Monday, October 20, 2014

Himalayan blunders at people’s peril



Climate studies show that extreme rainfall events would increase over the Indian subcontinent and that the Himalayan range is vulnerable. Despite these predictions, the Himalayan states are unprepared for such climate eventualities. 

I left Srinagar a week before the floods. Passing by the Zero Kadal, Srinagar’s oldest bridge across the Jhelum I had remarked that the river was reduced to a nallah and if this was its appearance in the monsoon season, the health of the river was grim. Then within days the waters swelled and the Jhelum burst its banks.

Similar floods had hit Uttarakhand a year ago, in June 2013, centered around the Kedar Valley, involving the Alaknanda and Mandakini rivers. Heavy rain followed by flash floods caused large-scale destruction of life and property. The sad part is that in the truest sense of the expression, the disasters in Kedarnath and Kashmir were man-made. The combined effects of utter administrative failure and human greed enabling rampant, unauthorised construction across natural water channels and flood plains resulted in the devastation we saw in both places. Climate change is causing more and more extreme weather events like sudden storms and cyclones as well as cloudbursts accompanied by torrential rain and floods, but governments can prepare for these. People can be evacuated in time, relief and rescue can be planned ahead, preparations can be made to ensure availability of drinking water, food rations, medicines and clothing. All this was done by the Orissa government in preparation for Cyclone Phailin that struck the state in October 2013 so the impact of the cyclone was contained.

It’s not as though there have not been sufficient warnings about the potential for flooding in the Kashmir Valley. The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) in Jammu and Kashmir had noted in 2009 that construction in the low-lying areas of Srinagar, especially along the banks of the Jhelum, had blocked the discharge channels of the river. The INTACH report predicted that natural disasters in the Kashmir Valley could cause widespread devastation. Recommendations for action to mitigate the danger were submitted to the government but nothing happened.

In 2010, a study done by the Jammu and Kashmir Flood Control Department predicted a major flood that would inundate Srinagar. The government ignored the warnings of the experts because the concerned minister considered the prediction of a flood in the Jhelum needlessly alarmist. Such a position can only stem from ignorance about the Kashmir region where floods have been a recurrent feature for at least a 100 years. Praveen Swami has traced the history of flooding in Srinagar in his article in a newspaper and shown how floods have regularly visited Srinagar since 1893. Unfortunately, the lessons of earlier disasters did not make a sufficient impression on successive governments for them to do anything to protect their beautiful city and its people. In 2012, the Jammu and Kashmir office of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) again predicted that massive flooding in Jammu and Kashmir was a distinct possibility. To this too, there was no administrative response.

Construction continues unabated. Despite expert advice, hydropower stations are being built without any evaluation of vulnerability and disaster potential. The hydro power projects on the Jhelum in Ganderbal and on the Chenab in Sach Khas are both examples of haphazard construction. Uttarakhand has gone the same way and suffered for it. Some 70 hydro power projects are planned on the Alaknanda and Mandakini rivers. If these projects go ahead, further disasters are likely.

Granted that hindsight is always 20/20 and everyone is cleverer after the event but the warnings about flooding in the Kashmir Valley have been many and government response has not been visible. Given the heavy and sustained rains this time, flooding was perhaps inevitable but the level of devastation was not. Three days before Srinagar was flooded, the Jhelum in Anantnag had already risen alarmingly high. High enough to warn the state administration of impending trouble in Srinagar and yet the government did not act to prepare the city for the coming floods and inundation.

Shockingly Jammu and Kashmir is the only state in the country that does not have monitoring centres to warn about rising levels in the rivers and lakes that dot this flood-prone region. A Central government proposal to set up flood monitoring stations has been pending for more than five years without the state government taking any action. The Jhelum is boxed in by urban settlements and the lakes into which excess water drains are very close to towns so there is little lead time to prepare for floods. All the more reason that a well-coordinated, efficient flood monitoring system was put in place.

