Sustainability: Drought is Straining Society

When a 10 year old Dalit (traditionally oppressed section of the society) girl fell into a well while fetching water for her family all hell broke loose. The local community accused the more well off neighbours for putting up restrictions on getting water from nearby well and demanded police action against the village head.
In another incident in the same region a Dalit woman was again stopped from fetching water from the wells of well healed. Her husband was so enraged that he singlehandedly dug a well in 40 days flat. Now his entire community depends on the same well to quench their thirst.
Incidents like these aren’t an aberration but slowly becoming regular as droughts intensify before the promised “good monsoon rainfall” arrives this year.
Two years of indifferent rains and continuous droughts in India has been straining the human life to its limits. It has led to a widespread water shortage across the country. The economic impact of drought has been carefully documented across many states. Even corporate India has calculated the cost of its plummeting sales in rural markets, but one aspect that has consistently slipped from policymakers and thinkers have been the social impact of drought.
The traditional water scarce zones are feeling the heat and age old social rifts and community hurts are rearing their ugly head. This has led to worsening social and law and order situation.
The case mentioned above is from Marathwada area of Maharashtra state, one of the most industrialised and prosperous. The area is traditionally drought prone and even good monsoons don’t firewall it against drought as there are chances that rains may give a miss to the area due to its geographical situation.
The same holds true for the Bundelkhand region in North India. Spread across two states – Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh — the region suffers from extreme drought conditions.
In such a parched environment a jail in Bundelkhand’s Banda district has thrown jail manual out of the window and asked even those criminals to fetch water from outside who face serious criminal charges. The outlawed on the other hand are not running away, not till now, as anywhere they go water shortage will chase them like their shadows. So for now they are staying put but the threat of their escape remains.
For both the states the region is synonymous with backwardness and crime. However, people of this region are very hardworking and self respecting. Nearly 40 years ago in another prolonged drought period, my father visited the region as a government officer to take stock of the situation. He found that in one village the people had got together to clear the silt from their pond and were patiently waiting for the rains to arrive. When my father asked what they wanted from the government, their reply was an emphatic, “nothing”.
A few months ago my friend again visited the same region and met an 80 year old who was busy tending his barren field in the hope of rains. He too told my friend that government can’t bring rain and right now anything other than water is of no use. He told my friend that he believes in god and not in any human intervention anymore.
As the water shortage spreads even this faith in celestial power is waning and with it the patience is running out too. The self respecting are now ready to take law in their own hands. As the reports suggest water trains (trains carrying water tankers to the parched areas are a regular features for decades to meet local water needs) are being guarded by the policemen from the marauding gangsters who loot water trains, fill their tankers and then sell the free water at a premium.
While this is blatant loot, in Maharashtra few days ago a TV sting operation showed that the municipal officers and the local bureaucracy was selling water earmarked for the poor to rich and powerful.
The political leaders aren’t far behind. When a Maharashtra Minister visited a drought hit area 10000 gallons of water were used to irrigate his helipad. Similarly a lot of water was wasted to clean the roads where Karnataka Chief Minister visited to see the impact of drought.
This is a telling commentary on the lackadaisical attitude of our ruling class that fuels lack of faith among people in the government machinery.
Marathwada and Bundelkhand are two extreme cases from where journalists are sending hundreds of stories of lack and suffering. However, there are other regions in India where the problem is intensifying.
Water wells, ponds and tanks were treated as community centres during good old days. However, today they have turned into flashpoints where every drop counts and any delay or denial, real or perceived can trigger vicious physical violence.
Showdowns are just one aspect of deteriorating social conditions. Another silent but far more sinister problem is of distress migration. Left with no work marginal farmers and landless labourers are migrating towards urban areas.
Lack of employment has a direct bearing on the economic and educational background of their children. Many have to drop out of their schools as their parents are out of work and can’t afford to send them to school. In urban areas they would initially be used to earn money to supplement their family’s income. Each one will have to earn their keep.
In such a situation children especially girl child and women are at risk of exploitation. This is the reason many villages in Marathwada and Bundelkhand have witnessed a re-emergence of child marriage. Daughters, as young as 14, are being married off to get rid of liability and offload another mouth to feed.
Media intervention like the story of Sonali Rathod, in Times of India, a few weeks ago saved the girl from forced marriage but for every rescue there are hundreds who succumb to their wretched destiny.
The promised rains will arrive within a month and parched tales of suffering will be drenched by the heavy showers all around. However, beneath the sheets of water and showers the threat of drought returning with vengeance within months will remain potent.

