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To localise and humanise India’s urban project

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Cities and towns have outdated and inadequate master plans that are unable to address the needs of inhabitants. Photo: Rahul Goswami (2013)

Cities and towns have outdated and inadequate master plans that are unable to address the needs of inhabitants. Photo: Rahul Goswami (2013)

The occasional journal Agenda (published by the Centre for Communication and Development Studies) has focused on the subject of urban poverty. A collection of articles brings out the connections between population growth, the governance of cities and urban areas, the sub-populations of the ‘poor’ and how they are identified, the responses of the state to urbanisation and urban residents (links at the end of this post).

My contribution to this issue has described how the urbanisation of India project is being executed in the name of the ‘urban poor’. But the urban poor themselves are lost in the debate over methodologies to identify and classify them and the thicket of entitlements, provisions and agencies to facilitate their ‘inclusion’ and ‘empowerment’. I have divided my essay into four partspart one may be read here, part two is found here, part three is here and this is part four:

The reason they pursue this objective in so predatory a manner is the potential of GDP being concentrated – their guides, the international management consulting companies (such as McKinsey, PriceWaterhouse Coopers, Deloitte, Ernst and Young, Accenture and so on), have determined India’s unique selling proposition to the world for the first half of the 21st century. It runs like this: “Employment opportunities in urban cities will prove to be a catalyst for economic growth, creating 70% of net new jobs while contributing in excess of 70% to India’s GDP.” Naturally, the steps required to ensure such a concentration of people and wealth-making capacity include building new urban infrastructure (and rebuilding what exists, regardless of whether it serves the ward populations or not).

"Employment opportunities in urban cities will prove to be a catalyst for economic growth" is the usual excuse given for the sort of built superscale seen in this metro suburb. Photo: Rahul Goswami (2013)

“Employment opportunities in urban cities will prove to be a catalyst for economic growth” is the usual excuse given for the sort of built superscale seen in this metro suburb. Photo: Rahul Goswami (2013)

The sums being floated today for achieving this camouflaged subjugation of urban populations defy common sense, for any number between Rs 5 million crore and Rs 7 million crore is being proposed, since an “investment outlay will create a huge demand in various core and ancillary sectors causing a multiplier effect through inter-linkages between 254 industries including those in infrastructure, logistics and modern retail… it will help promote social stability and economic equality through all-round development of urban economic centres and shall improve synergies between urban and rural centres”.

Tiers of overlapping programmes and a maze of controls via agencies shaded in sombre government hues to bright private sector colours are already well assembled and provided governance fiat to realise this ‘transformation’, as every government since the Tenth Plan has called it (the present new government included). For all the academic originality claimed by a host of new urban planning and habitat research institutes in India (many with faculty active in the United Nations circuits that gravely discuss the fate of cities; for we have spawned a new brigade of Indian – though not Bharatiya – urban studies brahmins adept at deconstructing the city but ignorant of such essentials as ward-level food demand), city planning remains a signal failure.

Typically, democratisation and self-determination is permitted only in controlled conditions. Photo: Rahul Goswami (2013)

Typically, democratisation and self-determination is permitted only in controlled conditions. Photo: Rahul Goswami (2013)

Other than the metropolitan cities and a small clutch of others (thanks to the efforts of a few administrative individuals who valued humanism above GDP), cities and towns have outdated and inadequate master plans that are unable to address the needs of city inhabitants in general (and of migrants in particular). These plans, where they exist, are technically prepared and bureaucratically envisioned with little involvement of citizens, and so the instruments of exclusion have been successfully transferred to the new frameworks that determine city-building in India.

Democratisation and self-determination is permitted only in controlled conditions and with ‘deliverables’ and ‘outcomes’ attached – organic ward committees and residents groups that have not influenced the vision and text of a city master plan have even less scope today to do so inside the maze of technocratic and finance-heavy social re-engineering represented by the JNNURM, RAY, UIDSSMT, BSUP, IHSDP and NULM and all their efficiently bristling sub-components. The rights of inhabitants to a comfortable standard of life that does not disturb environmental limits, to adequate and affordable housing, to safe and reliable water and sanitation, to holistic education and healthcare, and most of all the right to alter their habitats and processes of administration according to their needs, all are circumscribed by outside agencies.

Managed socialisation in our cities and towns must give way to organic groups. Photo: Rahul Goswami (2013)

Managed socialisation in our cities and towns must give way to organic groups. Photo: Rahul Goswami (2013)

It is not too late to find remedies and corrections. “As long as the machinery is the same, if we are simply depending on the idealism of the men at the helm, we are running a grave risk. The Indian genius has ever been to create organisations which are impersonal and are self-acting. Mere socialisation of the functions will not solve our problem.” So J C Kumarappa had advised (the Kumarappa Papers, 1939-46) about 80 years ago, advice that is as sensible in the bastis of today as it was to the artisans and craftspeople of his era.

For the managed socialisation of the urbanisation project to give way to organic groups working to build the beginnings of simpler ways in their communities will require recognition of these elements of independence now. It is the localisation of our towns and cities that can provide a base for reconstruction when existing and planned urban systems fail. Today some of these are finding ‘swadeshi’ within a consumer-capitalist society that sees them as EWS, LIG and migrants, and it is their stories that must guide urban India.

[Articles in the Agenda issue, Urban Poverty, are: How to make urban governance pro-poor, Counting the urban poor, The industry of ‘empowerment’, Data discrepancies, The feminisation of urban poverty, Making the invisible visible, Minorities at the margins, Housing poverty by social groups, Multidimensional poverty in Pune, Undermining Rajiv Awas Yojana, Resettlement projects as poverty traps, Participatory budgeting, Exclusionary cities.]

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India’s writing of the urbanised middle-class symphony

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The maintaining of and adding to the numbers of the middle class is what the growth of India’s GDP relies upon. Photo: Rahul Goswami 2014

The maintaining of and adding to the numbers of the middle class is what the growth of India’s GDP relies upon. Photo: Rahul Goswami 2014

The occasional journal Agenda (published by the Centre for Communication and Development Studies) has focused on the subject of urban poverty. A collection of articles brings out the connections between population growth, the governance of cities and urban areas, the sub-populations of the ‘poor’ and how they are identified, the responses of the state to urbanisation and urban residents (links at the end of this post).

