Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Pesticide Management Bill- bill to kill

The newly proposed Pesticide bill, which is supposed to replace the existing Insecticides Act of 1968, and soon going to be tabled before the House is found to be contradictory on many instances. Earlier to, the bill was introduced in the Rajya Sabha in 2008, but then referred to the standing committee on agriculture. The bill was also not well taken by the industry, many of the policy makers, stakeholders and opinion makers.

The whole bone of contention is the provision of specific clauses in the Bill, especially Section 12(6) and 12(12). Section 12(6) basically provides exclusivity to the test data submitted by the original registrant of a new pesticide sought to be introduced in the country. This data cannot be accessed or relied upon to grant registration to another company wanting to market the same molecule for a period of three years. The me-too registrant would have to furnish separate data to obtain market approval for the same pesticide, a provision that does not exist in the 1968 Act. On the other hand, Section 12(12) apparently leaves no scope for even submitting fresh test data. It simply states that new registration in respect of a pesticide, data of which cannot be relied upon, shall not be granted during a period of three years of the date of its registration, unless accompanied by a letter of consent from the original registrant. What this effectively does is to provide protection to even off-patent molecules or those for which patents were filed prior to January 1, 1995, the cut-off date for eligibility of product patents.

During the period of data exclusivity the multinationals will have a free run as alleged by many of the industry majors. The multinationals, on their part, contend that generating field trial data entails costs. The multinationals had, in fact, lobbied hard for a 5-10 year data protection, whereas the Bill has limited this to three years. The Bill also provides for relaxation in the exclusivity period in the event of national exigency, in cases of urgency and public interest.

The bill seeks to regulate the import, manufacture, export, sale, transport, distribution, quality and use of pesticides with a view to control pests, ensure availability of quality pesticides, minimise the contamination of agricultural produce, create awareness among users regarding safe and judicious use of pesticides, and take necessary measures to continue, restrict and prohibit the use of pesticides with a view to preventing its risk on human beings, animals and environment.

Compulsory registration is a good step towards curbing the sale of spurious pesticides and minimise residual contamination but the concerns has to be rightly addressed keeping intact the issues, interest, long term gains of stakeholders and environmental safety at large.

Some protectionism for the domestic manufacturers and industry has to be adopted by the government before the bill gets passed and enforced, which for the western nations are well known for and openly promote, in case of the home grown corporations. While all pesticides will have to be registered after the enactment of the law, the most deleterious cause, the party maintains, pertains to the one on data exclusivity, which, it claims, was brought in under the Western/ MNCs pressure. Under the data exclusivity provision, the researcher’s data will be his monopoly, and no one else in the world would be allowed to have control over it. Monopoly can also lead to exploitation, and a hike in the prices of pesticides. Such a clause will have dangerous consequences for a country like India.

The Bill should not be given the green signal, without factoring in its consequences on indigenous research and development of the pesticide sector.

Sugar Industry- Ripe time to decontrol

Sugar, the most politicised commodity, is back in news with some hints from the government on the sector’s decontrol. It is likely to enter a brave new world of price and marketing decontrol in the background of the crisis which the sector is confronting since the last 2 years for the pricing, sales, distribution, export-import and government water-tight regulatory framework.
While different segments remain divided, the move for sugar decontrol has received a strong push from the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Price (CACP). The trigger is the likely surge in domestic production of sugarcane and sugar in 2010-11 and 2011-12, with estimated sugar production of 22.5 million tonnes and 30 million tonnes, respectively.

To begin with, the Union government proposes to remove the release mechanism order and withdraw levy obligations for mills. However, while decontrolling sugar prices, the Centre is keen on retaining powers to specify a fair and remunerative price (FRP) to be paid by sugar mills to cane farmers.

When almost all major sectors get free from the clutches of the government and flourish, then why not the humble sugar? We have seen the emergence of many sectors, particularly during 90’s, either it is services or, manufacturing but the regulatory atmosphere has to be healthy for a prosperous and flourishing industry. If everything right from the SMP/ Minimum prices to market prices, buffer stocks and export-imports are decided by the bureaucratic governments, then how promising the sector can be?

