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Posts Tagged ‘NREGA

Eating out, or India’s exorbitant world food bill

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(This article was published by Vijayvaani in June 2017.)

In the Konkan, small electrically operated oil presses that ingest limited amounts of dried copra to expel oil for households to cook with are common. These can press enough in a day (electricity supply permitting) to fill several dozen glass bottles with coconut oil. As such a filled bottle of freshly pressed coconut oil usually sells for Rs 130 to Rs 160, the price per litre may be estimated at about Rs 180. This price compares quite well with the price range of Rs 190 to Rs 220 that is paid by the household buyer for a litre of branded coconut oil.

But it compares not at all with the trade price of an imported shipment of sunflower-seed or safflower oil which in 2016 was imported into India at an average price of just under Rs 60 per kilogram. India imported 1.53 million tons of sunflower-seed or safflower oil last year, and the Rs 9,080 crore spent on it pushed the total amount spent on imported ‘edible’ oils to beyond the Rs 70,000 crore mark. [The cultivation of oilseeds, like the cultivation of all ‘commercial’ crops that are not food staples, is a matter of crop choice, for which see ‘Why our kisans must make sustainable crop choices’.]

Palm oil

Both by weight and by the total amount paid for it, palm oil is the most visible imported food commodity in India today, and has been for the last five years. In 2016 India imported 8.25 million tons of palm oil (the supplying countries being Malaysia and Indonesia) for which the importing agencies paid Rs 38,900 crore. This immense annual flood of a sort of oil that ought never to have touched our shores let alone ooze into our home kitchens and canteens came at less than Rs 48 per kilogram last year. For this reason – the absurdly low price per landed ton of Malaysian and Indonesian palm oil, a low price that hides from the Indian consumer the deforestation devastation and species extinction in those countries, new cooking oil blends are being shoved into the foods market every other month by the edible oils industry.

Biomedical research which is independent and not either funded by or influenced by the oil palm industry and edible oil traders (which means the world’s largest commodity trading firms) indicates that palm oil, which is high in saturated fat and low in polyunsaturated fat, leads to heart disease. It is considered less harmful than partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, but that is no redemption, for palm oil can under no circumstance be compared to our traditional cooking oils, coconut included.

The colonisation of the Indian kitchen and of the processed foods industry by palm oil has taken place only on the basis of landed price per ton, and that is why this oleaginous menace is now found in many everyday products such as biscuits and crackers and cookies (which school children develop addictions for), snack chips, shampoos, skin care and beauty products, and even pet food. [For a longer discussion on this problem see ‘Let them eat biscuits’ and ‘Cornflakes and oats invasion, 10 rupees at a time’.]

Soya oil

The next largest oily invasion is that of soyabean oil, of which 3.89 million tons (mt) was imported by India in 2016 (3.5 mt in 2015, 2.1 mt in 2014). Most of this was of Argentinian origin, just over 3 mt, and because more than 98% of the soya that is grown in Argentina is genetically modified (GM) the millions of tons of soyabean oil India has imported from that country has been used, blended, fractionated, caked and consumed by humans and animals with no indication about its GM origin and with no tests whatsoever for its effects on human and animal health. In terms of rupees per landed kilogram of soyabean oil, at about Rs 53 it is between palm oil and sunflower-seed or safflower oil. These landed prices show dramatically the effect exporting countries’ subsidies for a commodity category have on the related industry (edible oils) in an importing country.

Just as the vast palm oil plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia have waxed luxuriant in place of the old growth tropical rainforests that were cut down, turning the wildlife of these forests into hapless refugees, swelling the lucrative and thoroughly illegal forest timber trade, so too have the vast soya plantations in Argentina immiserated that country’s rural population and caused hunger because of the soya monocrop that has replaced their food biodiversity and whose need for fertiliser grew (as it did with Bt cotton in India) instead of shrinking. Both these long-drawn out eco-social catastrophes have been prolonged because of the inability or unwillingness of Indian consumers and regulatory agencies to acknowledge the faraway effects of our considerable ‘demand’ for palm oil and soyabean oil.


Second to palm oil by weight amongst food commodities imported by India is pulses, of which 6.18 mt were imported in 2016 for a price of Rs 27,700 crore. The annual import pattern of a decade of 4 mt to more than 6 mt of imported pulses last year are a large fraction again of the average 18.7 mt of pulses a year grown in India for the last five years (until 2016-17).

Between 2003-04 and 2009-10 the quantity of pulses (tur or arhar, gram, moong, urad, other kharif and rabi pulses) harvested scarcely changed, averaging 14.2 mt over this period. There was a jump in 2010-11 to 18.2 mt and then another plateau followed until 2015-16, with the average for those six years being 17.7 mt. With the 22.7 mt estimated total pulses harvest in 2016-17, we can hope that another plateau is being scaled, and indeed this pattern of a plateau of several years followed by a modest increase does tend to indicate the following of a more agro-ecological cultivation of pulses (these being in rainfed farms) than intensive cultivation dependent on fertiliser, pesticide and commercial seed. [This does have much to do with cultivation practices in different regions, for which read ‘Seeing the growers of our food and where they are’.]


What is a new concern is an item that by weight is fourth on the list of food commodity items imported, and that is sucrose: India imported 2.11 mt in 2016, in 2015 it was 1.6 mt, in 2014 it was 1.37 mt. The country with the greatest consumption of sugar, estimated by the Ministry of Agriculture and the Department of Food and Public Distribution to be around 25 mt per year and growing disproportionately above the natural growth in the number of households, the processed and packaged food sector is the destination for the 2.11 mt of sucrose imported in 2016. A ready consumer for the sucrose is the commercial fruit juice sector, which bases its produce on a small amount of fruit pulp (vegetable extract is often added for bulk), water, chemical preservatives, food-like colours, artificial flavours and sweeteners.

The giant bulk of our sugarcane harvests distract from the ratios calculated – that a ton of raw sugar is obtained from 13 or 14 tons of cane. (This is usually net of jaggery / gur / khandsari and also net of molasses, which is used by distilleries and animal feed.) The mountains of bagasse – the crushed residue from which the sugar has been extracted – which remain are used in the paper and pulp industry, are an ingredient in cattle feed, and are used as biofuel. [Commercial crop or food crop is the question every cultivating household faces. See one district’s example in ‘Masses of cotton but mere scraps of vegetables’.]