Partisan politics has contributed its share to the misery in Kashmir. The state’s NDMA which should have been preparing for and managing the disaster, was rendered defunct because the Modi government had secured the resignation of eight members of the NDMA, including the chairperson because they had been appointed by the earlier United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. This has cost the people of Kashmir hugely.
Climate studies clearly show that extreme rainfall events would increase over the Indian subcontinent and that the Himalayan range is particularly vulnerable. Despite these predictions, the Himalayan states are unprepared for such climate eventualities. We saw this in Uttarakhand in 2013 and now in Kashmir in 2014. Climate preparedness has to become an important part of all development planning, particularly in the susceptible mountain and coastal areas.

Political leaders and the bureaucratic machinery must be educated about climate change and its disaster potential. The lessons of Kedarnath and Kashmir are evident and they must be taken to heart by planners in the Central and state governments. There must be a comprehensive review of the development path that the country has set itself on. There will have to be radical changes in the philosophy of “growth at all costs” to ensure that the ecology is not destroyed beyond redemption. Nature has a way of hitting back when pushed beyond a point. We finally have to acknowledge that our planet has limits which must be respected if people want a secure existence.

Source: Asian Age, 11 October 2014

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Should India permit GM foods?



We must frame an intelligent policy after widespread consultations

Suman Sahai
Agbiotechnology is presented in many forms — the most common being that it will solve world hunger. To reinforce this claim, there is an interesting word play at work. Agbiotechnology is referred to as the ‘Evergreen Revolution’ or the 'Gene Revolution' but never genetic engineering, which is its correct name. Both Evergreen Revolution and Gene Revolution are deliberately coined terms which attempt to link Agbiotech with the Green Revolution. In the view of most political leaders and policymakers, the Green Revolution was a very positive happening that brought benefits in the form of high food production but more importantly, freedom from food imports and hence political and national sovereignty. 

The Green Revolution did in fact increase food production, principally the production of rice and wheat. It made India independent of food imports and firmed up its political spine. It ensured surplus grain that could be stored in buffer stocks to be rushed where need arose and it tried to ensure that famines were not anymore a feature of the Indian reality.
These gains were so visible that the downside, the unequal distribution of the benefits, of land and water degradation, the accompanying loss of genetic diversity and the persisting endemic hunger and poverty, could not take the shine off the Green Revolution. Because of this positive image, the promoters of Agbiotech draw semantic parallels, invoking the earlier agricultural revolution. 

The subliminal message that the spinmeisters of the Agbiotecg sector try to convey is: If the Green Revolution brought so many benefits, the Evergreen Revolution would bring all those in perpetuity. The word play has actually been quite successful. Political leaders and policymakers carry over the positive association with the Green Revolution to the Evergreen one. If the earlier version brought such benefits, the newer one (more precise, with greater possibilities, as the industry says) would surely bring even greater benefits to the farmers and the poor. Conveniently left out of this portrayal are the essential and crucial differences between the two 'revolutions'.
The Green Revolution (GR) was a publicly owned technology, belonging to the people. The research was conducted in public sector universities and research institutions with public money and created public goods to which everyone had access. There were no Intellectual Property Rights (IPR), no patents vested in multinational companies, no proprietary technologies or products. If there was ownership of the GR, it was vested in the farmer. Once the seed reached the farmers, it was theirs; they moved it where they wanted. Therefore, despite its faults, the Green Revolution addressed farmers' needs and India's food production showed an upward curve.
The Evergreen Revolution is almost the exact opposite. It is a privately owned technology. Six corporations (Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer CropScience, DuPont, Dow and BASF Plant Science) control practically the entire research and output in the field of transgenic plants. Processes and products, including research methodologies, are shackled in patents and the farmer has no say, let alone any control. The technology creates only private goods that can be accessed only at a significant cost after paying licensing fees. In the case of Bt cotton, the only GM crop cultivated in India so far, a bag of Mahyco-Monsanto's Bt cotton seed costs Rs. 1,600 as compared to around Rs 400 for superior varieties produced locally.

The seed belongs to the company, which strictly controls its movement. With the development of the popularly termed ‘terminator’ or sterile seed technology, the farmer is reduced to a helpless consumer, not a partner as in the case of the GR. The Evergreen Revolution has in its 20 years, not yet produced a crop variety that has any direct connection to hunger and nutritional needs. The most prevalent crops remain corn, soya, cotton and canola and the dominant traits are herbicide tolerance and insect resistance. Despite its other faults, the Green Revolution was able to put out a number of crop varieties in a short span of time that enabled direct yield increases, which brought immediate benefits to farmers. That in short is the contrast between the two revolutions, so assiduously camouflaged by the Agbiotech spinmeisters. 

