Resources Research

Making local sense of food, urban growth, population and energy

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Food, climate, culture, crops and government

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The weekly standardised precipitation index of the India Meteorological Department (IMD) which is a running four-week average. This series shows the advancing dryness of districts in south India.

The weekly standardised precipitation index of the India Meteorological Department (IMD) which is a running four-week average. This series shows the advancing dryness of districts in south India.

In November 2015, the Departmentally Related Standing Committee on Agriculture of the Lok Sabha, Parliament of India, invited suggestions and submissions on the subject “Comprehensive Agriculture Research based on Geographical Condition and Impact of Climatic Changes to ensure Food Security in the Country”.

The Committee called for inputs on issues such as the need to evolve new varieties of crops which can withstand climatic fluctuation; requirement to evolve improved methods of irrigation; the need to popularise consumption of crops/fruits which can provide better nutrition; the need to develop indigenous varieties of cattle that can withstand extreme climatic stress; the need to develop a system for precision horticulture and protected cultivation; diversification of species of fish to enhance production from the fisheries sector; the need to strengthen the agriculture extension system; and means to focus on agriculture education.

I prepared a submission as my outline response, titled “Aspects of cultivation, provision of food, and use of land in Bharat today and a generation hence”. The outline I provided includes several issues of current urgency and connects them to scenarios that are very likely to emerge within a generation. My intention is to signal the kinds of pathways to preparation that government (central and state) may consider. It is also meant to flag important cultural and social considerations that lie before us, and to emphasise that economic and quantitative measurements alone are not equipped to provide us holistic guidance.

The outline comprises three sections.
(A) The economic framework of the agriculture and food sector and its imperatives.
(B) The social, ecological, and resource nature of crop cultivation, considering factors that influence it.
(C) Methods, pathways and alternatives possible to adopt with a view to being inter-generationally responsible.

In view of the current climatic conditions – heat waves in the central and eastern regions of the country, stored water in our major reservoirs which are at or near ten-year lows – I reproduce here the section on the economic framework of the agriculture and food sector and its imperatives. The full submission can be found here [pdf, 125kb].

This framework considers the agriculture and food sector, including primary agricultural production recorded, the inputs and products of industry based on agricultural raw material (primary crop whether foodgrain, horticulture, spices, plantation, ruminants and marine, oilseeds, fibres), agribusiness (processing in all its forms), supply chains connecting farmers and farmer producer organisations to primary crop aggregators, buyers, merchants, stockists, traders, consumers, as well as associated service providers. This approach is based on the connection between agricultural production and demand from buyers, processers and consumers along what is called the supply chain.

 

Water storage quantities in the 91 major reservoirs in the first week of April 2016. Blue bars are each reservoir's full storage capacity (in billion cubic metres, bcm) and orange bars are the current storage at the time. Data from the Central Water Commission, Government of India.

Water storage quantities in the 91 major reservoirs in the first week of April 2016. Blue bars are each reservoir’s full storage capacity (in billion cubic metres, bcm) and orange bars are the current storage at the time. Data from the Central Water Commission, Government of India.

If this framework is considered as existing in Bharat to a significant degree which influences crop cultivation choices, the income of cultivating household, the employment generation potential of associated service providers, then several sets of questions require answers:

* Concerning economic well-being and poverty reduction: what role does agricultural development need to play in promoting economic stability in rural (and peri-urban) regions thereby contributing to poverty reduction and how can the agrifood sector best contribute to jobs and higher incomes for the rural poor?

* Concerning food security: what role can agricultural and agro-industry development play in ensuring rural and urban communities have reliable access to sufficient, culturally appropriate and safe food?

* Concerning the sustainability of food producing systems: how should agriculture and agro-industry be regulated in a participatory manner so as to ensure that methods of production do not overshoot or endanger in any way (ecological or social) conservative carrying capacity thresholds especially in the contexts of climate change and resource scarcity?

