the environment ministry tries to weaken the proposed environment authority…

Tasked by the Supreme Court with creating a new and independent environment authority, the Ministry of Environment & Forests wants to retain its say in choosing the panel of experts to vet projects, a Cabinet note on the matter shows. This is a change from its earlier position, where the ministry said it would relinquish its powers in such appointments to avoid conflict of interest, and defeats the objective of having a truly independent regulator, says a senior government official…

i have been almost fully out of action for two weeks now. fell ill. still limping back to bloody full normalcy. anyway, here, one of the first stories i filed after getting back. an update on the proposed environment authority — i have been incorrectly calling it regulator till now.

ps – also see these stories on the env authority. one, a larger story on what the moef (ministry of environment and forests, india) proposes to create. and two, an indepth interview with utah university law prof william lockhart re the moef blueprint. this, incidentally, is an idea that has been doing the rounds for a while. the last time india tried to create one was in 2010. see these two stories on the proposed national environment protection authority (nepa) — one, and two. later, this became the national environment assessment and monitoring agency. and then, it went on the backburner before the SC dragged it out of oblivion. see this epw piece on neama by environment lawyer shibani ghosh.


the follies of rushing in…

yesterday was profoundly anomalous. i filed two stories. both, as it were, on aadhaar. one on a sting by cobrapost which flagged faulty enrolments. and the other where the supreme court said aadhaar cannot share its database with anyone without consent from the number holders.

this is a significant development. over the last five years, a clutch of government departments and private companies have been collecting biometrics with gusto. however, with the privacy bill still on the drawing board, India has seen biometric data get collected, by multiple agencies, without any laws governing their collection, use or retention.

in the process, the country has entered a world of new risks. without, sigh, getting the safeguards in place. which brings us to the dispute between the cbi and the uidai which culminated in this SC judgement. it is one kind of an outcome.

The SC ruling was in response to a 26 February, 2014 ruling by the Mumbai High Court directing the UIDAI to provide the CBI with biometrics of all residents of Goa. The High Court’s ruling was related to the rape of a seven year old in Vasco last January. The case was handed to the CBI which, as the Aadhaar appeal to the SC says, initially asked it for biometric information of “all the persons in the state. That request was modified and only the fingerprints of 3 specified persons were asked for.”

Later, the CBI dropped that request. Says the Aadhaar affidavit, “The CBI has now found a chance fingerprint and asked Aadhaar to compare its data and the biometric data provided by the CBI.” Aadhaar refused to share information citing two reasons. One, that such a move would violate privacy of the number-holders. And two, that its biometric database and deduplication systems are not designed for forensic inquiries. When its appeal was rejected by the HC, UIDAI appealed to the SC.

what are the protocols for the use of such data? as legal researcher usha ramanathan says in the article: “the idea that databases can be used by anyone makes people vulnerable, especially in a state where there is neither law nor much respect for law.”

the good news is that the SC verdict clarifies matters to some extent. but the country still needs a regime on privacy and data (including biometrics) protection.

old enrolment concerns resurface re aadhaar

Investigative journalism portal Cobrapost has aired videos of sting operations that allegedly show the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) conducting a flawed enrolment process that allows people from even neighbouring countries to get an Aadhaar number after paying bribes.

it is hard to escape a sense of deja vu. these complaints — about poor scrutiny, corruption in enrolment, lax overview — have doing the rounds for a long time. but, see them another way, in the light of the assurances given by uidai in 2012 about having fixed deficiencies in its enrolment system, and it is clear that not much has really changed.

on the environment regulator: an interview with william lockhart

ET just uploaded an interview with William Lockhart, Emeritus Professor of Law at the University of Utah’s SJ Quinney College of Law, re the proposed contours of the environment regulator. Professor Lockhart has been studying the Indian environment clearance process for a long time — my 2006-07 thesis on the Environment Impact Assessment Notification had relied on his work to a large extent.

