Monday, March 22, 2010

Chenchus…lean, thin and lost!

Mutthiya sits with his back resting on a wall of a house; a lock dangles on its door. Out of forty two houses, only four of the doors remain unlocked in this Chenchu penta(the colony is known as penta). The entire village has migrated in the search of employment to the towns… left behind are the likes of Mutthiya, who are old and cannot toil hard. He occasionally goes in the nearby forests (forest seem an overstatement) to collect honey and sells it at the nearest town Devarkonda. Chinamma, an old lady in her fifties collects groundnuts and earns Rs 10 per day. There are many such old men women in the penta who live for pittance as most of them do not get the old age pension that they are entitled to.
Chenchus are the hunting tribes who once dwelled in the forests of Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. With the cities swallowing up the forests and their lands being washed away by mighty dams, Chenchus have relocated themselves or have been ‘rehabilitated’ In other parts of the land.  As is the case with this Chenchu group, their colony was gifted to them in exchange of the forests that Nagarjunasagar dam drowned in 1967
It has been almost forty years and Chenchus are yet to merge in the mainstream mode of life. The colony or penta as it is popularly known is located around 50 kms from Devarkonda, other adjoining town includes Timapur.  9866163824 , a phone number is written with charcoal on a wall facing Deenamma’s home, it is the phone number of a doctor residing in Timapur. The penta doesn’t have a primary health centre.
Deenamma has called up this number many times as she has a new born baby girl, due to this reason her husband has chosen not to work far away from their penta. The number comes handy as Doctor is just a phone call away, Thanks to the nokia set! Most of the Chenchus own mobile phones…the road connectivity may be poor but the tele connectivity is excellent!
Not just mobile sets, one could spot a dish antenna on the roof top of two shut houses. I wondered if the house had a TV set. It is amazing to witness the paradox… A one room  house, where a bedroom, kitchen, living room, guest room (all kind of fancy rooms we love to have in our homes) is crammed up, also has a space for a TV set. A more intriguing question is the fact that how one does manages it? Is it through collecting honey, killing rabbits, porcupines, working in fields or through sweating at the construction sites in the urban centres? Chenchus are hard working people. Employment card elude most of these hard working Chenchus …. Other people have it … certainly on the name of Chenchus folks!
It is relatively easy to con the tribals are as the literacy levels are depressingly low. The Chenchu penta had one dilapidated room in the name of a primary school. Around 30 to 35 children in the age group of 5 to 13 who should be ideally going to a primary school actually accompany their parents where they migrate in search of work. Whoever are left are lucky to have more holidays than working days as the teacher visits once in four days in the so called primary school which is deprived of the primary facilities!
The issues are numerous but Chenchus are not an organised tribe unlike the other tribal communities such as the lambadas. Their political representation is nil and the population is also declining soon… thus a vanishing tribe. E.V.L.Narayana , President of Green Cross, an NGO based in Devarkonda says “ Chenchus are lean , thin and usually malnourished. One of the reasons is the rampant arrack consumption. The immunity levels are very low as Chenchus marry within their community only and the life span is usually up to 45 to 50 years”.
There are programs like Integrated Tribal Development Agency ITDA initiated by the government that are functional in various places such as Mehboobnagar ands Srisailam. The program constitutes of community and women's development, health and education, natural resources development, credit and marketing support and project management support, including monitoring and evaluation. The Tribal Welfare Department had the overall responsibility for project implementation, with the commissioner for tribal welfare as the project coordinator. Project activities are implemented through the regular ITDA channels which includes local NGOs. Atleast the government has provided each home with a medical kit. Whether they have been briefed about its usage is altogether a different story that we couldn’t explore.
For long life … Chenchus believe in God! Apart from calling the Timapur Doctor occasionally, and using/or not using the medical kit Deenamma invokes God to ensure a healthy life for her family.  She recently converted to Christianity along with the entire penta. Now every house has a holy cross enshrined on its outer wall. Few weeks back a lady from another Chenchu penta had visited this penta and had facilitated conversion to Christianity. Muthhiya says that he has stopped drinking arrack as he had taken oath in the name of Jesus Christ! Amen!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Insight into the food Inflation

