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The government that sold India

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On 14 September, India’s ruling political coalition, the United Progressive Alliance, of which the Congress (the Indian National Congress is its full name) is a dominant member, decided to allow foreign investment into a number of sectors. These include what is called ‘multi-brand retail’ and aviation. This government in taking this decision has ignored and overlooked the views and fears of tens of thousands of small shopkeepers, small traders associations, consumer groups and citizens – representing the will of several millions of households – who have publicly expressed in many fora their opposition to permitting foreign control (or consolidated, large domestic control) of the processes of aggregating and selling food products.

The decision, which has been raucously welcomed by the three major industry associations (CII, Ficci and Assocham) and which has been uncritically hailed by the Indian (English-language) business press, represents the whole gamut of neo-liberal policies which have been pursued by the Congress-led UPA government since coming into office in 2004 (and since 2009, when its current term began).

In their shrill and utterly partisan acclaim of the foreign investment decision, the business and financial press – in particular the newspapers Economic Times, Business Standard, Financial Express and Mint – have further underlined their role as propaganda sheets for the industrial-political class and their global partners in the project to loot India.

There has been a differential impact of the more than 20 years of economic liberalisation on the various classes of Indian society. Inequalities have grown rapidly, and there are some sections who have been more adversely impacted. Some sections of the middle class have benefited, at the cost of rural landless labour and the urban poor. Under this neo-liberal regime a large section of the working class is now in the unorganised and informal sector. Those who are on contract work and other irregular forms of employment constitute the bulk of the urban poor. There is also a large section of self-employed persons in the services sector who eke out a subsistence living.

In India, there are substantial classes and sections of society most affected by the policies of liberalisation and the intensified exploitation in the countryside. Landlords, big farmers who are politically well-connected, contractors, moneylenders and regional politicians (those in state assemblies) constitute the rural rich and have intensified the exploitation of the peasantry, agricultural workers and the rural poor. It is this tendency that has deepened India’s agrarian distress, contributed to the food and agricultural crisis – and it is in these chronic circumstances that this Congress-led government has allowed the inflow of foreign investment into food retail, fully aware of all the consequences that decision will heap onto the struggling rural and urban poor.

To illustrate some of these, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in its Political Review Report in early 2012 had commented: “The issue of land acquisition has acquired a new dimension after the onset of the neo-liberal regime. As part of the capturing of natural resources the corporates and the real estate companies are out to grab land cheaply with the aid of the State apparatus. The peasantry, particularly the small peasantry sees this as a serious threat to its livelihood and especially when corporates and real estate speculators are going to make huge profits out of such lands.”

Can there be an alternative? As far as economic policies are concerned, most of the regional parties adhere to the policies of liberalisation. These regional parties represent mainly the interests of the politically astute and opportunist rural rich, the district bourgeosie who see themselves as brokers of every description to fit ‘reform’ decisions of every prescription. That is why most regional parties take no stand against the ‘liberalisation’ (or ‘reform’, to use the notorious International Monetary Fund-World Bank term) policies which have benefited regional rich too.

The very logic of neo-liberal reforms leads to and perpetuates the rapid growth of a labour force that is increasingly relegated to what is called the unorganised sector. The conversion of regular employment into casual and contractual labour, apart from generating higher profits, is part of the programme to ensure that working class unity remains divided. Larger and larger numbers – from the affected districts, such as the 320 drought-affected districts of 2012 – are joining the ranks of casual, temporary and self-employed workers, with few rights, uncertain wages, in the face of galloping food inflation, with no collective representation or honest political representation. These are the circumstances so ruthlessly exploited by India’s current government to usher predatory forces into our agriculture and food sector.

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The day India said ‘yes’ to Wal-Mart

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Update – The real nature of the neoliberal economy of India has become clearer with the decision – against the run of public opinion and against the evidence from the agricultural and food sectors – to permit opening up the retail sector.