The Indian Sugar Industry has over the years enjoyed tremendous political patronage with its stakeholders forming powerful lobbies. Powerful political interests entrenched in state-level politics in states like Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh have managed to prevent full decontrol of sugar prices. For a long time even government economists believed the system of partial decontrol served the needs of both farmers and poorer consumers.

The Government has yet to take a decision on the recommendations of Mahajan Committee report submitted in 1998, which include complete decontrol of the sugar industry. At present all sugar mills are required to pool 40% of their output as levy sugar at a price fixed by the Government for supply through the PDS. The Mahajan Committee has recommended that the levy be reduced to 20% next year and be abolished from the subsequent year. It has also recommended that sugar be taken off the PDS once it is totally decontrolled and that the sugar subsidy be added to the subsidy on foodgrains supplied through the PDS. Removing sugar from the PDS is a political decision that a coalition government may be reluctant to take. If sugar should continue to be supplied through the PDS, the Government can buy it from the mills at the market price.

Currently, the government finalises levy and free sugar quotas. Besides, sugar comes under the purview of the Essential Commodities Act. Also, in the present sugar control regime, the government decides the distance between two sugar mills and takes decisions with regard to sugar import and export. There should be no role of government in the decontrolled regime, except announcing FRP for cane.

Successive governments have toyed with the idea of decontrol for the past 45 years. The power of the so-called sugar lobby, on the one hand, and political sensitivity to consumers, on the other, have prevented the government from decontrolling sugar, even though commodities like steel and cement were decontrolled years ago.

The sugar industry is, understandably, divided. Private sugar mills, under the aegis of the Indian Sugar Mills Association, strongly believe the decision is overdue and the government should announce it at the earliest. On the other hand, cooperative sugar mills, represented by the National Federation of Cooperative Sugar Factories, are of the view that decontrol should be done in phases and not at one go.

If the system of imposing a levy quota is removed, as part of decontrolling sugar industry, government would have to buy sugar from the open market. If prices rise, it would then have to take on a subsidy burden if it wishes to sell cheap. Centre should fix FRP only after consultations with organizations of sugarcane growers and sugar industry, agriculture universities and agriculture experts. Moreover, the Centre should exclude sugar from the Essential Commodities Act.

This is the right time to move towards decontrol of sugar, especially when India is expected to have surplus production of sugarcane and sugar in 2010-11 and 2011-12.

Friday, May 14, 2010

How to be an 'eligible suicide'

Why do governments ignore the farm suicide numbers of the National Crime Records Bureau, when it is the only authentic source on the subject?

Kafka might have envied the script. In Delhi, Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar informed the Rajya Sabha on May 7 that there had been just six farmers' suicides in Vidarbha since January. The same day, same time in Maharashtra, Chief Minister Ashok Chavan said that figure was 343. That is, 57 times greater than Mr. Pawar's count. Mr. Chavan was speaking in Vidarbha. Mr. Pawar's numbers came in a written reply to a question in Parliament. Both stories were reported by the Press Trust of India (PTI). All in a day's work.

Confused? Try this: Five days earlier, Minister of State for Agriculture K.V. Thomas pitched his count at 23 suicides in Vidarbha since January. In the same week — in the same Rajya Sabha. And Mr. Thomas said his source was “the government of Maharashtra.” Whose chief minister says the number is 343. Meanwhile, before Mr. Pawar gave the figure of 'only six' in four months, the government's Vasantrao Naik Farmers' Self Reliance Mission in Vidarbha put the number at 62 for just January alone.

Can estimates of farm suicides — all of them official — vary by over 5,500 per cent? (Mr. Chavan's is that much higher than Mr. Pawar's). But it doesn't end there. Maharashtra Revenue Minister Narayan Rane informed the State Assembly in April that there have been 5,574 suicides in Vidarbha since 2006. But Parliament is told only six have occurred since January this year. Mr. Rane's count for the whole state since 2006 is 7,786 farm suicides. That is more than double Mr. Pawar's new count of 3,450 for the whole country in the last three years.

