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Think sand mining damages the ecology? It ruins politics as well

…Villages talk about collapsed groundwater levels, wells that do not fill even when the river is brimming, wells in coastal areas which have turned saline. Little here is surprising. These ecological changes are well-known side-effects of sand mining. But the damage done by sand mining isn’t just ecological. As Scroll found while reporting from Tamil Nadu, rampant sand mining has damaged the state in several other ways too.

Politicians aren’t only messing with Tamil Nadu’s water – they’re making Rs 20,000 crore from sand

Out today, the first instalment of our three-part series on sand mining in tamil nadu.

Stepping onto the bank, the first thing that’s visible is a ten-wheeled tipper. It grinds to a halt at the end of a queue of similar trucks. Beyond it stretches a vast riverbed. That is the Thenpennaiyar, one of the larger rivers in central Tamil Nadu. It is summer and there isn’t a drop of water in the river. The riverbed, with its carpet of sand, is warming under the sun. It looks like it has been ploughed by a giant tractor. Long trenches are separated by ridges that are wide enough to serve as roads for the tippers. All along the monochrome riverbed are queues of trucks. At the head of each queue is an excavator. The arm of the machine dips into a trench, pulls out a shovelful of sand and pours it into the tipper waiting alongside. As the tipper fills up, it moves away, and another tipper takes its place.

It’s hard to tell how far this sand quarry stretches. The trenches are as deep as seven metres. The ridges are all that is left of the original riverbed. A scab of dark earth is visible at the bottom of one trench. So much sand has been scraped away that the Thenpennaiyar’s clay base stands exposed. According to locals, anywhere between 2,500-3,000 tipper-loads of sand leave from here each day. With each tipper designed to carry 20 tons, that’s 50,000 tons of sand a day. This quarry in Villupuram district, about an hour from Pondicherry, is a good introduction to the daunting scale of sand mining in Tamil Nadu. The Thenpennaiyar enters this part of northern Tamil Nadu from Karnataka and flows through the district for about 100 kilometres before entering the neighbouring district of Cuddalore. In this stretch, said locals, there are two more quarries of similar size. And that’s just one river in one district.

Part 1: How a contractor from Tamil Nadu carved out an enormous mining empire in Odisha

the first part of our trilogy on illegal iron ore mining in Odisha, a boom in which only a few benefitted. this story looks at the rise of b prabhakaran and his thriveni earthmovers.

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.

(this post has also been cross-posted on anomalocaris, my official blog for ET. click here)

gautam adani and what he tells us about modern india

containers stacked outside adani's mundra port.

containers stacked outside adani’s mundra port.

today’s economic times carries my story on the rise of infrastructure tycoon gautam adani. here. also see this story.

contours of a hydelpower frenzy

(Note: This is a composite post aggregating all the stories ET did over the past week on the hydel scam in Arunachal Pradesh, a state in North-Eastern India)

Between 2006 and 2009, the Congress government in Arunachal Pradesh signed 130 MoUs with companies allowing them to build hydelpower projects in the state. This blizzard of MoUs almost escaped all scrutiny. A handful of greens worried about the fallouts of building so many dams. The locals protested. But, in the rest of the country, the pattern did not cause many ripples.

Last November and December, however, a clutch of surprising news reports began doing the rounds — that the projects in Arunachal are facing large delays, that companies are looking to exit. To understand what was going on, ET went to Arunachal, and then to Andhra — most companies which signed MoUs hail from this state in south India. Here is what we found:

1. The companies are indeed struggling.

As excited companies began taking a closer look at their new projects, they realised the supporting infrastructure— the primary responsibility of the state and the Centre—to add 40,000 MW in one go was not there. Road connectivity from highways to project sites was either missing or inadequate to support heavy vehicles. Also missing was power, transmission towers and administrative infrastructure like surveying staff and land records… Capital is missing too. All these projects are public-private partnerships (PPPs), with Arunachal bringing in equity of 11-26%—or Rs13,000 crore, according to Paliwal. In 2012-13, Arunachal’s entire budget was Rs3,535 crore. “We don’t know how the government plans to raise this money or if they have made any budgetary provisions,” says Kawale.

