The whole paradigm of the genetic engineering technology is based on a misunderstanding

 Vancouver Sun April 29, 2013

Dr. Thierry Vrain Courtenay

 [ re:  Genetically modified food is welcome innovation by Lorne Hepworth President, CropLife Canada

I retired 10 years ago after a long career as a research scientist for Agriculture Canada. When I was on the payroll, I was the designated scientist of my institute to address public groups and reassure them that genetically engineered crops and foods were safe.

I don’t know if I was passionate about it but I was knowledgeable.  I defended the side of technological advance, of science and progress.

I have in the last 10 years changed my position.  I started paying attention to the flow of published studies coming from Europe, some from prestigious labs and published in prestigious scientific journals, that questioned the impact and safety of engineered food.

I refute the claims of the biotechnology companies that their engineered crops yield more, that they require less pesticide applications, that they have no impact on the environment and of course that they are safe to eat.

There are a number of scientific studies that have been done for Monsanto by universities in the U.S., Canada, and abroad.  Most of these studies are concerned with the field performance of the engineered crops, and of course they find GMOs safe for the environment and therefore safe to eat.

There is, however, a growing body of scientific research – done mostly in Europe, Russia, and other countries – showing that diets containing engineered corn or soya cause serious health problems in laboratory mice and rats.

We should all take these studies seriously and demand that government agencies replicate them rather than rely on studies paid for by the biotech companies.

The Bt corn and soya plants that are now everywhere in our environment are registered as insecticides. But are these insecticidal plants regulated and have their proteins been tested for safety?  Not by the federal departments in charge of food safety, not in Canada and not in the U.S.A.

There are no long-term feeding studies performed in these countries to demonstrate the claims that engineered corn and soya are safe.  All we have are scientific studies out of Europe and Russia, showing that rats fed engineered food die prematurely.

These studies show that proteins produced by engineered plants are different than what they should be. Inserting a gene in a genome using this technology can and does result in damaged proteins.  The scientific literature is full of studies showing that engineered corn and soya contain toxic or allergenic proteins.

Genetic engineering is 40 years old. It is based on the naive understanding of the genome based on the One Gene – one protein hypothesis of 70 years ago, that each gene codes for a single protein.  The Human Genome project completed in 2002 showed that this hypothesis is wrong.

The whole paradigm of the genetic engineering technology is based on a misunderstanding.  Every scientist now learns that any gene can give more than one protein and that inserting a gene anywhere in a plant eventually creates rogue proteins.  Some of these proteins are obviously allergenic or toxic.

Dr. Thierry Vrain Courtenay

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

Collective Action to Reduce Goat Mortality – A Case Study of interventions supported by PRADAN in District Kandhamal, Odisha

This case study is the result of field visits undertaken by SA PPLPP in District Kandhamal, Odisha, where PRADAN (Professional Assistance for Development Action) has supported goat based livelihood interventions in five of the fourteen gram panchayats of the Balliguda block.

These interventions were designed with the twin objectives of increasing household income from goat rearing by reducing mortality and morbidity, improving management and rearing practices and facilitating the establishment of community institutions and processes to ensure sustainability of these interventions.

The case study details the implementation strategy of this innovative community-centric model, with SHGs as the foundation, to facilitate access to preventive health, vaccination services and knowledge sharing on improved rearing and husbandry practices. It also documents the major challenges and learning gained, which further contributed to modifying and strengthening the implementation approach.

Author – SA PPLPP Team

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GM Crops Won’t Solve India’s Food Crisis

By Shanoor Seervai

Adil Bharucha
Dilnavaz Variava.

Earlier this month, India’s Parliamentpassed a bill aimed at delivering subsidized food to around 800 million people. While well-intentioned, the law is expensive and has raised questions about whether India produces enough food to meet demand.

Proponents of genetically modified food say GM technology will boost production to meet India’s food requirements, but critics argue that it is unsustainable, and that the main challenge is not one of production but distribution.

Dilnavaz Variava doesn’t believe that GM food will address India’s food crisis. She is honorary convener for consumer issues for the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture, an alliance of farmers, scientists, economists, non-governmental organizations and citizens who advocate for ecologically and economically sustainable agriculture.

Ms. Variava has worked for a range of organizations, including the World Wildlife Fund India, where she was chief executive, and the Bombay Natural History Society. She has also served on several federal government committees as well as one in Maharashtra for the development of agriculture.

Ms. Variava spoke with The Wall Street Journal’s India Real Time about GM food in India. Edited excerpts:

The Wall Street Journal: Parliament’s passage of the Food Security Bill reflects the urgency of addressing the food security challenge. Would genetically modified food do this?

Dilnavaz Variava: India has enough food grain — almost two-and-a-half times the required buffer stock — and yet 200 million Indians go hungry. The problem of sufficiency is not one of production, but of economic and physical access, which the Food Security Bill attempts to address. Poverty, mounds of rotting food grain, wastage and leakages in the Public Distribution System are the real causes of food insecurity. GM food cannot address this.

WSJ: Is there evidence from other countries that GM food improves food security?

