Seeds of Change

A healthy cotton plan
Seeds Of Change
Maharashtra sounds clarion call on hybrid crop liability

Competition is tough in the seed market, which may explain why marketing gimmicks are often used to woo farmers. It’s tougher still for the farmers to get compensation when the claims fail and they are saddled with a bad or damaged crop. Sometimes the state government steps in to offer compensation or the farmers turn to the consumer court for relief. Typically, of course, the lack of compensation leads farmers deeper into debt.

In a departure from the norm, Maharashtra agriculture commissioner Umakant Dangat recently directed multinational seed major Bayer BioScience to pay 164 farmers in Dhule district Rs 44.8 lakh compensation for damage to their cotton crop in 2010. The culprit: bacterial blight (the plants had stunted growth and leaf damage, which affected the quality of the cotton bolls)—even though the labelling on the seed packet had assured a good yield and the ability to resist pest or disease attack.

“The company’s claim was that the crop would be less susceptible to pest and bacterial (alternaria leaf) blight disease, but our inquiry found it to be a false claim,” Dangat tells Outlook. Prakash Sangale, district superintendent agriculture officer, Dhule, says inspection of the fields showed bacterial blight had damaged between 40-70 per cent of the crops of the 164 farmers who had complained about the Bayer’s SurPass hybrid cottonseed. The total number of affected farmers was much higher, he claims. The average crop area of the affected farmers was one hectare.

Bayer’s representatives were part of the field inspection team and also participated in the three-tier appeal system provided under the Maharashtra Cottonseeds Act 2009. In its defence, Bayer officials had told the committee of experts, which included members from the agriculture university and the Central Institute for Cotton Research, Jalgaon, that the complaints pertain to only 500 farmers from one area though 45,000 seed packets of the hybrid variety had been sold. The implication being that no direct correlation could be established between the blight and the seeds.
As the farmers wait for compensation, Bayer has challenged the agriculture commissioner’s order in the high court. In an official statement to Outlook, Bayer said, “As per our investigations, the yields below expectations in a few pockets are due to combination of inadequate crop management and adverse environmental conditions. We are in the process of contesting the unjustifiable claims through a legal course.”

The team inspects the damaged crops

In another case in Madhya Pradesh, Bayer was ordered in December 2011 by the consumer court in Khargone district to pay Rs 3 crore to farmers whose cotton crops failed to deliver the promised yield, allegedly due to poor quality of seeds. Declining to comment on the Maharashtra order due to lack of information, agriculture scientist M.S. Swaminathan points out, “In the report on biotechnology, submitted in 2004, I had recommended that seed companies should give an insurance policy to farmers who buy their seeds. Unfortunately, this has not been implemented so far.”

It is rare for the farmers to get compensation directly from companies providing agriculture inputs like seeds. Whether it is the Rs 61 crore paid in 2010 for poor performance of hybrid maize in Bihar or the Rs 2,000 crore relief announced last year for cotton crop damage by Maharashtra, it’s generally the state government that picks up the tab. A notable exception is the compensation Mahyco was made to give in 2007 to farmers in Tamil Nadu.

“Seen together with the SC verdict last month recognising farmers’ rights as consumers, it is an important development outside the ambit of the Seeds Act 1966 wherein only seeds inspectors can initiate proceedings,” says Sudhir Panwar of the Kisan Jagriti Manch. Experts feel it’d be a fitting follow-up if other states heed the call and become voices of their farmers’ interests. But, farmers too need to fight unsubstantiated claims.

Bangladesh: Pesticides in dried fish processingBangladesh: Pesticides in dried fish processing