When viewed according to the administrative and policy view that has prevailed in Bharat over the last two generations, there is a correlation between agricultural productivity growth and poverty reduction and this is the relationship the macro- economic and policy calculations have been based upon. Our central annual agricultural (and allied services) annual and five-year plan budget and state annual and five-year plan budgets have employed such calculations since the 1950s, when central planning began.

However the choices that remain open to us are considerably fewer now than was the case two generations (and more) ago when the conventional economic framework of the agriculture and food sector took shape.

India, WTO and public food stocks

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Parliament_RS_sm

Minister of State (Independent Charge) in the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, Nirmala Sitharaman, clarified on 6 May 2015 to the Rajya Sabha on India’s stand at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) on food security.

Here are the main points contained in Sitharaman’s reply to the Rajya Sabha:

1) A decision was adopted by the WTO General Council in November 2014 which makes it clear that a mechanism will remain in place in perpetuity until a permanent solution regarding this issue has been agreed and adopted.

2) The decision also means WTO members (countries) will not challenge the public stock-holding programmes of developing country members for food security purposes, in relation to obligations under the WTO Agreement on Agriculture.

3) The safeguard available for continuing the Minimum Support Price policy is thus strengthened and will ensure that India’s food security operations are not constrained due to WTO rules.

4) The WTO General Council Decision includes a firm commitment to engage in negotiations for a permanent solution.

Together with other developing countries, India has proposed an amendment to the rules of the WTO relating to public stock-holding for food security purposes. Sitharaman told the Rajya Sabha that “concerned at the lack of progress in implementing the Ministerial Decision on public stock-holding for food security purposes, India decided not to join the consensus in the WTO on next step for the implementation of the Trade Facilitation Agreement till its concerns were addressed”.

We, the rather wealthy, people

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Are those standing for election to the Lok Sabha capable of relating to the needs of those they claim to represent? Many measures exist for testing that claim, and the most base amongst them concerns income and assets.

If your candidates are very much richer than you are, once elected how much of their energies will they devote to enriching themselves (and their sponsors) rather than attending to your civic needs?

The area of the circles represents assets in rupees for 2014. The twin circles for rural and urban households' assets is based on NSSO studies, with upper and lower circles being estimates of household assets using higher and lower growth rates to provide comparisons with candidates' declarations for Lok Sabha 2014.

The area of the circles represents candidates’ assets in rupees for 2014. The twin circles for rural and urban households’ assets is based on NSSO studies, with upper and lower circles being estimates of household assets using higher and lower growth rates to provide comparisons with candidates’ declarations for Lok Sabha 2014.

This chart shows why this should be a matter of democratic procedure. The data has been taken from the excellent work done by the Association for Democratic Reform, which runs the ‘My neta’ website, which has tabulated the statutory declarations of the candidates. Among the set of declarations is the candidates’ assets.

To show the relation between what the candidates to Lok Sabha 16 have declared and the assets of those they say they represent, I have included national averages, rural and urban, for household assets.

There are 12 assets averages to be seen. The candidates (more than 3,200) have been divided into deciles (or tenths) ranked by their declarations. Thus the eighth decile would have candidates in the 80% to 70% positions ranked on rupee value of assets, and the fifth decile would have candidates in the 50% to 40% positions, and so on.

RG_Lok_Sabha_2014_assets_7In between are the average household assets for rural and urban households in India. These are taken from studies based on the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO). The chart displays these averages as a pair (lighter and darker coloured circles) to indicate a range. We find the assets of the rural household are between the eighth and seventh deciles of what candidates have declared, and the assets of the urban household are between the seventh and sixth deciles of what candidates have declared.

This chart tells us very quickly that from the sixth decile of candidates onwards, their worth is already at least twice that of those they claim to represent. At the fourth decile, their worth is a stratospheric eight times that of the average rural household. At the second decile, their worth is an astounding 20 times that of the urban household. At the first decile, the equation is meaningless.