My contribution to this issue has described how the urbanisation of India project is being executed in the name of the ‘urban poor’. But the urban poor themselves are lost in the debate over methodologies to identify and classify them and the thicket of entitlements, provisions and agencies to facilitate their ‘inclusion’ and ‘empowerment’. I have divided my essay into four parts – part one may be read here, part two is found here, and this is part three:

A small matrix of classifications is the reason for such obtuseness, which any kirana shop owner and his speedy delivery boys could quickly debunk. As with the viewing of ‘poverty’ so too the consideration of an income level as the passport between economic strata (or classes) in a city: the Ministry of Housing follows the classification that a household whose income is up to Rs 5,000 a month is pigeon-holed as belonging to the economically weaker section while another whose income is Rs 5,001 and above up to Rs 10,000 is similarly treated as lower income group.

Committees and panels studying our urban condition are enjoined not to stray outside these markers if they want their reports to find official audiences, and so they do, as did the work (in 2012) of the Technical Group on Urban Housing Shortage over the Twelfth Plan period (which is 2012-17). Central trade unions were already at the time stridently demanding that Rs 10,000 be the national minimum wage, and stating that their calculation was already conservative (so it was, for the rise in the prices of food staples had begun two years earlier).

The contributions of those in the lower economic strata (not the ‘poor’ alone, however they are measured or miscounted) to the cities of India and the towns of Bharat, to the urban agglomerations and outgrowths (terms that conceal the entombment of hundreds of hectares of growing soil in cement and rubble so that more bastis may be accommodated), are only erratically recorded. When this is done, more often than not by an NGO, or a research institute (not necessarily on urban studies) or a more enlightened university programme, seldom do the findings make their way through the grimy corridors of the municipal councils and into recognition of the success or failure of urban policy.

Until 10 years ago, it was still being said in government circles that India's pace of urbanisation was only 'modest' by world standards. Photo: Rahul Goswami 2014

Until 10 years ago, it was still being said in government circles that India’s pace of urbanisation was only ‘modest’ by world standards. Photo: Rahul Goswami 2014

And so it is that the tide of migrants – India’s urban population grew at 31.8% in the 10 years between 2001 and 2011, both census years, while the rural population grew at 12.18% and the overall national population growth rate was 17.64% with the difference between all three figures illustrating in one short equation the strength of the urbanisation project – is essential for the provision of cheap labour to the services sector for that higher economic strata upon whom the larger share of the GDP growth burden rests, the middle class.

And so the picture clears, for it is in maintaining and adding to the numbers of the middle class – no troublesome poverty lines here whose interpretations may arrest the impulse to consume – that the growth of India’s GDP relies. By the end of the first confused decade following the liberalisation of India’s economy, in the late-1990s, the arrant new ideology that posited the need for a demographic shift from panchayat to urban ward found supporters at home and outside (in the circles of the multi-lateral development lending institutions particularly, which our senior administrators and functionaries were lured into through fellowships and secondments). Until 10 years ago, it was still being said in government circles that India’s pace of urbanisation was only modest by world standards (said in the same off-the-cuff manner that explains our per capita carbon dioxide emissions as being well under the global average).

In 2005, India had 41 urban areas with populations of a million and more while China had 95 – in 2015 the number of our cities which will have at least a million will be more than 60. Hence the need to turn a comfortable question into a profoundly irritating one: instead of ‘let us mark the slums as being those areas of a city or town in which the poor live’ we choose ‘let us mark the poor along as many axes as we citizens can think of and find the households – in slum or cooperative housing society or condominium – that are deprived by our own measures’. The result of making such a choice would be to halt the patronymic practiced by the state (and its private sector assistants) under many different guises.

Whether urban residents in our towns and cities will bestir themselves to organise and claim such self-determination is a forecast difficult to attempt for a complex system such as a ward, in which issues of class and economic status have as much to do with group choices as the level of political control of ward committees and the participation of urban councillors, the grip of land and water mafias, the degree to which state programmes have actually bettered household lives or sharpened divisions.

It is probably still not a dilemma, provided there is re-education enough and awareness enough of the perils of continuing to inject ‘services’ and ‘infrastructure’ into communities which for over a generation have experienced rising levels of economic stress. At a more base level – for sociological concerns trouble industry even less, in general, than environmental concerns do – India’s business associations are doing their best to ensure that the urbanisation project continues. The three large associations – Assocham, CII and FICCI (and their partners in states) – agree that India’s urban population will grow, occupying 40% of the total population 15 years from now.

[Articles in the Agenda issue, Urban Poverty, are: How to make urban governance pro-poor, Counting the urban poor, The industry of ‘empowerment’, Data discrepancies, The feminisation of urban poverty, Making the invisible visible, Minorities at the margins, Housing poverty by social groups, Multidimensional poverty in Pune, Undermining Rajiv Awas Yojana, Resettlement projects as poverty traps, Participatory budgeting, Exclusionary cities.]

The discordant anthem of urban missions

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RG_urban_empowerment_201501

The occasional journal Agenda (published by the Centre for Communication and Development Studies) has focused on the subject of urban poverty. A collection of articles brings out the connections between population growth, the governance of cities and urban areas, the sub-populations of the ‘poor’ and how they are identified, the responses of the state to urbanisation and urban residents (links at the end of this post).

My contribution to this issue has described how the urbanisation of India project is being executed in the name of the ‘urban poor’. But the urban poor themselves are lost in the debate over methodologies to identify and classify them and the thicket of entitlements, provisions and agencies to facilitate their ‘inclusion’ and ‘empowerment’. I have divided my essay into four partspart one may be read here and this is part two:

RG_urban_empowerment_201501_sec2The ‘help’ of that period, envisioned as a light leg-up accompanied by informal encouragement, has become instead an industry of empowerment. There are “bank linkages for neutral loans to meet the credit needs of the urban poor”, the formation of corps of “resource organisations to be engaged to facilitate the formation of self-help groups and their development”, there are technical parameters to set so that “quality of services is not compromised”.

Financial literacy – of the unhoused, the misnourished, the chronically underemployed, the single-female-headed families, the uninsurable parents and dependents, the uncounted – is essential so that ‘no frills’ savings accounts can be opened (the gateway to a noxious web of intrusive micro-payment schemata: life, health, pension, consumer goods). Such a brand of functional literacy is to be dispensed by city livelihoods centres which will “bridge the gap between demand and supply of the goods and services produced by the urban poor” and who will then, thus armed, “access information and business support services which would otherwise not be affordable or accessible by them”. So runs the anthem of the National Urban Livelihoods Mission, the able assistant of the national urban mission and its successor-in-the-wings, the Rajiv Awas Yojana.

