Thursday, December 15, 2011

Water, Asia’s New Battleground by Brahma Chellaney

Reviewed by Suman Sahai

In a recent James Bond film, Quantum of Solace, the villain hatches diabolical plots to corner a certain South American country's fresh water resources. The Bond war is not over deposits of oil and gold but water. The conflict potential of water has clearly arrived even in the public’s imagination. In the backdrop of growing tensions over the sharing of water resources across the world and specially so in Asia , Brahma Chellaney’s new book titled Water, Asia’s New Battleground ( Harper Collins, 2011) is both timely and relevant.

In its seven chapters the book deals with diverse aspects of water in Asia , the conflicts and disputes that exist already and those likely to exacerbate as the economic boom in this region drives demand for scarce water resources. Many of these water resources will become further points of dispute as climate change melts glaciers , diminishes rainfall and reduces the over all availability of water in shared rivers. The unique role of the Tibetan plateau and China’s control of the headwaters of several rivers crucial to Asia constitutes an important part of the book’s analysis of the growing potential for discord. The book also deals with shared water resources on India’s western side, with Pakistan and the growing conflict over that sharing under the Indus Treaty. At the time of partition, the British gave the three western rivers of the Indus river system ( Indus, Jhelum and Chenab) to Pakistan and the three eastern rivers ( Ravi, Beas and Sutlej) to India. According to Mr Chellaney, India has failed to address this source of tension.

Mr. Chellaney describes the impact of the destructive use of natural resources, including water, in Asia’s rapid quest for double digit economic growth and how this is laying the ground for strategic shifts in Asia’s water politics, creating even greater potential for water wars between countries. The increasing demand for water to grow more food for the population dense countries of Asia, particularly China and India, is already causing upheavals in water sharing agreements. Both China and India are shown to be the victims of their earlier legacies of water use. Mao made grandiose plans for mega projects to divert water from the water rich south of China to its arid north and make huge dams on its rivers so that today China has the largest number of dams in the world. This includes the highly contentious Three Gorges dam which has wrought environmental destruction on an unprecedented scale. The over damming of rivers has interfered in their flows leading farmers to turn to groundwater, causing its overexploitation and pollution of aquifers.

In a different way, Mr Chellaney says that India’s negligent and disjointed approach to water management has also created a water crisis. Constitutionally water was made a state subject (rather than a central one, which would allow easier regulation) so that today states that share rivers are perpetually entangled in water disputes. Similarly, the Indus Waters Treaty with Pakistan ( 1960) according to which India committed to indefinitely reserve 80 percent of the Indus waters for Pakistan, reflects a lack of foresight and understanding of the role of water , especially for an agriculture dependent, food insecure country.

The book’s most fascinating part is where it lays out the position and politics of Tibet as an enormously rich source of natural resources, especially minerals, water and biodiversity. China’s annexation of Tibet and the brutal measures it takes to subjugate this rich land and its gentle people, is to be seen in the context of its determination to exploit Tibet’s vast mineral resources and its water for hydropower and irrigation, even as it destroys it unique, often unparalleled biodiversity . Having brought its own water resources under severe stress and caused irreversible contamination in many parts, China is now seeking to conquer the waters of Tibet. It is pursuing major water projects like inter river transfers in the fragile ecosystem of the Tibetan plateau. Tibet qualifies as a world heritage site on account of any one of its many aspects, its irreplaceable biodiversity, its landscape with deep gorges and canyons, its unique systems of agriculture and the culture of its people. Mr Chellaney’s description of the desecration of Tibet by China is heartbreaking .

This is a comprehensive and interesting book but it could have paid greater attention to suggesting what India could propose to mitigate the potential water conflict with China; what negotiating positions could it put on the table ? What counter measures could it take to protect its interests ? How for instance, could the two countries take advantage of each other’s strengths so that there is more to be gained from cooperation than conflict? Both countries, but especially China, have experience with micro hydropower projects. Local communities in the Himalayas and in Tibet have a tremendous knowledge of biodiversity, hydrology and efficient water use, as well as water conservation. Sharing this knowledge could build bridges of mutual benefit and provide a stake in collaborating. So far, collaboration and coordination between the two countries in dealing with environmental challenges has been limited, despite several signed agreements. In 1993, China and India signed a collaboration agreement on the environment and more recently they have signed an agreement to jointly monitor glaciers work and together in the areas of energy and afforestation. Suggestions on taking such beginnings forward would have added value to this book.