This is not based on an exact mathematics. The asset averages for the rural and urban households I have used are broad estimates, and are no doubt skewed by the richer rural and urban deciles and quintiles themselves. But the relative differences are seen starkly, and help indicate why the inequality between Member of Parliament and electors we saw in 2009 has deepened in 2014.

When and where India will vote in 2014

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Update on 2014 June 04: The Sixteenth Lok Sabha began its work today. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s statement to media outside Parliament House was: “The people of India have voted in unprecedented numbers, blessed their representatives and elected the sixteenth Lok Sabha. Today is its first day. I assure the people of this country that in this temple of democracy, every effort will be made to meet the hopes and aspirations of the common man of India. My best wishes to fellow Indians.”

ECI_2014_final_tally_map

2014 March 05: The five year term of the 15th Lok Sabha of the Republic of India will end on 31 May 2014. Today, the Election Commission of India has fixed the time-table for the general elections, the main details of which you will find referred to in these few paragraphs.

Article 324 of the Constitution of India bestows the relevant powers, duties and functions upon the Election Commission of India while Section 14 of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, provides for conduct of the elections to constitute a new Lok Sabha before the expiry of its current term. Taking into account these Constitutional and legal provisions, the Election Commission of India has, in its own words, “made comprehensive preparations for conduct of elections to the 16th Lok Sabha in a free, fair and peaceful manner.”

Elections_2014_India_mapElections to the 543 Parliamentary Constituencies will be held, and to fix their scheduling and phasing, the Election Commission held a meeting with the representatives of all recognised national and state political parties on 4 February 2014.

On 07 April 2014, voting will take place in 6 constituencies. On 09 April, voting will take place in 7 constituencies. On 10 April, voting will take place in 92 constituencies. On 12 April, voting will take place in 5 constituencies. On 17 April, voting will take place in 122 constituencies. On 24 April, voting will take place in 117 constituencies. On 30 April, voting will take place in 89 constituencies. On 07 May, voting will take place in 64 constituencies. And on 12 May, voting will take place in 41 constituencies.

You will find a detailed table of poll days and corresponding schedules here (EC1). There is a detailed table of number of Parliamentary constituencies voting on different polling dates here (EC2). And you will find the detailed schedules for every State and Union Territory with constituency names and polling dates here (EC3). The excellently compiled map that illustrates this enormous and complex exercise is available in high resolution here (EC4).

The numbers are gigantic: the total electorate in India (the country as per final published E-rolls as on 01 January 2014 is approximately 814.5 million, compared to 713 million in 2009. There has been a large increase in the enrollment of electors in the age group of 18 to 19 years – over 23 million electors are in this age group. Electors in the age group of 18 to 19 years now constitute 2.88% of total electors, against 0.75% in 2009. After Parliament amended the Representation of the People Act, 1950, allowing enrollment of Indian citizens living overseas as electors, there are 11,844 overseas electors who have been enrolled in the current electoral rolls. There are also 1,328,621 service electors in the electoral rolls. Indian citizens will cast their votes inside the approximately 930,000 polling stations in the country (compared with the 830,866 polling stations set up during Lok Sabha election 2009).

A hasty and stunted legislation for food security in India

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The United Progressive Alliance in India, the ruling political coalition at whose centre is the Congress party, has called it “a historic initiative for ensuring food and nutritional security to the people”. By this is meant The National Food Security Bill, which was passed by the Lok Sabha on 26 August 2013.

In recent weeks, criticisms of the provisions of the bill and suggestions for its amendment gathered quickly, from political parties, from state governments, from civil society and NGOs and academics, and from citizens who have followed the twists and turns of the draft legislation since 2010. How many of these have been incorporated into the bill as passed by the Lok Sabha is still unclear, but a government press release stated that ten amendments were approved. I don’t know which ten but these would be small in number compared with the scores of amendments, corrections, modifications and re-draftings suggested by groups and coalitions that have long worked for food security in India and its states.

