Wednesday, December 18, 2013

How India sold out to the WTO

Suman Sahai

After Bali we should expect an influx of heavily subsidised agri produce from outside. This will knock the stuffing out of Indian farmers already reeling under adverse domestic policies.

The Indian media is presenting a glorious conclusion of the Bali ministerial, saying the Indian stand had prevailed and that India had indeed bent the US and EU to its will. This is the exact opposite of what has actually happened.

First, India was isolated, partly by the machinations of the developed countries but also because it chose to go it alone rather than with the bloc of developing countries who it has rightly infuriated with its succumbing to US pressure. India giving in will have negative implications for all of them. All the bravado we heard from commerce and industry minister Anand Sharma days before about standing firm to defend our food security vanished in Bali.

It’s remarkable that India failed to bring to centrestage the unfulfilled issues of the Doha Round and no attempt was made to link compliance with outstanding issues there with new issues raised at Bali.

India fell into the trap of discussing subsidy limits and de minimis support in agriculture when it should have argued on the basis of welfare and human rights. The Aggregate Measure of Support (AMS) calculated under the Agreement on Agriculture applies to producer subsidies, that is subsidies to farmers, which heaven knows the Food Security Act does not touch since, in a masterly move, the FSA does not deal with the producers of food at all.

Any subsidy component under discussion here would be a consumer subsidy, not a producer subsidy. It should have been argued as a welfare measure based on human rights imperatives.

India should have argued that its appalling figures of hunger and malnutrition amount to gross violation of the people’s right to food and any attempt by the government to act on it cannot possibly be placed under the purview of WTO sanctions. There was strong support for the India case from the UN Special Rapporteur on Right to Food which the Indian team failed to build on.

As it stands, India has failed to get its position accepted and it has accepted an interim agreement, a peace clause, but with conditions. And it has ceded trade facilitation. What has it come back with from Bali?

w Indian negotiators have placed the country’s entire stockholding of food under external scrutiny and have lost sovereign control over decision-making regarding buffer stocks. They have allowed the WTO’s Committee on Agriculture (CoA) to monitor our grain stocks.

w India will have to freeze its minimum support price (MSP) and will be unable to either raise the MSP or add new crops to its stocks after it has submitted the complicated and embarrassingly detailed forms on public stocks held by Central and state governments.
w Enormous paperwork and implementation costs have been added to maintaining our public stocks, money that could have been spent more profitably elsewhere.

w India will have to freeze the structure and modalities of food procurement now and will be unable to make changes without the permission of the CoA. This is not only humiliating, it has introduced the dangerous precedent of foreign interference in our food security strategies. India after Bali has lost the right to use public food reserves as a plank of its food security.

w Having made a pig’s breakfast of the Bali negotiations, India has also effectively sealed off for itself any avenues to support its farm sector, improve food production and secure the livelihoods of its small and marginal farmers, without invoking howls of protest from the CoA and the denizens of the WTO.

And Trade Facilitation stays in place as what we have given away at Bali. This will mean “facilitating” the entry of foreign products into the Indian market. Opening India’s market to agricultural produce has long been the goal of the large agriculture exporting countries, especially the US and EU. That goal is close to being realised. India has so far managed to fend off large-scale dumping of agricultural produce but that may be coming to an end.

After Bali we should expect an influx of heavily subsidised agri produce from outside. This will knock the stuffing out of Indian farmers already reeling under adverse domestic policies and the utter neglect of the agriculture sector. Trade facilitation for genetically modified products will almost certainly be on the menu, if for no other reason than to break the back of the domestic resistance to GM crops and foods. But also because the major agriculture exporters are sitting on stocks of GM corn and soya and there are other products in the pipeline, all waiting for markets.

And the Indian farmer post-Bali? Unable to compete with the heavily subsidised farm products from the US, Canada, Australia and the EU, the Indian farmer will be forced to abandon his fields and swell the slums of cities. Apart from the supply to the open market, who will produce the stocks of cereals needed to keep the Food Security Act in motion? I can almost see the Cargills and Bunges smiling in the wings.

The ill-conceived and opportunistic Food Security Act has cost the country very dear. Together with the inept negotiations in Bali, it has put India in the dock, under public scrutiny, tied its hands behind its back and taken away options for the betterment of the farm sector and future food security. The pale silver lining around this very black cloud is that there are four more years of negotiations before a final settlement on the issue of public stock holdings is reached. India must put together its best brains to develop aggressive negotiating positions well in advance, try to win back the support of the developing countries it has ditched and face the next rounds of WTO discussions with the goal of recovering what lost ground it can.

