Sunday, September 30, 2012

Everybody loves a good drought in Maharashtra

When Kevalram Kale urged the Maharashtra chief minister Prithiviraj Chavan to declare wet-drought in his constituency August 22, his plea stood in contrast with the story in rest of the state.

The same afternoon, Chavan had chaired a cabinet meeting to declare drought in 123 tehsils (blocks); with rains eluding large swathes of the central western parts for the second year in succession.

Now here was a legislator complaining about too much rain, not the lack of it. Melghat, a hilly forested area infamous for high incidence of child malnutrition deaths, was reeling under unabated rains.

Standing crops were inundated, roads snapped and people hungry as ration couldn’t reach the scattered hamlets, he pleaded with the CM, and submitted a memorandum demanding Rs 30 crore: to lay new roads, repair bridges and public buildings. No mention of work or ration or healthcare for the tribals.

Since drought was a reigning political issue, Kale like all other legislators fancied his chances to get funds as special assistance from the state bosses. After all, the state itself was vying for a central aid.

The tribal MLA’s bid to get projects under the garb of drought is in keeping with the trend in the state and perhaps other states too where rains have been poor.

While the ground situation remains distressing, the push is for big ticket projects rather than immediate relief. “Drought is being used by the states to make huge demands from the Centre,” Jairam Ramesh, the union rural development minister, told reporters in New Delhi early last month.

Kale’s demands now await the nod of Mantralaya where drought is the season’s theme. Marathwada, the central region of the state, and parts in western Maharashtra in the union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar’s home turf are suffering from acute water-fodder scarcity.

All reservoirs without exception have tanked to dead-storage-level in Marathwada region with a year to go until next monsoon. Tough times lie ahead if it doesn’t rain in the remaining season.

Over 2000 tankers are supplying water to about 1500 villages and 6000 hamlets. Food crop acreage has dropped by 25-lakh-hectare, according to the agriculture commissioner’s office in Pune, crops in many other places are wilting, big reservoirs have tanked to dead-storage levels and distress cattle sales have begun. Rains revived partially in August but it was a case of too little too late too. The farmers are now looking toward the state to provide compensation that could offset some of their crop losses. In many areas, brisk migrations of people from drought-hit areas toward the nearest town or cities have begun.

With the Kharif crop hit, agriculture officials are pinning their hopes on Rabi (winter) crop, prospects of which will solely depend on these areas getting rains from a receding monsoon in September.

Yet the way in which Chavan-government declared drought was quite strange. This was the first time in decades that a drought was declared even before monsoon officially ended and crop surveys done.

“Technically, the declaration means nothing,” says a senior bureaucrat in Mantralaya; “it has only added to confusion.” First with the connotation: do we call it drought or scarcity? The cabinet calls it drought in its August 22 decision when the state has long banished its use. With food shortages long removed, the government uses the description, ‘conditions akin to scarcity’.

And here’s the statutory procedure: The state government’s three separate departments – the revenue, the agriculture, and the relief and rehabilitation – get preliminary crop surveys done after September 15. By December 15, the actual crop cutting surveys of Kharif and winter Rabi crop arrive, and the government knows the actual crop-water scenario to make an assessment of the scarcity, if any, of drinking water and fodder, at village-level.

The government then classifies a village (not the entire block) as scarcity-hit if a) the rainfall and b) sowing or yields drop below 50 per cent of annual average. The help – in terms of per-hectare compensation or ex-gratia or any other – to an individual farmer is extended the following year. Last year’s relief aid to farmers is still being disbursed.

By declaring drought, the government binds itself to a drought code and huge cost burden (it must forgo land revenue, among many other things); scarcity means lesser responsibility and burden on the kitty.

How did the government arrive on the list of drought-affected blocks this year? A cabinet minister told The Telegraph on the condition of anonymity that it was a political decision to address the home constituencies, based on the rainfall data that day.

The 123rd block – on that list which actually started with 115, soared to 122, before settling on it – was that of Laxman Dhobale, Maharashtra’s water supply minister. The list throws up blocks of powerful ministers: Baramati of deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar; Shrigonda of tribal welfare minister Baban Pachpute; Sangamner of agriculture minister Balasaheb Thorat; Tasgaon of home minister RR Patil; Kadegaon-Palus of forest minister Patangrao Kadam; even Madha in Solapur, union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar’s new Lok Sabha constituency finds a mention in that list.

In a sense the cabinet declared drought in its own constituencies, many of them with no scarcity.

Between August 22, when the cabinet announced drought, and now, rains have made up some deficit. Rainfall data from June 1 to September 1, 2012, shows 42 blocks mostly in Marathwada had registered below 50 per cent of their long-term average annual rainfall, two of them below 25 per cent; 105 blocks received 50-75 per cent rains; 135 blocks 75-100, and 73 blocks recorded above average. Even if rainfall has improved, the damage done to crops by lack of rains in June and July is irreparable, officials say.

Just as it seemed this would be a bad drought year, rains have revived in central western Maharashtra to put the government in a fix. The met department today issued a warning of heavy rains in these parts. So, if the actual village-level scenario wasn’t known, what made the government pronounce a drought?

Two days after declaring drought in 123 blocks, the CM on August 24 led a delegation of his ministers to New Delhi, seeking special assistance to mitigate drought in the state, for short and long term projects.

This was the second time in three months that Maharashtra was seeking aid for drought-relief; in June, the Centre had released Rs 578 crore to mitigate acute water and fodder shortages in parts of western Maharashtra that fall in the rain-shadow area, and where rainfall had been abysmal last season.

The latest demand followed a visit by three-member central ministerial team headed by Sharad Pawar early August that toured Gujarat, Karnataka, and Rajasthan as well to assess the drought-situation.

In its latest demand, Maharashtra pitched for about Rs 3750 crore for drought-mitigation measures that includes of spending on local sector irrigation and Rs 2200 crore to complete big pending projects, this – when the DF government’s track record with the irrigation projects has been mired in controversy.

In the last decade, Mahrashtra spent Rs 42,000 crore and could bring only 0.01 per cent of land under irrigation, according to the state economic survey of 2011-12. The money sought for projects are to be used on last mile works of lift irrigation schemes in western Maharashtra in the NCP’s citadel.