Since the decision was taken, the central government has spared no effort in a cynical and devious campaign to claim that permitting foreign direct investment in retail will benefit farmers and consumers. On Sunday, 27 November 2011, large advertisements were released in newspapers proclaiming the benefits of this decision. Nothing is further from the truth. India’s urban households, those eking out livelihoods from informal work and precarious manufacturing sector jobs, recognise the untruth and see the evidence in the 10%-15% annual food inflation. Our trade unions know this and our left parties know this.

Ranged against this population, rural and urban, are the ministries and industries who see in the permission a new means to control access to food and the provisioning of food. That is why I support the opposition represented by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), whose concerns reflect those of this broad majority.

The CPI(M) has said correctly that this decision “will destroy the livelihoods of crores of small retailers and lead to monopolisation of the retail sector by the MNCs”. The party’s statement said: “Coming in the backdrop of persistent high inflation, growing joblessness and agrarian distress, this decision shows the utterly callous and anti-people character of the UPA Government. The Government seems to be more eager to meet the demands of the US and other Western governments and serve the interests of the MNCs like Walmart, Tesco and Carrefour, rather than protect those of its own people.”

India’s central ministries – now even further disrobed to reveal their predatory nature as instruments of the country’s business satraps – have held up the flimsy excuse that conditions imposed will safeguard the farmer, consumer and small retailer. This is lies.

The restriction that foreign retail outlets are limited to operating in cities of over 1 million population is meaningless because those are precisely the places where the MNCs want to go, to tap the lucrative segment of the market. It is in these cities – there are 53 cities with populations of over a million – that small retailers are mostly concentrated. India has the highest shopping density in the world, with 11 shops per 1,000 persons – these have evolved as neighbourhood suppliers and represent a cultural integration of small supplier and household familiarity.

The result is a rich density of trusted small retail – India has over 12 million such shops and these employ directly over 40 million persons. Well over 95% of these shops are run by self-employed persons in floor areas of under 500 square feet (about 48 square metres). It is these small shopkeepers in urban areas who fear for their future with the now-sanctioned entry of the MNC retailers. International experience shows that supermarkets everywhere invariably displace small retailers. Small retail has been virtually wiped out in the developed countries like the US and Europe. South East Asian countries had to also impose stringent zoning and licensing regulations in order to restrict the growth of supermarkets, after small retailers were getting displaced.

Then there is the cunning untruth that the condition for making at least 50% of the investment in ‘backend’ infrastructure will benefit rural populations, as this is said to lead to more cold chains and other logistics, benefiting the farmers. International experience has, however, shown that procurement by MNC retailers do not benefit the small farmers – we have seen this in India despite the specious and manufactured ‘case studies’ produced by India’s management schools (the several worthless and compradorist Indian Institutes of Management and their similarly worthless competitors). Over time, smallholder farmers receive depressed prices and find it difficult to meet the arbitrary quality standards. Allowing procurement by MNCs will also allow the central government to reduce its own procurement responsibilities, and this will directly affect the food security of those millions of rural and urban households which depend India’s public food distribution system.

2011/11/25 – This is a turning point for India’s economy. The central government has allowed foreign investment up to 51% in the retail sector for ‘multi-brand’ ventures, and has allowed 100% foreign investment for single brand retailers.

With this permission, the ruling United Progressive Alliance has ignored utterly the concerns of hundreds of representations made over the last year by small traders and wholesalers, and by grocery shops’ assocations all over India, against the entre of foreign direct invetment in the retail sector. The ruling United Progressive Alliance has also ignored the needs and conditions of hundreds of thousands of smallholder farming families, who will from now on be steadily exposed to increasing levels of coercion to submit to corporate and industrial farming pressures, or to quit cultivation and join the masses of informal labour in urbanising towns and cities.

India’s powerful business and indutries associations – the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) and the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM) – have vigorously for the last two years been manoeuvring the ruling political alliance towards this position. They have been aided substantially by representations from the countries and regions who have the most to gain from this permission being given – the USA and the European Union.

The so-called economists and analysts who are regularly polled by the business media and whose pronouncements are used to justify the progression of policy towards such permission, are making a variety of claims about the effects the expected foreign investment will have on India. They are saying that this “much delayed reform” will help unclog supply bottlenecks and help ease food inflation, that it will benefit farmers who can get better prices for their produce and will bring in international expertise to streamline supply chains in India.