Source The Asian Age; 14 December  2013,

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

GENE CAMPAIGN Charter of Demands

 On the occasion of Gene Campaign’s 20th anniversary, a number of experts from across India , came together to brainstorm on the policy changes that were needed to make farming profitable and farmers prosperous. Given below is the Charter of Demands that was formulated by the experts after a daylong meeting.
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1. The government must increase annual budgetary outlays for agriculture , by the Union and state governments ,  to 10 per cent of India's gross domestic product (against less than 1.5 per cent at present) for the next ten years. Of these outlays, between 60 per cent and 70 per cent should be reserved for rain-fed farming. systems.
2. Programs for food security must include nutrition security. Fortification of common staple foods with micro-nutrients should receive attention. A comprehensive program to establish homestead gardens should be promoted to boost household nutrition.
3. All programs providing food and nutrition support to children must be linked to their being registered in school and receiving regular health checkups.
4.Credit and insurance facilities should be provided to all those who cultivate land and keep livestock (not merely to land owners) by revamping the kisan credit card and making insurance more widespread.
5. Given the growing feminization of agriculture in India, there an urgent need to : enforce property rights of women and encourage joint ownership of productive assets, incentivize women’s access to credit cards (through an interest rate subvention of at least one per cent) , invest in agriculture equipment suitable for women.
 6. Restore and reorient agricultural extension services to promote high yielding, diversified and ecologically sustainable agriculture. This should be backed by research support and indigenous knowledge. 
7. To reduce financial burden on small farmers, establish and incentivize Smallholder Farmer Estates with common facilities and equipment, skill building in joint estate management,  bionutrition and IPM , water conservation and management, micro irrigation, fertigation ,  post-harvest value addition , packaging and collective marketing etc
8.  Government policies must strengthen and promote a broad genetic base for agriculture and encourage conservation of agro-bio-diversity, to build resilience in farming
9. Launch a comprehensive soil testing program across India to implement  location specific measures to restore and improve soil health.
10. Develop a policy and research framework for the development of agriculture in the mountainous regions of India.
11. Launch a water literacy campaign at policy and implementation levels that demand management is the main strategy for overcoming water scarcity.
Water management must be used as an entry point to improve livelihoods through productivity enhancement, value addition, and income generating activities through market-led diversification.
12. The public distribution system must be diversified and decentralized. Government policies should encourage procurement from about 50 km from the points of consumption and the PDS should include a range of locally produced foods.
13. Divert a part of fertilizer subsidies to public investments in agriculture leading to capital formation for strengthening alternative farming systems, especially climate resilient agriculture.
14. Encourage and incentivize states that reduce reliance on chemical inputs in agriculture and encourage bio-organic farming systems.
15. All government policies must be geared towards enabling the Indian farmer to become an entrepreneur. Only then can those who are in the riskiest profession in the world be empowered, making farming profitable and farmers prosperous.
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Dated: Saturday 9 November, 2013
New Delhi

Friday, November 15, 2013

Who Owns Our Genetic Wealth ?

Suman Sahai

There was a recent news report that ICRISAT, an international organisation and part of the CGIAR ( Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) consortium, had entered into an agreement with Gubba Cold Storage Ltd. to set up a private seed bank, the first of its kind in India. No details were available of the terms and conditions under which the genetic material from the ICRISAT gene bank would be placed in the physical possession of  a private company. ICRISAT holds thousands of varieties of chickpea, pigeon pea, groundnut, sorghum, pearl millet and small millets collected from farmers’ fields across the world.

What makes the ICRISAT varieties particularly valuable to plant breeders and seed companies is the fact that almost the entire collection has been characterized so that the properties of each variety are known. This information along with the huge choice of genetic material  (over 120,000 varieties) is a veritable gold mine for seed companies.Access to crop varieties characterized for important properties like disease and pest resistance, drought and salinity tolerance, adaptability to soil types and weather conditions, yield traits etc., can be rapidly converted into lucrative crop varieties for the market, earning themcrores of rupees. 