In this interview, he gets into detail on the environmental clearance process — where it stands today, what it needs to be, and what will have to change for India to start balancing environmental needs and developmental demands. Take a look. This interview gets into more detail than the story does.

Q: Take a closer look at this and one sees the possibility of creating a more robust environmental governance architecture here. The environment regulator, the functioning Green Tribunals, India’s well-established environmental laws. The big question, of course, is: whether we will go in that direction or not. What do you think?

A: The current proposals are barely responsive to the instinct you show above. There is absolutely no question in my mind that reform of the EIA/Clearance process is utterly critical to the preservation of India’s critical remaining human and natural habitats. But if possible, reform is even more important to any hopeful sense of India’s future as a responsibly self-governing democracy. At present, clearances of all sorts are being approved with minimal or no meaningful environmental review, under constant political pressure, in disregard of any credible understanding of the content or purposes of existing law, and on the basis of “future” compliance with “conditions” for post-clearance performance on matters that clearly are required by law to be assessed before — not after — clearance, and in any event remain almost wholly unenforced.

I like his point about the rule of law. Really, you can create however many institutions as you like. But without any desire to implement laws, the whole thing is just a bureaucratic exercise.

an update on the proposed environment regulator

India’s environmental clearance process is universally loathed. Industry and technocrats find it cumbersome and corrupt, and blame it for project delays and slowing growth. Environmentalists and project-affected people consider it superficial, corrupt and given to approving virtually all projects, unmindful of their social and environmental costs. Both views are correct. India’s environmental clearance (EC) process is a mess, unable to strike a balance between the demands of growth and the need to protect the ecological systems needed to support what will soon be the world’s most populous country.

William Lockhart , the emeritus professor of law at University of Utah’s SJ Quinney College of Law, has been studying India’s EC process for a long time, and he pans every part of it. “Clearances of all sorts are approved with minimal or no meaningful environmental review, under constant political pressure, on the basis of ‘future’ compliance with ‘conditions’ for post-clearance performance on matters that are required by law to be assessed before clearance, and in any event remain almost wholly unenforced.” That is the bad news.

The good news is this could change. On January 6, the country’s highest court, assessing the ministry of environment’s mechanism to appraise projects to be “not satisfactory”, directed it to set up by March 31 an independent regulator that would appraise, approve and monitor projects. A set of bureaucrats in the ministry is currently working on the architecture of the new regulator. But will this new architecture address the shortcomings that plague each of the four steps of the EC process?

and, here, my post on anomalocaris, my et blog, containing some stuff we could not accommodate in the final draft.

the sharad pawar interview

on the day the sharad pawar story appeared, we put this email interview with him online as well. take a look.

The press recently reported that you wanted a high subsidy (Rs.3,500/ton) for sugar exports. If Indian sugar is not globally competitive, why do we want to export it? If there is no domestic shortage of sugar and release the surplus irrigation water for other crops? Also, isn’t this decision in violation of WTO norms? Your comments.

There is excess availability of sugar over domestic demand. Inability to sell sugar had affected the capacity of industry to make payments to cane farmers. The export market was also not available due to lower global prices. Industry had therefore requested for incentives for sugar exports. A Group of Ministers (GoM) headed by me had been constituted to look into this demand. On the recommendation of the GoM, Government has approved export incentive of Rs.3,300/- per ton for raw sugar export.

on sharad pawar’s ten years in krishi bhawan

a long time back, when i was at businessworld, i had written my first story on agriculture. that was on fixing the mandis. i had met sharad pawar for that story. it was 2004. he was new to the agriculture ministry. i was young and impressionistic. the story that emerged was technocratic and naive.

almost ten years have passed since then. as things turned out, pawar stayed agriculture minister between 2004 and 2009, and then again from 2009 to 2014. that is ten years. the longest anyone has been agriculture minister in the history of independent india. even more remarkably, it has been an unbroken ten year stretch.