At 730,000 tons imported in 2016 and under the international trade category of ‘edible fruit and nuts’ is cashew nuts and Brazil nuts, on which Rs 8,345 crore was spent. A second important sub-category is ‘dates, figs, pineapples, avocados, guavas, mangoes and mangosteens, fresh or dried’ and 350,000 tons were imported in 2016 (for Rs 6,204 crore), while 280,000 tons of apples, pears and quinces, 182,000 tons of ‘other nuts, fresh or dried’ were also imported.

Under 23 main categories food commodities, which include 167 sub-categories and more than 400 subsidiary categories, the bill for imported foods (including dairy and beverages) and food products that we purchased from all over the world in 2016 was USD 22,041 million (USD 22.04 billion), or at the average rupee-dollar exchange rate for 2016, Rs 152,088 crore! In 2015 this bill was USD 20,877 million which at the average annual rupee-dollar exchange rate for 2015 was Rs 137,794 crore. In 2014 this bill was USD 19,372 million which at the average annual rupee-dollar exchange rate for 2014 was Rs 123,015 crore.


These amounts are astronomical and underline the strength of globalisation’s thrall by which we are gripped, exerted upon us not only by the World Trade Organisation but also by the agreements that India has signed (or intends to, and demonstrates intent by importing) with regional trade blocs of the European Union, the OECD and ASEAN. The financial allocations to some of the largest central government programmes, and the budgetary sums of some of the biggest successes in the last three years shrink in comparison to the size of these purchases: the spectrum auction in 2015 brought in Rs 110,000 crore, the 2016-17 central government pensions budget of Rs 128,166 crore, the Rs 47,410 crore transferred so far as subsidy directly into accounts under the Direct Benefit Transfer for LPG consumer scheme, the expenditure of Rs 51,902 crore in 2016-17 on MGNREGA (the highest since its inception).

Bringing about stability in farmers’ incomes (let alone an increase), encouraging rural and peri-urban entrepreneurship based on traditional foods cultivated by agro-ecological methods, ensuring that consumers can find [read about the link with inflation in ‘The relative speeds of urban inflation’] and are assured by the quality of food staples which are free of GM ingredients, chemicals and additives, and the saving of enormous sums of money can all be had if we but reduce and then cut out entirely the wanton import of food and beverages, and processed and packaged food products.

What works, and doesn’t, in Maharashtra’s districts

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In an exercise to help determine how reports of the MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act or Nrega) can inform us, I have used the records of what the programme calls ‘outcomes’ in the form of ‘physical assets’ created for the community (or conditional use by groups of individuals, depending on the kind of asset) over a financial year.

RG_nrega_MAH_dists_G1_201607The year is 2015-16 and the districts are those of Maharashtra (34, Mumbai excluded). There are at present 17 categories of physical assets and these are: rural connectivity, flood control and protection, water conservation and water harvesting, drought proofing, micro irrigation works, provision of irrigation, renovation of traditional water bodies, land development, any other activity approved, sewa kendra, coastal areas, rural drinking water, fisheries, rural sanitation, anganwadi, playground, food grain.

RG_nrega_MAH_dists_G2_201607‘Works’ are recorded under each kind of physical asset, with these classified as having been ‘approved’, ‘taken up’ and ‘completed’ (with ‘taken up’ presumably meaning commenced but incomplete at the end of the financial year). What matters therefore is to study those that have been completed, as the kind of community asset created and certified as being completed would serve to indicate what the community has decided it needs as a priority.

RG_nrega_MAH_dists_G3_201607When so filtered, the number of completed physical assets in the 34 districts of Maharashtra for the year 2015-16 totalled 71,554 – a large number that helps describe why the Nrega records are so very voluminous: 1,376 ‘works’ completed every week in 34 districts, with tens of thousands of Nrega beneficiary individuals and households working to build, repair, revive, create them, and with a complex inventory of raw materials being required to be transported and paid for so that these works may take shape.

RG_nrega_MAH_dists_G4_201607What the list of completed works – type and number – describe is very instructive. Of the 17 categories, four (fisheries, anganwadi, playground and food grain) were recorded with not a single instance of having become a ‘work completed’ in any district. On the other hand, four kinds of physical assets accounted for a full 85% of the 71,554 works completed in Maharashtra’s 34 districts for 2015-16 and these were, in ascending order: drought proofing (8,110 and 11% of the total works), rural sanitation (12,234 and 17%), water conservation and water harvesting (14,384 and 20%), and provision of irrigation (26,496 and 37%).

RG_nrega_MAH_dists_G5_201607The popularity of the latter four can be well understood, as much for how they are all linked as for the precarious living conditions that every taluka in Maharashtra’s semi-arid districts face when the winter months end. These biases towards certain works but not others still do however need to be read with conditions, and keeping in mind that these are the works for but one financial year out of the last ten (albeit the definition of what constitutes an asset under Nrega has been altered and added to several times).

RG_nrega_MAH_dists_G6_201607The question that remains is: Maharashtra’s districts and blocks and villages occupy varying agro-ecological, hydrological and meteorological regions. Do their geographic and environmental circumstances not have a role to play in the decisions taken about what Nrega works should be taken up (and completed) as a priority over other kinds?

The charts presented here in groups of districts arranged according to their location amongst the six agro-ecological regions that Maharashtra occupies, indicate whether the Nrega ‘works’ process takes cognisance of the fundamental environmental factors upon which the village (and so panchayat, taluka, district) rest. The charts have been constrained to 200 on the vertical axis in order to preserve readability – values are given for each ‘work’ recorded by each district. The abbreviations for the ‘works’ (horizontal axis) are for the full forms found in the second paragraph.

Written by makanaka

July 12, 2016 at 22:28

Ten years of India’s great rural guarantee

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RG_Nrega_20160203Ten years of a rural employment guarantee programme in India is well worth marking for the transformations it has brought about in rural districts and urban towns both, for the two kinds of Indias are so closely interlinked. The ten year mark has been surrounded by opportunistic political posturing of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of the ruling National Democratic Alliance and by churlish accusations from the Indian National Congress (or Congress party, now in the opposition).

