Jun 30, 2015

What needs to be done in boosting domestic production of pulses

As dal prices go on an upswing, a harried government is trying to focus on increasing domestic production. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi called upon farmers to grow more pulses to reduce the dependence on imports, he was not only voicing concern over the rising import bill, but also wanting the country to become self-sufficient in pulses production.

Prime Minister is right. All efforts to increase production of pulses in the past few years have not borne fruit to the extent desired. Although domestic production had reached a high of 19.25 million tonnes in 2013-14, falling to 17.38 million tonnes the next year in 2014-15, but still India’s import of pulses continues to hover around 4 million tonnes. This is primarily the reason why the trade finds it convenient to raise prices at every given opportunity.

In the past one year, a 64 per cent hike in the prices of pulses has been observed with most common pulses available at a price exceeding Rs 100/kg in the retail market. Much of this jump in prices has been seen in the past 3-4 weeks after reports of an impending drought in kharif became more pronounced. To add fuel to the fire, the statement by Road Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari, assuring the nation that the government will import large quantities of pulses to meet any shortfall expected in the markets, is expected to send international prices soaring.

The same mistake was earlier committed by the former Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar.  Some years back when he publicly stated that India will import sugar to offset domestic shortfall in production, international prices had swung to a record high. Consequently, the import bill on sugar grew. This is also true for India’s import of chemical fertilizers. India’s demand for fertilizer is instrumental in keeping international prices high on an expectation of increased imports. In fact, how much will be India’s fertilizer import is something that has been monitored by the global trade very meticulously.

Ever since the weather forecast indicated an overall fall of 12 per cent in monsoon rains, prices of pulses – both nationally and internationally – have gone up drastically. According to reports, the future prices of tur from Myanmar had gone up from $ 800/tonne to $ 1150/tonne. Similarly, the futures prices for chana in Australia swung from $ 550/tonne in March t $ 775 tonne in June. Much of India’s imports are from Canada, Australia, Myanmar, Russia and Ukraine.

Although the government has raised the Minimum Support Price (MSP) of some of the important kharif pulses, price alone may not be enough to raise production in the long run. While the price of tur and urad have been raised by Rs 275 and of moong by Rs 250 per quintal, the idea being to give a message to farmers to shift more area towards pulses, I have always felt that unless the government launches an assured procurement programme for pulses, there is little hope. What has been achieved in wheat and rice is what exactly needs to be done in case of pulses.

Augmenting production of oilseeds and pulses in 60,000 villages, with the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) holding 6,000 crop demonstrations over the years, is certainly welcome. But what is required is a two-pronged approach if the government is anywhere serious in boosting domestic production of pulses:  

1.   1.  Pulses attract zero per cent import duty at present. As long as import tariffs are not raised substantially, imports will continue to act a dampener against any move to raise production. The Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices had recommended raising the import tariffs to 10 per cent, and the Ministry of Agriculture had been toying to hike it to 20-30 per cent. It is high time the import tariffs are raised substantially.

2.    2. The hike in import tariffs has to be accompanied by a nationwide programme to ensure procurement of pulses by the State agencies. What deters farmers from undertaking cultivation of pulses is the volatility in market prices and the lack of an assured market. If only the State governments were to step in and purchase every grain of legume that flows into the markets, India will witness an unprecedented jump in pulses production. #

      *What needs to be done in boosting domestic production of pulses. ABPNewsTV. June 29, 2015

Jun 27, 2015

Why India does not need GM Mustard

A child in a mustard field - pic from web

Comes winter, and I crave for sarson ka saag. As far as I can remember, even when I got my first job, my mother would send me a container full of saag that would last me for a week or so. I could eat saag with every meal, or at least once a day, a habit that I have not given up since I was a child. But why am I sharing this insight into my culinary taste and preference is because I fear I may soon have to give up on one of my favourite foods.

With the Ministry of Environment & Forests reportedly considering granting a commercial approval to genetically-modified (GM) mustard, I certainly wouldn’t like to take a risk anymore. Knowing the health risks associated with GM foods, I would like to keep away. I am sure millions of north Indians, who are known to have a taste for makki ki roti and sarson ka saag, too would be greatly disappointed. After all, there is no desperate reason to genetically modify a food crop that has traditionally been a part of the daily cousine. Moreover, there is no way to segregate the GM mustard from normal mustard that I can be sure what I am eating is not genetically modified.

