriksha’) being inseparable from ‘anna’ and ‘jala’, the Mahabharata instructs ‘bhoomidana’ and ‘vrikshadana’ – the giving of fertile land upon which to grow crops, and the planting of trees – as essential for sustenance and nourishment of all.

This illustrates the consideration given by both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata to the cultivation of the crops, so that food may be obtained, given and consumed. In both our ‘shruti’ and ‘smriti’ are to be found a number of references to food and its cultivation, the manner of its use, its place in the scheme of material things. The Chandogya Upanishad contains a series of discussions on the material basis of life, with the ultimate basis being Brahman. They have stressed the importance of food in the nourishment of the mind. Uddalaka demonstrated this to his son Shwetaketu in quite a practical fashion, when he asked his son to do without food for a fortnight (subsisting on water only) and thereafter to recite the Veda, which Shwetaketu could not do, since, his mental faculties were considerably weakened. These he later regained after eating food. Uddalaka, further, repeated the lesson once more, this time proscribing water as well! Similarly, in other Upanishads, such as Brihadaranyaka, Kaushitaki, and Aitareya, there is to be found an emphasis on ‘prana’ as energy, which flows in many channels in the body, which, like the mind, is to be nourished by food.

Thus, our Hindu scriptural references provide a spiritual and dharmic basis for agriculture and for the harvesting, distribution, and the consumption of the food. Even as our civilisation passed through many alternate periods of prosperity and disruptions, the fundamental religious and cultural values have remained more or less the same to this day.

The archaeological and paleo-botanical investigations that have been carried out, since the early nineteenth century – using methods which have helped to both redraw the civilisational map and assign dates earlier than was previously done – have shown that domestication of cereals and pulses certainly occurred around eight millennia before the so-called ‘common era’ began (in the Gangetic plains, in the regions that correspond to the Saraswati-Sindhu settlements, and also in the Deccan, home to an abundance of millet varieties).

From the age of Sri Rama of Ayodhya till about the time that the kingdoms of northern and Gangetic Bharat began to be absorbed by the great Nanda empire of Magadha, the precepts concerning the cultivation of crop, and of the centrality of ‘annadana’ (and ‘jaladana’) took hold in practice and in institution through the cooperation of three kinds of institutions, whose connections were maintained until the later medieval period in Bharat, after which the interlinked support they provided for dharmic agriculture began to slowly crumble. These institutions were the state, which is the kingship and a form of enlightened administration, whose intricacies and nuances were so minutely and authoritatively compiled and enlarged by Kautilya, the ‘gramas’ or the villages and their farmers (“It is indeed the cultivators, who carry the burden of the King on their shoulders,” Bhishma had advised), and third, the mandirs and their associated ‘mathas’ as seats of learning and influencers of socio-economic conditions.

The Puranic list refers to the Pauravas, Aikshvakus, Panchalas, Kasis, Haiahayas, Kalingas, Asmakas, Maithilas, Surasenas and Vitihotras. Together with Magadha flourished the Kosala and Vatsa kingdoms. There were Avanti, Videha and Anga. From those eras (typically called the Vedic and later Vedic) and into the ages of imperial dynasties for both Uttara and Dakshina Bharat, it is the relatively less commented upon, quite inconspicuous, sparsely documented, but extremely influential ties between ‘grama’ (and kisan), state (in the form of a ‘kalyana raj’), and mandir (the fabric that maintained dharmashastric society), which weaved closely to the ancient injunctions about cultivation, food and the responsibilities of individual and king alike. From the Mauryas (300 to 185 BCE), the Sunga, Saka, Kushan, Satvahana, Vakataka, Pallava, Pandya, Gupta, Harshavardhana, to the Karkota, Pala, Pratihara, Chalukya, Rashtrakuta, Yadava, Chola, Hoysala, Kakatiya and Rajput, these ties were responsible for maintaining at a high level the wide set of sciences that supported what we today call krishi, but which had meant very much more, when known as the ‘varta’ of the Vedic age.

The old ‘Hindu rate of revenue’ had indeed been laid down in the dharmashastra, and was one-sixth or one-eighth or one-twelfth the produce, and the latitude provided as to the proportion of collection derived not from the strains of maintaining a treasury or the considerable costs of a standing army, but from the climatic conditions and the ability of the ‘gramas’ to bear payment. If the rulers of southern Bharat at times claimed a share even as large as half the produce, they made continued improvements in cultivation possible by excavating and maintaining vast irrigation works at their own cost (this indeed was the agrarian base of the economy that supported the great eastward seaborne excursions during the Chola period, with Suvarnadvipa, the modern archipelagic Indonesia, becoming Hindu in rule and socio-religious practice) and took their share in kind, not in money.

