Wednesday, October 31, 2007

6.INTERVIEW: Ageing Agriculture

The 300th issue of Alive (Oct 2007), one of the Delhi Press Publications' quarterly magazine established in 1940 as Caravan, interviewed Sudhirendar Sharma (your host) for its introspection of Indian agriculture in the 60th year of country's independence.

How do you rate the growth of agriculture sector in India during the 60 years of independence?
Poor or should I say `very poor'. The irony is that the sector that fed the country cannot feed itself anymore. With farmers' suicides more of a norm than exception, the parliament was informed about over 100,000 farmers' suicides in the last ten years, what more can be said about growth of agriculture?

How much successful have been the land reform programmes of the government so far?
Land forms! Heard of this term after a long time. Literally, no significant progress has been made. Interestingly, however, what the government could not move forward in 60 years has an interesting parallel. It is called SEZ, the Special Economic Zone. The government has now advised states to acquire 30 per cent land for SEZ.

Why there is so much disparity found among various states in terms of agriculture development?
Farmers have been lured through loan waivers, free power, cheap rice - all electoral gimmicks. Nothing serious!

What is the future of agriculture in India? Will India conitnue to be an agricultural country (Krishi Pradhan desh)?
A million-dollar question! National Sample Survey (NSS) shows farmers are losing interest in farming; demographic trend indicates rural:urban population will be 40:60 in next 15 years; urban industrial growth is pulling people out of farming; no let down in farmers' suicides; and corporate agriculture gaining precedence. It may remain `Krishi Pradhan' sans farmers.

What are the main problems facing the Indian agriculture today?
Simply put, a skewed input-output ratio with no social protection scheme for farmers.

Does the government keep the promises made to the farmers?
The problem is that the `problem' hasn't been diagnosed properly.

Is opening up of agriculture trade as per the WTO norms beneficial for the Indian farming community?
Not really, because WTO is not a level playing field. While we have reduced farm subsidies, EU has high subsidies. The farm prices cannot compete.

Can't ground level agriculture be promoted as a lucrative career option for the youngsters? Currently, there are various courses in agriculture and rural development. But all of them aim to produce managers, not farmers. Cannot we encourage our youths to take up farming as a career?
Retailing in farm products, yes! It suits urban lifestyle of the young. Taking up farming as a career. a big NO - so I think.

After the Green Revolution of the 60's and 70's, there are now talks of second similar revolution. Why?
It will be even more disastrous as the focus will be on serving the market'.

India is importing food grains once again. What is or who is responsible for this condition?
Policies of the State! Lal Bahadur Shastri had resigned following a train mishap, when he was the minister incharge during the 60's. Today, Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar informs Lok Sabha about 100.000 farmes' suicides and then proceeds to attend the all important BCCI (Board of Control for Cricket in India, of which he's the current President) meeting. The ethos and values are gone!

Mr Chandrshekhar Shrivastava had conducted this freewheeling interview.

Monday, October 22, 2007

5.REFLECTION: Nobel Peace Prize for re-inventing toilet!

Common flush toilet with its numerous opulent versions has outlived its relevance! Undoubtedly cynical, it is time that this sixteenth century invention is taken back to the drawing board before it turns out to be a seat of inconvenience. It is neither a outrageous suggestion to shun the existing toilet nor a weird provocation to go back-to-the-cave, but a considered reflection on the flip side of a toilet.

Without doubt, flush toilet has evolved into essential convenience of modern living. No wonder, governments and aid agencies are flushing additional resources to meet the millennium development goal of bringing sanitation to all by 2015. Indian's rural development ministry is working overtime to meet its target of making the entire countryside free of open defecation by 2012.

Without disrespect to those who have yet to possess it, the fact that toilet eludes over a couple of billion potential users worldwide is good news for the planet! How could the world justify the intended conversion of precious freshwater into brown water at each flushing of human excreta? The original toilet design may have gone through several iterations ever since Sir John Harrington had drawn a patent in 1595, the fact that a pre-determined quantity of water makes it functional may turn out to be its nemesis.

It better be so, else the task of providing sanitation to over 66 per cent rural and some 24 per cent city dwellers will be at the cost of cutting down on water supplies from yet-to-be-covered population of over 400 million, scattered across villages and cities in India. However, with each use of the toilet, be it modern push button or the low-cost pour flush version, flushing anywhere between 6 to 15 litres of water providing sanitation is more than just building toilets.

