Pesticides, soil, all count in GM crops’ effectiveness, finds study

New Delhi: Genetically modified (GM) pest-resistant crops may not be the panacea they are made out to be, a new study shows, with specific reference to Bt cotton.
The field trial by scientists in Nagpur shows that the soil the plants are grown in matters almost as much as insect-killing genes and pesticide sprays.
The finding could significantly increase the amount of money farmers spend in buying and spraying pesticides. It could also mean lower yields than those promised by manufacturers of GM seeds.
The study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Current Science, says that the quantity of toxin exuded within a Bt cotton plant sowed in deep soil was nearly three times as much as that of shallow soil and there was marked reduction in the amount of toxin (which combats pests) that was present in the plant during the months of October and November, when most of the cotton is matured and most vulnerable to pest attacks.
The study also found that the extent of soil moisture, which can vary between extremes in a season, was a crucial factor in regulating the amount of toxin that was measured within the plant.
“…This decline coincided with the peak boll formation stage. At this stage, the toxin concentration was 0.48–2.40 μg/g. The toxin concentrations were, in general, less than the critical concentration of 1.90 μg/g…” wrote the authors D. Blaise and K.R. Kranthi of the Indian Institute of Soil Science, Bhopal, and Central Institute for Cotton Research, Nagpur, respectively. The tests were performed over the monsoon of 2006 and 2007 over 21 test plots in the Nagpur institute’s cotton fields.
At least 60% of India’s agricultural land is rain-fed, the extent of moisture in the plant swings between extremes, and according to the study, exposes cotton to pest attacks at a level much greater than previously imagined.
“There is no doubt that we need Bt cotton. But in regions like Vidarbha which is rain-fed and has a lot of shallow soil, Bt cotton wouldn’t work as well as in other parts of the country. The study just points out that you need different kinds of cotton in different regions. A one-size-fits-all approach can’t work,” said Kranthi.
Bt cotton now accounts for over 90% of the country’s cotton acreage and has been credited with tripling the yield since 2006 and making India a net exporter as well as world’s second largest producer of the commodity.
It’s largely due to the success of Bt cotton and its acceptance among farmers that several companies and agricultural research institutes have been trying to integrate the Bt gene into food crops in India.
India’s major cotton producing states are Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Punjab which all have varying soil topographies and varying exposure to monsoon rainfall.
Genetically modified cotton today uses one or more genes from a soil bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis that trigger an insecticidal protein.
These toxins are usually fatal only to a bug called the American bollworm, considered the chief cotton pest and, as a result, the target of most sprays.
Though Bt cotton seeds are costlier than their non-Bt counterparts, its proponents claim that seeds engineered in this way dramatically reduce the sprays—and, hence, costs—in protecting cotton crop. It is estimated that pests cause losses worth $120 billion (Rs. 5.9 trillion today), of which losses worth Rs. 60,000 crore take place in India.
Pesticides worth $8 billion are used every year in India, with cotton accounting for nearly $3.8 billion of this. GM technology is expected to reduce at least 50% of the expenditure on pesticides.
Last year, Kranthi had pointed out several “unforeseen” consequences of the widespread adoption of Bt cotton. In a report, he said 90% of the current GM cotton hybrids appear susceptible to mealy bugs and whiteflies (also considered a minor cotton pest) and that insecticide use in cotton, as measured by value, appears to have increased from Rs. 640 crore in 2006 to Rs. 800 crore in 2008.

Census findings point to decade of rural distress. P. Sainath

For first time since 1921, India’s urban population goes up by more than its rural

Is distress migration on a massive scale responsible for one of the most striking findings of Census 2011: that for the first time since 1921, urban India added more numbers to its population in a decade than rural India did?

At 833.1 million, India’s rural population today is 90.6 million higher than it was a decade ago. But the urban population is 91 million higher than it was in 2001. The Census cites three possible causes for the urban population to have risen by more than the rural: ‘migration,’ ‘natural increase’ and ‘inclusion of new areas as ‘urban.’ But all three factors applied in earlier decades too, when additions to the rural population far outstripped those to the urban. Why then is the last decade so different? While valid in themselves, these factors cannot fully explain this huge urban increase. More so in a census in which the decadal growth percentage of population records “the sharpest decline since India’s independence.”