That there was a steady, incremental and appropriate technology surrounding cultivation is seen from the export, during the eras of the Satvahanas (around 40 BCE to 220 CE) and the Kushans (78 to 144 CE), of steel weapons and cutlery to western Asia, where they enjoyed high esteem. That esteem was due in no small measure because of the widespread manufacture of sturdy agricultural implements: hoes of varying lengths, sickles with variations in both blades and handles for different purposes, and true spades (these found in Takshashila) are testament to how advanced this technology was. As with discoveries of such implements in other places, such as in Sanchi, their workmanship indicates how advanced ironmongery was at the time. There is also the reassurance that our kisans, like their lines of ancestors stretching back into those storied eras, valued the engineering utility of a well-designed implement by continuing to make and use it: the ‘bhakhar’ (a blade-harrow) that even in the 1980s was in use in the black cotton soils of Madhya Bharat has been employed in the same form for centuries.

Farmers create for us the recurrence of food, which in the words of Bhishma in Anushashanparva, is the manifestation of the primeval being. They carry knowledge, they share the burden of the Raja and make the ‘annadana’ possible.

Farmers create for us the recurrence of food, which in the words of Bhishma in Anushashanparva, is the manifestation of the primeval being. They carry knowledge, they share the burden of the Raja and make the ‘annadana’ possible.

In the Arthashastra – that inexhaustible compendium of counsel, example, regulation and precept – there is a mention of the suitability of different crops for cultivation, according to rainfall: “Hence, according as the rainfall is more or less, the superintendent shall sow the seeds, which require either more or less water. ‘Sáli’ (a kind of rice), ‘vríhi’ (rice), ‘kodrava’ (kodo millet), ’tila’ (sesamum), ‘priyangu’ (panic seeds), ‘dáraka’ and ‘varaka’ (the medicinal plant variety phraseolus trilobus) are to be sown at the commencement (púrvávápah) of the rainy season. ‘Mudga’ (black gram or black lentil), ‘másha’ (green gram or mung), are to be sown in the middle of the season. ‘Kusumbha’ (safflower), ‘kuluttha’ (horsegram), ‘yava’ (barley), ‘godhúma’ (wheat), ‘kaláya’ (leguminous seeds), ‘atasi’ (linseed), and ‘sarshapa’ (mustard) are to be sown last” (Book 2, Chapter 24, ‘Arthashastra’ translation by R Shamasastry). No detail was too small to be excluded, no advice that had travelled through the eras, sustained by the webs of knowledge that extended between the federations of gramas and the learning sanctuaries of the ‘mathas’ attached to mandirs large and small, was ever too inconsequential to be discarded.

By the end of the period normally taken to be that describing ancient Bharat (the repulse of the first Arab invasions at the start of the eighth century, followed by the fall of Hindu Kabul in 870 CE, as R C Majumdar has written in volume four of ‘The History and Culture of the Indian People’), the sciences upon which rested the practice of our agriculture, and the dense, inherited cascades of knowledge concerning the material, astrological and spiritual schema of our agriculture had been well maintained. It was recognised that while different districts grew principal crops, this never implied that farmers were growing these mainly. A diversity of crops (cereals, legumes, vegetables both leafy and tuberous, fruit) implied good consumption, good trade and moreover a good basis with which to fulfil the ancient injunction on ‘annadana’.

Our farmers’ cropping seasons were mainly divided into two (with the sowing-to-harvest cycle overlapping the six climatic seasons). Agricultural life has from its earliest organised emergence in Bharat (and Bharatvarsha) been cyclical, based on the luni-solar calendar as calculated for region and province. According to the prevailing calendar, agricultural work is planned and carried out, which in turn informs and guides the cultural practices. The diversity of crops, the characteristics of the land, the practices of cropping, the Devas and the Devis, who presided and the rituals that were to be observed for them, these were the cornerstones of agricultural life.

In most parts of Bharat, the agricultural calendar was (and there are calendric holdouts still to be found) divided into fortnights punctuated by new moon days (‘amavasya’) and full moon days (‘purnima’). The rainfall pattern of these periods was carefully observed and recorded and cropping plans were made on these meticulously maintained records. Proverbs and sayings came to be coined in order to encode and ease the transmission of such climatological and meteorological knowledge. Thus, our agriculturists’ calendars included the 27 ‘nakshatras’ and the months (jyestha, ashadha, shravana and so on) that they corresponded with major festivals – with each month containing one major festival. This remarkable arrangement was noted even as recently as the 1940s in the last of the provincial gazetteer series of British India. The festivals contain scientific principles related to the management of agricultural lands, management of water resources, and the essence of sustainability, and the festivals help valorise the vast experiential knowledge webs of the farmers.