Ms. Variava: Macroeconomic data for the largest adopters of GM food indicate the opposite. In the U.S., food insecurity has risen from 12% in pre-GM 1995 to 15% in 2011. In Paraguay, where nearly 65% of land is under GM crops, hunger increased from 12.6% in 2004-06 to 25.5% in 2010-12. In Brazil and Argentina, GM food has not reduced hunger. In any event, GM does not increase yields, as the Union of Concerned Scientists established through a review of 12 years of GM in the U.S.

WSJ: How does GM food differ in quality from non-GM food?

Ms. Variava: About 99% of all GM crops have either one or both of two traits that make food unsafe: a pesticide-producing toxin (Bt) present in every cell of the plant and a herbicide tolerant trait that enables the plant to withstand herbicides used to kill weeds. While food safety regulators have cleared GM foods as safe, many independent scientists disagree. Their studies point to health risks: allergies, cancer, reproductive, renal, pancreatic and hepatic disorders. They say regulators give safety assurances based on studies which the GM industry conducts for a maximum period of 90 days on lab rats. This corresponds to a human life span of less than 15 years, which is too short for long-term health effects such as organ damage or cancer to manifest.

WSJ: In India, why did the Supreme Court-appointed Technical Expert Committee call for a moratorium on field trials of GM crops in July?

Ms. Variava: The TEC majority report by five scientists from the fields of molecular biology, toxicology, nutrition science and biodiversity called for an indefinite moratorium on field trials, stating that ‘the regulatory system has major gaps.’ They concluded that the quality of information in several GM applications was far below that necessary for rigorous evaluation. They recommended a moratorium on field trials for Bt in food crops until there was more definitive information on its long-term safety, and for crops for which India is a center of origin/diversity. They also recommended a ban on the release of ‘herbicide tolerant’ crops, which are inadvisable on socioeconomic grounds in a country where farms are small and weeding provides income to millions of people.

WSJ: Does the report take food security into account?

Ms. Variava: Yes, the report notes that although India has a food surplus in production terms, one-third of the world’s malnourished children live here. It does not see GM as the answer to this.

WSJ: Does it make sense to ban even field trials of GM food?

Ms. Variava: Field trials involve open-air releases of GM. Given that rice and wheat survived their supposed destruction after field trials in U.S. and caused import bans leading to losses of millions of dollars to U.S. farmers, field trials are not harmless scientific experiments. Banning field trials makes sense until a strong biosafety and liability regime is in place.

WSJ: Isn’t India taking regulatory steps to promote the safe use of modern biotechnology, for example with the proposed Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Bill?

Ms. Variava: The BRAI Bill appears to be promoting rather than regulating GM. It proposes a single window clearance, with power to clear GM crops dangerously concentrated in the hands of just five people. All its other committees are merely advisory. It will overrule the constitutional powers of state governments over agriculture and circumscribe the Right to Information and legal redressal. It does not mandate long-term studies, assure labeling and post-release health monitoring, or have adequate punitive provisions. There is no mandatory consideration of safer alternatives or preliminary need assessment based on socioeconomic factors. GM crops are input intensive, requiring adequate fertilizers and timely irrigation. With over 70% of India’s farmers being small and impoverished, and 65% dependent on the vagaries of the monsoon, GM is a high cost, high debt and high risk technology for India. The BRAI Bill does not ensure caution for this unpredictable and irreversible technology.

WSJ: What would economically and environmentally sustainable agriculture for India look like?

Ms. Variava: A World Bank commissioned study found that agro-ecological approaches and not GM provide the best solution to the world’s food crisis.In March 2011, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food also reported that small scale farmers could double food production within 5 to 10 years by agro-ecological farming.

An Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India study for West Bengal found that organic farming could increase net per capita income of a farmer in the state by 250%, lead to wealth accumulation of 120 billion rupees ($1.9 billion), generate exports worth 5.5 billion rupees ($87 million) and create nearly two million employment opportunities over five years.

In Andhra Pradesh, Community Managed Sustainable Agriculture was started in 2005-06. It promoted ecologically and economically sound agriculture with state government and World Bank support. About 10,000 villages with one million farmers practice non-pesticidal management on over 3.5 million acres. Pesticide use in the state has decreased by more than 45%. Net income increases were 3,000 to 15,000 rupees per acre, in addition to meeting a household’s food needs.

Shanoor Seervai is a freelance writer based in Bombay. Like India Real Time on Facebook here and follow us on Twitter @WSJIndia.

Local seeds best bet against climate change


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A paddy field at Pannaikudi in Madurai district. Photo: S. James
The HinduA paddy field at Pannaikudi in Madurai district. Photo: S. James
They need less water, no fertilizer and hardly any care or attention

Climate change has spawned debate as well as initiatives such as planting saplings, cultivating kitchen gardens, household energy conservation and so on.

At the grassroots level, a few farmers are doing their bit to preserve traditional and local varieties of seeds.

“These farmers are commonly called ‘Custodian farmers’. They preserve traditional seeds and make sure that they don’t disappear amongst the variety of hybrid seeds available in the market which farmers prefer because of the promise of high yield,” says M. Palanisamy, Programme Director, Rainfed Farming Development Programme at the Dhan Foundation in Madurai.

