Endosulfan: Core issues remain unattended Tuesday, Dec 21 2010 

A child suspected to be victim of endosulfan (photo courtesy cyberjournalist.org.in)

The debate is intensifying on the endosulfan issue. The issue is now getting full media attention in Kerala.  And for the first time, coverage has surpassed issues such as Plachimada which dwarfs into insignificance when one examines the havoc wrecked by endosulfan in Kasaragod district of Kerala and northern areas of Karnataka. People have been affected by endosulfan in Palakkad and Idukki districts also, though they are yet to be documented.

The Union Minister of State for Agriculture K. V. Thomas’s attempt to speak for the endosulfan lobby has boomeranged on him. The issue snowballed with Mr. Thomas’s speech in the heart of Kasaragod district.

To retain its ground and to pre-empt the Union Ministry for Environment and Forests, the Union Agriculture Ministry announced a new committee to study the issue. C. D. Mayee, who headed an earlier committee that declared that no link had been established between endosulfan and the health problems of people in 11 panchayats of Kasaragod district, was suitably chosen to head the committee. The outcome is predictable, but this time around, public criticism is not going to be doused by its report.

Succor to endosulfan victims was something promised by V. S. Achuthanandan when he was the Opposition. His slow-acting government has taken years to get into action to reach any significant assistance to the victims. (Non-governmental organisations did better than the government.). Now, he has convened a review meeting and made some announcements. But the government is likely to demit office with a half completed study by the State Council for Science, Technology and Environment and credit for providing marginal assistance to the victims.

Core issues like compensation to the victims remain unattended by successive governments. Even the Human Rights Commission is forgetting about fundamental rights to safe drinking water and food when it talks of health facilities alone.

Update (22/12/2010): The Centre has decided to drop Mayee from the committee and decided to appoint a committee headed by a health department official. No package for victims or national  ban on the pesticide before the committee submits its report.

US president, Indian middle class and food scarcity Monday, May 5 2008 

Statue of LibertyThe U. S. President George Bush’s statement that prosperity of Indian middle class has led to spiraling of global food prices have attracted strong criticism in India. The communists in Kerala were the most vociferous.

However, the critics of Bush’s statement have reacted somewhat superficially, ignoring some hard facts. The first point is that there is some truth in what Bush is saying. Second is that it is not just diversion of good grains for fuel production that is harming the world most, but subsidies for bio fuels.

It would be very difficult to stop a shift from food crops to bio fuel crops if bio fuel is cheaper (and not less efficient) than other fuels. Laws or policy prescriptions would have very little effect on such a shift worldwide. Ultimately, markets would determine the balance. What governments should do is not to subsidize bio fuel crops and subsidize food crops. Subsidy for food is important as survival of many depend on it. The Western nations are doing a grave crime against humanity by subsidizing production of fuel from grains.

However, it is to be noted that countries outside the US and Europe also offer subsidies that harm food production. Let us look at Kerala State for instance. What Bush says had happened here much before. People had gone for tapioca at times of poverty and scarcity. With prosperity and increased availability of rice, they switched back to rice. The State could have retained some of the area under tapioca and gone for fuel production (alcohol) without much effect on rice production. But that did not happen for want of viable technologies and investment.

On the other hand, rice paddies were steadily being converted from the seventies to garden lands with coconut, banana, areacanut, rubber or other crops. The Rubber Board subsidized replanting of rubber. There were subsidies for other crops also. But sufficient subsidies and work culture was not there to ensure the retention of paddy cultivation in many areas. So, the food deficit of the State kept on worsening. Higher prices for rice could make paddy cultivation increasingly profitable and stem the tide of conversion of the paddies. But the poor ought to get rice at affordable prices. So, targeted subsidies are justified. At the same time, there should be mechanisms to check price rise resulting from shortages and prevent the budget of the middle class from going haywire.

All subsidies, whether it is to the farmer or others, ultimately go to the consumer. Subsidy for rubber benefits the tyre manufacturer. Subsidy for biofuel benefits large consumers the most. Subsidy for food benefits all (and somewhat equitably since you cannot eat more than a stomach’s full), but the poor would benefit most.

Americans and most of the Westerners are heavy users of energy. They waste a lot of resources, ranging from energy to toilet papers. So, they are basically responsible for all the shortages in the world. To be more precise, all those who waste resources across the world are responsible.

Incidentally, Keralites have achieved quality of life on par with many Western nations by using comparatively lesser resources. (See Wikipedia article)

For further reading:

US eats 5 times more than India per capita

Global Agricultural Supply and Demand: Factors Contributing to the Recent Increase in Food Commodity Prices (U. S. Economic Research Service; 05/01/08 )

Matters of scale: into the toilet
Toilet paper consumption in US and elsewhere

Food crisis payback for ’20 years of mistakes’: UN expert

UN Says US, EU Biofuel Production Irresponsible

Political parties criticize Bush’s remarks

Kerala Model

Why blame India
Interesting facts about projected increase in food consumption

Paddy cultivators need a better deal Thursday, Mar 20 2008 

Paddy fields in Kuttanad, Kerala, IndiaOne should take the Opposition campaign– that paddy in Kuttanad was lost mainly because of refusal of the Kerala State Karshaka Thozhilali Union to allow the farmers to use harvesting machines, with a pinch of salt. Yet there is a grain of truth in that the heavy rains damaged the crop because some farmers could not harvest their crop earlier at some places because of Opposition from KSKTU.

It is perhaps time that the CPI (M) and its Union decided which is its priority– the protection of the jobs of a decreasing number of agriculture workers in Kuttanad or long-term sustenance of paddy cultivation.

