In 16 years, farm suicides cross a quarter million, P. Sainath

Past eight years show rising trend


Farm Suicides: All India Totals, 1995-2010

It’s official. The country has seen over a quarter of a million farmers’ suicides between 1995 and 2010. The National Crime Records Bureau’s latest report on ‘Accidental Deaths & Suicides in India’ places the number for 2010 at 15,964. That brings the cumulative 16-year total from 1995 — when the NCRB started recording farm suicide data — to 2,56,913, the worst-ever recorded wave of suicides of this kind in human history.

Maharashtra posts a dismal picture with over 50,000 farmers killing themselves in the country’s richest State in that period. It also remains the worst State for such deaths for a decade now. Close to two-thirds of all farm suicides have occurred in five States: Maharashtra, Karnataka, A.P., Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

The data show clearly that the last eight years were much worse than the preceding eight. As many as 1,35,756 farmers killed themselves in the 2003-10 period. For 1995-2002, the total was 1,21,157. On average, this means the number of farmers killing themselves each year between 2003 and 2010 is 1,825 higher than the numbers that took their lives in the earlier period. Which is alarming since the total number of farmers is declining significantly. Compared to the 1991 Census, the 2001 Census saw a drop of over seven million in the population of cultivators (main workers). The corresponding census data for 2011 are yet to come in, but their population has surely dipped further. In other words, farm suicides are rising through the period of India’s agrarian crisis, even as the number of farmers is shrinking.

While the 2010 numbers show a dip of 1,404 from the 2009 figure of 17,368, there is little to cheer about. “There was a similar dip in 2008, only to be followed by the worst numbers in six years in 2009,” points out Professor K. Nagaraj, an economist at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai, who did the largest ever study of the farm suicides covering a decade (The Hindu, November 12-15, 2007). “This one-year decline does not in any way indicate we have turned the corner. This dip happened mostly because of one-off falls in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. In fact, a look at the ‘Big 5′ who drive the numbers shows the fallout of the agrarian crisis to be as grim as ever. They have actually increased their share of the farm suicides.”

Harvesting Discontent

The spiralling rise in the cost of fertiliser, seed and labour is forcing farmers to give up on agriculture. Bhavdeep Kang reports on the unfolding disaster

No greener pastures Only those who cannot find employment continue farming

Photo: Creative Common Licence

THE ‘CROP holiday’ by farmers of Andhra Pradesh, in protest against high agricultural input costs and low procurement prices, is entering its second season. The three lakh acres left uncultivated during the kharif or summer season will lie fallow during the upcoming rabi or winter season as well. The passive agitation has struck a chord with farmers in other states, with the Bharatiya Kisan Union threatening a copycat crop holiday in Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab.

Left in the lurch Andhra farmers are planning to go on a crop holiday for a second season

Photo: Outlook

This has raised concerns about the country’s food security in an already inflationary scenario. The agitation in Andhra Pradesh, for instance, represents a loss of over 350 lakh tonnes of paddy, the principal kharif crop. A worried Central government is considering a sharp hike in the procurement price of wheat, the main rabi crop, to encourage farmers not to quit cultivation.

The discontent among farmers, fuelled mainly by spiralling prices of fertiliser, seed and labour, may have found expression only in some pockets, but it’s a universal phenomenon based on common factors. Farmers say the costs of production have increased to the point where cultivation no longer makes sense; they prefer to find alternative sources of employment while leaving their fields fallow.

In Odisha, vast tracts of land in the coastal areas have been left uncultivated, not as part of an organised protest but because the farmers don’t find it viable to engage in agriculture. Ashish, a farmer in Puri district, owns a two-hectare plot on which he raises paddy and green gram. In the past three years, he says, “the cost of fertiliser and labour has gone up many times but procurement price of paddy has gone up only 25 percent”. Only those who cannot find employment still continue farming, he adds.

Damodar Singh of Narsimhapur in Madhya Pradesh grows wheat and soyabean on a rented plot of eight acres. He cannot understand why the cost of fertiliser has increased three times in the past three months. Never having heard of the Nutrient Based Subsidy (NBS), he is unaware of the UPA government’s efforts to trim the ballooning fertiliser subsidy by passing costs on to the farmers. Nor does he follow global trends in fertiliser pricing, to which domestic prices are now linked.

All he knows is that the cost of DAP (di-ammonium phosphate), a must-have input for most crops, has jumped from Rs 450 to Rs 950 for a 50 kg sack within three years. He actually ends up paying 1,300 per sack in the open market because there is a perennial shortage of DAP (75 percent of India’s requirement is imported) and a premium has to be paid. Likewise, the cost of urea, the most widely used chemical fertiliser, has doubled.

Labour costs have also ballooned, by as much as 300 percent in five years. “Bigger farmers get agricultural machinery like harvesters from Punjab, to reduce dependence on labour, but it is expensive — as high as Rs 1,800 per hour,” says Damodar. “I myself have worked as a labourer at Rs 50 per day not too long ago. But now, labourers demand higher wages, more than the government rate of Rs 125 per day. They also want meals. Who can blame them? The cost of everyday items has gone up.” His wife, Radha, nods vigorously, “Milk is Rs 30 per litre.”

THE PRICE of seeds, too, has doubled. Even going by official rates, certified seed outlay for wheat has gone up from Rs 1,000- Rs 2,000 per acre. Seeds bought in the open market rather than through farmers’ societies, are even more expensive. Damodar says, “The government gives me soyabean seed at Rs 4,000 per quintal, but it purchases my soyabean at Rs 2,000 per quintal.”

And that, says Dr GV Ramanjaneyulu of the Hyderabad-based Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, is the crux of the whole problem. “Agriculture is the only manufacturing process in which you buy retail and sell wholesale.”

According to official figures, the cost of cultivation per hectare of wheat in Madhya Pradesh in 2008-09 was Rs 22,618 (Punjab by comparison was Rs 35,697 per hectare). This works out to a cultivation cost of Rs 896 per quintal of wheat produced. The procurement price fixed by the government in that period was Rs 1,080 per quintal. So, the farmer should have earned Rs 80 per quintal or upwards of Rs 3,000 per hectare in the rabi season. This is not much, on a small farm of four hectares.

The figures collated by Dr Ramanjaneyulu for paddy cultivation in Andhra Pradesh show just how distorted farm economics has become. The cost of cultivation for paddy in 2011-12 is estimated at Rs 1,800 per quintal, but the minimum support price (MSP) — the rate at which the government procures paddy — is only Rs 1,080.

‘The government gives me soyabean seed at Rs 4,000 per quintal, but it buys my soyabean at Rs 2,000,’ says a farmer

The farmers’ margins are getting progressively smaller, with the easing of price controls on fertiliser. The inflationary impact of the new fertiliser policy or NBS, announced in 2009, is being sharply felt now. India is the world’s largest importer of urea and DAP and is therefore prey to volatile global markets. Unfortunately for India, DAP prices spiked this summer, affecting the kharif crop. At the same time, strong indications of urea decontrol resulted in farm gate prices increasing.

Fertiliser is invariably sold in black owing to hoarding, a fact that is not taken into account, say farmers. Also, the quantum of fertiliser used is invariably higher than the recommended dose. Dr Upendra Dixit, who has compiled data on fertiliser usage by farmers of Narsimhapur, found that they were applying more than twice the recommended dose of DAP. “If 16 kg per acre is required for soyabean, they are applying 35 kg per acre. It 15 kg of potash is required, the dosage is 25 kg,” he says.