In no way should it be construed that the idea of toilet be ignored. However, the pathologisation of sanitation has seriously overlooked the plain fact that toilet is a function of water that is getting scarcer by the day. Be it the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDG) or India's Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC), the focus on number crunching aims at achieving targets only. Whether or not there is water to keep the system in operation remains at the periphery!

Until this water guzzling technology is reinvented, its recurring cost will exceed the cost of building a toilet in the first place. And the cost will invariably get externalized, either on the ecosystem or on those who await their share of water. Unless sanitation is backed by treatment of wastewater, young children will continue to bear the brunt. Improper disposal of human excreta pollutes water which, coupled with lack of personal hygiene, takes daily tool on some 1,000 children in India.

Need it be said that water management is not only about managing fresh water but about protecting it from getting polluted too. A recent World Bank report laments that only 30 per cent of the wastewater generated in the country is put to any form of treatment. The incremental cost of wastewater polluting additional freshwater sources, be it surface or ground water, may prove costly in the long run.

Designing water frugal toilets with suitable wastewater treatment can no longer be ignored. Attempts at designing waterless and low-water consuming toilets have already been made. Incinolet is one such toilet design that utilises electric heat to turn the fruit of your labours into a tablespoon of germ-free ash. By using microwaves this American invention replaces flushing with incineration. However, its prohibitive cost is deterrent to its mass scale adoption.

Inventor's Peter Soulsby more benign aerobic toilet promises drastic cut down in water use in the loo. Using saw dust and an electric fan to create aerobic conditions, this design consumes 2,500 litres of water per 40,000 sittings, as against 600,000 litres in a conventional flush. However, none of these inventions have been able to replace the conventional toilets that are not only cheap but less complicated too.

Research on creating alternate toilet designs need to be taken on priority such that the 21st century becomes the `century of alternate toilets', much like the 19th century that was called the `century of toilet' when new patents were drawn to help improve the quality of WC that launched several attractive designs in the market. However, this time around a Nobel Peace Prize may be in the waiting for anyone developing an alternate toilet design for widespread adoption. Any takers!

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

4.ANALYSIS: Leaving it to the US will be disastrous!

If you are one who is worried about illicit drugs afflicting your college-going children you have a profound reason to be so, as farmers in Afghanistan have began sowing seeds of what is expected to become the biggest and most lucrative opium poppy crop yet. For the poor farmers in this war-ravaged country, poppy harvests secure their livelihoods. It is however another matter that field upon field of beautiful bloom also fuels $ 400 billion worth of global trade in illicit drugs and several billion worth in arms trade.

Should Afghan farmers be held responsible for misuse of opium that has medicinal properties? Can they be dissuaded from growing poppy? They might oblige provided alternate crops are as lucrative! Researchers have burnt their fingers with alternate crops like saffron and mint, none fetching as much as US$ 122 to a kilo for poppy. For negligible input costs and a longer shelf life, poppy remains the best bet. No surprise that opium's export worth at US$ 3 billion contributes 40 per cent to Afghanistan's GDP.

Undoubtedly, there are good reasons for farmers to grow opium poppy and for the rest of the world to be uneasy at the same time. Does this not leave the world exposed to the menace of drugs? So it seems, as the political economy of a country weakened by ongoing war finds itself vulnerable to the divisive forces that exercise control over peoples' lives and livelihoods. With its growing influence, the Taliban have encouraged poppy cultivation to obtain a large part of their funding through trade in illicit narcotics.

And, they have indeed been successful as neither the $ 100 billion a year war been successful nor the piecemeal efforts to wean farmers from growing poppy. The crucial question remains: If Afghanistan were to somehow able to reduce opium production, who would benefit? The Taliban and black market entrepreneurs, whose stockpiles of opium would skyrocket in value. Thousands of Afghan peasants will plant illegal harvest, utilising guerrilla farming methods to escape eradication efforts.