Take the 2001 Census. It showed us that the rural population had grown by more than 113 million since 1991. And the urban by over 68 million. So rural India had added 45 million people more than urban. In 2011, urban India’s increase was greater than that of rural India’s by nearly half a million, a huge change. The last time the urban increase surpassed the rural was 90 years ago, in 1921. Then, the rural total actually fell by close to three million compared to the 1911 Census.

However, the 1921 Census was unique. The 1918 Influenza epidemic that killed 50-100 million people worldwide, ravaged India. Studies of the 1921 Census data say it records between 11 and 22 million deaths more than would have been normal for that decade. There was also the smaller impact of World War I in which tens of thousands of Indian soldiers died as cannon fodder for Imperial Britain in Europe and elsewhere.

If Influenza left its fatal imprint on the 1921 enumeration, the story behind the numbers of the 2011 Census speaks of another tragedy: the collapse of millions of livelihoods in agriculture and its related occupations. And the ongoing, despair-driven exodus that this sparked in the countryside.

The 2011 Census captures only the tip of an iceberg in terms of rural upheaval. The last time urban India added more numbers to its population than rural India was 90 years ago and that followed giant calamities in public health and war. Yet, without such conditions, urban India added 91 million to its 2001 total, against rural India’s 90.6 million. (Table 1). Nor can this reversal be fully captured by the factors Census 2011 cites as driving the urban increase. Take ‘migration.’ In public debate, ‘urban’ is often equated with big metros. This conjures images of massive waves of people from villages heading straight for the big metros. And this flow, you will be assured, is falling. (Vital data on this will emerge only next year and might surprise us).

The Census data, however, do not convey the harshness and pain of the millions trapped in “footloose” migrations. That is, the desperate search for work driving poorer people in many directions without a clear final destination. Like Oriya migrants who work some weeks in Raipur. Then a couple of months at brick kilns in Andhra Pradesh. Then at construction sites in diverse towns in Maharashtra. Their hunger, and contractor, drive them to any place where there is work, however brief. There are rural migrations to both metros and non-metro urban areas. To towns and smaller cities. There are also rural to rural migrations. There are urban-urban migrations. And even, in smaller measure, urban to rural migrations.

Flight from agriculture

Neither the Census nor the National Sample Survey is geared to capture the complexity of India’s migrations. A migrant in the Census is someone counted at a place other than his or her last place of residence. This records a single move — not multiple migrations. So it sees only the tip of the mobility iceberg, missing footloose migrations altogether. What we do know from Census 2001 is of the flight from agriculture. Between 1991 and 2001, over seven million people for whom cultivation was the main livelihood, quit farming. That is a mind-boggling figure. It suggests that, on average, close to 2,000 people a day abandon farming in the country. Where do they go? Nothing in employment data suggests they get absorbed in decent work in bustling cities.

What about ‘natural increase’ (the difference between the numbers of births and deaths in a population)? That does not explain the switch around in rural-urban increases either. Indeed, the rate of natural increase has declined in both rural and urban areas. Still the urban population and towns get bigger and bigger.

As Registrar General and Census Commissioner of India Dr. C. Chandramouli puts it: “Fertility has declined across the country. There has been a fall in numbers even in the 0-6 age group, as a proportion of the total population. In fact, in absolute numbers too, this group (now 158.8 million) has declined by five million, compared to the previous Census. This would suggest migrations as a significant factor in urban growth. But what kind of migrations we can only ascertain or comment on when their patterns emerge more clearly. The Census in itself is not structured to capture short-term or footloose migrations.”

We also get an extraordinary picture when viewing what demographers call the ‘Urban-rural growth differential.’ The URGD is simply the difference between the rates at which rural and urban populations expanded in each decade. It is also a rough and ready index of the extent of rural-urban migrations. The URGD in the 2011 Census is 19.8, the highest in 30 years.