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Climate Change: India, China should move away from rhetoric

Negotiations have entered the final rounds in Paris to strike the deal of the century to save the world from the ill effects of climate change. The goal is to inspire all the 195 member nations of the United Nations to pledge carbon emission cuts to arrest the global temperature rise within the 2 degree centigrade of the pre-Industrial Revolution level. This will help in avoiding catastrophic changes in climate and their disastrous impact on human civilisation.
During the course of negotiations India and China, large Asian economies, have taken a stand that developed countries should share the bigger responsibility of cleaning up the environment. On the face of it the argument is just and valid. Developed countries have been the major polluters historically and are still the biggest emitters in the world.
The top 10 percent of the population or one billion inhabitants living in North America, Western Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand share 50 percent of the total carbon emitted around the world. While the bottom 3.5 billion people in developing nations contribute only 10 percent of the emissions.
So the insistence on developed countries sharing their responsibility is right and logical. However, this is where the insistence should end. When India and China insist that they will retain the right to develop (read pollute) then the argument starts souring. Right to development as propagated by them still means right to pollute and follow the trajectory of development that was pursued by the developed countries during 19th and 20th century.
These nations should take a hard look on their own development trajectory. The policy planners, opinion builders and the leaders should ask one question, will finances and technology transfer from the developed countries be enough to meet the local adaptation and mitigation goals? Isn’t there a need to rethink their development model? Is it not the time to tread a different path when new technologies, management tools and business options are available?
Take the case of India. Last week while the negotiations were on in Paris heavy rains brought flash floods in a metropolis – Chennai. Negotiators were quick to use it as a tool to launch an emotional plea that we are now suffering the worst impact of climate change. The ill effects are no more a distant threat but a present reality.
The tone and tenor was of a helpless victim at the receiving end of extreme weather conditions brought about by climate change which is the result of centuries of carbon emissions caused by the rich North.
An emotional and slick argument, apt for grand standing except that it’s flawed. Chennai floods, as it is now emerging, are a manmade disaster. Extreme climate events have been happening in the past and will keep happening in the future. But the way in which all the environment considerations were throw to winds, all the rules were flouted in building roads, bridges, airport and in one case an Oceanographic Institute, suggest that it was a handiwork of short-sighted politicians, conniving bureaucrats and greedy developers.
It is true that the rains in late November and early December broke all records for the last 100 years, the reality is when that kind of rain lashed the coastal town 100 years ago the devastation was far less as the natural landscape had the ability to absorb the sudden shock of deluge. However, today things are different. Chennai had 600 water bodies in 1980s. Today only 27 are left. Rest have been degraded or completely usurped by the building mafia.
It is because of callous disregard towards natural drainage that today the city suffers the wrath of the rain gods. Chennai is not alone. Mumbai suffered the same fate 10 years ago for the same reasons.
These are the examples from India. China is no different. The same nexus of power elite, builders and bureaucrats have wrecked havoc on their own land. Close to 1.5 million people were displaced to build Three Gorges Dam. Government spin doctors said that the hydro power plant will meet 7 percent of China’s electricity needs. However, today it only meets 1.7 percent of the needs and is becoming a huge environmental challenge. Cases like these are dime a dozen in China and people’s anger is spilling on the streets, something unheard off till recently.
While pursuing this kind of development paradigm and insisting on polluters pay principle is like the pot calling the kettle black. It is like a new criminal insisting that the older one should be penalised as he is new to the game and should be given his clutch of chances to perpetuate the same crimes and then later society can take a call whether it’s time for the new criminal to undergo jail term or not.
China and India are making two grave errors. One by insisting to follow the same model of development and secondly complicating matters further by subverting policy guidelines, flouting norms and mindlessly breaking every law whether natural or manmade.
India and China should understand a historical truth. When developed nations embarked on their journey of development their populations were small, resources abundant and they had leisure in terms of time to make mistakes and learn from them. With us (India and China) none of these things apply.
Our populations are huge, resources limited and stressed and we don’t have the luxury of centuries to make mistakes. We may crib about this historical unfairness but that’s the reality.
India and China should go deep down within their own indigenous knowledge base and timeless wisdom to evolve a new paradigm of sustainable development. They should tread that path with purpose and integrity, show some concrete results and ten ask the developed countries to pay for their historical responsibility.
It is then the rhetoric will morph into a powerful moral argument, something even the most partisan of negotiators will find hard to turn down.