The existence of the ‘urban poor’ is what provides the legitimacy (howsoever constructed) that the central government, state governments, public and joint sector housing and infrastructure corporations, and a colourful constellation of ancillaries need to execute the urbanisation of India project. Lost in the debate over methodologies to find in the old and new bastis the deserving chronically poor and the merely ‘service deprived’ are the many aspects of poverty in cities, a number of which afflict the upper strata of the middle classes (well housed, overprovided for by a plethora of services, banked to a surfeit) just as much as they do the daily wage earners who commute from their slums in search of at least the six rupees they must pay out of every 10 so that their families have enough to eat for that day.

RG_urban_empowerment_201501_sec1These deprivations are not accounted for nor even discussed as potential dimensions along which to measure the lives of urban citizens, poor or not, by the agencies that give us our only authoritative references for our citizens and the manner in which they live, or are forced to live: the Census of India, the National Sample Survey Office (of the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation), the municipal corporations of larger cities, the ministries of health, of environment, and the ministry most directly concerned with urban populations, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation.

Exposure to pollution in concentrations that alarms the World Health Organisation, the absence of green spaces in wards, a level of ambient noise high enough to induce stress by itself, the weekly or monthly reconciling of irregular income (at any scale) versus the inflation that determines all costs of urban living – these are but a few of the many aspects under which a household or an individual can be ‘poor’. Income and food calorie poverty – which have been the measures to judge a household’s position in relation to a line of minimum adequacy – are but two of many interlinked aspects that govern a standard of living which every government promises to raise.

This catechism was repeated when the Sixteenth Lok Sabha began its work, and President Pranab Mukherjee mentioned in his address to the body a common habitat minimum for the 75th year of Indian Independence, which will come in 2022 (at a time when the many vacuous ‘2020 vision documents’ produced during the last decade by every ministry will have neither currency nor remit). Housing for all, Mukherjee assured the Lok Sabha, delivered through the agency of city-building – “100 cities focused on specialised domains and equipped with world-class amenities”; and “every family will have a pucca house with water connection, toilet facilities, 24×7 electricity supply and access”.

RG_urban_empowerment_201501_sec3That is why, although concerned academicians and veteran NGO karyakartas will exchange prickly criticisms concerning the use in urban study of NSSO first stage units or the use of Census of India enumeration blocks, it is self-determination in the urban context that matters to a degree somewhat greater than the means we choose to use to describe that context. From the time of the ‘approach’ discussions to the Tenth Five-Year Plan (2002-07) – which is when the notion, till that time regarded as experimental, that the government can step away without guilt from its old role of providing for the poor in favour of the private sector – the dogma of growth of GDP has included rapid urbanisation.

That such GDP growth – setting aside the crippling ecological and social costs which our administrative technorati, for all their ‘progressive’ credentials, do not bring themselves to publicly recognise – is deeply polarising and is especially so in cities is not a matter discussed in any of the 948 city development plans (1,515 infrastructure and housing projects) of the JNNURM. From then on, the seeking and finding of distinctions as they exist within the residential wards of towns and cities has been treated as heretical.

[Articles in the Agenda issue, Urban Poverty, are: How to make urban governance pro-poor, Counting the urban poor, The industry of ‘empowerment’, Data discrepancies, The feminisation of urban poverty, Making the invisible visible, Minorities at the margins, Housing poverty by social groups, Multidimensional poverty in Pune, Undermining Rajiv Awas Yojana, Resettlement projects as poverty traps, Participatory budgeting, Exclusionary cities.]

The industry of urban empowerment

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RG_Agenda_urban_empowerment_top

The latest issue of the occasional journal Agenda (published by the Centre for Communication and Development Studies) has focused on the subject of urban poverty. A collection of articles brings out the connections between population growth, the governance of cities and urban areas, the sub-populations of the ‘poor’ and how they are identified, the responses of the state to urbanisation and urban residents (links at the end of this post).

My contribution to this issue is titled ‘The industry of ’empowerment’ in which I have described how the urbanisation of India project is being executed in the name of the ‘urban poor’. But the urban poor themselves are lost in the debate over methodologies to identify and classify them and the thicket of entitlements, provisions and agencies to facilitate their ‘inclusion’ and ’empowerment’. I have divided my essay into four parts; here is part one:

RG_Agenda_urban_empowerment_K2015 will be the tenth year of India’s largest urban recalibration programme. That decadal anniversary will, for one section of our society, be used as proof that new infrastructure in cities has lowered poverty, that new housing has raised the standard of living for those who need it most, that urban rebuilding capital is focused better through such measures and, because of these and like reasons, that giant programmes such as the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) must continue. With or without the name of India’s first prime minister applied to the mission (itself a noun used liberally to impel urgency into a programme), it will continue, enriched with finance and technology.

The JNNURM, a year from now, will be the foremost symbol amongst several that signal to some 415 million Indians (city-dwellers all, for that will be the approximate urban population a year from now) why city life and city lights are what matter.

For another section of society, less inclined because of experience with administrations indifferent or venal, life in India’s (and Bharat’s) 7,935 towns goes on minus the pithy optimism of governments and their supporters in industry and finance. The promise of higher monthly household incomes is somehow expected to compensate for the grinding travails that urban life in India brings, and it is a promise documented inside 50 years of gazettes and government orders, countless circulars and memoranda, hundreds of reports by committees high-powered and technical.

Still the number of villages that are transformed, statistically and temporally into towns (census and statutory) grows from one census to another (and in between), and still the urban agglomerations — some sprawling uncaring from one district into another, consuming agricultural land and watershed — expand, for the instruction of the market is that it is this process of gathering citizens that leads to the growth of gross domestic product (GDP), the prime mechanic in the alleviation of poverty, whose workings in cities are much studied but elude definition.

RG_Agenda_urban_empowerment_RThe density of programmes and schemes that envelop urban-dwellers — those whose households hover above or below a poverty line, those whose informal wage earnings are insufficient to maintain a crumbling housing board tenement — is confusing, inside administrations as much as outside them. The thicket of entitlements and provisions that have been designed, so we are told, to ensure the provision of ‘services’ and ‘amenities’, confounds navigation.

There are economically weaker sections and lower income groups to plan for (provided they remain weaker and lower); there are ‘integrated, reform-driven, fast-track’ sub-missions and components that are aimed at increasing the effectiveness and accountability of urban local bodies, all as part of the ‘Urban Infrastructure and Governance’ standards to be applied under the Urban Infrastructure Development Schemes for Small and Medium Towns (UIDSSMT, which defies any attempt to make acronyms pronounceable) in 65 mission cities.