When the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act came about (it is now prefixed by MG, which is Mahatma Gandhi) ten years ago, it was only the newest in a long line of rural poverty alleviation programmes whose beginnings stretch past the Integrated Rural Development Programme (still a touchstone during the Ninth Five Year Plan) whose early period dates from the 1970s as a more coherent manifestation of the ‘Food For Work’ programme. Democratic decentralisation, which is casually dropped into central government communications nowadays as if it was invented only last week, was explained at length as early as the Sixth Five Year Plan. And in the Fourth Five Year Plan, in the guidance section it was stated that measures were needed for “widening opportunities of productive work and employment to the common man and particularly the less privileged sections of society” which “have to be thought out in a number of different contexts and coordinated in to effective, integrated programmes”.


Work demand patterns in four districts (all in Maharashtra) from 2012 April to 2016 February. The cyclical nature of work demanded usually coincides with crop calendar activities in districts and sub-districts. This aspect of the MGNREGA information system can be used as a good indicator for planning by other line ministries, not only rural development. We can see the difference between the set of two districts of Akola and Gondiya, and the districts of Washim and Hingoli: the cyclical nature in the first two is more pronounced. The April to June demand is seen common, and increasing over the three years recorded by the charts.

This is only the barest glimpse of the historical precursors to the MGNREGA. The size of our rural population in the decade of the 2010s transforms any national (central government) programme into a study of gigantism over a number of dimensions, and so it is with the (MG)NREGA whose procedural demands for organising information over time and place became a discipline by itself, leading to the creation of a management information system whose levels of detail are probably unmatched anywhere in the world.

For its administrators, every week that the MGNREGA delivers money to households in a hamlet for work sanctioned by that small panchayat is one more successful week. There have over this last decade been considerably more successful weeks than unsuccessful ones. This has happened not because of politicians of whichever party of persuasion, but because of the decision made by many households to participate in the shape that NREGA (and later MGNREGA) took in their particular village. The politicians, like the parties they belong to, are incidental and transitory. At this stage of the programme’s life, it is to be hoped that it continues to run as a participatory pillar of the economy of Bharat, and assimilates in the years to come new concerns from the domains of organic (or zero budget) agriculture, sustainable development and ecological conservation.

At this stage the commentaries look back at the last year or perhaps two of the programme. “It is unclear, however, what the present NDA government thinks about the performance of the scheme,” commented the periodical Down To Earth. “Last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called MGNREGA a ‘monument of failure’. Now, the rural development ministry has termed it as ‘a cause of national pride’.” The magazine went on to add that MGNREGA “started losing steam when wages were kept pending, leading to the liability being carried forward to the following year”.

“What is relatively less known is the impact of MGNREGA on several other aspects of the rural economy, such as wages, agricultural productivity and gender empowerment,” a commentary in the financial daily Mint has pointed out. “While most critics lament the quality of assets created under MGNREGA, there is now increasing evidence based on rigorous studies, which suggest that not only has the asset quality been better than comparable government programmes, they are also used more by the community.”

The finance minister has been quoted by the daily Indian Express as follows: “A kind of indifference towards it (MGNREGA) was growing by 2013-14, when the scheme entered its seventh and eighth years. When there was a change of government in 2014-15, there was talk on whether the scheme will be discontinued, or its fund allocation curtailed,” Minister Arun Jaitley is reported to have said at the MGNREGA ‘Sammelan’ in New Delhi. “The new government [the BJP] not only took forward the scheme but also increased its fund.”

In a Press Information Bureau release, the Minister for Rural Development, Birender Singh, said that 2015-16 has seen a revival of the MGNREGA programme. He also said that more than 64% of total expenditure was on agriculture and allied activities and 57% of all workers were women (well above the statutory requirement of 33%), and that among the measures responsible for the “revival of MGNREGA are the timely release of funds to states to provide work on demand, an electronic fund management system, consistent coordination between banks and post offices besides monitoring of pendency of payments”.

RG_Nrega_MAH_wages_201602So far so good. What MGNREGA administrators need to mind now is for managerial technology and methods to not get ahead (or around) the objectives of the programme because these tend to keep the poor and vulnerable out instead of the other way around. The evaluations and studies on NREGA – and there have been a number of good ones – have shown that the more new financial and administrative measures there are, the greater the decline in participation in the programme. Administrative complexity also provides fodder to those, like this pompous commentator, who try to find in data ‘evidence’ that NREGA does “not help the poor”.

The MGNREGA’s usefulness and relevance is not only about creating employment when it is needed and its generally positive impact on wages. For all its shortcomings the MGNREGA programme has also helped revitalise the need to understand labour dynamics in rural areas particularly as it pertains to agriculture and cultivation. At a time when the flashier sections of the modern economy have lost their shine (if ever there was a shine) and when the need for panchayat-led, village-centric development that is self-reliant in deed and spirit is growing in Bharat, a programme like the MGNREGA has all the potential to serve the country well for another generation.

Written by makanaka

February 3, 2016 at 19:04

The worth of an agricultural wage day

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Being unorganised, rural and particularly agricultural labour constitutes a relatively vulnerable segment of the work force. Rural and agricultural labour is generally deprived of the benefits of collective bargaining and lacks the protection of labour enactments which their counterparts in the organised sectors of the economy can fall back upon during times of work uncertainty, or calculated mismanagement. Agricultural labourers however have to live with casual employment, frequent changes of employers as well as places and wide fluctuations in the pay.

All-India average daily wage rates in agricultural occupations during 2014-2015 for children, women and men. Based on data compiled by the Labour Bureau, Ministry of Labour, Government of India

All-India average daily wage rates in agricultural occupations during 2014-2015 for children, women and men. Based on data compiled by the Labour Bureau, Ministry of Labour, Government of India

Farming remains at the centre of rural Indian life, even as more men and women today seek out non-farm work. Using data from the MGNREGA records, the proportion of men aged 15–59 working solely in agriculture fell from 41% in 2004–05 to 31% in 2011–12. The decline for women was smaller, from 40% to 35%. Many men and women combine farm work with non-farm labour, whether or not they participate in MGNREGA.

The labour scenario in a rural area is influenced by a number of factors such as its topography, natural resources, population growth, pressure on land, level of economic development, level of utilisation of resources and the institutional factors, namely, land tenure systems and inheritance laws.