Farmers create for us the recurrence of food, which in the words of Bhishma in Anushashanparva, is the manifestation of the primeval being. They carry knowledge, they share the burden of the Raja and make the ‘annadana’ possible. What qualities must they have then? The sage Kashyapa, while dealing with the environmental and spiritual aspects of cultivation in his text on farming called ‘Kashyapiyakrishisukti’ (written around 800 CE), describes the character of farmers, thus:

“[The production of] grains and other vegetation are the sole purpose for highest fulfilment of the earth. The rich earth full of vegetation is the cause of growth of living beings.”

“They [farmers] are devotees of cow, earth, and gods; they are absolutely truthful in speech, intent on being agreeable to others, and always contented in mind.”

“Without any foes in the world, their [farmers’] aim is [carrying out] plans of others; beaming with tender love of all the animal class, they are experts in ‘just’ thinking.”

This affords us a glimpse into the spiritual and scriptural underpinnings of the activities, which we have only recently started to call ‘agriculture’, but which held much greater meaning as ‘varta’ and the more familiar ‘krishi’, because of their inherent connection to ‘annadana’. These are the ancient roots of our bonds with bhoomi, ‘panchabhutas’, and ‘annadana’.

A discussion about the factors that led to the longevity of the tripartite system, which enabled ‘varta’ to function so well for so many centuries, the harmonious interdependence between the prescriptions under Ayurveda for maintaining health and the produce of spiritual cultivation that provides such substances (such as the ‘sali’ families of rice mentioned in the Arthashastra), the assault on the ‘grama’ during the eras of occupation of Bharat by foreign powers, and the much more recent displacement of our spiritual agriculture by what is today called ‘agro-ecological’ and ‘organic agriculture’, follow in the next article.

Written by makanaka

November 4, 2016 at 20:01

The relative speeds of urban inflation

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How to read this chart. The light grey bars are the current month's CPI-IW (consumer price index for industrial workers) for each urban centre plotted to the left scale (the current data is for 2016 May). The green square marker is the reading for the difference between the current month's CPI and the average of the previous six months. The yellow square marker is the reading for the difference between the current month's CPI and the average of the previous 12 months. And the red square marker is the reading for the difference between the current month's CPI and the average of the year previous to 12 months ago. These are all plotted to the right scale, and their vertical separation helps tell us whether overall consumer inflation is rapid (or not) compared with other cities. You will find accompanying this chart a table. This associates a city code, such as ST21, used for the charting process, with a city: ST21 the city is Shimla in Himachal Pradesh. Data only (not method or treatment) are from Labour Bureau, Ministry of Labour and Employment.

How to read this chart. The light grey bars are the current month’s CPI-IW (consumer price index for industrial workers) for each urban centre plotted to the left scale (the current data is for 2016 May). The green square marker is the reading for the difference between the current month’s CPI and the average of the previous six months. The yellow square marker is the reading for the difference between the current month’s CPI and the average of the previous 12 months. And the red square marker is the reading for the difference between the current month’s CPI and the average of the year previous to 12 months ago. These are all plotted to the right scale, and their vertical separation helps tell us whether overall consumer inflation is rapid (or not) compared with other cities. You will find accompanying this chart a table. This associates a city code, such as ST21, used for the charting process, with a city: ST21 the city is Shimla in Himachal Pradesh. Data only (not method or treatment) are from Labour Bureau, Ministry of Labour and Employment.

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.

Charting process codes used for urban centres and the cities they correspond with.

Charting process codes used for urban centres and the cities they correspond with.

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.

Written by makanaka

July 23, 2016 at 22:25

Big cities, large appetites, fewer farmers

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RG_city_section_20160108

By March or April 2016 the populations of several of our smaller Class I cities (those whose populations are 100,000 and more) will pass certain marks. These marks mean little by themselves, but ought to be used by city administrations (municipal council and civic services departments) to judge for themselves how essentials are being provided for and used: food, water, sanitation, electricity, waste.

There are now 152 towns in the National Urban Information System, which is – if I have understood this national urban administration maze – under the Urban Infrastructure Development Scheme for Small and Medium Towns (which goes by the utterly unfriendly acronym of UIDSSMT). This is described as: “a component of JNNURM. The Mission aims to encourage reforms and  fast track urban infrastructure and services delivery, community participation, accountability of ULBs/parastatal agency towards citizens.”

As you can see, the Ministry of Urban Development likes dreadful acronyms, and likes keywords such as ‘component’, ‘reform’, ‘fast track’, ‘services’, ‘infrastructure’, ‘PPP’ and anything else that sounds large, technical and expensive.

The JNNURM which got all this going in the first place (the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission) turned ten years old in December 2015. Its ideas, assumptions and performance ought to have come under careful scrutiny at least on this occasion. It didn’t because there’s so much else to be distracted by when it comes to smartening up cities and towns in India these days.