Asian Age, Dec 11, 2011

Saturday, December 10, 2011


Suman Sahai

Despite the proposition that independent India has not had large scale famines, widespread hunger prevails and by all accounts, is growing. As we now know from official data, the majority of the population does not attain the minimum calorie levels for rural and urban areas. According to one estimate almost 87 per cent of the rural population gets less than the rural cut-off of 2400 calories/day, and 64.5 per cent of the urban population gets less than the urban cut-off of 2100 calories/day. India finds itself at the bottom in terms of the HDI rankings. According to the multiple poverty index the levels of poverty in the country are alarming, in the range of 645 million, or 55.4 per cent of the population.

The Indian State Hunger Index (ISHI) found that 12 of 17 states surveyed had ‘alarming’ levels of hunger, with one state having an ‘extremely alarming’ level. Not a single state had ‘low’ or ‘moderate’ hunger levels. Despite this commonality, the ISHI demonstrated high variability in hunger between states. The ISHI enabled global comparisons which showed that several of India’s worst performing states have higher levels of hunger than countries such as Zimbabwe and Haiti. Madhya Pradesh, the worst performing state, ranked just above Ethiopia.

The agrarian crisis
The output of food grains in 2003–04 was still 14 million tonnes below the high level reached in 2000–01. Admittedly the food grain production did go up in the last two years yet the shortfall is still massive. In 2011 there was the announcement of so-called record food grain production which prompted the lifting of the Supreme Court ban on wheat exports. Nevertheless, this increase in production has been limited to the surplus states such as Punjab, Haryana, and Andhra Pradesh whereas the rainfed states suffering from the highest levels of hunger, such as Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand, have not shared in these increases. On the contrary, the extent of fallow lands is increasing as farmers are unable to farm due to the paucity of productive resources. Given these growth rates and the regional disparities in hunger and agricultural production, it is not surprising that hunger and malnutrition have reached unprecedented levels.

Today, nearly half of India’s children below the age of three are malnourished and stunted, and 40 per cent of rural India eats only as much food as sub-Saharan Africa. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), India is one among 17 countries where the number of the undernourished decreased in the first half of the 1990s, before increasing in the second half, thus almost completely offsetting the gains made during the earlier part of the decade. The per capita availability of food has declined for the first time since the 1960s. The official National Sample Survey (NSS) of 2000 revealed that three-fourths of India’s rural population and half the urban population did not get the minimum recommended calories. This is confirmed by nutritional and health surveys, which show: more than two-fifths of the adult population suffers from chronic energy deficiency, and a large percentage are at the border of this condition; half of India’s women are anaemic; and half of India’s children can be clinically defined as malnourished (stunted, wasting, or both). It is estimated that half of the Indian rural population, over 350 million people, are below the average food energy intake of sub-Saharan African countries.

Economic reforms in India have led to disinvestment in the agriculture sector. This has adversely affected more than 60 percent of the population which relies on agriculture for its livelihood. Many of the farmers responsible for making India self-sufficient in grain production are themselves facing hunger due to non-remunerative prices and rising input costs, among other factors. The following graphs show how the new agriculture policies have diminished the food availability gains made in the 1980s, resulting in a food availability situation not much better than the early 1950’s.

Fig 1: Food Grain Availability

Source: Directorate of Economics and Statistics, Delhi 2005.
Fig. 1 shows that the 1950s, and up to 1964, the per capita availability of food grains ranged between 140 and 170 kg per annum. The availability dropped drastically in 1967, when it touched 143 kg, and then it increased again. What is noteworthy is the trend between 1979 and 1994, when the per capita availability of food grains ranged between 155 and 180 kg per annum. After 1994, availability declined to 150 kg per annum.

This picture becomes clearer if we mark out the per day availability of food grains as shown in Fig. 2.

Fig. 2 : Per Day Food Availability

Source: Directorate of Economics and Statistics, Delhi, 2005.
Fig. 2 shows that the net per day availability of food grains in India has dipped alarmingly. It is now touching almost the same levels that it had reached in the early 1950s, at less than 450 grams per day per capita. There is a considerable shortfall in the actual requirement and availability of food grains. In the context of the current agrarian crisis, this trend poses a grave danger to communities already afflicted with hunger.