‘Natural increase’ does not then account for the growth in urban numbers. Certainly not for the 30 per cent rise in urban population in the States. Thousands of towns today have far larger populations than they used to have — but not due to natural increase. The reason is migrations on a massive scale. Rural folk still outnumber urban people by more than two to one. In the 2001 Census, rural family size (5.4) remained bigger than urban family size (5.1). Also striking, States like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar show massive falls in growth rates in 2011. In the 2001 Census, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar were “the two States with largest number of net migrants migrating out of the state.”

The other factor cited by the current Census for the turnaround is interesting. “Inclusion of new areas under ‘Urban’.” The number of ‘statutory towns’ has gone up by a mere 241 since 2001. Compare that with the preceding decade when they rose by 813, or more than three times that number. (A ‘Statutory town’ is an urban unit with a municipality, corporation, cantonment board or notified town area committee.)

There is, however, a boom in the number of ‘Census towns.’ In the decade 1991-2001, Census towns actually declined from 1,702 to 1,361. In the 2011 Census, they nearly tripled to 3894. That is stunning (Tables 2 and 3). How did this happen? And what is a ‘Census town?’ This is a village or other unit declared as a town when: its population crosses 5,000; when the number of male workers in agriculture falls to less than 25 per cent of the total; and where population density is at least 400 per square kilometre.

At the very least, this means the male workforce in agriculture has collapsed in thousands of villages, falling to less than a quarter of all workers. So the farm exodus continues. What might the 2011 data on cultivators show us when it is out late next year? It could show us that the numbers quitting cultivation since 2001 might equal or exceed the over seven million dropouts of the previous decade.

30 years farming system study, comparing organic with conventional Ag, Rodale Institute USA

The hallmark of a truly sustainable system is its ability to regenerate itself. When it comes to farming, the key to sustainable agriculture is healthy soil, since this is the foundation for present and future growth.

Organic farming is far superior to conventional systems when it comes to building, maintaining and replenishing the health of the soil. For soil health alone, organic agriculture is more sustainable than conventional. When one also considers yields, economic viability, energy usage, and human health, it’s clear that organic farming is sustainable, while current conventional practices are not.

As we face uncertain and extreme weather patterns, growing scarcity and expense of oil, lack of water, and a growing population, we will require farming systems that can adapt, withstand or even mitigate these problems while producing healthy, nourishing food. After 30 years of side-by-side research in our Farming Systems Trial (FST)®, Rodale Institute has demonstrated that organic farming is better equipped to feed us now and well into the ever changing future.

Fast Facts
Organic yields match conventional yields.

Organic outperforms conventional in years of drought.

Organic farming systems build rather than deplete soil organic matter, making it a more sustainable system.

Organic farming uses 45% less energy and is more efficient.

Conventional systems produce 40% more greenhouse gases.

Organic farming systems are more profitable than conventional.

The Farming Systems Trial (FST)® at Rodale Institute is America’s longest running, sideby-side comparison of organic and chemical agriculture. Started in 1981 to study what happens during the transition from chemical to organic agriculture, the FST surprised a food community that still scoffed at organic practices. After an initial decline in yields during the first few years of transition, the organic system soon rebounded to match or surpass the conventional system. Over time, FST became a comparison between the long term potential of the two systems.
We selected corn and soybean production as our research focus because large tracts of land, particularly in our region and the Midwest, are devoted to the production of these crops. Corn and soybean acreage comprised 49% of the total cropland in the U.S. in 2007. Other grains made up 21%, forages 22% and vegetables just 1.5%.
Throughout its long history, the FST has contained three core farming systems, each of which features diverse management practices: a manure-based organic system, a legume-based organic system, and a synthetic input-based conventional system. In the past three years of the trial, genetically modified (GM) crops and no-till treatments were incorporated to better represent farming in America today. Results and comparisons are noted accordingly to reflect this shift.
Organic Manure: This system represents an organic dairy or beef operation. It features a long rotation including both annual feed grain crops and perennial forage crops. The system’s fertility is provided by leguminous cover crops and periodic applications of manure or composted manure. This diverse rotation is also the primary line of defense against pests.
Organic Legume: This system represents an organic cash grain system. It features a mid-length rotation consisting of annual grain crops and cover crops. The system’s sole source of fertility is leguminous cover crops and the rotation provides the primary line of defense against pests.
Conventional Synthetic: This system represents the majority of grain farms in the U.S. It relies on synthetic nitrogen for fertility, and weeds are controlled by synthetic herbicides selected by and applied at rates recommended by Penn State University Cooperative Extension. In 2008, genetically modified (GM) corn and soybeans were added to this system.
No-Till Systems: Each of the major systems was divided into two in 2008 to compare traditional tillage with no-till practices. The organic systems utilize our innovative no-till roller/crimper, and the no-till conventional system relies on current, widespread practices of herbicide applications and no-tillspecific equipment.
The crop rotations in the organic systems are more diverse than in the conventional systems, including up to seven crops in eight years (compared to two conventional crops in two years). While this means that conventional systems produce more corn or soybeans because they occur more often in the rotation, organic systems produce a more diverse array of food and nutrients and are better positioned to produce yields, even in adverse conditions.