The disconcerting thing about the ICRISAT deal with Gubba Cold Storage is that public material held in trust by ICRISAT has been at least physically transferred to a private company. It is not clear under what terms the material will be stored in Gubba cold storages. Who will be able to access the material? How will unauthorized use be prevented? What will be the monitoring process? How will violations be dealt with ?In the Svalbard Seed Vault, which is permafrost gene bank in the frozen mountains of Norway, where countries are depositing genetic material, all collections are stored under “black box” conditions. This means that the germplasm is coded and sealed in boxes before being deposited in the Seed Vault. The so called black box is under the control of the country or agency that deposits the material. Only the said country or agency can open the box and add or remove material from it. Despite this being a bank in the public sector, supported and monitored by the Norwegian government, widespread concerns have been expressed over the integrity of the collections and the possibility of theft and unauthorized use of valuable genetic material. How much more is the cause for concern when public material is handed over to an unknown private company for storage ?

We must remember that all the material in Gene/Seed Banks anywhere, is the property of the farmers from whose fields the seeds were collected. It is not the property of the Bank in which it is kept, nor of the countries where such banks are located. For instance , the thousands of traditional rice  samples in Gene Campaign’s village level Zero Energy Gene-Seed Banks are not Gene Campaign’s property. Ownership over the varieties and the community bank in which they are conserved, rests solely with the local community. Similarly the collection of over 4 lakh varieties in the National Gene Bank in Delhi, is not the property of the National Gene Bank but of the several hundred thousand farmers who have maintained these varieties for generations in their fields and who have developed them with their genius and diligence. These farmers have given their seeds to be held in trust by the National Gene Bank to be used for the benefit of all mankind, not for private seed companies to make huge profits.
The international community acknowledges the ownership of rural and tribal communities over the genetic wealth they have created in different parts of the world. Well defined procedures have been laid down if someone wants to access such publicly owned material.  These include Prior Informed Consent (PIC) , Material Transfer Agreements (MTA) and Benefit Sharing agreements. The last says that if any profit is derived from the use of the community’s genetic wealth, they are entitled to a share of the profits. 

All this does not mean that access to genetic resources , along with PIC, MTA and Benefit Sharing agreements, has to be given. Communities have the right to refuse access if they feel this would better serve their interests. These internationally agreed conditions are binding as much on ICRISAT, the National Gene Bank and local efforts like Community Gene-Seed banks of the kind that Gene Campaign has set up.   

A central point in all questions relating to access to genetic resources is that of Intellectual Property Rights. The Indian law , the Protection of Plant varieties and Farmers Rights Act does not allow the grant of patents on plant varieties. Only a Breeders Right can be granted if a variety is developed using varieties accessed from public collections. If IPRs are to be granted, they have to be subject to conditions mentioned earlier and should include preferential access to farmers to the newly developed varieties. These are all features that have not yet been operationalized.

We have no idea how they will be worked out in dealings with the private sector. We do not know what ICRISAT has negotiated with Gubba.  What kind of IPRs can be claimed in other countries on varieties developed from germplasm from farmer’s fields?  The CGIAR has tried to walk a ( sometimes fudgy ) line between multinational corporations and their demands for patents on materials they develop from public gene banks and the pressure from civil society that this would be unethical and tantamount to piracy. ICRISAT must make public the terms and conditions under which it has placed public genetic material into the hands of a private company.
Not just ICRISAT, the ICAR system too is preparing to throw open the national collections to the private sector. 

The Depty Director General (DDG) of ICAR, Dr Swapan Datta  is on record  saying that  the Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR)  would offer multinational seed companies its massive national collection of germplasm in exchange for expertise and a share of the profits. The DDG has no locus standito take such decisions, especially when India is moving towards increased participatory decision making. In this climate when law and policy making is sought to being made more open and democratic, it is antediluvian for a small committee of the  National Advisory Board for Management of Genetic Resources, to take a decision on behalf of communities to make available their crop varieties to MNCs. Any decision on giving seed companies access to public genetic material can only be taken after public consultations and then following the due process of Prior Informed Consent, Material Transfer Agreements and Benefit Sharing agreements.

Dr Suman Sahai is a scientist and chairperson of Gene Campaign, working on food and nutrition. She can be reached

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Interview – Responses of Dr Suman Sahai

High Priority Areas in India
·         Government should focus first on inputs for increasing agricultural productivity. Seeds, soil health and water should be the priority for investment within inputs,.
·         Besides increasing productivity, other goals should be improving the small and marginal farmers’ access to credit, insurance and markets
·         Rain-fed area should be the priority focus rather than the irrigated area since two-thirds of India’s agricultural land is rain-fed.
·         In terms of regional focus, states like Jharkhand, Uttarakhand, Chhattisgarh, Uttaranchal and Jammu & Kashmir should be prioritized. Also, nothing has been done to improve the productivity in mountain regions, especially in Uttaranchal and Jammu & Kashmir.
·         Agriculture should be made sustainable and the foundation should be on a broad genetic base. Narrow genetic base makes crops vulnerable to pests and diseases. Genetic diversity provides resistance to pests and diseases and resilience to climate change.

