Monday, August 29, 2011

Sustainable Development: 20 Years after Rio

Far away from the uproarious crowd that gathered at the Ramlila Maidan where Anna Hazare was fasting for bringing a strong Jan Lokpal Bill, a serious discussion on sustainable agriculture, climate change and food security took place at the auditorium of Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Teen Murti on 26 August, 2011. A lecture entitled Sustainable Development: 20 years after Rio was delivered by Dr. MS Swaminathan, Member of Parliament and eminent agricultural economist as a part of the lecture series-“Analysing and Envisioning India” that was held by Centre for Media Studies. The entire session was chaired by KS Rao, Member of Parliament and Farmers’ leader.  

Dr. Swaminathan in his lecture informed that the Earth Summit was held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. He mentioned about the Brundtland Commission, Convention on Climate Change, Convention on Biological Diversity and Montreal Protocol. He said that in the Rio Earth Summit, desertification was a key theme for discussion. As per the Kyoto Protocol, first period emission reduction commitments expire at the end of 2012. The year 2010 was celebrated as the international year of biological diversity. Awareness about climate change cannot work alone since awareness must lead to analysis, which in turn should give rise to action.

In India, the Prime Minister’s Council on Climate Change covers 8 different themes. The PM’s Council envisages a 3 tier system: Panchayat level Management Committees, State level Biodiversity Board and a National level body. Unlike India, China has a policy on Agenda 21. Before the Stockholm Conference (1972), sustainability meant economic viability. It was Smt. Indira Gandhi who first talked about social sustainability during the Stockholm Conference on Human Environment (1972). Ideally, social sustainability should be followed by environmental sustainability and then by economic sustainability, Swaminathan added.

The theme of Rio + 20, which is to be held next year is green economy. The global warming cap should be 2o c above mean temperature. The worst consequences of climate change are: serious flooding, drought, sea level rise, melting of glaciers and rise in temperature. The well to do nations who pollute more, should take more responsibility in capping greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Swaminathan expected the impact of climate change to be more in poor countries. He predicted climate change to affect poor in all countries. For every 1o c rise in temperature, there will be a fall in the production of wheat by 6 million tonnes in the grain bowl of India i.e. Punjab, Haryana and Western UP.

With climate change, pests and diseases would start affecting human beings. Swaminathan informed about Ug 99 rust, which may cause crop damage in the wake of climate change. At present stem rust could be observed in southern states like Karnataka. However, with the rise in temperature, stem rust could be seen in Punjab and Haryana. This is a matter of concern for food security. Research in anticipation is the need. Drought tolerant breed can be developed through genetic modification.

Swaminathan emphasized that monsoon and the market determine the well being of Indian farmers. The MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF, has developed a training module for climate risk managers. Swaminathan recommended for carbon assimilation in ocean and soil. He said that India has moved from product based subsidy to nutrient based subsidy. Adaptation and mitigation are required. GHG emission from agriculture has to be reduced. Biogas plant is the best tool to stop climate change. Construction of farm ponds needs to be promoted. Agro forestry system should be encouraged.

Swaminathan informed that global price volatility has gone up recently. Brazil, Russia and China have gone through difficult phase. Maize is increasingly used for biofuel production in the US. In 2007-08 prices went up since petroleum prices increased. In the forthcoming 20-25 years, India’s population will rise from 1.2 billion to 1.5 billion. India can no longer afford to import foodgrains like what it did under PL-480. He emphasized that the future of India lies in grains not in guns.

MS Swaminathan informed that recently the FAO Committee on World Food Security (CFS) has prepared two reports—one on land grab in Africa and the other on price volatility.

The Government of India does not support minimum support price (MSP) policy for any grain except rice and wheat. India has recently imported cheaper Arhar dal, which has adversely affected the domestic farmers. There is not enough coordination between the department that takes decision on exports and imports of crops and the department that forecasts crop production. Crop holidaying by farmers can be reduced by paying better MSP to farmers. Following the recommendation of the National Commission on Farmers that the Minimum Support Price (MSP) for foodgrains should be C2 (total cost of production) plus 50 per cent, the government has substantially increased the MSP in the case of wheat and rice, Swaminathan added.             

Agro-ecological farming needs to be encouraged. Food inflation has recently touched 10 percent. Milk price has increased since fodder and feed have become costlier. Fodder and feed constitute 70% of milk price. Meat consumption has gone up. Poultry is now consumed more. So, demand for grains (maize) has risen, which has pushed up prices. The Government of India has now decided to rename the coarse cereals or millets as nutri cereals.