The Food Security Bill
In the backdrop of declining food availability, there have been diverse efforts to tackle hunger. There has been the Public Distribution System (PDS) providing subsidized grain, the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) and the mid-day meal scheme for school children.

The most recent in this line of efforts to improve the hunger situation, is the National Food Security Bill (NFSB) proposed by the powerful National Advisory Council (NAC). The NFSB is being considered seriously by the government where reception to its contents is mixed at best. Elements in government and out of it have not been unanimously supportive of the Bill. An expert committee headed by C Rangarajan, stated that the entitlements outlined under the NAC draft (90 percent coverage of the rural population and 50 percent of the urban) were not feasible due to unavailability of sufficient food grains. They recommended that the entitlements which were guaranteed for above poverty line (APL) households be discarded and that only below poverty line (BPL) households (as measured by the Tendulkar estimate plus a ten percent margin) be included in the scheme. This would mean a drastic reduction in coverage with only 46 percent of the rural population and 28 percent of the urban included under the ambit of the legislation.

The Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar has expressed doubt over the large quantity of grain procurement that would be required by the NAC draft and said that the issues raised by the Rangarajan Committee remained ‘pertinent’. Adding to this, the Food Ministry submitted their revised draft legislation days later which was substantially different from NAC’s proposal and decreased both the scope and size of the entitlements. Civil society groups appear divided on the NAC Bill, with some terming it merely a revised form of the PDS.

There are grave problems with the government draft that patterns itself on the draft provided by the National Advisory Council. Primary is its extremely restricted scope. This is not a Bill that attempts to bring about food security, it is only a Bill that offers a different plan to the existing PDS system, to distribute grain. No attention is paid to the most important components of food security, the production of food, its distribution and its absorption by the poor and hungry. Of the three major pillars of food security, food production, food distribution and food absorption, the NAC draft addresses just one. It is actually more a welfare Bill, a ‘dole’ as it were than an effort to tackle the complex problem of food security per se.

Tackling food security will certainly mean treading on influential toes. The conflicts will arise over who will have preferential access to productive resources like land and water. Will Coca Cola get the water for its bottling plant or will farmers get it for their cultivation? Will small farmers in the dry lands get massive investments in creating water bodies to enable them to have a second crop in the winter? The conflicts will be over such things like fertiliser subsidies. Will Punjab, Haryana, Western UP, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu continue as the principal beneficiaries of the government’s subsidies or will nutrient based subsidy be directed at poor quality soils in rainfed areas that most need intervention, finally get their due? The smallest , most marginal farmers have the worst soils and the least access to water. A Food Security Bill will have meaning only if it tries to swing things in their favour.

The Food Security Bill must tackle the fundamental question of common property resources and the right of access to them. It must be able to speak out against Jatropha plantations on common lands which are conveniently designated as ‘wasteland’. The biofuel produced in the name of clean energy will take away the grazing lands of herders and pastoralists , the place where they can park their livestock because they have no other land. It will take away the source of leafy green vegetables and medicinal plants that the poor rely on.

Just as it will have to tackle the Coca Colas , the Food Security Bill must also take a position against the Adanis, the Reliance lot and all the other conglomerates who are grabbing agricultural lands in the name of SEZs to set up industrial estates ( or just to corner real estate ) India’s most productive lands, the two crop and three crop zones are being snapped up to build urban estates. Where will we grow our food?

The food production part of the Food Security Bill will also have to deal with putting into place our response to ensure food security when faced with climate change. According to the IPCC report, the impact of climate change will be most severe in Africa and South Asia, especially its rainfed areas. We cannot continue behaving as though this is someone else’s problem and even as we debate the finer points of universal versus targeted distribution of food grains , that someone will step in and make the problem go away.

The neglect of rural India continues . There is no technical or financial obstruction to providing sanitation and clean drinking water in mission mode but it still has not been done. Children continue to die of diarrhoea and adults continue to sicken with it , unable to retain the little nutrition they get. There is no reason why this simple intervention has still not been done….
The fact is that to draft a truly comprehensive Food Security Bill and accommodate the logical aspects that belong there, a lot of people will have to be asked to give up some of what is in their bag of goodies. The Food Security Bill clearly fights shy of that .