The need to preserve traditional and local varieties of seeds that are gradually disappearing is all the more because they do not need much water or chemical fertilizers and pesticides to grow. They can withstand the rigors of climate change and its harsh side effects.

True to the term ‘custodian farmer,’ R. Jeyaraman from Adhirangam in Tiruvarur has preserved 63 types of traditional paddy. “These traditional paddy varieties, unlike the ones used at present, do not need much water,” he explains.

Mr. Jeyaraman has distributed the paddy varieties to farmers from Kerala, Karnataka, Orissa and West Bengal. Among the paddy varieties he has preserved are seeds that need only 60 to 180 days to grow.

“Another factor that most farmers today struggle with is that their crops need constant care and attention, especially before harvest. What they don’t realize is that many of these traditional varieties need only a short span of time to grow and can be harvested easily,” Mr. Jeyaraman says.

While hybrid varieties enjoy brisk demand, the promise of high yield often diverts attention from the side effects.

“When rainfall is extremely scanty, it is impossible to plant most new varieties of seeds,” A.P. Alagarsamy from Pallapatti in Dindigul district points out.

With climate change affecting the conditions under which these farmers are forced to work, the need for such traditional varieties which can withstand harsh climatic conditions is growing.

“Traditional varieties of paddy that can withstand floods for as long as a month and torrential rain are the kind of seeds we need to preserve,” said Syed Ghani Khan, a farmer from Mandya in Karnataka.

“With traditional paddy types from Thailand, Burma and Indonesia, I hope to preserve many more traditional seeds through cross pollination,” he adds.

Hybrid seeds and the other varieties that are distributed also have a shorter lifespan that results in the quantity of yield gradually decreasing as years go by.

“Seeds from the hybrid crops cannot be sown directly. The farmer is forced to go back to the centres after his crop is harvested to buy the seeds again and has no control over the price,” says Mr. Palanisamy.

Jegannath Raja from Rajapalayam district has preserved and aggressively marketed two varieties of mango — ‘Mohandas’ and ‘Potllama.’

“The two traditional varieties are fast disappearing and I managed to preserve them and spread awareness of how these varieties can be used to generate income in rain-starved areas since they do not need much water to grow,” says Mr. Jegannath.

He has preserved over 2,000 traditional varieties of fruit, though not all are income-generating.

“While I have preserved a number of seeds to safeguard them, I encourage farmers to buy only a few varieties that are traditional and promise high yield,” he says.

With the importance of preservation and conservation of these traditional and indigenous seeds, there is a need for live genetic resources or nurseries to facilitate studies and spread awareness among farmers.

“Farmers should set apart a portion of their land for cultivation of traditional seeds. With live genetic resources, or maintaining nurseries rather than seeds, it will be easier for farmers to choose varieties and see the benefits for themselves,” said R. Adinarayanan, a faculty member at the Tata Dhan Academy.

The farmers were recently honoured at the Madurai Symposium 2013, organized by the Dhan Academy, and given the ‘Custodian Farmer’ awards for their contribution to biodiversity conservation.

“God has given us the resources we are using now and it is our duty to conserve them and pass them on to posterity,” says Mr. Syed Ghani.

Payments for environmental services and market-based instruments: next of kin or false friends?

The emergence of market-based instruments (MBIs) in the field of ecosystem services has been spectacular but still lacks a clear conceptualization. Terms are overused and abused in discourses, and contrasted policy instruments are referred to as market-oriented albeit with few characteristics in common. Realities on the ground differ substantially from attractive yet misleading propositions supported by public and private discourses. Both advocates and opponents to these approaches thus propose arguments poorly relying on facts and fueling confusion. Payments for environmental services (PES) have flourished and constitute the emblematic and perfect example of a policy instrument that proves more complex and polymorphous than usually acknowledged. Born from the promises of spontaneous agreements between beneficiaries and providers of services for their mutual interest, it has been viewed by most analysts as a popular MBI. We challenge this view by confronting 73 peer-reviewed articles to a typology of MBIs.

Residential Proximity to Methyl Bromide Use and Birth Outcomes in an Agricultural Population in California

Background: Methyl bromide, a fungicide often used in strawberry cultivation, is of concern for residents who live near agricultural applications because of its toxicity and potential for drift. Little is known about the effects of methyl bromide exposure during pregnancy.

Objective: We investigated the relationship between residential proximity to methyl bromide use and birth outcomes.

Methods: Participants were from the CHAMACOS (Center for the Health Assessment of Mothers and Children of Salinas) study (n = 442), a longitudinal cohort study examining the health effects of environmental exposures on pregnant women and their children in an agricultural community in northern California. Using data from the California Pesticide Use Reporting system, we employed a geographic information system to estimate the amount of methyl bromide applied within 5 km of a woman’s residence during pregnancy. Multiple linear regression models were used to estimate associations between trimester-specific proximity to use and birth weight, length, head circumference, and gestational age.