Similarly, in the name of drought-mitigation, Karnataka has sought an assistance of Rs 11,488.96 crore, Rajasthan Rs 7,424.13 crore, and Gujarat Rs 18,673.37 crore, according to the agriculture ministry.

Not convinced by Maharashtra proposal, which suffered from a major deficiency to fit the criteria for the national disaster relief fund, the Centre asked the CM to come back with a reworked proposal once a clearer picture of the situation emerges after the end of monsoon. In short, it asked the state to come after its own surveys are done and submit a sector-wise concrete proposal to the planning commission.

The centre would then send its own teams to do a swat analysis before taking a final decision on the aid as part of its routine procedure. This usually takes time, Chavan said after returning from New Delhi, but the state government will continue to fund drought relief measures from its own kitty.

A reworked proposal would be submitted to the Centre after September 15. A village, not block, will be the providing with relief doles after September 15, he told reporters on August 26.

The state’s hurriedly-taken political decision lay exposed. The opposition BJP called the ministerial delegation’s visit to Delhi a farce. The NCP joined the BJP in criticizing the government with its guns trained on the CM in particular for presenting a proposal with technical deficiency.

Maharashtra is among the four states to have declared drought, together in 390 blocks. Central teams will visit Karnataka, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Rajasthan to assess the situation.

Both Chavan and Pawar realize that the crisis in rural areas must be managed now; or the government should at least be seen managing the crisis. For, its effects will spill over in 2013, a year before elections. The CM-led delegation’s visit to Delhi is being seen by the political circles in that light.

Pawar has been constantly reviewing drought situation in his home ground. In September, at least five times, he assured the people that the central government would extend best possible help to the people affected by drought.

Sr. Pawar's concern is understandable: Milk and sugar sectors will be hit hard this year and its ripples can be heard now. With the cane yield estimated to be down at least 40 per cent, sugar crushing season which usually commences September 1 has been pushed to mid-November and may end by March. That will affect the production and naturally the revenue of sugar factories. And fodder shortage, which has hit the dairy sector, has seen a drop in milk production by over three million litres a day ringing big and long-term losses for dairy farmers. The massive corruption in irrigation sector coupled with the prevailing distress may fuel resentment in the electorate against the ruling alliance.

Pawar has asked the state government – in which his own party holds the water resources portfolio – to prepare a list of ongoing irrigation projects, which could be completed within a year.

Such projects may come up for discussion in the forthcoming meeting of Empowered Group of Ministers chaired by him, he told the state government. The NCP leadership is desperate to generate funds to complete some projects in the Krishna river valley, projects that have consumed Rs 28,000 crore in the last decades and still need as much for completion.

More than Rs 600 crore of last year’s central drought relief assistance to Maharashtra is lying unspent, according to the government’s own admission. So it’s not relief that the political leadership covets but money for big ticket items; drought is just incidental.

(This was the situation early September; by now, rains have given some respite to western Maharashtra, reservoirs have been replenished, but situation in Marathwada remains grim. Across the state, as people bid good bye to lord Ganesha, drought is a forgotten story.)

Small town's big coal rush

One firm commercially sold the coal; the other its captive mine; still another sold itself to a big player, lock, stock and barrel. They did not extract any coal, but a few companies still made a fortune.

Nagpur throws up but a few samples of how some firms actually traded their captive coal mines without digging an inch or setting up an industry for which they were allotted the blocks.

In the end nothing got set up on mine pitheads. No power plant. No steel or sponge iron either. Riding their new net-worth spurred by mining leases, the promoters sold their firms for a fortune.

While the Manoj Jayaswal-promoted Abhijeet Group of Companies came into limelight due to its sudden rise and association with Congress MP Vijay Darda, whose companies have been booked by CBI earlier this month, a consortium of small players in this town went almost unnoticed. As coal ministry begins to de-allocate captive blocks now, some of these obscure firms, which together got a number of coal blocks when they had no wherewithal or money to get into the mining affair, are falling under scanner.

The coal ministry last week approved de-allocation of five coal blocks out of a total seven recommended by the Inter-Ministerial Group (IMG), which is reportedly scrutinising 29 blocks awarded to private firms out of the total 58 that were served show cause notices for delays in the development of these mines.

On September 13, the government de-allocated Bramhadih Block in Jharkhand allocated to Castron Mining Ltd in 1996, Chinora and Warora (southern part) blocks in Maharashtra given to Fieldmining and Ispat Ltd in 2003, Lalgarh (North) block in Jharkhand allotted to DOMCO Smokeless Fuels Pvt Ltd in 2005.

It also accepted the IMG recommendation to seize the Bank Guarantee (BG) in case of Marki Mangli-II, III and IV Blocks in Maharashtra. The blocks were allocated to Veerangana Steel Ltd. The ministry also asked the Monnet Ispat & Energy to submit its BG for Utkal B2 Block in Odisha allocated it.

A few more blocks are expected to be delisted in the days to come. But would the ministry action now be able to undo the wrong? Local industry sources say action came when the party is over.

“It’s not a child’s play to open a mine,” explains a retired director of the Western Coalfields Limited, on the condition of anonymity. “You need at least Rs 300-350 crore to go down for coal; anybody working in the sector will vouch for that.” You need technical know-how and the machinery for a mine, and you need to go for over 70 different statutory clearances before you could lay a boundary around the mine. “It may take roughly 7-12 years before you can actually start mining,” he says. You need patience and deep pockets for that, he says. The ministry, he says, gave coal mine to “any Tom, Dick and Harry.”

Govind Daga was no Tom, Dick or a Harry though. A scion of the late Diwan Bahadur Kasturchand Daga, a banker and trader of his time who owned vast stretches of land in this region, he owns the Central Cables Limited that manufactures power cables for a steady clientele. His family lost their coal mines when coal was nationalized in 1973.

So in 1998, post-liberalisation, Daga began his pursuit to foray into power sector. He floated the Central Colliery Company Limited and successfully got a captive mine near Bhadrawati in Chandrapur district to set up a power plant. That was the first block allotted to a private company in coal-rich Vidarbha.