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Solar Alliance: A promising future full of challenges

The 100-nations Solar Alliance launched by the Indian Prime Minister, Mr Narendra Modi, and French President, Francois Hollande, has the potential to kick start the much touted era of green and low carbon economy.
Most of the member nations fall within the two tropics (Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn) and as such receive abundant sunshine (in access of 300 days of uninterrupted solar irradiation). These nations which include sub Saharan and Saharan countries can become the new hot spots for 21st century clean energy.
Solar power technology is versatile in a sense that it can be utilised to generate huge amounts of electricity and process heat and also compressed in bite size to build torches and lamps. This versatility offers a chance for many poor nations which are part of the alliance to embrace the technology for the purpose of energy access to its poorest sections of the society.
More than 100 nations offer huge market for solar manufacturers, battery developers, LED bulbs producers etc. It will unlock a market that would rival any in the energy space. Just how big the solar market will be can be gauged from the fact that just one country – India – alone offers a multi-billion dollar market.
India has been among the few countries working towards mainstreaming solar power in their energy mix. In 2009, just after the failure of Copenhagen Summit, policy planners unveiled an ambitious plan to install 20000 MW of grid connected solar power by 2022. Christened Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission (JNNSM) it was one of the biggest project of its time.
However, that plan dwarfed in front of the revised ambition articulated by the new National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Government at the Centre. Now it wants to install 100 GW (gigawatt) of solar power by the end of the 2022. It means that India needs to install 95000 MW in a span of just 7 years.
Each MW of solar installation costs Rs 7 to 8 crore. It means installing 95000 MW will need an investment of more than Rs 6650000000000 or close to a trillion dollar. Similarly, LED bulbs, batteries, new sockets, fittings, wires, transformers and trained maintenance staff will all create a huge opportunity for employment and economic development.
While this is the sunny side of the story, let’s also take stock of the odds stacked against the sunrise opportunity. Most of the nations in the alliance are either developing or desperately poor. All they have is sunshine. What they lack are funds, trained manpower, access to technology and a deep appreciation among its ruling elite as well as policy planners about the advances made in the renewable energy space.
They are also woefully unaware about the various new business models that have emerged to harness the technology at a local level as well as its strength in meeting greater demands for higher load.
It means that the alliance will have to work on many fronts right from the start. Policy planners will have to be convinced. Developed nations who hold all the aces in terms of technology and finances will have to be engaged and cajoled in sharing technology and coughing up some money. Receiver nations will have to use that money and technology judiciously. They will have to promote home grown research and create a policy and regulatory framework which understands that the technology is still a work in progress and will keep updating and hence making the benchmarks created today irrelevant within a short span of time. Space will have to be created for constant reviews and up-gradation. Also funds will have to be generated within the country to meet the challenges of constant up-gradation and maintenance.
Enthusiasts say that cost of solar power is already coming down so this is the right time to move towards solar. They cite the example of India where the Power Purchase Agreements signed between the solar power producers and the power utility firms have seen a constant decline in per unit of power — From a high of Rs 17 per unit just seven years ago to Rs 4.2 per unit today.
However, this is a case of competitive bidding and does not necessarily reflect the true cost of production in the market. It is yet to be seen whether the producers will be able to sustain and generate quality power over a long period of time or not.
Also a part of declining cost of solar power can be attributed to very high inventory piled up in China, Germany and the US. During the first few years of JNNSM the cost declined as Independent Power Producers (IPPs) bought cheap thin film technology as well as solar panels from China and Germany. These two countries were more than willing to offload their piled up inventory as economic slowdown of 2008 had depressed the demands in both the countries for solar panels.
Now when the markets in 100 nations will open up it will lead to shortage and prices will escalate. It can be rightly argued that due to economies of scale the prices will not hit the roof but some kind of course correction is in store.
However, this is just a small challenge. The bigger problems lie in execution and maintenance of the new power system.
The Alliance secretariat that would be headquartered in Gurgaon, India, will have to work with all the participant nations in evolving a consensus on the quality of equipment that needs to be installed in the first place. Secondly they will have to take a call about which technology to pursue and which one to reject while negotiating technology transfer.
For example in the case of pager technology – it was introduced in India in 1995 when it was almost on the verge of being discarded in the West. Two years later mobiles came in and the entire infrastructure used for pagers was rendered useless. Many people lost their jobs and the equipments were reduced to junk.
The policy planners will have to be careful in weeding out such technologies to save their precious finances.
Massive efforts will also be needed to train our workforce. South Africa and an Indian Province Chhattisgarh have instituted right to skill development. It is a good beginning which should be replicated elsewhere and under this initiative people, especially, in rural areas should be trained to maintain and fix any problems that the solar plant will face.
The Solar Alliance nations will also have to pool in their own intellectual, scientific and corporate resources to slowly but steadily move away from borrowed technologies and financial models.
The national governments will have to take their own provincial governments and urban and rural local governing bodies into confidence and move forward. If they can achieve the goals mentioned above, Solar Alliance will become the trigger to usher in the age of sustainable development.