Swaminathan regretted that farmers are considered as dumb despite being enterprising. The younger generation does not want to do farming. The Rio Summit wanted to reduce ecological footprint. There are methodological problems associated with calculating ‘ecological debt’.

India needs to do capacity building of climate risk managers, community hunger fighters and ecological footprint managers.

For mitigating the effects of climate change, potato cultivation has to embrace disease free seed tubers. There are genes that may be of help in climate resilience.

World over, there are 1,50,000 varieties of rice. In the US, there is shrinking in varieties of crops. People in Koraput practice multiple cropping.

Swaminathan talked about biovillage paradigm of gram swaraj, which is based on human centric development and relies on two basic pillars—sustainable livelihood and natural resource conservation.       
Swaminathan cautioned against discarding the microcredit revolution altogether since it has the potential to reduce poverty. He informed that his new book from Cambridge University Press is on “Biohappiness”.    

Stressing biodiversity, Swaminathan recalled Nehru’s famous line: “We are a poor people inhabiting a rich country”. He referred to Anil Gupta of Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad who is doing research on indigenous people’s contribution to sustainable development.      

Swaminathan said that nowadays pure breeds of cows and buffaloes are found only in Brazil and Bulgaria instead of India. India only possesses the database of such breeds. Proportionate to its body weight, the Vechur cow found in Kerala yields maximum milk in the world. The Pashmina goat is in danger since it is difficult for it to find food during winter.

Nearly, 36.8 percent of panchayat representatives or members in India are women. Swaminathan asked for gender audit of the state of demography and nutrition. Water is going to be a major issue in the forthcoming years.

He informed that when he was chairing the National Commission on Farmers, he asked for the Indira Gandhi Canal to be developed into a Special Agricultural Zones (SAZ). Swaminathan emphasized on SAZ instead of SEZ.    

Presently, there is emphasis on “pulses and oilseeds village” in rainfed areas on the part of government (under Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana) where rainwater harvesting is promoted. He informed that the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) has developed salt tolerant plants in Vedaranyam, Nagapattinam in order to commemorate Vedaranyam Salt Satyagraha March. There exists a genetic garden of halophytes at Vedaranyam, which has been developed to mitigate the impact of climate change on agriculture.          

Seawater farming and aquaculture are encouraged by MSSRF. Integrated seawater farming is taking place in Chidambaram. Kuttanad where seawater farming is done would soon become a heritage site. Bangladesh and Kerala could produce climate refugees in the wake of climate change as they are situated near sea. Mangroves are the genetic shield against sea level rise.

The MGNREGS should encourage watershed development. There is a need to marry intellect with labour. Labour and technology needs to be merged for watershed management. Mobile crèches, which was initially envisaged by Meera Mahadevan should be promoted in order to help women labourers employed under NREGS. Balwadis could be developed as well. Beyond the 100 days programme under NREGS, there should be adult literacy programmes for the labourers. Skill development of workers can be done beyond their 100 days of employment. The Food Security law to be enacted should provide food with dignity that respects the self-esteem and prestige of the NREGA workers. The NREGA programme should award workers for successful completion of watershed projects. So far the real beneficiaries are those who got the 6th Pay Commission and not the poor people.

MSSRF has opened up village knowledge centres. The Jamsetji Tata National Virtual Academy (NVA) fellows are experts in digital technology though most of them have studied till class X.

MS Swaminathan said that bridging the digital divide (via village Internet kiosks) would reduce the gender gap. Women are increasingly benefitting from ICTs. The potential of rural India has to be recognized.

He gave a short history of green revolution. The green revolution was brought about by the Sikh farmers. Fatigue of green revolution include: declining growth in the yield of rice/ wheat production, reduced ground water, water logging, poor quality of water, lack of micronutrients in soil.

The evergreen revolution imagines sustainable agriculture. Sustainable agriculture will depend on our ability to eliminate both unsustainable life styles and unacceptable poverty. Unfortunately both are growing in our country. Private warehousing is being advocated by the government for foodgrain storage. If the producers of food are malnourished, then that is not a good sign. The growers of food need to be empowered, Swaminathan added.    

In the Q&A session, KS Rao said that rise in MSP of foodgrains may benefit the farmers but it can also cause inflation in food prices which can adversely affect the consumers. A fine balance needs to be maintained to serve the interests of both farmers and consumers. There is a consensus among political parties in raising the MSP. Neither cash transfers nor PDS are totally leakage free. There is a debate going on between PDS and cash transfers. Earlier cash subsidy was given to manufacturers of inputs and it helped mainly the rich farmers. Cash transfers to the bank account of farmers would end corruption and help the poor too.

Finally, Admiral Tahiliani presented the role model award to Dr. MS Swaminathan.