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Why agricultural investment ‘principles’ must be buried

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FAO_IYFF_1This year the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) will through its Committee on World Food Security, advocate principles concerning what are called ‘responsible agricultural investments’. The adoption of principles such as these are expected to promote investments in agriculture that contribute to food security and nutrition, and which support the realisation of the right to food, particularly within national contexts of how food security is defined.

While the principles are intended to provide practical guidance to governments, private and public investors, intergovernmental and regional organisations, civil society groups, research units and universities, donors and philanthropic foundations, they will be voluntary and will not be binding upon their signatories.

FAO_IYFF_2The problem with such a conceptualisation of international or globally applicable principles is that the negative consequences that accompany investment are left undefined and therefore weak as a countervailing argument. Investment made to acquire land, to pursue industrial agricultural techniques (in contrast to policies and programmes that support smallholder cultivation), and which – experiences of the last three decades have shown – have deepened income inequalities while making those vulnerable to food scarcity and food price volatility even more so.

These investments are determined by a dominant political economy found in a country, or a sub-national region – important variations that cannot be recognised or dealt with in any meaningful way by a set of voluntary principles (nor even with the aid of a ‘knowledge platform’ on the subject set up by the World Bank, FAO, UNCTAD and IFAD.

In this article published by Pambazuka News – the pan-African community of some 2,600 citizens and organisations that make it one of the largest and most innovative and influential web forums for social justice in Africa – I have examined the rationale and background to the principles pertaining to ‘responsible agricultural investment’ (which is now referred to commonly by the ‘RAI’ short form); and also concepts about agricultural investment (or public and private spending on agricultural activities) especially what are assumed and what are implied; and a conclusion criticises the RAI and the effort to promote a multi-lateral common ground for problems that are essentially local.

FAO_IYFF_3“The adoption of RAI will aid, in any host country, the tailoring of all policies and strategies to fit investors (foreign and domestic, for the technological advantages are now common, as much as the conduits of capital flow for food and agriculture investment are many) so that they can be ‘competitive’ in the market. Instead of prioritising a model of agricultural production where women, farmers/peasants, pastoralists and all small-scale food producers are at its core, in which agro-ecological forms of farming and raising livestock are supported, and through which local markets and economies are strengthened, the draft RAI principles will if accepted legitimise policies that put the government and country at the service of such investors (both foreign and domestic, it must be noted).”

Moreover, from the point of view of human rights terms this is discriminatory; and will turn a parlous situation into a destabilising one – already countries are falling short of their obligations related to realising the right to adequate food (a foretaste of which was seen most recently during the World Trade Organisation ninth ministerial conference in 2013 December which brought to the fore disagreements about governments’ own procurement of food for public programmes as distorting world trade).

[Read the full article on Pambazuka News.]

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Appraising World Food Day 2013

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FAO-world_food_day_2013It must be difficult to be a senior official in the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the UN these days, especially if the official is above 40 years old and has spent the last two decades working “in the field” (which usually means away from some capital city somewhere, in discomfort that is amusingly relative to most of us proletarian toilers). For, I do think that there is still a majority of folk in the FAO who care about their work and the aims of the organisation, muddled though these get when 190-odd member states each bring their own version of reality (and ambition) into the proceedings.

More difficult it is nowadays in an FAO that is being shepherded more closely into the embrace of the OECD, the World Bank-International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organisation embrace, with its murmuring old boys’ clubs all shadowy in their suits, adept at facilitating the trade of political positions for corporate board seats. And more difficult it is nowadays in an FAO that is scrutinised every day by NGOs and civil society groups that have successfully ensured that negotiations called ‘multi-lateral’ must be open before public gaze and can no longer hide behind empty principles when hunger – FAO’s single problem – stalks the planet.

Perhaps that is one reason why the FAO has called this year’s World Food Day ‘Sustainable Food Systems for Food Security and Nutrition’ – and notice the addition of ‘nutirion’, there’s no getting away from the N-word these days, so loaded has it become. The theme, to borrow from the typically bland FAO pronouncement, “gives focus to World Food Day observances and helps increase understanding of problems and solutions in the drive to end hunger”. Well said, for the umpteenth time.