But farmers say they have no option but to increase the dosage of fertiliser every season in order to maintain the same level of production year after year.

The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) has played a significant role in driving up labour costs, as it gives farm workers bargaining power. Pritam Singh, a landless labourer and village deputy sarpanch from Gadarwara in Narsimhapur, led 40 BPL cardholders to the district collector’s office to demand work under MGNREGA, as big farmers were offering low wages. “They were pressurising the administration not to implement the scheme so that they could get cheap labour. But we have the right to get minimum payment,” he says.

Labour is a major issue in Odisha as well. “The daily wage is Rs 200 per day in our area and the labourers are getting subsidised rice at Rs 2 per kg. They don’t see any need to work on the farms,” says Ashish. Mechanisation will help, he says, but no one has the capital to invest in agricultural equipment.

Two other input costs must be factored in — pesticides and land rent. Pesticides, apart from their environmental impact, are now adding significantly to farmers’ costs. For instance, a soyabean farmer will resort to at least three sprays of pesticide even in a relatively pest-free year. This works out to Rs 2,000 per acre.

“If you use chemical fertilisers, you will attract more pests. This is well established,” says Dixit.

After all of this, say the farmers, there is still no guarantee of getting the price fixed by government, as procurement by government agencies is limited. Nor can the farmer afford to wait for prices to go up before selling in the open market. As most farmers operate on credit, they need cash in hand to settle debts or make interest payments after the harvest.

The pressure on land due to industrialisation, mining and urbanisation is a double- edged sword. Some farmers welcome the prospect of selling their land for cash. But for tenant farmers, it means that land rents have gone up.

The imbalance between cost of cultivation and price of produce is addressed by the Commission of Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP). But activists say the CACP does not have the wherewithal to determine the actual cost of production. Besides, every time the MSP is hiked, the food subsidy bill goes up, so the government will try and keep it at a minimum.

Union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar has mooted a procurement price of Rs 1,285 per quintal of wheat for the coming rabi season. This means that the food subsidy bill, already upwards of Rs 95,000 crore this year, will rise further.

It is a Catch-22 situation: if the fertiliser subsidy is trimmed by passing the cost on to the farmer, the price paid to the farmer (MSP) for his produce should be increased, which means the food subsidy would escalate.

Food policy analyst Devinder Sharma suggests a farmers’ income commission for each state. The CACP methodology, he says, has no bearing on the cultivators’ livelihood needs. After all, they are consumers as well.

Ramanjaneyulu adds: “Prices of agriculture commodities have increased by 25 percent in 1997-2007 but those of other commodities increased by over 300 percent. In the same period, salaries went up by 150 percent, without factoring in the Sixth Pay Commission and MLAs gave themselves a hike of 500 percent.” Farmers are the only group that didn’t see incomes going up.

Is there a way out? Damodar claims to have found one. “I have shifted from chemical fertilisers to vermicompost from the kharif season. I have obtained higher yields of soyabean with better grains than others, at much less cost.”

Foodies, Get Thee to Occupy Wall Street

The Occupy Wall Street protests grew out of anger at the outsized power of banks. But as they’ve expanded nationwide, the uprisings have evolved into a kind of running challenge to the way power is concentrated in all aspects of our economy—concentrated into the hands of people with an interest in maintaining the status quo.

No doubt, the financial sector is a stunning example. This MoJo chart shows how the 10 largest banks came to hold 54 percent of US financial assets, up from 20 percent in 1990. As big banks gobbled smaller banks and became megabanks, they managed to extract more and more wealth out of the economy. Even after the epochal meltdown and bailout, the financial sector now claims fully a third of US corporate profits. They’ve invested a chunk of that windfall in what is probably Washington’s most formidable lobbying machine—which is precisely how they managed to slither away unscathed despite the economic carnage they caused.

But other economic sectors are similarly concentrated, and have a comparable grip on public policy. Consider the industry I cover. Our national food policy is both in desperate need of reform and utterly trapped under the heel of industry influence. So, as Occupy Wall Street evolves, food policy should be on the plate. Here are four reasons why:

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1. The food industry is a big fat monopoly.
Agribusiness is concentrated to a point that would make a Wall Street master of the universe blush. Vast globe-spanning corporations, many of them US-based, dominate the industry.

Let’s start with “inputs,” the stuff farmers buy before they plant their crops. As of 2007, six companies owned 75 percent of the global pesticide market, and four companies sold half of the globe’s seeds, ETC Group reckons. Here’s the kicker: Three of them—Monsanto, Syngenta, and Dupont—are on both lists. The agrichemical makers have transitioned into seed barons, genetically engineering their major seed lines to resist their own herbicides.

Three companies process more than 70 percent of beef in the US; four slaughter and pack more than 58 percent of our pork and chicken.
Monsanto is an interesting case. In addition to being the planet’s largest seed vendor, with 23 percent of the market, it licenses its patented genetically modified traits to other companies. Think of the physical seed as the hardware and traits as the software. In the trait market, Monsanto holds a near monopoly: By 2007, according to ETC Group, 87 percent of the acreage dedicated to genetically engineered crops contained crops bearing Monsanto traits.

Okay, so farmers rely on a small handful of firms for their inputs. But it turns out the same thing holds true when they harvest and sell their crops. Just four companies—Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, Bunge, and Louis Dreyfus—control up to 90 percent of the global trade in grain. In the United States, three of those firms process 70 percent of the soybeans and 40 percent of the wheat milled into flour. The bulk of corn and soy grown by US farmers ends up feeding animals in vast factories, and here, too, the consolidation is dramatic: Three companies now process more than 70 percent of all beef, and just four firms slaughter and pack upwards of 58 percent of all pork and chicken.

By 2002, just four companies produced 75 percent of cereal and snacks, 60 percent of cookies, and half of all ice cream.
Finally, let’s look at the supermarkets. Walmart opened its first grocery-selling “superstore” in 1988. Today, it controls 2,750 superstores and more than a quarter of the US grocery market. As a result, the combined market share of the four largest grocery players has doubled, from less than 20 percent in 1992 to nearly 40 percent today.

And, despite acres of shelves groaning with thousands of products, only a few large companies stock supermarkets. By 2002, the USDA reported, four companies churned out 75 percent of breakfast cereal, 75 percent of snacks, 60 percent of cookies, and 50 percent of ice cream.

2. The food industry screws farmers, its own employees, and the environment.
In antitrust theory, when four players control more than 40 percent of a market, they’re said to wield “market power”—that is, they can manipulate the prices they charge consumers and the terms on which they deal with their suppliers. So, rather than raise prices, the food industry has slashed costs—at the expense of workers, farmers, and the environment.

The meat industry provides a stark example. Today, you can grab a McDonald’s McDouble burger or a McChicken sandwich for a dollar. As I noted above, just a few companies process the great bulk of meat consumed in the United States. How can they do that profitably, when McDonald’s is practically giving burgers away? Simple: screw the workers.

Some 80 percent of the antibiotics sold in the United States go to livestock facilities, the FDA reports.
From 1976 to 2009, according to USDA figures, the inflation-adjusted average hourly wage of meatpacking workers plunged, as did union membership among meatpacking employees. Predictably, working conditions deteriorated. (See our recent Hormel Foods exposé: “The Spam Factory’s Dirty Secrets.”) In 2005, Human Rights Watch issued a damning report titled “Blood, Sweat, and Fear,” which concluded:

Employers put workers at predictable risk of serious physical injury even though the means to avoid such injury are known and feasible. They frustrate workers’ efforts to obtain compensation for workplace injuries when they occur. They crush workers’ self-organizing efforts and rights of association. They exploit the perceived vulnerability of a predominantly immigrant labor force in many of their work sites. These are not occasional lapses by employers paying insufficient attention to modern human resources management policies. These are systematic human rights violations embedded in meat and poultry industry employment. [Emphasis added.]