Prominent within this grand and swelling orchestra of urbanisation are some of the star creations of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty-Alleviation. There is the Basic Services to the Urban Poor (BSUP) and the Integrated Housing and Slum Development Programme (IHSDP) and these round up the gamut of concepts proffered by the urban planning dogma of our times: “integrated development of slums through projects”, “providing for shelter, basic services and other related civic amenities with a view towards providing utilities to the urban poor”, “key pro-poor reforms that include the implementation of the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act”, and “delivery through convergence of other already existing universal services”.

There are public-private partnership templates to guide business (and the odd social entrepreneurship) through this new topology; there are special purpose vehicles formed that mendaciously grey the distinctions between bond and financial markets and the greater public good, but which we are assured will function as the money backstop for public administrations whose clerks peer befuddled at slick online reporting formats (transparency at work, round the clock, accessible through apps on the beneficiaries’ tablet phones).

RG_Agenda_urban_empowerment_GThere is ‘inclusion’ — that most essential salt that flavours the substance of governance today — to be found in every direction. There are plenty of beneficiaries to enlist in this urban social re-engineering that is proceeding on a scale and pace unthinkable a generation ago in our towns (public sector housing colonies and waiting lists for scooters), when ‘income inequality’ was an uncommon topic of discussion and ‘gini coefficient’ had yet to become a society’s alarm bell. The new cadre of GDP engineers is well schooled in the language of human rights and normative justice, and so we have ‘Social Mobilisation and Institution Development’ which attends ‘Employment through Skills Training and Placement’, both of which facilitate ’empowerment, financial self-reliance, and participation and access to government’.

About 30 years ago, The State of India’s Environment 1984-85 (Centre for Science and Environment) noted in a tone of cautious optimism that “planners are beginning to realise that squatters are economically valuable citizens who add to the gross national product by constructing their own shelter, no matter how makeshift, which saves the government a considerable amount of money”. That was a time when governments still sought to save money and the CSE report went on to explain that squatters “are upwardly mobile citizens in search of economic opportunity and have demonstrated high levels of enterprise, tenacity, and ability to suffer acute hardships; that the informal sector in which a majority of the slum-dwellers are economically active contributes significantly to the city’s overall economic growth; and that they should be helped and not hindered”.

[Articles in the Agenda issue, Urban Poverty, are: How to make urban governance pro-poor, Counting the urban poor, The industry of ’empowerment’, Data discrepancies, The feminisation of urban poverty, Making the invisible visible, Minorities at the margins, Housing poverty by social groups, Multidimensional poverty in Pune, Undermining Rajiv Awas Yojana, Resettlement projects as poverty traps, Participatory budgeting, Exclusionary cities.]

Are roads good for farmers or is research best? FAO’s annual measures both apples and oranges

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The FAO’s annual State of Food Agriculture in 2012 is called ‘investing in agriculture for a better future’. As the FAO’s premier ‘flagship’ report for the year, it is dense, is heavy with agri-oriented macro-economics, and is equally heavy with data and unabridged explanations of the roles of public investment and measures of agricultural productivity.

This is only a very fleeting sampling of the content of this year’s SOFA (as it is rather irreverently abbreviated into, both within FAO and outside it) and here I have picked out some thought-provoking material from the chapter on ‘channelling public investment towards higher returns’. [The State of Food and Agriculture main page is here. For those in a hurry there is an executive summary. The full report [pdf] can be found here.]

The magnitudes in the left panel are returns to one monetary unit of different types of public spending in terms of the value of agricultural production or productivity expressed in the same monetary unit. The agricultural performance variable is measured slightly differently in each country: agricultural GDP in China, agricultural total factor productivity in India, and agricultural labour productivity in Uganda. The magnitudes in the right panel are the reductions in the population size of the poor per monetary unit spent in each area of spending. The respective monetary units are: one million rupees in India; 10,000 yuan in China; and one million Ugandan shillings in Uganda. Chart: FAO SOFA 2012

The magnitudes in the left panel are returns to one monetary unit of different types of public spending in terms of the value of agricultural production or productivity expressed in the same monetary unit. The agricultural performance variable is measured slightly differently in each country: agricultural GDP in China, agricultural total factor productivity in India, and agricultural labour productivity in Uganda. The magnitudes in the right panel are the reductions in the population size of the poor per monetary unit spent in each area of spending. The respective monetary units are: one million rupees in India; 10,000 yuan in China; and one million Ugandan shillings in Uganda. Chart: FAO SOFA 2012

Country studies in several regions have found – said SOFA 2012 – positive relationships between government expenditure on agriculture and growth in agricultural and total GDP, while confirming that the type of expenditure matters. “In Rwanda,” said SOFA, “1 dollar of additional government expenditures on agricultural research increases agricultural GDP by 3 dollars, but the effects were larger for staples such as maize, cassava, pulses and poultry than for export crops. In India, expenditures aimed at improving productivity in livestock had greater returns and were more effective in mitigating poverty than general public investment in agriculture.”

The magnitudes are the reductions in the number of poor people per monetary unit spent in each area of expenditure. The respective monetary units are: one million baht in Thailand (i.e. reduction of number of poor people per one million baht spent in different sectors); one million rupees in India; 10 000 yuan in China; and one million Ugandan shillings in Uganda. Chart: FAO SOFA 2012

The magnitudes are the reductions in the number of poor people per monetary unit spent in each area of expenditure. The respective monetary units are: one million baht in Thailand (i.e. reduction of number of poor people per one million baht spent in different sectors); one million rupees in India; 10 000 yuan in China; and one million Ugandan shillings in Uganda. Chart: FAO SOFA 2012

The FAO report quotes from and refers to substantial literature on public investment in agricultural research and development, which SOFA 2012 shows has been one of the most effective forms of public investment over the past 40 years. The FAO’s prescription (or should it be direction?) is that because R&D drives technical change and productivity growth in agriculture, it raises farm incomes and reduces prices for consumers. I do think bits like this (which do tend to litter recent SOFAs) ought to be balanced by other views from FAO’s abundant research on ‘technical change’ and ‘productivity growth’, concepts that for the majority of small cultivators and for the majority of poor consumers of food mean more varieties of processed food from a shrinking variety of cereals being made available at higher prices.