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Climate Change: Stop Humbugging

Right now there are two kinds of people populating the mother earth – climate change believers and climate change deniers. I am not going to talk about climate change deniers. This post is all about the believers, those who make impassioned speeches and talk of taking affirmative action.
I ask these believers who and what stops them from taking urgent actions to save the Earth from the catastrophic temperature rise? Ever since Copenhagen Summit in 2009 the world of believers has been dragging its feet on taking concrete actions. The believers are divided along many fault lines – developed vs developing, right to development vs historical culpability, common but differentiated responsibility etc.
It is safe to suggest that the campaign to save our earth from the ills of climate change has suffered more due to the believers than the deniers. At least the denier is clear and honest about his or her stupidity or lack of information or both.
The same can’t be said about the believers. They believe in climate change, fund huge and sophisticated research projects, debate about how to tackle the problem, pledge money and then at the 11th hour shy away from any commitment or bold action.
Take the case of the pledge to provide $30 billion for adaptation to the developing countries by 2012. But that money never saw the light of the day. Charges have been levelled by the receivers about being short changed. The most high profile of such spats happened when the Prime Minister of Surinam accused the Norwegian Government of not paying a single penny, as promised, to keep their forests intact.
Many different accounts say till date $9 billion have flowed in and that too is modification of various grants and not the new money as was made to believe by the leaders of the developed nations.
Similarly, commitments about bringing the carbon emission below the 1990 levels as enshrined and accepted in 1997 at Kyoto have all been forgotten. The new baseline now is 2004. A fact that is seldom discussed is COP 3 had decided that the global carbon emissions should come down by 5 percent of the 1990 level by 2010 to save the Earth from irreparable damage to climate systems. However, despite pledges the emission increased by leaps and bounds and by 2010 instead of coming down by 5 percent it had increased by 50 percent.
All the top economies – developed and developing – have been using the UN forum to create groupings and use it to pressurise the other to take the lead, “increase their ambitions” for emission cuts and also “foot the climate bill” in terms of providing the hard cash. Each one is dead set against any binding commitment, verifiable and measured by any international agency for its authenticity.
If the future of the Earth is as grave as mentioned by the scientists that are funded and promoted by the same concerned climate believer governments, than why the intransigence on undertaking any bold action? Why squabbling over every single word, comma or full stops of every draft resolution? Why the sabre rattling every time just before the negotiation starts and why the need to throw “walkout” tantrums?
The whole world and especially the believers knows that out of 195 countries that are part of the United Nations Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) 20 of them that form the G-20 Group accounts for more than 80 percent of the present global Gross Domestic Product (GDP), 80 percent of the entire present carbon emission and consists of nations that shoulder 100 percent of the historical responsibility. These 20 nations, almost all of them led by believer governments and opinion builders, can sit across the table and achieve a far more effective and ambitious plan to decarbonise the economy and move on the path of sustainable development in much less the time.
They can then jointly appear at the UNFCCC Summit and present the plan as their collective commitments to save the mother Earth. Scientific data, emerging technologies, hundreds of business, management and social initiatives around the world are pointing towards an emerging opportunity that suggests today is the best day to take that elusive but important affirmative step towards low carbon economy that will ultimately deliver a future where temperature rise would be arrested within 2oC of the pre-industrial level.
If these 20 countries can bury their differences and take collective action than we can safely say they are climate change believers and really care for the Earth and its environment and also of our future generations. However, if in Paris they keep hiding behind clichés of “everyone-should-be-on-board” and “Nauru” should also have its commitment, “Burkina Faso” should also pledge something, “Polynesian Islands” should shoulder some of the blame and Bulgaria should do some more for the larger economies to convince their leaders to take some action than we are looking at believers who are worse than deniers.