This is rubbish meant to distract. The big retail corporations have for years been demanding entry into a country which is estimated to have a retail sector whose annual sales are said to be around US$450 billion. But this is a sector populated by tens of thousands of tiny family-run shops that account for 90% of this enormous volume of sales. This is a turning point for India’s economy, for it signals the start of yet another struggle to first block, and then throw out the retail conglomerates.

Here are some of the many news stories on this important matter:

Moneycontrol.com – ‘Don’t expect investments to flow instantly: Bharti Walmart’ – After a long wait, the government has finally allowed 51% foreign direct investment (FDI) in the multi-brand retail. It has also decided to raise the cap on foreign investment in single-brand retailing to 100% from the current 51%. …

The Hindu – ‘Cabinet approves 51 per cent FDI in multi-brand retail’ – In a bid to remove the impression that UPA II was suffering from “decision making paralysis” and kicking off the second generation reforms, the Union Cabinet on Thursday gave its approval to allowing 51 per cent foreign direct investment (FDI) in …

Shanghai Daily (subscription) – ‘India to allow global chains to open multi-brand retail stores’ – MUMBAI, Nov. 24 (Xinhua) — India’s cabinet has given the green light to foreign investors to take up to 51 percent stakes in multi-brand retail stores later Thursday after a meeting chaired by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, said a report by the …

MarketWatch (press release) – ‘Government of India Unleashes Potent Phase II Reforms’ – WASHINGTON, Nov 24, 2011 (BUSINESS WIRE) — The US-India Business Council (USIBC) today hailed India’s steady progress in advancing major economic reforms with the Cabinet’s approval of opening India’s vast multi-brand retail sector to foreign direct …

Reuters India – ‘India opens supermarket sector to foreign players’ – India threw open its $450 billion retail market to global supermarket giants on Thursday, approving its biggest reform in years that may boost sorely needed investment in Asia’s third-largest economy …

Wall Street Journal – ‘Carrefour Welcomes India’s Decision To Open Multi-Brand Retail Market‘ – PARIS (Dow Jones)–French retail giant Carrefour SA (CA.FR) said Thursday it welcomed the Indian government’s decision to open the country’s multi-brand retail market to foreign investment. “Carrefour will follow with attention the finalization of the …

Voice of America – ‘India Opens Retail Sector to Foreign Supermarkets’ – November 24, 2011 India Opens Retail Sector to Foreign Supermarkets VOA News India’s Cabinet has approved a plan to open up the country’s $450 billion retail sector to foreign supermarkets, a reform that could unclog supply bottlenecks that have kept …

Wall Street Journal – ‘India Unlocks Door for Global Retailers’ – MUMBAI—India paved the way for international supermarkets and department stores to establish joint ventures, a major step in opening one of the last great consumer markets that has been off-limits to many of the world’s biggest …

Hindustan Times – ‘Left and Right sharpen knives for FDI battle’ – The Cabinet’s approval of 51% FDI in multi-brand retail is likely to flare up into a major political controversy with the main opposition parties gearing up to oppose it. While BJP leaders Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley jointly condemned any such move …

Namnews – ‘Government Opens Up Country’s Retail Market’ – It’s official – the Indian retail market is now open to international chains, setting the stage for a major change of the local industry. Earlier today, the Indian government approved Foreign Direct Investment of up to 51% in multi-brand retail, …

Bloomberg – ‘India Allows Foreign Investment in Retail, Paving Wal-Mart Entry’ – India approved allowing overseas companies to own as much as 51 percent of retail chains that sell more than one brand, paving the way for global retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores …

indiablooms – ‘India opens retail to foreign players’ – New Delhi, Nov 24 (IBNS): India on Thursday decided to allow foreign direct investment (FDI) in its closely-guarded multi brand retail market, paving the way for global supermarket giants to step into the $450 billion sector that was widely seen as one …

Tehelka – ‘Cabinet approves 51% FDI in multi-brand retail’ – The Cabinet cleared 51 per cent foreign direct investment (FDI) in multi-brand retail on Thursday paving the way for global retail giants like Wal-Mart and Carrefour to enter India. The Cabinet also cleared 100 per cent FDI in single-brand retail. …