Full Report (PDF)

New initiative to popularise organic farming Neha Madaan

PUNE: In an initiative implemented by city-based Directorate of Horticulture, around 6,000 hectare of land in the state will be brought under organic farming through 60 projects this year. The initiative aims to increase the area under organic farming by 50,000 hectares, apart from reducing production costs and ensuring good quality produce, free of pesticide residue. The budget earmarked for this is Rs 4.31 crore, which includes cost on components such as vermicompost units, biodynamic compost units, organic farming exhibitions, tours and training, among other things.

According to D G Bakwad, director, horticulture department, growers, who want to delve into organic farming, want premium price for their produce. “We are, therefore, trying to introduce this initiative with two perspectives: Reducing the production cost and increase the product quality. Though farmers try to bring down production cost, the end produce is not purely organic due to the use of both organic and inorganic inputs. The production of organic food has therefore not been consistent,” he said.

He added that producing truly organic food is a highly complex procedure, as the produce has to be certified and the organic inputs required have to be produced on the farm itself, which is a tedious process and requires plenty of labour. “Farmers therefore delve into organic farming only if they are guaranteed premium price for their produce. It is because of the aforementioned reasons that out of the total area under organic farming in the state (7.02 lakh hectares) area that is under certification has come down from 2.77 lakh hectare to 1.5 lakh hectare. Certification itself involves additional expenses, due to which there has not been much stability in organic farming,” he added.

Hence, the initiative. “Earlier, we promoted organic farming by implementing different components to support it; this year however, we changed our implementation strategy. This year, we have implementing this programme on organic farming as a full-fledged project, by bringing about 200 ha under the sway of this initiative in each district of the state, which adds up to 6000 ha in all,” added Bakwad.

It also involves NGO participation, who have been selected to promote the initiative in each district.

Under the programme, Rs 50 lakh have been earmarked for starting vermicomposting units, Rs 1.04 crore for biodynamic compost units, Rs 1 lakh for Cow Pat Pit (CPP) culture unit, and Rs 4.95 lakh for preparation of ‘neem’ powder. The initiative will also have setting up farmers’ groups to undertake organic farming, for which a total of Rs 28.30 lakh have been sanctioned, while Rs 1.01 crore have been allocated for starting organisations that will conduct organic farming workshops. Rs 34 lakh on organising exhibitions, festivals, workshops and seminars on organic farming, Rs 16.60 lakh for tours within the state and Rs 8 lakh for those outside the state, among others allocations, are also part of the initiative.

Do Seed Companies Control GM Crop Research?

Do Seed Companies Control GM Crop Research?
Scientists must ask corporations for permission before publishing independent research on genetically modified crops. That restriction must end
By The Editors | August 13, 2009 | 37

Advances in agricultural technology—including, but not limited to, the genetic modification of food crops—have made fields more productive than ever. Farmers grow more crops and feed more people using less land. They are able to use fewer pesticides and to reduce the amount of tilling that leads to erosion. And within the next two years, agritech com­panies plan to introduce advanced crops that are designed to survive heat waves and droughts, resilient characteristics that will become increasingly important in a world marked by a changing climate.