India had participated enthusiastically in the Green Revolution and is on its way to equally enthusiastically embrace the Gene Revolution or Agbiotechnology. Yet there is little debate in the country on whether any lessons have been learnt from the Green Revolution. There is even less debate between policymakers and other stakeholders on whether GM crops are relevant to Indian agriculture and if so, what path we should adopt.

There is no consultation with the public or any sharing of information about GM research and trials, as is done in almost all countries that are implementing GM technology. The Department of Biotechnology has promoted research projects randomly without any assessment of farmers' needs and the best way to fulfil them. Civil society has been uneasy with the lack of transparency and the lack of competence in regulatory bodies; the media is largely uninformed and political leaders remain unaware of the direction this new and controversial technology is taking in India and have no say in determining what it should or should not do. 

This is not the way to adopt a new technology, especially one that comes with a string of compulsory regulations. GM technology must follow specific prescribed procedures and be tested stringently. What kind of GM technology should India adopt? Should it permit GM foods or should it ban them like Europe, Africa and many other countries have done? What should our policy be on GM food crops and non-food crops? We must frame an intelligent policy after widespread consultations with a range of stakeholders. The process should be inclusive and transparent, allowing a range of expertise and insights to be brought into the decision-making process. And we should abide by the consensus view.

The writer is the founder of a research and advocacy organisation, Gene Campaign

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

BABIES BORN OF MOTHERS FACING STRESS CONDITIONS LIKE ICE STORMS CAN HAVE CHANGED GENES



The health impacts of these changes is not very  clear, but the changes in the family of genes related to immunity and sugar metabolism detected in these babies, now teenagers, may put them at a greater risk to develop asthma, diabetes or obesity.
Canadian researchers report that the number of days an expectant mother was deprived of electricity during Quebec's Ice Storm (1998) predicts the epigenetic profile of her child. Scientists from the Douglas Mental Health University Institute and McGill University have detected a distinctive signature in the DNA of children born in the aftermath of the massive Quebec ice storm.
Five months after the event, researchers recruited women who had been pregnant during the disaster and assessed their degrees of hardship and distress in a study called Project Ice Storm. Thirteen years later, the researchers found that DNA within the T cells of 36 children showed distinctive patterns in DNA methylation.
The scientists published their study (“DNA Methylation Signatures Triggered by Prenatal Maternal Stress Exposure to a Natural Disaster: Project Ice Storm”) in PLOS One.
“Prenatal maternal objective hardship was correlated with DNA methylation levels in 1,675 CGs affiliated with 957 genes predominantly related to immune function; maternal subjective distress was uncorrelated,” wrote the investigators. “DNA methylation changes in SCG5 and LTA, both highly correlated with maternal objective stress, were comparable in T cells, peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs), and saliva cells.”
The team concluded for the first time that maternal hardship predicted the degree of methylation of DNA in the T cells. The epigenetic signature plays a role in the way the genes express themselves. This study is also the first to show that it is the objective stress exposure (such as days without electricity) and not the degree of emotional distress in pregnant women that causes long-lasting changes in the epigenome of their babies.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Not the China Way



Suman Sahai

“India should see the warning signals from China’s growth models. China’s top down, non-inclusive policy-making has kept social and environmental concerns out of its economic growth plan at great cost to its people and the quality of their life.”

We have looked to China these past several years partly as competitor, part in fear and often as an economic growth role model. The new Prime Minister is thought to have a good relationship with the leaders in China and the government is likely to build on that.
One of the first people to congratulate Narendra Modi and his government was Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and exchanges with Chinese leaders continue at a high level. The latest has been the very cordial meeting between Mr Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Brics Summit in Brazil.

There is much to emulate from China, starting with its discipline. The Chinese have invested heavily in basic education, health, agriculture and rural employment. They have become manufacturing giants and developed markets for their products. One of their interesting models is the chain of township and village enterprises which links rural produce to urban markets. China is also known for its firm policy-making aimed almost entirely at maintaining high growth figures. It is precisely this aspect that we need to observe with caution.