Newser – ‘India to allow more foreign retail investment, likely paving way for Wal-Mart’ – India’s Cabinet decided Thursday to allow more direct foreign investment in the nation’s huge retail industry, a move that could strengthen the country’s food supply chain and open India to giant global …

NetIndian – ‘Cabinet clears 51% FDI in multi-brand retail’ – After dithering for a long time, the Union Cabinet today cleared a proposal to allow 51 per cent Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in multi-brand retail and raised the cap to 100 per cent in single brand retail. This will allow global retail giants like …

Boston.com – ‘India opens more to foreign multibrand retailers’ – AP / November 24, 2011 NEW DELHI—India’s Cabinet decided Thursday to allow more direct foreign investment in the nation’s huge retail industry, a move that could strengthen the country’s food supply chain and open India to giant global …

Retail Week – ‘Indian cabinet approves foreign investment in retail‘ – The Indian government has cleared the way to allow multinational retailers including Tesco, Carrefour and Walmart to enter its retail market. We provide a range of advertising opportunities. By advertising with us, you are guaranteed to reach the …

Atlanta Journal Constitution – ‘India opens more to foreign multibrand retailers’ – AP NEW DELHI — India’s Cabinet decided Thursday to allow more direct foreign investment in the nation’s huge retail industry, a move that could strengthen the country’s food supply chain and open India to giant global retailers such as …

Houston Chronicle – ‘India opens more to foreign multibrand retailers’ – NEW DELHI (AP) — India’s Cabinet decided Thursday to allow more direct foreign investment in the nation’s huge retail industry, a move that could strengthen the country’s food supply chain and open India to giant global retailers such …

IBNLive – ‘FDI in retail cleared; multi brand 50 pc, single brand 100 pc’ – The Union Cabinet FDI in multi-brand retail and single brand retail despite division within the UPA on the issue.

Moneycontrol.com – ‘Cabinet approves 51% FDI in multi-brand retail’ – Indian retailers finally get a chance to rejoice as the Cabinet today cleared the bill to increase foreign direct investment to 51% in multi-brand retail and 100% in single brand. Commerce and industry minister Anand Sharma said that he would give a …

Business Standard – ‘Too early to celebrate for Pantaloon retail’ – Valuations may prove to be a hurdle, while real gains will take time to yield. Stocks of organised retail companies like Pantaloon Retail and Shoppers Stop have been in action in the recent past on hopes that foreign direct investment (FDI) in the …

BusinessWeek – ‘India Allows Foreign Investment in Retail, Paving Wal-Mart Entry’ – Nov. 24 (Bloomberg) — India approved allowing overseas companies to own as much as 51 percent of retail chains that sell more than one brand, paving the way for global retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. …

Washington Post – ‘India to allow more foreign retail investment, likely paving way for Wal-Mart’ – NEW DELHI — India’s Cabinet decided Thursday to allow more direct foreign investment in the nation’s huge retail industry, a move that could strengthen the country’s food supply chain and open India to giant global retailers such as Wal-Mart. …

STLtoday.com – ‘India opens more to foreign multibrand retailers’ – AP | Posted: Thursday, November 24, 2011 10:36 am | Loading… India’s Cabinet decided Thursday to allow more direct foreign investment in the nation’s huge retail industry, a move that could strengthen the country’s food supply chain and open India to …

Newser – ‘India to allow more foreign retail investment, likely paving way for Wal-Mart’ – India’s Cabinet decided Thursday to allow more direct foreign investment in the nation’s huge retail industry, a move that could strengthen the country’s food supply chain and open India to giant global …

Wall Street Journal (blog) – ‘FDI in Retail: If Wal-Mart Builds It, Will Indians Come?’ – The Indian government deserves credit for doing what , for at least five years, it has been contemplating: setting the stage for the creation if a modern retail industry. It is unlikely that the Cabinet was seized by Adam Smith-like …