(The Financial Express-Bd) Allegations of widespread pesticide use in dried fish processing have once again been coming in from various coastal regions in Bangladesh. As reported in a contemporary on Saturday, 25 Feb 2012, many involved in the trade have been found soaking the raw fish in pesticide (ripcord, submicron, DDT, NOGOS, basudin, diosgenin, formalin, etc) solutions prior to putting them up to dry. This goes to show that there has been precious little in the way of raising awareness against the dangerous practice although successive governments have been alerted long ago — ever since this health hazard was reported in the early 1980s. According to the Bangladesh Fish Development Corporation (BFDC) in 2010-2011 period, the fish catch amounted to some 3.1 million metric tonnes. On average about 10 per cent of an annual catch is sun-dried, for home consumption as well as export, and many of the traders choose to apply pesticides in a bid to keep flies and maggots away. And they do it at their peril, as well as that of the ultimate consumers.
Thousands of workers are found using their bare hands to mix the poisons without the foggiest notion about the short and long-term health effects. NOGOS for example can destroy nerve cells, result in heart attacks, spontaneous abortion, stomach cramps, vomiting and other adverse effects, the degree of poisoning depending on dose and duration. People in general seem to be ignorant about the dangers and the government itself is hardly up to the task of monitoring pesticide use or abuse, wherever it may be . Many of the worst kinds, though officially banned here, are still available, and reportedly, even sold without names or with labels that do not match the contents. This clearly increases the health risks. Reliable statistics on pesticide casualties may not be available but reports of deaths and sufferings from chronic effects are common enough.
The Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research ( IEDCR), investigating cases of ‘mysterious’ deaths in some villages in recent years had found evidence of extreme callousness in the handling of these agrochemicals, some of which belong to the banned ‘dirty dozen’ group known as POPs (Persistent Organic Pollutants). These have been condemned globally decades ago, and in Bangladesh too they are officially banned. Yet, some of the nastiest are found to be in use, not only on dried fish and on cropland but to ‘manage’ public health. A functioning central register, or list, of pesticides available in Bangladesh could bring some discipline in the sector and give an adequate idea of the use and abuse of such poisons. The Department of Environment is said to control the country’s pesticide registration scheme but strangely there is no specific legislation for controlling their production or use.
The deadliest pesticides can wreck the human body and mind —- the nervous, reproductive, immune systems and the brain itself. Pesticide residues turn up virtually everywhere in Bangladesh, in ground water and in foods, causing many adverse health effects of ‘unknown’ origins. Some studies link these pollutants to serious diseases, including cancer and other subtle but potent health problems, such as systemic damage to the endocrine, immune and nervous systems. With such information at hand it should be considered a dereliction of duty if awareness against indiscriminate use of pesticides is not revved up. The government’s relevant ministries and departments —- agriculture, environment, health, commerce —- all need to put their heads together for long-term solutions to the grave risks posed by the continuing use of the highly toxic pesticides.

Sreelatha Menon: Khadi for the jawan

A weavers’ conference proposes the Army and government schools can save khadi by wearing it
Sreelatha Menon / New Delhi Feb 26, 2012, 00:07 IST
The spinning wheel goes round and round — much like the lives of Bashruddin and his two married sons in their village of Ramdiha in East Champaran district of Bihar.

The wheel serves as a means of livelihood for this family of ten. They work from dawn to dusk to ensure that enough thread is spun, disentangled and tied into neat spools to weave 11 meters of yarn a day. This fetches the family about Rs 127 everyday.

Weavers of Champaran, who took part in a conference in New Delhi organised by the Ministry of Culture with Gandhi Smriti and Darshan Samiti this week, have asked the government to help save khadi. What they propose is that the government can order and buy khadi for uniforms worn by the military, police, school children and nurses. Bashruddin’s group wants the people in the state, or at least in their own village, to set an example by buying khadi.

The story of the Bihar weavers is one of penury, though rich silk fabric is woven in their looms. They are dressed in synthetic, as their fingers manipulate the loom to make clothes fit to be worn by a king. Though e-commerce is yet to reach the weavers, the fast shrinking community is aware of the need to expand their markets. They are taking inspiration from Assam where citizenry consumes all that is woven and, thus, keeps demand and supply flowing constantly.

Of the 2,500 weavers in Champaran, just about 100 families are still in the occupation. The rest have ceased weaving or have migrated, according to Bashruddin and his group. This group includes six persons with cycle wheels, another group with spinning wheels and yet another with huge looms that cost anything up to Rs 30,000. They are still sticking to the looms, despite the poor money in it.

The weavers of Champaran dream of a day when each villager would become a buyer of at least 30 meters a year. And, a day when the government would buy khadi for its schools, hospitals, military and offices and, thus, create a steady demand.

The picture is less despondent in the hills of Assam, where woven clothes are in such huge demand that it’s a lucrative occupation.

April 14 is the popular Bihu festival, which marks the harvest cum new year of the Assamese. The boys will dress up in red tongalis, bright clothes that can be worn by non-Assamese as a stole. The women weavers of Assam, organised into self-help groups (SHGs), are busy making hundreds of tongali — confident that every single piece would be sold. Biju Borbaruah, founder of the Asha Darshan trust, says the SHGs are being put together as a federation to scale up the quantities collected and sold. They get no government aid.

Damini, who is busy weaving half saris called chadar and mekhala, herself wears a silk mekhala. These would be sold the moment these are ready. Every Assamese woman wears either chadar or mekhala. We cannot do without these, she says.

‘Let those who spin wear khaddar and let no one who wears (khadi) fail to spin’, was the message of the Mahatma, who never was separated from his spinning wheel. This should have seen many join the spinning schools run by Gandhi Smriti, whose chairperson is Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. But the classes rarely happen now, as there are not enough seekers, says Gandhi Smriti Director Manimala.

Most weavers feel steps to make khadi an organic part of people’s lives are needed, rather than subsidies that rarely reach them. The midday meals and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, says weaver Abdul Gani of Benaras, are nothing but ways to waste public money. Why can’t they make school children wear khadi instead, asks the weaver.

At the same time, a spinning wheel to make their own clothes could make education a lot more fun.