Rural wages are considered to have risen steadily between 2004–05 and 2011–12, but the increase has been greater at higher wage levels compared with lower levels. MGNREGA records show that men’s daily wages for agricultural work grew by 50% between 2004–05 and 2011–12, women’s by 47%. Overall, growth in rural wages is higher in states and districts whose populations have greater participation in MGNREGA but it is important to note that MGNREGA plays only a modest role in wage increases.

Taking national averages, about a quarter of rural households participate in the programme, about 60% of these would like to work more days but are can’t get MGNREGA work. This widespread ‘rationing’ of work affects about 29% of all rural households, but percentages vary between regions. Households in the lowest income quintile worked only 23 days a year when they were allocated work.

The information base on the working and living conditions of this segment of labour market is scanty. The only major source of reliable information on socio-economic conditions of the rural labour is the Rural Labour Enquiry conducted by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) every five years. Consumer Price Index Numbers for Agricultural and Rural Labourers, released by the Bureau every month, provides a basis for minimum wages in agriculture under the Minimum Wages Act,1948.

Written by makanaka

December 31, 2015 at 23:50

The looters of India and what their robbery costs the people

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Subrata Roy, the head of the Sahara India group.  Photo: The Hindu

Subrata Roy, the head of the Sahara India group. Photo: The Hindu

A report in The Hindu, the English-language daily, of 2013 February 01 gives us some indication of the scale of robbery that the country continues to suffer, despite the anti-corruption protests that have waxed and waned over two years. The report also shows the impunity with which politically-connected business people can flout the law, evade tax, ignore court orders and stay out of jail. For the ordinary salaried Indian, a transfer from her or his bank account of 50,000 rupees or more (about USD 940 or EUR 690) must be accompanied by extra information that banks are required to demand. But for this super-rich set of looters, there are no restrictions when their transactions run into millions of dollars, euros or pound sterling.

The report in the Hindu has quoted a classified note made by the Financial Intelligence Unit of the Department of Revenue, Ministry of Finance, on 2012 March 30. This note contains what the department calls “spontaneous information” – this means information given to it by a foreign counterpart.

The report quotes the note’s contents: “Intelligence indicates that Subrata Roy Sahara, DOB 15/06/1948, has control over a financial account with a U.K. financial institution in the name of Aamby Valley (Mauritius) Ltd, account number 539469 and the account holder intends to transfer GBP 8 million from this account to SG Hambros Bank (Chanel Islands) Ltd, number 0464163 in the name of Aamby Valley (Mauritius) Ltd and a further GBP 190 million to Bank of China, London Branch account number 781505-0220-000 in the name of Aamby Valley (Mauritius) Ltd.”

The report in the Hindu said government of India “may have failed to act against the Sahara group for duping small investors in fraudulent schemes despite intelligence gathered early last year of large fund movements in overseas accounts valued at well over GBP 203 million (at current exchange rates), connected to companies associated with its Managing Director and Chairman Subrata Roy. Mr. Roy was charged by the SEBI [that is, the Securities and Exchange Board of India, which exists to protect the interests of investors including small investors] in June 2011 and by the RBI in August 2011 for unauthorised raising of funds from the public“.

That 203 million pounds was equal to the amount earned as wages by rural households in Andhra Pradesh for a year under the employment guarantee programme.

That 203 million pounds was equal to the amount earned as wages by rural households in Andhra Pradesh for a year under the employment guarantee programme.

These are enormous sums of money – 203 million pound sterling!

In Indian rupees, that sum is 17,080,683,900 or 1,708 crore. That is a sum of money which is very nearly equivalent to the amount earned as wages in the state of Andhra Pradesh, for 2011-12, through the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) programme by 4,153,850 rural households! Under the MGNREGA rural residents find employment for at least 100 days a year, and the work they did for INR 1,728.13 crore in that year was on rural connectivity, on flood control and protection, on water conservation and water harvesting, drought proofing, micro-irrigation works, irrigation for land owned by scheduled caste and tribal and below poverty line families, and the renovation of traditional water bodies.

How the crop cultivation and food habits of 1.21 billion are being hijacked

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A woman sells small seasonal fruit from her basket on a bust main road in Mumbai (Bombay).

In both 2009 and well as this year, 2012, there were droughts. The impact of one drought on rural cultivating households is considerable, and we have known of the severity of these impacts ever since the chronicling of the famines of 1943-44. What happens when over a five-year period, there are two droughts? Before the end of 2012, we shall begin to know, and this will be a grim learning – drawing from the conclusions of several surveys conducted on drought and its impacts between 1970 and 2002, rural cultivating households suffer annual income losses of at times more than 60% in drought years. Can they recover enough in three years to withstand such drastic income erosion a second time in quick succession? We will learn soon enough, but the circumstances in which we learn is already being influences by major changes afoot.

Let us consider the global concern about drought and the need expressed for support to cultivating (and rural food consuming) populations experiencing drought (and food price inflation) stress. “We cannot allow these historic price hikes to turn into a lifetime of perils as families take their children out of school and eat less nutritious food to compensate for the high prices,” said World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim in a recent statement concerning high food prices. “Countries must strengthen their targeted programmes to ease the pressure on the most vulnerable population, and implement the right policies.” The World Bank, together with other multi-lateral lending organisations and many governments worried about agrarian distress and chronic food price inflation, has spoken often about “measures and policy to protect the most vulnerable against future shocks”.

The immense sprawl of Mumbai, with over 20 million inhabitants, a food magnet that drains food producing districts up to 500 kilometres inland.

What sort of measures have been and are being discussed and implemented? They include agriculture-related investment, policy advice, fast-track financing, support for safety nets, the multi-donor food security programmes, and risk management products. The Government of India has also talked about cash transfers and increased investment in agriculture, in the same breath that it has talked about technological ‘solutions’ (the introduction of drought-resistant crop varieties, they like to call it) to surmount the yield per hectare limits currently experienced in food crop staples. How sensible or opportunistic are these measures? How true are they towards being ‘inclusive’ and ‘participatory’ (terms our government and major line ministries, including the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Rural Development, like to use)? How much are they driven by the demands of industry rather than the needs of the food insecure and price vulnerable?

