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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.

‘Do or die’ year for agriculture

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“If we don’t take steps to address the serious ecological, economic and social crises facing our farm families, we will be forced to support foreign farmers, through extensive food imports.”
“This will result in a rise in food inflation, increase the rural-urban and rich-poor divides and allow the era of farmers’ suicides to persist.”
“On the other hand, we have a unique opportunity for ensuring food for all by mobilizing the power of Yuva and Mahila Kisans and by harnessing the vast untapped yield reservoir existing in most farming systems through synergy between technology and public policy.”
“2010 is a do or die year for Indian agriculture.”

An increased number of residents of the terai are now food insecure as a result of unusually heavy rains earlier this month

An increased number of residents of the terai are now food insecure as a result of unusually heavy rains earlier this month

So says Prof M S Swaminathan, India’s best-known agriculture scientist, who established the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation in 1988. Chastened by the limitations of the ‘green revolution’, the MSSRF’s mission is the conservation and enhancement of natural resources, and generation of agricultural, rural and off-farm employment with a particular emphasis on the poor and the women.

Swaminathan made these points in a blunt, hard-hitting and no-nonsense convocation address at the Punjab Agricultural University in Ludhiana on 10 February 2010. The content of his address should have attracted national attention, because of the urgency of his tone and also because of the specific, very feasible institutional transformations his suggestions will need. He talked about adaptation to climate change and explained that a group of scientists led by the MSSRF have undertaken studies during the last five years in Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh on climate change adaptation measures. The districts chosen were Udaipur in Rajasthan and Mehabubnagar in Andhra Pradesh. The approach adopted was to bring about a blend of traditional wisdom and modern science through farmer participatory research.

MSS mentioned five particular points of adaptation:
1. Water conservation and sustainable and equitable use
2. Promoting fodder security
3. More crop and income per drop of water
4. Weather information for all and climate literacy
5. Strengthening community institutions

He said these interventions were supported by training and skill development and education and social mobilization. A training manual was prepared by MSSRF for training one woman and one male member of every Panchayat as Climate Risk Managers. Such local level Climate Risk Managers will be well trained in the art and science of managing weather abnormalities. The work has highlighted the need for location specific adaptation measures and for participatory research and knowledge management.

“The adaptation interventions have also highlighted the need for mainstreaming gender considerations in all interventions. Women will suffer more from Climate Change, since they have been traditionally in charge of collecting water, fodder and fuel wood, and have been shouldering the responsibility for farm animal care and post-harvest technology. All interventions should therefore be pro-nature, pro-poor and pro-women.”

Sujit Kumar Mondal and his wife Rupashi Mondal of Gopalgonj district in southern Bangladesh working in their floating garden.

Sujit Kumar Mondal and his wife Rupashi Mondal of Gopalgonj district in southern Bangladesh working in their floating garden.

“It is clear that to promote location specific and farmer-centric adaptation measures; India will need a Climate Risk Management Research and Extension Centre at each of the 127 agro-ecological regions in the country. Such centres should prepare Drought, Flood and Good Weather Codes what can help to minimize the adverse impact of abnormal weather and to maximize the benefits of favourable monsoons and temperature. Risk surveillance and early warning should be the other responsibilities of such centres. Thus the work done so far has laid the foundation for a Climate Resilient Agriculture Movement in India. The importance of such a Movement will be obvious considering the fact that 60% of India’s population of 1.1 billion depend upon agriculture for their livelihood. In addition, India has to produce food, feed and fodder for over 1.1 billion human, and over a billion farm animal population.”

It is a shared responsibility, said MSS, and one that the non-farming, urban population must recognise and help bear. “Urban and non-farming members of the human family should realize that we live on this planet as the guests of sunlight and green plants, and of the farm women and men who toil in sun and rain, and day and night, to produce food for over 6 billion people, by bringing about synergy between green plants and sunlight. Let us salute the farmers of the world and help them to help in achieving the goal of a hunger free world, the first among the U N Millennium Development Goals.”

These points are made at a time when India (or rather the central government and key ministries) still places economic growth as a priority rather than ecologically sustainable existence which is mindful of cultural traditions and which builds on extensive systems of traditional knowledge to take a human development route that is climate neutral. From 2007 onwards, there have been major intergovernmental and international studies on the impacts of climate change (including on agriculture). Several of these have shown that in South and East Asia, rice yields are affected. For most crops and regions, carbon fertilisation accentuates the positive impacts and mitigates the negative ones. However, there is considerable uncertainty about the true impact of carbon fertilisation. Among developing countries, the number of countries which ‘lose’ exceed the number of countries that ‘gain’, and their decrease in cereal production was greater than gains elsewhere.

Developing countries are worse off, where agriculture is concerned, said an OECD study in 2008 titled ‘Costs of Inaction on Key Environmental Challenges’. For example, the scenario with the highest CO2 concentration showed a 7% decline for developing countries. For developed countries, yields actually increased under all scenarios, but the global effect was always negative, or (at best) neutral. Not only was there significant variation across countries; the implications for the risk of hunger also varied greatly, depending on assumptions made about the fertilising effects of increasing CO2 concentrations.

“Assuming ‘no action’ is taken with respect to emissions, positive changes in yields (due to warming, precipitation, and crop fertilisation) in mid and high latitudes were predicted to be more than compensated by reductions in the lower latitudes, particularly in Africa and the Indian sub-continent. Changing crop yields (and demands) will affect market prices for agricultural output, as well as land prices. Decreases in agricultural yields in developing countries are likely to have significant implications for risk of hunger.”

Moreover, there has been evidence enough of the links between reducing poverty and strengthening agriculture. A paper produced by DFID (the British official aid agency, in 2004) emphasises the historically close correlation between different rates of poverty reduction over the past 40 years and differences in agricultural performance – particularly the rate of growth of agricultural productivity. There are links described between agriculture and poverty reduction through four ‘transmission mechanisms’: 1) direct impact of improved agricultural performance on rural incomes; 2) impact of cheaper food for both urban and rural poor; 3) agriculture’s contribution to growth and the generation of economic opportunity in the non-farm sector; and 4) agriculture’s fundamental role in stimulating and sustaining economic transition, as countries (and poor people’s livelihoods) shift away from being primarily agricultural towards a broader base of manufacturing and services.

Why is this so important to India and so important now? An ADB paper explains (‘A General Equilibrium Analysis of the Impact of Climate Change on Agriculture in the People’s Republic of China’, by Fan Zhai, Tun Lin, and Enerelt Byambadorj, Asian Development Bank, 2010). Despite rapid growth in recent decades, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is no exception to the effects of climate change. It also faces a great challenge to meet increasing demand for agricultural products due to increasing population and income level in the coming years. In the PRC, agriculture accounted for 11.7% of the national gross domestic product (GDP) in 2006 and agricultural crop land occupied 157 million hectares. Agricultural production has enabled the country to feed a population of 1.3 billion people, more than a fifth of the world’s population, of whom 900 million live in rural areas, from an eighth of the world’s arable land.

“Global climate change could cause rises in temperature, redistribution of rainfall, and more frequent flooding and droughts, and do considerable damage to crop production and the agricultural sector in general,” says the ADB paper. “At the national level, overall impact on crop production, assuming there is no carbon dioxide (CO2) fertilisation, is an estimated 7 to 14% reduction in rice, 9 to 10% reduction in maize, and 2 to 9% reduction in wheat. Assuming an average drop of 7%, this means a reduction of almost 40 million metric tons of food grain, and 20% of the global grain trade. Such a loss would undermine food security in the PRC, with particular health consequences for the poor and women, as females are primarily responsible for feeding the family.”