Results: High methyl bromide use (vs. no use) within 5 km of the home during the second trimester was negatively associated with birth weight (β = –113.1 g; CI: –218.1, –8.1), birth length (β = –0.85 cm; CI: –1.44, –0.27), and head circumference (β = –0.33 cm; CI: –0.67, 0.01). These outcomes were also associated with moderate methyl bromide use during the second trimester. Negative associations with fetal growth parameters were stronger when larger (5 km and 8 km) versus smaller (1 km and 3 km) buffer zones were used to estimate exposure.

Conclusions: Residential proximity to methyl bromide use during the second trimester was associated with markers of restricted fetal growth in our study.

Key words: birth outcomes, birth weight, fumigants, methyl bromide, pesticides, residential proximity

Wake up before it is too late: Make agriculture truly sustainable now for food security in a changing climate

Developing and developed countries alike need a paradigm shift in agricultural development: from a “green revolution” to a “truly ecological intensification” approach. This implies a rapid and significant shift from conventional, monoculture-based and high external-input-dependent industrial production towards mosaics of sustainable, regenerative production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small-scale farmers. We need to see a move from a linear to a holistic approach in agricultural management, which recognizes that a farmer is not only a producer of agricultural goods, but also a manager of an agro-ecological system that provides quite a number of public goods and services (e.g. water, soil, landscape, energy, biodiversity, and recreation) UNCTAD’s Trade and Environment Review 2013 (TER13) contends.

TER13 highlights that the required transformation is much more profound than simply tweaking the existing industrial agricultural system. Rather, what is called for is a better understanding of the multi-functionality of agriculture, its pivotal importance for pro-poor rural development and the significant role it can play in dealing with resource scarcities and in mitigating and adapting to climate change. However, the sheer scale at which modified production methods would have to be adopted, the significant governance issues, the power asymmetries’ problems in food input and output markets as well as the current trade rules for agriculture pose considerable challenges.

TER13, entitled Wake up Before it is Too Late: Make Agriculture Truly Sustainable Now for Food Security in a Changing Climate was released on 18 September 2013. More than 60 international experts have contributed their views to a comprehensive analysis of the challenges and the most suitable strategic approaches for dealing holistically with the inter-related problems of hunger and poverty, rural livelihoods, social and gender inequity, poor health and nutrition, and climate change and environmental sustainability – one of the most interesting and challenging subjects of present development discourse.

Agricultural development, the report underlines, is at a true crossroads. By way of illustration, food prices in the period 2011 to mid-2013 were almost 80% higher than for the period 2003-2008. Global fertilizer use increased by 8 times in the past 40 years, although global cereal production has scarcely doubled at the same time. The growth rates of agricultural productivity have recently declined from 2% to below 1% per annum. The two global environmental limits that have already been crossed (nitrogen contamination of soils and waters and biodiversity loss) were caused by agriculture. GHG emissions from agriculture are not only the single biggest source of global warming in the South, besides the transport sector, they are also the most dynamic. The scale of foreign land acquisitions (often also termed land grabbing) dwarfs the level of Official Development Assistance, the former being 5-10 times higher in value than the latter in recent years.

Most important of all, despite the fact that the world currently already produces sufficient calories per head to feed a global population of 12-14 billion, hunger has remained a key challenge. Almost one billion people chronically suffer from starvation and another billion are mal-nourished. Some 70% of these people are themselves small farmers or agricultural laborers. Therefore, hunger and mal-nutrition are not phenomena of insufficient physical supply, but results of prevailing poverty, and above all problems of access to food. Enabling these people to become food self-sufficient or earn an appropriate income through agriculture to buy food needs to take center stage in future agricultural transformation. Furthermore, the current demand trends for excessive biofuel and concentrate animal feed use of cereals and oil seeds, much too high meat-based diets and post-harvest food waste are regarded as given, rather than challenging their rational. Questionably, priority in international policy discussions remains heavily focused on increasing industrial agricultural production, mostly under the slogan “growing more food at less cost to the environment”.

The strategy recommended to developing countries of relying on international markets to meet staple food demand, while specializing in the production and export of ‘lucrative’ cash crops has not produced the intended results, because it relied on low staple food prices and no shortage of supply in international markets, conditions that have drastically changed since the turn of the century. Globalization has also encouraged excessive specialization, increasing scale of production of few crops and enormous cost pressure. All this has aggravated the environmental crisis of agriculture and reduced agricultural resilience. What is now required is a shift towards diverse production patterns that reflect the multi-functionality of agriculture and enhance close nutrient cycles. Moreover, as environmental externalities are mainly not internalized, carbon taxes are the rare exception rather than the rule and carbon-offset markets are largely dysfunctional – all factors that would prioritize regional/local food production through ‘logical’ market mechanisms – trade rules need to allow a higher regional focus of agriculture along the lines of “as much regionalized/localized food production as possible; as much traded food as necessary”.

Climate change will drastically impact agriculture, primarily in those developing countries with the highest future population growth, i.e. in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Against this background, the fundamental transformation of agriculture may well turn out to be one of the biggest challenges, including for international security, of the 21st century. Much slower agricultural productivity growth in the future, a quickly rising population in the most resource-constrained and climate-change-exposed regions and a burgeoning environmental crises of agriculture are the seeds for mounting pressures on food security and the related access to land and water. This is bound to increase the frequency and severity of riots, caused by food-price hikes, with concomitant political instability, and international tension, linked to resource conflicts and migratory movements of starving populations.