Houston Chronicle – ‘India opens more to foreign multibrand retailers’ – NEW DELHI (AP) — India’s Cabinet decided Thursday to allow more direct foreign investment in the nation’s huge retail industry, a move that could strengthen the country’s food supply chain and open India to giant global retailers such …

Zee News – ‘Cabinet clears FDI in multi-brand retail’ – New Delhi: In a major decision, the government Thursday approved 51 percent FDI in multi-brand retail paving the way for global giants like WalMart to open mega stores in cities with population of over one million. The nod from the Union Cabinet came …

This permission, given by a ruling political coalition that has allowed food inflation to rage on unchecked for the last three years, which has regularly pushed up the prices of petrol (gasoline) and diesel, and whose record on tackling corruption and graft is shamefully weak, will not go unchallenged.

The realities of India’s fields and farms

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India’s economy planners when discussing agriculture are no closer to farm and field realities. That much is clear from a reading of the ‘Review of The Indian Economy 2010-11’, by the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister, released to the public on 2011 February 22.

The document had, I suspect, been finalised and was waiting for the data from the Second Advance Estimates of agricultural production for the 2010-11 year. A cursory analysis of this forms the ‘Agriculture’ section of the ‘Review’ [read the relevant portions of the Review here].

Chairman of the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister, C Rangarajan (centre), flanked by members Suman Bery (right) and Saumitra Chaudhuri releasing the 'Review of the Economy 2010-11' in New Delhi on 21 February 2011. Photo: The Hindu/V V Krishnan

Chairman of the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister, C Rangarajan (centre), flanked by members Suman Bery (right) and Saumitra Chaudhuri releasing the 'Review of the Economy 2010-11' in New Delhi on 21 February 2011. Photo: The Hindu/V V Krishnan

It is in the ‘Concluding Comments’ section concerning agriculture in India that the intent and direction of the current government are underlined. There are a few strong pointers:

* “As against the target of average 4 per cent growth during the Eleventh Plan period, the actual average growth is likely to be slightly less than 3 per cent.” Which only indicates that ‘growth’ in the agricultural sector will continue to be seen as a primary consideration, outweighing the sustainable use of natural resources management. The growth insistence will also mean the continued support of high-input and financially burdensome agricultural methods.

* “Somewhat in parallel, the per capita availability in grams per day has also not gone up in a context where per capita income has been rising quite strongly.” The Economic Advisory Council has not been honest enough to draw the needed connections – between population growth and therefore foodgrain demand, and the need for urgently revisiting the basis for planning agricultural cultivation at the district level.

* “The international prices for grain have been very volatile and much elevated in recent times and therefore higher levels of domestic output is an even more important factor to consider in the context of domestic food security.” This is spot on. Why doesn’t the rest of the Concluding remarks section build on this?

* “Attention must be focused on building rural infrastructure, developing technologies that are appropriate to the region which have to be disseminated – delivered in an efficient fashion. The institutions that are enjoined with this task have to be activated in a more energetic fashion.” The Concluding Remarks does not build on the above point because of such weak, vague and misguided points as this one. ‘Technologies’ and ‘Infrastructure’ for growth at 4%? Or for food security?

* “The liberalization of the economy has benefited the farm sector and as a result the terms of trade for agriculture are no longer adverse.” This is one of the Big Contradictions of the Review. No, the liberalisation of the economy has NOT benefited the farm sector. Has the Government of India and its economic planners so quickly and so completely forgotten that 200,000 farmers have committed suicide over the last decade?

* “Investment in the farm sector has also picked up substantially and capital formation as a percentage of agricultural GDP has more than doubled in the past decade.” To what end? To achieve the 4% growth target which is denominated in ‘technology’ and ‘infrastructure’ in the agri sector? Has there been even 2% annual growth in the incomes of the cultivating households?