Via_Campesina_food_sovereigntyBut there have been departures from the corporate script lately which are surprising. On 2013 October 04 the Director General of FAO, José Graziano da Silva, formalised a tie with La Via Campesina, recognising it as the most important voice of small food producers worldwide. This is seen by Campesina as “yet another welcome step in a series of ongoing reforms of the FAO, which have created a unique and unprecedented space to collaborate with civil society and democratize the arena of global food policy”. Easier wished for than done, as Campesina well knows, because the financiers and bankers, agri-commodity trading oligopolies and mafioso, the crooked politicians in the European Union and their willing partners in the ‘developing’ world are not going to quietly let this happen.

These reforms are aimed at giving the FAO not just more political legitimacy by becoming more inclusive, but also at reviving it as the cornerstone for international cooperation in the area of food security, starting to take such policy decisions out of the hands of the World Bank (WB) or the World Trade Organization (WTO.) While these developments are welcome, the global peasants’ movement remains realistic about the amount of energy that should be put into the UN, maintaining its greatest strength on the ground mobilizing farmers and building alternatives.

The IFPRI Global Hunger Index 2013 world map, blatantly patronising in its North-South exclusion. The white areas are not even in the map legend. They correspond to the OECD/'industrialised' world, and the IFPRI/CGIAR view is that the chronic mis-nutrition of western societies has no place in a report on global hunger. Nor does this map consider the growing effects of working class poverty in the OECD countries.

The IFPRI Global Hunger Index 2013 world map, blatantly patronising in its North-South exclusion. The white areas are not even in the map legend. They correspond to the OECD/’industrialised’ world, and the IFPRI/CGIAR view is that the chronic mis-nutrition of western societies has no place in a report on global hunger. Nor does this map consider the growing effects of working class poverty in the OECD countries.

In 2012, at the 39th session of FAO’s Committee on Food Security (CFS), the G20 approached the CFS and asked the Committee to agree with what it said on price volatility in agricultural commodities, which since 2007 has dragged tens of millions of households in South and North into hunger and debt. When that happened, and when a compromised CFS agreed, the civil society delegation to the session walked out. The NGOs, social movements, representatives of peasants’ federations and associations who were present had, on the contrary, demanded strong regulation of the commodity futures markets that fuel price volatility and the food insecurity of the poorest. But the G20 (and that means the investors in a global agribusiness industry) won that round.

With the help of the CGIAR, what for the sake of convenience we call the G20 will want to win every time. The CGIAR is the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research which runs 15 centres around the world that are described as “independent, non-profit research organizations, innovating on behalf of poor people in developing countries” and as being “home to almost 10,000 scientists, researchers, technicians, and staff working to create a better future for the world’s poor”. The descriptions about ‘independent’, ‘non-profit’ and ‘for the poor’ are lies, as they have been for every single one of the 40 years of this plague called the CGIAR. But the CGIAR system is large, powerful, almost invisible and little understood except by those in agricultural research systems (such as those in the Indian Council of Agricultural Research) in ‘developing’ countries.

And that is why the release, a few days ago, of the ‘Global Hunger Index’ 2013 needs to be interpreted for what it is, because it is the product of one of the CGIAR centres, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). The annual index offers a ranking of hunger, or food insecurity/security for many countries but not all (see the image of the map and its caption). The IFPRI functions worldwide as a motivated think-tank that commissions carefully scripted research to fulfil pre-determined outputs that serve the interests of those who profit from the industrial agricultural system and retail food system.

That such an obvious fifth column finds residence and a willing ear in India ought to be a matter of shame to us. Here is a small example why. The IFPRI, in the 2013 Global Hunger Index, has distributed its ‘recommendations’ which are from the typical neo-liberal charter of subjugation of the working classes and the denial of choice, all camouflagued by whichever development jargon is found to be currently in vogue.

The cover of the Global Hunger Index 2013 report. Read the recommendations to grasp why this has been released, ignore the data.