Five years after the Ministry of Environment & Forests had in 2010 imposed a moratorium on Bt brinjal, which if approved would have been the first food crop in India to be genetically modified, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), the nodal agency that grants approvals, is getting ready to give a green signal to Delhi University’s GM Mustard variety DMH-11. The claim is that this GM Mustard gives 20-25 per cent higher yield, and also improves the quality of mustard oil. It is time to examine the veracity of these claims.

Claims notwithstanding, it is also time to first understand how easily our food is being tampered in the name of increasing crop productivity. The fact of the matter is that there is no GM crop so far across the globe that increases productivity. Even in GM Mustard, the increase in yield that is being claimed, is simply because of the hybrid variety in which the three alien genes have been inserted. Which means if you grow one of the popular mustard hybrids already available in the market, you will hardly have any yield advantage.

It is being repeatedly said that India imports edible oils worth Rs 60,000-crore every year, and therefore with an increased productivity of GM Mustard, the import bill will be reduced. For those who do not know the real situation, this looks to be a worthwhile proposition. But what is not known is that the huge imports are not because of any shortage of technology or because farmers are unable to produce more. It is simply because successive governments have allowed import duties to be drastically cut from the applicable rate of 300 per cent to almost zero now. As a result, India has been inundated with cheaper imports.

It was in 1985 that the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi decided to launch an Oilseeds Technology Mission to raise the productivity of oilseed crops, including mustard, so as to reduce the import bill. In 1985, India was importing approximately Rs 15,000-crore of edible oils, which was roughly 50 per cent of our domestic requirement. This was the third biggest import bill –after petrol and fertilizers – that Rajiv Gandhi was keen to curb. The result was that ten years after the launch of the Oilseeds Mission, in 1993-94, India became almost self-sufficient in edible oils. With only 3 per cent imports, 97 per cent of edible oils began to be produced within the country.

The cut in import tariffs was not as much from WTO directive but more because of autonomous liberalisation. As per WTO norms, India’s import tariffs for edible oils are bound at 300 per cent. But for reasons that do not kmake any economic sense, India’s import tariffs have been gradually brought down to almost zero. With cheaper imports coming in, farmers stopped cultivating oilseeds and also much of the processing infrastructure for oilseeds lies redundant. The best way to increase oilseeds production therefore is to raise the import tariffs and provide enabling environment to farmers. They will do the rest.

Mustard is one of the many oilseeds crops that are grown in India. Over the years, its productivity and production has been on an upswing. In 2010-11, a record mustard production of 81.8 lakh tonnes was harvested.  From 9.04 quintals per hectare in 1990-91, average mustard yield has increased to 12.62 quintals in 2013-14, with Gujarat recording 16.95 quintals per hectare. There is no shortage of mustard in the country. Mustard yields can still be increased further if farmers are paid a remunerative price and an adequate mandi infrastructure is created to procure the harvest every year. Since almost 70 per cent of the mustard crop is cultivated in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Haryana, the problem farmer’s face is that of over-production and lack of buyers. In Rajasthan particularly, the central agency Nafed has been pressed into service time and again to procure mustard when prices crash at times of an unmanageable glut. 

Mustard oil is one of the healthiest of the edible oils available. It contains one of the lowest levels of saturated fatty acids. But the problem mustard oil faces as far as quality is concerned is its large scale contamination with cheaper cottonseed and palm oils. To provide pungency, some popular brands, add a solution of red chilies. Improving the quality of mustard oil therefore does not require genetic modification but a clean-up in the processing industry and checking unethical trade practices. It needs a crackdown on the oilseeds trade to ensure that quality oil is made available. 