It is good time for the Afghan farmers though, as the world debates its strategy to control opium growth. The crop of 2007 was up by more than one-third from 2006. It is quite likely that the current annual harvest of 8,200 tonnes, over 93 per cent of the world's harvest, will be bettered the coming year. Afghan farmers make profit but the problem is that they are producing 3,000 tonnes in excess of the global demand, fueling illicit opium trade worth US$ 20 billion....more

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

3.CAMPAIGN: Neither do they emit fumes nor ignite road rage

When improved cycle rickshaw, with speed gears and ergonomic design (see picture), was launched in Agra in 1997, the future of poor man's public transport had started looking up. Ten years later, the status of rickshaw is that of abject ridicule as many cities have banned the movement of this environment-friendly pedal-powered convenience from municipal limits. While the historic Chandi Chowk in Delhi had banned the ubiquitous rickshaw following high court orders (a petition challenging the court's orders is in India's Supreme Court) five years ago, the adjoining satellite township of Noida has recently curtailed its movement from busy sections of this fast developing city. Many cities in Asia, like Dhaka and Jakarta, too are forcing rickshaws off the streets.

Unlike in these countries where rickshaws are symbols of poverty, they are seen as symbols of the future in the developed nations - an environment friendly means of transport. And, they could be cheaper and less polluting public transport in congested areas of big cities in the developing world if municipalities would stop treating them as a nuisance. The number of cars in cities is not restricted but cycle rickshaws are. In contrast, on New York's fifth avenue people could be seen looking around for cycle rickshaws in the evenings. Elsewhere in North America and Europe, cycle rickshaws are finding favor with the commuters.

The India Cycle Rickshaw Improvement Project, undertaken by the New York-based Institute for Transport and Development Policy (ITDP) , was borne out of the realisation that improving the design efficiency of human-powered public transport could be a win-win situation. From improving city environment to providing gainful employment, rickshaw could be a cheaper mode of public transport. The ITDP designers had deployed tubular body to reduce rickshaw's weight by 30 per cent ; designed multi-gear system for easy pulling; and had created low height passenger friendly seating features. All this, within the cost of a traditional rickshaw - an estimated US $ 150 only.

Though several rickshaws plying across cities do resemble the improved version, the clones do not carry the essential elements of the design. Says designer Shreya Gadepalli, who had worked on the project, "... as the principal designer it does pain me to see that not all vehicles are as light, safe or comfortable as they could have been; features like multiple gears, which were seen as an extra cost, were done away with." With support from the USAID, the India Project had contributed to improving no less than 300,000 rickshaws in as many as 100 cities. However, the spread of the revolutionary design has ceased since the project came to a close in 2003.

Thanks to an indifferent policy environment and an irresolute rickshaw industry, the innovation aimed at benefiting as many as 4-5 million cycle rickshaws in India has literally been squandered. As developing countries go through economic boom, the nature and growth of road network does not take rickshaws into account. With elevated corridors being one convenient way of avoiding traffic congestion in the cities, the rickshaws gets excluded as a result. Against the powerful automobile industry, the unorganized human powered vehicle industry stands little chance to impact change.

Much ado about climate change and yet this non-polluting mode of transport gets a raw deal! The modernization of cycle rickshaw in India has already proven to be a more cost effective way of reducing carbon dioxide emissions alongside securing better livelihoods for millions, at no extra burden to the state. The launch of improved rickshaw in Agra was aimed at reducing harmful emissions from polluting auto rickshaws and cars from the periphery of the one of world's seven wonders. However, in the absence of political patronage the inherent potential of cycle rickshaws in generating elusive carbon credits for the resource-crunched municipalities is being missed.

Earning carbon credits may not be far-fetched but the fact that rickshaws generate gainful employment for millions should be reason enough for developing countries to be empathetic towards it. The results of the revolutionary design changes had led to an appreciable increase in income for traditional rickshaw, from a low of Rs 75-80 to Rs 110-120 per day. After deducting the rental costs, the previous earnings were only marginal higher. Interestingly, the new design gave the poor rickshaw drivers a chance to earn more by spending less energy. However, for manufacturers and contractors the enhanced income to poor rickshaw drivers has been of little consequence.

Without doubt, there is space and scope for integrating cycle rickshaw into the urban transport plan. Banning rickshaws on the pretext of congestion on city streets is irrational, cars and auto rickshaws owe much more to it. Cycle rickshaws hold distinct advantage over motorised transport: these are non-polluting and non-violent form of public transport. Neither do these emit fumes nor ignite road rage! Unless public policy allows cycle rickshaws to negotiate their position, an opportunity to impact change in the city environment in light of ensuing climate change will be missed.

(this blog has been published under the title `Eco-friendly vehicles crushed under motor wheels' in the Bangalore-based multi-edition daily Deccan Herald)