The JNNURM favoured 65 cities for what it called a “higher level of resources and management attention” and with typical confusion also said these 65 ‘mission cities’ are under the Urban Infrastructure and Governance (UIG) programme. But, as I have written about here earlier, there are many towns in India whose populations are growing quickly, because of which ‘services’, ‘infrastructure’ and more modest levels of ‘resources and management attention’ all become programmes (with complicated balance sheets, naturally).

And so we have the Smart Cities Mission and the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) – I’m still working out how it fits together with everything else going on in the Ministry of Urban Development.

Here’s what the officialese says: “Smart Cities Mission is based on the idea of developing the entire urban eco-system on the principles of complete and integrated planning.” Leaving aside the question of whether non-Smart cities (and towns) are destined to remain unsmart and unacronymed, 100 cities have been selected to become smart.

Nor is that all. There is an Urban Rejuvenation Mission (which goes by the, erm, unprepossessing acronym of URM) which the ministry says it is finalising which seems to have very much to do with infrastructure development, but on a much larger canvas of 500 cities, “to be implemented over a period of 10 years from 2014-15 to 2023-24”.

Nowhere in this plethora of programmes and schemes and grand visions have I seen anything that remotely refers to foodstuffs that city populations need, every day, week, month and year.

And so to return to March or April 2016 when the populations of several of our smaller Class I cities (those whose populations are 100,000 and more) will pass certain marks. Using the 2001-2011 decadal growth rates for the urban centres, and adjusting for lower growth rates for the most recent three years (to account for factors such as fewer work opportunities in these centres, rising urban costs of survival compared with the slower increase in wages for informal work, and the benefits of the MGNREGA, here is a summary that shows the sort of change we continue to see in towns and cities.

Chhindwara and Guna in Madhya Pradesh, Nabadwip in West Bengal, Bhusawal in Maharashtra, and Modinagar and Sitapur in Uttar Pradesh will all have reached or crossed the mark of 200,000 residents. Likewise, Vadakara in Kerala, Ganganagar in Rajasthan, Haldwani in Uttarakhand, and Karur, Udhagamandalam and (all three in Tamil Nadu) will all have reached or crossed the mark of 250,000 residents. And moreover Farrukhabad-Fatehgarh in Uttar Pradesh, Satna in Madhya Pradesh, Jalna in Maharashtra and Navsari in Gujarat will all have reached or crossed the mark of 300,000 residents.

What is the impact of these increases in the populations of these cities? Using the recommended dietary allowance (prescribed by the National Institute of Nutrition) this is what the population increases mean for the provision of food essentials. Every day in 2016, Sitapur in Uttar Pradesh will need 92 tons of cereals, 8 tons of pulses and 20 tons of vegetables. Compared with the city’s needs in 2001 (when the previous census was done) Sitapur will consume 23 tons more of cereals, 2 tons more of pulses and 5 tons more of vegetables – every day.

In the same way, every day in 2016 Navsari in Gujarat will need 137 tons of cereals, 12 tons of pulses and 29 tons of vegetables. Compared with the city’s needs in 2001 Navsari will consume 31 tons more of cereals, 3 tons more of pulses and 7 tons more of vegetables – every day. Then there is Hosur in Tamil Nadu which every day in 2016 will need 115 tons of cereals, 10 tons of pulses and 25 tons of vegetables. Compared with the city’s needs in 2001 Hosur will consume 77 tons more of cereals, 7 tons more of pulses and 17 tons more of vegetables – every day.

This is an indication of the food dimension of the population change that we are seeing – of ever greater quantities of the bare essentials being needed, but fewer agriculturists and cultivators – that is, fewer farming households growing these and other food essentials in their fields – remaining to support nearby (and distant) urban populations.

These equations are simple enough to understand for the Smart city lot, the JNNURM technocrats and the engineers and financiers running the PPP treadmills. Why then hasn’t daily food budgets of our towns and cities made it to the top of the urban renewal charts of India?

A cost perspective about India’s pulses imports

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Import categories sized according to their average monthly values for 24 months over April 2013 to March 2015.

Import categories sized according to their average monthly values for 24 months over April 2013 to March 2015.

For the last three years, India has imported between 3.2 and 4 million tons of pulses a year. These imports supplement our own production of pulses, which alas and despite several ‘missions’ and ‘schemes’ we do not grow enough of.

Apart from why we should import pulses at all instead of growing all that we need, the matter of what we spend (that is, the foreign exchange with which importing agencies pay for the pulses) has I think not been placed in perspective, which is the aim of this short inquiry.

For this I have used the Department of Commerce ‘System on Foreign Trade Performance Analysis’ which provides the monthly imports and exports under major heads as compiled by the Directorate General of Commercial Intelligence and Statistics.

Of the 21 major heads, the import of pulses falls under the group ‘agriculture and allied products’. Considering the 24-month period of April 2013 to March 2015, the value of pulses imported has varied between 10% and 21% of the agriculture group imports.