Increasing production of oilseed crops like mustard therefore requires adequate policy initiatives. Raising import tariffs to ensure that cheaper edible oil does not flood the market, and providing an economic price for the produce can bring back self-sufficiency in edible oils. There is no reason why India should be spending Rs 60,000-crores on importing edible oils that can be produced within the country. Since oilseeds are a crop of the drylands, encouraging oilseeds production will benefit the domestic farmers living in the harsh environs. Even the Shanta Kumar committee has in its report on ‘Restructuring FCI’ dwelt on this issue and recommended trade policies to be in tune with country’s food self-sufficiency. There appears to be no plausible reason why GEAC should be so keen to push another unwanted, unhealthy and environmentally damaging GM crop. #

1. Conspiracy Against Mustard. DNA Mumbai, June 26, 2015

2. सेहत पर एक और खतरा, Dainik Jagran, June 27, 2015

Jun 19, 2015

Impending drought: farmers too need an economic bailout package

It has been a bad year for agriculture. Deficient monsoon in Kharif 2014, followed by unseasonal rains, hailstorms and strong winds in the months of March-April 2015 had left the farmers battered. Accompanied by a crash in global prices of wheat, rice, cotton, soybean and maize and the refusal by the government to provide a higher domestic price to farmers had left the farmers in a lurch.

As if this is not enough, ominous signs stare ahead. With the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) predicting a significant shortfall of 12 per cent in monsoon rains for the second year in a row, stopping short of pointing to a drought year ahead, the misery, suffering and the severe blow it is likely to inflict on the livelihood security of over 600 million farmers is in itself frightening.

The Third Advance Estimates of Production of Foodgrains for the Agricultural year 2014-15 shows a drastic fall of 13.92 million tonnes in foodgrains production, slumping from a high of 265.04 million tonnes harvested a year earlier in 2013/14 to an expected 251.52 million tonnes. This surely is a significant decline in production pulling down the agricultural growth rate in the bargain to a low of 0.2 per cent. Statistics apart, what is often ignored is the hit the farmers’ household economy receives in the process.

With comfortable stocks of wheat, rice and sugar in the kitty there is no undue reason for alarm. Food inflation in staple foods can easily be kept under check with strategic food management. It’s only in the case of vegetables that the government will have to ensure that market sentiments are not able to exploit the crisis situation.

Erratic weather is one part of the story. What is often glossed over is the fact that farmers have suffered a double whammy with not only the weather gods playing truant but also the crop prices declining sharply. First, the global crash in prices of agricultural commodities had resulted in a sharp fall in the prices of cotton, basmati rice, soybean and milk. This was followed by the refusal of the government to pay a higher minimum support price (MSP) to farmers, keeping the hike to Rs 50 per quintal only, and at the same time withdrawing the bonus of Rs 150 or more that was being paid in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. 

In an affidavit before the Supreme Court, the government has acknowledged that it is not possible to pay a higher price since it will distort the markets. RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan too had warned against a rise in food inflation shifting the blame on the expected hike in MSP for rice and wheat in the months to come. In other words, farmers are being penalized for keeping food inflation under control.

The bigger challenge therefore is to rescue farmers. If you recall, in the aftermath of 2008-09 global economic meltdown, the government was quick to provide an economic bailout package of Rs 3 lakh crore to the industry. I see no reason why at a time when international agricultural commodity prices have crashed, followed by an autonomous regime of maintaining artificially low domestic prices, the burden of keeping food cheaper for the consumers has to be borne entirely by the hapless farming community.

It is high time the government provides an economic bailout package of at least Rs 1.5 lakh crore to farmers. This should be relatively easy now considering that almost all farmers have a bank account now under the jan dhan yojna. This has to be accompanied by more public sector investments in agriculture. In the 12th Five year Plan, the total investment for agriculture, which benefits 600 million farmers, was a paltry Rs 1.5 lakh crore. Compare this with the subsidy for the new and swanky T-3 airport terminal in New Delhi, which stood at Rs 1.62 lakh crore. The budget for MNREGA is higher than the total outlay for agriculture.  

Somehow it is not being understood by policy makers that if the farmers have more money in their hands, they drive faster the wheels of the economy. Effectively, this also translates into what the Prime Minister Narendra Modi often calls for: Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas. 

Jun 18, 2015

Total Recall: How the match is fixed against Indian farmers

Pic: AFP

After the battering they received from an unexpectedly long spell of unseasonal rains, accompanied by strong winds and hailstorm, Uttar Pradesh farmers have been able to finally harvest their wheat crop. With the crop fields now empty, and with the sowing for the next crop some weeks away, it is time for them to assess the net income, if any.