Before I indicate some of the answers, it is useful to look at the conditions in the same sector in our neighbour, the People’s Republic of China.

Inside China, the country is fast approaching the limit of its own available farmland resources – the so-called ‘red line’ for food security of 120 million hectares of arable land, set by the government. China’s typical solution has been to import cheaper agriculture commodities like soybean and maize while saving its farmland for higher-value exports like fish and vegetables. But there is another force driving the rise in soybean and maize imports: the rise in meat consumption in China (a reduced example of which we are seeing in the cities and towns of India, in which the middle class diet includes a growing meat component, usually poultry). In China, meat is increasingly coming from large-scale commercial farms – not small-scale or household farmers – and is therefore dependent on animal feed rather than food waste (which has and continues to be an important portion of animal feed – think goats and chicken – for India’s small agricultural households).

From a growers’ collective in India’s Western Ghats region, a visual aid to help urban consumers identify vegetables that can be grown organically in cities.

Looking back at the pronouncements of India’s planners – whether in the Ministry of Agriculture, in the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilisers, the directorates in states for major crops and horticulture – and its lobbyists (mostly in the chambers of commerce and trade associations) one comparison made frequently with China is seen: that our per hectare use of fertiliser is low. What they conceal is the tremendous ecological damage that has taken place in China as a result of unregulated growth in the use of synthetic and inorganic fertilisers, which has rendered toxic and sterile vast farming tracts in China. To even consider such an approach in India ought to be anathema to our farmers – but they are being pressured and coerced by a business-centric lobbying front which is alas being supported by the central government and by the governments of major states.

“Smallholder farmers are capable of producing the food necessary to feed their country, but face increasingly difficult barriers,” concluded a recent report from the international NGO Grain, which campaigns for farmers’ rights worldwide. The report by Grain added that government decisions to rely on agricultural commodity imports serve the interests of agribusiness and its need for cheap sources of feed “but threaten the land, livelihoods and local food systems of communities”. It is this linkage that lurks behind the recent ‘reform’ (a distorted and dangerous term) that now has permitted foreign direct investment (FDI) in India’s (and Bharat’s) agriculture and food retail sector.

Such changes come against a legacy of corruption concerning access to and misuse of foodgrains that deeply affect our public distribution system and with it, equitable and affordable access for our population to nutritious food. A recent report in Bloomberg, the international news agency, exposed one such fraud, which found that Rs 2,700 crore worth of foodgrain “was looted by corrupt politicians and their criminal syndicates over the past decade” in Uttar Pradesh alone. The report quoted Naresh Saxena, a commissioner to the Supreme Court who monitors hunger-based programmes across India, as having said: “This is the most mean-spirited, ruthlessly executed corruption because it hits the poorest and most vulnerable in society. What I find even more shocking is the lack of willingness in trying to stop it.” How can they begin to stop it when, in a country whose agricultural production in absolute numbers has reached ecological limits, the food retail and processed food industry continues to demand more? And will pay more for new supplies and will gratify the looters more?

A one-kilo packet of ‘ragi’ (finger millet) from an organic farm in Andhra Pradesh state, central India, packaged and labelled in a manner that provides an alternative to the premium rice brands (mostly basmati) sold in urban centres.

Imagine the psychological effect of this sort of fraud on those who work in and for our agriculture markets. The number of regulated (secondary) agricultural markets (‘mandis’) stood at 7,157 as of March 2010 (compared to just 286 in 1950). There are also reckoned to be about 22,200 rural periodical markets, about 15% of which function under the ambit of APMC (Agricultural Produce Market Committees) regulations (there are at least 27 such acts in different states). It is against this density of local collection and distribution that the impact of agri-business on inflation (both direct and indirect) may be viewed. The direct impact of agribusiness is visible in the form of food price inflation, as the Reserve Bank of India has also observed. There is demand arising from increasing population and (especially in urban and urbanising centres – see this report in a business daily, which ignores entirely the food demand footprint of urbanising India) prosperity has outstripped the growth of agricultural output, hence food inflation in India will certainly to persist and deepen (in rural areas as a result of the agri-business-led escalation of marketing channels and investment in infrastructure to move crop and food – the current government and its industry partners are doing all they can to convince middle-class urban India this is good for ‘growth’).

There is a dictatorial emphasis on food processing, on trading (consider the number of commodity exchanges today compared with ten years ago, and the much enlarged scope of their futures trading business, all of which requires access to stored raw crop that serves as the basis of such trade) and on marketing. The growing demand for protein-rich and what are called “high-value foods” (fruit, vegetables, edible oil and meat) is simultaneously raising the demand for what the food industry (processed food manufacturers, food retailers, crop terminal markets promoters, exporters) calls “high quality, safe and convenient (frozen, pre-cut, pre-cooked and ready-to-eat) foods”. Hence the view now shared by the central government, planning agencies and business and industry associations is that meeting these demands will facilitate growth (of national GDP and of the agriculture sector; see the National Summary Data Page for growth rates, however meaningless these are to the cultivating households of rural Bharat) and moderate inflation (in complete disregard of evidence from countries all over the world in which the growth of modern food retail has contributed to inflation in the prices of food staples).

The strength of the ‘growth’ totem does not diminish, and nor does the artificially inflated appeal of the ‘growth is good, more growth is better’ fiction. This is wholly and utterly misguided and mischievous and is responsible for deepening the agrarian distress in Bharat. How entrenched this fiction is can be seen in allegedly authoritative pronouncements that can be found even by the RBI, which recently said: “There is, however, near unanimity, amongst all that agriculture and agri-business growth is a necessary prerequisite for moderation of inflation, particularly food inflation, as well as for acceleration and sustenance of inclusive growth.” Growth as defined by the resource-intensive and ecologically destructive direction of the central government, Indian business and an urban middle class divorced from rural realities has directly caused this same inflation the RBI (and others) is complaining about. Yet in the policy space the contradiction is ignored – true reform that benefits Bharat rather than India is not considered.

A neighbourhood vegetable market in Bengaluru (Bangalore). How these small markets cope with the dictatorship of the food retail and food processing industry will depend on local consumers and their support.