Agricultural Situation in Targeted States
·         Bihar has a lot of water resources, irrigation access and fertile soil. The state is more a victim of bad governance (e.g., land reforms never happened in Bihar). Jharkhand, which was earlier a part of Bihar, requires much more attention as it has bad soil and dearth of water resources.
·         Uttar Pradesh also has sufficient access to irrigation and fertile soil. Focus should be on Eastern Uttar Pradesh as Western UP is a green revolution area.
·         Odisha is underdeveloped but has resources. The Kalahandi-Balangir-Koraput (KBK) districts in Odisha are together known as the starvation belt despite having enough rice production. This is because majority of the rice produced is traded out.

Small and Marginal Farmers
·         Most of the farmers in rain-fed areas are small and marginal farmers
·         Crops: The basket of small and marginal farmers in rain-fed areas include only one crop – the kharif (summer) crop which is mainly rice. No second crop is usually possible in rain-fed areas due to low availability of water in the winter season. The basket of small and marginal farmers in irrigated areas includes both a summer crop (mainly rice) and a winter crop (mainly wheat, mustard, potato or vegetables)
·         Income: Income varies from state to state and also dependent on the crops grown. But one trend which is uniform is that none of the small and marginal farmers are able to have a surplus in India. Farmers in irrigated areas are better off than farmers in rain-fed areas as they have the buffer of second crop. Small and marginal farmers also work on large lands as laborers ,especially during sowing, harvesting threshing etc., to earn extra income.
·         Yield: Agricultural yield on a small land is higher than a large land provided all inputs – credit, insurance, seeds, water and good soil are available. This is because a small and marginal farmer works on his own on a small land and therefore, dedication level is much higher than working as a laborer on a large land. However, in India, small and marginal farmers do not have required inputs to attain that yield. Normally, small and marginal farmers have the worst soil. They require credit to procure required inputs which is again not available.
·         Decline in cultivator population: It is true that small and marginal farmers leave the land fallow due to lack of inputs and work as agricultural laborers on large farms. This is one of the prime reasons for increase in population of agricultural laborers and decline in population of cultivators. Some small and marginal farmers even shift to non-agricultural jobs.
·         The access of markets for small and marginal farmers is crucial and should be looked into.
·         Livestock: Most small and marginal farmers keep  livestock. Thus, integrated farming is a common way to survive for them. Credit and insurance is the key for integrated farming to succeed.
·         Mechanization: Mechanization is important for small and marginal farmers but not motorized mechanization. The focus should not be on fossil fuels but equipments like solar pumps or treadle pumps. However, mechanization displaces labor and any labor-displacing technologies will put people out of work.
·         Co-operative Equipment Park: Co-operative equipment parks should be promoted where a person should be paid for maintaining and taking care of farm equipments. Small and marginal farmers can then lease the equipments as and when required.
·         Co-operative Farming: Co-operatives have failed in India because farmers prefer cropping as individuals. Co-operative farming can work if it has a flavor of both individual and collective farming – collective farming. Farmers can  continue to cultivate as individuals and sell collectively.

Agricultural Extension
·         Agricultural extension services require immediate attention
·         Replacing earlier agricultural extension services (where extension officers used to visit the fields) with ATMA (where farmers have to go to extension officers) has been disastrous. It should be reversed as soon as possible.
·         There is no accountability under ATMA. Farmers are not aware where ATMA offices are located. Besides, ATMA is a den of corruption.
·         Young high school students can be hired and trained to conduct extension programs
·         Programs should also focus on skill building, so that farmers can themselves do the next level of processing before selling

·         Seed production should be localized in order to increase the access of quality seeds in India.
·         Foundation seed can be given to farmers to multiply
·         There are enough good quality varieties in the major food crops ( with the exception perhaps of pulses). New varieties need not be developed .Existing seeds varieties have enough genetic potential to give high yields, if farmers are enabled to provide adequate inputs to their fields.
·         Role of private sector in seed production and distribution is limited unless they work with farmer interest in mind. Raking in profits for themselves at the cost of the farmers is not acceptable.
·         Private partnership is good if they can scale up the capacity in rural areas. In many cases, private sector indulges in contract farming and later backs off. For example, in Karnataka, farmers dumped tomatoes on roads because the private sector backed off from the contract. Private sector contracts should be carefully looked into and only protected contracts should be allowed.