The new government is trying to move fast to make up for the years of policy paralysis of the last government, but it must hurry slowly. One single statement that projects worth `80,000 crore, which were held up by the environment ministry, will be cleared immediately has been sufficient to set off the disquiet. It is certain that many projects were held up because of bureaucratic red tape, but surely there were others that were held up because of serious enough shortcomings to warrant a review and even denial of permission.

Unbridled economic growth can extract a high price as we have seen in many countries including our own. In case of China, some of the consequences have been severe, especially in the field of agriculture and food production. According to Chinese reports, the country is battling with an unprecedented contamination of its agricultural land, a phenomenon that is assuming alarming proportions. The situation is so serious that large tracts of arable land have become unfit for food cultivation. Not just food, altogether 3.5 million hectares are thought to be so polluted now that they cannot support any kind of agriculture at all. Chinese scientists hold the excessive use of chemical fertilisers and indiscriminate dumping of industrial waste to be responsible for the poisoning of the land.

A study conducted by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to evaluate the future of China’s food production potential came up with shocking findings. The study found that 40 per cent of China’s land is degraded and 20 per cent is so fouled up by industrial effluents, farm chemicals, sewage and waste water run-off from mining sites, as to have become almost unusable. The water resources are equally contaminated because a lot of water is being diverted to coal mining areas and the water that flows out from there is a toxic mix of chemicals. Contamination of the soil and water with toxic heavy metals like cadmium, nickel and arsenic is growing and is particularly high in the south-west region, which is China’s rice belt. The situation is so bad that large tracts of land are being abandoned by farmers who are afraid to eat the produce cultivated on such land.

The soil and water toxicity is impacting the food chain and contaminating the food. Rice samples taken from shops and restaurants traced the contaminated rice to the Hunan province, one of China’s most important rice growing regions. Contamination of food in the Hunan region should come as no surprise, given the fact that several industries in this area have come up in the vicinity of agricultural land and the heavily contaminated factory effluent flows straight into the rice fields. There are reports that high incidence of cancer is found in the regions near the polluting factories. This should remind us of our own “cancer train” running from Punjab to hospitals in Rajasthan. These trains carry cancer patients, mostly from farming areas which have been using deadly cocktails of chemical pesticides and excessive doses of chemical fertilisers. We should know we cannot allow this terrible situation to get any worse.

All this contamination of arable land and its becoming unfit for food production has high level policy implications. The situation is considered so grave by Chinese analysts that they fear for the country’s food security and food sovereignty. There is a real fear in policy circles that China may not be able to produce sufficient safe food to feed itself. Already affluent families that can afford to, are relying on imported foods and bottled water to feed their families. According to some reports, there is hoarding of food and water and a climate of fear about being able to eat safe food and drink clean water.
India should see the warning signals from such growth models and draw lessons from it. China’s top down, non-inclusive policy-making has kept social and environmental concerns out of its economic growth plan at great cost to its people and the quality of their life. The country already faces a challenge to its food security and the health of the environment has become a serious cause for concern. We must be cautioned by the China experience and do things differently. Yes, there must be firmness in policy-making and there must be timely and determined action. But the social and environmental aspects must be part of economic decision-making. The cost-benefit analysis of every project must be honest and transparent and inform the ultimate decision. Squandering our social capital for economic gains will be short sighted if not outright self-destructive.
The writer is a scientist and chairperson of Gene Campaign. She can be reached at mail@genecampaign.org

Quit growing rice in Punjab


Farmers must understand the trap they are in
 
Suman Sahai

Most farmers in Punjab face a major challenge to their agriculture practices, their prosperity and their lifestyles. Heavy mechanisation, underwritten by loans, has sapped the economic viability of Punjab’s farmers and most are heavily indebted. Farmer suicides are not unknown in this granary of the north which feeds the buffer stocks of the country and the subsidised food schemes like the public distribution system (PDS). 