Demonstrators shout slogans as they hold steel plates during a protest rally in New Delhi February 23, 2011. Tens of thousands of trade unionists, including those from a group linked to the ruling Congress party, marched through the streets of the capital on Wednesday to protest food prices, piling pressure on a government already under fire over graft. Photo: Reuters/Parivartan Sharma

Demonstrators shout slogans as they hold steel plates during a protest rally in New Delhi February 23, 2011. Tens of thousands of trade unionists, including those from a group linked to the ruling Congress party, marched through the streets of the capital on Wednesday to protest food prices, piling pressure on a government already under fire over graft. Photo: Reuters/Parivartan Sharma

* “There seems to be evidence that better quality seeds and superior cultural practices are available, but the delivery system for translating these to the field are lagging.” This is where the threat in the Review lies. What delivery systems and who owns them?

* “A major hurdle in agricultural development is the inefficiency of the delivery systems. There is a plethora of institutions in research, extension, credit and marketing. However, efficacy of these institutions to deliver goods and services to the country’s vast small and marginal farms section is quite limited. This is a serious cause for concern.” True. How to support this point and rescue it from the overall contradictions of the Concluding Remarks?

* “There is need therefore, to attune these various institutions to the emerging agrarian structure, which is progressively identified with the small and marginal farmers.” True.

* “A two-fold strategy is indicated for this purpose. One, to encourage farmer’s collaborative efforts as in cooperatives, or more recently in producers companies, and vertical integration of production and marketing by suitable models of contract farming.” Emphatically NO. This is not the answer.

* “Two, at the institutional level, the organizational changes to cut down the cost of transactions (e.g. through a flexible and inclusive business correspondent model) and the use of information technology for the same purpose needs to be encouraged.” True with reservations. Infotech is a means and not an end.

* “In addition both for purposes of ensuring remunerative prices for farmers as well as an anti-inflationary measure, the strengthening of organized retail, as well as use of these outlets for public distribution along with the strengthening of the existing public distribution networks, are measures that need to be tried out seriously.” This is dreadfully ill-advised and apparently motivated by the FDI-seeking stand of the central government. This point of view must be stopped immediately. Dozens of farmers’ cooperatives and small traders have clearly and vociferously rejected FDI-driven organised retail in India. This point holds the back door open for the entry of corporate retail and will be used to legitimise retail control over access to food to vulnerable rural populations.

* “Local procurement by State Government agencies provides an incentive for farmers to grow grain. Coarse cereals are a varied commodity and tastes differ across States. There is also a problem in handling coarse grains.” Yes, yes and no. This point must be supported and rescued from the other corporate-oriented directions of the Review.

[Second Advance Estimates are available from here.]

India’s economy planners when discussing agriculture are no closer to farm and field realities. That

much is clear from a reading of the ‘Review of The Indian Economy 2010-11’, by the Economic

Advisory Council to the Prime Minister, released to the public on 2011 February 22.

The document had, I suspect, been finalised and was waiting for the data from the Second

Advance Estimates of agricultural production for the 2010-11 year. A cursory analysis of this forms

the ‘Agriculture’ section of the ‘Review’ (read the relevant portions of the Review here).

https://makanaka.wordpress.com/agriculture-india-review-2010-11/

It is in the ‘Concluding Comments’ section concerning agriculture in India that the intent and

direction of the current government are underlined. There are a few strong pointers:

* “As against the target of average 4 per cent growth during the Eleventh Plan period, the actual

average growth is likely to be slightly less than 3 per cent.” Which only indicates that ‘growth’ in

the agricultural sector will continue to be seen as a primary consideration, outweighing the

sustainable use of natural resources management. The growth insistence will also mean the

continued support of high-input agricultural methods.

* “Somewhat in parallel, the per capita availability in grams per day has also not gone up in a

context where per capita income has been rising quite strongly.” The Economic Advisory Council

has not been honest enough to draw the needed connections – between population growth and

therefore foodgrain demand, and the need for urgently revisiting the basis for planning agricultural

cultivation at the district level.

* “The international prices for grain have been very volatile and much elevated in recent times and

therefore higher levels of domestic output is an even more important factor to consider in the

context of domestic food security.” This is spot on. Why doesn’t the rest of the Concluding remarks

section build on this?

* “Attention must be focused on building rural infrastructure, developing technologies that are

appropriate to the region which have to be disseminated – delivered in an efficient fashion. The

institutions that are enjoined with this task have to be activated in a more energetic fashion.” The

Concluding Remarks does not build on the above point for the weak, vague and misguided point

here. ‘Technologies’ and ‘Infrastructure’ for growth at 4%? Or for food security?