Farmers, too, got the shaft. As a few big hog processors like Smithfield gobbled market share and began raising millions of their own pigs, pork prices tanked and tens of thousands of farms went belly up, despite an increase in the total number of hogs being slaughtered. In 1992, America had 240,000 hog farms, the USDA reports, but only 60,000 of them remained by 2007. Similar trends have hit the poultry industry.

Meanwhile, shunting livestock production into huge factory-style facilities has led to a massive concentration of toxic animal waste. Using data collected by the EPA, the Environmental Integrity Project recently showed that animal factories routinely emit levels of particulate matter, ammonia, and hydrogen sulfide that are well above acceptable health limits. A good deal of that manure ends up in groundwater, too, fouling drinking water supplies and fish habitat.

Finally, to keep their animals alive and growing fast under dire conditions, the meat industry laces feed rations with antibiotics. The FDA recently revealed that 80 percent of the antibiotics sold in the United States go to livestock facilities. Nearly every US public health and farm oversight agency has acknowledged that the practice contributes heavily to the rise of antibiotic-resistant human pathogens—vicious superbugs like MRSA, a resistant form of staphylococcus that kills now more Americans than AIDS does.
3. Wall Street’s greed leaves millions to starve—literally.
One obvious reason that Occupy Wall Street should focus on food is that Wall Street itself focuses on food.

As I reported last month, two recent UN reports directly implicate commodities speculators for driving up the price of key food staples like rice and wheat—leaving tens of millions of people around the world hungry in order to make a buck. A new study (PDF) reaching the same conclusion has emerged from the New England Complex Systems Institute—and was reviewed by two Harvard economists and an official from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.

Sure, these analyses note, US and European biofuel programs have played a role in all this by (foolishly) diverting key food staples into car fuel. But Wall Street took the biofuel craze to a whole new level. Olivier de Schutter, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, puts it bluntly:

The promotion of biofuels and other supply shocks were relatively minor catalysts, but they set off a giant speculative bubble in a strained and desperate global financial environment. These factors were then blown out of all proportion by large institutional investors who, faced with the drying up of other financial markets, entered commodity futures markets on a massive scale.

And here’s what the New England Complex Systems Institute team had to say:

The two sharp peaks in 2007/2008 and 2010/2011 are specifically due to investor speculation, while an underlying upward trend is due to increasing demand from ethanol conversion.

They illustrated this with the following chart.

From: “The Food Crises: A quantitative model of food prices including speculators and ethanol conversion,” New England Complex Systems Institute, 2011.

When the first speculative shock hit food markets in 2007, “at least 40 million people around the world were driven into hunger and deprivation as a result,” de Schutter writes. The bubble burst with the 2008 Wall Street meltdown but has since reinflated as Wall Street returned to profitability and its speculative ways. In real terms, global food prices are now hovering above their former peak in 2008, meaning misery for millions of people globally.

How did the global food supply become a Wall Street profit center? In a July 2010 Harper’s article called “The Food Bubble: How Wall Street Starved Millions and Got Away With It,” journalist Frederick Kaufman laid out the story (PDF). It all started with a financial instrument Goldman Sachs conjured up in back in 1991 to allow the its clients to invest in the commodities market without having to pick specific winners. Here’s how Kaufman describes it.

[Goldman’s financial engineers] selected eighteen commodifiable ingredients and contrived a financial elixir that included cattle, coffee, cocoa, corn, hogs, and a variety or two of wheat. They weighted the investment value of each element, blended and commingled the parts into sums, then reduced what had been a complicated collection of real things into a mathematical formula that could be expressed as a single manifestation, to be known thenceforward as the Goldman Sachs Commodity Index. Then they began to offer shares.

For years, the Goldman Sachs Commodity Index was a stable, boring instrument that didn’t draw much attention as investors chased flashier instruments like tech stocks and real estate. But it generated enough client fees to inspire other firms, including AIG, JP Morgan, and Bear Stearns, to roll out similar food-centered instruments, Kaufman reported.

By 2005, the tech bubble had long since burst, and real estate had reached dizzying heights. And the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000—the same Clinton-era legislation that “introduced obscure financial derivatives like ‘credit default swaps’ into the American lexicon and ultimately caused the collapse of mortgage and stock markets,” notes blogger Eric Michael Johnson—had deregulated derivatives markets. With this backdrop, President Bush and Congress began to ramp up US corn ethanol production in an absurd attempt to kowtow to the mythical notion of energy independence. This gave Wall Street the story it need to sell investors en masse on commodity crops. Suddenly, billions of dollars were flowing into the food funds, and crop prices soared.

Goldman Sachs designed its customers’ food betting so the bank would make money regardless of food prices.
When those prices crashed again in 2008, Kaufman reports, Goldman’s clients who had bet on ever-rising prices lost money, but the firm itself didn’t. It had rigged the instrument so that the bank made money no matter what. The subsequent rebound has left global food prices well above levels justified by supply and demand factors, according to the United Nations.

In a sense, the dramatic rise in commodity prices could at least benefit farmers around the world. After all, until 2005, crop prices had been falling or stagnating for 30 years. But the upswing has mainly benefited the agribusiness giants I mentioned above. That’s because, as crop prices rise, the prices for inputs like agrichemicals and genetically modified seeds rise in tandem, keeping farmers squeezed.

The price of farmland has also jumped, as (yes) speculative cash swept into heartland real estate. (See chart.) That means a windfall for farmers who own their land but rising rents for those who lease.

In Africa, rising food prices have inspired hedge funds, institutional investors, and nations like Saudi Arabia and China to gobble up farmland for export crops at a time when domestic populations are going hungry.

What can be done to curb food speculation? The Dodd-Frank financial reform law signed by President Obama required the Commodity Futures Trading Commission to rein in speculation in ag markets. But as the New York Times’ Gretchen Morgenson reported last month (hat tip, Tom Laskway), the commission has proposed rules that “might actually encourage speculation in the commodities markets.”

This suggests that the political system is so shot through with finance sector cash that it’s incapable of properly regulating Wall Street’s food fetish.

4. Our politicians are in bed with agribusiness.

Like the big banks, the handful of companies that dominate our food system dedicate loads of cash to throwing their weight around in DC.

From 1998 through 2011, the agribusiness sector dropped $1.4 billion on lobbying, reports the Center for Responsive Politics. That’s considerably less than the finance and health sectors, but enough to put it sixth on the CRP’s list of clout-wielding sectors, beating out defense contractors ($1.3 billion) and trial lawyers ($366 million).

“Not only is there lack of support,” complained the USDA’s chief slaughterhouse inspector, “but there’s outright obstruction, retaliation and abuse of power.”
So what does the industry get in return? A 2010 study by the Union of Concerned Scientists and Iowa State University gives us a taste. The researchers polled more than 1,700 employers of the USDA and FDA, the two federal agencies overseeing food and ag companies, on the topic of industry influence. The results are chilling:

Hundreds of survey respondents identified undue corporate influence as a major problem. More than 620 respondents (38 percent) agreed or strongly agreed that “public health has been harmed by agency practices that defer to business interests.”…And more than 300 respondents (25 percent) said they personally experienced corporate interests forcing their agency to withdraw or significantly modify a policy or action designed to protect consumers in the past year. When asked that same question about Congress and non-governmental interests, more than 260 respondents (24 percent) and more than 240 respondents (22 percent) said yes, respectively.

