India And Her Myriad Responses to NREGA

the third of three stories for et 50.

It will probably take a big, fat book to describe the myriad impacts the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA ) has had on India. At one level, it has created a safety net for rural folks during summer months when employment is scarce. It has improved their bargaining power vis-a-vis large farmers and other employers. By paying the same wages to men and women, it has sent a strong message to our male-dominated society. In parts of India,bonded labourers have used NREGA to free themselves. Yet others have used the lumpy NREGA payments, which are not paid out at the end of the day’s work but together for several days’ work, to acquire bicycles, etc.

At another level, small and medium farmers are unable to compete with NREGA for labour. Even large farmers complain they struggle to find labour. As for the labourers, they report it is not easy to get 100 days of work. Indeed, the national average in 2009-10 was about 53 days of work. It is even harder to get the unemployment allowance that the Act entitles workers to if the state fails to provide 100 days. In parts of the country, tribals and SCs have found banks unwilling to open accounts. Then, despite being a self-selecting programme, NREGA has not been widely successful in attracting the poorest of the poor. People so poor that they need money to eat the next day, if not the same day, do not turn to NREGA. Why would they? It is almost impossible to predict when the cash will show up in bank accounts.

Then, across the country, the scheme continues to haemmorhage money to corruption. This is surprising. For, unlike the cash-for-work programmes of yore, where contractors were not above cooking up muster rolls or retaining a part of the workers money, NREGA deposits cash directly into workers bank accounts. However, rural Moriartys have neutralised that policy response. Sarpanches and village sachivs cut a deal with villagers where they get a part of NREGA money in return for putting the villagers name on the muster roll. The stakes are high here. Try and expose them. And honest bureaucrats might get transferred. Locals might get killed.

And then, there are more unexpected changes. For instance, panchayat elections in Chhattisgarh last year saw a new trend. The number of candidates vying to be sarpanches went up. And wannabe sarpanches spent far more than before on campaigning. Stories about candidates calling villagers over on the night before the polling, treating them to chicken, mutton and liquor were endemic. As were stories about poorer candidates selling their land to raise money for campaigning. One reason for this change was the jump in schemes like NREGA where government money flows directly to the panchayat. Much of which is spent at the discretion of the sarpanch.

The first six years of NREGA have been interesting. India with her myriad classes and castes has responded to the Act in myriad ways. Let us see what the coming years have in store.

Apres Le Green Revolution

this is the second of three stories i wrote for et’s 50th anniversary. on what should succeed the green revolution. i cannot find the link on the website. till i find that, here is the text.

This happened three years ago. At that time, this reporter was doing rural research in Madhya Pradesh. And he had chanced to speak to four farmers growing soya in Malwa. What were their earnings like, he had asked, from the cash crop?

The answer was illuminating. Five acres will yield 20-25 sacks of soya. Five acres need 2 bags of seeds, 3 bags of fertilizer, pesticide, labour for weeding, sowing, harvesting and threshing. Add

all that up and you get input costs of Rs 12,000. At Rs 1,500 for each of the 25 sacks, the farmers were making Rs 37,500. Take out the costs. And they were left with 25,000. Or, Rs 5,000 per acre. Further, thanks to electrification and the advent of groundwater pumps, this part of malwa plants two crops a year. Wheat is usually the second crop. Its yields range between 18-20 sacks per acre. Each sack fetches between Rs 1,100-1,200. Which translated, in a best case scenario, into a gross income per acre of Rs 24,000. Costs ranged between Rs 12,000-14,000. So, say, a net income of Rs 12,000 per acre. Add earnings from soya to this, and you have farmers making Rs 17,000 per acre per year!

Now, in their village, 25 farmers had less than one acre. 75 had between 1-2 acres. Another 180 had between 2-5 acres. 20 had between 5-7 acres. Just 5-7 farmers had over 7 acres of land. It didn’t paint a very affluent picture. Further, none of that arithmetic factors risk in. Rs 17,000 an acre was something of a best case scenario — if rain and global commodity markets behaved themselves.

On the whole, marginal existence appeared to be the objective reality in the village. In response, farmers were diversifying livelihoods. Most households in their village had at least one member working in the industrial township of Pithampur, a mere six kilometres away.

In the last two years, travelling on work, this reporter has heard similar tales from other parts of the country. In Thanjavur, the rice bowl of Tamil Nadu, a groundwater crisis and a labour shortage have resulted in farmers starting to move away from the crop they have grown for generations. Farmers blame the current economics of paddy — with its need for lots of labour, chemical inputs and water. The result? The area under tree crops (like coconut) is rising. The area under rice is falling. Travel to chhattisgarh and you hear a similar refrain of steady impoverishment. In Punjab, farmers have begun selling their land to settle in UP and MP. Land in their state is becoming too saline, too infertile.

That is the first point I wanted to make. The benefits from the green revolution — which, at one time, with its emphasis on higher-yielding varieties, irrigation and chemical inputs, made this country food secure — are winding down.

Periodically, alluding to this, our statemanesque leaders say the country needs a second green revolution. Yes, but the question is: what form should it take?

One option leads us further down the path we have been travelling since the green revolution began — more technology. higher yielding varieties, hybrids, genetically-engineered crops, and so on. The other road, embraced by the minority, advocates a return to natural farming — to indigenous crops like jowar and bajra, natural fertiliser, what have you.

What should we do? It is a question that takes my mind towards the exciting emergent discipline of resilience. Every natural system, it says, has the ability to withstand a certain amount of shock and survive unchanged. Take a grassland. It will have two sorts of species. Some that grow slowly but can withstand harsh conditions.