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Clean Ganga: Where experts fail politics deliver

At times political showmanship does more to improve environment than mere expert opinions. Nowhere it’s more visible than in the efforts to clean river Ganga. Last year while campaigning in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar (two of the most important political provinces that can make or mar the fortunes of any political party in India) Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, had promised that he would do anything to clean the river Ganga.
This is tricky pledge. It was first made by another Prime minister in bygone era. Late Shri Rajiv Gandhi, initiated the programme – Ganga Action Plan – to clean the river of its pollutants. However, 15 year long project ended achieving most of its objective expect for one – cleaning the river. Sewage treatment plants were in place. They were treating the sewage. Other actions like shifting polluting industries and closing down polluting units were undertaken but they didn’t produce the desired impact on the quality of water in the river.
The reason was simple and was echoed by all the environmentalists. They maintained, from the beginning, that a basic minimum flow of water was needed to ensure the river will regain its natural cleansing property. In the absence of natural cleansing property the river shall not be in a position to sustain its aquatic life (flora and fauna) which would further help cleanse the river and improve its water quality.
This simple but crucial fact was deliberately overlooked for the last three decades. The water from the river Ganga, Yamuna and their tributaries in the high hills of Himalayas were diverted for dams and canals.
A couple of chief ministers in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand recklessly pursued a dam building development path which was disastrous for the Himalayan region as well as alluvial plains downstream.
Now the new government after 14 months of planning and preparing for cleaning river Ganga has realised the simple truth of maintaining a minimum flow of water in the river. This has brought them face to face with an age old riddle – development or conservation.
The government and the policy planners have realised that to maintain minimum river flow in Ganga and improving its water quality it will have to stop construction of six dams that were given a go ahead in the higher reaches of Uttarakhand.
It has already ordered that any more dam activity should be undertaken keeping in mind the clause of minimum flow. It effectively means the dams will not be pursued as ground hasn’t been broken for all the six proposed dams.
How and from where did the government get the determination and clarity to pursue the path of conservation? The answer lies in the game of electoral politics. The cold calculation of numbers to ensure your pre-eminent position has forced the government to take such a bold step.
On the one hand is the state of Uttarakhand, the source of river Ganga and the site of dam building. It represents four parliamentary seats. While the lower riparian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar represent 120 parliamentary seats.
The river needs to be cleaned at least visibly in the next three years as the general elections would be held around that time. It is a short duration by any standards and minimum river flow is one of the easiest way to achieve it. The low hanging fruit that can be plucked right away.
The political cost of upsetting voters in 4 seats far outweighs the cost of alienating voters in 120 seats. A visibly cleaner Ganga ensures, at least theoretically, a favourable response from the voters during elections in these two states.
This calculation has given the government the courage to shut the doors on dam developers.
What lesson does it hold for the conservationists? Work on the people to make environment conservation issues vocal enough to catch a politician’s attention. Work on him to bite the bullet and commit himself or herself for a cause. Make the cause as emotive as you can and once committed to it they don’t have any option but to deliver.