However, the average monthly value of pulses imported over this period Rs 1,171 crore and this average lies between the monthly amount spent on ‘internal combustion engines and parts’ (Rs 1,130 crore) and ‘paper, paperboard and products’ (Rs 1,205 crore).

Hence our questions ought also to be: why is India spending Rs 720 crore a month to import fresh fruit, Rs 898 crore a month to import man-made yarn and made-ups, Rs 1,031 crore a month to import rubber other than footwear, Rs 720 crore a month to import fresh fruit, Rs 2,684 crore a month to import electronics instruments, Rs 2,745 crore a month to import electronics components, Rs 2,928 crore a month to import electric machinery and equipment, and Rs 4,539 crore a month to import vegetable oils?

RG_pulses_perplexed_201511

Written by makanaka

November 21, 2015 at 18:51

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.

Why India must rely on local food stocks

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RG_Goa_ploughman_201507

The below average June to September monsoon season will lead to lower foodgrains production. What is the likely impact and how can society cope?

Context – For the last four years the numbers that describe India’s essential food security have become a common code: 105 million tons (mt) of rice, 95 mt of wheat, 41 to 43 mt of coarse cereals, 19 to 20 mt of pulses, 165 to 170 mt of vegetables and 80 to 90 mt of fruit.

With these quantities assured, our households feed themselves, army and factory canteens are supplied, the public distribution system is kept stocked and the processed and retail food industry secures its raw material.

Only provided there is such assurance, and that the allowance for plus or minus is as small as possible. Monsoon 2015 has removed that assurance for the agricultural year 2015-16. Our 36 states and union territories – and the 63 cities whose populations are more than a million – must begin to deal with the possible scenarios immediately.

Stock scenarios – In September 2015 the Department of Agriculture, Cooperation and Farmers Welfare, of the Ministry of Agriculture, Government of India, released the first of its usual four ‘advance estimates’ for the 2015-16 agricultural year. Each estimate sets the targets for the year for the foodgrain (and also commercial) crops, and provides with every estimate how likely it is that the annual target will be met.

This first advance estimate has issued a direct warning: rice production is estimated at 90.6 mt against a target of 106.1 mt. The wheat target is just under 95 mt but there is no estimate provided as yet. The target for coarse cereals is 43.2 mt whereas the advance estimate is just under 28 mt. The target for pulses is 20mt and the first estimate is 5.5mt.

What are the implications? The responsibility of the Department is to provide a provisional reading of the conditions that affect the production of our staple crops, and to inform and prepare state and central governments of the likelihood of shortfalls in foodgrain. The signal it has given for rice, estimated at 85% of the target, must be taken as a flashing red beacon which demands that our food stocks return to the foreground of the national agenda.

It is likely that the second and third advance estimates will see quantities revised upwards, but our planning must be based on this first estimate so that even the most adverse of natural contingencies can be met with suitable measures.

Using the first advance estimate as the basis, here are the likely annual production quantities, at 90% of the target and at 95% of the target: rice, between 95 and 101 mt; wheat, between 85 and 91 mt; coarse cereals, between 39 and 42 mt; pulses, between 16 and 17 mt; total foodgrains, between 236 and 250 mt of which cereals are between 220 and 232 mt.

RG_foodstocks_table_201509Household demand – Will these quantities suffice, as for the last four years total foodgrain targets and production have been in the region of 260-273 mt?

To help answer this question, two sets of deductions must be accounted for. To begin with, for each main category of foodgrain, there are production quantities, imports, stock variations and exports. When these are added or subtracted, a gross domestic supply quantity remains.

It is worth also noting that this gross quantity is still no more than a best assessment that is synthesised from the information provided by state governments. The first set of deductions is by way of feed, seed and waste (foodgrain that is used in animal feed, is harvested to use as seed for sowing, and which is damaged after harvest or rendered unusable because of pests and infection). Allowing for the lowest likely level of deductions, the combined deduction is about 7% for rice, 10.5% for wheat, 17% for coarse cereals, 15% for pulses, 5% for vegetables and 10% for fruits.

The available quantities are now revised further. Under a 95% of target scenario, we will have 93.5 mt of rice, 81 mt of wheat, 34.5 mt of coarse cereals and 14.5 mt of pulses. In the same way, a 95% of target scenario for vegetables is 153.5 mt and for fruits it is 72.5 mt. On the consumption side we have the households – in 2016 we will have 175 million rural and 83 million urban households.

These households will require a baseline minimum of 181 mt of cereals, 136 mt of vegetables, 45 mt of fruits and 41 mt of pulses. Under a 95% of production target scenario therefore, there will be enough cereals, enough vegetables and enough fruits. We have been falling short in pulses for several years.