That the agricultural income has been on a steady decline was never in question. But a detailed look at the net returns from wheat-rice crop rotation from a hectare of land in Uttar Pradesh, as computed by the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP), is not only shocking but unbelievable. As per the latest estimates, the net return from cultivating wheat in Uttar Pradesh has been worked out at Rs 10, 758. Since wheat is a 6-month crop, sown in October and harvested in April, the per month income for a farm family comes to Rs 1,793. 

With Rs 1,793 or let us say Rs 1,800 per month from wheat cultivation I wonder what kind of livelihood security we are talking about when it comes to farmers. The average monthly bill for a mobile phone for most college students anywhere in India would exceed Rs 1,800.

I looked for more details. If the other crop farmer is growing is rice, the average net return for it has been computed at Rs 4,311. Add for rice and wheat, the total that a small farmer from a hectare earns is Rs 15, 669 or Rs 1,306 per month. With such meager incomes I see no reason why a large number of farmers commit suicide at regular intervals. Those who are not so courageous either sell-off their body organs or prefer to abandon farming and migrate to the cities looking for a menial job as a dehari mazdoor (daily wager worker).

Well, many economists will dismiss the UP farmer as being an inefficient grower. I therefore looked at the costs and price calculations for Punjab farmers who are considered to be progressive, using the latest technologies and also bestowed with 99 per cent assured irrigation. The average net returns from a hectare of wheat have been worked out at Rs 18,701. Since Punjab predominantly follows wheat-rice crop rotation it becomes important to look at the annual computation of costs and prices. 

Now, don’t be surprised. The net returns from wheat-rice cropping pattern in Punjab stand at Rs 36,352 or Rs 3,029 per month. I wonder how a farmer in an economically developed state of Punjab manages to survive.

But still, Indian farmers have not failed the nation. Year after year, and despite being at the bottom of the pyramid, they continue to produce a bumper crop. This year too, they had done remarkably well. In the previois Kharif season coinciding with the monsoon months, they produced a bumper crop of basmati rice, cotton followed by potato. While basmati rice production had doubled in Punjab and Haryana, farmer’s expectation of a higher income were razed to the ground with a crash in the global prices of agricultural commodities. Disappointed farmers sold basmati at prices ranging between Rs 1600-2400 per quintal, against a price of Rs 3,261 to Rs 6,085 they got last year.

In cotton too, prices slumped from an average of Rs 4,400 to Rs 5,200 per quintal last year to around Rs 3,000 this year, prompting the government to direct the Cotton Corporation of India to step in to buy at the procurement price of Rs 3,750 per quintal. Let us not forget that the jump in basmati and cotton production happened as farmers had incurred an additional cost on diesel to run tube wells for irrigation. Punjab and Haryana had recorded a 50 per cent shortfall in monsoon.

Later, potato farmers faced a similar glut forcing them to sell at a throwaway price of Rs 2 per kg.

For years I have seen the farmers toil valiantly in the crop fields, often getting up at midnight to irrigate their fields when electricity connection flows to the tube wells, only to face an unforeseen disaster in the form of low prices. The Minimum Support Price (MSP) that farmers get for wheat and rice, which becomes an assured price for their produce, is being deliberately kept low so as to ensure that food inflation remains in check. Farmers are paid a low price also to enable the industry to get cheap raw material. Take for instance the case of cotton. According to a CACP report in the early 1990s, cotton farmers were deliberately paid 20 per cent low price for two decades so as to keep the textile industry economically viable.

This year, procurement prices for wheat and Rice have been raised by a paltry Rs 50 per quintal, which corresponds to an increase of 3.2 per cent. States like Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan which gave a bonus over and above the MSP have now been debarred from doing so. In fact, the government plans to withdraw MSP in the coming years leaving farmers to face the tyranny of markets.

Compare it with the government employees who have recently been given a second DA installment of 6 per cent at a time when wholesale price index has been officially computed at zero. This step-motherly treatment is the primary reason for the continuing agrarian distress in the country. In other words, farmers are being penalized for keeping food prices low for the indulgent consumers as well as for the industry. I don’t know why farmers alone should bear the burden of keeping the food prices low. After all, they too have to survive.