Sifting through news reports for relevant information, I find that:

(1) The government has said that the word ‘meal’ as used in the approved bill means hot cooked or pre-cooked and heated food and not the packaged food, which was a definition that provoked many when it was spotted in the draft. This is an important amendment as it has an impact on the enormous mid-day meals (for schoolchildren in government schools) and the integrated child development services (ICDS) programmes, which reach tens of millions. The fear was that packaged food would supplant, to the detriment of the children, hot and fresh cooked meals.

(2) As far as I can make out, another approved amendment gives states a year to implement the bill instead of six months. Earlier, under the ordinance (whose passage was roundly condemned), the central government was to determine the number of eligible beneficiaries in each state. Not only was this centrist in nature, it required the process by which beneficiary households were to be identified to be completed within 180 days, even though the guidelines for such identification are yet to be issued by the central government. Moreover, there has been no consultation with the states on this aspect.

(3) There is some reference made to the states determining their approach and measures towards implementing the bill, which will be (or may be) governed by “rules” that are to be drawn up in consultation with the state governments. This is important for, in the text of the Food Security Ordinance the central government reserved the right to introduce cash schemes instead of food in the Rules of the proposed legislation. This had signalled quite clearly its longer-term agenda of dismantling the system of procurement of grain from farmers at notified minimum support prices.

The reportage of the passing of the bill has touched upon a variety of issues and concerns, and here is a selection:

Lok Sabha passes Food Security Bill
Sonia Gandhi’s ambitious food bill gets Lok Sabha nod; UPA gets its ‘game-changer’
The Food Security Bill will cost a lot more than projected
Food security bill: Is it right or fight to food?
Long due, Food Security Bill meets mixed reaction
Food Bill will not raise fiscal deficit: Chidambaram
‘Not against Food Security Bill, but want certain changes’: BJP
Food Security a ‘historic opportunity’ or mere ‘vote security’?
Food security Bill gets Lok Sabha nod as Sonia lauds ’empowerment revolution’

The government has said that the Bill will cover 75% of the rural population and 50% percent of the urban population in all states, coming to an average of 67% for the total national population. This however will use (we await a full reading of the approved amendments that will clarify this matter) the methodology of the Planning Commission for poverty estimates which is to provide the basis for dividing the population between below and above the poverty line. This is the same methodology and ratios that have been soundly discredited.

The point that has been made forcefully by the Communist Party of India Marxist (CPIM) is that these caps on population compromise utterly the right of state governments to decide criteria as contained in the bill. The caps are set by Planning Commission methods, not by state governments themselves. That is why the guidelines that are to be drafted – via consultation, the central government has said – by the state governments must ensure the maximum inclusion, and not the limited inclusion decided by the Planning Commission.

Moreover, the All India Kisan Sabha at its 33rd All India Conference (24-27 July 2013 in Cuddalore, Tamil Nadu) had in a resolution of food security described the policy canvas against which this food security bill has now been passed:

“India has become more food-insecure over the last decade in terms of all three dimensions of food security: availability, access and absorption. Availability has been undermined by policies reducing productivity growth and making grain cultivation unremunerative. Access has been weakened by jobless growth and massive inflation destroying people’s purchasing power. Absorption has been undermined by the failure to invest in safe drinking water and sanitation. All three consequences are directly traceable to neoliberal policies. Yet, the UPA government hypocritically talks of food security and has promulgated a so-called Food Security Ordinance in an attempt to gain political mileage while flouting all norms of parliamentary democracy.”

Documents for reference:

The National Food Security Bill, 2013
The National Food Security Bill, 2011
The National Food Security Ordinance, 2013
Report of the expert committee on the national food security bill
Lok Sabha Standing Committee report on National Food Security Bill
Food subsidy and its utilisation
NRAA – Challenges of food security

Retail therapy and speed money merchants in urban India

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How India's retail sector is divided. Chart: Reuters

How India’s retail sector is divided. Chart: Reuters

Foreign direct investment (FDI) has been rolling into India at a steady pace, whether in banking and finance,whether in insurance (general insurance and health), pharmaceuticals, automobiles (particularly automobiles), information technology, food and beverages (very much so), and engineering and manufacturing. And then there is retail, which has so incensed all those who have firmly believed that India and Bharat need none of this and that the swadeshi and swarajya of the Independence movement are, 66 years on, needed even more than they were in the 1920s and 1930s. And I count myself amongst those so incensed.