given the crises in india’s farmlands, the length of pawar’s tenure in the agriculture ministry, and his reputation as someone who understands agriculture, what has his stint been like? in the last few weeks, we have seen the odd news report and a flurry of ads saying that agriculture in india has flourished under him. these reports and ads have pointed at the jump in agri production, exports, etc, to support their claims.

in today’s story, ET argues that while production numbers have gone up, this period has also seen an increase in market distortions like cartelisation and price manipulation. not to mention huge, puzzling flux in exim policies. at the same time, long-standing problems in indian agriculture, like weakening soils, collapsing groundwater levels, etc, have remained ignored.

you might also want to see this email interview with Pawar — it formed a part of the reportage for the story.

ps – for a more detailed look at some of the changes mentioned in this story, click on these links.

1. in the last 15 years, India’s farmlands — countrywide — have seen a puzzling spike in prices.

For the longest time, the price of farmland in Vadicherla stayed below Rs 20,000 an acre.Ten years ago, that began to change. “In 2003, an acre cost Rs 25,000. By 2006-07, it had climbed to Rs 2 lakhs,” says Byru Veeraiah, sarpanch of this village in Andhra Pradesh’s Mehbubnagar district, “By 2010, an acre cost Rs 3 lakh. And Rs 12 lakh by 2012.” It was a puzzling spike. This village with its 700-odd families is nowhere near big cities. Warangal, the nearest big town, is 50 kilometres away. Nor is it close to any highway. The Vijayawada-Hyderabad highway is a good 15 kilometres away. Nor is any farmland in the village or its vicinity being acquired by the government or companies.

Vadicherla is not alone. In the last ten years, the price of an acre in Ramavarapadu, a village next to Vijayawada, has leapt from Rs 7 lakh to Rs 7 crore. Or take Mardi, 15 kilometres off Solapur, Maharashtra. The price of an acre in this village, says Prakash Arjun Kate, a local, has “climbed from Rs 20,000-25,000 ten years ago to Rs 10 lakh now.”

Ramavarapadu, Vadicherla and Mardi are not isolated instances. Microstudies and anecdotal information suggest almost all of rural India is seeing a similar climb in farmland prices. If the trend suggested by the villages — and the microstudies and other anecdotal inputs — is indeed correct, then a large change is playing out in rural areas — their farmland markets are getting activated.

And the question is: Why now? And why are markets across the country waking up at the same time? And what does this mean for food security, rural livelihoods, migration patterns, you name it?

2. given these myriad land transactions, how much land is leaving agriculture? we cannot say for sure.

due to the great rural land grab, how much land is leaving agriculture? that is hard to say. the government says there is hardly any change — but that is unlikely. some say enough newer lands are being brought under farming to make up for the loss of farmland. but there is little mathematical work to back those claims up. puzzling, the whole thing.

3. then, india’s agricultural soils are weakening fast.

In his fields, Badhia Naval Singh , a farmer tilling 8 bighas of land in the Bagli tehsil in Madhya Pradesh, has been seeing something strange for a while now. Earlier, if he pulled out a tuft of grass, he would see earthworms . “Ab woh dikhna bandh ho gaye hain (they don’t show up any longer),” says the 45-year old .

Also, he says, when he ploughed earlier, the soil would break into soft crumbs and fall along the long furrows the plough left behind. Now, the soil is harder and the plough uproots a succession of large clods – dheplas, in local parlance – from the earth. The changing nature of soils – for the worse – is a refrain with farmers in these parts, even across the country.

4. and one reason they are weakening is india’s dunderheaded fertiliser policy regime.

Take NPK. In last year’s kharif, the NPK ratio was around 4.4:2.6:1. This kharif, it has worsened to 10.8:4.9:1… What about micronutrients? It’s hard to say. The fertiliser ministry simply does not collect data on micronutrient consumption. However, data collated by industry body Fertiliser Association of India (FAI) shows a puzzling trend. The consumption of zinc, ferrous and copper sulphates showed a modest rise over the last seven years, but that did not hold good for nutrients such as manganese sulphate, borax acid and molybdenum.