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Sustainable tree plantation: Tap people’s power

Last week the road transport ministry gave a go-ahead to the Green Highway (plantation and maintenance) Policy. The policy among other things (hopefully) will finally end the 40 year old practice of planting eucalyptus along the road. It is a legacy of an era where environment concerns were at best cursory. Many environmentalists blame late Sanjay Gandhi for eucalyptus mania.
He promoted it for some time for sure, however, to be fair to the man, he was quick to realise his mistake and told his sycophantic supporters and ready-to-please bureaucrats to stop the practice but by that time it was too late. Nurseries were full of them and a whole business model had developed around plantation of these trees. He was soon voted out of power and didn’t survive for long after his return three years later. So the practice of planting eucalyptus became the default setting for the ministry of road transport.
It is in this regard the policy should be viewed with relief and hope. What happened almost 40 years ago was an aberration and not the rule. Some recommendations of the policy make it clear that trees providing shade will be planted as the first line of defence. In the second row fruit bearing trees would be preferred. This has been done keeping the unruly behaviour of half of our population (male) in mind.
Imagine a mango tree on the roadside loaded with its sweet cargo being assaulted by a group of youngsters with stones and one of their missiles misses the target and lands on a speeding car –Boom!
The policy also makes a distinction that where land is at premium and only one row of saplings can be planted then those species that offer shade, fruit or flowers and are aesthetic will take precedence over any other. These will be jacaranda, gulmohar, amaltas, kachnar and others.
However, as they say, devil lies in the details. The policy paper says that plantation would be delinked from road building. It means the road builder will not be under pressure to plant trees. The work would be undertaken by a specialised agency. It is not clear whether the money for plantation will come from the developers or the government will come forward to foot the bill.
In either case the developer would be a gainer. Facts emanating from the ministry and compiled by many NGOs suggest that the developers, both government and private, have been reluctant tree planters. So if they are let off the hook by freeing them from the responsibility of plantation they would cut any number of trees secured in the belief that it is someone else’s job to plant it.
Another issue is of specialised agencies. There are no specialised agencies in the field of highway plantations. There are chances of large scale bungling with NGOs and fly-by-night operators forming companies and minting money.
The better option is to involve locals. Our government has stopped involving people in solving tricky issues. In the age of crowd sourcing it is working towards centralising everything. This approach keeps a large part of the workforce away from decision making. It also discounts the possibility of engaging with the enormous bank of age old wisdom locked with the local elders who know about the flora and fauna of their land. It will not work — least of all the clause of 90% survival of saplings being planted along the highway.
The best option is to ask the road developers to deposit the plantation money with the government. This corpus should be used to fund village panchayats and cooperatives to either setup a nursery or upgrade the one they have. Villagers should be asked to plant a stretch of road depending upon their population and ability to tend to the saplings.
On an average a village can take care of one kilometre of road. As India has more than 600000 villages, there is enough manpower to take care of at least 600000 kilometres of road that maybe built over a period of 100 years.
Second the government should get into an agreement with the local cooperatives that the land will stay with the government or the developer but the yield of fruits, flowers and wood from the fallen trees (due to decay or storms) will belong to the village panchayat. They would have the exclusive right on it and they can either use it for their own purpose or sell it.
This agreement should be in the form of a 30 year lease agreement with a clause to renegotiate it at the end of the term. Thirty year lease is necessary as many trees would take close to 15 years to reach the age of maturity where they would start giving full benefits.
People’s participation and economic incentive in plantation is the only way long term sustainable development of green cover along the highways can be ensured.

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Incremental changes in agriculture can yield monumental benefits