NREGA workers kept waiting for wages

A performance audit of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act in Karnataka reveals delayed payment of wages, sometimes by three months or more, to nearly five lakh workers under the scheme during the period 2009-12. Himanshu Upadhyaya looks at the key audit findings and connects the dots.

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18 September 2013 – The performance audit report on the implementation of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) in Karnataka was tabled in the State Assembly on 30 July 2013. An earlier article reviewed several anomalies, delays and variance with what had been originally envisioned in respect of planning processes, realistic labour budget estimation, registration and issue of job cards, monitoring mechanisms, social auditing and grievance redressal.

What stands out equally starkly, if not more, from the report are the performance audit findings related to payment of wages and compensation to workers employed under the scheme. The audit notes that in 2010-11, almost half of all payments made were recorded beyond the stipulated 15-day period and while workers should have been paid compensation for such delays, no such compensation was paid.

If one wonders why and how such a sad state of affairs came about, one only needs to look at the way in which Information, Education and Communication activities to empower MGNREGA workers about their rights have been undertaken by the state.

Delayed payment of wages

MGNREGA workers are entitled to being paid on a weekly basis, and in any case within a fortnight of the date on which the work was done. In case payment of wages is not made within the period specified under the scheme, workers must receive compensation as per the provisions of the Payment of Wages Act, 1936 with the cost of such compensation being borne by the state government.

Audit scrutiny of data extracted from the MIS throws up a significant number of cases where wages were paid after a delay of more than the stipulated period of 15 days. In the year 2010-11, delayed wage payments amounted to as high as almost half the total wages paid. During the years 2009-10 and 2010-11, a very high number of muster rolls showed payments of wages with a delay of more than 91 days.

The audit observes that though wages belatedly paid as a proportion of total wages showed a decline in the year 2011-12, the percentage still remained significantly high at 23 per cent. In its reply to this audit finding, the state government has accepted its failure.

MGNREGA researchers would perhaps do well to look at MIS data for the year 2012-13 and analyse the payment of wages reported therein to verify if the state government has merely stopped at acknowledgement of its failure or if it has indeed learnt any lessons from the above audit observation.

Non-payment of unemployment allowance

The CAG’s performance review of MGNREGA implementation in Karnataka has also revealed that the state government had made no payments towards unemployment allowance. The Operational Guidelines stipulate that any person having a job card can apply for work to the Gram Panchayat in writing. On receiving such an application, which is also called ‘demand for work,’ the official shall issue a dated receipt to the applicant. In case work is not provided within 15 days from the date of demand for work, an unemployment allowance is to be paid to the applicant by the state government.

In a significant number of cases, wages were paid after a delay of more than the stipulated period of 15 days. In the year 2010-11, delayed wage payments amounted to as high as almost half the total wages paid. 

•  Six months for a job card?
•  MIS=Too many mistakes

Audit scrutiny of MIS data showed that in a majority of cases, the demand for work had been entered as the same date on which the person was engaged as MGNREGA worker as per the muster rolls, or the preceding day of the engagement of worker. This pattern of data entry in MIS, accompanied by the conspicuous absence of what I term ‘flesh and blood employment registers,’ indicate the scope for manipulating the date of demand for work.

The neat records at the MIS level in a state where a beneficiary survey has seen many workers reporting delays of up to six months in acquiring a job card itself does seem to indicate that we can’t take the MIS claims at face value.

In those relatively less number of cases, where the MIS data broke away from the pattern narrated above, the number of person-days for which unemployment allowance should have been paid to workers is as mentioned in the table below:

Year	Number of person-days for which unemployment allowance was payable
                In all 30 districts       In 8 test-checked districts

2007-'08          65,415                    5,097
2008-'09        3,12,574                1,49,840
2009-'10        1,01,952                  46,166
2010-'11        1,49,786                  49,455
2011-'12         22,493                     10,098

Total               6,52,220                2,60,656

However, during audit scrutiny it was found that no unemployment allowance had been paid to workers, either as per MIS data or as per records in test-checked data.

It is worth looking at what the state government says in reply to this audit observation, in its communication dated January 2013. In its reply, the state government sought to argue that as per the Operational Guidelines, the question of unemployment allowance arises only when the labourer applies for it in writing. The state government also added in its reply that the whole process of record maintenance was being computerised now, which would resolve these issues.

The CAG however pronounced that “the reply was not acceptable, as the state government, instead of educating the labourers through Information, Education and Communication (IEC) activities, had taken shelter under the ignorance of the intended beneficiaries.”

It would, therefore, be interesting to explore the amount of resources that the Karnataka government has spent from its MGNREGA budget on such IEC activities. The following is what the audit has to say on this.

Information, Education and Communication Activities under MGNREGA

Audit scrutiny revealed that the state government had not drawn up any Information, Education and Communication (IEC) plan. IEC activities were taken up in a limited manner through street plays, radio programmes, pamphlets and wall writing in public places. Towards this, the state government incurred expenditure worth Rs. 74.78 lakh during 2007 to 2012. Since June 2010, the state government has engaged consultants for IEC activities and paid them an amount of Rs 1.5 crore till March 2012.