* “The liberalization of the economy has benefited the farm sector and as a result the terms of

trade for agriculture are no longer adverse.” This is one of the Big Contradictions of the Review. No,

the liberalisation of the economy has NOT benefited the farm sector. Has the Government of India

and its economic planners so quickly and so completely forgotten that 200,000 farmers have

committed suicide over the last decade?

* “Investment in the farm sector has also picked up substantially and capital formation as a

percentage of agricultural GDP has more than doubled in the past decade.” To what end? To

achieve the 4% growth target which is denominated in ‘technology’ and ‘infrastructure’ in the agri

sector? Has there been even 2% annual growth in the incomes of the cultivating households?

* “There seems to be evidence that better quality seeds and superior cultural practices are

available, but the delivery system for translating these to the field are lagging.” This is where the

threat lies. What delivery systems and who owns them?

* “A major hurdle in agricultural development is the inefficiency of the delivery systems. There is a

plethora of institutions in research, extension, credit and marketing. However, efficacy of these

institutions to deliver goods and services to the country’s vast small and marginal farms section is

quite limited. This is a serious cause for concern.” True. How to support this point and rescue it

from the overall contradictions of the Concluding Remarks?

* “There is need therefore, to attune these various institutions to the emerging agrarian structure,

which is progressively identified with the small and marginal farmers.” True.

* “A two-fold strategy is indicated for this purpose. One, to encourage farmer’s collaborative

efforts as in cooperatives, or more recently in producers companies, and vertical integration of

production and marketing by suitable models of contract farming.” Emphatically NO. This is not the

answer.

* “Two, at the institutional level, the organizational changes to cut down the cost of transactions

(e.g. through a flexible and inclusive business correspondent model) and the use of information

technology for the same purpose needs to be encouraged.” True with reservations. Infotech is a

means and not an end.

* “In addition both for purposes of ensuring remunerative prices for farmers as well as an

anti-inflationary measure, the strengthening of organized retail, as well as use of these outlets for

public distribution along with the strengthening of the existing public distribution networks, are

measures that need to be tried out seriously.” This is dreadfully ill-advised. This point of view must

be stopped immediately. Dozens of farmers’ cooperatives and small traders have clearly and

vociferously rejected FDI-driven organised retail in India. This point holds the back door open for

the entry of corporate retail.

* “Local procurement by State Government agencies provides an incentive for farmers to grow

grain. Coarse cereals are a varied commodity and tastes differ across States. There is also a

problem in handling coarse grains.” Yes, yes and no. This point must be supported and rescued from

the other corporate-oriented directions of the Review.

The food industry in India and its logic

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Tractor on a road to the city, Kanpur district, Uttar Pradesh

Tractor on a road to the city, Kanpur district, Uttar Pradesh

The Economic & Political Weekly (EPW) 09 October 2010 issue carries a commentary I wrote as a backgrounder to the price rise of food staples. Here is part of the commentary:

On multiple fronts, the union government is proceeding to forge new compacts with the private sector food industry, whether global, regional or national. There is a new set of investors whose claims in the emerging food industry are being staked, and which are being encouraged by state governments eager to display their foreign direct investment (FDI)-friendliness. These are investors, promoters, asset management professionals who have learnt the patterns of the 2007-08 commodities (food included) boom and who are now well equipped to take positions, both financial and real, in the emerging food industry.

An indication of the size and scale of the national market for food (production, collection, processing, distribution, retail) being envisaged can be gauged from a “discussion paper” circulated by the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion (DIPP) in July 2010. The paper, “Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in Multi-brand Retail Trading”, has been circulated to “generate informed discussion on the subject” which will “enable the Government to take an appropriate policy decision at the appropriate time”. As this article shows, these decisions have already been taken and investment in the direction revealed by the paper has been rolling out for months.