Then, he floated another company called BS Ispat with his friend and colleague in the Vidarbha Industries Association (VIA), Mohan Agrawal. Both Daga and Agrawal are former presidents of VIA and staunch votaries of separate statehood to Vidarbha. Their new venture was to set up a sponge iron plant in the region. Agrawal owned one of the region’s biggest sponge iron firms, Veerangana Steel Private Limited, for which he had separately applied for captive coal mines and got three in Yavatmal district.

There was more. Govind Daga’s brother Ashok started Gondwana Ispat and bagged one block to set up a sponge iron plant. Meanwhile, Daga and Agrawal joined another businessman Anil Taneja, a Nagpur-based dealer in the earth moving equipment, in his newly-floated company Fieldmining and Ispat Limited. This company bagged two coal blocks with 38 MT of coal reserves to set up a sponge iron plant.

Then, in November 2003, Daga backed a leading Nagpur-based Ayurveda firm, Shri Baidyanath Ayurved Bhavan Private Limited, to diversify into power. They applied for a block in partnership and got one.

Between him and his partners, Daga held about nine captive coal blocks with total geological reserves of around 170 MT. What’s the current status of these coal blocks and the companies? Here’s what:

The coal ministry sent show cause notices to BS Ispat and Veerangana earlier this year that their blocks would be cancelled since they had not made any progress on opening them.

The ministry said in its ultimatum issued on May 31 to Veerangana and BS Ispat that “the allotment of coal blocks is for captive purpose; not for profiteering. The commercial use of coal was not allowed. The sale of shareholding for profit defeated the purpose of such allocation.”

Last week their coal allotments were cancelled following the recommendation of the Inter-Ministerial Group, but the original beneficiaries have already sold the companies.

According to the findings of the ministry, Veerangana, which was allotted three coal blocks in Yavatmal, in 2005, no longer existed. Agrawal actually sold it to Topworth Urja and Metals Ltd, which in turn later merged itself with the Crest Steel and Power Ltd, a Chhattisgarh-based steel trading firm.

Ashok Daga’s Gondwana Ispat was, meanwhile, taken over by Nandkishor Sarda, a close friend of Daga-Agrawal duo, and later merged into BS Ispat. After executing complex changes of ownership and equity, Daga, Agrawal and Sarda exited from BS Ispat and reportedly sold the company to the OCL Iron and Steel. Industry sources say the deal was signed for, a cool over Rs 200 crore.

Baidyanath’s coal block was de-allocated long back. It could not make any progress. Another Nagpur-based company whose block has been de-allocated is the Fieldmining and Ispal limited. When Taneja tried selling his firm to the KSK Energy ltd, he ran into a legal tangle with his partners, Daga and Agrawal, and the deal reportedly fizzled out. The battle is on before the company law board.

The company neither mined its block, nor set up a steel unit.

Daga mined the first coal block allotted for his Central Colliery Company and sold coal in the open market in violation of the captive coal mine allotment policy. Intriguingly, Maharashtra government ex-parte permitted Daga to sell it in open market. The captive coal mines were in the Centre’s purview; the state governments had no locus standi on the issue except for giving mine leases for the allotted block.

Daga did not set up a power plant himself so selling coal from the captive block to any other power plant was a violation of the law. When the union coal ministry noticed it, they cancelled his allotment, a move that was upheld by the Delhi High Court last year. It is not yet known if the coal ministry would slap any financial penalties on him to recover the money he made by selling whatever amount of coal he did.

Daga and Agrawal refused to answer calls and requests for an interview for almost a fortnight.

The CBI raids, on the establishments of Darda and Manoj Jayaswal, have created a flutter. Darda’s JLD Yavatmal Energy Limited, JAS power and infrastructure limited (registered in Kolkata but part of Abhijeet Group of Companies, Nagpur) and AMR Steel and Power Limited (part of Jayaswal Neco group) have already been booked by the CBI. With CBI on the prowl, the orange city’s industrialist-coteries have gone into silence, hoping for the storm to settle down.

Daga had admitted to a section of local press some time back that they had sold the stakes in BS Ispat to OCL. His argument then was that since they had failed to secure an iron ore block, essential for a steel or sponge iron unit, they could not come up with their plant, so best was to exit and pay their debts. The transaction was legal. The coal blocks are still with BS Ispat. Only, its owners had changed.

In another case, the ministry found that another Nagpur-based firm, Sunflag Iron and Steel Company, which was allotted Belgaon block in Wardha, Maharashtra, and has been producing coal from it since December 2007, could be diverting excess fuel. The Coal Controller’s Organisation (CCO), sources say, has informed the ministry that between December 2008 and November 2009, the firm produced 1.2 lakh tonnes, and was supposed to use it all for its 15 MW captive power plant in Bhandara.

In 2006, coal was among the hotly discussed issue among the business and industrial circles of Nagpur.

“Everybody was encouraging everyone else to go for coal blocks,” says an industry insider associated with the Vidarbha Economic Development Council, a Nagpur-based voluntary organization. “Some of us had no idea what the push factor was.”

The rush began around 2000, when Maharashtra’s power crisis started assuming alarming proportions. Local players smelled an opportunity; there was money to be made.

Notorious for its ongoing spate of farmers’ suicides and a deepening agrarian crisis, Vidarbha had coal; it had ample water; cheap land and labour too – all what was needed was the capital.

The state government was willing to back private investments if someone went with a proposal. The backward region of Vidarbha suddenly became a talking point: over 80 new private power projects lined up (they still are on the list), several steel units too; MoUs got stamped, and small-time traders looked to build their profile as industrialists, and industrialists aspired to become corporate honchos.

Lands were acquired and water from dams got reserved for power plants by the state government defying farmers’ protests. For a decade, as the coal ministry slept over the developments shrouding the captive coal mines, the promoters of lessee companies made merry violating the commitments.

Once they got the blocks, life styles of the company promoters changed; some of them were new page-3 celebrities. In the case of Abhijeet Group, its owner Manoj Jayaswal even bought a private aircraft for an estimated Rs 150 crore, when his companies had yet to start making anything out of coal or iron ore.

Daga and Agrawal were not the only ones to have traded their blocks. But they certainly set the tone in Nagpur. A few others too managed to sell their blocks or their equity in their companies.