2. Listening to the companies, one could not help wondering if the state had signed more projects than it could support. It was also unclear why it had signed projects for more MW-age than what the centre had budgeted for in its 50,000 MW programme (this is explained in the stories that follow). Then, while the state government said this rush was born of no more than its urgent desire for development, many of the companies it had tied up with had questionable technical or financial ability to handle these projects. (Hint: Google “Nano Excel Power” and read a Times of India article that pops up on the first page of searches). There were other puzzles. For some reason, the state had turned its back on multi-purpose projects (which can also do flood control) and was only pushing hydel power projects.

In May 2000, the Centre allocated six projects in Arunachal, adding up to 20,700 mw, to the National Hydro Power Corporation (NHPC). NHPC prepared detailed project reports for them between 2003 and March 2006. A report by the government auditor on hydel capacity addition by PSUs, released in 2012, outlines what happened next. The Comptroller & Auditor General (CAG) says the state government, then helmed by Gegong Apang of Congress, ignored several NHPC attempts to sign MoUs with it. Instead, between 2006 and 2009, Arunachal took five of the six projects, amounting to 18,700 MW, away from NHPC and gave them to Reliance Energy, Jaiprakash Associates, a state JV with Jindal Power, KSK Energy and NTPC. This, observes CAG, has resulted in five projects out of six conceived in January 1999 not taking off so far even though a large hydel plant takes about 10 years to come up.

And it looked like money had changed hands.

In April 2007, Gegong Apang was ousted and replaced by the then power minister, Dorjee Khandu. The MoU signing accelerated: 101 between February 2006 and March 2009. Brokers and fixers made money by connecting companies with state officials and politicians, who acquired new muscle overnight. Alleges Tapir Gao, state convenor of the BJP: “Unofficial payments made to the Congress ranged between Rs10-15 lakh per MW.” During that signing spree, Arunachal added 39,000 MW. Current and aspiring MPs and MLAs began lobbying for hydel projects to be allowed in their constituencies. Agrees Jarjum Ete, a Congresswoman and a Panchayati Raj activist: “All legislators have benefited from MoU signings in their localities.” At the same time, power has become a prized portfolio. Each of the three CMs after Apang retained the power portfolio.

There are striking similarities between this and the ill-fated thermal power plant boom in Chhattisgarh. There too, companies had rushed in fecklessly, only to realise belatedly that their initial assumptions (about high power demand and abundant coal) were incorrect. For its part, signing MoUs with gusto, the state government had encouraged them.

3. There are two things to be said here. One, NHPC is not the only company whose projects were taken away and given to the private sector.

A CAG report last year indicted the Arunachal Pradesh government for taking hydel projects away from NHPC and giving them to private companies. However, NHPC is not the only PSU whose projects were taken away by the Arunachal government. Nor is Arunachal the only state where hydel PSUs have lost projects. If anything, NEEPCO, the North Eastern Electric Power Corporation, set up to build power projects in north-eastern India, has suffered worse. In state after state in India’s eastern frontiers, its projects have been taken away and given to private companies — usually in a non-transparent manner.

4. Second. While Arunachal signing MoUs in return for cash is, yes, a scam, it is a scam which cannot be measured only in Rupees. It has resulted in three unnerving developments. First, we have made a hash of the hydel potential in the state. As the first story shows, all manner of companies have walked away with MoUs. Second, this sudden influx of cash into the hitherto rudimentary economy of Arunachal Pradesh has resulted in some changes very similar to the “resource curse”. Third, the accompanying environmental costs (more on this farther down this post) are potentially crippling.

As money came in, says Ete, “politicians began distributing cash in lakhs in village meetings. People now expect money everytime politicians visit.” At the same time, the cost of contesting elections shot up. Says Laeta Umbrey, MLA from Roing district: “Elections are becoming very expensive. And once it gets costly, it never comes down. In my district, one opposition leader spent Rs18 crore — my constituency has 11,000 voters.” In the process, Arunachal Pradesh has encountered its version of the resource curse.

5. An accompanying story, posted on the ET website, featuring interviews with three politicians in the state, the Congress’ Jarjum Ete, the BJP’s Tapir Gao, and Laeta Umbrey, MLA of a local party, explores the changes in the state in more detail.

“If you look at corruption in Arunachal, in the early 1980s, political activity in the state was sizably supported by the timber lobby. This ended with the Godhavarman case. Then came the liquor lobby. And in the last two elections, the hydropower lobby has played a large role. Why do politicians need this money? Not only for elections but also because politicians in the state have picked up the habit of distributing cash. They distribute cash in lakhs and the media stays silent on this.”