Supported by the Ministry of Agriculture, the top echelons of India’s national agricultural research system and dedicated agricultural trade and investment bodies, the union government has tackled the arguments against FDI in retail by describing the “limitations” of current conditions in the Indian retail sector. That there has been a lack of investment in the logistics of the retail chain, leading to “an inefficient market mechanism”. The point is made that India is the second largest producer of fruit and vegetables in the world (about 180 million tonnes or mt) but has “very limited integrated cold-chain infrastructure” with only 5,386 stand-alone cold storages which together have a capacity of 23.6 mt. It points out that post-harvest losses of farm produce – especially fruits, vegetables and other perishables – have been estimated to be over Rs 1,00,000 crore per annum, 57% of which is due to “avoidable wastage and the rest due to avoidable costs of storage and commissions”.

A couple working in their paddy field, North Goa

A couple working in their paddy field, North Goa

From 2009, the Ministry of Agriculture’s approach to its subject has shifted perceptibly – from its stated protection of the interests of the farming household and the rural and urban consumer – towards the food industry. Employing the reasons listed above, all of which contain some reflection of actual conditions, the massive apparatus of the ministry and its appurtenant research system is now ushering in private participation and control of areas that were hitherto in the public domain. When read with the rapid movement of finance between the money markets and the commodity markets, with the extension of infrastructure and property conglomerates into the processed food “value chain” domain, and with new alliances between agricultural research institutes and market entrepreneurs, the outlook for India’s small and marginal farming households is bleak.

The concentration of funds, food handling and transport systems and growing corporate control from farm to fork can clearly be seen in an address by the Union Agriculture Minister, Sharad Pawar, at the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) – Industry Meet on 28-29 July 2010. The meet focused on four theme areas: seed and planting material; diagnostics, vaccines and biotechnological products; farm implements and machinery; and post-harvest engineering and value addition.

Pawar said that the ministry recognises the role of the private sector in critical areas of agricultural research and human resource development. The conventional approach of public sector agricultural R&D has been to take responsibility for priority setting, resource mobilisation, research, development and dissemination. He then explained that agricultural extension, which has been neglected for several years now, is “no longer appropriate”. It is here that the impact of the Indo-US Agricultural Knowledge Initiative, now in its fifth year, can be recognised. The alternative, Pawar advised, is public-private partnerships through which public sector institutes (such as those in the ICAR network) can “leverage valuable private resources, expertise, or marketing networks that they otherwise lack”.

Coconut trees along a bund between field and stream, North Goa

Coconut trees along a bund between field and stream, North Goa

This is the undisguised merchant reasoning behind the creation of “Business Planning and Development units” in five ICAR institutes (Indian Agricultural Research Institute, Indian Veterinary Research Institute, Central Institute for Research on Cotton Technology, National Institute of Research on Jute and Allied Fibre Technology, Central Institute of Fisheries Technology). These units will tackle intellectual property management, commercialisation of research, find investors and begin businesses. India’s national agricultural research system, therefore, has decided to now become a broker of its own output (publicly funded) and a speculator seeking profits from the country’s agricultural and food price crises.

If the Ministry of Agriculture has its way, rural India will be a patchwork not of villages and hamlets but of “intelligent agrologistic networks combining consolidation centres, agroparks (agroproduction and processing park) and rural transformation centres”, which is how the MTMs and their typical built-up footprints have been described by one enthusiastic bank. The techno-industrial idiom cannot conceal the union government’s intention to encourage a dangerous new dimension to urbanisation, by provisioning infrastructure to support an internal trade in agricultural products, and doing so by allocating a greater share of scarce funds to support favoured business and trading constituents rather than to the rural constituents who need it most, the smallholder farmer and local agro-ecosystems.

Supported by the vast and powerful machinery of the Ministry of Agriculture, emboldened by the global trading successes of commodity cartels which learned their tactics in the Multi Commodity Exchange of India (Mumbai), the National Commodity and Derivatives Exchange (Mumbai), and the National Multi Commodity Exchange of India (Ahmedabad), the new entrepreneurs in India’s agribusiness sector are promoting MTMs as potentially attracting “leading foreign retail chains to anchor and plan their supply chain at and through the agrofood parks” and exploiting the MTMs’ “township model approach to attract Indian MNCs and foreign food processing companies”.