My colleagues have come out with some startling analysis. They looked at the rise in procurement prices with the rise in incomes of employees in various sectors over a period of 45 years – between 1970 and 2015. In 1970, the wheat procurement price was Rs 76 per quintal. In 2015, wheat procurement was is Rs 1450 per quintal, an increase of about 19 times. In the same period, the average basic salary plus DA of central government employees have risen by 110 to 120 times; of school teachers by 280 to 320 times; of college/university teachers by 150 to 170 times; and of mid to high class corporate sector employees by 350 to 1000 times. In the same period, school fees have increased by 200 to 300 times; medical treatment cost has gone up again by 200 to 300 per cent; and average house rent in cities has risen by 350 times.

This is a telling insight into the deliberate effort over the years to keep the farmers impoverished. But if you think, farmers have suffered unknowingly, you are simply mistaken. Actually, it is part of a global design. The World Bank had directed India way back in 1996 to move 400 million people out of the villages into the cities in the next 20 years, by 2015. Such a massive demographic translocation has also been suggested by academic institutes in the West. For a country to grow economically, the economic prescription is to reduce drastically the dependency on agriculture. Therefore the entire effort is to create such conditions that forces people to abandon farming and migrate to the cities.

To say that agriculture is an economically unviable profession is therefore untrue. If only farmers had received a wheat procurement price of Rs 7,650 per quintal – corresponding to the minimum increase in salaries of central government employees in the same period – agriculture would have been flourishing. India would have witnessed a reverse migration from the cities into the countryside, and farmer’s income would have compared favorably with the best in the industry. This would have provided gainful employment to millions of underemployed and unemployed. For the consumers, food prices could have been subsidized as is done in most of the developed economies.

In the Netherlands, the average farm household income is roughly 265 per cent higher than the average of the country. In US, the average farm household income is about 150 per cent higher than the national average. In India, the average farm family income is the lowest in all categories. It is not because the farmers in those countries are remarkably efficient. They get massive federal support in one form or the other. In India, successive governments have worked to push farmers out of agriculture. If only Prime Minister Narendra Modi was to reverse this trend, it would truly be Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas. #

*Total Recall: How the match is fixed against Indian farmers. CatchNews. May 27, 2015

Jun 10, 2015

It's junk, not food

A PTI photo

This may shock you. The US President’s Cancer Panel estimates that 41 per cent of all Americans living today will end up suffering from cancer in their lifetime. It is expected that 1 in 2 men and 1 in every 3 women in America will eventually get cancer. The report warns against the pervasive use of chemicals – including, pesticides, insecticides and synthetic ingredients in the processed foods.

In Punjab, a 525-page report prepared by the Department of Health and Family Welfare, too has pointed to the increasing contamination of junk foods with chemicals to be a major cause leading to increasing incidence of cancer. Excessive use and abuse of chemicals, including chemical fertilizer and insecticides and also chemical residues from industry, over the past few decades has turned Punjab into a hotspot of cancer.

Reports of the Centre preparing to file a case against Nestle India to seek damages on behalf of the consumers for selling unsafe Maggi noodles; and also from the Ahmedabad-based Consumer Education Research Centre (CRC) for planning a legal action against the multinational giant for misleading advertisements are therefore more than welcome. Considering that Nestle has spent Rs 445-crores last year alone on advertising and sales promotion, and has spent only 5 per cent of this staggering amount on quality tests shows how casual the company has been towards human health.

Banning of Maggi sales by 17 States so far across the country, and the Food Safety and Standard Authority of India (FSSAI) ordering a nationwide recall of nine variants of Maggi from the market should serve as a wake-up call for a massive clean-up act. Not only other noodle brands -- Knorr, Yipee (ITC), 1to3 (Surya), Nissin Cup noodles, Doodles and Ching’s Secret – need to be brought under the scanner but it is time all kinds of processed foods are checked for quality. This has been long overdue and will go a long way in rebuilding consumer confidence.