There are more than four lakh tractors in Punjab for about 10 lakh operational farm holdings. Farmers buy tractors after taking loans and end up selling the machines in the second-hand market after two to three years. There is a large market for second-hand tractors in Punjab. Around 20,000 tractors are transacted annually in these markets which are unorganised and unregulated. So the farmer does not always get a good deal for his machine. The over capitalisation of farms is a crushing economic burden but the tractor is a status symbol to the Punjab farmers much like the pair of buffaloes are to their less mechanised brethren in UP. 

On the other hand, agriculture is showing ever-decreasing returns as input costs rise disproportionately and the water table sinks so low as to have practically vanished. One of the most perverse developments in Punjab farming has been establishing rice as one of the two principal crops of the state which lies in a semi-arid region. Rice was not cultivated here till well after Independence because the area simply did not have enough water. 

Rice is essentially a crop of the more moist Eastern India, which is also the birthplace of this cereal, its centre of origin. Then, came the Green Revolution with its high-yielding varieties and the Punjab farmer moved to make the most of this opportunity. Misled by their scientists who should have known better and by their politicians, all of whom were the sons of the soil and should certainly have known their agricultural history, Punjab adopted rice and cultivated it with ground water. Its political leaders negotiated with Delhi that Punjab’s grain would be lifted for the central pool, thus ensuring a market for the produce. 

Punjab, which has less than 2 per cent of India’s arable land, now produces almost 15 per cent of the country’s foodgrain. This is achieved through a relentless wheat-rice double cropping pattern, with no rest for the fields to recover. There is a high, almost staggering level of chemical inputs which the Punjab farmer pours into his fields in every crop cycle. This includes fertilisers, pesticides and water. 

The use of water in this essentially semi-arid region has been a recipe for disaster but nobody in policy making seems to notice or to have the gumption to tell the Punjab farmer that the rice crop has got to go. The water-guzzling rice, which should never have been allowed to become a key crop, has become Punjab’s major kharif crop, soaking up groundwater at unsustainable rates. Several studies show that Punjab is overdrawing its ground water by almost 50 per cent every year. The groundwater is depleting rapidly, by as much as one metre every year in some areas.

It is not just the kharif rice crop, Punjab has for years cultivated the Garma Dhan or summer paddy which was planted in the blistering heat of summer much before the monsoons came. This crop could only be cultivated with an almost criminal level of groundwater use. Not surprisingly, this led to several blocks of groundwater in the Punjab being declared ‘black’ or irretrievably exhausted. It is only in the last few years that the cultivation of summer paddy was banned in Punjab. It might have been done too late.

Punjab farmers will have to understand the trap they have created by committing themselves to the rice-wheat-rice-wheat cropping pattern. They must work together with scientists, policymakers and farmers from other parts of India, to find solutions to the situation they find themselves in. Global warming and climate change are all set to seriously damage the wheat crop over the next decades. Wheat, being an extremely temperature sensitive crop, is particularly vulnerable to temperature rise. Its productivity will decline unless temperature tolerant cultivars are developed and deployed soon. This does not appear to be happening. 

Diversifying the crop base and the kinds of varieties deployed must assume urgency. There should be no further cultivation of rice in Punjab, not at least in the current manner. Biodiverse agriculture resting on a broad genetic base and investment in improving the severely degraded natural resource base must assume priority. Punjab farmers will have to step back from the intensive, ‘without-a-pause’ type of agriculture they have practiced these last 50 years and allow their land and water to recover. If they can scale back and build a new model of agriculture that is sustainable, they can enjoy a new lease of productive farming.

Tribune, Sept. 6, 2014 http://www.tribuneindia.com/2014/20140906/edit.htm#5

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Concerns about BT Brinjal



Suman Sahai

The only stakeholder in the game that stands to benefit from the introduction of Bt brinjal is the company that is producing its seeds.

There is a raging debate in the country about BT brinjal which is poised to become India’s first GM food if the biotech industry has its way. Its entry is resisted by scientists and civil society groups that question its safety.

Why could Bt brinjal be unsafe ? It belongs to the plant family Solanacea which has important food plants like potatoes, tomatoes and chilli but also the poisonous datura and the deadly nightshade ( belladonna). Many plants of the Solanaceae family are rich in complex chemicals called alkaloids and contain some of the  most poisonous plants known to mankind. They produce alkaloids in their roots, leaves and flowers. These alkaloids can be hallucinogens, stimulants or outright poisons. Even plants like potato ,that have had their toxins bred out by generations of out breeding, when exposed to light, produce a chemical called solanin which appears as a green tinge. Green potatoes can be toxic, damage an unborn fetus and cause abortions.