One company, for instance, the Grace Industries Limited owned by a local, Mukesh Gupta, actually floated an advertisement in newspapers announcing its intention to sell its captive coal block of Lohara (east) in Chandrapur’s pristine forest. His company has been booked by CBI in the second FIR registered on Saturday in its ongoing investigations into the coalgate.

The mine was sold to Sanvijay rolling Industry, owned by steel trader Sanjay Agrawal, about three years ago, but the deal ran into a legal problem. The case is now before the Company Law Board.

The Grace Industries had got that block jointly with another firm in Nagpur, Murli Industries, for their captive consumption. The block has meanwhile been de-allocated by the coal ministry.

A few other examples: Chaman Metallics sold to MSP Steel; Navbharat Mines sold to Solar Industries; and the Dhariwal Infrastructure Limited came up with a thermal power plant in Chandrapur’s industrial area on their captive coal mine near Nagpur and then reportedly sold the venture to RP Goenka group.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Cotton crisis goes much beyond Bt and those two villages

This one’s not to argue, but debate (which is significantly different a notion than argument) Mr Milind Murugkar’s observations in his piece published in the Economic Times of September 27, 2012.

First, the two villages Mr Murugkar quotes in his piece – Bhambraja and Antargaon (in Yavatmal district of Vidarbha) – are torn between the Bt cotton-seed producing companies and a section of Bt-cotton critics; more due to the former lobby's insistence that GM cotton has helped farmers reap a harvest of gold!

They have been the showcase villages for Monsanto in a sense that some journalists and writers have been taken by the company in the past to visit them as a successful project. For local journalists (including me) covering Vidarbha for over a decade, it’s a matter of great astonishment of how these companies successfully manage to co-opt a section of influential writers. The two villages are used as models to make out a more generalized case in favour of Bt, or genetically modified, cotton, never mind though that the facts fly in the face of those claims.

Mr Murugkar is the latest to join the party! He argues that the “critics’ concern about monopolies is understandable, but this should not prevent recognition of the popularity of Bt cotton varieties.” But much through his piece he doesn't furnish any data to push his claims, barring quoting a few recent studies that have not been peer-reviewed. The piece seems like one to defend those PR stories in the newspaper than even defending Bt-cotton.

That he travels to the same two villages that have been at the epicenter of a paid-news controversy is intriguing. Economic Times in which the piece appears is a paper from the same stable that found itself embroiled in the controversy. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture has earlier this year mentioned how it found in the very two villages a different story, contrary to what the ToI full-page Monsanto-sponsored feature on the success of Bt stated. Mr Murugkar’s piece now contrasts Standing Committee’s findings in the two villages (I had attended meetings in both the villages). The debate therefore is again wide open.

Nevertheless, as a reporter who’s covered Vidarbha for a decade, I offer a few points, which to me are crucial to the debate. I shall come to the technology later; the central point is that the rain-fed marginal ‘cotton’ farmer of Vidarbha (perhaps that of the entire country) is in crisis, an acknowledgement to which lies in a 2003-04 door-to-door study of the state government. That study pointed out that over 13 lakh of the 18 lakh cotton farming households in this western Vidarbha region are in crisis, nearly a third in acute crisis. It identified a multiple reasons for the crisis: declining farm incomes, growing indebtedness (70 per cent of Vidarbha farmers are out of formal credit network, according to the Planning Commission’s Adarsh Mishra-fact finding committee report), and increasing living expenditure in a highly inflationary economy in which the government takes out money from rural India but subsidizes the urban living. Successive studies vindicated that study more or less. The crisis goes beyond suicides and Bt cotton.

Mr Srijit Misra of the IGIDR led one such study commissioned by the then Vilasrao Deshmukh-government in Maharashtra. His findings have underlined the faultlines and were in line with that of many other studies, including that of TISS.

Suicides to me are but one symptom; migration and shift away from agriculture (not as an option or choice but desperation) are far more serious problems than farm suicides per se.

Antargaon and Bhambraja – quoted by Mr Murugkar to clinch his point – have both, suicides and migrations. Last year, vast stretches of land in the two villages were kept fallow. So much for the success of Bt. It meant less losses.

Where had the farmers gone? To work in sugar mills in Satara! They still do. Why? Working there is financially more rewarding than growing cotton (Bt or otherwise) in a volatile economy even if it meant keeping the land fallow. In both villages, farmers don’t cultivate cotton alone. Nearly half of them sow soybeans, despite an overwhelming presence of Bt cotton.

Vidarbha farmers depend solely on one crop (as in one crop season, no winter crop), with no allied agriculture income to add to the family finances. It was against the backdrop of a raging crisis, drop in incomes, increase in the production costs and generally a bad agriculture scenario that the government allowed introduction of the Bt cotton technology. That was in 2002. What were the other coinciding policy steps taken? The following season, 2003 that is, Maharashtra suspended its monopoly cotton procurement scheme (and with the advance bonus system) and allowed private buyers to buy cotton.

Those were the NDA years in the Centre. Between 1998 and 2004 we imported around 8 million bales of cheap and subsidized cotton from global markets flooding Indian cotton markets resulting in a glut and subsequent crash in prices. Check for data, those were the best years for Indian textile mills: cheap and subsidized cotton at their command, they made a killing.

The NDA also, in order to keep inflation in tact, devalued the rupee, handed over liquidity to government employees through fifth pay scale and opened up IT revolution.

From then until 2004, the NDA successively withdrew money from rural economy (several economists have pointed that out) and put that into the urban and service sectors.

In 2001, Indian cotton acreage stood around 8.5 million hectares (nearly 70 per cent of it was hybrid cotton). Bt cotton was introduced the following year. That year the Vidarbha acreage was close to 1.8 million hectares. The following two years: 2003 and 2004, the acreage of cotton countrywide actually dropped below the long term average of 8 million hectares; in Vidarbha soybean came in. This, when the much-hyped pest-resistant Bt cotton that promises high productivity and income, entered the fray. Farm suicides picked up in the region after 2003. Not just because of Bt, fair enough. There were larger policies at play. But the Bt gets introduced as a soothing panacea. I have witnessed their campaign every single year with astonishment. Some years the Bt cotton propaganda has even dwarfed poll campaigns.