6. The third big fallout is environmental in nature. Propelled by short term and personal interests, the state is making dramatic changes to the brahmaputra basin.

Take what will happen to the Lohit, which flows out of Arunachal and into the Brahmaputra, when the Lower Demwe Hydro Electric Project on it switches on. According to the project’s environmental impact assessment (EIA) report, the Lohit’s flow is around 463 cubic metres per second (cumecs) in winter, 832 cumecs in summer and 2,050 in the rains. (A three cumecs flow is akin to a Tata Nano passing you every second.)

This will change once the dam comes up. For up to 20 hours a day, says the report, the dam will trap the river, releasing just 35 cumecs of water. The remaining will be released to spin the turbines only when demand for electricity rises in the evening. At that time, the river’s flow will expand to 1,729 cumecs. As the reservoir empties out, the river will again shrink to 35 cumecs.

This is palpably new. River flows ebb and rise over months. “But now, what was an annual variation will now be a daily variation,” says MD Madhusudan, a biologist with Mysore-based Nature Conservation Foundation. And this is from just one dam; each of the eight tributaries emptying into the Brahmaputra has multiple dams coming up.

To gauge their combined impact, rifle through the EIA report for the Jaypee Group’s Lower Siang Project. If water from the three terminal dams on the Lohit, Subansiri and the Siang rivers reaches the floodplains at the same time, the Brahmaputra’s height will fluctuate daily by 2-3 metres as far as 65 km downstream.

(If you want more information on any of this, google for Arunachal Pradesh State Pollution Control Board and read the EIAs uploaded on its website).

7. A trip to the first RoR (the sort of dam coming up across the state) project to come up in the state did nothing to assuage these concerns.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

8. There were a couple of minor sidelights in all this. One, companies are today looking to exit the hydel space. But there are few buyers. Except a new breed of energy companies like Greenko.

Which power-generation company with operations in India delivered the best returns in a post-Lehman Brothers world? That distinction does not belong to sector heavyweights such as Tata Power, Reliance Power, NTPC or Suzlon Energy. A little-known, 260-crore company, operating primarily in the clean energy space, has left these powerhouses trailing on shareholder returns since January 2009, by being a contrarian in the hydel power space. As promoters of hydropower projects, facing different forms and degrees of distress, make a beeline for the exit, Greenko is keenly waiting for them there. Since 2006, this Hyderabad-based company has bought about 30 hydel projects, at various stages of clearances and completion, with a combined capacity of 725 mw.

9. While on Greenko, also see this: the transcript of our interview with Greenko’s head, Anil Chalamalasetty. It goes into a lot of detail on hydel — more detail than what we could have accommodated into these stories. And so, it was uploaded.

10. Now for the second minor sidelight.

Sometime in 2009, the cabinet of the Congress government, led by Dorjee Khandu, had cleared the sale of 49% in the Hydro Power Development Corporation of Arunachal Pradesh Limited (HPDCAPL) to the Naveen Jindal Group. The state, through HPDCAPL, had committed to 11-26% equity contribution in every hydel project coming up in Arunachal, including those of other private players, adding 38,600 mw by March 2009. And Jindal’s 49% ownership of HPDCAPL would have effectively given it ownership in every project.

This, as the story outlines, is an utterly bizarre transaction. No one I know, including friends and contacts with far more experience in corporate structuring, etc, than neophyte rajshekhar, has ever heard of something like this! Which is why this story is significant. It throws light on the kind of crazy shenanigans the state government is up to. (I should add that similar transactions have taken place in other NE states as well. Which underscores the need for more coverage from this part of the country.)

11. Put it all together and, as the opening essay argued, what Arunachal Pradesh has seen indeed is very similar to Coalgate.

Hydel in Arunachal has four parallels with the controversial coal block allocations of 2006-09. One, Arunachal gave out more hydel projects than it needed to. Two, the state used discretionary powers to allot dam sites, increasing the clout of state politicians, bureaucrats and local brokers to influence allocations. Three, besides sector heavyweights such as Reliance Power, Jindal Power and NHPC, the list of 55 companies featured those in unrelated businesses such as seeds, travel, highways and real estate. Four, construction has barely begun. The state doesn’t have roads or transmission lines. Companies don’t have money and even genuine players are looking to exit.