It comes as a surprise then to read about the ‘brake on the economy’ that low-level corruption is in India, as a recent Reuters report has put it. The report is well done, and is right to probe the methods of corrupt underlings, but I find it bordering on the absurd that these practices – in short, hand over the moolah for the licence you want – are treated as hindering India’s ‘growth story’ (as the country’s finance minister monotonously calls it, ignoring the ecological idiocy of desiring more growth, unmindful of the millions of new deprivations his story has no place for).

Reuters has reported: “India is the next great frontier for global retailers, a US$500 billion market growing at 20% a year. For now, small shops dominate the sector. Giants from Wal-Mart Stores Inc to IKEA AB have struggled merely for the right to enter, which they finally won last year.”

This breathlessness, well captured by Reuters, is part of P Chidambaram’s favourite fairy tale. But of course, real life in curbside India is full of smoke and mirrors. Reuters said that a “daunting array of permits – more than 40 are required for a typical supermarket selling a range of products – force retailers to pay so-called ‘speed money’ through middlemen or local partners to set up shop”.

All that mall space unused, built atop what were once green fields. Chart: Reuters

All that mall space unused, built atop what were once green fields. Chart: Reuters

Speed money is a colourful term, and suited to the technicolour life and times of the retail business in India. Reuters sounds prudish when it reported, citing interviews with middlemen and several retailers, that the “official cost for key licenses is typically accompanied by significant expenses in the form of bribes”. The added cost, said Reuters, erodes profitability in an industry where margins tend to be razor-thin, and “creates risk for companies by making them complicit in activity that, while commonplace in India and other emerging markets, is nonetheless illegal”.

Commonplace and illegal as much as underpaying workers in the USA, I presume, which is what the retail capitalists do. See this report about workers at McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Yum! Brands, Burger King, Domino’s Pizza and Papa John’s going on strike in New York City demanding wages that are twice the current $7.50 an hour, which is described as impossible to live on. As for Walmart, it’s rankly exploitative imprisoning of its workers, paying them just above minimum wage but denying them freedom of association (the USA is a member state of the ILO, the International Labour Organisation) and medieval working conditions can hardly, in any country, make it a paragon or corporate virtue.

But the Reuters report, useful as it is in explaining the very broad-based and low-level graft that layers our cities like a fog, cannot venture into the area of the demands of international finance capital led neo-liberalisation. This seeks to prise open our economy – aided eagerly by the astoundingly greedy political class in India (Delhi, Bombay, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, Calcutta and every other large city) – for profit maximisation. Never mind the few bleating complaints about streetfront corruption repeated by Reuters, there is optimism aplenty amongst financiers, business people, bankers, commodity brokers, the realty sector, the automobile and FMCG sectors, all fed by the fact that the United Progressive Alliance government of India is more than willing to bend, break and jettison wholesale regulations that favour the proletariat in order to satisfy international capital and Indian big business.

Only last December (2012) both the houses of Parliament in India were told that there would be an inquiry following media reports concerning the submission made by the global retail giant Walmart to the US senate that it had spent around Rs 125 crore (Rs 1.25 billion or about US$23.2 million) during the last four years on its lobbying activities, including the issues related to “enhance market access for investment in India”. Now, really, what’s a bit of ‘speed money’ compared to a sum like that? Or compared to the US$100 million (about Rs 455 crore) that Walmart is reported to have funnelled into India (to its Indian partner Bharti Enterprises) and at a time when multi-brand retail was not permitted?