INDIA: feed the hungry - tackle corruption!
"We have poured money out. The people have got nothing back; no irrigation, no water, no increase in production, and no help in their daily life'. Rajiv Gandhi.
My earlier article described the mess that Indian agriculture is in. For the 750 million people living in its 680,000 villages, only half have all-weather roads; most do not have proper health centres or half decent schools. Half of all women cannot read. Each year, a million infants die from diarrhoea; nearly a half of under-five year olds are 'chronically malnourished'. Tonight, like every night, 300 million Indians will go to sleep on an empty stomach. As Martin Wolf of the Financial Times said:
"It's an outrage".
It need never be, if India's politicians pulled their socks up! Ever since Manmohan Singh became Prime Minister in 2004, he put India's economic challenge as how to modernise its agriculture and how to provide more jobs for its 450 million under employed workers. Here, we discuss the first challenge: agriculture. There are four major problems that need to be tackled in solving India's food needs.
One - water:
When India's Constitution was written in 1950, it spelt out the country's key functions: to eliminate hunger and provide clean water to all its citizens. Yet Fred Pearce (in his book: When The Rivers Run Dry, 2003) describes India's water conditions of today as a "colossal anarchy". He is right. Its water supplies are fast disappearing, too much sewage ends up (illegally) on farm land, some of its water gets polluted by textile factories and then used for drinking or irrigating the fields.
Pearce tells the story of Jitbhai Chowdhury from Kushkai, a small village in northern Gujarat. Local officials see him as the most efficient farmer for miles around. He uses manure and natural pesticides made on his family farm by soaking roadside weeds in water. He grows fruit trees around the edge of his fields and tends his cattle with care. He milks his cows each morning and evening, and delivers it for the state dairy. A perfect organic dairy farm!
Yet underneath this perfection lies a crisis.
There is madness in the water economics that underpin this enterprise. He has just five acres: land that would otherwise be a virtual desert if it was not for his abundant use of water. He has a small pump that brings the water to the surface - 3,200 gallons of water an hour. It takes him 64 hours to irrigate his fields - a task he does 24 times a year mostly to grow (water guzzling) alfalfa to feed his cows. His farm's main output is 6.5 gallons of milk a day. The arithmetic for that comes out at roughly 2,000 gallons of water for every gallon of milk.Calculated by the year, it means that Jitbhai is taking out from below the surface of his farm twice as much water as falls there in rain. The water table is now 500 feet down. It is getting twenty feet deeper each year.
But who cares? Jitbhai's electricity comes heavily subsidised as it does to all Indian farmers, courtesy of the government. Each farmer, with enough money to buy a pump, will do the same. Jitbhai knows what he is doing cannot last. "But what can I do?", he says. "I have to live. If I don't pump up the water, then my neighbours will".
Pearce points out that India began to build 246 large surface water projects in the thirty years before 1986; a time when Rajiv Gandhi complained that only a quarter of them had ever been completed.
Modern India has kept its population properly fed (well, most of them), thanks to the green revolution, sustained largely by irrigated water. But much of the South and the East-Central 'poverty square' is drought prone. So where did all his water come from? Such abundant supplies of water came from somewhere. The answer, says Pearce, is from under the soil. The green revolution was watered by plundering the India's underground water.
The International Water Management Institute (IMWI) estimates more than 21 millon farmers (about a quarter) in India now tap these underground reserves to water their fields. India has spent $21 billion on pumps and boreholes in the last twenty years. There are now more than a million new pumps being used to pump this water in India each year. Indian farmers are drawing about 200 million acre feet of water each year. That is about 80 million acre feet more than the rains replace. This is used to irrigate at least two thirds of India's crops. As Tushaar Shah (from the IWMI) points out: "Indian famers are living in a fool's paradise". Farmers are drawing water that the rains don't replenish. It means that 200 million Indian farmers could face a future without any water to draw.
Two thirds of Tamil Nadu's hand-dug wells have already failed. Only a half as much of the state's land is irrigated as a decade ago. There are 15,000 abandoned wells around Coimbatore, the state capital. Whole areas in states like Tamil Nadu and Gujarat are emptying of people. As everyone knows, there are a spate of farmer suicides each year. Farmers are using excessive supplies of subsidized electricity to draw this water. Half the power supplies in fact. This costs $5 billon a year; more than one percent of GDP. While there is no easy way out, this cannot continue!
Two - corruption:
There's a widely quoted equation in India: "M + D = C" (Monopoly plus Discretion equals Corruption). India's rate of corruption is high. Transparency International rates India at 72 among 180 countries, along with Mexico and Peru. China's corruption is less! Thailand's even less. This corruption cancer eats at the fabric of society: it undermines India's ability to fix its poverty problems, in spite of growth and affluence at the top. Until it tackles corruption, aid money will seep through its system, ending up in the pockets of politicians and civil servants. But people at the top can't work out how the help poor people need so badly fails to reache them! Will politicians ever change? Too many hands still reach into India's honeypots. Prime ministers come; prime ministers go. They promise change. Nothing happens!