One of the respondents, a USDA veterinarian named Dean Wyatt who manages the agency’s slaughterhouse inspectors, spoke bluntly. “Upper level management does not adequately support field inspectors and the actions they take to protect the food supply,” he told the pollsters. “Not only is there lack of support, but there’s outright obstruction, retaliation and abuse of power.”

And evidently, data-fudging to protect industry interests is commonplace:

…190 respondents (16 percent) said they witnessed officials selectively or incompletely using data to justify a specific regulatory outcome. One-hundred-and-five respondents (10 percent) said agency decision makers inappropriately asked them to exclude or alter information or conclusions in an agency scientific document. Ninety-eight respondents (9 percent) said agency managers asked them to provide incomplete, inaccurate or misleading information to the public, regulated industry, media or government officials.

Plenty of observers were hopeful that industry influence over federal watchdog agencies would decrease dramatically with the exit of George W. Bush. But the poll detected only a “very small” reduction of influence-wielding under Obama.

Another way to gauge industry influence is to look at particular cases. Take the genetically modified seed industry dominated by Monsanto, Dupont, and Syngenta. According to a 2010 report (PDF) from Food & Water Watch:

These companies and organizations spent more than half a billion dollars—$547.5 million—lobbying Congress between 1999 and 2009, the most recent full year of available data. The firms employed more than 100 lobbying firms in 2010 alone, as well as their own in-house lobbyists. Lobbying expenditures rose 102.8 percent from $35.0 million in 1999 to $71.0 million in 2009.

That’s money well spent. As I’ve written before, the GM foods industry has enjoyed a rather laissez-faire regulatory environment since it emerged in the 1990s, despite steady public pressure for more oversight.

That tradition continues under President Obama. In January, the USDA green-lighted Monsanto’s genetically modified alfalfa after signaling that it would place restrictions on the crop to protect organic farmers from genetic contamination. The Wall Street Journal later reported that the White House had intervened to force the decision, “as part of the administration’s review of ‘burdensome’ regulation.”

And in July, the USDA declined to regulate genetically modified turf grass, issuing a decision that opens the door for a whole slew of novel crops to avoid even minimal oversight. This, despite the agency’s admission that the novel grass will likely contribute to the herbicide-resistant “superweed” problem and contaminate non-GM grass crops.

The hands-off approach to GM crops evidently extends to other corners of the administration. Indeed, in some agencies, the attitude is downright boosterish. Regarding the labeling of foods containing GM ingredients, a notion with strong public support, a State Department officially has publicly sided with the industry line, the Des Moines Register reports. Speaking at a panel organized by CropLife America, the main agrichemical/GM seed industry trade group, State Department economic specialist Jose Fernandez told the crowd what it wanted to hear: “If you label something there’s an implication there’s something wrong with it.”

The Register adds: “The State Department has been working along with the Agriculture Department to encourage foreign countries to permit the production and use of biotech crops.”

On the potentially scary problem of livestock being pumped with antibiotics, regulation has been practically nonexistent, even though, as I’ve pointed out before, the USDA, FDA, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have all acknowledged the dangers of essentially neutering the best weapons we’ve got against outbreaks of bacterial disease in humans.

What we’re left with is a system of government oversight crumbling in the face of industry influence, an election-year atmosphere of anti-regulatory zeal, and a political system polarized to the point where it is incapable of addressing the problem. At times when our leaders have proved unwilling or unable to defend the public interest, a social movement like Occupy Wall Street becomes vitally important.

Tom Philpott is the food and ag blogger for Mother Jones. For more of his stories, click here. To follow him on Twitter, click here. Get Tom Philpott’s RSS feed

Occupy the Food System! by Eric Holt Gimenez

In the past few weeks, the U.S. Food Movement has made its presence felt in Occupy Wall Street. Voices from food justice organizations across the country are connecting the dots between hunger, diet-related diseases and the unchecked power of Wall Street investors and corporations (See Tom Philppot’s excellent article in Mother Jones).

This is very fertile ground.

On one hand, the Food Movement’s practical alternatives to industrial food are rooted at the base of our economic system. Its activities are key to building the alternative, localized economies being called for by Occupy Wall Street. On the other hand, Occupy provides a space for the Food Movement to politicize its collective agenda and scale-up community-based solutions by changing the rules that govern local economies.

Of course, in the U.S., what we refer to as the “food movement” is really more of a loose “food network” of non-profit organizations and community groups (CSAs, food policy councils, community gardens, etc) with a sprinkling of bona-fide family farmer organizations and food worker organizations. There’s nothing wrong with this. The network has blossomed over the past decade, creating an amazing social infrastructure that is actively using the food system to make us healthier and happier. In the Food Movement we re-learn and re-invent ways of farming, cooking and eating. In doing so, we put back in the social, economic and cultural values robbed by the industrial food system.

But if the community gardens, CSAs, farm-to-school programs and sustainable family farms in the Food Movement are so great why isn’t everyone doing it?

The simple answer is, because the rules and institutions governing our food system — Wall Street, the U.S. Farm Bill, the World Trade Organization and the USDA — all favor the global monopolies controlling the world’s seeds, food processing, distribution and retail. This should come as no surprise, the “revolving door” between government and corporate food monopolies is alive and well, and goes back decades. But it means it’s unlikely that the Food Movement’s alternatives will ever become the norm rather than the alternative fringe — unless the Food Movement can change the rules and institutions controlling our food.

To do that, the Food Movement needs politicizing.

Why? Hasn’t it worked to improve school food, legalize urban chickens and reform the farm bill? Indeed, it has made important strides in impacting food policy. But many community food organizations have become dependent on the diminishing funding streams from the very foundations that helped them get off the ground. The nation’s economic downturn has further affected community organizations, forcing them to tighten belts, cut staff, eliminate programs and compete for scarce resources at a time when communities need them more than ever. This makes them vulnerable to cooptation.

This is not to say that the organizations in the Food Movement don’t deserve financial support. They do, and the existence of so many community food organizations is testament to positive cooperation with funders. But a broad-based movement is a different animal than an isolated community organization. For a movement, following a funding stream is the tail wagging the dog. Movements are about creating political will for the benefit of all. They converge, unifying and amplifying popular voices around a shared vision. Politically, movements cannot afford to be disarmed by money, silenced or divided.

A movement to “occupy the food system” will need to put healthy food in our communities and community voices in places of power.

A new, collective decision-making process is being fleshed out at Occupy sites across the country, and in the vibrant conversations on blogs, list servs and social media. It’s about more than formulating “demands.” As Naomi Klein commented in a recent visit to Food First, “Demands are about negotiation and compromise; this movement is articulating a broader vision.” As the food movement moves into the new political spaces being opened up by Occupy Wall Street, a bold vision of food sovereignty is being crafted — one in which food decisions, food resources and the food dollar are not controlled by Wall Street or by the food monopolies, but by local communities.

This political “convergence in diversity” has the potential to takes us from the strategies for survival to strategies for transformation.

Co-authored by Tanya Kerssen.