Farmers Suicides in AP 2001-2010, NCRB

Total farmer suicides in the last ten years
Female Male
Time Period upto 14 years 15-29 years 30-44 years 45-59 years 60 years & above Female Total Male upto 14 years 15-29 years 30-44 years 45-59 years 60 years & above Male Total Total Male Female
2001 12 65 46 45 10 178 16 382 480 374 79 1,331 1,509
2002 2 85 119 53 8 267 2 448 609 443 127 1,629 1,896
2003 6 81 163 96 12 358 7 325 585 376 149 1,442 1,800
2004 14 154 150 84 46 448 2 455 857 687 217 2,218 2,666
2005 22 127 174 85 65 473 6 481 729 578 223 2,017 2,490
2006 14 241 210 115 27 607 15 505 777 489 214 2,000 2,607
2007 20 113 90 53 13 289 5 325 620 421 137 1,508 1,797
2008 6 142 91 84 35 358 2 436 628 505 176 1,747 2,105
2009 5 132 141 100 20 398 5 392 885 562 172 2,016 2,414
2010 12 165 137 40 41 395 4 563 824 573 166 2,130 2,525
113 1305 1321 755 277 3771 64 4312 6994 5008 1660 18038 21809
Source: NCRB, 2001-2010.

Now, parliamentary panel to study suicide crisis

NAGPUR: A parliamentary standing committee will visit the farm suicide capital of Yavatmal on March 2. The 37-member committee, headed by Basudeo Acharya of CPM, will go to Pandharkawda and visit couple of villages to find out why farmers suicides continue unabated despite a plethora of measures taken by the government, providing relief to cotton growers of drylands of Vidarbha.

This is the first time that such a large team of parliamentary committee will be visiting the region. The visit comes in the wake of reports that the actual number of farmers committing suicides and found eligible for compensation by the government has actually tripled last year. There are also reports that the government may consider yet another relief package for dry-land farmers whose economic plight has worsened in the last six years and the cases of loan defaults have recorded an alarming rise in the region. Another round of loan waiver can only make them eligible for fresh bank credits in the next kharif season.

Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti, which is spearheading the cotton growers’ cause for over a decade, will be meeting the standing committee members during the visit to Pandharkawda. The panel members will be taken to nearby villages of Bhamraja and Maregon to study the ground realities. “Several such studies have been undertaken in the past. We only hope that the fresh attempt of the government will succeed in identifying the problem and ways to address it,’ said Kishore Tiwari, VJAS president, on Saturday. He lamented that recommendation of high-profile reports of M S Swaminathan who headed the National Agricultre Commissionand Prof Narendra Jadhav were never implemented.

“In 2006, the CM-PM package of Rs 5000 crore was followed by a massive loan waiver in 2008. As part of Rs 70,000 crore covering several states, Vidarbha region got a share of Rs 6000 crore. In 2009, the state government extended the loan waiver facility. Planning commissionexperts also visited the region and gave their report. In effect, a dozen such committees may have studied the farm crisis in Vidarbha. But a lasting solution to make agriculture sustainable has evaded the authorities till date,” said Tiwari. There are fresh worries that cotton farmers have fallen prey to monopolistic designs of multinational seed companies producing genetically modified seeds.

Small loans add up to lethal debts


DEBT AND DEATH: Family members with a photograph of Hari Prasad, who took his own life in August 2010 by consuming pesticide in their home in Kadiri in Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh. He had run up debts with a microfinance company. In the photograph taken last week are Sunita, the widow, 22, along with her daughter Shwetha, 5.

APDEBT AND DEATH: Family members with a photograph of Hari Prasad, who took his own life in August 2010 by consuming pesticide in their home in Kadiri in Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh. He had run up debts with a microfinance company. In the photograph taken last week are Sunita, the widow, 22, along with her daughter Shwetha, 5.

The microfinance industry pursued a path of rapid business growth in recent years; two investigations now link it to debtor suicides

First they were stripped of their utensils, furniture, mobile phones, television sets, ration cards and heirloom gold jewellery. Then, some of them drank pesticide. One woman threw herself into a pond. Another jumped into a well with her children.

Sometimes, the debt collectors watched nearby.

More than 200 poor, debt-ridden residents of Andhra Pradesh killed themselves in late 2010, according to media reports compiled by the State government. The State blamed microfinance companies which give small loans intended to lift up the very poor for fuelling a frenzy of over-indebtedness, and then pressuring borrowers so relentlessly that some took their own lives.

The companies, including market leader SKS Microfinance, denied it.


An independent investigation commissioned by the company, however, linked SKS employees to at least seven of the deaths. A second investigation commissioned by an industry umbrella group that probed the role of many microfinance companies, did not draw conclusions but pointed to SKS’ involvement in two more cases that ended in suicide. Neither study has been made public.

Both reports said SKS employees had verbally harassed over-indebted borrowers, forced them to pawn valuable items, incited other borrowers to humiliate them and orchestrated sit-ins outside their homes to publicly shame them. In some cases, SKS staff physically harassed defaulters, according to the report commissioned by the company. Only in death would the debts be forgiven.