Regrettably, the FAO burbles on about how “the benefits multiply throughout the economy as the extra income is used to purchase other goods and services, which in turn create incomes for their providers”, and about how “the welfare effects are large and diffuse, benefiting many people who are far removed from agriculture, so they are not always recognised as stemming directly from agricultural research”.

Surely, a tome as magisterial as the SOFA is meant to be needn’t grasp at such emblematic straws? For most smallholder cultivating households, the portion of agricultural income in total household income varies widely, and varies within a year between seasons. It is in my view therefore quite impossible to speak of benefits multiplying throughout the economy and of immeasurable but present welfare effects. How and for who, a SOFA should tell us, but this one does not.

The SOFA 2012 has added that “after agricultural R&D, the ranking of returns to other investment areas differs by country, suggesting that public investment priorities depend on local conditions, but rural infrastructure and road development are often ranked among the top sources of overall economic growth in rural areas”. Yes indeed they are, and I can say from experience in India that a better road (not a ‘good’ road, which is hard to find especially once a couple of monsoon months have had their way with roads) does local ‘mandis’ (farmers’ markets) much good.

The magnitudes are returns to one monetary unit of different types of public spending in terms of increased agricultural production or productivity measured in the same monetary unit. The agricultural performance variable is measured slightly differently in each country: agricultural GDP in China, agricultural total factor productivity in India, and agricultural labour productivity in Thailand and Uganda. Chart: FAO SOFA 2012

The magnitudes are returns to one monetary unit of different types of public spending in terms of increased agricultural production or productivity measured in the same monetary unit. The agricultural performance variable is measured slightly differently in each country: agricultural GDP in China, agricultural total factor productivity in India, and agricultural labour productivity in Thailand and Uganda. Chart: FAO SOFA 2012

“In Ethiopia, said the SOFA, access to all-weather roads reduced poverty by 6.9 percent and increased consumption growth by 16.3 percent. Returns to public investment in road infrastructure in Ethiopia were by far the highest of all categories. In Uganda, the marginal returns to public spending on feeder roads on agriculture output and poverty reduction was three to four times larger than the returns to public spending on larger roads.”

Well, yes and no is my view. Roads are used for non-agricultural purposes too, and tend more often than not to ‘open up’ (for better or worse) land use options along their length. If the incomes of agriculturally-dependent households became more varied because of family members being able to use new roads to find new wage opportunities (not necessarily agriculture-related) then how is one to apportion the additional benefit between being able to cart crop produce with less trouble than earlier, and between making use of a new informal labour transportation option that brings in extra wage earnings?

“Public goods in rural areas also tend to be complementary,” said SOFA 2012. In general yes, I agree. But then the SOFA cues the industrial-speak. “For example, in Bangladesh, villages with better infrastructure benefited more from agricultural research than villages with poorer infrastructure; they used more irrigation, improved seed and fertiliser, paid lower fertiliser prices, earned higher wages and had significantly higher production increases”.

This is an over-optimistic way of putting matters, and analogously, urban households that have access to a faster broadband service ‘benefit’ more from e-governance than households still using dial-up modems – but is there a demonstrable link to better or lower income? Moreover, ‘more’ and ‘better’ and ‘improved’ really is the language of industrial agriculture (and I can’t see lower fertiliser prices having been any more than a blip, certainly not a lasting condition).

The FAO’s SOFAs are always exceedingly valuable volumes, and provide much that sharpens our knowledge about food and agriculture, and they certainly widen our views about factors that can convincingly be linked with others which were hitherto ignored (or not attempted because of a lack of data). There is however to FAO first and to its many hundreds of thousands of ‘dependents’ (self included) next, the danger of following too enthusiastically (and uncritically) the ‘growth is good’ and hence more ‘growth is better’ train of advice. No doubt SOFA 2012 has passages that are likely more judicious, and we will examine these over the next few months.

By lanternlight in rural Asia

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The Shivalaya Bazaar, Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, India

One of the magazines of the CR Media group of Singapore interviewed me about energy needs in rural Asia. My responses to some thoughtful questions have been published, although I don’t have a link yet to any of the material online. Until then, here’s a selection of questions and replies.

Do you have a case study or know of an innovative instance when an Asian country has broken the mould successfully in generating energy for its citizens in a way that is remarkable?

When you travel in rural South Asia you see that in almost every unelectrified village there is a flourishing local trade in kerosene and kerosene lanterns for lighting, car batteries and battery-charging stations for small TV sets, dry cell batteries for radios, diesel fuel and diesel generator sets for shops and small businesses and appliances. It’s common to spot people carrying jerricans or bottles of kerosene from the local shop, or a battery strapped to the back of a bicycle, being taken to the nearest charging station several kilometres away. People want the benefits that electricity can bring and will go out of their way, and spend relatively large amounts of their income, to get it. That represents the opportunity of providing power for energy appliances at the household level (LED lamps, cookstoves, solar- and human-powered products) and of community-level power generation systems (village bio-gasification, solar and small-scale hydro and wind power).

Household income and electricity access in developing countries, IEA, World Energy Outlook 2010

Household income and electricity access in developing countries, IEA, World Energy Outlook 2010

In areas such as western China, the South American rainforest or the Himalayan foothills, the cost of a rural connection can be seven times that in the cities. Solar power has spread rapidly among off-grid communities in developing countries, only sometimes subsidised. A typical solar home system today in South Asia provides light, power for TVs, radios and CD players, and most important charges mobile phones. At US$ 400-500, such a system is not cheap for rural Asia, especially when households are struggling with rising food and transport costs. But targeted subsidies and cheap micro-credit has made this energy option more affordable.

How can Asian countries cooperate to bring a new energy reality into Asia and balance development with conservation?

Let’s see what some authoritative forecasts say. The Sustainable World Energy Outlook 2010 from Greenpeace makes projections of renewable energy generation capacity in 2020: India 146 GW, developing Asia 133 GW, China 456 GW. These are enormous quantities that are being forecast and illustrate what has begun to be called the continental shift eastwards of generation and power. India dwarfs developing Asia the way China dwarfs India – the conventional economies today reflect this difference in scale. It’s important to keep in mind, while talking about energy, that Asia’s committed investment and planned expansion is centred to a very great degree around fossil fuel.