Processed foods are rich in fats, sugar, salt, preservatives and chemicals posing a serious health hazard. As the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) has shown that noodles alone contains about 60 per cent of the salt requirement that a child needs to consume daily. The accumulation of excess salt in children therefore is extremely risky. Studies have now shown that excessive consumption of salt is leading to increasing number of deaths. Worldwide 1.65 million people die from excess sodium consumption.

Along with high intake of sugar and trans fats, childhood obesity is emerging as a huge problem in America with obesity rates among those between 2 and 19 years being as high as 17 per cent. In India, the growing craze for junk foods – these are not foods, but junk – is actually leading to undernutrition and acute malnutrition. There is no denying that many mothers find it convenient to feed children with junk foods, either out of lack of awareness or simple laziness, not knowing that it leads to serious health problems that may arise later. Aided with high profile advertising that misleads them to believe that such products are ‘nutritious’, they fall an easy prey.

A series of investigative reports on hidden hunger by the news web portal Scroll states: “Food is cooked twice at home: rice, roti, dal [mostly masoor since it’s the cheapest], sabzi [mostly potatoes], but never green leafy vegetables or fruit or milk. Meals are interspersed with Maggi, popcorn and a variety of chips, which kill the appetite for a full meal. It isn't just that children like their taste, there is an economic rationale to rely on junk food. A packet of Maggi noodles costs Rs 10 while a meal of rice, dal and vegetables would cost approximately three times that amount.” More consumption of junk foods among children leads to malnutrition and stunted growth. Quoting a CRY study, the report says that 36% children suffer from malnutrition and another 33% are victims of severe acute malnutrition that could lead to abnormalities and even death.

To suggest that if junk foods are not allowed to be sold in the vicinity of the school premises will keep it from the reach of school children is certainly not a plausible solution. I have followed very keenly the campaign “Let’s Move!” launched by the US First lady Michelle Obama on fighting junk food advertisements of sugary breakfast cereals, soft drinks and fast food aimed at school children. Although the US Department of Agriculture has last year phased out advertising from the vending machines, I don’t understand why can’t the US Government ban the production and sales of junk foods? If cigarette smoking can be banned in public places, why can’t junk food sales also banned?

It is also time to take a relook at the colas. A BBC exposure had shown that each bigger container of the cold drink that is served in the cinema halls carries 44 spoons of sugar; the smaller containers carry 23 spoons. The next time you are in a cinema hall be careful about what you drink. It may taste refreshing at that moment but not for your body system. The clean-up act therefore cannot be completed unless the soft drink industry is also brought under the scanner. In fact, the time has come when health warnings like that inscribed on a cigarette pack too needs to be prescribed for some of the processed food products and colas.

A robust food safety system is the crying need. In India, there exists 1 food laboratory for every 88 million people. In China, a food safety lab exists for every 0.2 million people. Infrastructure development does not only mean constructing expressways and highways. It’s time adequate investment is made for food safety with stringent laws that provide for deterring punishment to erring firms. For a company which spends Rs 445-crore on advertising, paying a maximum fine of Rs 10 lakh is a joke. Unless the food safety laws ensure that big players end up coughing out 10 per cent of their annual turnover in penalties, I don’t see the possibility of a strict compliance with food safety laws. #  

Its junk, not food. DNA Mumbai, June 9, 2015

Jun 5, 2015

If Michelle Obama can do it, why can't Indian celebs be equally responsive.