The cover of the Global Hunger Index 2013 report. Read the recommendations to grasp why this has been released, ignore the data.

Hence “broader policy coherence for development is also a key requirement for efforts to strengthen resilience. Policies that undermine resilience must be revised. To foster resilience to undernutrition, policies should be designed with the intention of improving nutrition outcomes and realising the right to adequate food” in fact means – do away with policies that still see a role for the state and the public sector, hide this behind trendy concepts like ‘resilience’ and ‘right to food’, but include nutrition (which I mentioned earlier) because that is the route the MNCs have successfully used.

Hence “encourage and facilitate a multisectoral approach to resilience (as the Scaling Up Nutrition movement encourages a multisectoral approach to nutrition, for example), coordinating plans and programs across line ministries” in fact means – phase out your thinking and replace it with ours, which comes with a United Nations endorsement and which places private business at the centre of policy and its implementation.

Hence “adjust policies and strategies that undermine the resilience of poor and vulnerable groups, such as the low import tariffs or the structural neglect of smallholder agriculture in Haiti” in fact means – remove barriers to food imports, stop subsidies and subventions that the poor, marginalised and vulnerable have a right to in your country (consider the ruckus the World Trade Organisation has been making about India’s new National Food Security Act) and spout righteous claptrap about ‘neglect’.

Hence “ensure that policies and programs draw on a wide range of expertise such as collaborative, multiagency, and multisectoral problem analysis. National governments should support the emergence of multistakeholder platforms and make active use of such forums” in fact means – the expertise will be foreign and provided by the CGIAR and its numerous allies in all garbs, these ‘multi’ platforms will be public showcases to conceal an agenda already set.

[The full IFPRI Global Hunger Index 2013 report is here. The ‘issue brief is here’ for those who want a condensed dose of dangerous neo-liberal vitamins. And the obligatory data set used to support the well-set arguments is here.]

There is no comparison between the IFPRI propaganda and the annual report of the Right to Food and Nutrition Watch 2013, the sixth edition of which was released in 2014 October. The Watch identifies a number of policies that generate hunger and malnutrition instead of reducing them. The Watch insists on the need for meaningful participation – at every level – of people and communities in the development of those public policies which affect their lives.

You will find here national case studies and analysis that show (1) policies that foster violence and discrimination against women with regard to equal access to natural resources, inheritances, equal wages and political decision-making, (2) policies that systematically limit and exclude large groups, including peasants, agricultural workers, fisherfolks, pastoralists and indigenous peoples from participating in those decisions that affect their very livelihoods and (3) policies on a global level that facilitate land grabbing, concentrated ownership of natural resources and the commodification of public goods that deprive smallholders and other people of their food resources.

Counting the Indian land mosaic

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India continues to be fed by its marginal and small farmers. Their holdings (those below two hectares) taken together account for 84.97% of total holdings in 2010-11 compared with 83.29% in 2005-06; the combined area under these myriad farmed plots is 44.31% of the country's total farmed area (it was 41.14% in the 2005-06 census).

India continues to be fed by its marginal and small farmers. Their holdings (those below two hectares) taken together account for 84.97% of total holdings in 2010-11 compared with 83.29% in 2005-06; the combined area under these myriad farmed plots is 44.31% of the country’s total farmed area (it was 41.14% in the 2005-06 census).

India’s Agriculture Census is the largest statistical survey done by the Ministry of Agriculture, which collects data on what the ministry calls “the structural profile of Indian agriculture”. Starting with the first in 1970-71 there have been eight such censuses and the ninth is under way.

The chart illustrates one aspect – a vitally important one – of the first phase of the census (which collects a list of all the agricultural holdings and includes area, gender, social group of the holder, its location code). The classifications of the size of farmed land-holdings are: marginal is up to one hectare, small is one to two hectares, semi-medium is two to four hectares, medium is four to ten hectares, large is ten hectares and more.