Agriculture is the problem as well as the solution. Since humans settled down and began agriculture they started tempering with the nature. However, within decades or in some cases centuries, nature would strike back and drive humans from one piece of land by way of prolonged drought followed by nasty floods.
The pattern would vary from case to case but the holding story was the same. The migrant population would wander a while and then hit upon a new patch of virgin land, settle down and begin a new cycle of growth and prosperity.
However, in the 20th century as the population exploded the option of packing your bags and move to greener pastures steadily waned. The exploding population ensured that those who had land better hold on to it and try to make do with whatever was available. This led to intensive farming, technology oriented farming and then industrial farming.
Every nation came up with its own version. US had large mechanised farms and Communist Russia experimented with collective farming. No matter which path a society took the agriculture in the 20th century started reflecting three distinct trends – increased pressure to up the yield, proliferating use of technology and constant expansion of cultivable land.
These trends led to phenomenal increase in per hectare yield and helped many nations beat crushing poverty and rescue a large part of their citizens from extreme hunger. However, it also had some unintended consequences that started impacting the environment.
The pressure to increase per hectare yield forced governments and farmers alike to keep increasing the farm inputs. Cases of unrestrained use of fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides etc led to a point where the farm produce became unfit for human or animal consumption.
In India, anecdotal evidence is visible in the wholesale markets of Central Indian province of Madhya Pradesh where farmers from the granary of India, Punjab, come each season to buy wheat for their domestic consumption. These farmers never use the wheat grown in their own fields as they know it is contaminated due to heavy use of fertilizers.
Aided by technology many farmers started growing crops that were traditionally not meant to be grown in their own land. A classic example is Saudi Arabia. The country flushed with funds started growing wheat in a desperately arid land using water from its meagre underground aquifers. Similarly, in India many arid areas stopped growing drought resistant hardy crops like maize, gram etc and switched to wheat.
The traditionally water sufficient areas opted for high yielding varieties and stopped experimenting with the large variety of seeds available to them. The high yield variety needed twice the amount of irrigation than the earlier varieties. Initially everything went well. Then the crops started failing as the ground water receded, and the pests became out of control due to single variety being used year after year and their increased immunity to pesticides.
Farmers responded with higher use of fertilizers and pesticides thereby contaminating the soil, underground water and surface water in the canals.
While the land was being squeezed for the last remaining fertility, the farmers and the governments were furiously expanding agriculture’s footprint. The buffer zones like, wetlands, fallow land, wasteland and marginal forest lands were being diversified for agriculture. As the intermediate zones between the agricultural land and the forests kept decreasing the threat to forest denudation increased too. It also substantially increased the human-animal conflict. The corn growers and ranch owners of Brazil were responsible for destruction of a large part of Amazon forest. Similar stories, though not as spectacular, were reported from across the world.
Suddenly the profession that satiates our hunger became the top destroyer of the environment around us.
Today our need to fill up our tummy or tickle our taste buds is spelling doom for the environment and contributing to widespread carbon emission, the chief cause of climate change.
The question is how can the environment be saved without compromising on our food security? It should begin by looking at the institution of minimum sale price (MSP). A mechanism developed by the government of India to help farmers by firewalling them against the manipulations of the touts in the wholesale market.
However, the system has a lacuna. It sets the price of wheat and rice at a higher level than any other crop which incentivises farmers to go for broke in their attempt to grow these two crops. India has witnessed a steady decline in the total sown area for many other grains and pulses but has seen the total acreage of wheat and rice grow by leaps and bounds even in areas that can’t support any of the two crops.
The system should change a bit and should be dynamic. Right now the warehouses are full of grains. The backup is so huge that India can withstand two consecutive droughts. So there is a need to better manage our land and its yield. A new responsive system can be developed whereby farmers can be asked to grow some other crop as wheat and rice are in plenty. Similarly those areas that can’t support these two crops but have traditionally supported other crops should be given incentives to wean them away from their addiction to wheat/rice.
The government of India has started a scheme of soil health card. This card will help the farmers find out what kinds of nutrients are needed in the upcoming sowing season. This information should be linked to the distribution of input subsidies. Every farmer should be given cash equivalent to the need assessed by the scientists. If implemented and followed in the right spirit it can fundamentally alter the habit of indiscriminate use of urea and other fertilizers.
It would bring down the unnecessary chemical load soil faces every year in many parts of the country. During the 1960s the policy planners, politicians, scientists and the farmers all joined hands in a rare show of solidarity to turn Punjab (the north western province of India) into a bead basket. The spirit of “green revolution”, as it is known, needs to be revived albeit with a twist.
This time the laboratory has to come to the farm and instead of one-size-fits-all solutions of yesteryears it should work in every region with diverse group of farmers to evolve strategies to increase their per hectare yield. Using information technology, big data, nano-technology, bio-technology and marrying it with age old wisdom of the farmers will help them create hyper local solutions.
Once the per capita yield increases the need to use the entire land available will decrease as more would be achieved in lesser hectares of land. Then sincere efforts should be initiated to reclaim the buffer zones.
These small incremental steps will go a long way in decreasing the chemical contamination of the land, save underground water in many arid zones, will offer an increased diversity of grains as well as help the natural buffer zones to flourish. This in itself would be a fundamental improvement from our present state and go a long way in re-establishing the natural balance we have disturbed for so long.

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