But this apparent comfort is still without the second set of deductions. And these are: (1) buffer stocks of rice and wheat to be maintained, with 5-8 mt of rice during the year and 10-18 mt of wheat during the year (to fulfil the demands on the public distribution system and to fulfil the allocations for the food-based welfare programmes), and in addition the strategic reserve of 2 mt of rice and 3 mt of wheat to be maintained; (2) the use of foodgrains by the food processing and retail food industry; (3) exports of primary crops (such as rice and in particular basmati) and processed crops (vegetables and fruits); (4) the industrial use of foodgrain (including for biodiesel); (5) the diversion of cereals to alcohol distilleries.

Some amongst the second set of deductions are known – such as the withdrawals for buffer stocks and the food reserves, and the export quantities – but the others are either hidden, concealed or misreported. In a food production scenario that is less than 95% of targets (in the way that rice has already been estimated for 2015-16), the deductions from gross crop production will decrease available foodgrains, vegetables and fruits to levels that will compromise household food security, especially those households in the lower income brackets.

Recommendations – The climate variations that have led the Department of Agriculture to raise a red flag warning are no longer uncommon. The 2015 monsoon was affected by El Nino conditions, which are expected to continue into the first quarter of 2016. These changes in the pattern of the Indian summer monsoon are amplified by land use change in our districts, by deforestation, by rapid urbanisation, by inequitous water use, and by consumption behaviour. Some of these can be addressed through policy, education and incentives over the long term. What is needed immediately however are:

a) A review of the drivers of crop cultivation choice in our watersheds and agro-ecological zones so that, as far as possible, these settlements units begin the transition towards local food security in sustainable ways. This means that the income-led arguments which favour the cultivation of commercial crops for farming households must be critically re-examined – in a situation of primary crop scarcity an income buffer alone will not help these households.

b) The demands placed by export arrangements (including the export of meat, which represents fodder and feed) and by the food processing and retail food industry must be quantified and made public. Especially at the level of district administrations, the need to rationally incentivise land use towards the cultivation of food crop staples that suit agro-ecological conditions has become an urgent one. The decentralisation of planning that can make such an approach possible can take place only when hitherto hidden and concealed foodgrains use becomes public.

c) To reach self-reliance at the level of panchayat or block (tahsil, taluka), cooperative farming must be vigorously encouraged, villages must become self-reliant in the provisioning of their food staples (a consideration that must balance that of the ‘national market’), the bio-physical limits of the major food producing districts (the top 250 by quantity) have already been reached and this necessarily limits the demand urban India can exert upon rural districts, in terms not only of food quantities but also in terms of the population that must be fully engaged in foodgrains cultivation.

Why did food need cities at all?

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Cities may grow a few of their vegetables, but from where else can the cereal staples come if not the rural fields? Photo: Rahul Goswami, 2015

Cities may grow a few of their vegetables, but from where else can the cereal staples come if not the rural fields? Photo: Rahul Goswami, 2015

The industrialisation of the transfer of food produce from a food producing region to a net food consuming one is in my view the cause for what we have grown used to calling the rural-urban divide or difference. It is artificial and unfortunately this artifice is the basis for a number of untruths – such as ‘cities are the engines of growth / innovation / education’ and so on (arguments that have been spread vigorously by the globalisers, such as the World Economic Forum, most central banks, the commodity markets, and the international trading system).

From accounts about what we today call south and south-east Asia, the difference between a crop-producing region (managed by a group of villages) and a net food-consuming centre lay mainly in what that centre did for the villages. Markets for the sale and exchange of produce and livestock usually led to one village (with more political power than others) hosting the market, the associated food trading infrastructure, the finance needs (simple as they were, such as credit and insurance for the next season), the transport. These became the first urban centres – but it is important to recall that they existed as adjuncts to crop-growing regions, even when host to the apparatus of ruling regimes and (just as often) faith-based and spiritual enclaves.

In the Western Ghats, a termite mound next to a shrine is also venerated. Photo: Rahul Goswami 2014

In the Western Ghats, a termite mound next to a shrine is also venerated. Photo: Rahul Goswami 2014

There are examples that show how the balance of power was maintained – and corrected when necessary – between such centres on the one hand, and the needs of crop-growing communities supported by temple domains, on the other. Studies of the Hoysala period of southern India (1000-1350 CE) have explained how the ‘agraharas‘ – temple complexes to which belong villages and agricultural lands – were centres of crop collection, redistribution, storage and trade. Were these ‘agraharas‘ ‘urban’ in the sense we use the term today? To some extent, insofar as the priestly class and administrators did not actively cultivate crop staples. But there is another group which did not – the soldiery, and a standing army not only did not lend its labour for use in the fields, it also demanded a large amount of food. And so we have in our annals accounts of how the ‘agraharas‘ of southern India on occasion refused to continue feeding an enlarged standing army at the cost of what we today call the food security of the peasants. Naturally, the ruler had to comply.