That's odd — 3,450 for the whole country? In three years? The National Crime Records Bureau puts the number in the last three years at nearly 50,000. That is for 2006, 2007 and 2008 (the last year for which data are available). And the NCRB is the only source for farm suicide data at the national level. Its data also show us that nearly 200,000 farmers have killed themselves between 1997 and 2008. So whose numbers are being fed to Parliament? And how come we have so many wildly varying counts? That too when there is only one body with authentic data. And why does this happen mostly with Maharashtra?

Because Maharashtra's numbers are the worst in the country. This state has seen 41,404 farmers' suicides since 1997. Of these, 12,493 have occurred in 2006-08. So the pressure to cover up is greater here than anywhere else.

The concern was never about the farmer. Till the Prime Minister's 2006 Vidarbha visit, the state's top ministers had never been to a distress-hit village on this issue. Most have still not visited a single suicide-hit farm household. They cared little for what people thought of them. But they did fear the displeasure of their own high command in New Delhi — by then alarmed at the rising suicide numbers. So they began massaging the figures.

First, this meant attaching an impossible number of indicators to identify a farm suicide. As early as June 2005, people in Malwagad, Yavatmal were mocking the process when we arrived there after the suicide of Digambar Agose. “Now we can't even commit suicide in peace,” laughed one of Agose's neighbours with graveyard humour. “Not without reading those forms the officials have created to see we get it right.” Another pointed out: “There are some 40 clauses on their inquiry list. All these must apply.” In short, if you must kill yourself, get it right. Make sure you adhere to the pro forma. Then your family is ‘eligible' for compensation.

Hundreds of people were dropped from the farm suicide lists on the ground that they were not farmers. “There's no land in their names,” officials asserted. On the ground, this meant most women farmers taking their lives were excluded. As also, many eldest sons who actually ran the farm while the land remained in their aged fathers' names. The lists also shut out many dalit and adivasi peasants — whose title to land is seldom clear.

And yet the numbers kept mounting. The reporting of the issue was hurting where it mattered: in Delhi. So how to bring down the count? Ambitious bureaucrats stepped forward to create new categories. 'Eligible' and 'ineligible' suicides. Only the former would be counted as “farm suicides.” An official document set this trend in 2006.

It created a table with many new columns. With each of these, the numbers fell. How? After the total or farm suicides, came a new group: “Family members' suicides.” This means family members on the farm killing themselves are not counted as farmers. That helped skim down the figure still more. Next, an “Investigated Cases” column that saw numbers plummet further. The final column was truly novel — “Eligible Suicides.” That is, those the government deems worthy of compensation. And so, for 2005, the suicides column that begins at 2,425 ends with 273. (Less than 12 per cent of the total). This amputated figure becomes the official farm suicides count. And a ‘decline' is established.

And so the coming of ‘non-genuine suicides.' This did not mean the man was any less dead. Or that he had not killed himself. It meant the government could not accept his death had been driven by debt and distress. (Even though quite a few suicide notes cited precisely those reasons.) Committees were set up in the crisis districts to check if the suicides were ‘genuine.' These bodies soon ran berserk, often declaring every single suicide in a month to be ‘non-genuine.' Their hatchet job means that very few families suffering a breadwinner's suicide get any compensation from government. And that's how it's still done. Mr. Rane's reply to a question in the state assembly lists thousands of ‘ineligible suicides' over four years.

The problem of the NCRB's data however, remains. These are not in their hands to fudge. Sure, over time, even the NCRB's data will be corrupted by the fiddles at the ground level. But it is the here and now of politics that matters. The only way to get around this is to simply ignore the NCRB. So the Minister's written reply in Parliament makes no mention of it. You can see the change from the past.