Film star Madhuri Dixit in one the ads for Maggi noodles 

US First lady Michelle Obama is a celebrity.  Not only as US President Barack Obama’s wife, she has also successfully carved out a niche for herself in the international arena. With that image, she could have easily earned tonnes of money by endorsing popular brands, including processed foods.
Michelle Obama instead focused her energies on fighting junk food ads of sugary breakfast cereals, soft drinks and fast food aimed at school children. Five years after she launched a nationwide campaign called “Let’s Move!” the US Department of Agriculture had last year phased out junk food advertisements from vending machines in schools across the country. Even billboards of Coke and Pepsi were removed from school eateries. The big retail giant Walmart has promised to reduce salt content in its products by 25 per cent and sugar by 10 per cent.
Childhood obesity is emerging as a huge problem in America with obesity rates among those between 2 and 19 years being as high as 17 per cent.
If Michelle Obama can stand up to fight obesity, which is emerging as the major reason leading to health debacles and even fatalities in the US, I see no reason why Indian celebrities – and that includes film actors like Amitabh Bachchan, Madhuri Dixit, Priety Zinta, Kareena Kapoor, Ranbir Kapoor and cricketers like Sachin Tendulkar, MS Dhoni and Virat Kohli to name a few – are not equally concerned and responsive. I agree it is not possible for stars to check the ingredients used, but at least they know what they are repeatedly endorsing is not healthy.
When Madhuri Dixit becomes a brand ambassador for a ‘nutritious’ Magginoodles, she immensely influences the psyche of the modern age mothers. My own neighbor, a young mother, is at ease when she feeds her little son with 2-minute Maggi noodles every other afternoon. She has perhaps reduced the intake after I tried to reason out with her, but still she is comfortable as long as Madhuri Dixit endorses the product. I am sure similar stories abound everywhere, and therefore a celebrity just can’t get away by saying that it is the manufacturer who should be answerable and not the person endorsing it.
An insightful news report in the web magazine Scroll.in (http://scroll.in/article/728525/junk-food-is-feeding-a-malnutrition-epidemic-in-delhis-slums) says it all: “Food is cooked twice at home: rice, roti, dal [mostly masoor since it’s the cheapest], sabzi [mostly potatoes], but never green leafy vegetables or fruit or milk. Meals are interspersed with Maggi, popcorn and a variety of chips, which kill the appetite for a full meal. It isn't just that children like their taste, there is an economic rationale to rely on junk food. A packet of Maggi noodles costs Rs 10 while a meal of rice, dal and vegetables would cost approximately three times that amount.” More consumption of junk foods among children leads to malnutrition and stunted growth. Quoting a CRY study, the report says that 36% children suffer from malnutrition and another 33% are victims of severe acute malnutrition that could lead to abnormalities and even death.
BBC journalist Jeremy Paxmn (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DWLQaz8nhQw) shocked the head of Coke Europe in 2013 when he poured sugar sachtes from typical containers of soft drinks that are served in cinema halls to show how consumers unknowingly gulp extremely high levels of sugar while watching films. Each big container carries sugar equal to 44 sachets and the small container has 23 sachets. Although the cola giants have been promising to reduce sugar content, the fact remains that soft drinks are harmful for health. Michelle Obama is therefore right in wanting the school children to remain away from soft drinks. Her campaign is slowly making an impact. At least obesity levels in children between the age of 2 and 5 are coming down in America.
The Maggi controversy has once again brought the focus on celebrity endorsements. I am waiting for the day when more Indian celebrities demonstrate social consciousness like what has been shown by Aamir Khan, Mahesh Bhatt, Shekhar Kapoor and Kangana Ranaut. They can’t remain mere puppets on a financial string. In a country where they are treated like demi gods, they have to take on the bigger role on the lines of Michelle Obama. That’s like a true celebrity.

May 30, 2015

Those responsible for the agrarian crisis cannot be expected to provide a solution.

Fifty-three expert committees have submitted reports on farmer suicides in the past few decades and yet the serial death dance continues unabated. Despite so much of expert advice, nearly 3-lakh farmers have committed suicide in past 20 years, which averages to two farmers ending their lives somewhere in the country every hour. This paradoxical situation must an amazing feet that can find an entry into the Guinness Book of World Records.

I am not sure how many more committees will be set up to know why are farmer’s taking their own lives. But in the meanwhile what is becoming clearly evident is that even these experts are beginning to throw up their hands. A brain-storming session organized by Punjab Farmers Commission to find some newer approaches to address the continuing and deepening agrarian crisis failed to come up with any ‘out-of-the-box’ solution. Except for making some routine suggestions, they had nothing new to offer.

This reminds me of a news report a few weeks back which said Maharashtra’s Agriculture Minister Eknath Khadse had in an honest admission accepted that the State Government was clueless about how to put a stop to farmer suicides in Vidharbha and Marathwada regions. Such a feeling of despondency prevails at a time when Niti Ayog has set up a task force on agriculture and has also directed State Governments to constitute similar task forces.