Factory and high-tension power lines, Mumbai, India

Certainly there are models of regional cooperation in other areas from where lessons can be drawn, the Mekong basin water sharing is a prominent example. But cooperation in energy is a difficult matter as it is such an essential factor of national GDP, which has become the paramount indicator for East and South Asia. Conversely, it is because the renewables sector is still relatively so small in Asia that technical cooperation is flourishing – markets are distributed and small, technologies must be simple and low-cost to be attractive, and business margins are small, all of which encourage cooperation rather than competition.

What could be immediately done to help alleviate energy shortage in South Asia for the masses, at a low cost? Do you have a case study of this?

Let’s look at Husk Power Systems which uses biomass gasification technology to convert rice husk into gas. Burning this gas runs generators which produce relatively clean electricity at affordable rates. Rice husk is found throughout northern, central and southern India and is a plentiful fuel. While Husk Power says that the rice husk would otherwise be “left to rot in fields” that isn’t quite true, as crop biomass is used in many ways in rural South Asia, but the point here is that this entrepreneurial small company has successfully converted this into energy for use locally.

Household income and access to modern fuels in developing countries, IEA, World Energy Outlook 2010

Household income and access to modern fuels in developing countries, IEA, World Energy Outlook 2010

I think it’s important that access to energy be seen for its importance in achieving human development goals. Individuals in governments do see this as clearly as you and I, but disagreements over responsibility and zones of influence get in the way. Responsible private enterprise is one answer. If you look at micro-enterprise funders, like Acumen, they recognise that access to electricity is also about healthcare, water and housing, refrigerated vaccines, irrigation pumps and also lighting in homes so that children can study.

What issues (externalities etc) do Asian governments do not factor in when they go for new sources of energy?

The poverty factor has for years obscured many other considerations. Providing energy, infrastructure and jobs has been the focus of central and provincial governments, and in the process issues such as environmental degradation and social justice have often been overlooked. That has been the pattern behind investment in large, national centrally-funded and directed power generation plans and in many ways it continues to shape centralised approaches to renewable energy policy.

Developing Asia is still mired in the legacy bureaucracies that have dominated (and continue to) social sector programmes, which for decades have been the cornerstone of national ‘development’. Energy is still seen as a good to be allocated by the government, even if the government does not produce it. And it still takes precedence over other considerations – ecosystem health, sustainable natural resource management – because of this approach. If India has a huge programme to generate hydroelectricity from the rivers in the Himalaya, there is now ample evidence to show both the alterations to river ecosystems downstream and the drastic impacts of submergence of river valleys, let alone the enormous carbon footprint of constructing a dam and the associated hydropower systems. Yet this is seen as using a ‘renewable’ source of energy.

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”.

Asia’s epic urban sagas

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Courtesy UN-Habitat: Waterside shanties in the Philippines.

Courtesy UN-Habitat: Waterside shanties in the Philippines.

National governments and planning authorities in Dhaka, Islamabad and New Delhi are tending more and more to follow a single ideology – economic growth will drive down poverty – and a primary route to that misplaced objective, which is greater urbanisation. These governments are therefore commissioning a welter of studies and reports, from within and without, to show their citizens why more cities and towns are a good thing (jobs and citizen services, they say) and why mobilising a great deal of money to build infrastructure for these settlements is a good thing (more jobs, more ‘development’).

The cleverer authorities are linking South Asia’s rising urban trendline to a variety of socio-economic goods, such as product and monetary innovation, such as cities being the wellsprings of social entrepreneurship, such as greater tax receipts which will help accumulate funds for social sector spending on the poor and marginalised. For companies and banks that deal with the building of big infrastructure, its engineering, its operation and its financing, this is a persistent swell of good news, and this group is doing everything it can to sustain the urbanisation wave.

[You can find my full essay at Energy Bulletin]

The raw numbers are on the side of the powerful urban-centric cabal. Among the world’s cities ranked by average population growth rate per year (in per cent) for 2006-2020, there are 37 South Asian cities (Afghanistan 1, Bangladesh 3, India 25, Pakistan 8) and 8 in China in the top 100. In the next 100, there are 20 cities in China and 11 in India. Asia’s two biggest countries have between them 64 of the top 200 cities that are projected, by the global group of city mayors, to grow the fastest in the next decade. This extraordinary prognosis for the two most populous countries – both of which have become economic powers – has enormous implications for global energy, food and resource flows.

When China and India buy material (as they have been doing, with China’s headstart over the rest of the BRIC/BASIC group placing it in a league of resource acquisition by itself), entire populations of supplier countries will face the consequences. Moreover, much of the material the two countries will commandeer will be directed towards their cities. China’s urban population is already 45% of its total population, while India’s is 30% and set to grow faster than it has at any period until now. There are combined numbers so large in the cities of China and India that the implications of the consumption by this grouping alone have become too profound to internalise for planners and administrators. Amongst the 300 most populous cities in the world, 97 are in China and these 97 are home to 243.98 million people (2010 estimate); 26 are in India and these 26 are home to 90.38 million people (2010 estimate).

In the state of Goa, western India, new residential blocks loom over shrinking fields.

In the state of Goa, western India, new residential blocks loom over shrinking fields. The produce from such fields once fed the capital city of Panaji, which now imports food 130 kilometres from the neighbouring state of Karnataka

What do we know about India’s food consumption patterns? Let’s look at some numbers to illustrate this. India’s most admirable National Sample Survey Organisation has just begun releasing summary data from its 2007-08 survey of household consumption (the earlier such ’round’, as it is called, pertained to the 2004-05 period). In rural India, average monthly per capita cereal consumption was around 10.3 kg for the poorest 10% of the population. (The survey distributes both rural and urban populations by ten ‘deciles’ – bands of 10% – which correspond to level of consumption expenditure.) It was between 11 and 12 kg for each of the next six decile classes, and was above 12 kg for the top three decile groups.

This means that for rural India, there is a strong positive correlation between ability to spend on food and quantum of consumption of cereals – the greater the household income, they more it is able to spend on staple foodgrain. In urban India, per capita cereal consumption increased from under 9.5 kg to about 10 kg per month over the first four decile classes but then showed a tendency to fall slightly rather than to rise in parallel with further increases in total expenditure.

This indicates the fulfilment of staple foodgrain needs and that expenditure on food thereafter is on cereal substitutes, processed food or eating out (what the surveys call ‘purchased cooked meals’), and fruit. Average cereal consumption per person per month was 11.7 kg in rural India and 9.7 in urban India. From this it would appear that the average urban person’s monthly cereal intake was about 2 kg less (a difference of 67 gm per day) than that of the average rural person. But it needs to be factored in that in urban areas the cereal content of processed foods and eating out (‘purchased cooked meals’) gets left out in the estimation of cereal consumption, which is why the difference in cereal consumption between the two may be less than it appears.