Ideological Stalemate Over Organic Farming Slows Effort To Combat Food Insecurity In Central Africa

Written by ASNS in Rwanda

The polarised debate over the use of organic and inorganic practices to boost farm yields is slowing action and widespread farmer adoption of approaches that could radically transform Africa’s food security situation, according to a group of leading international scientists meeting in Kigali this week.

“The ideological divide over approaches to farm production are a distraction from the actions needed to address food security now and ensure it in the future,” said Nteranya Sanginga, director general designate of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA).
“Persistently high food prices and low farm yields are weakening Central Africa’s food security and putting the region’s fragile stability and economic growth at risk.”

“Climate change, rapid population growth, and intense land pressure are major challenges for the region. It’s time to focus on practical, evidence-based solutions that will forever end the cycle of hunger, poverty and civil conflict,” he added.

Over 200 leading African and international scientists met at the first conference of the Consortium for Improving Agriculture Based Livelihoods in Central Africa (CIALCA) in Kigali, Rwanda, this week.

Participants identified several practical solutions that would help move the region towards a food security. These include scaling up farmer adoption of new technologies that improve degraded soils through more efficient use of inorganic fertilisers, new higher-yielding varieties of staple crops that improve nutrition, and mixed farming and intercropping approaches for crops like banana, coffee, and grain legumes.

“For many, fertiliser is a dirty word,” said Bernard Vanlauwe, acting director of the Tropical Soil Biology and Fertility research area at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT).

“We have to focus on approaches that improve livelihoods.”

“It does not have to be a choice between organic or inorganic; both approaches can work well together at different stages in agricultural development,” said Vanlauwe.

Participants at the CIALCA conference reached consensus that agricultural research and development efforts should focus on the middle ground, increasingly referred to as sustainable intensification, which combines the most effective and sustainable approaches to improving farm yields.

“Sustainable Intensification is the best way to tackle rural poverty and hunger in regions with huge land and population pressures,” said Vanlauwe.

Fertiliser use in Africa is by far the lowest in the world. On average, African farmers apply about 9 kg per hectare of fertilizer compared to 86 kg per hectare in Latin America and 142 kg per hectare in Southeast Asia.

“African agriculture is already organic. It’s not working,” said Sanginga. “We need to focus on practical things that help, not ideology.”
Agricultural researchers have found ways to dramatically reduce fertiliser use – while boosting crop yields. These include site-specific recommendations, partly based on detailed satellite images of African soils, and a technique known as micro-dosing, which involves the application of small, affordable quantities of fertiliser during a crop’s growing period.

New research by CIALCA scientists has shown that intercropping banana and coffee can benefit both the environment and farmers’ incomes compared to growing each crop separately. Banana—a food staple for millions across the region—provides a shaded canopy for coffee plants, which results in higher yields, less soil erosion, and more money for the farmers. Scientists also noted that this approach is ‘climate smart’ because the shade could buffer heat-sensitive coffee crops against the predicted impacts of climate change.

Improved climbing bean varieties being grown by thousands of farmers in the region have been particularly well-received, producing three times the yield of ordinary bush beans.

On tightly-packed, small farms, the new bean varieties make valuable use of limited space by growing upwards instead of sprawling outwards.

They also improve soil fertility through nitrogen fixation, and when grown in rotation with maize – another crucial African staple – maize yields have increased substantially, and the need for fertiliser reduced.

Keeping MSP Paddy ,Soybean and cotton unchanged is unjust with distressed Farmers

Nagpur -27th October 2011

The recent decision of union Govt. to keep Minimum Support Price MSP fro ruby season 2011-12 unchanged ignoring the demand of urgent upward revision from Maharashtra, Gujarat, Punjab and Andhra Govt. is grave unjust to more than 2 billion debt trapped Indian farmers who are under severe economic crisis due sudden crop failure and hike in the cost of cultivation and farmers are demanding urgent intervention of Indian Govt. to save dying agrarian community , Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti president Kishor Tiwari informed today.

Paddy ,soybean and cotton cultivators have come down heavily upon the government for its failure to rescue them from agrarian crisis. These farmers have alleged that government’s failure to provide realistic minimum support price (MSP) for paddy soyabean and cotton has made its production impossible.Despite the cultivation cost going up by 40%, the MSP for paddy soyabean and cotton has been hiked only by 11.5%, the aggrieved farmers pointed out “The skyrocketing production cost has made lives miserable for farmers, Farmers are agitated over government’s failure to address the problem . For the past two years commodity market has witnessed huge slump making rice cultivation a loss making business. Tiwari said..

CACP has failed to provide justice to it’s own calculation of MSP and union Govt. has failed to start procurements centers fro paddy ,soybean and cotton which is allowing private traders exploitation, Tiwari said

In Maharashtra alone cotton is cultivated over 52 lakh hectare and the lion’s share of it is in the rain fed region of Vidarbha and Marathwada where Bt.cotton crop has been failed due to long dry spell in September severely effecting the net yield of cotton by 50% resulting another Black Diwali for Bt.cotton growers who are in rip of agrarian crisis and committing suicides since June 2005 .The rain sensitive Bt.cotton seed which has increased almost triple the cultivation cost and drop down the net average cotton production per hector coupled with international market volatility and Indian Govt. export restrictions are the main reasons of prevailing distress and despair in region forcing the cotton farmers to kill themselves which is matter of national shame but complete apathy of Govt. at the centre and state are adding fuel to this on going farmers genocide, Tiwari said.

Looking at prevailing situation internationally wheren cotton prices are likely to soar to Rs 7,000 a quintal this year too riding on the global scarcity on account of poor crops in the US, China and Pakistan, Indian cotton farmers can hedge these prices only if central Govt. manages to raise the minimum support price to Rs 6,000 level but The government has not responded favorably disappointing cotton farmer hence we urge for urgent intervention to save dying cotton farmers, Tiwari said.

“As the reports from allover the are showing world shortage of cotton production , the Indian farmer gets advantage this time as cotton is now placed under open general license (OGL) for exports. But the OGL status should be continued. Last year, the Centre put unnecessary restrictions on exports denying farmers an opportunity to make it big. In the process they lost a market worth Rs 30,000 crore,” said Tiwari.

Documentary on Vidarbha Agrarian Crisis ‘Cotton for my shroud’ won Gold at the IDPA Awards-2011

Documentary on Vidarbha Agrarian Crisis ‘Cotton for my shroud’ won Gold at the IDPA Awards-2011 and Nominated for the Vatavaran Environment and Wildlife Film Festival-2011

Nagpur -26th October 2011

The story of the cotton farmers suicides of Vidarbha produced as documentary film ‘Cotton for my shroud’ by Top Quark Films and directed by Nandan Saxena & Kavita Bahl has been overwhelmingly viewed and got a very good response at the Mumbai Film Festival, organised by MAMI which was screened at Cinemax, Versova on October 15, 2011which has won the gold for script at the IDPA Awards-2011 and It has also been nominated for the Vatavaran Environment and Wildlife Film Festival at Delhi, to be held in December 2011, Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti president Kishor Tiwari informed today.
“This is first documentary film which gives true picture of ground reality and exposes the reason of mass genocides of farmers done bt the state and US base Bt.cotton seed company Monsanto We are trying to organize screenings in different cities in other Indian metros too so that we can get civil society support which has turned it’s blind eye on this very serious issue over years .we are indebted to producer who has dared to release this documentary even after getting big hurdles from administration ”Tiwari added.
‘Cotton for my shroud’ shows story of dying field of vidarbha where more than 10,000 cotton farmers have committed suicides since 2004 after the introduction of American Bt.cotton seed as it report and
You need iron in your soul to walk through the villages in Vidarbha region of India. There is hardly a farmer here who is not under debt and rarely will you come across a village where there has been no suicide. This cotton-growers belt once known for its fine cotton produce is known for cotton farmers’ suicides today. It is now termed as the ‘graveyard of farmers’ by statisticians.