What was the promise? In one advertisement in which Nana Patekar arguably posed as a model (only to withdraw a year later when he realized “his mistake” of “misleading the farmers”): Sow this and you get double your yields and incomes. The state government pushed Bt through its own systems too. Between 2002 and 2008, Bt cotton hybrids had well-ensconced itself in Vidarbha, nay across the country, from some 7 per cent first year to over 85 % of the total seeds. In those very years, India lost its straight line varieties and companies stopped producing non-Bt Hybrids. Shops did not display those even if farmers went begging for non-Bt hybrids. In any case, since companies did not insist on keeping buffer, who will sow non-Bt if your neighbourers are all Bt? It’s a technical issue, but experts have explained to us over the years, that neither the state agriculture department nor companies ever educated farmers to keep a buffer between Bt cotton crops. That was not ignorance. That was deliberate. Now for a farmer to make a fair choice, he needs Bt, non-Bt hybrids, and straight line varieties. And cotton varieties of all staple lengths. Where was the choice? And who decides what farmers will grow: short staple or long ones?

Anyway, the first three years, yields shot up, and then, as a region-wide data (available with three agencies, agriculture department, Maharashtra state cooperative cotton growers’ marketing federation, and the seed producing companies) show, declined steeply. Not only that, the BG-I hybrids became pest tolerant. That’s when the companies prepared for the introduction of BG-II.

Between 2006 and 09, they sell both I and II, and now it’s predominantly II; we understand BG-III is on the anvil and round-up ready weedicide is already in the market.

Between 2001 and 2010, how much has been the increase in cotton acreage and coinciding yield?

If one is to believe Murugkar’s ‘poor’ farmer (Pankaj Shinde), his yields doubled. He’s indeed a rare exception. Because Vidarbha-wide data shows that it hovers between 250 and 300 kg of lint per hectare – that’s about 5-7 quintals per hectare or 2-3 quintals per acre, on the higher side. In 2001, it was between 140 and 200 kg/ha (depending upon soil and water conditions; Vidarbha has mostly shallow medium soils). What’s the country-wide data (available on Cotton Corporation of India website and collated from various papers of the CICR scientists)?

In 2001, from 80.95 lakh hectares, India produced 152 lakh bales (309 Kg lint/ha); In 2007, it peaked with 567 kg lint/ha (introduction of Bg-II which consumes 56 per cent of the Bt acreage) and produced 315 lakh bales from 95 lakh acres.

In Vidarbha, cotton acreage stood around 12-13 lakh hectares, much below the long –term average. 2011, the national cotton productivity stood at 496 kg/ha while the cotton acreage hit an all-time high of 120 lakh hectares and India produced 356 lakh bales.

This was when Bt cotton consumed 92 per cent of total cotton acreage. It could not get any better from here. In Vidarbha the current productivity, according to Mr Sharad Pawar’s reply to a parliamentary question last year, stands around 300 What was the productivity in 2004? It stood 463 kg/ha, and Bt cotton acreage then was roughly six per cent. In Haryana, Punjab, and large swathes of Gujarat’s newly watered areas, Bt was yet to reign.

So, from 2004 the country’s cotton productivity went up and down sharply – as if it were a green revolution squeezed in five-year-period – and the companies begin to switch to BG-II.

Productivity has meanwhile plateaued causing enough worries for the establishment, a reason why even agriculture minister Mr Sharad Pawar agreed for a three-member committee to travel to Brazil earlier this year to find out what they had done to take their productivity ahead of China and all other countries.

India, with all its BT success stories, stands abysmally low in productivity than 15 other countries that don’t plant Bt hybrids, including Chad, Mali and Burkina Faso. Mind you, Brazil did not allow Bt cotton, or for that matter any other GM crop. It has cautiously looked at field trials to see the results before saying that their systems were probably better than the GM crop technology. Brazil grows cotton in high density planting system (HDPS). Agreed, it has different agro-climatic features than that of India, but still...

If researchers were to spend little more time in Vidarbha and interact with old farmers, they will know that they grew cotton in high density planting system till mid-70s. Vidarbha farmers grew cotton plants that had less leaves, less bolls. (What prompted for cropping pattern changes is a matter of another article). Brazil’s HDPS is better and so the Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR) has insisted upon Pawar (and to its surprise has even got a favorable response) that it’s time to look for alternatives beyond Bt cotton.

If we have to move forward and bail farmers out of this crisis, HDPS might be a better option, the CICR has said. Field trials have begun across the country. Scientists are eagerly awaiting the results.

For a fair choice, farmers don’t just need a variety of good quality seeds – hybrids, straight-line, Bt or even non-Bt hybrids – but they need a choice for technology as well: a range from organic to natural to chemical. Give him a fair choice, a farmer will take a call on what suits best to him. Policies and markets have ensured you get the same burger in different brand-stores.

Murugkar says, and I quote: “The recent issue of Nature, a prestigious international weekly journal on science, has reported significant benefits of Bt cotton to Indian farmers. Citing a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, it says that data collected from 533 farm households during 2002-08 shows that Bt cotton raised the yield by 24 per cent. This translated to a 50 per cent increase in profits, and during 2006-08, families that adopted Bt cotton spent 18 per cent more money than conventional farming households, suggesting an increase in living standards.”

Indeed preceding June, there was a flush of new reports arguing that the Bt yields have resulted in big income gains for farmers. That an important bill was before the Parliament – one that would open GM trials in other crops without much regulation – was just a coincidence!

Let’s take the time span though: 2002-2008, the first two-three years were not entirely Bt cotton years. Yet if one believes that yields were up by 24% cumulatively it’s not entirely due to the magic of Bt. See a comprehensive study done by the Union of Concerned Scientists in the US corn. It’s on their website. The notion that Bt cotton has led to huge rises in productivity doesn’t not match up. Indeed, while there is a significant increase in productivity in the pre-Bt hybrid era, there is actually a decline in the latter half of the Bt period, a decline which continues. Let us not take a one-off single year for the data. Let us take two equivalent five-year-periods: i.e. 2001-2005 and 2006 to 2010 (the whole of the last decade) for which final official figures are available.

It is only from 2006 that Bt cotton begins to account for significant acreage of cotton under cultivation. Even as late as 2005, it accounts for less than 12 per cent. For the five year-period from 2001-2005, it accounts on average for 3.73 per cent of cotton acreage under cultivation. Or, at best 4.67 per cent if we exclude 2001 when Bt did not exist at all.