·         MGNREGA is a  populist program with no vision. The work revolves around digging ditches. No productive work is done under MGNREGA, no sensible infrastructure is created and no skill building takes place so the people remain as unskilled labor.

·         MGNREGA has led to shortage of agricultural labor and increase in negotiating power of agricultural labor.
·         Implementation of MGNREGA is seriously affected by corruption. Workers are paid much lower than notified wages and

Central Government Support
·         Central government has supported the agriculture sector by launching programs and allotting funds to the sector. However, all the funds are transferred directly to state governments for implementation of the programs and not even half of the funds are utilized. As a result, most of the programs that go from central government to state governments fail.
·         Government is averse to working with civil society, which is a silly and self defeating position.   Role of civil society needs to be appreciated  as they are in touch with both the government and the farmers and can be the bridge between them. An international donor organization can also work with the civil society. Civil societies bring in more accountability than government agencies.

Market access
·         APMC has created more cronies and middle men
·         With e-marketing today the farmer’s  access to markets everywhere is easy and possible
·         A key area for government policy and intervention is to train farmers to build value chains and provide linkages to markets

GM Seeds
·         The way GM technology is presently used in India is risky.
·         For the use of GM seeds
1.       Need should be assessed- which problems doe the farmer face ? Can these be resolved by conventional breeding ? If not, which GM approach would be feasible ? Where for instance was the need for .Bt brinjal ?
2.       If the GM approach is chosen as the  alternative solution, proper bio-safety testing is a must before a GM crop could be introduced.
3.       Proper biosafety testing is not being done because it costs money and everyone is trying to cut corners. This is dangerous.
·         So far, it is the private players which are creating the market in India. Monsanto has the two main genes in use- Bt and HT. Their prime motive appears to be  to license their technology to as many agencies as possible. They do not assess farmers  need and do not want to get into seed production , especially in low production crops such as pulses .

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Food Security Act is flawed but it’s not in conflict with WTO provisions

Suman Sahai
The recent Food Security Act passed by the UPA is indeed a politically opportunistic measure aimed at electoral gains for the Congress party but there is so much else wrong with the Act apart from the supposed friction points it offers to the WTO. In my view, these friction points are misplaced In calculating the Aggregate Measure of Support (AMS) in the Agreement of Agriculture of the WTO, it is producer subsidies that are to be kept in check so as not to exceed the permitted subsidy levels. We should point out to the WTO that the subsidies given in the Food security Act are not producer subsidies but rather consumer subsidies , provided as a welfare measure to the poor and indigent. This should not be construed as violation under AMS commitments.
The distinction between producer and consumer subsidy will have to be intelligently and forcefully argued.
For that the team entrusted to put forth India’s case, will need to understand the nuances of the WTO and the kinds of relief it offers to trading partners when things are going  radically against their interest. This is not to say the WTO provisions are benign towards developing countries but to say that developing countries need to build their skills to extract the maximum benefit from existing provisions.
One thing is clear though. India cannot and must not mortgage its future by granting concessions in food imports as a quid pro quo to getting this faulty law accepted by the WTO, just because it suits the certain political interests.
Importing food is tantamount to importing unemployment on the farm and depriving the farmer of the opportunity to produce what he can. Food imports will mean large scale dumping of agricultural produce by major agriculture producers who subsidize their produce at high levels. This will mean Indian markets being flooded with foreign foods, even as our own farmers are driven off their farms because they cannot compete with the highly subsidized foods coming from outside.
Having said that, I believe the impending potential dispute with the WTO should be viewed as a god send to rectify the really botched up , ham handed Food Security Act that the Congress is going to town with.
This country needs a legislation to provide food and nutrition security to its disadavantaged people but this Food Security Act will not do that.
How about this : India withdraws the Food Security Act and presents it to Parliament for amendments. If the lilly livered Opposition can get its courage together , it can happen and the country can get another shot at getting a legislation that honestly tries to sort out food and nutrition for the poor.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Elections win over hunger

 Suman Sahai

The problem of correctly identifying BPL beneficiaries is a real hurdle to getting food to the poor. How does the ordinance aim to address this?