Our central problem in the near future will continue to be the divide between Bharat and India, between food growers and the food consuming populations they support (usually unseen and unheard, often unrepresented). The English-language media that represents the interests of the well-off urban elite have become uniformly uncritical of the different aspects of agri-business and the ‘supply chain’ (another loaded term that spells danger for rural Bharat) which are being transformed (to be fair, major regional language media can be equally uncritical). Reports such as these, one from an Indian business and finance daily, Mint (which holds up GM food as the panacea for India’s food insecurity, and the other from the Wall Street Journal, which is read and quoted in business circles (which said the new ‘reforms’ are not comprehensive enough), reflect the aspirations and tendencies of urban upper middle class India and the disproportionate influence this minority enjoys over national policy, especially policy concerning agriculture and food.

These media views celebrate “rural prosperity” which is “thanks to government job schemes” (no mention of the labour distorting effect of MGNREGA (the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) that is now widespread and which has pushed up farm labour costs to benefit the manufacturers of agricultural machinery – see this report for one of the implications of this cost rise, and see this compilation [pdf] by the Indian Social Institute on NREGA-related wages news), the drive for more “domestic demand from rural areas” (to benefit the consumer goods companies and their financiers primarily), the need for “better private-sector jobs in manufacturing and services”, the obsession with how to “boost purchasing power” and the tiresome illogic of “a virtuous cycle of growth”.

Quiet numbers tell district tales – rural and urban India, part 6

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In north-east Mumbai (Bombay), open land under high-tension cables becomes a place for many cricket games on a Sunday afternoon.

Census 2011 also informs both the incumbent ‘sirkar’ and us that there are 22 districts in which literacy rates for the rural female population are above 74% (all 14 of Kerala’s districts are included). However, it is in the next 10% range of literacy rates – 74% to 64% – that gains since the 2001 census must be protected and this set includes 82 districts. It is a widely dispersed set, comprising districts from 21 states and union territories.

There are 11 from Maharashtra (including Sangli, Bhandara and Gondiya), 9 from Punjab (including Kapurthala, Gurdaspur and Sahibzada), 7 from Orissa (including Jagatsinghpur, Kendrapara and Bhadrak), 7 also from Himachal Pradesh (including Una, Kangra and Solan), 6 from Tamil Nadu (including Thoothukkudi and Nagapattinam) and 5 from Gujarat (including Navsari and Mahesana).

In the background, some of the most expensive office space in the world, Mumbai's Nariman Point business district. In the foreground, temporary shanties on the beach.

The Office of the Registrar General of India, which administers the Census, has cautioned that all the data releases so far are still provisional figures. However, the implications are now plain to see, and give rise to a set of socio-economic questions which demographic and field research over the 12th Plan Period (2012-17) will enlarge and expand upon. Is there for example a correlation between districts whose rural populations have unfavourable female to male gender ratios and districts in which female literacy ratios are low? Comparing the bottom 100 districts under both conditions shows that there are only 12 districts in which both conditions are present (5 in Uttar Pradesh, 2 in Rajasthan, and 2 in Jammu & Kashmir).

A valley in the western hills of Maharashtra state in summer, exhibiting denuded hillsides and scant grazing for shepherds. From villages such as this one, youth and families make their way to the cities.

Most encouraging is that there are 40 districts in which the ratio of the number of literate females to literate males (this is a different ratio from literacy rate), is 0.90 or better, ie there are 900 or more literate females to 1,000 literate males. In this set are all Kerala’s 14 districts but also 13 districts from the Northeast (from Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland).

The remainder are from island Union Territories, from the southern states (3 from Karnataka, 2 from Andhra Pradesh and one each from Tamil Nadu and the Union Territory of Puducherry), from hill states (2 from Uttarakhand, 2 from Himachal Pradesh) and one from Maharashtra. It is these districts that provide abundant reason for the allocation of a minimum 6% of GDP allocation for education – a long-standing commitment – which must begin to be fulfilled in the 2012-17 Plan period.

Thane district, north of the Mumbai metropolitan region, has experienced one of the fastest growths in population in India over the last decade.

How will the Government of India consider these early indicators from Census 2011? How will India’s civil society and the great breadth of organisations – voluntary groups, people’s movements, rural foundations and the like – which have been delivering development ‘outcomes’, year after year, without the benefit of budgetary support but motivated by the plain fact that inequity still exists, how will this group see these indicators?

The Government of India revels in presenting contradiction as a substitute for careful, evidence-based and inter-generational planning. When downward trends – such as those seen in female illiteracy and in the gender ratios of the 0-6 age-group – have been slow over the last 25 years, there is a need to set long-term objectives that are not tied to the end of the next available Plan period, but which use a Plan direction to help achieve them. In this, the Approach Paper to the 12th Five-Year Plan has failed quite signally, because its authors have not drawn the only possible conclusions from the Census 2011 data presented till date. Yet others have done so, notably India’s civil society and its more responsive group of academics. Hence the abundance of contradictions in all major documents – the Approach Paper being the most important, annual Economic Surveys being another type – which seek to reassure one section while in fact underwriting the ambitions of another.

Rural labour pitches camp. Mobile populations such as this one move from more disadvantaged districts to less, as even intermittent agricultural wages and harsh living conditions are better than debt.

So we see that a state which must ensure provision of Right to Education to every child up to the age of 14 years, because it is constitutionally bound to do so, complains in the planning phase itself that scarce resources constrain it from carrying out its duties and therefore advises its citizens that measures like public-private partnership (PPP) should be resorted to. How will such cunning better the lives and present culturally relevant opportunities for the rural populations in the remaining 591 districts which are under the 0.90 ratio for literate females to literate males? What will the emphasis on vocational training (for the urban job pools) instead of people’s empowerment mean for the rural populations in 403 districts where this ratio is less than 0.75 – which means the number of literate rural females is under three-fourths the number of literate males – and in 69 of these districts it is even under 0.60 (25 in Rajasthan, 14 in Uttar Pradesh, 9 in Madhya Pradesh, 6 in Jammu and Kashmir)?

[This is the sixth of a small series of postings on rural and urban India, which reproduces material from my analysis of Census 2011 data on India’s rural and urban populations, published by Infochange India. See the first in the series here; see the second in the series here; see the third in the series here; see the fourth in the series here; see the fifth in the series here.]

Quiet numbers tell district tales – rural and urban India, part 5

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Teenager on a bicycle in rural Maharashtra, western India. At the current rate of migration from rural districts to urban centres, this youth may not stay in the farm labour pool for much longer.