Officials freely admit it. Civil servants publish the figures every year. Eighty percent of subsidised food gets stolen. Electricity? Water? 'Fair price' food? The new rural employment laws? All ruled by corruption. Roads go unimproved. Rubbish stays uncollected. Factories pollute the rivers with toxic waste, and everyone decries it! Nothing happens. The govenment still plans to send a human into space before 2010!
In the Civil Service, making money on the side is universal. Rajiv Ganghi, its biggest critic, estimated 85 percent of all development spending was pocketed by bureaucrats. "You are accused of exagerating", some said. Others thought his guesswork was precise. Naresh Chandra (former cabinet secretary) told Luce: "corruption has reached such proportions in India, I sometimes wonder how much longer we can bear it". Pratap Bhanu Mehtra, a political scientist, says in his book (The Burden of Democracy, 2003): "At almost every point where citizens are governed, at every transaction where they are noted, registered, taxed, stamped, licensed, authorities, or assessed, the impression of being open for negotiation is given".
"In India, corruption is the system" (another cabinet secretary). Thus:
Indian state's failure of its food subsidies for those living below the poverty line is the first. Edward Luce (in his book on modern India, quoted in my earlier article) says that all Indian corruption studies point to 'a massive and glaring 'diversion' of public food from those supposed to be targeted'. The rates vary: in Tamil Nadu and Kerala - about twenty per cent; in the state of Bihar - more than eighty per cent. The all-India average - a quarter to a half gets stolen. Says Luce: "It conveys a pattern of routine larceny at all levels of the state".
Again: New Dehli's water board has 15 times as many 'workers' per kilometre of water pipe than the average for an industrialised city in the West. Those employees have a vested interest in resisting change! The city has a pretty good water supply. Luce says that if it worked properly, New Delhi could provide over 200 litres a day to all its population. But it doesn't! New Delhi has a population of fifteen million plus. Most receive little or no water. The poor usually buy water from the private 'water mafia'. The water bills that residents pay don't cover ten percent of delivery costs. The slums usually get none of it. Most water goes to the middle classes. Sheila Dikshit, Chief Minister (ie. Mayor) of New Delhi, says she employs thousands of sanitation workers: many don't turn up for work and there's nothing she can do about it! If you think New Delhi has its problems, consider Mumbai. It used to be a desirable place for city dwellers to live: not any longer. Now, it's New Dehli. Why? One reason is that it's governed by what Luce calls 'the most inept Congress in the India'.
Three - crops:
The yield of Indian farmers' staples is only half that of Chinese staples! Indian farmers grow the wrong (water guzzling) crops, when they don't have enough water. They grow too much rice and wheat when they already have enough. Edward Luce points out they should be growing labour intensive fresh vegetables and fruits - mangoes, lychees, bananas, cherries, aubergines, okra. All sorts. (I don't know enough about the specifics that go with each climate zone). There is a huge demand for them from all those health conscious, rich middle classes. In Thailand, a jumbo-jet, filled with fresh produce flies to Britain every day. Why not India? The labour involved in growing vegetables and fruit is fifteen times more than needed to grow staples. That would increase rural labour demand along with small farmer incomes.
India desperately needs proper agricultural advice services. Above all, it needs to reform its regressive system of food subsidies. The incentive system needs to change so that farmers can properly adapt to these new demands!
Michael Lipton, adviser to Britain's Department for International Development, points out that agricultural economic history since 1700 (yes 1700!) shows that growth in non farm labour follows growth in small farm productivity. This important point is lost on the experts obssessed with large scale agriculture! Small farmers need proper help: lots of it, if they are to adapt!
Four - infrastructure:
India desperately needs better roads, ports, railways, and airports! Nothing new about that. Ten years ago the Sri Lanka government improved a quarter of all its rural roads to its 18,000 villages each year! Why not India? Indeed, why not? India's rural infrastructure is dismal. More all-weather roads to link villagers to their towns and markets. Decent rural schools, proper teachers, health centres that work, more trained midwives and doctors in the villagers. All rural people have the right to a proper start in life, and to be competent in modern day farming techniques, or to mend a motorbike. There needs to be support for chicken farming to boost India's impoverished villagers, as well as increase export earnings. Farmers also need reliable electricity; clean water; and a proper charging system for both so that people do not waste them.
So what can be done?
Lots and lots of things, and more - too much to write here. Wait for another article!
Referencs: I have drawn on four sources:
Michael Lipton: unpublished paper (ND) for the UK Dept for International Development, on the significance of small farms for the growth of agriculture; Edwards Luce's book on modern India (quoted before), and of course, Fred Pearce's When the Rivers Run Dry (2003), as well as P.B. Mehta's The Burden of Democracy (2003).
An apology: India is a big place. It's very complex! Most of us in the Global North know next to nothing about it. (Ask us how many of its 29 states we can name!) I've probably made some huge mistakes in this piece. Pray: please tell me, Indian readers, where!