Politics has won over concern for the poor and the government has pushed the Food Security Bill through an ordinance. Images of the Congress top brass are flooding TV screens, shyly taking credit for this great bonanza for the poor. Congress leaders are making non-stop statements about how the Congress Party, under the leadership of Mrs Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, has fought all odds (read the Bharatiya Janata Party) to get food to the poor. It’s been a political coup and the BJP must admit that it has been sledge-hammered by its own brand of ninny politics.

While there have been supporters of the Food Security Bill in civil society, notably the Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council, many others have opposed the bill, calling it opportunistic, political gimmickry and plain unworkable. The well intentioned Right to Food Campaign was unwilling to extend the contours of the bill and include the production of food in its demands, so even those who challenged the government draft restricted themselves to the distribution of food, which is only what the Food Security Bill is all about.

According to the ordinance, five kg of rice or wheat or millets per month will be given to a beneficiary at subsidised rates of `3, `2 and `1 respectively. A family of five will therefore be entitled to receive 25 kgs of grain per month under the food law. The Bill aims to cover 75 per cent of rural India, of which 46 per cent lives below the poverty line (BPL), and 50 per cent of urban India, of which 20 per cent is BPL. According to the government, 67 per cent of all Indians will be the priority group for the Food Security Bill, which means close to 85 crore Indians will be entitled to avail subsidised grain.
Far from taking pride in this figure, we should be shocked that the government is willing to put so many people on dole to win an election but is not willing to take steps to support farmers, strengthen agriculture and food production and make people self-reliant.
At a meeting some months before the ordinance, minister of state for consumer affairs, food and public distribution K.V. Thomas stated that about 65 million tons of foodgrain will have to be procured to implement the bill. Taking all factors into account, the total cost to the government at current prices would be about `1,40,000 crore since the state governments are passing on the transportation costs and commissions.

Mr Thomas conceded that storage capacity was not adequate to hold the procured grain and would need to be increased. If all goes according to plan, the ordinance will roll out in six months, but will the storage space be available by then, or will we again be shocked by mountains of grain rotting in the open?

A major problem of the current food support schemes is the large number of bogus registrations under the BPL category. Correctly identifying BPL beneficiaries is the real hurdle. How does the ordinance aim to address this problem? A Planning Commission report says that “about 58 per cent of the subsidised food grains issued from the Central pool do not reach the BPL households because of identification errors, non-transparent operation and unethical practices in the implementation of targeted PDS”.
The government’s spokespersons say that once the Aadhar programme comes into play and Unique Identification Numbers (UIDs) are allotted, the problem will be fixed. But how? All we may get to know is that these numbers or those did not get the rations they are entitled to. How will implementing the Aadhar scheme ensure that the people in the BPL list are those who are genuinely in need and not the favoured of local politicians? BPL lists are notoriously false.

In Jharkhand, a Gene Campaign study showed how muddled and biased the situation is with respect to those entitled to receive food support. Many of the poorest and infirm were unaware that they were entitled to food allocations; they were simply left out because they could not press their case. The lists sent up by the panchayat included the names of family members and political supporters, people to be granted favours. How will the UID fix this problem? Or how will it stop the hijacking of food or the hoarding and black-marketing of grains?

As several policy inputs have recommended, the only realistic way of tackling the leaking public distribution system is to decentralise procurement and distribution, increase public participation and transparency. This can be best done by procuring the grain (and other foods) locally. The closer the procurement centre is to the distribution centre, the greater the possibility of people’s vigilance and, therefore, diminished opportunities for pilferage. But in the current scheme, grain procurement will still be done from “surplus” states like Andhra Pradesh, Punjab and Haryana and shipped thousands of kilometers away. The long transport route will continue to leak food all the way and Aadhar or no Aadhar, it will be difficult to plug the pilfering. So wastage of grain is likely to remain high during procurement, storage, transportation and distribution and there is nothing apparent in the food ordinance that will tackle these problems.