The videos and reports tell stark stories:

One woman drank pesticide and died a day after an SKS loan agent told her to prostitute her daughters to pay off her debt. She had been given Rs. 1.5 lakh in loans but only made Rs. 600 a week.

Another SKS debt collector told a delinquent borrower to drown herself in a pond if she wanted her loan waived. The next day, she did. She left behind four children.

One agent blocked a woman from bringing her young son, weak with diarrhoea, to the hospital, demanding payment first. Other borrowers, who could not get any new loans until she paid, told her that if she wanted to die, they would bring her pesticide. An SKS staff member was there when she drank the poison. She survived.

An 18-year-old girl, pressured until she handed over Rs. 150 meant for a school examination fee, also drank pesticide. She left a suicide note: “Work hard and earn money. Do not take loans.”

In all these cases, the report commissioned by SKS concluded that the company’s staff members were directly or indirectly responsible.

Caught in the despair of poverty, tens of thousands of impoverished Indians kill themselves every year, often because of insurmountable debt. The supportive structure of the microfinance companies was supposed to change that.

But Davuluri Venkateswarlu, director of Glocal Research in Hyderabad, which conducted the industry-wide investigation, said in an interview that he told SKS executives there was “clear involvement of SKS personnel” in some suicides.

SKS continues to deny all responsibility for the deaths, and says it never commissioned an independent inquiry. SKS spokesman J.S. Sai, who flew to Mumbai from the company’s Hyderabad headquarters to discuss the AP’s findings, said the company stands by its September 2011 affidavit before the Supreme Court. In that affidavit, chief executive M.R. Rao says SKS “is neither the cause of nor responsible for any suicides in the State of Andhra Pradesh.”

The deaths came after a period of hyper-growth leading up to the company’s hugely successful August 2010 initial public offering.

Originally developed as a non-profit effort to lift society’s most downtrodden, microfinance has increasingly become a for-profit enterprise that serves investors as well as the poor. As India’s market leader, SKS has pioneered a business model that many others hoped to emulate.

But the story of what went wrong at SKS has led current and former employees and even some major shareholders to question that strategy, and raises fundamental questions for the multibillion-dollar global microfinance industry.

Meanwhile, whistleblowers at SKS say they have been targeted for retaliation and that the company has failed to correct structural flaws that contributed to the suicides.

“At the end of it,” said Alok Prasad, chief executive of the Microfinance Institutions Network, the industry group that commissioned the Glocal report, “you come down to a handful of cases where some things went wrong. Is that indicative of the model being bad or very rapid expansion leading to a loss of control?”

Beginnings in Bangladesh

Microfinance was born in desperation. Amid the 1970s famine in Bangladesh, Muhammad Yunus began giving small loans to poor women with his own money. Despite the predictions of bankers, the women paid him back.

The core idea of Professor Yunus’ Grameen Bank was the borrower group. Five women from a village determine how large a loan each member gets and act as guarantors. If even one member is delinquent, no new loans are issued. Group members apply pressure and support that has kept repayment rates near 100 per cent.

Professor Yunus’ innovation won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006.

In 1997, Professor Yunus’ acolyte, Vikram Akula, founded his own microcredit organisation, Swayam Krishi Sangham, which stands for “self-help society.” In 2005, SKS started operating as a for-profit company and Mr. Akula began chasing private investment to achieve the massive scale required to dent global poverty.

Public issue

In August 2010, SKS Microfinance, then India’s largest microlender, went public. Exuberant investors oversubscribed the Rs. 1,715- crore offering by nearly 14 times. The stock surged more than 10 per cent on its first day. In celebration, the company handed out 21,000 watches to employees.

Then media reports began to surface that over-indebted borrowers were killing themselves.

In October 2010, a mob of 150 people surrounded SKS’ Hyderabad headquarters, protesting the suicide of a borrower’s husband. They threatened to drag the corpse inside and demanded Rs. 9.8 lakh.

It was one of dozens of deaths the Government of Andhra Pradesh blamed on aggressive tactics by microfinance companies. The police jailed microfinance employees, including dozens from SKS. Among the charges was abetment to suicide, essentially driving people to kill themselves. Authorities investigated 76 cases in which employees from SKS and other microfinance companies were blamed for driving borrowers to take their own lives. The State passed a law designed to clamp down on abuses with new restrictions on loan disbursement and collection and onerous registration requirements on the companies. Microlending in India’s largest microcredit market was effectively shut down.

Charges denied

Microfinance officials fought the new law and denied the charges, accusing the State government of trying to gain traction with voters and punish companies for capturing valuable market share from state-run lending groups.

Established microlenders such as SKS said loan sharks operating under the guise of microfinance were behind the excesses. SKS and other companies asked a court to stop the arrest of their employees. The court issued a stay on new arrests. Today, no one is in jail.

In a November 2010 letter to the Union Finance Minister, Mr. Akula defended his company and included supportive articles from The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times.

At the same time, the industry group Microfinance Institutions Network hired Glocal to investigate 44 deaths among debtors of microfinance companies, including SKS.