The Agriculture Census 2010-11 (Phase-I), All-India report on number and area of operational holdings(provisional) by the Agriculture Census Division, Department Of Agriculture and Co-operation, Ministry Of Agriculture, Government Of India (that’s the full, official and imposing title of the gigantic exercise) has told us, so far, that the numbers of marginal and small holdings continues to rise with every agricultural census (every five years, but the periodicity is less regular).

Some of the most salient findings so far from the 2010-11 census: the total number of farmed plots in India has increased from 129 million in 2005-06 to 138 million 2010-11; there is a small increase in the farmed land area from 158.32 million hectares in 2005-06 to 159.18 million hectares in 2010-11; the average size of a farmed land-holding has declined to 1.16 hectares in 2010-11 compared with 1.23 hectares in 2005-06.

Where India’s farmers have gone

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Can you spot the farmers, the cultivators, the growers, the agricultural labourers? A crowded street in central Bangalore.

Can you spot the farmers, the cultivators, the growers, the agricultural labourers? A crowded street in central Bangalore.

The change in the number of cultivators and agricultural labourers in India, as recently provided by Census 2011, is a major indicator of a state’s treatment of its crop-growing communities and its approach to land use. It is usually difficult to spot long-term trends in economic activity, in particular that of agriculture and food production, in the districts – a condition that the state does little to rectify.

Even so, these difficulties are eased to an extent by reading the census data together with other data – in particular land use and major crops. These should help us recognise the growing impacts on food security caused by rampant urbanisation and the steady erosion of the population of cultivators. [Please see the complete article on Macroscan.]

To gain a better understanding of the changes in the numbers of cultivators and agricultural labour (marginal or main) it is useful to read them with the change in the number of agricultural holdings in India over the same ten years, and this is provided, over exactly the same decade, by the Agricultural Census.

Changes in the populations of farmers in the 20 major states between the two censuses.

Changes in the populations of farmers in the 20 major states between the two censuses.

The last complete Agricultural Census is for the year 2005-06. The next is for 2010-11, and ‘All India Report on Number and Area of Operational Holdings (provisional)’, Department of Agriculture and Cooperation, Ministry of Agriculture (2012), from which we have the national and state level provisional data.

This tells us that the number of ‘operational holdings’ in India rose over a ten year period from 119.9 million to 137.7 million (up 14.8%). Whereas in three categories of the size of holdings (large, medium and semi-medium) the number of operational holdings dropped, in the categories of small and marginal the number rose (by 8.8% and 22.4% respectively). The rise in total operational holdings of 17.8 million is due mainly to the increase in the number of marginal holdings, that is, below one hectare, and these account for more than 95% of the all holdings added to the total in this ten-year period.

At a national level, the addition of such a large number of small holdings has not expanded the total acreage under cultivation. Rather, all cultivated land – in all size categories – has very slightly shrunk (by 0.16%) to 159.1 million hectares. However, the total masks both one large deficit and one large addition – a 17.5% decrease in the total operating area of large holdings (10-20 hectares, and above 20 hectares), and a 18.7% increase in the total operating area of marginal holdings (below one hectare). The total area operated as marginal holdings has risen from 29.8 million hectares in 2000-01 to 35.4 million hectares in 2010-11.

This provides some of the background about the change in land use that accompanies the disturbing top-level indication given to us by Census 2011 about India’s farmers. There are now 95.8 million cultivators for whom farming is their main occupation, reported P Sainath, which is less than 8 per cent of the population, down from 103 million in 2001 and 110 million in 1991.

Urbanising regions have bled farming districts of their cultivators, and pushed them into cities in towns in conditions such as these. A slum settlement in northern Mumbai.

Urbanising regions have bled farming districts of their cultivators, and pushed them into cities in towns in conditions such as these. A slum settlement in northern Mumbai.