I think this illustrates the ties between the cultivators of food staples and the consumers of produce. The trouble is that if in Hoysala times the adjustment was made by an ‘agrahara‘ (which embodied the religious aspect, devotional food, equitable distribution, and so on) in today’s scenario there is no such studied altruism. The market thinks short-term, uses financialisation as a means to yoke people to consumerism and has in many countries exploited the historical connection between food producer and consumer to boost, through the application of technology and the artifice of ‘retail’, GDP.

Written by makanaka

February 15, 2015 at 20:14

A new agenda for India’s agriculture

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Home, cattle, farming household and essential biomass in a hill village, Himachal Pradesh. Photo: Rahul Goswami 2014

Home, cattle, farming household and essential biomass in a hill village, Himachal Pradesh. Photo: Rahul Goswami 2014

Three weeks before the presenting of annual budget 2015-16 to the country (that is, us Bharatvaasis) and to the Parliament, the NDA-BJP government needs very much to recognise and respond sensibly to several truths. These are: that most Indian households and families are rural and agricultural, that the macro-economic fashion that has been followed since around 1990 elevates a uni-dimensional idea of economic ‘growth’ above all other considerations, and that several important factors both external and internal have rendered this idea of ‘growth’ obsolete.

Concerning the interaction of the three points – there are 90.2 million farming households households in Bharat – the analyst and commentator Devinder Sharma has reminded Arun Jaitley, Jayant Sinha, Rajiv Mehrishi, Arvind Subramanian, Ila Patnaik, H A C Prasad and other senior officials of the Finance Ministry that there is a continuing crisis which needs specific attention.

Sharma has outlined eleven points for the Ministry of Finance to take note of in its preparations for annual budget 2015-16 and I have summarised these points hereunder, and added four adjunct points to elaborate his very thoughtful advice.

Called ‘An 11-point agenda for resurrecting Indian agriculture and restoring the pride in farming’, Sharma has said: “Indian agriculture is faced with a terrible agrarian crisis. It is a crisis primarily of sustainability and economic viability. The severity of the crisis can be gauged from the spate of farm suicides. In the past 17 years, close to 3 lakh farmers reeling under mounting debt have preferred to commit suicide. Another 42% want to quit agriculture if given a choice. The spate of farmer suicide and the willingness of farmers to quit agriculture is a stark reminder of the grim crisis.”

Item 1. Providing a guaranteed assured monthly income to farmers. “Set up a National Farmers Income Commission which should compute the monthly income of a farm family depending upon his production and the geographical location of the farm.”

Item 2. No more Minimum Support Price (MSP) policy. This has historically been used to ask about its impact on food inflation. “Move from price policy to income policy. The income that a farmer earn should be de-linked from the price that his crops fetch in the market.”

Item 2.5. About 44% of agricultural households hold MGNREGA job cards. Among agricultural households, depending on the size of land held, non-farm income is significant. The need is to strengthen rural employment sources and income reliability as a major plank of local food security.

Item 3. Strengthen immediately the network of mandis (market yards) in all states and districts which provide farmers with a platform to sell their produce. “Leaving it to markets will result in distress sale.”

Fruit and vegetables being sorted in a village collection centre, Himachal Pradesh. Photo: Rahul Goswami 2014

Fruit and vegetables being sorted in a village collection centre, Himachal Pradesh. Photo: Rahul Goswami 2014

Item 4. Provide a viable marketing network for fruits and vegetables (horticultural produce). “I see no reason why India cannot carve out a marketing chain (like the milk cooperatives) for fruits, vegetables and other farm commodities.”

Item 4.5. ‘Market’ does not mean ‘mandi’. The thrust of the ‘reform’ demanded in the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) Acts is to “remove deterrent provisions” and “dismantle barriers to agriculture trade”. This effort will ruin smallholder farmers and must be halted.

Item 5. Cooperative farming must be encouraged including with legal support to make cooperatives more independent and effective. “Small cooperatives of organic farmers have done wonders” which be replicated for the rest of the crops.

Item 6. Villages must become self-reliant in agriculture and food security. “Shift the focus to local production, local procurement and local distribution” throughout the country for which the National Food Security Act needs amendment.

Item 7. Green Revolution areas are facing a crisis in sustainability. “With soil fertility devastated, water table plummeting and environment contaminated with chemical pesticides and fertiliser, the resulting impact on the entire food chain and human health is being increasingly felt.” We need a country-wide campaign to shift farming to non-pesticides management techniques.

Item 7.5. The agro-ecological approach to cultivation under decentralised planning (panchayat cluster) must be promoted. This has long been identified as the primary rural guide: “In the Indian development strategy, self-reliance has been conceptualised … in terms of building up domestic capabilities and reducing import dependence in strategic commodities” (from the Seventh Five Year Plan, 1985-90).