There can be no question that the government must do all it can to provide food security to the poor and handicapped, but this cynical bill, with its eye on the 2014 polls, is not any answer to the problems of hunger and malnutrition. The people of India are entitled to a better deal than this politically opportunistic bill. If the government is unwilling to listen, can the Opposition force the new ordinance back to the drafting board and give people an opportunity to draft another, better law?
The writer, chairperson of Gene Campaign, is a scientist and development activist. She can be reached at

Source The Asian Age; 09 July 2013,

Monday, July 8, 2013


Suman Sahai

Many of us who live and work in Uttarakhand have seen this disaster coming. Environmental groups have tried, unsuccessfully, to warn of the coming tragedy but no one was listening. Iam not sure they are listening now either. Their eyes glazed over with the prospect of billions to be made from the rape of the Himalayas and the destruction of the livelihoods of the mountain people, the builders, contractors and their partners in crime in Dehradun and Delhi are not deterred by this blip of human and environmental catastrophe .
Those in Delhi can take solace in the fact that the Tehri dam , that swollen grenade waiting to burst its casing, is still standing. It may not be standing in its quiet corner for very long  in the youngest, most fragile mountain of the world,  if the  relentless assault on the Himalayas  continues. The fractured rocks of this young and still emerging mountain range, considered exceedingly fragile and unstable by geologists, will not be able to withstand  the instability caused by repeated blasting of the mountains to make roads, resorts and installations. The day the Tehri  dam collapses, the waters, it is anticipated, will reach Delhi, totally submerging Haridwar and Rishikesh  and sweeping aside everything  in its path.
A friend described a  trip to Uttarkashi  where they had gone to make a collection of botanical specimens last year . As they rattled along in their government issue jeep,  they heard a rumbling, then sounds like thunder claps and in seconds a river of rocks and stones poured down the hillside. They were in the way and it was because the driver practically  stood on the brakes that the jeep stopped a whisker short. What shook the travellers was the speed and velocity with which huge boulders and rocks came down. It was the speed with which the rocks and slush poured into Kedarnath this time  that left no time for escape.
 The contractor who had nearly killed this team of scientists came running to apologise.  He admitted that they would be blasting at several  sites and was shaken enough to confess that no safety norms were adhered to,  to cut costs. He added that by the time he had greased palms from top to bottom, to get the contract, his operating budget was considerably reduced and if he did not cut corners, he could not complete the work and make his (substantial) profit . We know this modus  from many other schemes and projects where bridges and houses collapse, roads get washed away and people lose their lives.  In this grotesque  business scheme where an unscrupulous nexus of the ungodly rake in milions , loss of human lives and property is par for the course.
Tubewells are being dug through the fragile geological layers in Uttarakhand  in perversely designed programs to provide drinking water. The current administration has refused to listen to geologists who have warned that fracturing layers of  rock , going down several hundred feet in this manner  was a recipe for disaster since the drilling would destabilize the formations and cause instability.
I am filled with apprehension  when I read that Rs 1000 crore have been allocated for the rehabilitation of Uttarakhand and appeals have been sent out in the name of the Chief minister’s Fund, the Prime Minister’s Fund  and so forth. The people of this country have begun to pour in contributions to help the people of Uttarakhand  rebuild their lives. On the other hand, speculation is already on about how much of the 1000 crore grant  will be siphoned off along the chain of bureaucrats , politicians and their partners in crime, with estimates  going  up to 800 to 900 crores!  Some fat cats are going to get fatter and the lives of the poor mountain people will not improve. Some roads  will be patched up to get washed away next monsoon, some families will get a tenth of their entitlement to rebuild  a room or two in their houses. Fake registers will be filled up to show relief materials have been delivered to ‘beneficiaries- that dreadful word. And the sleazy and powerful in India will continue to build empires on the misery  of the poor.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Indigenous knowledge is a form of science — don't ignore it

Suman Sahai

3rd June, 2013

It is time to stop discounting traditional expertise and make use of this vast and valuable resource, argues Indian scientist Suman Sahai.

Science and technology have always been an important part of growth and development plans. But accepted 'scientific expertise' is Western, standardised and homogenous. From this viewpoint, the vast body of scientific expertise developed in diverse societies and cultures is discounted and ignored.

Referred to as indigenous or traditional knowledge, this is a knowledge system distilled from generations of scientific work anchored in rural and tribal communities. It is different to the Western system of empirical, lab-based science — but is equally valid and efficacious.

It is time to recognise that there are different kinds of sciences and scientific expertise, and that all of them should be used for development and problem-solving.


  • Indigenous knowledge has been fine-tuned over millennia, but developing countries ignore it
  • It is myopic to rely on just one form of scientific expertise
  • China and India are leading the way by supporting both traditional and Western medicine
 The Knowledge that evolved

Indigenous knowledge has developed from understanding and documenting the processes in nature. An iteration of practices over time has led to products and processes that are based on sound scientific principles.