Yet, in this period cotton productivity rose from 309 kg per hectare in 2001 to 467 kg/hectare in 2005. That is an increase of 51.13 per cent.

In the period 2006-2010, when Bt accounts for over 72 per cent of cotton acreage, the per hectare yield drops from 519 kg to 495 kg, That is a decline of 4.62 per cent. Also note that the yield in 2006 (519 kg) and in 2007 (567 kg / Ha) - when Bt still accounts for just 42 % and 67 per cent of acreage, is much higher than that of 2009 (486 Kg/Ha) and 2010 (495 kg/Ha) when Bt accounts for 82% and 91 % of cotton acreage respectively! As Bt acreage goes, up, productivity in fact slides. The trend is also one of decline: there is an initial burst which sees yields of 519 and 567 kg and then it is a decline.

Indeed, the 2010 and 2011 (provisional figures) bring it back to pre-Bt hybrid yield figures - and the decline has only begun. Secondly, to bring us to the same level or range of yield after five years, input costs have doubled and trebled. Third, the 2001-05 figure is a steady climb. The 2006-2010 are a volatile roller coaster that now seems unable to hit a high again. Fourth: there are reasons beyond seed that also affect productivity in any period. Including monsoons, irrigation, pest etc., Note that in Vidarbha, for instance, irrigation from 2006 went up to around 8-10 per cent from the earlier 3 %. The Agriculture Commissioner of the period clearly stated that 97 per cent of Vidarbha’s cotton cultivation is rain-fed. Which means the benefit of expanded irrigation came in the Bt-dominance period and some of the initial productivity would have to be credited to that plus two or three good monsoons.

The data are damning. The pre-Bt hybrids were raising productivity at a fraction of the cost. Bt’s five year period has seen no comparable increase. A pre-Bt hybrid packet of seed (450gms) cost Rs. 350 to 425, as against Bt’s cost of Rs. 925 for a packet of the same size, a price abut to be raised again.

The point is, if there were gains, how come some of the major relief packages and loan waivers to farmers had to be given during this very period. It was also a period when farm suicide rate went up steeply in cotton producing regions where Bt cotton had been introduced as a panacea to crisis.

Farmers are spending more money, some studies point out, but on what? And what is the source of income? These two questions need a deeper inquiry. The NSSO data shows the money is being spent more on health now than even on food. And indebtedness is limping back on farmers since the 2008-9 waiver; as the public sector banks said earlier this year.

In Wardha, where a comprehensive study by the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation is available, over 17 per cent land is now kept fallow by the farmers; indeed fallowisation process is deepening and it needs an immediate attention of the public-policy makers.

Ultimately, who are we growing cotton for? Where's the end-user? Over the past thirty years, Vidarbha has lost its textile mills to other regions. So what farmers grow here is of little use. They lose the money to be made in its high-end value-chain.

Another moot question is: Does Bt improve yields? It doesn't. The technology is geared to take care of boll-worm, not productivity. Two, it doesn't take care of sucking pests, which is now a bigger pest-management problem in the region.

Lastly, the more significant issue is the question of price. Cotton prices, both the market price and the minimum support price, went up in 2008, just before the 2009 Parliamentary elections. That’s when you see a shift of farmers even in non-cotton areas (ex: northern Maharashtra) towards cotton. That the steep rise in production could be offset with that rise in prices is well-established. If you note the rise and fall in the prices, you see the rise and fall in the cotton acreage. This year cotton acreage has stayed stagnant. That was because prices held on to their levels toward the end of the last season after declining sharply in the first half.

If the prices remain robust this year, as the indications and predictions are they will, expect the acreage to go up next year.

If the choice is soybean or cotton, what will a farmer grow? Even in Antargaon or Bhambraja, it depends on relative prices of the two crops and a farmer’s judgment about them in the context of resources, money and labourers, available to him, Bt or non-Bt. Since non-Bt is not to be seen anywhere on the shelves, the obvious choice is for a Bt-hybrid: We have over 3000 hybrids of them now: from Bt-Mallika to Bt-Bipasha!

Reducing the issue of a skewed choice to the issue of popularity presents a wrong picture of a more complex market dynamic. If it were indeed a paying option, Vidarbha farmers would be enjoying cotton yields, not killing themselves on its hay or giving up farming, as they do, at an alarming rate.

Traveling beyond Antargaon and Bhambraja tells us that.

(Correction: I stand corrected on Brazil. That country has about a million hectare land under GM crops, but it has adopted a cautious approach since and has restricted the spread of GM crops following its experiences so far. Meanwhile, Russia has banned use and import of Monsanto GM corn following a recent French study.)

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

RIP Talent! Hail the mediocrity!