The CAG performance review also noted that the financial management of the scheme was deficient, as monthly squaring and reconciliation of accounts at all levels was not being attempted at all. It also indicted the State Employment Guarantee Council (SEGC), Governing Council and Executive Council, stating that they failed to meet regularly. The SEGC had met only four times as of 31 March 2012, while the Governing Council had met only two times during the period 2009 to 2012 and the Executive Council had met only once since its constitution.

With a change of the guards, will things improve for MGNREGA workers in Karnataka in the year 2012-13? We will have to wait and watch, but meanwhile civil society organisations and MGNREGA researchers could go a long way by insisting that the Public Accounts Committee of the State Assembly takes up the present audit report for discussion soon.

Himanshu Upadhyaya 
18 Sep 2013

Himanshu Upadhyaya is a researcher at the Azim Premji Foundation, Bangalore.

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PESA: The Illusory rights

PESA, which is seen as an enabling law for tribal self-governance, is violated brazenly by both the Union government and State governments in the name of development. By VENKITESH RAMAKRISHNAN and AJOY ASHIRWAD MAHAPRASHASTA

SINCE October 2012, the Ministry of Rural Development of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government has apparently been engaged in an exercise to evolve a “National Land Reforms Policy”. Over these months, the Ministry wrote to various State governments, highlighting the importance of the initiative. In January, it also constituted a national-level “Task Force on Land Reforms” comprising nine official and eight non-official members.

These steps were in pursuance of the October 11, 2012, agreement the Ministry had signed in Agra with the Jan Satyagraha, a movement that had launched a padayatra(foot march) demanding a comprehensive National Land Reforms Act and institutions for its effective implementation and monitoring in order to provide landless, homeless and marginalised communities access to land and livelihood resources. Ironically, while the Ministry’s efforts have been continuing apace, other segments of the Union government and some State governments have actuated a number of measures that decisively undermine the initiative.

These acts of sabotage are essentially related to the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA), 1996, which, under the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution, seeks to enable tribal self-governance. The Agra agreement, which virtually forms the basis of the efforts to formulate a new “National Land Reforms Policy”, also lays emphasis on effective implementation of PESA as a prerequisite for developing a just and balanced land rights system. However, on February 5, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests accorded “a general approval for diversion of forest land for undertaking developmental activities by the State Government Departments for the welfare of the people”, under its guidelines F. No. 11-9/1998-FC (pt). The explanation of “developmental activities” “for the welfare of the people” apparently involves infrastructure projects in different sectors.

Observers of tribal and environmental issues, such as E.A.S. Sarma, former Secretary to the Government of India, have pointed out that this government guideline is in clear violation of PESA and the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006. The FRA was enacted to recognise and vest forest rights and occupation in forest land in forest-dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers who had been residing in such forests for generations but whose rights could not be recorded.

U-turn on Governors’ powers 

A few days after the promulgation of the guideline, the Union government filed an affidavit in the Bilaspur High Court in Chhattisgarh which overturned its own earlier positions on the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution and PESA. The government, through the affidavit filed by the Additional Solicitor General, negated the “discretionary powers” entitled to the Governor in the Fifth Schedule. Its contention was that the Fifth Schedule was after all only a part of the Constitution and the general principle of the Governor acting only on the aid and advice of the Council of Ministers applied here too.

Interestingly, this also negated the opinion placed on record by former Attorneys General Goolam E. Vahnavati and Soli J. Sorabjee. Both had held that the Governor did indeed have discretionary powers under the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution. Vahanvati undertook a detailed study of the provisions of the Fifth Schedule before giving this opinion in April 2010. In fact, the position articulated by Vahanvati has been the line consistently taken by the Supreme Court since 1997, for example in Bhuri Nath and Ors vs Govt. of J&K and in the Samata case. But in one single stroke, the UPA seems to have subverted the government’s own considered positions of the past.

The Union government’s affidavit came about in the context of a public interest petition against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Chhattisgarh. The State government had anointed Chief Minister Raman Singh as the Chairperson of the Tribal Advisory Council (TAC) and the petition filed by the social activist B.K. Manish had argued against this, stating that it was a violation of Para 4(2) of the Fifth Schedule, which stipulated that the TAC would advise on matters referred to it by the Governor. Clearly, both the ruling UPA and the principal opposition party, the BJP, are on the same page when it comes to undermining PESA and the Fifth Schedule.

Referring to these developments, the land rights activist Ramesh Sharma, who is associated with the Ekta Parishad, stated that these manoeuvres of the country’s two principal mainstream parties pointed to an organised attempt to thwart tribal land rights in general and PESA in particular. “Even at the best of times the implementation of PESA was faulty and patchy. It seems that the effort is to institutionalise its ineffectiveness. In other words, make the Act a paper tiger. This, in fact, has been an ongoing process, which has gathered increasing momentum over the past decade and a half,” Sharma toldFrontline.