I don’t know what the use of a task force on agriculture is when Niti Ayog vice-chairman, Dr Arvind Panagariya, has in his inaugural piece on the Niti Ayog website, already spelled out his approach to address the continuing agrarian crisis. He wants a sizeable percentage of the farming population to be forced out of agriculture. The roadmap, howsoever faulty it may be, has already been laid out and I wonder what purpose the task force at the Central and numerous others at the State level are therefore expected to achieve.

This is not the first time that an effort is being made to find solutions to the vexed farming crisis. Earlier too, and for several years now, numerous expert committees had been set up by the erstwhile Planning Commission.  At the same time, many State Governments, including Punjab, have brought out Agricultural Policy documents after a series of expert consultations. Also, in preparation for the 12th Plan document, several task force and committees on sustainable agriculture, technology, water, and marketing had given their reports. The agrarian crisis meanwhile has continued to worsen.

I have time and again said that those responsible for the crisis cannot be expected to provide any plausible solutions. Most of the expert committees and panels are dominated by senior bureaucrats, farm scientists, economists and senior agriculture officers who have in one way or the other been part of the system that led to the crisis in the first place. To expect them to provide ‘out-of-the-box’ solutions therefore is like hoping against hope. If 53-expert committees have failed, it is futile to think that 30 more task forces to be set up across the country, both at the State and the Central level, would serve any purpose.

This is exactly what Albert Einstein had warned us about. He said: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” 

He was so right. What is not being admitted is that the prevailing agrarian crisis is the outcome of the same kind of policies and approaches in which unfortunately we are now again trying to look for answers.  These unworkable solutions that are being routinely suggested fall within the contours of the existing agriculture cropping pattern. Some suggest diversification of crops like shifting from wheat to maize; some suggest water conservation as the key to boosting incomes; some other call for market-driven interventions; and finally everyone talks about need for raising crop productivity.

All these options have been tried in US/Europe and China. And still, US/Europe pays massive farm subsidies, exceeding $ 1 billion per day, to sustain farming operations. Withdrawing these subsidies would mean a collapse of the high-tech agriculture in the developed countries. Introducing more sophisticated and expensive machinery in India would simply add to farmer indebtedness. Further, despite a thrust on technology-based solutions like in Punjab, the farm crisis has only acerbated, 
Every day two farmers are committing suicide somewhere in Punjab, the frontline agricultural State.

For nearly three decades now, India’s rural underbelly has been gradually caving in. Excessive use of chemical fertilisers have turned the verdant lands poisonous, water mining has dried the aquifers leading to the expansion of the desert, and chemical fertilisers and pesticides have played havoc with the environment and human health. With the input prices climbing up year after year and the output prices remaining static, farmers have become a victim of the same economic policies that projected them as country’s heroes. Agriculture has turned not only unsustainable but economically unviable.

With all these technological inputs has the income of farmers gone up? I looked at the costs and price calculations for Punjab farmers who are considered to be progressive, using the latest technologies and also bestowed with 99 per cent assured irrigation. The latest reports of the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP) works out the average net returns from a hectare of wheat and rice Rs 36,052 or Rs 3,029 per month.

Increasing farm income without selling him a new technology or mechanical equipment requires a different approach in policy planning. It requires two immediate steps: 

1) Time to discard the usual set of experts to look at agriculture. We need people from divergent streams to think and plan differently. The same set of people who were at the helm of the crisis cannot be expected to provide any meaningful suggestions. This also holds true for the Niti Ayong task force. Looking at the composition of the task force, my only worry is that Niti Ayog’s recommendations might only worsen the existing crisis. Albert Einstein was not wrong. 

2) The solution to the complicated and vexed Indian farming crisis does not lie in America or China. It is high time we stop citing the examples from the developed countries, which only ends up importing newer and expensive farm machinery and equipment. The solutions lie in our own backyard. If we look carefully in our own backyard, and search for local solutions meeting the specific needs of an agro-ecological zone, we can have ever- lasting answers to ensuring sustainable food security in the long-term. Technological solutions play an important part, but the bottom line has to be on how to provide an assured monthly income package for farmers. #

समितियों का सिलसिला Dainik Jagran, June 6, 2015

Package for Peasants. Orissa Post. June 10, 2015.