The FAO food price index plotted from 2000 to early 2010

The FAO food price index plotted from 2000 to early 2010

India’s urban national average of per capita daily cereal consumption is 9.7 kg. At this average, we are able to gauge the cereal supply needs of cities with populations of over a million. Using population estimates for 2010 (from the City Mayors website database) we find:

Pimpri-Chinchwad (Maharashtra) with a metro population of 1.515 million consumes 483 tons of cereals a day
Nagpur (Maharashtra) with a metro population of 2.42 million consumes 772 tons of cereals a day
Varanasi (Bihar) with a metro population of 3.15 million consumes 1,005 tons of cereals a day
Ludhiana (Punjab) with a metro population of 4.40 million consumes 1,403 tons of cereals a day
Hyderabad (Andhra Pradesh) with a metro population of 6.29 million consumes 2,006 tons of cereals a day
Kolkata (West Bengal) with a metro population of 15.42 million consumes 4,918 tons of cereals a day
Mumbai (Maharashtra) with a metro population of 21.2 million consumes 6,761 tons of cereals a day

These daily consumption demands mean movement, by road and rail, of food produce citywards at prodigious scales. In Navi Mumbai, an urban satellite of Mumbai which is a fair-sized city by itself today, lies the food wholesale depot that marshals and redirects the daily procession of trucks, lorries, light commercial vehicles and pick-ups bringing food for Mumbai’s millions. The number of vehicular movements in this yard are reckoned to be over 2,000 every day which indicates the vast physical reach of the giant city’s food gathering subsystem, one that holds in its thrall a region that could comfortably encompass western Europe.

Shrinking cereals, growing food parks

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Local grain in Mapusa market, North Goa

Local grain in Mapusa market, North Goa

This short comment has been written for India’s alternative economics group, Macroscan, and you’ll find it here.

The first release of summary data from the 64th round of the National Sample Survey Organisation, ‘Household Consumer Expenditure in India 2007-08‘ (NSSO report 530), captures the early impact of the rising trend in food prices for rural and urban India. This period is significant in the recent history of food price rise in India, for it signals the strengthening of the factors that led to the retail food price highs of 2008 which began to be recorded around two years earlier. Several of the most important factors have to do with the rapid pace of urbanisation (most visible in the non-metro tier 1 cities) and the steady growth in the food processing and food logistics industries, which has taken place alongside the deepening of the agricultural commodity markets.

“To judge from survey data of food intakes, the situation has been getting worse rather than improving, at least in terms of per capita calories consumed, and this phenomenon is fairly widespread affecting all classes, rural and urban and those below and above the poverty threshold,” the FAO report, ‘World agriculture: towards 2030/2050‘ had stated in 2006 in its comment on India’s growth-malnutrition paradox. The report’s authors had at the time commented that matters in India “are getting worse in the rural areas as people have to pay more than before for things like fuel and other basic necessities of life” and that rural incomes have not improved at anything near the rates implied by the high overall economic growth rates.

To illustrate the continuing impact of rising cereal prices on rural households in Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa, district per capita incomes for 2004-05 to 2009-10 are estimated for five representative districts from these states. These are districts that record a median per capita income based on data for the 2004-05 year (the last NSSO household consumption survey year) available with the Planning Commission’s district domestic product tables: Bhabua in Bihar, Dhamtari in Chhattisgarh, Deoghar in Jharkhand, Khandwa in Madhya Pradesh and Jajpur in Orissa. The per capita income increases in these districts are recorded upto 2006-07, and taking the national GDP growth rate for the years following (9.7%, 9.2%, 6.7% and 7.2%) the overall finding is that statistical per capita income increases are between 36% (for Khandwa) and 47% (for Dhamtari) for the period 2005-06 to 2009-10.

Expenditure on food and non-food needs, Indian states

Expenditure on food and non-food needs, Indian states

In these five states, the cereals basket occupies a dominant share of monthly per capita expenditure (MPCE) on food, accounting for 42% of MPCE on food and 25% of total MPCE in Bihar, 41% and 21% in Chhattisgarh, 42% and 25% in Jharkhand, 33% and 17% in Madhya Pradesh, and 42% and 24% in Orissa. The impact of a steady upward trend in the prices of cereals in these states – whose rural households spend roughly the same on food as they do on non-food needs (see Chart 1) – can be gauged from retail price data on essential food items collected by the Department of Economics and Statistics, Ministry of Agriculture. This data, although the most reliable weekly series recorded in a number of centres in the country, is weakened by deficiencies (gaps in series, numerical mismatches and so on). Even so, the patterns they provide are valuable.

From 2005 January to 2010 January, the prices of atta in Sehore and Bhopal (MP), of desi wheat in Bhopal and of maize in Patna have risen by 200%. The prices of ‘kalyan’ wheat (a widespread HYV cultivar) in Bhopal, Sehore and Patna (Bihar) have risen by 173% to 177%; the prices of maize in Ranchi (Jharkhand) and common quality rice in Bhubaneshwar (Orissa) have risen by 171%; the prices of ‘desi’ wheat in Patna and atta in Ranchi have risen 170%; and the prices of common rice in Cuttack and in Dhanbad (Jharkhand) have risen by 169% and 164%. Over this period, the price of the available basket of cereals has risen 157% in Cuttack, 162% in Bhubaneshwar, 159% in Sehore, 174% in Bhopal, 176% in Patna, 166% in Ranchi and 152% in Dhanbad.

Erratic data posting (and possibly validation difficulties) have meant that a better understanding of the food baskets of North-East India is yet to be achieved. Even so, NSSO 530 shows the heavy reliance by the households of the North-Eastern states on cereals (rice) with the regional average consumption greater than that of the states of eastern and central India in which rice also play a major dietary role: West Bengal, Orissa, Chhattisgarh, Bihar and Jharkhand. What Chart 2 illustrates is that for those regional populations dependent on rice, the cost of this dependency is high.

Cereal consumption and prices, Indian states

Cereal consumption and prices, Indian states

This is not so for wheat in Punjab and Haryana, whose average per capita consumption quantity of the cereal is both relatively low (as a percentage of the cereal component of the food basket) and less expensive. For Gujarat, Maharashtra and Karnataka – all three states affected by rapid urbanisation and absorbed by the race to build urban and transport infrastructure – their rural households are far less dependent on a single cereal than their counterparts in North-East, Eastern or North India. Wheat is the preferred cereal in Gujarat but accounts for no more than 40% of the total cereals purchase; rice is the preferred cereal in Karnataka but accounts for no more than 53% of the total cereals purchase; wheat is the preferred cereal in Maharashtra but accounts for no more than 36% of the total cereals purchase.