Other land rights activists and observers point out that while the Adivasis have historically depended on their traditional rights over the region’s jal, jangal aur jameen(water, forests and land), indiscriminate land acquisition by different governments for multinational mining corporations in the past two decades has led to considerable displacement and exploitation of these people. The legal rights and immunity that were guaranteed to Adivasis in the Constitution were frequently bypassed or misinterpreted by various governments to suit corporate interests in the mineral-rich lands of Indian forests. While the governments have justified the acquisition of lands in the name of economic growth, the Adivasis were never made stakeholders in the process of industrial development. Neither their participation nor their consent was sought in the rush for industrialisation, nor were they given any proper rehabilitation benefits.

However, Adivasis have resisted such government and corporate initiatives and struggled to retain their rights over the natural resources. In many places, the struggles have been violent, as in the case of the Bastar region in south Chhattisgarh; in other areas, Adivasis, along with civil society groups, have tried to regain their rights by fighting militant social and legal battles and reminding the government time and again of their constitutional rights.

Exploitation by States 

As activists like Sharma point out, it is in this context of indiscriminate land acquisitions and industrialisation that PESA has become the most violated legislation at present. The governments, both in the States and at the Centre, have exploited semantic loopholes in the Act to circumvent its provisions and deny the tribal people any sort of self-governance. And in the past few years, this has become the most important point of contestation for the tribal people in India’s hinterland. In almost all such land acquisitions in tribal areas, PESA has been violated in some way or the other. “There are three important gaps that the governments exploited to bypass the Act: first, PESA is a loosely drafted Act; second, there is no overarching clause that protects it from being bypassed by the State governments; and third, the word ‘consultation’ with the tribal people, as mentioned in the Act, is not clearly defined,” Neelabh Dubey, an advocate in the Bilaspur High Court, told Frontline.

PESA uses the word “consultation” with the tribal people, and the governments have used it to their own advantage by not taking the consent of the villagers concerned before any acquisition of land. Activists have pointed out several incidents where the State governments have falsely claimed that the villagers were “consulted”; as PESA does not require a written approval from the gram sabha, the governments are not bound to show a written statement.

PESA mandates that the gram sabha or panchayats should be consulted at an “appropriate level” before any decision. Videh Upadhay, an advocate, points out that the governments have, however, distorted the meaning of “appropriate level” and have not even bothered to consult the gram sabhas and have resorted to seeking opinions only from district-level committees, most of whose representatives are stooges of one political party or the other. In many instances, the consultations for land acquisition were done with district committees 500 kilometres from the area where land had to be acquired.

Such problems stem from the larger fact that PESA empowers the State governments to frame rules. PESA mandates that within a year of its promulgation, the rules for the panchayats in the Fifth Schedule areas have to be legislated keeping in mind the regional contexts. But except for Madhya Pradesh, no other State has done this. Recently, Union Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh, on his visit to Kalahandi, Odisha, was shocked to find out that none of the villagers knew about PESA. Odisha remains among the many States that have not framed rules for PESA even 16 years after its promulgation. That PESA offers flexibility and does not have universal rules owing to the varied conditions and contexts of every tribal area has been used by State governments to their own advantage. For example, PESA does not make it necessary for the governments to empower the panchayats with fiscal and administrative powers such as collecting taxes and fees. And this limits the autonomy of the tribal areas.

In the past few years, more than 600 villages were converted into urban panchayats as the State governments have the power to upgrade rural panchayats. Upgrading has generally been an effective tool to bypass PESA, which mandates the gram sabha’s approval for land acquisition for industrial and mining projects. In most of the upgraded villages, there is a conspicuous industrial drive at present. Barring Madhya Pradesh, the States, in stark violation of Section 4(n) of PESA, have enacted laws that provide the bulk of the powers to the gram panchayat instead of the gram sabha. Panchayats, being an elected body, have also been heavily corrupted by money and muscle power.

In addition to all these violations, activists have noticed that in many places, districts came up with their own rules for PESA to dilute the powers of the gram sabha. PESA was drafted in an open-ended manner to make it flexible so that its vision of guaranteeing tribal autonomy is not compromised. But the way the State governments have gone about formulating rules for it have completely violated that spirit.

In a 2006 report on PESA violations, a joint effort of the Planning Commission, the Land Resources Department of the Ministry of Rural Development, and the Ministry of Panchayati Raj, a number of such violations have been reported from Raigarh, a district of Chhattisgarh. In at least four blocks of Raigarh, where there are many investment proposals, PESA has not only been bypassed but also not considered by the State government (“Standing up to the state,” Frontline, June 17, 2011). Because of such violations, which are in stark contrast to the spirit of PESA, more and more lands are being alienated from the tribal people, and the natural resources that they had been dependent on are being taken away from them on a daily basis.

Out of the total tribal population of India, more than 40 per cent has already been displaced. This is happening when, even by government estimates, more than 60 per cent of the Adivasis are classified as living in extreme poverty with no access to land, adequate food, health facilities and education. In such circumstances, even minor violations of laws like PESA and other provisions of the Fifth Schedule have an enormous impact on them. Violations of PESA make a mockery of India’s boasts participatory democracy


Mendha Lekha residents gift all their farms to gram sabha

Author(s): Aparna Pallavi

Date:Sep 7, 2013

Village does away with private ownership of land, saying it will lead to a stronger community.