And, another lot which is more efficient at converting, say, the sun’s rays into biomass, and consequently can grow faster, etc. However, as resilience theory says, there is a tradeoff between efficiency and flexibility (or dealing with external change). And that ecosystems are shaped by fast, intermediate and slow variables. The second set of species, while efficient, are not capable of handling changes in slow variables. For instance, if all the grass species in a rangeland were replaced by one species with the highest growth rate, production would be higher and more efficient in normal years, but the system itself would be much more vulnerable to droughts, pests, fire and so on. The system might be stable. But that stability is narrow.

The analogy with Indian agriculture is perfect. Bajra and Jowar are hardy crops. Even if the rains are poor, they will still yield something. The high yielding varieties, on the other hand, cannot. In good times, of course, the HYVs will vastly outperform the millets. On the whole, given the advent of increasingly mercurial weather patterns, commonly blamed on climate change, it is time we took a second look at whether millets et al can indeed feed this burgeoning nation.

In the budget this year, the FM finally expanded the government’s grain policy beyond rice and wheat to include millets. The amounts are modest. But it is a start.

Union Carbide. Reflections

this is the first of three opinionated stories i wrote for et’s 50th anniversary. i cannot find the links to these on the website, and so am pasting the raw text itself.

Blackened and twisted from the heat of the reaction, tank 610 lies on its side. Twenty-six years ago, on the night of 2nd-3rd December, it is from this tank in Union Carbide’s Bhopal factor that Methyl Isocyanate leaked out and spread, cloudlike, across a large part of the city. It was the world’s worst industrial disaster. Official numbers estimate that almost 4,000 people died that night. Tens of thousands were permanently disabled.

It’s an event that exposes a strange paradox about the Indian state. Think about it. On one hand, in the years after the leak, India made radical changes to her environmental law. Till the leak, industrial risk was understood as something confined to the factory. It was not till Bhopal that the definition of the community at risk widened and brought the community living around the project into the calculus of industrial risk.

The legislative response was the Environmental (Protection) Act (1986). It authorizes the central government to protect and improve environmental quality, to control and reduce pollution from all sources, and to prohibit or restrict the setting and/or operation of any industrial facility on environmental grounds. Today, it is an umbrella Act from which myriad other environmental laws, like the Environmental Impact Assessment notification, etc, derive their authority.

Another response came from the Supreme Court where, while ruling on a subsequent Oleum Gas leak in Delhi, Justice PN Bhagwati added the principle of Absolute Liability to India’s legal liability regime. Says environmental lawyer Videh Upadhyay, “When the Indian government tried to hold Union Carbide responsible for the disaster, the best legal principle available to it was the strict liability principle. Derived from British Common Law, this says any industry engaged in hazardous activity is liable for adverse consequences even if the industry/enterprise is not directly responsible for them. However, mitigating conditions could be factored in, like acts of god, acts of strangers, etc.”

While ruling on the Oleum case, Justice Bhagwati did away with the exemptions. His order said: “Where an enterprise is engaged in a hazardous or inherently dangerous activity and harm results to anyone on account of an accident in the operation of such hazardous or inherently dangerous activity resulting, for example, in escape of toxic gas, the enterprise is strictly and absolutely liable to compensate all those who are affected by the accident and such liability is not subject to any of the exceptions which operate vis-à-vis the tortious principle of strict liability.”

This landmark legal principle, says Upadhyay, was developed in the backdrop of Bhopal. Joining other environmental principles like Polluter Pays and the Precautionary Principle, it has been used extensively since then.

It shows the caring side of the Indian state. But, look at how the victims have been treated, and you see something strikingly different.

In all these years, regardless of the party in power, the victims’ struggle for compensation and treatment has continued. A combination of disinterested gas relief hospitals and almost non-existent medical research into the effects of the gas leak on humans has resulted in the gas victims getting little more than palliative treatment for their medical problems. The symptoms get treated but little else more. Poor attempts at social and economic rehabilitation have resulted in them sinking deep into poverty.

Saddest of all, the number of victims has been swelled by a second generation of victims. Some are children born to badly-affected survivors are blind, lame, with limbs twisted or missing, deaf and mute, brain-damaged, with hare-lips, cleft palates, webbed fingers, cerebral palsy or tumours where there should be eyes. Others are those who unknowingly bought land abutting the ponds outside the plant where Carbide used to dump its chemical slurry. This water-affected population, reports Sambhavna Clinic, a charity set up to help gas victims, is showing an incidence of birth defects that is ten times the national average.

A strange paradox, indeed.

Rural Healthcare Delivery

SughaVazhvu is testing a radical idea: can technology replace doctors with nurses, human judgement with software solutions? “It is difficult to expect doctors to stay in villages,” explains Mor. “So, we are asking if a combination of technology and a reasonable amount of training (to local nurses), under the supervision of a doctor, can deliver superior outcomes.

in thanjavur, nachiket mor and his team are testing ways and means of improving primary healthcare delivery in rural india. early days, yet. but here is a look at what they are up to.

Arcadia, Utopia…

It’s a polarised debate. Always has been. Those who make a living expanding the possibilities of technology feel it can solve many economic ills, even those of the India that lives on 20 a day under the trembling glow of a lantern. And those who engage with that very India say technology solutions are fine, but they belie an understanding of rural lives and livelihoods.

The divide is back in focus, over a Rs 1,50,000 crore question: should the government continue to give grain, fuel and fertiliser to the poor at below-market prices, or should it transfer cash to their bank accounts? Wanting a better return on the Rs 1,50,000 crore the government gives as subsidy every year, finance minister Pranab Mukherjee , in his budget speech last month, signalled a move to the cash-transfer system.

my colleague shelley singh and i look at the issues that the government must address to make cash transfers a success.