Food inflation is now a concern for the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) which has begun to make direct causal links between per capita availability of foodgrains and high retail prices. Deepak Mohanty, executive director of RBI, in an address on ‘Inflation Dynamics in India: Issues and Concerns’ (March 2010) has also drawn a connection between food prices the minimum support price (MSP) announced by the Government of India for procurement of various commodities. “The high increase in MSP since 2007-08 has given an upward bias to agricultural prices. Reduced availability of foodgrains also tends to keep food prices high. As per the Economic Survey 2009-10, per capita net availability per day of cereals and pulses has been lower than that observed in the previous four decades. The per capita daily availability of foodgrains was 447 grams in the 1960s and 1970s, which successively increased to 459 grams in the 1980s and 478 grams in the 1990s but came down to 446 grams during 2000-08 and stood still lower at 436 grams in 2008.”

At the same time, the Government of India has approved proposals for joint ventures and foreign collaboration (including 100% FDI) in processed food businesses (including 100% export oriented units), and “mega food parks”. According to Indian Credit Rating Agency (ICRA), the processed food market accounts for 32% of the total food market with the “most promising” sub-sectors listed as soft-drink bottling, confectionery manufacture, fishing, aquaculture, grain-milling and grain-based products, meat and poultry processing, alcoholic beverages, milk processing, tomato paste, fast-food, ready-to-eat breakfast cereals, food processing, food additives and flavours. From the point of view of the major national industry associations (CII, FICCI, Assocham) the approximately 7,500 regulated mandis lack critical infrastructure, the provision of which will cost at least Rs 12,000 at 2009 prices. The potential of the public-private partnership model in the foods business is seen by industry as being embodied in ventures such as Safal market in Karnataka (considered an example of wholesale market modernisation), ITC’s e-Chaupal, Hariyali Kisan Bazaar, Mahindra Shubh Labh, Cargill Farmgate Business and Tata Kisan Sansar.

Removed from such a view are the recurrent protests since late 2009 in a number of urban centres over food inflation, urgent signals that the increasing corporatisation of food production, procurement, movement and distribution is contributing to household food insecurity, particularly amongst the rural and urban poor. The ‘Report on the State of Food Insecurity in Rural India‘ (M S Swaminathan Research Foundation) explicitly stated that “over the longer period of 1993-94 to 2004-05, the states of Karnataka, Orissa and Madhya Pradesh show significant increase in the percentage of population suffering acute calorie deprivation. On the whole, it is clear that, by our measure of food insecurity, the period of economic reforms and high GDP growth has not seen an improvement in food security but deterioration for the majority of Indian states.”

India’s mobility merchants

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Urban demand for automobiles and a government intent on road-building to feed that demand, never mind the alternatives and energy implications, are the subject of my recent article in the Economic & Political Weekly. It builds on a post I wrote here in January 2010.

Hoarding cluster in Mumbai, Maharashtra, to launch a new car

Hoarding cluster in Mumbai, Maharashtra, to launch a new car

The all-round optimism for a decade of automobile manufacturing requires an assurance that the infrastructure-building commitment and investment will not slacken. That assurance comes from a comprehensive ‘Master Plan’ prepared for the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways which advocates a sprawling ‘Indian National Expressway Network’. The final project report of this master plan was released by the ministry in November 2009, only two months before the 10th Auto Expo.

This master plan contains the rationale for and routes to comprise a vast expressway network of 18,600 kilometres, to be built in three phases each concluding in 2012, 2017 and 2022, and which proposes to employ both public-private partnership and annuity modes of financing and project execution. Moreover, the master plan seeks the creation of a National Expressway Authority of India to oversee this gigantic task, which will have extensive and over-riding powers and amongst whose important functions will be the expediting of land acquisition for the many sections.

Finally, the master plan has called for “innovative and feasible measures to improve the financial viability (including ploughing back of profit generated from real estate development, commercial development of wastelands etc)” to finance the 60 different sections of the proposed expressways network.

These two developments – the underwriting by the Government of India, through the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways and associated ministries and departments; and the growth of the automobile market in India to which commitments have been made by industry – taken together have presented us worrying new evidence concerning the kind of development we will see in urban and urbanising India over the next decade. There are a host of related concerns:

Autorickshaws in Vadodara, Gujarat

Autorickshaws in Vadodara, Gujarat

(1) On transport and public transit alone, the automobile-centric practices and policies embodied in the 10th Auto Expo, the Automotive Mission Plan and the national expressways network master plan push alternative modes of transportation (including the high-potential bus rapid transit systems, such as is now being introduced in Ahmedabad) into the background.

(2) From both government and from industry there is very little recognition of the possible scenarios that can govern the availability of fuels (certainly of fossil fuels until 2022) needed to fulfil the 10th Auto Expo’s consumerist theme of ‘Mobility For All’. This fundamental linkage should have hit home, for amidst announcements of new models came the regular bulletin from the Ministry of Commerce which stated that India’s crude oil imports rose 6.1% in November 2009, climbing to 10.48 million metric tons from 9.88 million tons a year earlier.

(3) India is already the fourth largest aggregate emitter of greenhouse gases worldwide and the country needs to be far more creative and visionary about creating a low-carbon future for its citizens. Industry and individual citizens will increasingly be called upon to be responsible for their manufacturing and consuming patterns relating to emissions and resource use. However, neither in the practice nor in policies government the automobile industries sector and the roads and highways part of infrastructure is there discussion about emissions equity in the country.

(4) Despite the efforts being made to integrate urban planning and transportation alternatives under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission, the pro-automobile policies pay negligible attention to the inelastic demand created for cars in India, which are kept at a high pitch by the automobile (and financing) industry through extensive advertising. There are no significant measures, whether regulatory or persuasive, to temper this demand. Moreover, the huge direct demand for land (for use as expressways, highways, widened roads, etc), and the indirect impacts of change in land use that will impact agriculture most of all are externalised costs that both rural and urban public are already bearing, and which appear in no real costs analysis of a pro-automobile mobility choice.

Read the full article in the February 27, 2010, issue of the Economic & Political Weekly. The EPW pdf is here too.