Mr. Venkateswarlu, the Glocal director, presented the findings to executives at three lenders. In January 2011, he delivered startling news to Mr. Akula and Mr. Rao — SKS employees had clear involvement in the suicide of four borrowers, meaning that their actions appeared strongly linked to the subsequent deaths, according to their investigation.

The AP obtained a four-page section of the Glocal report that deals with the SKS case studies. It related the financial history of borrowers, the loans obtained, the nature of pressure or harassment for repayment, and the microfinance company involved. Mr. Venkateswarlu verified that it was indeed the material he presented to Mr. Akula and Mr. Rao.

“They said they’d look into the issue and take some appropriate action,” Mr. Venkateswarlu said.

SKS sent internal audit teams to the field. Their reports exonerated the company.

Inquiry initiated

Unable to reconcile the two sets of findings, SKS hired Guardian’s Human & Civil Rights Forum and Third Eye, a private investigative agency, to do a more thorough, independent inquiry, according to Ramesh Vautrey, head of administration at SKS, who oversaw the investigation, and Rajender Khanna, the president of Guardian’s.

A January 17, 2011, letter from SKS, signed and stamped by Mr. Vautrey, asked Mr. Khanna to “carry out a fact-finding enquiry on the causes of suicide and complicity of our field staffs without any prejudice,” according to a copy of the letter obtained by AP. The AP was shown invoice numbers for SKS payments to Third Eye and e-mails indicating the findings were sent to top management.

P.H. Ravikumar, who became interim chairman of the SKS board last November, said neither management nor the board had authorised an independent inquiry into borrower-deaths.

“Our enquiries from 2009 to 2011 have revealed that neither SKS nor its employees have been the cause for any of the suicides in the state of Andhra Pradesh,” the company said in a statement. The company also said SKS employees have been acquitted in two borrower suicide cases in Andhra Pradesh and that only one criminal case remains outstanding.

Mr. Khanna sent teams to speak with families of the dead, village leaders, neighbours and loan agents, videotaping the interviews. Their report said SKS employees bore direct or indirect responsibility for at least seven suicides, including two that overlapped with the Glocal findings.

The interview videos were shown to the AP by Uma Maheshwari, who said she was present during one set of recordings and visited several of the families personally. She left SKS in July.

In one video, the daughter of borrower Dhake Lakshmi Rajyam cries, gasping as she talks to an investigator in Tadepalligudem, Andhra Pradesh.

Rajyam was unable to pay off Rs. 1.18 lakh owed to eight different companies. Employees of microfinance companies, including SKS, urged other borrowers to seize the family’s chairs, utensils and wardrobe and pawn them to make loan payments, her family told investigators. Unable to bear the insults and pressure of the crowd of borrowers who sat outside her home for hours to shame her, Rajyam drank pesticide on September 16, 2010, and died, the family says.

“We’ve lost my mother,” her daughter says. “Nobody will support us.”

The investigator’s conclusions lay the blame on SKS employees, saying they failed to comply with company policies “and even basic moral rights.”

Mr. Vautrey said he sent the case studies to three top managers, including Mr. Rao. E-mails obtained by AP indicate that summary reports were e-mailed to the managers.

Mr. Rao did not respond to multiple requests from AP seeking comment.

Mr. Vautrey went to Mr. Akula’s office one night and told him what they were doing was bad karma. “I don’t want to be part of a team abetting suicides,” Mr. Vautrey said in an interview. “It is systemic failure. We have no right to kill anybody for our own business. Let’s close down our business if we can’t do it right.”

Profound shift

A profound shift in values and incentives at SKS began in 2008.

In October, Boston-based Sandstone Capital, now SKS’ largest investor, made a major investment. It joined U.S. private equity firm Sequoia Capital, which funded Google and Apple and is SKS’ largest shareholder, on the board of directors.

Mr. Akula, who had been chief executive in the company’s early days, stepped down in December 2008 but stayed on as chairman. The company brought in new top executives from the worlds of finance and insurance.

SKS also began transferring more loans off its books, selling highly rated pools of loans to banks, which then assumed most of the associated risk of borrower default. That freed SKS to push out more and bigger loans.

In December 2009, SKS launched a massive sales drive. The “Incentives Galore” programme ran through February 2010, just one month before the company filed its IPO prospectus.

Agents won prizes worth up to 10 times their average monthly salary for signing huge numbers of new borrowers. Mr. Vautrey said he coordinated the shipment of 8,800 television sets, refrigerators, gold coins, mixers, washing machines and DVDs as rewards for more than 3,000 districts nationwide.

One loan officer signed up 273 groups in a month. Under training protocols, the ideal number of groups formed per month is 12, the maximum is 36, according to field agents and reports written by Mr. Akula.

“The focus is only on targets,” said Ramulu Sirgapur, who spent a decade at SKS before he left in December. “Even if we’ve given feedback, there might be recovery or repayment issues. That’s OK. Just concentrate on growth.”