Unfortunately, it is impossible to verify that genetically modified crops perform as advertised. That is because agritech companies have given themselves veto power over the work of independent researchers.

To purchase genetically modified seeds, a customer must sign an agreement that limits what can be done with them. (If you have installed software recently, you will recognize the concept of the end-user agreement.) Agreements are considered necessary to protect a company’s intellectual property, and they justifiably preclude the replication of the genetic enhancements that make the seeds unique. But agritech companies such as Monsanto, Pioneer and Syngenta go further. For a decade their user agreements have explicitly forbidden the use of the seeds for any independent research. Under the threat of litigation, scientists cannot test a seed to explore the different conditions under which it thrives or fails. They cannot compare seeds from one company against those from another company. And perhaps most important, they cannot examine whether the genetically modified crops lead to unintended environmental side effects.

Research on genetically modified seeds is still published, of course. But only studies that the seed companies have approved ever see the light of a peer-reviewed journal. In a number of cases, experiments that had the implicit go-ahead from the seed company were later blocked from publication because the results were not flattering. “It is important to understand that it is not always simply a matter of blanket denial of all research requests, which is bad enough,” wrote Elson J. Shields, an entomologist at Cornell University, in a letter to an official at the Environmental Protection Agency​ (the body tasked with regulating the environmental consequences of genetically modified crops), “but selective denials and permissions based on industry perceptions of how ‘friendly’ or ‘hostile’ a particular scientist may be toward [seed-enhancement] technology.”

Shields is the spokesperson for a group of 24 corn insect scientists that opposes these practices. Because the scientists rely on the cooperation of the companies for their research—they must, after all, gain access to the seeds for studies—most have chosen to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals. The group has submitted a statement to the EPA protesting that “as a result of restricted access, no truly independent research can be legally conducted on many critical questions regarding the tech­nol­ogy.”

It would be chilling enough if any other type of company were able to prevent independent researchers from testing its wares and reporting what they find—imagine car companies trying to quash head-to-head model comparisons done by Consumer Reports, for example. But when scientists are prevented from examining the raw ingredients in our nation’s food supply or from testing the plant material that covers a large portion of the country’s agricultural land, the restrictions on free inquiry become dangerous.

Although we appreciate the need to protect the intellectual property rights that have spurred the investments into research and development that have led to agritech’s successes, we also believe food safety and environmental protection depend on making plant products available to regular scientific scrutiny. Agricultural technology companies should therefore immediately remove the restriction on research from their end-user agreements. Going forward, the EPA should also require, as a condition of approving the sale of new seeds, that independent researchers have unfettered access to all products currently on the market. The agricultural revolution is too important to keep locked behind closed doors.

Note: This article was originally printed with the title, “A Seedy Practice.”

Bt cotton crop washed away in vidarbha-DNA Reports

Bt Cotton Crop washed away in Vidarbha-DNA
DNA / Yogesh Pawar / Sunday, September 25, 2011 8:00 IST
Step into the fields with your shoes on and you realise why it makes sense to walk barefoot like Rameshwar Golewar of Kolejhari in Kalam tehsil of Yavatmal district in Vidarbha’s suicide country. Your foot slips till the ankle into the soggy clay-like field. “It has rained so much in the last week that my entire crop is ruined,” points out Golewar as he looks around the wilting cotton crop on his 12 acre field.

The rains have brought a double whammy. Not only has the rain halted the flowering midway, but has also led to rampant growth of weeds. “If I employ labour to remove weeds, the cost is prohibitive, so I have decided to use weedicide instead. Even a drop of the strong chemical is enough to destroy whatever is left of the cotton. But what choice do I have?”

Farmers like him are caught in a bind even while agro MNCs with a nod from the government are laughing their way to the bank. Authorities first encouraged farmers in Vidarbha to opt for genetically modified Bt cotton, saying the yield will be huge. Despite initial resistance, aggressive campaigning by brand ambassadors like Nana Patekar saw many a farmer convert in the hope they would make a killing.