Farmers have worked for thousands of years to domesticate wild plants to make them safe for eating. Much of this exercise involved selecting out the toxins contained in the wild plants. Scientists too have used careful, selective breeding to  ‘clean up’ crop varieties which had good qualities but contained harmful substances. Now through genetic engineering, brinjal, a member of a family known to carry poisonous substances, has been genetically engineered to produce the Bt toxin inside the plant, to kill the bollworm pest. This seems to be a perverse process to reverse thousands of years of effort to detoxify natural plants to make them safe as human food ! 

Genetic engineering is still relatively new and the process is ad hoc. We have no control over what the foreign genes do once they are forced into cells by gene guns, which is how genetic engineering is done. This random and aggressive process creates new products in the cell which could be normal but could also be poisonous or harmful. There are many known instances of new compounds being produced in plants which were genetically engineered that were found to be harmful.

When GM peas were being developed by the CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial  Research Organization)  in Australia to protect the peas from a pest called the pea weevil, it was found that newly formed proteins in the GM peas caused immunity problems and lung inflammation when fed to mice. The experiments had to be abandoned. In another case, when mice were fed the genetically engineered Flavr Savr tomato, seven  out of forty experimental animals died within 14 days and the others suffered from stomach lesions.

Genetic Engineering in plants of the Solanaceae family could be dangerous since disturbing the balance of the cell’s genetic material through the process of inserting new genes specially the toxin producing Bt gene, may trigger off metabolic processes that have been lying dormant.  There are apprehensions that not only new toxins could develop but that old toxins that were removed by selective breeding, may reappear. Disturbing the cell metabolism by genetically engineering of species that are naturally genetically hardwired to produce toxins,  is likely to call up old plant toxins in these species.

Testing for food safety is a crucial component of genetically engineered plants; it becomes more so with plants of the Solanaceae family. At present safety testing of GM crops is very poorly done in India and all kinds of short cuts are being used. The Technical Expert Committee (TEC) appointed by the Supreme Court to examine the way GM crops are being tested , has delivered a scathing report about the inefficiency and lack of competence in the regulatory bodies. The TEC has therefore recommended a ten year moratorium on releasing GM foods since poor testing could prove to be a threat to human health.

Apart from the critical safety issues, there are other questions that arise with the proposed release of Bt brinjal. There is no system in place for labeling these foods. Indeed, how can one , in the Indian situation label  a vegetable that will be sold from farmers’ fields, laden into trucks and taken to wholesale mandis. How will the vegetables on the vendor’s cart or the corner shop be labeled  as GM?

The government of India acknowledges the need to label GM food, and its official position in international forums has been for mandatory labelling. Accordingly, the Ministry of Health has drafted rules under the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act to include labelling of Genetically Engineered food and food ingredients.. But there  are as yet, no mechanisms in place to label GE food and food products, nor have any awareness programs been conducted to explain the nature of GM foods and the need for labelling them.  For most consumers, especially rural consumers, GM foods are a black box and unless they are made aware of the nature of GE foods, labelling would be meaningless. Putting GM foods on the market without provisions for labeling, would amount to taking away the consumer’s right to informed choice about their food. This right is enshrined in India’s Consumer Protection Act. 

There is no reason to introduce Bt brinjal. Farmers have not asked for it, it is not a crop of any great relevance to food security, nor is it a crop that has a more than average pest problem. The only stakeholder in the game that stands to benefit from the introduction of Bt brinjal is Mahyco-Monsanto , the company that is producing its seeds.

Dr Suman Sahai is a scientist trained in genetics. She is the founder of the research and advocacy organisation Gene Campaign. www.genecampaign.org

Greater Kashmir, 28 August, 2014

Monday, August 25, 2014

Scattered Approach to Agriculture

Sukhpal Singh/ Suman Sahai



Leaving aside a focus on warehousing and farm credit, the Budget has sprayed Rs 100 crore across a clutter of schemes
The new government’s budget is marked by a fractured approach to the farm sector, where perhaps the most significant spend has been on irrigation, after the large allocation to farm credit.
Credit push

A sum of Rs1,000 crore sounds good if instead of large irrigation projects and canal networks, the money is used largely for decentralised (rainwater) conservation and storage.