What effect has this imbalanced ratio, so common in the rural populations of districts, on literacy and education? Census 2011 has told us so far that there are 55 districts in which the rural literacy rate is 74% or higher — this is the national effective literacy rate (for the population that is seven years old and above) which is a figure derived from rural and urban, male and female literacy rates. The literacy rates in these 55 districts are for all persons, female and male together. They range from 74% to 89%. All 14 of Kerala’s districts are among the 55, there are 7 districts from Maharashtra, 5 from Tamil Nadu, and 4 each from Mizoram, Orissa and Himachal Pradesh.

A lorry driver poses with his cargo, new tractors. The depletion of agricultural labour has turned agricultural machinery a fast-growing industrial sector. Worryingly for India, government planners see capital used for machinery and industrial agriculture as evidence of 'growth'. But food security remains uncertain for many rural communities.

The top 10 districts in this set are all from Kerala save one, East Delhi. But these 55 districts have returned literacy rates that will form the basis of study and analysis in the years to come, they are outnumbered, by a factor of more than 11 to 1, by districts whose rural populations lie under the 74% national mark, and this too will serve as an early indicator, continually updated, of the commitment of the Indian state to its implementation of the Right to Education (RTE) Act of 2009, and of the results of the first 10 years of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan.

Since its inception in 2001-02 the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) has been treated by the Government of India and the states as the main vehicle for providing elementary education to all children in the 6-14 age-group. Its outcome — this is how the annual and Plan period results of India’s ‘flagship’ national programmes are now described — is the universalisation of elementary education. The Right to Education Act (RTE) of 2009 gives all children the fundamental right to demand eight years of quality elementary education. For the planners in the Ministry of Human Resource Development, the effective enforcement of this right requires what they like to call ‘alignment’ with the vision, strategies and norms of the SSA. In so doing, they immediately run into a thicket of problems for, to begin with, there are half-a-million vacancies of teachers in the country, another half-million teachers are required to meet the RTE norms on pupil-teacher ratios, and moreover 0.6 million teachers in the public school system are untrained.

This is the creaking administrative set-up against which the total literacy rates of the 585 districts whose rural populations are under the 74% mark must be viewed. Of these, 209 districts have literacy rates for their rural populations which are between 50% and 60%. This set of districts includes 33 from Uttar Pradesh, 30 from Madhya Pradesh, 20 from Bihar, 18 from Jharkhand, 17 from Rajasthan, 13 each from Assam and Andhra Pradesh, and 9 from Karnataka. And finally, there are 95 districts whose literacy rates of the rural population are under 50%.

Low-cost housing in north Mumbai (Bombay). Colonies such as this are typical: unclean surroundings caused by an absence of civic services, minimal water and sanitation for residents, no route to remedy because of political and social barriers.

This set of districts at the bottom of the table includes 17 from Bihar, 14 from Rajasthan, 9 each from Uttar Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir, 7 from Madhya Pradesh and 6 each from Orissa, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Arunachal Pradesh. The districts of Yadgir (Karnataka), Purnia (Bihar), Shrawasti (Uttar Pradesh), Pakur (Jharkhand), Malkangiri, Rayagada, Nabarangapur, Koraput (all Orissa), Tirap (Arunchal Pradesh), Barwani, Jhabua, Alirajpur (all Madhya Pradesh), and Narayanpur, Bijapur and Dakshin Bastar Dantewada (all Chhattisgarh) are the 15 districts at the very base of the table with literacy rates of the rural population at under 40%.

Over 11 Plan periods there have been some cumulative gains in a few sectors. Today, in rural areas, seven major flagship programmes are being administered, with less overall coordination between them than is looked for – a contrast against the ease with which the central government’s major ministries collaborate on advancing the cause of the urban elite — but which nonetheless have given us evidence that their combined impact has improved the conditions of some.

A man transports an LPG cylinder, to be used as cooking fuel, to his home in a shanty colony in north Mumbai (Bombay). Already burdened by the high cost of petroleum products, slum-dwellers are forced to pay a premium for cooking fuels and water.

The seven programmes are: the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), the National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM), Indira Awas Yojana (IAY), the National Rural Drinking Water Programme (NRDWP) and Total Sanitation Campaign (TSP), the Integrated Watershed Development Programme (IWDP), Pradhan Mantri Grameen Sadak Yojana (PMGSY), and rural electrification which includes separation of agricultural feeders and includes also the Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana (RGGVY).

For the local administrator these present a bewildering array of reporting obligations. A hundred years ago, such an administrator’s lot was aptly described by J Chartres Molony, Superintendent of Census 1911 in (the then) Madras: “The Village Officer, source of all Indian information, is the recorder of his village, and it well may be that amid the toils of keeping accounts and collecting ‘mamuls’, he pays scant heed to what he and his friends consider the idle curiosity of an eccentric sirkar.”

[This is the fifth of a small series of postings on rural and urban India, which reproduces material from my analysis of Census 2011 data on India’s rural and urban populations, published by Infochange India. See the first in the series here; see the second in the series here; see the third in the series here; see the fourth in the series here.]

The cost of India’s urban land grab

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This is one of two related articles written by me and published by Infochange India.The full article is here.

Transplanting paddy in the rice fields of North Goa, in monsoon 2011

If the Government of India is, during the finalisation of the Twelfth Plan (2012-17) direction for agriculture and food, deciding to favour production over rural livelihood needs, then it must recognise clearly the internal land grab that India’s farm households are experiencing. The protests in western Uttar Pradesh by farmers’ groups typify the scale of the diversion of farmland for real estate development or industrial use. In the last four years the Bahujan Samaj Party of Uttar Pradesh has approved a number of projects like the Yamuna Expressway which has been allotted to a private company, JP Infratech Ltd, which holds a contract that includes the right to construct apart from the right to collect tolls for 36 years.

A village in the tribal regions of Navsari district, Gujarat, off the Mumbai-Ahmedabad highway and its 'ribbon' land development

Along this 165-km eight-lane “super highway” a “hi-tech city” has been planned. This will include industrial parks, residential colonies, shopping malls, professional colleges, schools, hospitals and urban services centres. Currently estimated as a Rs 9,500 crore project this “hi-tech” city will, when complete to plan, occupy 43,000 hectares of land that is currently under cultivation by the residents of 1,191 villages. This very large land grab alone will remove the potential to harvest about 100,000 tonnes of foodgrain a year — an amount that can fulfil the cereal needs of all of urban Haryana for five weeks.