Vidarbha region in the state of Maharashtra – one of the richest states in India – has the highest instance of farmer suicides in India. With over 2.5 million tribal people, it is a classic case of a forest and mineral-rich region languishing while the funds for development are siphoned off to the ‘influential’ districts in the state. The voice for a separate statehood for Vidarbha is gaining momentum.
The feature-length documentary, ‘Cotton for my shroud’ is not reportage. The film tries to understand from a grass-roots perspective what is driving cotton farmers in India to despair – is it just a crisis of farm credit and the stranglehold of the moneylender or are they victims of faulty paradigms of development.

The agriculture policies of the Government and their collusion with multinational corporations eyeing the vast market in India – are exposed by the testimonies of farmers and scientists. Torn between aggressive marketing of supposedly ‘better varieties’ of transgenic crops by the State and his traditional wisdom of low-cost and eco-friendly agriculture, the farmer ultimately lands up in the honey trap of Bt. The result is in an unending cycle of debt and misery.
‘Cotton for my shroud’ was shot over two extensive visits to the hinterlands of Vidarbha.
In the summer, the lack of resources and bank loan for sowing the fields drives poor farmers to end their lives. In the winter, the depressed rates of cotton become the proverbial last straw.
If one farmer kills himself, we can call it a suicide. But when a quarter of a million kill themselves, how can the government call it suicide? It is genocide.
The Indian state has created conditions that are not conducive to the survival of small farmers. They want them to go, just as the small farmers disappeared in the west. In their place shall step-in large corporations that own vast swathes of farmland, growing pesticide-laced, genetically-modified food for an unsuspecting nation.Narrated in the first person, from the p.o.v of the film-makers, the film looks at the macro picture while following the lives of three families.
While the state and the media label these deaths as suicide, the cotton fields of Vidarbha remain a mute witness to genocide.The film was shot over two visits to the hinterlands of Vidarbha.
Narrated in the first person, the film looks at the macro picture while following the lives of three families. It gives us a window into the drama and despair that forms the warp and weft of life at Vidarbha.

About the Directors: Nandan Saxena & Kavita Bahl

Nandan Saxena & Kavita Bahl work in the genre of documentary and poetry films.
Their oeuvre spans the domains of ecology, livelihoods, development and human rights.

Having spent almost a decade as news-journalists, they turned a new leaf and started as independent documentary film-makers in 1996. Their films explore man’s relationship with his environment through diverse themes and issues: culture, poetry, water, climate change, sustainable livelihoods and human rights.

Their voluntary initiative ‘Via-Media’ is an effort to catalyse change by taking positive stories to receptive minds, and to build the capacity of citizens groups and movements. They take workshops to initiate inquisitive minds into film-making and photography.

Before studying journalism, both of them were students of English literature at the University of Delhi. Kavita reported for The Indian Express for seven years, of which, two were spent covering special features in the North-eastern states.


VJAS has thanked Nandan Saxena & Kavita Bahl for their grate work and pain while touring dying field of vidarbha and ‘Cotton for my shroud’ documentary will certainly boost cause of innocent cotton farmer who are victims of wrong policies of state and will force the law makers to stop this massive corruption leading genocide of farmers in future ,Tiwari said.

The Very Thin Red Line -poverty line

A disturbing look at how poor we really are and the questions we should actually be asking. By Revati Laul, Tehelka Magazine,  I DON’T REMEMBER ever eating an apple in my childhood,” remarks an angry Amitabh Kundu, sitting in his office at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, where he teaches economics. He was reacting to two numbers— Rs 32 and Rs 26 — that are being debated in the media this past fortnight. Numbers the Planning Commission presented in the Supreme Court in reply to a question on what India’s poverty line really is. Rs 32 a day is roughly what they said it works out to in cities and Rs 26 a head in villages.

Food for thought Using BPL stats have blinded the state from tackling the real problem, say experts
Food for thought Using BPL stats have blinded the state from tackling the real problem, say expertsPhoto: Vijay Pandey
Better solution Letting panchayats manage fair price shops could help revolutionise PDS
Better solution Letting panchayats manage fair price shops could help revolutionise PDSPhoto: Tarun Sehrawat

“WHAT?” is how the nation reacted. Not knowing that this figure is actually 10 times higher than the poverty line figures when they were originally measured by the planning body in 1974. Then, the figures were Rs 56 a month for a person working in a city, which is Rs 1.86 a day; and Rs 49 for villages or Rs 1.60 a day. That’s why Kundu, who said he came from small-town Chhindwara in Madhya Pradesh, from a lower middle-class family, never having eaten an apple as a child, sat in his chair, puzzled. What’s all the fuss about? Can the media not Google the word ‘poverty line’ and track back? Before shocking everyone for possibly the wrong reasons? But then, the world Kundu inhabits isn’t such a simple one. And this is therefore not at all a simple story to tell. It involves big decisions about whether India’s poor have increased since the 1970s or decreased, whether this government is mapping the poor in a way that answers fundamental questions about why foodgrain doesn’t get to those who are starving. And whether, behind all these numbers, there is a way out of the poverty trap. In 1971, when the first large-scale and comprehensive mapping of India’s poor was done, the picture was pretty much a snapshot of the absolutely destitute, starving poor. The black-and-white picture of a kwashiorkor bellied kid with protruding ribs. The ‘minimum needs’ below which human survival is impossible. What will keep a child from looking like that, but only just about? That’s what was put down on paper and became the basis for drawing India’s thin, very thin red line. Those who fell below it were below the poverty line. Those above it, survivors. No one was talking about living. Or vitamins. Or a home with a bathing area and proper drainage. The calculation, mapped by VM Dandekar and M Rath among others, didn’t come out of thin air. It was based on widely accepted international norms. How many calories does a person need every day to have a basic, balanced diet? Two thousand was the figure back then. So Dandekar and Rath applied basic math to this as follows. They surveyed how much a person consuming 2,000 calories a day earns on an average and used that as the baseline for India’s poverty. With this calculation, a little over 70 percent Indians fell below the red line. In need of urgent attention in the next Five-Year Plan and welfare schemes. Of ration cards for subsidised foodgrain, free healthcare and housing. And if possible, education.