It is with these readings – in the change in number of and type of farm plots – that the change in the numbers of cultivator and agricultural labour gives us a fuller picture. Considering the four categories of occupation under the Census enumeration which pertain to cultivation and agriculture, we have main or marginal cultivators or agricultural labourers, and data for the changes seen in these categories between the two Censuses (2001 and 2011). The changes for the 20 large states reveal the following (data sheet is available here as a xlsx file):

* The variation in the number of marginal agricultural labourers ranges from 170% more in Jammu and Kashmir, 100% more in Bihar and 83% more in Himachal Pradesh to 32% less in Kerala, 23% less in Maharashtra and 16% less in Karnataka.
* The variation in the number of marginal cultivators ranges from 47% more in Jharkhand, 31% more in Himachal Pradesh and 25% more in Bihar to 35% less in Gujarat, 34% less in Haryana and 33% less in Maharashtra.
* The variation in the number of main agricultural labourers ranges from 117% more in Rajasthan, 89% more in Himachal Pradesh and 73% more in Uttaranchal to 10% less in Kerala, 5% more in Bihar and 10% more in Punjab.
* The variation in the number of main cultivators ranges from 17% more in Assam, 12% more in Maharashtra and 2% more in Rajasthan to 40% less in Jammu and Kashmir, 24% less in Jharkhand and 20% less in Bihar.

These losses and Census gains have much to do with the great urbanisation taking place in the major states. There is a continuing trend of holdings smaller in size and greater in number (which must, from an agricultural productivity point of view, not automatically be considered a liability), which is a factor in the redistribution of cultivating communities of the food-producing districts. The consequences to the capacities of these districts for sustaining a minimum level of food production for their own consumption are yet to be recognised and understood.

The magical fieldscapes of Uttara Kannada

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This is the green western edge of the Deccan plateau of India, the gigantic highland of peninsular India that slopes gradually from west to east. They say that the western ‘ghats’, the range of hills (some say mountains, but the real mountains are the Himalaya and Hindu Kush, far to the north, while the Ghats rise about 1,500 metres above the continent in some of their southern spurs), that run for about 1,600 kilometres dissuade the south-west monsoon from bringing rain inland, but this is not quite true, for districts along the western edge of the plateau are well-watered in a good monsoon.

This magical landscape is found about 10 kilometres east of the the small town of Yellapur, in the district of Uttara Kannada, in the state of Karnataka. The land is gently rolling, and by mid-November early mornings bathe the landscape in a soft golden light. Mornings at this time are chilly, below 10 Celsius, and you can see the farmers here stride down the dusty pathways between fields, their worn sweaters keeping the chill away, their omnipresent cotton shawls – faded after months in the sun – wrapped that much tighter around their necks. In the distance, the taller peaks loom blue-grey in the distance, the skies above are cobalt with clarity.

Standing four to five metres tall, the larger of the cylindrical haystacks are minor engineering marvels and take shape organically thanks to the communal work of the farming household, neighbours, sharecroppers and of course youngsters with more enthusiasm than skill.

Dotting every cultivated hectare are the haystacks, the hayricks and the crop residue bales. These are gathered, tied, carried, lifted, piled, arranged and stacked by hand, and so the shapes they assume are organic, cones and rough domes that mimic the primal hut-shape, but dense with biomass. We are used to saying and hearing words like ‘crop residue’ and ‘agricultural biomass’, but the shapes that emerge at the end of a hectic harvest are made of material that goes by many local names. Often, these haystacks formed from rice straw, sugarcane tops, stalks of ‘jowar’ or ‘bajra’ (millets, or what the agricultural establishment demeaningly calls coarse grains).

Making the haystacks is a communal activity, inspiring for the ease with which the work gets done, and inspiring for the artistry that surrounds their fieldcraft. There are two men who stand atop a partially-formed haystack, and when they are up there you can judge the size of the pile and appreciate better how much ‘residue’ it must contain.

Crisp air enlivened with the scents of field and jungle, the sounds of a district that contentedly stewards forest and land

Women and men in the nearby fields arrange and tie the bales of gathered stalks and stems, their children help, their cattle continue to graze alongside, the ever-present companions to the good-natured ruminants, the cattle egrets, wait patiently or circle aloft impatiently, dogs snooze and the elderly offer quiet advice. The men atop the growing stack bark their instructions, from further up the fields, a group of women in bright sweaters but barefoot – tough and hardy – chat and chuckle as they work. This is district India, so alive with community spirit, secure in its fertility, in the stewardship of land and water, of stem and stalk.