First a big self-congratulatory note: We bettered ourselves by a fraction in London. Beijing was okay. 2012 has been much, much better. A lot of us have reasons to feel exulted, if not overtly happy. After all two Silver and four Bronze medals from a contingent of 80-plus that gave us the 53rd position in the medals tally isn’t exactly a reason to feel either too good or too bad. Let’s see where we did well. Clearly, in the games where individuals – rather individuality – mattered! It tells us about the character of our society. A few individuals are a freak success. Much of our ado came from girls, who we, as a society, prefer – notwithstanding our self-innuendo with digital prowess – dumping in the garbage bins no sooner they take shape in the wombs. Forget medals, Saina and Mary’s successes far outshine the glitter of gold for the same reason that they are girls in a chauvinist society. Their success has nothing to do with the country; it’s about an individual genius and resilience. The rest of the world won’t understand; you need to be born here for that. How did we fare in team events? Television channels – who play on our big egos – won’t show us that. It will be better if we consign those games to history. Let’s stick to IPL; sip Pepsi (or Coke if you will), sit back and relax. Someone will win an IPL, and the winner will always every time be an Indian. Happy! Let’s stop playing hockey. Even Belguim is stripping us naked in that game that gave us a Dhyanchand! It looks odd to see the Indian blue struggling in an array of other colours on a hockey turf. And no Poonam Pandey will risk stripping for those losing dudes. Thank lord we haven’t yet started with foot-ball. Forget bicycling or decathlon. Or 50 km marathon! It’s all too much of hard work without any commissions. Better stop going to Olympics. Let’s give it a pass; save money and the face. No Olympics, no Kalmadis! In any case we are doing exactly that in our schools – killing the sport all through the KG-to-PG system of education. No play, only rot-learning so that our industries get first class clerks for mass production. A survey in Karnataka last year showed over 50 per cent schools had no play-ground in that state. Safe to presume it fits the country’s state of schools. May be we’ll get a gold for largest number of schools with no playgrounds. We are gifting Aakash tablets to the school-kids (great to see an Indian innovation and business), but bizarre, we won’t think of giving them good playgrounds. Even if we create those, we have more than 50 per cent of our children malnourished! What do we do with malnourished bodies? There’s a problem with the Indian brain; frail bodies probably come later. We allow millions of tons of our food-grain to rot in open yards while those desperate for it may be starving nearby. Among the starving millions may lie our budding talents. Playground problem doesn’t stop at the schools not having them. The only available ones in your town may get trampled by political rallies; now increasingly Annas and Babas also hold their highly-publicised fast-against-corruption, while kids starve for a good ground for a hearty game. India is losing not just a fierce global competition; it’s losing itself – it’s becoming one huge collective of mediocres, who don’t know how to swim, how to laugh, and how to be sporting. One Sushil Kumar; one Saina Nehwal; one Mary Kom – it’s great to have them, but what a pity! A nation of 120 billion has no sporting culture, no hunger to compete or excel on the global stage. When you see a limbless man compete on his artificial legs with the world’s best, you feel ashamed of a country where boundless possibilities are strapped by an array of discriminatory threads, waiting to breathe free. One Gopi Chand sets up an academy out of his sheer obsession to do something for his sport and our world of badminton training ends there. One state of Haryana produces wrestlers and that’s the end of it. The academies or training centres in Delhi won’t bring us medals; India needs to learn to play right from the schooldays, not only for a competitive big stage, but also for harnessing a sporting culture. And she needs to discover sportsmen and athletes in the hinterland. For that she must first discover her hinterland, decentralize power centres, and look beyond the obvious. The Olympian medal winners in other countries came from unusual quarters from those respective countries - some of them scaled the pinnacle of endurance, others were an outcome of meticulous and scientific training, years and years of sheer hard work. Every Olympic leaves one lesson: A sport can't run on privileges. It comes through a sustained culture and search for the unsung and hidden talent. Alas! We are a society where discrimination is a writ and the privileged few are the revered demigods - RIP Talent!