“With our native species, even if flowering failed due to excessive rain in the first half of the season, we would still manage at least some yield since the plants flower again. Bt cotton only flowers once and any failure means re-sowing the expensive Rs1,200-a-packet seeds,” says Golewar’s neighbour, Ambadas Rathod, who is also calculating his losses.

The blitzkrieg on high yield hadn’t informed farmers of how high the cost of fertiliser would be or how pesticide-intensive this species is. “At Rs1,000 a kilo, I spent nearly Rs10,000 on fertiliser alone, and a further Rs12,000 per litre on 6-litre pesticide. Now all that money and my hard work has been washed away,” says Rathod.

At the Yavatmal collectorate, a tehsil-wise report submitted to the district collector on rain in the past 24 hours tells a completely different story. The figures for Kalam say 0.00 mm rains. When told of the anomaly between the report and the ground reality, collector Shravan Hardikar has an explanation ready: “The hydrometers which gauge rain are located in the tehsil office. It is impossible to keep track of local instances of high precipitation.”

None of the farmers can seek compensation for their losses until the local tehsildar and collector send a recommendation with a panchanama of the loss. Once the district administration shows on record that rains are normal, farmers are left high and dry with their rotting crop.

Attempts to involve collector Hardikar on this issue are met with resistance. “I go by figures in front of me. There may be claims of heavy rain, but statistics with me show that we have only got 84% of the total rainfall we get by this time of the year,” he insists. “I have visited Yerat and Tipeshwar and the farm produce seems quite healthy. In fact, it looks like we are expecting a bountiful crop this season.”

Even in instances when a panchanama was made, farmers got nothing. Both in Kolejhari and in Baarsa, 80 kms away, farmers are still awaiting compensation for losses in 2005-06. “We know that the funds arrived because compensation was given to farmers in villages with the right political contacts. But we are yet to see any money despite numerous costly reminder trips to the tehsil and collectorate office,” says Namdeo Jindewar of Kolejhari.

Little wonder then that there is such despondence in the region, and Yavatmal continues to remain the capital of suicide country.

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PDS: It just works in TN

ALAMU R., The Hindu, Magazine, September 24, 2011

A combination of political commitment, awareness and better transparency has ensured that the PDS in Tamil Nadu works as intended, ensuring food security for all.

Believe it or not, the Public Distribution System (PDS) is working quite successfully in Tamil Nadu — this is one of the main lessons we have learnt from a recent survey of the PDS in Dindigul and Dharmapuri districts. Be it political commitment that lies behind this success, or people’s enlightened awareness, the Fair Price Shops are open and people get their due. From the survey experience, we feel that certain factors have helped to make the PDS work in Tamil Nadu.

Less room for error

Tamil Nadu has a universal PDS where all households are entitled to food rations, including up to 20 kg of rice per month. In many other states, the PDS can be accessed only by Below Poverty Line (BPL) households. In those states, BPL lists are far from perfect — firstly, they cover too few households, and secondly, they come with a lot of exclusion errors. As a result, the PDS does not ensure food security. In Tamil Nadu, a universal PDS has, to a great extent, resolved this problem. Some exclusion errors, however, still exist in the distribution of Antyodaya cards (for the poorest of the poor, entitled to 35 kg of rice every month).

People here are aware of their entitlements. At least one person in every household is aware of the details of PDS rations and prices. In its election manifesto, the AIADMK promised free rice, and this began to be implemented soon after the elections, while our survey was on (in June 2011). (Earlier, in the DMK period, PDS rice was distributed at Re 1 per kg). We were stunned to find that all the randomly-selected households we interviewed were well aware that from June they were entitled to free rice! The dissemination of information was impressive. Awareness amongst the masses reduces corruption, as ignorance and lack of information often put people at the mercy of corrupt intermediaries.