Rs 32Is to be multiplied by five — the average family size in a city — which then works out to Rs 160 per day and Rs 4,800 per month. That’s the real figure. The number has been arrived at by calculating the minimum calorific intake per head

THIS IS how the red line was measured right up to 1993, two years after the economy had opened up to foreign investment. The start of what people looking back now call India’s growth story. In 1993, Prof DT Lakdawala revised the poverty figures, contending that the goalpost should not be 2,000 calories but 2,400 calories for people in rural areas and 2,200 in urban areas. Prices were revised for inflation and so came revised numbers, slightly. And in December 2005, Prof Suresh Tendulkar was appointed by the Planning Commission and he added another update. Which took the monthly urban figure to roughly Rs 18.60 a day and about Rs 12 for someone in the countryside. At today’s prices, these criterion — cited in the apex court — have yielded the magical, surreal numbers of Rs 32 and Rs 26. What the Rs 32 a day actually means is that a single earning member, providing for an average of five people in a city, actually earns Rs 32 multiplied by five or Rs 160 a day, or about Rs 4,800 a month. While Rs 4,800 doesn’t look nearly as bad as Rs 32 or Rs 26, what this numbers soup and the resultant controversy has done is to detract from the real picture of India’s poverty and the disturbing questions around it. Questions such as “What is the point of this thin red line and poverty mapping?” Prof Abhijit Sen, an economist with the Planning Commission, explains calmly: “Yes, the original mapping was ridiculously low. But if we revise these indicators to include the slightly less destitute, how will we ever be able to compare what has happened in India over time? How will we be able to say, as we now can, that the very very poor numbers are down from over 70 percent to 42 percent this year, if we keep shifting the goalposts?” THAT WOULD make perfect sense if that’s all the numbers along either side of the thin red line were actually doing. But even Sen concedes that the numbers are being used to dictate how the Central government should distribute money to the states for issuing Below Poverty Line (BPL) cards and subsidised grain to the poorest. The poverty line, says Sen, is a bit like India’s GDP figure. It’s useful when you want to compare how wealthy or how poor India is compared to other countries. And interestingly, Sen adds, India’s method for calculating its poor is what the World Bank has taken on board to calculate worldwide poor people numbers. But just like the GDP, this number was never meant to be used to decide how the state should spend its money. BPL cardholders are never even asked what calories they consume, clarifies Sen. They are asked whether or not they have a proper house or a makeshift one, whether they own land or not, and other such verifiable, tangible questions. But then, in the mid-1990s, when the government moved from a general subsidised grain distribution system through ration cards, to targeting the very poor by issuing them BPL cards, it made, in Sen’s opinion, one big mistake. It used the poverty line figures to decide how taxpayers’ money collected by the Centre would be given out to the states. So if the poverty line figures established that Andhra Pradesh had only 20 percent people in the BPL category, that’s all the money AP would get from the Centre. It was then up to the state to say, “No, we believe 70 percent of our state needs a BPL card,” and then use the state coffers to pay for the remaining 50 percent of BPL rate subsidised foodgrain.

Poverty line statistics are being used by the government as a tool to limit social spending, says Mander

According to retired bureaucrat NC Saxena, who was responsible for drawing up the criterion for mapping India’s poor, there is another, more disturbing statistic we need to look at instead of just staring at the poverty line. A report that studied the BPL card distribution in 2004-05 estimated that 60 percent of the cards went to those who weren’t poor. Saxena has another statistic. In Faridabad, a woman had 928 BPL cards registered in her name. If the thin red line determines who gets to eat and who doesn’t, suddenly these numbers —Rs 32 and Rs 26 — do matter. And while they shouldn’t throw us into surreal disbelief — as if, like Alice in Wonderland, we have just discovered what the government has been sketching out since the 1970s — the very thin red line must, say economists like Jean Dreze, make us ask, “Why do these numbers leave out more than half the really poor? And what’s the point of numbers if it’s not going to change the lives of the poor for the better?” “We never look at the numbers that we should be looking at,” Saxena says in frustration. “The Centre must be forced to evaluate why its schemes like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) isn’t delivering. We, as a people, never put pressure on our government to evaluate its schemes correctly. Those are the numbers we really need to know. For instance, why are state governments allowed to get away with fudged figures such as 1 percent malnutrition, when the figure, if evaluated properly, is actually 46 percent?” “In the past 30-40 years, the Planning Commission has been a dumping ground,” says Saxena. “A place for IAS officers who couldn’t find any other job.” It’s not the permanent members that matter, he says, but their advisers — a constantly rotating group of administrative staff who can never look at how or why the MGNREGA fund of Rs 40,000 crore pumped in annually is largely disappearing into a huge black hole. And agriculture and our rural economy, despite India’s great big growth story, is now a great big failure. Sen has a disturbing statistic to add to the real rural poverty figure. The share of agriculture in our nation’s overall national income has fallen from 50 percent to 20 percent in the past 30 years. But the population that’s still dependent on this drastically falling agricultural income is 50 percent — half of India. Where is this half getting its money from, if agricultural incomes have fallen so sharply? Many hopefuls migrate to cities and become part of the vast unorganised sector, and fewer still make it to the industrial sector. Fewer still? That’s because of another alarming statistic. There are very few jobs in the manufacturing sector. Fifteen years ago, 35 percent of India’s industrial growth was the result of wages — or salaries in the manufacturing sector. Today, Sen points out, salaries account for only 10 percent of India’s industrial growth. Sixty percent comes from profit. Decoded, this means that the rich half are getting richer and ploughing back their money into profits and savings and further profits and driving the growth story. And this profit is being made on the back of sharply reduced wages. So while the overall poverty figures — now at 420 million people — is less than it was in the 1970s when it was first mapped, inequality has grown sharply. That’s where the mapping of the poverty line, or the fine art and science of poverty statistics, has contributed to “greatly limiting the role of the State”, says Harsh Mander, adviser to the Planning Commission on food security issues. He also runs the Centre for Equity Studies that specialises in studying how the needs of poor should be served. He says that the thin red line of poverty is used increasingly as a tool by the government to “limit social spending and these statistics are not a search for truth but a way of rationalising policy”. There are ways out of this trap, if we look at the maze of numbers differently, and ask the right questions. JEAN DREZE, now advising the Planning Commission on drafting the Food Security Bill, has been arguing for years that BPL cards were the wrong way to target the poorest. Evidence has shown over the years that the universal distribution of subsidised grain — which is the older, ration card system — was fairer and yielded better results.Dreze adds important qualifiers. Decentralise the system of buying foodgrain from farmers and make panchayats manage fair price shops. Mander says the poor should be mapped for schemes not in large, macroeconomic fashion, but by selecting obviously disadvantaged groups and designing schemes for them — like the landless workers in villages, migrant labour in cities, people who sleep on the streets. For these groups, whether they earn more than 32 a day or not is a meaningless question and cannot be used to decide whether they are below the poverty line or not. If we caricature the poor by asking only how many calories they consume, say economists Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, we will never get to the bottom of why the poor are poor, and how we can get out of the poverty trap. “The poor often resist the wonderful plans we think up for them because they don’t share our faith that those plans work,” they write in their path-breaking book, Poor Economics. They argue that no large over-arching statistics and generalisations apply in all situations of poverty. Therefore big overall numbers actually give very little direction of what will work and why. Tricky questions such as “Why don’t the poor save the little money they have, and spend it on seemingly frivolous and harmful products like alcohol and drugs instead of education or better food?” are immaterial. The poor people do so because they have little faith that saving today or getting their children immunised against disease will actually cause any tangible change in their lives. What we should be doing instead is asking small but significant questions. Like how can we get the poorest of the poor to inoculate their children against disease? Will incentives work better or just giving them the right information? What drives the poor most and how can one big change in their lives break them out of their poverty trap? These are questions, those within the Planning Commission and outside of it, bureaucrats, economists and experts on poverty say, will lead us to answers we can actually use. And it will mean looking beyond just the bare, stark-naked, very very thin red poverty line. Revati Laul is a Special Correspondent with

Pesticide (Endosulfan) Levels in the Bone Marrow of Children with Hematological Malignancies

Indian Pediatr. 2011 Jul 30. pii: S09747559INPE1000071-1. [Epub ahead of print]
Pesticide (Endosulfan) Levels in the Bone Marrow of Children with Hematological Malignancies.

Rau A, Coutinho A, Avabratha KS, Rau AR, Warrier RP.