The malicious and mindless blame game is on! Who ever in the government can be held responsible by the opposition is being brutally attacked (certainly the style is verbose). The crisis isn’t a common one, it has broke backs of the most vulnerable of the aam admis of our country … it is the ever bourgeoning food inflation.
The cliché with such a kind of crisis is that, people belonging to different spheres such as politicians, economists have their own respective interpretations and not necessarily does it leads to any kind of solution.
Many culprits have been named till now… while Manmohan Singh holds global increase in the commodity, prices responsible for the domestic surge in the prices while BJP accuses Sharad Pawar as being the sole malefactor.
Closely examining the food inflation, the picture doesn’t seems a simplistic one… bad recessionary times intersecting with the neglect of the agricultural sector at the home has led to the unprecedented rise in the price of the basic food items across the length and breadth of the country.
With an average growth rate of about 2% per annum, the agricultural sector has been gasping for real time reforms. Major issues continue to hog the sector persistently. Low per hectare yield, poor irrigational facilities, dependence on the erratic monsoon, lack of credit facilities are some of the issues that farmers have been facing since decades! It wasn’t a surprise that the monsoon was the spoiler this year…. lack of rain, power crisis and heat waves damaged the sown seeds but also delayed the cultivation cycle, resulting in huge loss of the output. This was the point when the food prices started rising. The rise was not on account of any shortage but more on account of probable shortage
Secondly the poor shortage facilities resulted in loses of 58,000 crores worth of agricultural food items due to lack of post harvesting infrastructure. If the Government had ensured timely storage facility, food inventory would have been more then sufficient leading to prices remaining under control. Next factor that led to the spurt was the government going soft on the hoarders and speculators.
On the global arena economic recovery from recession in major advanced economies and improved growth prospects in major agricultural products have been major drivers of the recent increases in international commodity prices. The FAO (Food Price Index), a measure of the monthly changes in the international prices of a food basket composed of cereals, oilseeds, diary, meat and sugar has been increasing significantly since August 2009, led by all its components. The major driver of this increase has been sugar, as output of the two major sugar producing countries, i.e. India and Brazil has declined. Consequently sugar prices have shot up in India too.
All the above mentioned cases are the supply side constraints that have led to sky rocketing prices of the staple food items of an Indian family such as pulses, rice, sugar etc. Government has reacted by permitting import of raw and white sugar, edible oil and pulses by public and private sector as well. Centre has taken steps in empowering states to punish hoarders. The area that can be consolidated further is the public distribution system
Pranab Mukherjee, Union Finance Minister said “RBI (Reserve Bank of India) has already done the demand-side management by raising the CRR (cash reserve ratio). It will suck out Rs.40,000 crores money from the banking system. This will ease liquidity pressure on the system,” 
Added to the proactive measures by the Government institutions, one can also count on nature as Rabi crops prospects seem encouraging; the post monsoon rains have been good. Along with the short term initiatives, there has to be long term vision in dealing with a crisis of such grave nature. Inflation as an economic phenomenon is cyclical in nature, but how much of it can be allowed a free play is a crucial question. Had the agricultural sector been better off to absorb shock, the intensity of the food inflation would have been moderate.
The bottom line is that agriculture has to be revived, revamped and reformed through a visionary plan in our country! The double digit growth that the PM claims in the next few years cannot be at achieved by riding on the success story of the manufacturing and the service sector. The growth has to be holistic including all sectors of the economy.
To conclude I would like to quote George Washington who had once remarked, "I know of no pursuit in which more real and important services can be rendered to any country than by improving its agriculture"

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Let baigans be bygones!

“You cannot get up before tasting the baghara baigan, it is the south Indian speciality” quipped Ashish Uncle, neighbour of my aunt in Hyderabad. It was a weekend and I had been to my local guardian’s place when Ashish Uncle had invited us for his son’s birthday.
All my life I have detested the king of vegetable but since I have come to Hyderabad, it has been tough time ignoring brinjal! Whether it be the Sunday special at the hostel mess or a friend’s mom invitation for feeding us the ‘home made’ food or  lucky  ‘out of the blue’ invitation for  Ashish uncle’s kid’s birthday party or the news papers flooded with ‘BT Brinjal’... Brinjal seem omnipresent!
But I realize that brinjal in newspaper is certainly more intriguing than the brinjal on a platter… because it’s just not about the king himself but plethora of things attached to it. Bt brinjal has triggered issues such as livelihood of the farmers, sustainability of agriculture, burgeoning profits for the corporate houses, credibility of the scientific research, faith in government’s decision and a range of issues like this!
BT brinjal, a genetically modified strain created by India's number one seeds company Mahyco in collaboration with American multinational Monsanto, claims to improve yields and help the agriculture sector. This claim has been contentious and has let to a stir in the country, jolting everyone from the netas to the aam admi. 
The company products have the dubious distinction of proving destructive on the fields and adversely affecting the lands and the crop yields worldwide. Various international groups such as the Organic Consumer Association, Greenpeace have carried campaigns such as “Millions against Monsanto”. It is a clique that the poor farmers have been coaxed by the governments and the Monsanto to pay them and get their fields contaminated by genetically modified organisms.