It is not just awareness amongst people but also politics that makes the PDS perform. Tamil Nadu was the first state to sell rice at Rs. 2 per kg. Seeing the magical spell of the PDS in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh also started pricing PDS rice at Rs. 2 per kg, under NTR’s “populist” regime. Later, PDS prices in Tamil Nadu were reduced further. In the recent 2011 State Assembly Elections, both parties (DMK and AIADMK) promised rice for free. The PDS is a big election issue for all the political parties in Tamil Nadu, and even in this decade of populism, it often stands first in the list of schemes meant to lure or attract voters. Whichever government comes to power, it has to ensure proper working of the PDS. This is an important reason why illegal “diversion” of PDS grain (to the open market) appears to be very low in Tamil Nadu: only 4 per cent of the total, according to a 2004-5 estimate, compared with 90 per cent or so in Bihar.

In Tamil Nadu, a special vigilance wing has been set up to prevent the diversion of PDS commodities. In recent weeks, lots of diverted rations were seized near the Tamil Nadu borders. The Civil Supplies Department seems fully committed to reducing the diversion rate to zero. People’s vigilance and awareness assist this effort. In some of the villages we visited, we heard brave stories of villagers surrounding the ration shop dealer if he tried to smuggle rice or other rations. The same residents were instrumental in getting dealers suspended. Yes, the villagers are no longer ready to give away their quota!

Simple and effective

One common reason why people do not get what they are entitled to is that Fair Price Shop managers tell buyers that the stock of a particular commodity has been exhausted. The Tamil Nadu government has introduced a simple measure to prevent such lies. If you are phone savvy, you can send an SMS to find out the stock of any Fair Price Shop in Tamil Nadu at any point of time. All you have to do is send the text message ‘PDSdistrict numbershop number’ to 9789006492 (for instance, ‘PDS 22 DP041′ would give the currently existing stock of different items for shop DP041 in Dindigul). The relevant district and shop numbers are printed on each ration card. When we tried it out, it worked in almost all the villages. Simple transparency measures of this sort (and there are many others in Tamil Nadu) can go a long way in reducing the scope for smuggling and corruption.

Fair Price Shops in rural areas are run primarily by cooperative societies, and handled by salaried employees of the societies. This is different from most other states where Fair Price Shops are run by private dealers who earn from commissions on sales. In the cooperative-society system, there are more checks and balances. Also, because the manager is a full-time employee, Fair Price Shops in Tamil Nadu are open throughout the month. By contrast, in other states they typically open for just a few days, and in many cases the dates are not fixed. Tamil Nadu has also introduced additional, part-time ration shops in large Gram Panchayats, to ensure that everyone has convenient access to the PDS.

Other reasons

There are other factors at work in Tamil Nadu that tend to go unnoticed but still seem important. The villages are well connected with all weather roads and good state-run bus transport. Ration shops have a separate building which is either government-owned or rented, but at least stocks are not stored in the manager’s house. Apart from the manager’s phone number, entitlements (prices and quantities), stocks and the contact details of concerned officials are displayed in front of all the Fair Price Shops.

Overall, the PDS seems to be functioning exceptionally well in Tamil Nadu. People’s awareness, universal entitlements, political competition and other factors have helped to make the PDS work, and ensure that no-one sleeps hungry. In Tamil Nadu, when the sample households were asked about their views about cash transfers as a possible alternative to food entitlements, a majority of respondents preferred food over cash. The main reason is that the PDS is seen to provide food security and also reduces transport related hassles (ration shops in Tamil Nadu are more accessible than banks or regular markets). It does seem more reasonable to stick with a functional PDS that ensures food security than to make a hazardous shift to cash transfers. As respondents in one village said, “better to strengthen an existing system than dismantle it and develop a completely new one!”

Out of the bank, into the money-lender’s trap

“Will you come in now?” screams 50-year-old Tanhibai Kale of Ganeshpur village in Jhari Jhamni tehsil of Yavatmal, the heart of Vidarbha’s suicide country. Lightening streaks across the darkened skies, followed by loud thunder. Her drenched nine-year-old grandson Nandu comes in from the downpour and tries to slink in but not before getting two slaps. “Next, you’ll fall ill and we’ll have to go looking for money to treat you,” the matriarch scolds as he whimpers.