5. in other news, dryland areas continue to get ignored — in research, groundwater crisis, soil health…

The green revolution came in the sixties. Tasked with ensuring food security, it pushed high-yielding varieties (HYVs) of wheat and rice over jowar, bajra et al. It began in the floodplains of the north. Where, as canals came up, farmers, realising rainfall risk was a thing of the past, switched to HYVs. In the drylands, the story evolved differently. The green revolution came here in bits and pieces. The seeds and fertilisers reached. So did the exhortations to farmers to adopt ‘modern’ farming. What did not reach was water. Predictable water supply is something the farmers created for themselves. When electricity came, they invested in groundwater pumps.

What followed was transformative . In Malwa (MP), for instance , till the early-1970 s, farmers grew jowar during the rains and Malwi Ghehu , a local wheat variety, after that. Once the pumps came in, farming became a yearlong activity. Cash crops like soya displaced jowar. HYVs of wheat displaced Malwi Ghehu. Below the Malwa plateau, the same set of changes played out more recently, as groundwater pumps came just eight years ago. This is the story across India. Groundwater (tube wells) has been the mainstay of addition to irrigation resources.

It’s a fairytale that is winding down now. India’s dryland areas are seeing soils weaken, groundwater levels collapse and rainfall get increasingly erratic. Worse, farmers cannot go back to the old modes of farming that hedged risk far better than monocropping ever can.

6. and then, there are the market distortions. the story out today gets into some detail on those. last year, et did a quick and dirty story on the onion crises.

This January, the competition regulator sent an independent report to the ministry of agriculture on why onion prices spiked abruptly in 2010, a pattern that is playing out again today, with prices ruling at Rs 60-80 a kg for the last two months. This 86-page report, one of the clearest descriptions of how India’s agricultural markets function, made some stinging observations: traders colluding and acting like a cartel, the unequal relationship between traders and farmers and exports not being calibrated to domestic demand, all being perpetuated by loopholes in the rules.

While this report, titled ‘Competitive Assessment of Onion Markets in India’, studies a crisis that happeend three years ago, it warns of why, unless systemic change is not effected, the spike in onion prices will keep happening in the years to come, especially at this time of the year. This report—commissioned by Geeta Gouri, member, Competition Commission of India, and prepared by researchers at Bangalore’s Institute for Social and Economic Change (ISEC)—has remained in the ministry’s cold storage. “There has been no response from the ministry at all,” rues Gouri.

7. and then, there is agri credit. the puzzle here: in the last ten or so years, agri credit has boomed. but output has not risen proportionately. where has the money gone?

April and May are months of waiting and organising for Indian farmers. As they wait for the monsoon rains to plant a new crop, they are organising money to buy seeds and fertilisers. This suggests that bank loans to farmers should surge during this period. But data shows otherwise.

Between April 2009 and January 2010, for example, loans outstanding to the agriculture sector stood at Rs 3,00,000 crore, according to research commissioned by the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (Nabard). This surged to Rs 8,00,000 crore at the end of March 2010, only to drop back to Rs 3,00,000 crore in April. “We expected farmers to take 50-60% of loans during the kharif (monsoon crop) season,” says Prakash Bakshi, chairman of Nabard. “But neither disbursement nor repayment have any correlation with the normal cropping season.”

There are several such anomalies in farm-sector lending. For instance, between 2000 and 2010, according to the Reserve Bank of India, farm loans increased 755% to Rs 3,90,000 crore. And Budget 2012 has increased the agri-lending target for 2012-13 to Rs 5,75,000 crore, from Rs 4,75,000 crore in the previous year. But productivity gains during the same period-18% growth in farm yields between 2000 and 2010-don’t suggest an increase remotely close to that. Neither do sales of inputs like seeds, fertilisers and tractors.