The result: Management had a great set of numbers to show investors as it shopped the IPO. In a month, SKS could add 400,000 borrowers and 100 branches, and train more than 1,000 new loan officers. SKS had 6.8 million borrowers and had disbursed Rs. 15,680 crore in loans. India was pimpled with SKS branches, which bloomed in nearly 100,000 villages. SKS said it was the fastest growing microfinance company in the world.

What was overlooked

But basic principles of lending were overlooked, according to interviews with current and former employees, as well as correspondence and internal PowerPoint presentations by Mr. Akula.

Six current and former SKS staffers with experience in the field told the AP they no longer had time to check a borrower’s assets or follow up and make sure a loan was put to productive use. They said they were pressured to push more debt onto people than they could handle, and that the number of days devoted to borrower training was cut in half.

“You have a [borrower group], and a loan officer goes out and trains them, educates them, then they give the loan. That’s the SKS I’d seen in 1999. That was the whole model on which microfinance is supposed to work. In the quest for growth, a lot of these things got neglected,” said Ankur Sarin, director of the SKS trusts, which are the fourth largest shareholder in the company and tasked with looking out for borrower interests.

As the relationships between heavily indebted borrowers and loan agents broke down, it became harder to collect. Frustrated agents began working together and going door to door to collect, rather than taking payments only in public, a company rule that had been designed to limit coercion. They began using other borrowers to pressure defaulters into repaying.

“The growth was very rapid. That growth led to some suboptimal outcomes,” said Ashish Lakhanpal, managing director of Kismet Capital, one of SKS’ largest shareholders, who was on the SKS board until October 2010. “Were there lapses? Absolutely.”

While the board was concerned about fast credit growth, the company never believed it was harming borrowers, Mr. Lakhanpal said. “Mistakes were made, but I find it difficult to believe there was anything people did at a managerial level to encourage field officers to do that,” he said.

Plan that never made it

In the spring of 2011, Mr. Akula began circulating a plan to spend Rs. 49 crore to train financial counsellors, who would make sure clients were not getting into too much debt and used their loans productively, according to Mr. Sarin, Mr. Vautrey and others with firsthand knowledge of the proposal.

But the plan was never adopted. Publicly, Mr. Akula continued to deny that SKS bore any responsibility for suicides. “Whatever happened was due to external factors and was not reflective of any fundamental flaw in our model,” he toldBusiness Today.

Privately, Mr. Akula prepared a 55-page presentation for the board that detailed the seven suicides that SKS’ outside investigation had blamed on the company. The presentation showed how the pre-IPO push for growth led to a systemic breakdown, and again urged core reforms to restore training and lending discipline.

Board members received copies of Mr. Akula’s presentation at a July 26, 2011, meeting, said a former employee who helped prepare the material.

The minutes of the meeting, however, make no mention of the report.

“As per my notes, this was not part of the board proceedings,” company secretary Sudershan Pallap wrote in a September 26 e-mail to Mr. Akula, who had complained of the omission.

Mr. Ravikumar, who would become interim chairman when Mr. Akula resigned, said the board was never informed that SKS employees were implicated in any suicides, and denied Mr. Akula presented any such findings to the board. “There was no presentation from Vikram Akula at that board meeting. This will be reflected in the minutes, as signed by Vikram Akula,” he said.

Mr. Ravikumar said the board reviewed reports from the Microfinance Institutions Network, but none of them implicated SKS employees.


Mr. Akula continued to complain to the board that his presentation had been ignored. He summarised his concerns about the company’s direction in e-mails, obtained by the AP, to seven board members, including Sequoia’s Sumir Chadha, Sandstone’s Paresh Patel and three independent directors — Mr. Ravikumar, Harvard’s Tarun Khanna, and Pramod Bhasin, the former chief executive of Genpact.

Mr. Chadha, Mr. Patel and Mr. Khanna did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Mr. Ravikumar declined to comment on what he said was personal correspondence.

Mr. Bhasin said reports claiming SKS bore responsibility for borrower suicides were “unsubstantiated.” “Any issues raised to the Board at various times were fully investigated by external parties and found to be unsubstantiated or without evidence or actions were taken on them where appropriate,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Rancour within the company was intensifying. Board members felt Mr. Akula was suffering from a bad case of “founder’s syndrome,” that he could not stand to share power at a company that had become too big for him to run.

Finally, on November 23, 2011, Mr. Akula resigned.

Mr. Vautrey said he was targeted, and SKS began termination proceedings against him on February 6.

Three members of his staff have been fired and have filed wrongful termination complaints.

On February 6, SKS also sold Rs. 243 crore in securitised loans. The stock price surged 10 per cent. Top executives have been on the road, hoping to raise Rs. 500 crore from international investors.

Mr. Sai, the company spokesman, said SKS has hired an ombudsman, is spending Rs. 14.7 crore to improve its customer grievance programme and has revamped training to ensure that employees comply with current regulations and do not lend to over-indebted borrowers. He said the company would like to reorganise incentives to maintain rapid growth while ensuring loan quality. Those changes have yet to be implemented, he said. — AP

Making ICAR relevant

ICAR can partner with private Indian seed companies to reach its knowhow to the farmer.