There are 533 urban centres with populations of between 1 million and 50,000 — this is apart from the metropolises. The drive to encourage the faster urbanisation of these 533 towns and cities has already taken an unknown amount of farmland out of cultivation. There is an estimate that in the last decade — to a large degree a consequence of the relentless expansion of the National Capital Region — Uttar Pradesh has lost about 6 million hectares of farmland. The expansion of the NCR and its satellite developments is unparalleled in modern India, but it is the biggest example of the land grab that is taking place in all urban areas in India.

A stack of crop residue in Satara district, Maharashtra. This biomass is increasingly being diverted from traditional uses and towards energy

Estimates based on fieldwork and the use of longitudinal spatial mapping based on satellite imagery show that for every acre of cultivable land that is built upon or used for urban purposes, over five years an additional four cultivable acres turns fallow and is quickly converted to non-agricultural use. How much has India lost in 2010? How much has it lost from 2001 to 2010? There are no best guesses, no reliable estimates, there is not even experimental methodology to apply to the chief crop-growing regions and their expanding settlements. Yet the macroeconomic models being produced for the central government and planning agencies promise ever-increasing yields from a plateau of cultivated land area. One of them is wrong and the evidence on the ground — and from the protests by farmers of Bhatta Parsaul village in Greater Noida — points to the error being in the models.

Will these errors be corrected before March 2012, when the Eleventh Plan ends? Will the social costs of real food inflation be counted, and will actual retail food inflation in India’s tier two and tier three cities be recognised and its underlying causes made public? At this point, all the answers are likely to be negative. The Government of India, the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Food Processing, the Ministry of Commerce and Industry (Department of Commerce), the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and central and state planning agencies now speak the same language — the message is that most of the growth in agriculture in future will come not from foodgrains, but from sectors such as horticulture, dairying and fisheries, where the produce is perishable, and where even greater attention needs to be paid to the logistics of transporting produce from the farm to the consumer, with minimum spoilage. Urban and urbanising markets and the structural change in nutrition being demanded by a section of the country’s population form the focus.

[This is one of two related articles written by me and published by Infochange India.The full article is here.]

Why India’s ‘growth’ focus is ignoring the food access question

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This is one of two related articles written by me and published by Infochange India. The full article is here.

Waiting for the bus in Satara district, Maharashtra

How much food will India need to grow to feed our population in 2011-12? How much in 2013-14? Will we need to import wheat and rice or will we be self-sufficient? Do we know the environmental cost of this self-sufficiency? Are we willing to bear it? These are the questions that the Government of India, its ministries and its planning agencies must find answers to before the start of the Twelfth Five Year Plan period, which is 2012-17.

The foodgrains view from mid-2011 is one of relative comfort — 235 million tonnes is the estimate (including 94 mt rice and 84 mt wheat).

From this position, the Government of India has a set of six broad-brush objectives. These it wants its ministries and departments, connected directly and as adjunct to food and its provision, to internalise. It wants state governments to shape policy to support these objectives, which are:
* Target at least 4% growth for agriculture. Cereals are on target for 1.5% to 2% growth. India should concentrate more on other foods, and on animal husbandry and fisheries where feasible.
* Land and water are the critical constraints. Technology must focus on land productivity and water use efficiency.

On what was formerly farm land in Thane district, Maharashtra, residential condominiums are being quickly built

* Farmers need better functioning markets for both outputs and inputs. Also, better rural infrastructure, including storage and food processing.
* States must act to modify the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) Act/Rules (exclude horticulture), modernise land records and enable properly recorded land lease markets.
* The Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana (RKVY) has helped convergence and innovation and gives state governments flexibility. This must be expanded in the Twelfth Plan.
* The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) should be redesigned to increase contribution to land productivity and rain-fed agriculture. Similarly, the Forest Rights Act (FRA) has potential to improve forest economies and tribal societies. But convergence with the National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM) is required for strengthening rural livelihoods.

Are these objectives reasonable? Are they equitable and will they encourage an agriculture that is ecologically sustainable in India? From a resources use perspective, the government is right to point out certain constraints (land and water) and administrative improvements (land records, using NREGA labour for farm needs). The direction to provide better infrastructure in India’s rural districts, the better to link farmers to markets with, has been stated in every single Five Year Plan for the last five plan periods, and has been repeated in every single plan review and even more often in the Economic Surveys which accompany the annual budgets. (Under the Bharat Nirman programme, this need has to an extent been met, but the beneficiaries are as likely industry and land developers as they are cultivators.)

A 'basti' in Satara district, Maharashtra, whose residents provide both agricultural and construction site labour

Protecting livelihoods in agriculture, cultivation and from use of forest produce is not, however, a central aim for food and agriculture in the Twelfth Plan. This omission, surprising from the social equity point of view, is taking place because the central government has before it three points it is trying to make sense of, and to decide the best way to tackle. In brief, these three points are: there is a “structural change” taking place in nutrition (more consumption of dairy and meat); there are world factors influencing foodgrain production, consumption and use in India; there are indications that agriculture’s share of GDP is today edging higher than it was five years ago, and that per capita agricultural income is increasing faster than overall per capita income.

It is the last trend, as seen by the central government although not by smallholder farmers and marginal cultivators, which is being taken as proof that new approaches to agriculture are delivering income benefits. The new approaches revolve heavily around the provision of infrastructure that aids modern terminal markets, agri-logistics, cold supply chains, integrated farm to retail companies, agricultural commodity traders, private warehousing service providers, export-oriented food processing units, contract farming operations which are linked to branded processed food, and exporters of cereals, fruits and vegetables. It is here that the growth in agricultural GDP is taking place and it is here that the rise in per capita agricultural income is being recorded. The central government will fight shy of a real cost-real price district analysis of agricultural investment and income because it will reveal the huge structural imbalances that are forming — that is why a national outlook artificially disaggregated into states becomes far more comfortable to defend.

[This is one of two related articles written by me and published by Infochange India. The full article is here.]