Right-sizing the 2050 calculus on food and population

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A man walks away with a bag of rice at a food distribution centre in Tarenguel, Gorgol region, in Mauritania in May 2012. A full third of the country’s population, amounting to around a million people, are at risk of severe malnutrition if rain doesn’t fall by July. Photo: AlertNet / Reuters / Susana Vera

Ever since October 2011 when the world’s seventh billion person was born, there has been a new flurry of articles and prognoses about the need to increase ‘global’ food production to feed a ‘global’ population. While this may be all very well for earth systems scientists and researchers who are accustomed to dealing with planetary scale, those in charge of planning for agriculture at national and sub-national levels find it difficult enough relating to their own numbers (in India, the population of the smallest states are between 1 and 2 million, while that of the largest, Uttar Pradesh, is close to 200 million (!) which if it were a country would be placed between the fourth and fifth most populous countries – Indonesia and Brazil).

Through this year, numerous inter-governmental agencies and large organisations – including the FAO, WFP and IFAD – have discussed the need to be able to feed a population of nine billion, which we are expected to be in 2050 or thereabouts. And so says, recently, the ‘Sustainable Agricultural Productivity Growth And Bridging The Gap For Small-Family Farms’, which is the ‘Interagency Report to the Mexican G20 Presidency’ (12 June 2012).

Explaining that “the growing global demand for food, feed and biofuel is well established”, this inter-agency report has said that income growth will increase the quantity and change the composition of agricultural commodity demand. I find this approach a troublesome one because on the one hand there is growing recognition (even if corrective action is small and mostly symbolic) that consumption is to sustainable the way energy efficiency is to total energy use. Why are large agency and inter-agency reports continuing to skirt a matter which should be dealt with head-on – that consumption of food by the populations of ‘developing’ countries, on the lines of that practiced by the populations of OECD countries – cannot be encouraged by the food MNCs and the global food retail consortia?

A man gestures at a compound belonging to the World Food Programme as it is being looted in Abyei, in this United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) handout photo taken in May 2011. Photo: AlertNet / Reuters / Stuart Price / UNMIS

It is because of this consistent refusal to see – and name – the elephant in the room that this report, to the Mexican G20 Presidency, has said: “Significant increases in production of all major crops, livestock and fisheries will thus be required”.

What are the estimates provided? “Estimates indicate that by 2050, agricultural production would need to grow globally by 70% over the same period, and more specifically by almost 100% in developing countries, to feed the growing population alone… ” I am puzzled by the easy acceptance of this simple equation by the following agencies and institutions, all of whom have contributed to this report: Bioversity, CGIAR Consortium, FAO, IFAD, IFPRI, IICA, OECD, UNCTAD, Coordination team of UN High Level Task Force on the Food Security Crisis, WFP, World Bank, and WTO.

There is a mathematics here that is eluding me. The estimate is that from now until 2050, world population will grow around 30% – from the current 7 billion to an estimated 9.1 billion. However, if population grows at 30%, why must the available food (excluding biofuels demand) grow at 70% over the same period? It is extremely difficult for most people (earth system scientists excluded) to make sense of such large numbers. In order to break up large numbers into more familiar terms, I have (from UN’s World Population Prospects 2010) extracted the following data. These are the populations of France, DR Congo, Thailand, Turkey and Iran, these are the world’s 21st to 17th most populous countries (in that order).

People buy food at a vegetable market in Tripoli in August 2011. Photo: AlertNet / Reuters / Youssef Boudlal

In 2012 their populations are: France 63.5 million, DR Congo 69.6 m, Thailand 69.9 m, Turkey 74.5 m, and Iran 75.6 m. Let’s not try to strain to look ahead as far as 2050 (by which time some of us will have returned to our ecosystems as dust or as ashes) but look to 2027, or 15 years ahead. Then, the populations will look like this: France 67.7 million, DR Congo 99.6 m, Thailand 73.1 m, Turkey 85.1 m and Iran 83.7 m.