NCRB data was precisely what he cited in 2007 when confirming there had been nearly 1.5 lakh farm suicides between 1997 and 2005. Replying to Starred Question No. 238 in the Rajya Sabha (Nov. 30, 2007), Mr. Pawar's numbers tallied to the last digit with those reported in The Hindu (Nov.12-17) two weeks earlier. The Hindu's reports were based on the comprehensive study of official data on farm suicides by Professor K. Nagaraj, then with the Madras Institute of Development Studies. The data analysed by him were from the NCRB. It publishes these in its Accidental Deaths and Suicides in India (ADSI) report each year. A part of the Union Ministry of Home Affairs, the NCRB is the only body that exists, which tracks suicides of all categories across the country.

Following Dr. Nagaraj's study, The Hindu updated the farm suicide figures each year, drawing from the latest NCRB reports. (All these reports are available on their website. For instance, the 2008 data in the category of “Self Employed (Farming / Agriculture)” counts farmers' suicides for that year as 16,196. (Check it yourselves on http://ncrb.nic.in/ADSI2008/table-2.11.pdf ). But in Mr. Pawar's Rajya Sabha reply this May, that figure is 1,237 (no source cited. At least not in the PTI report). To date, neither central nor state government has ever contradicted the NCRB-based figures of Dr. Nagaraj and The Hindu. They're too busy contradicting their own.

Pressure to fudge

Simply put, governments are doing the same things they do with poverty estimates. With BPL counts, APL numbers, ration cards and so on. With farm suicides — real human deaths are involved. The pressure to fudge gets more acute with public revulsion over the plight of farmers.

Yet, the 2011 Census could make things look a lot worse. It will tell us how many farmers there really are now in each state. In states like Maharashtra, they are likely to be far fewer than they were in 2001. (The 2001 Census showed that 8 million people had quit farming since 1991). Till today, all the Farm Suicide Rates (suicides per 100,000 farmers) worked out by Dr. Nagaraj are based on 2001 figures. The FSR for Maharashtra, for instance, is 29.9. That could look a lot worse — and the suicides far more intense — when the new Census figures on farmers are out. But the fiddles and fudging will go on.

P. Sainath

Courtesy: The HINDU, Dtd. 14.05.2010

Untruth in Parliament Report!!!

If the parliament is supreme in Indian democracy then the report placed on the table by the people’s representatives as honorable ministers should be authentic, unquestionable and indisputable. However an incisive analysis by P. Sainath 'How to be an eligible suicide?' in the Hindu 14-5-10 reveals how the figures on farmers's suicides are twisted by the ministers the Union Agriculture Minister and the State CM of Maharshtra. It is shocking that the Union Agriculture Minister reports the lowest death of only six unbelievable in Vidarbha region from where he hails, against the high number reeled out by the CM.
Every learned citizen knows that the data generated by the National Crime Records Bureau is authentic and reliable. Then how a responsible minister misleads the parliament, with only six suicides as against 343 since January 2010 as per CM of the State. Even in the case of population under below poverty line BPL different committees arrived at different figures. The credibility of not only the minister but the parliament is apparently lost as the public is losing confidence. When the cohesiveness of the ministry is in shambles and PM has to pull up the erring minister often what lese can be expected except untruth!

Retd Director CPCRI & Chief Regional Bureau Agriculture Today

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Last-mile farm transformation

Indian agriculture has come full circle from the beginning of Green Revolution. Between 1960 and 2000, the introduction of high-yielding varieties, widespread adoption of chemical inputs and a clear policy focus on food self-sufficiency resulted in quantum jump in productivity of most crops. But over the last decade, old problems of stagnating productivity and food insecurity are beginning to resurface. Such a situation does not augur well for the country’s food security whose population is steadily increasing.