The Agriculture Minister, Mr Sharad Pawar’s observation that the turnaround in the farm sector’s fortunes in the recent period will “peter away” unless the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) system starts delivering again, hits the nail on the head. There is no doubt India’s agricultural production has staged a growth rebound since around 2005-06, compared with the perceptible stagnation of the preceding seven years. Much of it has, however, come from minimum support price hikes and improved terms of trade for farmers on the back of increased consumption spurred by rising incomes in general. At the same time, there have been no significant yield breakthroughs, barring a few, as in the case of cotton and maize. In most other crops — rice, wheat, oilseeds, pulses or sugarcane — the productivity gains have been incremental sans any major technological interventions. Where these have, indeed, taken place – Bt in cotton and single-cross hybrids in maize — they have been courtesy private multinationals such as Monsanto and DuPont. The likes of DuPont and Bayer CropScience have stolen a march over the ICAR even in hybrid rice technology. The only real blockbuster product to have emerged from the ICAR system in well over a decade is the high-yielding Pusa-1121 basmati that today generates one billion dollars-plus worth of annual export revenues.

The above situation is in marked contrast not only to the vanguard role played by the ICAR and various state agricultural universities during the heyday of the Green Revolution, but even to the national farm research systems in China and Brazil that have retained their robustness. Brazil’s ICAR equivalent, Embrapa, has successfully commercialised its own genetically modified virus-resistant kidney-bean, besides jointly developing with BASF a herbicide-tolerant soyabean to compete with Monsanto’s entrenched product. The Chinese have gone a step further: The Bt cotton cultivated in the country as well as the recently approved biotech phytase maize is entirely based on home-grown, publicly-funded R&D. The ICAR system, on its part, has failed to make the necessary transition from conventional breeding to creating a cadre of scientists with sufficient background in molecular biology, genomics, marker assisted selection and transgenic technologies. As a result, it has literally vacated the field for multinationals with their proprietary technologies to fill.

This has to change, simply for the fact that Indian farmers deserve better. The ICAR’s Plan Budget, at Rs 2,800 crore for 2011-12, is by no means small and has actually doubled in the last five years. For this money, the least that farmers can have are hybrids/varieties to compete with those of multinationals. The best way probably to do it is for ICAR to partner with Indian private seed firms to undertake large-scale production and multiplication of publicly-bred material for reaching the farmer. This material — or other products of joint research collaboration — can even be assigned on an exclusive limited-period basis to make it commercially attractive for the companies concerned.

(This article was published on February 20, 2012)

Punjab: DECLINING WATER TABLE Reduce area under paddy, water board tells govt 


Another wake call on Groundwater use in Punjab: CGWB says in 84% area the level is going down (in 14% it is too brackish to be useful), 103 of 137 blocks are in over exploited, five in critical and four in semi critical category, 73% of irrigation is coming from Groundwater, not canals and Punjab needs to reduce area under Paddy.


Reduce area under paddy, water board tells govt
Sarbjit Dhaliwal
Tribune News Service

Chandigarh, February 24
Expressing concern over the declining water table in the state, the Central Ground Water Board has recommended reducing area under paddy by more than 10 lakh hectares to achieve sustainable growth. In a detailed report submitted to the state government, the board has drawn a road map for the state for ground water management.

“The present state of development and management of groundwater resources in Punjab is a matter of concern for the future of agriculture in the state.There is an urgent need to evolve an optimal ground water management strategy to tackle the problem of the declining water levels,” says the report.

Dwelling on crop diversification, the board says the area under paddy (rice), which consumes six times more water than maize, 20 times more than groundnut, and 10 times more than other kharif crops, has to be reduced.

The board has urged the state to shift from flood irrigation to underground piped water, furrow irrigation and drip and sprinkle irrigation. Punjab is the largest contributor of rice to the central pool.

Educating farmers about the declining water table, regulating power supply, artificial recharge, provision of deeper aquifers and groundwater regulation are the other measures suggested by the board for ground water management.

The board says the groundwater level in Punjab has fallen in about 42,170 sq km area in the north, northeast, central and southern parts, which constitute about 84 per cent of the total area.

The worst affected districts are Nawanshahr, Jalandhar, Kapurthala, Moga, Patiala, Ropar, Fatehgarh Sahib, Sangrur, Mansa, Bathinda, Hoshiarpur, Gurdaspur and Amritsar.

There is only 14 per cent area where ground water level is rising owing to less extraction of water because of its brackish quality, which is unfit for use for both domestic and irrigation purposes. In some pockets in Mansa, Moga, Bathinda, Muktsar, Faridkot and Ferozepur, the water level has gone up. The water level in the state ranges from 0.20 metre below ground level (bgl) in Ferozepur district to 32.28 metres bgl in Fatehgarh Sahib district.