Thus we see that, as the ‘Interagency Report to the Mexican G20 Presidency’ has explained, it is indeed some ‘developing’ countries which will need to provide for considerably more food being grown and made available – DR Congo will have, in this short span of years, 30 million more people! Turkey will have more than 10 million more! The growth – again for the 2012 to 2027 period alone – is France 7%, DR Congo 43%, Thailand 5%, Turkey 14% and Iran 11%.

Does it then still make sense to speak of 2050 horizons and 2.1 billion more people when we are at best talking to national planners, sectoral administrators and thematically-oriented agencies accustomed more to district boundaries than continental spreads? I say it doesn’t – and the less time and money and conferencing we expend on these beyond-humanscale numbers the more sense we will make to those in need of guidance. The question then resolves itself as being more prickly, and more in need of hard answers – if the 30 million additional people in DR Congo are to choose a diet that has 50% less meat and 50% more indigenous vegetables and tubers and roots in it, will DR Congo still – over this period alone – need to plan for growing 43% more food (grain) to keep pace with population growth? Will Turkey need to do the same (time to encourage more çorbasi and less schwarma perhaps!)?

The colour of an Indian farmer’s money

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Were our crops to be tied, cyclically and in uneasy dependence, to the trickles of credit, India’s food stocks would be in a desperately poor state and food insecurity would stalk every district. To hear it from the Government of India and its multitude of agencies and allies, all of which in one way or another are connected with agriculture and food, the needs of the kisan (farmer) can be well met, and it takes only the kisan, toiling soul that she is, to “avail” of such plenitude.

Easier stated than done. We may not doubt the intentions that have made these provisions, but we prefer to see proof on the ground, in the fields of our marginal and small farmers, rather than as optimistic indicators that adorn the pages of reports read by no farmer. Where is this disconnection taking place? To borrow from the world of film, Yojana Bhavan and Krishi Bhavan, we have a problem! And it is this: the basis of every school of conventional economic thinking is scarcity – the idea that there is “not enough for everyone” – and the dramatic effects this reality has on human behaviour, and the measurement of behaviours is after all the DNA of economics. This allegation of scarcity is the foundation on which all of the economic systems of past and present are built.

Hence the problem is, are conventional economics approaches (from which flow these heavily-referenced reports and surveys that inform us about the state of India’s agriculture and food) any use for analysing a post-scarcity economy? Such as the ones our 640 districts will face over the next 25 years, and indeed which they face every time there is a flood or a drought? I think not. We should rather break free from analysing these matters and issues in the binary terms of ‘price’ and ‘cost’ – these are economics ‘tags’ that we intuitively know have no significance in an agro-ecological system. For social scientists and multi-disciplinarians, this is simple enough, not so for the organs and apparatus of governance. Yet for the sake of reaching an understanding that is more in tune with the kisan, it is unavoidable. When will one culture of understanding displace the other? This may not be foretold, but can be encouraged.

Let us make a rapid and selective review of what is being said about credit, the provision of money, to our farmers and agriculturists. The following paragraphs are from the Reserve Bank of India’s ‘Report of the Committee on Priority Sector Lending (2012 February), whose executive summary has said: “The need for directed lending in India would continue considering that there is lack of access to credit for a vast segment of the society. Credit remains a scarce commodity for certain sections/sectors and they continue to remain outside purview of the formal financial system. Therefore, those sectors where sufficient credit does not flow, those people who do not get adequate credit may get the benefit of directed lending.” [Get this document here (pdf).]

There are a few important insights that this paragraph provides. One, perhaps the most important, is that credit is presented as simultaneously a need for the small farmer and as a commodity (a scarce one, do you notice?). Two, there is a formal and an informal, and it is the products of the formal that are presented as possessing the ability to solve the small and marginal farmer’s problems. Three, there is a class stratification within the recipients of credit, those who are “financially included” and those who are not – and we have seen enough evidence over the last decade to show that the overlap of the marginal farmers and the financially excluded is very high, high enough to have been surprising two Plan periods ago, and for the measures this RBI report is discussing now, to have been not a preface, but an epilogue. Read the full comment on Agropedia.