Sunday, April 15, 2012


Orccha; Narayanpur:
Be a guerilla to beat the guerillas.
It was this simple strategy that inspired Paaklu Ram Mandavi to escape from the Maoist clutches in the uncharted swathes of Abujh-Maadh right in the heart of Bastar.
For almost two days and two nights, hungry and thirsty, the 17-year-old primitive Maadia tribal trudged through a hilly and forested terrain unknown to the outside world to come out unscathed after being picked up by the rebels.
But for the risk he took, Paaklu would be dead.
“The choice,” he recounts sharing his little-known escape story, “was between sure death and a possibility.”
If he were to be produced before a kangaroo court (people’s court) by Maoists, he thought he would be executed. But if he tried escaping, it was a risk worth a try.
“I would be killed anyway,” he says. He chose the latter option and, succeeded.
It’s a hot summer evening and Paaklu, a shy but confident teenager, is just back home from his newly-found menial labour job in a non-descript corner of this highly-sensitive district.
He’s clad in a yellow T-shirt and a track, his volley-ball dress. About six feet tall he’s a potential national player in the making. Last year, he says, he played for his school at the state and national events.
He’s just appeared for his SSC and wants to continue his studies – something that his teacher Kamlu Ram Wadada would have wanted, he says. “But I want to make a career in sports.”
Not many here know his escape saga yet. The police have advised him to lie low. The danger still lurks. Once a target, he says, always a target. The Maoists never pardon their targets.
“For him it’s not a big deal,” says the Narayanpur superintendent of police Mayank Shrivastava. But in the season of abductions (of the two Italians and an MLA in Odisha) and killings (of the civilians and local political leaders all over the red zone), his escape saga is a rare exception.
“I haven’t heard of any such escape before,” says Irfan Khan, a local Hindi journalist.
Maadh, a living puzzle, an un-surveyed swathe of over 5,000 square km in southern Narayanpur, is said to be a liberated zone of the Maoists where their diktat reigns. There are no roads or lights. For the first time in the history of independent India, about 4000 security troops last month ventured there in a coordinated operation, with a lot of technological and logistical support, and after months of planning.
And yet they could not yet fully decipher the ‘Unknown’.
“I wanted to see my mother,” Paaklu says.
He hadn’t been home in Mathbeda village in Maadh ever since he shifted to Narayanpur for studies in May 2010, after completing his eighth class.
On March 26, the Monday, he wrote his final SSC examination paper and left for Orccha, a tiny block headquarter at the foothills of ‘Maadh’ with inconsequential but some official State presence. In the rest of the hills, the State has virtually no stamp. People from all over ‘Maadh’ unfailingly come to the weekly market of Orccha every Wednesday, to collect their rations and buy the essentials.
Paaklu was sure his mother would come too, so he could see her there on March 28. He’s the only child of theirs to be in school. Two of his brothers died of snake bite in the village. The oldest sibling lives with his wife in Mathbeda. “I thought I will meet my mother and return to my school campus the same day.”
What he didn’t anticipate was that he was on the Maoists’ radar.
Tuesday, March 27, 11 pm: Paaklu and his friend Jailal Kowachi were preparing to go to bed at one of his uncle’s houses, a small but beautiful hut adjacent to the cremation ground in Orccha, when 25-30 male and female Maoists, a few of them armed, suddenly barged in and ordered the two to follow them.
They came from the forests behind the hut, when the town had fallen asleep. Three-four of them had rifles hung on to their shoulders; all of them were in plainclothes – none in the olive green fatigue.
“I was nervous,” he recounts. “It looked like the end of life.”
They had to leave in a hurry in whatever clothes they were wearing. There was no light anywhere, but he gauged they were heading westward – into the ‘Maadh’. “When the rebels felt they were at a safe distance in the forest, they enquired about my friend,” he says. “I told them he is my school-mate and had come with me to meet my mother; they left him unharmed and let him go.”
Kowachi returned and conveyed the news of Paaklu’s abduction to his uncle. The same night, the Orccha police lodged a complaint – but it was now a wait and watch game for his relatives.
“Once my friend had left,” Paaklu remembers, “we began our walk through the forests.” No word was spoken. They seemed to know the pathways. “I kept thinking I am going to die.”
For, he knew of how the rebels executed those who were perceived as “traitors”. At some point, he says, he thought his best chance to live was to escape. He must escape quickly, before the dawn.
After about two hours of walking his abductors decided to cook their dinner and halt there that night. It was, he recollects, a small rocky plateau with an open sky.
“That was the first time they asked me why I spied for the police,” he says. “I pleaded it’s not true; I am studying in Narayanpur; came here to see my mother after my exams.”
They wouldn’t believe. How could the police not utilize the services of a native youth who knows Maadh all too well? “They chained my legs and locked it with a wire,” he says. They had already folded his hands behind his back and tied them with a rope above the elbows, when they picked him from Orccha.
One of the female cadres told him that he would be taken to the higher-ups the next day and produced before a people’s court for his punishment. “It could be death,” he says.
After dinner, they gave him a blanket to cover himself from the cold. The days are very hot but nights on Maadh are mighty cold, even in summers, Paaklu informs.
Two rebels took turns to stand guard with their rifles while others slept, he recounts. On a piece of paper, he draws a sketch to show us how and in which position the Maoists slept surrounding him.
“I was here, in the middle,” he says, pointing a dot in the middle of a circle that represented the rebels. The guerillas were probably among the village-level militia groups that knew him well, he feels. “They would flash torch-light on my face from time to time to keep a check on me.”
In his mind though, Paaklu began to plot his escape. “I managed to untie myself.” First he loosened the knot to free his hands. “Since I was under the blanket they could not see it.”
Then, he quietly unraveled the chain from his legs. “They had not locked it; it was tied with a small wire that I could easily break.” His legs and hands were free, so now he could run.
“I heard a girl cadre say to her comrade that it’s about 4 am and that in some time they will move again before it dawns; that was when I decided to take the risk,” Paaklu says. He held his nerve, mustered all his courage, remembered his mother, and began to count in mind: “One, two, and three…”
The armed guards kept vigil on the other side. He removed the blanket, deftly got up, jumped over the cadres sleeping behind him, and vanished into the forest, even before his abductors could react.
“I ran as fast as possible,” he says. “I was being chased by them but I did not look behind.”
While running he removed his white half-trouser and T-shirt so that they could not see him and then ran and ran until he saw the first rays of Sun, he recollects. “I was heading west but I needed to turn around so that I go back east to Orccha.” For some time he sensed the rebels chasing him; after a while he knew he had left them far behind. That was the dawn of March 28, the day he ought to have met his mother.
Paaklu took shelter in a rocky cave overseeing the valley. “I was feeling the pain in my stomach.” But his mind hovered on his next move. First, he must assess where in Maadh he was.
“I think I must have been about 30-35 km from Orccha to its south west,” he says. He decided to move up the higher ridges, and walk against the sun’s direction east-ward. “Going up was safer.”
He needed to make sure no one saw him. So he used his innate primitive instinct: hide in the light, walk in the dark. He climbed up the hills and hid himself by sunset in a small rocky burrow he’d located.
When it was dark, he began his descent with stars and the moon keeping him the company.
Perched atop a hill earlier, he had sighted a structure in the valley with tin shade. He realized it was the school of Mandali, a hamlet near Orccha. If he reached there, he could hit a forest way to Orccha.
“I walked several hours; it was cold, and I had no clothes on.” As the luck would have it, he saw a forest fire (usually the villagers set forest floor on fire during the Tendu plucking season). “I stayed close to it to keep myself warm,” he says. March 28 was about to end. It had been over 24 hours that he had given the Maoists a slip. He was thirsty – and hungry. But he was not yet safe.
“I had to hide myself until I would cross Mandali,” Paaklu says. He began his trek, this time much slower, at the crack of the dawn. When the sun was overhead on March 29, he says, he could see Mandali. “It has a water pond; I was thirsty, but did not drink water,” he recounts. “I feared being seen.”
Paaklu hid himself beneath a wooden structure near the water pond; to escape from the day’s heat and waited for the evening to set in, telling himself that his ordeal would soon end.
When the second day’s dusk fell he gathered his energy, he says, for the last leg of his escape.
Paaklu crossed Mandali, and hit the pathway that would take him to Orccha. The distance between the two villages is five-six km. After a walk for an hour, he saw a hand-pump – he was almost there.
When he saw the first hut, he went there, and took a towel to cover himself. “The woman gave me rice gruel – I had had something for the first time in two days,” he says.
He rushed to the police station, which is fortified with barbed wire and armed troops keep vigil round the clock. An armed constable couldn’t identify him when he knocked the gate.
“I had turned black; dust and mud was all over my body,” he says. “I am Paaklu, I told the constable; he was surprised. He helped me inside. I was tired; but totally relieved.” He stayed there for two days. The district police airlifted him to Narayanpur on March 31, where he reunited with his school friends.
On April 8, Maoists issued a pamphlet, branding Paaklu as a police informer, like his mentor Kamlu Ram Wadada, a teacher who they had killed in late 2010 on suspicion.
Shrivastava, the Narayanpur SP, insists neither Kamlu was an informer, nor Paaklu is.
Kamlu was Paaklu’s mentor in the Durbeda tribal residential school, one of the few primary and middle schools in ‘Maadh’ that is functioning. It was he who helped the boy secure admission in a government school in Narayanpur to do his SSC. That was the transition from one world to the other, Paaklu says.
Leaving ‘Maadh’ for higher studies in a town is a breach of trust in the eyes of the rebels. So he is now a la comprador for them. He can’t return home; in fact he’s to be on the guard forever.
“Once here, we can’t go back,” says Paaklu’s uncle. “Those who try usually fear execution.”
He’s sad that he could not meet his mother – perhaps he never will be able to see her. Paaklu says it is a reality he must accept. “I am in a different world,” he says. “Maadh is now behind me.”