Department of Pediatrics, MS Ramaiah Medical College, Bangalore; * Department of Pediatrics, Kasturba Medical College, Mangalore; ** Department of Pediatrics, Fr Muller Medical College, Mangalore; Department of Pathology,M S Ramaiah Medical College, Bangalore; +Vice Chancellor, Manipal University, Manipal; Karnataka, India. Correspondence to: Dr (Lt. Col) ATK Rau, Pediatric Hematologist-oncologist, Professor and Head, Department of Pediatrics, M.S. Ramaiah Medical College Bangalore 560 054, Karnataka, India.
(1) To confirm the presence and estimate the levels of Pesticide (Endosulfan) residues in the bone marrow (BM) of children with acute hematological malignancies and compare them with controls. (2) To ascertain if children with high levels of Endosulfan in their marrow reside in areas sprayed with Endosulfan.

Case control study

Pediatric oncology unit of a medical college teaching hospital in Dakshina Kannada district of Karnataka.

26 patients with proven hematological malignancy and 26 age matched controls suffering from benign hematological disease.

Endosulfan residues in the BM were estimated by gas chromatography mass spectrometry (GC MS). Minimum detection limit was 10ng/mL. The subjects geographical area of location (residence) was determined to see whether they belong to sprayed area or not. The Chi-square test was applied to see an association between exposure status and hematological malignancy.

A total of 52 children were enrolled of which 26 were study cases and 26 were controls. Of the study and control groups, 84.7% and 73.1% respectively were from exposed areas. The major (88.4%) illness in the study group was ALL, while ITP (50%) occurred most frequently in the control group. Six out of 26 study cases tested positive (high levels) for Endosulfan in the BM, against 1 out of 26 controls (P = 0.042). The Odds ratio was 7.5. All children who had raised Endosulfan levels in the BM originated from areas, which are still being sprayed with Endosulfan.

Children with hematological malignancy had raised levels of Endosulfan in the BM compared to those without. All the children with raised BM Endosulfan levels were found to be from areas exposed to the pesticide.

Addressing India’s hunger gap


The word ‘hunger’ does not appear in the 12th Plan Approach Paper even once, whereas according to the latest Global Hunger Index Report, India continues to be in the category of those nations where hunger is ‘alarming’. What is worse, India is one of the three countries where the hunger index between 1996 and 2011 has gone up from 22.9 to 23.7, while 78 out of the 81 developing countries studied, including Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Kenya, Nigeria, Myanmar, Uganda, Zimbabwe and Malawi, have all succeeded in improving their scores.

According to the central government’s Economic Survey, foodgrain production in India has gone down from 208 kg per annum per capita in 1996-97 to 186 kg in 2009-10, a decline of 11%. From the reduced production, India has been exporting on average 7 million tonnes of cereals per annum, causing availability to decline further by 15% from 510 gm per day per capita in 1991 to 436 gm in 2008.

File photo of a poor family, Indranil Bhoumik Mint
Ironically, despite falling per capita foodgrain production in the period 1991-2010, procurement of cereals on government account has gone up, suggesting a decline in poor people’s consumption and their purchasing power. This may have happened because of structural imbalances (high minimum support price or MSP, rising capital intensity, lack of land reforms, failure of poverty alleviation programmes, no new technological breakthrough in agriculture, etc.) created in the economy, as well as due to production problems in less endowed regions (erratic rainfall, soil erosion and water run-off, lack of access to credit and markets, poor communications) which led to the dangerous situation of huge surpluses in Food Corporation of India (FCI) godowns since 2008 coupled with widespread hunger. Another factor escalating hunger is spiralling food prices, despite (or perhaps because of) rotting food stocks in government godowns.
The policy approach to agriculture since the 1990s has been to secure increased production through subsidies on inputs such as power, water and fertilizer, and by increasing the MSP rather than through building new capital assets in irrigation, power and rural infrastructure in less endowed regions. This has shifted the production base from low-cost regions to high-cost ones, causing an increase in the cost of production, regional imbalance, and an increase in the burden of storage and transport of foodgrains.

The equity, efficiency, and sustainability of the current approach are questionable. Subsidies do not improve income distribution or the demand for labour. The boost in output from subsidy-stimulated use of fertilizer, pesticides and water has the potential to damage aquifers and soils – an environmentally unsustainable approach that may partly explain the rising costs and slowing growth and productivity in agriculture, notably in Punjab and Haryana. Instead of promoting low-cost options that have a higher capital-output ratio, present policies have resulted in excessive use of capital on the farms.

Major food related programmes, such as the Public Distribution System (PDS) and Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) are plagued by corruption, leakages, errors in selection, procedural delays, poor allocations and little accountability. They also tend to discriminate against and exclude those who most need them, by social barriers of gender, age, caste, and disability; and state hostility to poor urban migrants, street and slum residents, dispersed hamlets, and unorganised workers such as hawkers. In Rangpur Pahadi, a slum area just a few kilometres away from Vasant Kunj in Delhi, people living since 1980 have not been given a voter ID card or a ration card. Thus their very existence is denied by the Delhi government!

The practice of bogus reporting is so widely prevalent in all the states, presumably with the connivance of senior officers, that the overall percentage of malnourished children under three years of age, according to central government data, is 8%, with only 1% children severely malnourished, as against 46% reported by National Family Health Survey (NFHS-3), with 17% being severely malnourished. Field officials are thus able to escape from any sense of accountability for reducing malnutrition and hunger.

A recent evaluation of ICDS in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) showed that 63% of food and funds are misappropriated. In place of cooked food as directed by the Supreme Court, manufactured ready-to-eat food with only 100 calories is given to children, as against the norm of 300 calories.

More than half of the poor either have no card or have been given above poverty line cards, and are thus excluded from the below poverty line (BPL) benefits. These must presumably be the most poor tribal groups, women-headed households and people living in remote hamlets where administration does not reach. Thus, the people most deserving of government help are deprived of such assistance. On the other hand, almost 60% of the BPL or Antyodaya cards have been given to households belonging to the non-poor category. It is doubtful that the current Socio-Economic Caste Census will be able to weed out these errors of exclusion and inclusion.

The food ministry should have a greater sense of ownership of PDS and improve its oversight mechanisms. For instance, it should start an annual impact study of the PDS, especially in the poorer states. It is willing to spend Rs. 60,000 crore on the programme but not willing to spend even Rs. 60 lakh on monitoring and evaluation of the programme. That means spending approximately one rupee out of every one lakh rupees on monitoring. But the ministry has not conducted a single multi-disciplinary third-party objective evaluation of PDS in the last eight years.

Further, the poorest 150 districts (which will cover most of the tribal majority areas in central India) should have universal PDS. In no case should export be permitted. If basmati is to be exported, equal amount of ordinary rice must be imported.

Large-scale substitution of PDS by direct cash transfers (DCT) is not feasible, as foodgrains purchased from the farmers through MSP mechanism need an outlet for distribution. Besides, DCT needs a good banking structure, a functional registration system and widespread use of debit cards. At best, it could be tried on a pilot basis in a few poor localities of metropolitan cities.

India requires a significant increase of targeted investments in nutrition programmes, clinics, disease control, irrigation, rural electrification, rural roads, and sanitation, accompanied by systemic reforms that will overhaul the present system of service delivery, including issues of control and oversight. This in turn requires improving the governance, productivity and accountability of government machinery.

N.C. Saxena is a member of the National Advisory Council. He has worked as Secretary, Planning Commission (1999-2002) and Secretary, Rural Development (1997-99).