Item 8. Agriculture, dairy and forestry should be integrated. “Agricultural growth should not only be measured in terms of increase in foodgrain production but should be seen in the context of the village eco-system as a whole.”

Item 9. The government must not yield to pressure exerted via free trade agreements signed and stop food imports. “Importing food is importing unemployment.” The government must “not accept the European Union’s demand for opening up for dairy products and fruits/vegetables by reducing the import duties.”

Item 10. Climate change is affecting agriculture. Don’t look “at strategies only aimed at lessening the impact on agriculture and making farmers cope with the changing weather patterns, the focus should also be to limit greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.” Reduce chemical fertiliser/pesticides in farming.

Item 10.5. The area-production-yield metric for agriculture is as outdated as ‘GDP growth’ is to describe a country. By adopting the principles of responsible and ecologically sound self-reliance, the whole system demands of agriculture need to be assessed with district planning being incentivised towards organic cultivation (expressly banning GM/GE).

Item 11. Localise the storage for foodgrains. In 1979 under the ‘Save Food Campaign’ grain silos were to be set up in 50 places. Localised and locally-managed foodgrain storage must be at the top of the agenda.

This is an agriculture and food agenda for the NDA-BJP government, to guide the strategies and approaches so that India does not compromise its food self-sufficiency, self-reliance (swadeshi) and return our farming households to dignity and self-respect.

The fuel favour year for India

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The US$ per barrel (red line) and the rupee-dollar exchange rate (green line) are plotted to the left scale. The rupee per barrel (blue line) is plotted to the right scale. I have used data from the Petroleum Planning and Analysis Cell of the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas - the global crude oil price of the 'Indian Basket' in US$ per barrel.

The US$ per barrel (red line) and the rupee-dollar exchange rate (green line) are plotted to the left scale. The rupee per barrel (blue line) is plotted to the right scale. I have used data from the Petroleum Planning and Analysis Cell of the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas – the global crude oil price of the ‘Indian Basket’ in US$ per barrel.

It started in early August, the extraordinary slide in petroleum prices. Until then, the international crude oil price of the ‘Indian Basket’ (of crude oils, as it is called) had swung between US$ 110 and US$ 105 per barrel.

The rupee-dollar exchange rate, and the effective price of a barrel of crude oil in Indian rupees (both measures also appear on this chart), fluctuated but little for most of the first half of 2014. In early June 2014, the rupee-dollar rate turned around from 59 and has been rising since, while in early July the rupee price per barrel descended from its plateau of 6,300-6,600 and has been dropping since.

The cost of oil-derived energy has had a number of effects upon our everyday lives in the second half of 2014. It has helped the new NDA-BJP government during its first year by dampening overall inflation (the consumer price index) and particularly food price inflation. This has been particularly fortunate for the NDA-BJP government as the deficient monsoon of 2014 has meant a drop in the production of food staples, and market forces being what they are, food price inflation especially would have been well into the 13%-14% range (last quarter 2014 compared with last quarter 2013).

RG_India_petroleum_in_2014_sectionGalloping consumer price inflation has been forestalled by the plunging price of crude oil. The data I have used for this startling chart is courtesy the Petroleum Planning and Analysis Cell (PPAC) of the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas which computes several times a week the “global crude oil price of Indian Basket in US$ per bbl” – which means the average price we pay per barrel for the various kinds of crude oil we purchase.

A barrel of crude oil is 42 gallons or around 159 litres. This crude, when refined, is turned into diesel, petrol, lighter fuels, feedstock for the manufacture of various plastics, and other products. Typically, up to 70% of the oil we buy is converted into diesel and petrol (and carbon from all those exhaust pipes). Also typically, a barrel of crude oil (which is an extremely dense form of packaged energy) contains around 5.8 million BTUs (British thermal units). More familiar to us is the kilowatt hour (or kWh) and these 5.8 million BTUs are about 1,700 kWh – at current national average rates of per head electricity consumption this is worth about 26 months of electricity!

From early August till the end of December the price we paid for a barrel of crude has dropped from around US$ 103 to US$ 54 and correspondingly (factoring in the rupee-dollar exchange rate) the rupee price of a barrel of crude has dropped from 6,300 to around 3,500. Put another way, the INR 6,300 we paid in early August for 5.8 million BTU could buy, in mid-October 7.1 million BTU and by end-December, 10.4 million BTU.

Most of us tend not to be profligate with energy (our electricity comes mainly from the burning of coal, but the sale of automobiles has continued at a steady pace, or so the industry tells us). The question is whether this windfall energy saving (in terms of petroleum energy units per rupee) has been well used by the sector that can spread the benefit the most – agriculture and food. It will take another three months to judge, and we will keep a wary eye for the next quarter on the Indian crude oil Basket.

Written by makanaka

December 31, 2014 at 19:06