Issues such as infrastructure, market linkages, input subsidies, etc, require policy and systemic interventions and may have a longer time and investment horizon. But improvements in cultivation practices and adoption of latest technologies, which are dependent on information availability, are immediately addressable. While less than 40% farmers have access to information about modern techniques and inputs, even available information is often not readily comprehensible or adoptable. This is where an effective last-mile delivery system that bridges the knowledge gap will play a critical role in transforming farm productivity.

Last-mile delivery implies delivering the latest and improved location-specific farm technology to the farmer for improving crop productivity. It imparts knowledge about crop cultivation practices, products, technologies and their efficient utilisation in a cost-effective manner.

While there are problems, integrated farm initiatives have shown that by firmly keeping the farmers’ requirements in focus, most of these problems can be addressed and farm productivity enhanced.

An eight pronged approach is suggested to realise this objective.

Unifying agriculture by putting the crop and farmer in focus: Agriculture has given rise to a number of industries such as fertilisers, seeds, pesticides, commodity trading, processing, etc. Mostly, each of these industries pursues its own agenda without consideration to the unifying factors of the crop and the farmer. It is time that the stakeholders put the crop back in focus.

Training and certifying professional crop advisers: The education imparted at agricultural universities is fairly generic. There is a need for crop specialists who can provide extension services to the farmers in a more focused manner, starting from selection of right seed varieties through nutrition and pest management, post-harvest management, etc. The American Society of Agronomy (ASA) is working with Punjab Agriculture University, International Rice Research Institute and others to bring its Certified Crop Advisers programme to India. Such efforts need to be rapidly scaled up.

Increasing extension reach through input dealers: Man power deployed by the public and private sector is grossly inadequate to reach 110 million farmers. Inclusion of agri input dealers — estimated at over 1,00,000 and who form the farmers’ primary point of contact — into the extension system and equipping them with knowledge would improve the reach. A mandatory certification programme with periodic renewal may be advisable for all agri input dealers to ensure quality of delivery.

Creation of a common knowledge pool: A common and coherent knowledge pool has been conspicuous by its absence due to lack of coordination between multiple agencies involved in agriculture extension. It may be in the best interest of all concerned to create an easily accessible common pool of knowledge.

Leveraging ICT infrastructure for efficient knowledge dissemination: Be it pushing reminders

For application of a specific input or helping the farmer pull information on specific output prices, ICT has the potential to impact rural India, the same way it has redefined the urban areas. It provides a unique opportunity to deliver customised information, on an interactive basis and supplement human effort.

Organising farmers: In India, almost 80% farmers are small and marginal, which makes commercialization of agriculture a difficult proposition. It would be discernible to organise them in groups by developing suitable models. Such a move may also help in increasing farm mechanisation and contract farming resulting in substantial improvement in farm productivity and production, aided by need based transfer of farm technology.

Establishing farmer-corporate partnerships: Indian corporate sector has a long association with the farmers either as an input supplier or an output buyer. This association, if leveraged and structured into a formal farmer corporate partnership (FCP), could play a crucial role in addressing these problems. The FCPs would focus on educating the farmer about the latest agricultural practices, ensuring quality production and provide them with assured market and better income.

Getting local: There is an urgent need to adopt an immensely concentrated and focused approach, rather than a universal approach, to make the best of available resources. It is often mentioned that every 100 km we travel in India, we encounter anew country where food habits, crops, culture and language change. In such a diverse environment, adopting or advocating a universal recommendation is bound to encounter failure.

The need to focus on agriculture and rapidly increase productivity stems from the requirement of ensuring food security and an all-inclusive growth for the country. Putting all the above on the ground, though feasible, is still a challenging task for the country.

To achieve the coveted objectives, a delivery system has to ensure that the knowledge is latest, need-based, location-specific and made available timely in a manner that is simple and easily understandable by even the poorly-educated farmer. No single agency would be able to do full justice. Collaboration between multiple stakeholders is probably the only way in which last mile delivery systems can be spruced up, leading to a transformation in agriculture.

- Shri Ajay S Sriram, author is chairman and senior MD- DSCL, and president of the International Fertilizer Industry Association.