What is at stake is clear from the government’s own initiative to enact a law for preserving paddy fields and wetlands. The State’s food security and environment will be jeopardized if paddy fields continued to be filled up. However, the trend cannot be reversed just by legislation. Otherwise, the existing Kerala Land Utilisation Order itself would have achieved the objective. The only was to achieve the objective is to make paddy cultivation remunerative and trouble free. Farmers would not be able to carry on incurring losses as a public service.

If the government go ahead with its plans to punish farmers heavily for changing crops, that would only lead to genuine farmers selling their land. The paddy fields would ultimately land in the hands of the land mafia. They would be able to bribe the politicians and officials and circumvent the law to ultimately turn the fields into housing colonies, tourist centers and what not!

There is little justification for the CPI (M) or its Union in standing in the way of mechanization. The party has virtually embraced capitalism. It is in its scheme of thinks that lesser skilled workers lose jobs to fewer numbers of better skilled workers. Skill upgradation is the key in modern day capitalism. Where that cannot be achieved, safety nets such as the Employment Guarantee Scheme should take care of the workers.

Related: A different Nandigram in Kerala

FM sees the farmers in the election year Friday, Feb 29 2008 

Finance Minister P. Chidambaram-- PIB photoBetter late than never. The Finance Minister P. Chidambaram has announced loan waiver of Rs. 60000 crores benefiting more than four crore farmers.

It took several years for the government to see that farmers are committing suicide in Kerala, Maharastra, Andhra Pradesh and elsewhere in the country. And it needed an election year and shortfall in food production to force the Finance Minister to announce the waiver. It is surprising that the country waited till now to act.

It is unjust that the Minister has limited the largesse to defaulters. Many farmers would have paid their dues tightening their belts. They also need assistance.

It is not yet clear whether the exchequer would bear the burden of the relief or would pass it on to the banks. If the Finance Minister does that, it would hit the balance sheets of bands very badly. However, it is to be remembered that industries across the country have defaulted a bigger sum and the amount is as good as written off.

It is, however, better for Finance Ministers not to tinker with the credit system. If he is passing on the burden to the banks, he should also see to it that credit to the farmers does not come down in the coming years. Farmers should not be placed at the mercy of moneylenders after the write off.

A different Nandigram in Kerala– Part II Wednesday, Nov 14 2007 

Polders of Kuttanad (kayal land)

Let us examine what could be the probable justifications for Nandigram or defragmentation of lands distributed under land reforms. Fragmentation of land has often made agriculture less productive and hence less sustainable owing to higher input costs, absence of economies of scale and other factors. (In Kerala, the land distributed to agriculture workers is ten cents or less). Globalisation has opened up the markets making several produce uncompetitive, especially in Kerala.

Under such circumstances, the large-scale suicides of farmers were waiting to happen. Reports show that as many as 1.5 lakh farmers had committed suicides across the country as agriculture ran into crisis in several regions.

Now, look at the solutions being offered. The agriculture packages being offered by the Central Government are primary meant to provide relief and would not lead to revival of agriculture in a big way (unless prices improve which is unlikely in the globalised scenario). The Agriculture Commission, set up by the Centre, proposes technology intensive agriculture as a solution. The proposals are beyond the capabilities of ordinary farmers. It would require defragmentation of land and corporatisation of agriculture. No need to say that this would lead to large scale displacement of farmers. If and when that happens, Nandigram and Kuttanad would pale into insignificance.

Distorted ideologiesThis may appear inevitable in future and reversal of land reforms in order to ensure competi- tiveness of agriculture in the country. However, technology itself may suggest alternative approaches, which need to be studied before rushing for action. Moreover, India cannot envisage speedy transition to technology intensive, market-driven agriculture because of the sheer size of its agrarian population.

What compounds the guilt behind Nandigram and Kuttanad is that they were not part of any well-planned land use policy. Nor are the methods adopted acceptable in a democratic country. To top it all, corruption is allegedly behind the developments.

(Part I)

A different kind of Nandigram in Kerala– Part I Monday, Nov 12 2007 

Polders of Kuttanad (kayal land)

The CPI (M) is practicising Marxism in the reverse gear whether it is in West Bengal or Kerala. The original slogan of communists was land for the tillers. Now, it is tiller’s land for business houses.

There may be historical justifications for both the postures. The problem is that the communists are using the same method they advocated to take away land from the landlords- violence, to take away land from the tillers. In Nadigram (West Bengal) the party is fighting the peasants through the barrel of the gun. In Kuttanad in Kerala, they used trickery, instead.

The land in question in Kuttanad is part of hundreds of hectares of land reclaimed from backwaters (polders) by an enterprising farmer Joseph Muricken before independence for paddy cultivation. It was done on the basis of a call from the then Maharaja of Travancore for production of more food in the princely State (following food shortages during the second World War).

The Kerala Government took over the polders early in the seventies under the Defence of India Rules and subsequently distributed the land to agriculture workers. Though Muricken was successful in profitably cultivating paddy, neither the Government nor the collectives of agricultural workers organised by the Government thereafter succeeded in carrying forward cultivation profitably. (Because a polder is a single unit for dewatering and other purposes, no worker could cultivate fragmented units individually.)

Then, a cooperative controlled by the CPI (M) entered the scene with the promise of a scheme to ensure returns from the land  in one of the polders. (The polder in question—R block, was not the creation of Muricken. Its reclamation was a collective effort. The Murickens, however, had land there, which was taken over and distributed to the agriculture workers as excess land).  All titleholders pledged their land to fund the project. But, the project failed and the land was put up for auction without the knowledge of the former agriculture workers. The auction was allegedly not conducted properly and the land went into the hands of developers of tourism facilities at very low prices. Those behind the operation are alleged to have received large sums in commissions. Some enquiries are underway amidst allegations that the CPI (M) led Government is protecting them.

(Part II)