File photograph of Mendha Lekha Gram Sabha meeting in progress. Community leader Devaji Tofa addresses residents. Activist Mohan Hirabai Hiralal is also see in the pictureFile photograph of Mendha Lekha Gram Sabha meeting in progress. Community leader Devaji Tofa addresses residents. Activist Mohan Hirabai Hiralal is also seen in the picture

In a step that will strengthen the village gram sabha and also secure the land rights of the people, residents of village Mendha Lekha in Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra have donated their entire agricultural land to the village gram sabha under the forgotten Maharashtra Gram Dan Act of 1964. The gram sabha has now become the legal owner of 200 ha of land originally belonging to 52 families in the village. The village has a population of 480, comprising 105 families.

The step was taken at a meeting on September 3, in which the entire gram sabha unanimously passed a resolution to donate their land in the presence of Dhanora tehsildar, Malik Virani. Villagers say that the step was taken with a view to unite the village into a single family and reversing the harmful trend of private ownership of land that ultimately harms both individual farmers and land-dependent communities.

Mendha Lekha has been in news in recent years after becoming one of the two first villages to win community rights over their forests  and wresting rights over bamboo from the forest department.

Act of gram dan

The Maharashtra Gram Dan Act came into existence in 1964 following the bhoodan movement (voluntary land donation movement started by Vinoba Bhave in 1951) movement that aimed at transferring land from big land owners to the landless. Following this, some 19 villages in Maharashtra state implemented the provisions of the Act by creating gram mandals, a precursor to the current system of gram sabhas. Later, however, the legislation fell into neglect.

Nagpur-based Parag Cholkar, a Sarvodaya activist (follower of Mahatma Gandhi and Bhave) and researcher who has written a history of the gram dan movement in the country, said that under the provisions of the Act, the land-owning farmers in a village are required to donate 75 per cent of their land to the gram sabha, which becomes the legal owner. Mendha Lekha residents have have gone one step further and donated 100 per cent land to the gram sabha.

Five per cent of the total donated land is distributed to the landless in the village for cultivation, while the former owners continue to cultivate the remaining land under hereditary rights. Under the Act, a village’s agricultural land cannot be sold to an outsider. If a farmer wishes, she can transfer the rights of her land to another resident of the village with the permission of the gram sabha. The gram sabha also maintains the land records of the entire village land.

Gram dan is legally valid only when all land-owners and 75 per cent landless people in the village give their consent to the process. Once the village makes its gram dan declaration, the district administration is required to carry out a document check and invite objections. Once this process is completed, administration holds a meeting with the gram sabha to finalise the decision, which is then conveyed to government for gazette registration.

In Mendha Lekha’s case, the village-level formalities were completed in the September 3 meeting. The proceedings of the meeting have been sent to the district collector and the divisional commissioner, and gazette registration is expected to be done in the next three months, informed Dhanora tehsildar.

Protection from land sharks

Devaji Tofa, community leader from Mendha Lekha, told Down To Earth that the traditions of the Gond tribal community to which the villagers belong, do not see land as property or something to be owned by individuals. “It is seen as a community resource.” The modern concept of private ownership has done a lot of damage to communities, said he. “With private ownership, people tend to get selfish and isolated.”

With the decision of gram dan, the entire village has now become a single family, he said. “Earlier the gram sabha was taking decisions on community resources like forests, water and our stone-chip mine, but now agricultural land has also become a community resource, so that we can take all decisions together,” he added.

The greatest benefit of gram dan in present circumstances, says Cholkar, is that it protects village land from being grabbed by outsiders. “In Vidarbha and other areas seeing an agrarian crisis, large areas of land are being bought up by private investors for throwaway prices, leaving farmers landless. But with gram sabha ownership of land, private procurers cannot lure individuals into parting with their land.”

Village gains greater autonomy

The Act also provides for more autonomy to a gram dan village, because under its provisions, the village is no longer bound by the decisions of the gram panchayat, which is an elected body and tends to get caught in power politics. Also, individual villages under a gat (cluster) gram panchayat may have low or no representation in a body on which they depend for their own decisions. “Once the gram dan comes into effect, the powers of the gram panchayat pass on to the gram sabha,” says Cholkar, “Mendha Lekha has already been practicing this, but now there is a legal sanction to the process.”

Mohan Hirabai Hiralal from the non-profit Vrikshamitra, who has aided Mendha Lekha gram sabha’s functioning for more than four decades, says, “The decision has emerged from years of consultations and thinking within the village community. It comes out of a realization that land is the basic means of production, and community rather than private ownership is more beneficial for both the individual and the community.” He said that though most of the land will continue to be cultivated by the original owners, decisions will now be collectively taken in the gram sabha. “Vinoba Bhave’s gram daan concept has been termed utopian and unrealistic by social observers. But Mendha Lekha’s decision has been taken for firmly practical reasons. There is now an opportunity to observe how such a concept plays out on the ground.”