All that plus the accompanying environmental and social damage!

On the whole, the package of stories leaves me feeling dissatisfied. We could not study a couple of important dimensions of the hydel scam in Arunachal. Prime among them is the fact that a lot of politicians are putting their money into hydel projects in this state. For more on that, read Soumik Dutta’s articles on the hydel projects coming up in Sikkim. he has done a better job of uncovering those processes. Google him. “Soumik Dutta +Sikkim”.

ps – Last year, I had spent a lot of time on Coalgate. I see strong overlaps between what happened there and here. Maybe it is the brain forcing old familiar frameworks onto new data. Or maybe the political economy of natural resources in India is not all that different between coal and hydel. Anyway, click here for more information on coalgate — a  composite link aggregating the work by my colleagues and me on coalgate.

(a copy of this post has also been uploaded to anomalocaris, my blog for economic times)

on arunachal’s egregious hydel plans

between december and now, i worked on a set of stories about the hydel projects coming up in arunachal pradesh. between 2006-09, this state in north-eastern india signed 130 MoUs with about 55 companies allocating them places where they could build dams. several things about these MoUs were surprising. these MoUs translated into 130 dams on 8 river basins — probably the world’s highest concentration of hydel projects.

it was not clear why the state needed to sign so many MoUs in such a short span of time. it was not clear why it had signed projects for more MW-age than what the centre had budgeted for. for its part, while the state government said this rush just showed its urgent desire for development, many of the companies it had tied up with had little or no background in hydel power generation. there were other puzzles. for some reason, the state had turned its back on multi-purpose projects (which can also do flood control) and was only pushing hydel power projects.

stories seeking to uncover the hydel mess in arunachal pradesh began popping out from today. the first one, a lead story which introduces the significance of what has happened in arunachal, compares this to coalgate.

Hydel in Arunachal has four parallels with the controversial coal block allocations of 2006-09. One, Arunachal gave out more hydel projects than it needed to. Two, the state used discretionary powers to allot dam sites, increasing the clout of state politicians, bureaucrats and local brokers to influence allocations. Three, besides sector heavyweights such as Reliance Power, Jindal Power and NHPC, the list of 55 companies featured those in unrelated businesses such as seeds, travel, highways and real estate. Four, construction has barely begun. The state doesn’t have roads or transmission lines. Companies don’t have money and even genuine players are looking to exit.

the main story explores why few of the projects have gotten off the ground. and ends up concluding that something similar to the ill-fated thermal power plant boom i wrote about earlier took place in arunachal. companies rushed in fecklessly. the state signed more projects than it could have supported.

As excited companies began taking a closer look at their new projects, they realised the supporting infrastructure— the primary responsibility of the state and the Centre—to add 40,000 MW in one go was not there. Road connectivity from highways to project sites was either missing or inadequate to support heavy vehicles. Also missing was power, transmission towers and administrative infrastructure like surveying staff and land records…

…Capital is missing too. All these projects are public-private partnerships (PPPs), with Arunachal bringing in equity of 11-26%—or Rs13,000 crore, according to Paliwal. In 2012-13, Arunachal’s entire budget was Rs3,535 crore. “We don’t know how the government plans to raise this money or if they have made any budgetary provisions,” says Kawale.

the motivations of the companies are easily understood. the main story elaborates on those. but what about the state government? why did it sign so many MoUs? 130 MoUs on 8 river basins? the answers, as ever, lies in political funding.

In April 2007, Gegong Apang was ousted and replaced by the then power minister, Dorjee Khandu. The MoU signing accelerated: 101 between February 2006 and March 2009. Brokers and fixers made money by connecting companies with state officials and politicians, who acquired new muscle overnight. Alleges Tapir Gao, state convenor of the BJP: “Unofficial payments made to the Congress ranged between Rs10-15 lakh per MW.” During that signing spree, Arunachal added 39,000 MW. Current and aspiring MPs and MLAs began lobbying for hydel projects to be allowed in their constituencies. Agrees Jarjum Ete, a Congresswoman and a Panchayati Raj activist: “All legislators have benefited from MoU signings in their localities.” At the same time, power has become a prized portfolio. Each of the three CMs after Apang retained the power portfolio.

that is how it is. more stories in the days to come.