Take plant extracts for example. Observing that animals did not eat certain plants and assuming that this was because they were toxic, communities took extracts and tested them for a range of uses. Many were, and still are, used as pesticides in agriculture, in bait to catch fish or to treat maggot infestations in livestock.

Because plants differ across ecological zones, each region has developed products and uses based on their regional flora. Indigenous science is diverse, and it is efficacious in the particular context in which it is used.

Similarly, in indigenous medicine, the plants used in traditional Chinese medicine will be different to those used in India, Indonesia or Myanmar — but all these healing systems will cure many diseases effectively. Even today, almost 80 per cent of the population of some Asian and African countries rely on indigenous systems for primary healthcare. [1]

Indigenous knowledge is not a panacea, but it offers as valid a route for treatment as any other. Just as Western medicine cannot cure a common cold or many chronicdiseases, traditional medicines may not be as effective as antibiotics in rapidly controlling infections.

But it has some advantages. Antibiotics lead to side effects (which could range from allergies and rashes to more serious effects like toxicity) and bacteria can ultimately become resistant to them; traditional healing is more broad-based and holistic, designed as much to prevent disease as to cure it.

Practical approach to problem-solving

Indigenous knowledge includes knowledge accumulated over thousands of years, making it particularly useful for problem-solving. Communities have vetted solutions and knowledge systems over time, retaining only the efficacious ones.

When the December 2004 tsunami struck the Andaman and Nicobar Islands of India, it was feared that local tribal communities would have perished. But this was not the case: they had correctly read the signs of an impending tsunami and retreated to high ground. [2]

In foodproduction, the hallmarks of traditional science include knowledge of genetic diversity, the suitability of crop varieties to different land and soil types, and the use of agronomic practices to minimise risk of crop losses. There are various options available for growing food under almost any agro-ecological condition.

It is a pity that this knowledge is rarelyused. Instead, most research establishments support the dominant system of food production that involves resource-intensive agriculture, which may work for well-off farmers on large farms, but comes at a huge ecological cost.

If rural and tribal communities in India have developed and conserved almost 100,000 varieties of rice based on knowledge of their properties, or the communities of the Andean highlands have developed thousands of varieties of potato, or those in Mexico several thousand varieties of maize, then it is because there is a strong empirical basis to this endeavour.

Policy disconnect

But governments and policymakers, even in developing countries that are home to indigenous scientific expertise, accept only Western-style science as the basis of evidence-based policymaking.

A colonial past has nurtured a 'look West' elite who take their Western inclinations into policy formulation. The education, lifestyle and ignorance of these leaders, even their rejection of indigenous traditions, have a cost for countries that confine their ability to solve problems to Western science.

It is in the global community's interest to examine all available forms of scientific knowledge and expertise. It is myopic to rely on just one approach when several are available.

Developing countries, in particular, do themselves a great disservice by neglecting the problem-solving and enriching potential of their own traditions of science, which are locally valid and accepted.

Despite India having a vast repertoire of indigenous medicine, its healthcare system is based on Western-style medicine, which is expensive and difficult to take into remote villages. The logical approach would be to rely largely on indigenous medicine and include the Western system where needed. After years of neglect for traditional medicine, this is finally beginning to happen, with efforts to include it in healthcare systems.

China has charted a different course, with the government supporting the development of both Western and traditional medicine in its healthcare system through research on what is called 'integrative medicine'. [3]

Why should systems of science be standardised, and why should academics and policymakers demand this? A scientific system's validity lies not in its being credible everywhere, but in its being credible in the culture where it was developed and where it has provided solutions.

Countries that are repositories of indigenous scientific expertise should make this mainstream. Investing adequate resources in indigenous science and expanding the base of education and training in traditional knowledge systems will help to neutralise the bias against them and assist their inclusion in official policy.

People and governments have to move away from the narrow thinking that the Western style of science is the only science there is.

Suman Sahai is founder and chair of Gene Campaign, an organisation dedicated to the conservation of genetic resources and indigenous knowledge, and to working towards ensuring food, nutrition and livelihood security for rural and tribal communities. She can be contacted at


1.       1] WHO Traditional Medicine (WHO, 2008)

[2] Bhaumik, S. Tsunami folklore 'saved islanders' (BBC News, 2005)

[3] Chinese Journal of Integrative Medicine doi: 10.1007/s116550–110–601-x (2011)