Barefoot water scientists in Andhra Pradesh, India

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An interesting short video from FAO on water management and cultivating responses to indeterminate (or insufficient) water stocks. In southern India, the climate is becoming unpredictable and drought more common , says FAO – and this indeed is the case for peninsular India in general. Indiscriminate pumping from shallow aquifers shared by many farmers has caused abnormal drops in water levels, most notably in northern and north-west India, in the states of Punjab and Haryana which were the Green Revolution model states. When a well goes dry, a farmer loses his crop. In Andhra Pradesh, said FAO, 6,000 farmers have been trained in groundwater management by a project run by Indian NGOs and guided by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. They have learned to monitor how much water is available underground at the start of the growing season. Then they only plant crops that need that much water.

Image: From FAO video, 'India's barefoot water scientists'

Here is some background on the legacy of irrigation in India, and the administrative functions that large irrigation projects provided the state, whether that state was colonial (as a dominion of Great Britain) or independent (Republic of India). “At the beginning of the eighteenth century, India  was the ‘irrigation champion’ of the world. While the colonial government initially neglected the maintenance and upkeep of the numerous but mostly small irrigation structures, it soon spotted the potential for large-scale canal irrigation as an economic enterprise and took to canal building as a business on a massive scale. In those days, there was much dissatisfaction with irrigation management among observers and investors who expected much higher financial return on irrigation investments.”

Image: From FAO video, 'India's barefoot water scientists'

This is written by By Tushaar Shah in the chapter, ‘Past, Present, and the Future of Canal Irrigation in India’, found in ‘India Infrastructure Report 2011 – Water: Policy and Performance for Sustainable Development’, (Oxford University Press 2011).

“Yet, in retrospect, around 1900, canal irrigation systems in India were arguably in a far better state than today in terms of their operation and maintenance (O&M), productivity impacts, and financial returns. If we look at the situation ten years ago, around 2000, while the new welfare state had kept alive the colonial tradition of big time canal construction, the management of canal irrigation had become pathetic in terms of all the criteria on which it excelled a century ago.”

Image: From FAO video, 'India's barefoot water scientists'

“The dominant view about the way out is that farmer management through water user associations can restore canal irrigation to its old glory. However, this may not be the correct thinking. Shah has argued that the larger socio-technical fundamentals in which canal irrigation can thrive in a smallholder agrarian setting were all mostly present around 1900 and are all mostly absent today.”

The colonial irrigation management was a high input-high output affair, said Shah. A vast authoritarian bureaucracy reaching down to the village level used forced labour to maintain canal network, managed water distribution, and undertook ruthless water fee recovery on all lands deemed to be irrigated.

Image: From FAO video, 'India's barefoot water scientists'

In the canal commands, the canal water ‘tax had to be paid regardless of whether or not use was made of the canal in a particular year or whether or not there was a reliable supply from the canal’ (Hardiman 2002: 114). This, according to Hardiman, encouraged, even forced, farmers to grow valuable commercial crops to generate cash. It also resulted in much litigation from dissatisfied zamindars who put pressure on canal managers to ensure water delivery and maintain canals. The amounts provided for O&M were substantial so that deferred maintenance was minimal.

As a commercial venture, the performance of canal irrigation has decidedly declined over the past 100 years. D.R. Gadgil, the pioneer of Indian economic planning, had argued that, in a poor agrarian economy like India, public irrigation investments should be judged on their social and economic returns rather than their financial returns. Soon after Independence, irrigation charges were drastically reduced; and even these declined to a small fraction. Have public irrigation investments in free India delivered the irrigation—and the socio-economic returns they were designed for as Gadgil had hoped?  Unfortunately, the answer to the question is ‘No’; and there lies the heart of the problem. The financial rot was the harbinger of a much deeper crisis of stagnation and decline in public irrigation systems whose social and economic returns turned out to be far smaller than imagined.