Agriculture in rainfed areas, plateau regions and mountain ecologies could get a boost if a network of tanks, ponds, wells, check dams is established along with efficient lift irrigation schemes for protective irrigation.

The new project “Neeranchal” to give impetus to watershed development in the country with an initial outlay of Rs. 2,142 crore is welcome. However, micro irrigation which is a relative success in Gujarat and is part of its agri development model, unlike other states, surprisingly finds no mention in the Budget.

There are also a number of small sum token schemes now known as the Rs.100 crore schemes’..

However, a significant increase in farm credit from Rs. 7 lakh crore to Rs. 8 lakh crore is a desirable move given the extreme paucity of formal credit to farmers.

But this money should not go overwhelmingly to high end agriculture/agribusiness to support cold chains, warehouses, reefer trucks, high tech packaging etc. Significant portions of the credit portfolio must be made available to enable small and marginal farmers to become not just self-sufficient, but also entrepreneurial.

An important provision is the Long Term Rural Credit Fund set up for the purpose of providing refinance support to Cooperative Banks and Regional Rural Banks with an initial corpus of Rs. 5,000 crore.

These banks were being marginalized in the rural and farm credit sector resulting in the exclusion of marginal and small farmers in the last decade.

Another amount of Rs 50,000 crore allocated for Short Term Cooperative Rural Credit is a good step as co-operative societies reach the last mile.

Another welcome step is the allocation of Rs 200 crore to promote 2,000 farmer producer organisations. This essentially means promotion of existing and new farmer producer companies.

This new set of entities which number more than 500 already are struggling for working capital and investment support though they appear to be quite promising in the modern agribusiness context.

Mixed bag

Warehousing will get a boost with an allocation of Rs. 5,000 crore . This is needed since there is a pathetic shortage of storage facilities both for cereals and perishable produce and the warehouse receipt system has not really made any headway so far despite its extreme relevance for small holder agriculture.

The provision for financing 5 lakh Joint Farming Groups of landless farmers who lease in land is a welcome move too as these farmers who now cultivate more than 15 per cent of the land do not have any facility to avail loans in the absence of land titles.

But, financing alone may not help as seen in the Andhra Pradesh experience a few years ago when identity cards were given to make such farmers eligible for loans. In any case, this large provision will drive attention to the issue.

An unfortunate fact is that farmers are vulnerable to high levels of production and market risk but no measures exist to make crop insurance work or make markets deliver stable prices.

In this situation, the budget provision of Rs.500 crore as a price stabilisation fund is highly inadequate.

There is no specific focus on the problem of making agriculture in rainfed areas viable — by investing in soil health, enhancing water retention capacity, identifying and producing locally adapted seed suited for the specific rainfed area and so on. A scheme to provide every farmer a soil health card in mission mode will be launched, for which Rs. 100 crore has been provided and an additional Rs. 56 crore to set up 100 Mobile Soil Testing Laboratories have been allocated.

This is adopted from the Gujarat experience and is much needed but to be effective, it requires participation of local agencies and institutions.

Disappointingly, there is just a very modest Rs 100 crore allocation to a National Adaptation Fund to meet the vagaries of climate change. Conserving genetic diversity to save valuable genes that could build climate resilience and investment in breeding climate resilient crops, would have buffered Indian agriculture against climate shocks.

However, there is a worthwhile investment in the creation of a fund with a corpus of Rs. 10,000 crore for providing equity through venture capital funds, quasi equity, soft loans and other risk capital specially to encourage new start-ups in the MSME sector. This can also be leveraged for agribusiness ventures to support farming and farmers.

However, the Budget could have acknowledged the reality of malnutrition and made an allocation.
The writers are with IIM, Ahmedabad and Gene Campaign, respectively
(This article was published on August 13, 2014)
http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/opinion/tokenism-wont-help-agriculture/article6313549.ece