The report says that the annual average rainfall has decreased by 45-50 per cent during the past two decades.

It was recorded 755 mm in 1990, 375 mm in 2004 and 420 mm in 2009.

About 97 per cent of the net sown area is irrigated and 80 per cent of the water resources available are used for the farm sector.

Contrary to the impression that the canal system is a major source of irrigation in Punjab, only 27 per cent area is irrigated with canal waters and the remaining 73 per cent area by groundwater pumped out through tubewells. Of the 137 blocks assessed by the board, 103 fall under “over-exploited” category, five in critical and four in semi-critical categories.

The water table is declining at a faster rate in urban areas and industrial towns. “The water level is declining at the rate of 0.50 to 0.60 metre per year in some urban areas and industrial towns”, says the report. However, potable water is available in 84 per cent of state’s total area.

The board says that the main source of pollution is domestic and municipal waste, agriculture practices and industrial activities.

“Untreated effluents from industries have resulted in increased levels of heavy metals like lead, cadmium, manganese, iron, chromium and copper,” says the government report.

Alarming Facts

Area under paddy consumes six times more water than maize, 20 times more than groundnut and 10 times more than other kharif crops

The groundwater level has fallen in (42,170 sq km area) about 84 per cent of the state’s total area

The worst-hit districts are Nawanshahr, Jalandhar, Kapurthala, Moga, Patiala, Ropar, Fatehgarh Sahib, Sangrur, Mansa, Bathinda, Hoshiarpur, Gurdaspur and Amritsar

The remedy

State told to shift from flood irrigation to underground piped water, furrow irrigation and drip and sprinkle irrigation

Regulate power supply, opt for artificial recharge and deeper aquifers

Damage Control: Committees under DCs set up in 12 blocks

The Central Ground Water Authority has notified 12 blocks, Nakodar, Shahkot, Lohian, Phagwara, Khanna, Nihalsinghwala, Patran, Sunam, Barnala, Sherpur, Dhuri and Malerkotla. It has authorised the Deputy Commissioners concerned to impose restrictions on the construction/installation of any structure for the extraction of groundwater. Committees headed by the DCs have been empowered to regulate and manage the groundwater. Without the permission of the committees, no tubewell or any other source for extracting groundwater can be set up in the notified areas.

Jairam Ramesh defends controversial Bt Brinjal decision

New Delhi: Union Minister Jairam Ramesh on Saturday defended his decision to put a moratorium on Bt Brinjal and said that he has never been influenced by NGOs in taking decision on Genetically Modified (GM) foods, during his stint as Environment Minister.

Jairam Ramesh said no NGO influenced his decision to put a moratorium on Bt Brinjal, a statement that comes against the backdrop of PM raising questions about the role of foreign funded NGOs in blocking use of genetic engineering.

Speaking to CNN-IBN, Jairam said the wide-spread opposition to GM crops from several states and the lack of public-sector backed GM seeds guided his decision.

“On Bt Brinjal since I was directly involved I can confidently say no foreign NGOs influenced my view. The moratorium on Bt Brinjal was imposed on March 9, 2010. Almost two years have passed. I went though a seven month process of public consultation with scientists, NGOs, civil society organisations, farmer organisations in which 8000 people participated. I wrote to chief ministers. I wrote to 50 scientists across India and the world,” said.

“Green Peace a foreign funded NGO accused me of propagating the line of Monsanto during a public hearing in Bangalore. So on Bt Brinjal, since I was directly involved, I can confidently say no NGOs influenced my views,” Ramesh, said.

He said his position on Bt Brinjal was determined by the positions of state governments, the lack of consensus among the scientific community, the fact that the tests were not completed and there was no independent professional mechanism which will instill confidence in the public.

“I did not ban Bt Brinjal. I decided lets put moratorium. Lets fulfill all these four conditions and then revisit the whole issue,” he said.

His remarks came in response to a question about allegations that some NGOs based in Scandinavian countries funded the protests against Bt Brinjal. His remarks also came against the backdrop of Prime Minister’s comments that some NGOs based in the United States and Scandinavian countries were not “fully appreciative” of the development challenges India faces.

Ramesh said as Environment Minister he enforced the moratorium on Bt Brinjal on February nine, 2010 after going through a seven-month process of public consultation.

The Rural Development Minister said that there were four concerns on the Bt Brinjal. “There was no scientific consensus for the need for Bt Brinjal, scientists were divided. MS Swaminathan, the father of the green revolution had also raised questions. The full protocol of tests had not been completed. Unlike Bt Cotton, Bt Brinjal is something you eat every day. Safety and reliability tests had not been completed,” he said.

“While the NGOs had a point of view, my position on Bt Brinjal was determined by opposition from state governments, lack of consensus among the scientific community, the fact that the tests had not been concluded, and there had been no independent professional regulatory mechanism, which could instil confidence in the public. That food crop which is going to be ingested are going to be safe for consumption. I did not ban Bt Brinjal. I said let’s fulfill these four conditions and then revisit the issue,” he added.