Presently the big multinational corporations (MNCs) control the seed and chemical supply, and it’s a huge market. Monsanto, one of the top MNCs claims to apply innovation and technology to help farmers around the world produce more while conserving more.  In reality the companies have pushed the farmers into a vicious cycle, where to grow the GM seeds, the farmers have to spend on chemical fertilisers and then to sustain the seed one has to depend on pesticides. Consequently the farmer is caught in a debt trap as all these wares come at a price and the worst of crisis occurs when the yields are shockingly low! Thus more  borrowing to harvest the new GM seeds!

The MNCs have been showing keen interest in the agricultural sector of the country due to various reasons. India being the habitat of the world’s second largest population, food security is a major concern.  Per hectare yield of the farms in India has been drastically low in comparison with other countries; hence increasing the output of the farms is one of the priorities of the sector. MNCs ensuring abnormal outputs see India as a major market for the genetically modified seeds.
In 1995, Monsanto teamed up with the Indian Mahyco to import Bt cotton seeds. The GM seeds were crossed with local varieties to ensure that they could adapt to local conditions. Much of India's GM debates stems from this point - In India’s agricultural history the first GM crop to be commercially grown in the farm lands was the Bt Cotton. Let alone an increased yield of cotton, it rather led to series of farmer suicides in the states where the GM seeds was promoted aggressively by the state governments.
There is now a stand-off between supporters of the technology and activists  who accuse the government and industry of a lack of transparency, which they say has prevented a serious, inclusive scientific debate on the issue. The decision of allowing the GM seeds was a top down diktat that was enforced on the vulnerable farmers.
"With no transparency over GM crops in India, no one, farmers or the state agriculture department, is told anything properly," says Suman Sahai, convenor of the Delhi-based nongovernmental organisation Gene Campaign. 
After the fatal consequence of the Bt cotton, the next GM crops that awaits to cause  destruction is the Bt Brinjal .However, the debate over the safety of Bt brinjal continues with mixed views from scientists working for the government, farmers and environment activists. There have been various versions of the research that had flooded the debate on the Bt brinjal.
The research conducted by the MNCs  which they use to persuade the governments is usually the research  funded by the companies themselves and then presented to the regulators for clearance. It is not surprising then that there is an enormous lack of credibility.  Activists allege that the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) has shown a bias towards   Monsanto. Ideally the research must have been publicly funded and openly scrutinized.
Dr. Vandana Shiva, noted environmentalist and activist says that “Safety tests conducted on Bt brinjal were a big fraud. The tests have not checked the effects of transgenic Bt which include genes for antibiotic resistance and genes for viral promoters. The tests have been done on safe microbial Bt, which has been used as an organic pesticide for decades. Hence the results merely show the safety of the organic spray.”
There has been a wide spread protest in the country including methods like the ‘brinjal satyagraha’ a nationwide fasting campaign against the commercialisation of the Bt brinjal in India, signature campaign where about 1, 70, 000 people have signed the document stating “I am No Lab Rat”. 
Jairam Ramesh, the Union minister of environment came up with the device of public consultations on October 15, 2009, just a day after the regulator in his ministry, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), had given its go-ahead to the commercial cultivation of Bt brinjal. The series of consultation meetings chaired by him have turned out to be dramatic, given the manner in which pro and anti-GM lobbies sought to demonstrate their strength.
States cutting across regional and political lines: Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, West Bengal and Bihar have come out against Bt brinjal. While some asked for a moratorium pending further testing of the bio-safety of Bt brinjal, others rejected the very idea of letting toxic genes be inserted into food crops. Consequently Jairam Ramesh, the Union minister for environment and forests, has agreed to put Bt brinjal in the cold storage for a while.
The question is not only about allowing a new technology of genetic modification here; it is about its use in a daily-use vegetable, cooked in our homes, a vegetable that can easily be grown in the backyard. India is the home of brinjal, where it has been cultivated for four thousand of years without the help of fertilizers; hence do we really need a Bt bringal? Will it help the farmers to improve their income or will it lead to surge in the  number of suicides?   Or will it just help the MNCs to fill their kitty? There are numerous such questions that need to be debated and discussed constantly!
To add to that list, one more question …. Will the Bt bhagara baigan will taste as delicious…. Well I would leave the question to the south indian food experts to answer!