The crying seems to spark something. “Why don’t we all die? Then all our problems will be over for good,” she says angrily wiping her own tears.

It has been a week since her 53-year-old husband Jhabaram committed suicide by consuming pesticide. “He wouldn’t sleep at night, and kept worrying about how we could raise money to repay the Rs1.5 lakh we had borrowed,” she recounts.

The family ran into problems after rains ravaged their crop earlier this year. They re-sowed the fields, but the rains wouldn’t let up and the second crop also began wilting. Jhabaram got anxious about raising money to repay his loan to the local Yavatmal co-operative bank. “He tried going to local money lenders but when they refused, he went to the field and drank pesticide…” her voice trails off. The anger comes back. “This boy (pointing to her 27-year-old epileptic son Sachin) is useless. All he’s done is produce a child (Nandu). And this girl (pointing to her 19-year-old daughter Suvarna, a XII-std failure) is a lodestone around our necks. No boy will marry her without a sizeable dowry, and where do we get money for that from?”

To make matters worse, the local talati (village officer) Suresh Dhavale wants a bribe of Rs10,000 to recommend them for the state government relief of Rs1 lakh given to families of farmers who commit suicide due to agri-debt.

In village after village, we encounter the same story: Of dead farmers whose bereaved families are being made to run from pillar to post to get even basic compensation. Figures at the Yavatmal Collectorate show that since 2001, there have been 2,184 farmer suicides. Of these, only 648 have got the Rs1 lakh compensation. “Look, the rules were not made by me. These guidelines and criteria have come from the Central government and we have to go by them,” says Yavtamal Collector Shravan Hardikar.

Fifty kilometres away at Hevra Barsa village, we meet Balwant Namdeo Devalwar, 40, who’s caught in a debt spiral. After crop failures in 2005, he didn’t have enough money for seeds the next year, and borrowed Rs60,000 from the Central Bank. As luck would have it, excessive rain was followed by poor rain in 2006 and his crop failed again, leading him to default on his debt. “The debt kept mounting and I would run out the back door whenever I heard the officials coming to make enquiries,” he says.

This carried on till the Agricultural Debt Waiver and Debt Relief Scheme (ADWDRS) launched by UPA-I in 2008 assured him of a 25% waiver. The scheme allows only farmers who own less than 5 acres a complete waiver. Since he owns 17 acres, he couldn’t benefit.

These criteria have often been criticised but the government refuses to change them. “In Western Maharashtra, a farmer who owns five acres can own two cars and a tractor, and is well-off. Here in Vidarbha, even a 20-acre farm owner is living hand to mouth,” points out Mohan Jadhav of the farmers’ advocacy group Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti.

A National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) survey earlier this year found that despite the Rs65,318.33 crore already doled out to farmers under the ADWDRS, nearly 43.42 million (48.6%) of the 89.35 million farmer households in India are still indebted. According to the survey, the figures for Maharashtra stand at 54.8%, despite the ADWDRS.

Devalwar borrowed from a local money lender and sold off his bullocks for Rs35,000 so that he could repay the outstanding amount of his loan and apply afresh. “I got Rs95,000 from the Central Bank in August last year. I’ve now been hiring bullocks at Rs500 a day for my field and successive crop-failure means I am in default with the both the bank and the money lender.”

Despite their reputation, money lenders find many takers. Devalwar explains: “The bank keeps making you go back and forth 20-25 times and yet there is no guarantee you will get the loan in time. A few farmers who applied in early April are getting the loans only now, in September, when the kharif season is over. Though we know how ruthless money lenders are, we are left with no choice.”

Collector Hardikar says he had a meeting with the banking heads in the district and told them to process farm loan applications on priority. “The banks have distributed over Rs750 crore this year alone,” he points out. But Hardikar cannot explain why poor farmers are left out. “This needs to be systemically addressed at the policy level,” is all he offers.

Meanwhile, farmers in urgent need of compensation to repay the bank and the money lender find that the only way out of this debt trap is death.