Questions have also been raised about the manner of drafting this Bill. What kinds of consultations were undertaken? How did the principal stakeholders engage in the process of providing inputs? In what manner were experts and other actors brought on board ? How were the public’s views sought? Has this Bill attempted to be pluralistic representative of other views?

Redrafting a Food Security Legislation
It seems clear that to draft a food security bill, more than just the distribution aspects will have to be addressed. The Bill must include all relevant aspects related to the three major pillars of food security :
• the production (availability) of food,
• the distribution of food
• the absorption of food and nutrition. For this clean drinking water and sanitation are minimum requirements to prevent diarrhoea.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Better Food Storage?

Suman Sahai

It is estimated that around 20 percent to 25 percent of India’s food grain production is lost due to improper or inadequate storage. That amounts to approximately 60 million tonnes of food grains each year, almost as much as what India actually stores in its official godowns. Almost 120 million tonnes of fruits , vegetables and other perishable commodities, twice the volume of grains, are similarly wasted due to delayed and inadequate transportation, lack of cold chains as well as treatment and storage facilities.

The absence of a supply chain is seen to be the major bottleneck. Responding to this line of thinking , the government has set up a new . The aim is to improve the storage capacity in the country and also help producers and consumers get a better deal by cutting out intermediaries and wastages. The 2011-12 budget made cold chains and post-harvest storage a part of infrastructure and made them eligible for income tax relief.

The initial focus for the WDRA has been on the agricultural sector and the central government has announced the Rural Godown Scheme to promote the construction of warehouses in rural areas. At present the WDRA scheme includes 40 agricultural commodities like cereals, pulses and spices.

If the WDRA scheme is implemented properly and corruption is contained, it will give farmers a concrete advantage and some control over their produce. In the absence of available storage, farmers are unable to hold their harvest and have to resort to distress sales immediately as the harvest comes in. This provides middle men and traders with the opportunity to drive down prices and buy up the agricultural produce of the season at rock bottom prices. They can store the grain and sell at high prices later but the farmer cannot do this in the absence of affordable and accessible storage.
Today most food warehouses in rural India are for captive use, very few are business models. To remedy this, the WDRA has recently registered 50 warehouses across the country, which will now be able to issue negotiable warehouse receipts. Negotiable Warehouse Receipts have been devised by the WDRA to enable farmers to get the best price for their produce and help bring down prices of commodities by cutting out the arbitrage earned by middlemen which they do by setting different prices for the same commodity.
Warehouses who want to participate in the Negotiable Warehouse Receipts scheme must get themselves registered by an accredited agency. Eight such agencies, four each in the public and private sector, have been recognised by the WDRA. Accredited warehouses and the Warehouse Receipt scheme are designed to ensure that the concerned warehouses have the facilities for safe and effective storage. They will also be required to do grading and sorting according to quality of the produce and fix expiry dates for the commodities so they can be moved out of storage for use. To give the stored products financial and transactional value, the WDRA has formed linkages with the Indian Banks Association to ensure that banks honor the receipts from registered warehouses.

Beginning with 50, the WDRA has made plans to accredit another 300 warehouses in the months ahead. But before this scheme is made fully operational, farmers will have to be trained in the procedures of storing their produce and the rights and obligations that they will have with such storage. Costs of such storage(including transportation to site from their fields ) will need to be worked out to see how feasible such storage facilities will be and how suited to small farmers.

Small farmers create small but critical surpluses which will have to be accommodated to make storage meaningful. Otherwise, big farmers and traders will be the only ones to benefit from the government’s scheme of better storage. Vigilance will be required in this scheme to ensure that it does not get hijacked by the big players to facilitate their commodity trading by having secure and subsidized storage. With agricultural decisions being the jurisdiction of state governments, it will have to be seen how the states intervene in the execution of issues like negotiable receipts and ownership of the produce.

A note of caution must be sounded on any plans to take a step by step approach in this matter. The argument of economic viability must not lead us into the trap of creating a national facility that first accommodates big account holders and pushes small farmers
away, to be accommodated later.