Friday, February 26, 2010

Farmers know what they need

By S. G. Vombatkere
26 Feb 2010

As sustained propaganda to establish private laboratory's control over farmers' rights is gathering momentum, a unique Farmers' Jury comprised of small and marginal farmers from diverse communities and regions asserted their right to be consulted for farm research and policy making.

One of the specialist witness answering queries of the Farmers' Jury
India's silicon city Bangalore was the scene of yet another first, though this one was quite at variance with the money-spinning IT industry. The occasion was Raita Teerpu or Farmers' Jury, when small and marginal farmers of Karnataka spoke out about current agricultural research on December 5, 2009.

The Farmers' Jury is a unique social experiment, the first of its kind in India and probably the world, aimed at democratizing the governance of agricultural research. This is an initiative of the Alliance for Democratising Agricultural Research in South Asia (ADARSA), supported by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) in UK; Deccan Development Society (DDS), Hyderabad; Centre for Agriculture Media, Dharwad; Institute for Cultural Research and Action (ICRA), Bangalore; and Chipko of Karnataka.

ADARSA formed an 18-member Steering Committee to provide overall guidance for the process. Based on this, volunteers of Roshni Nilaya School of Social Work, Mangalore, interviewed 100 small and marginal farmers in all districts of Karnataka. This was followed by screening according to criteria set by the Steering Committee, to identify 15 women and 15 men who would form the Farmers' Jury with representation from all districts, including dalits, adivasis, small farmers, dryland farmers and landless labourers. An Oversight Panel consisting of senior-level people from civil society with a record of public service, headed by former Supreme Court Chief Justice M. N. Venkatachalaiah, was also constituted for detached observation to ensure that there was no bias in the entire process.

The proceedings began by assembling the jury members from across Karnataka at the Fireflies Intercultural Centre just outside Bangalore on November 30, 2009. They were housed separately and not permitted to meet anybody except logistics volunteers, and they also dined separately from other participants (including members of the Steering and Oversight Committees) in the project.

During the sessions held on three successive days, the jury was seated on an elevated platform with all due deference, and were addressed by 12 selected "specialist witnesses" who were government officials, farmers' movements activists, media persons, agricultural scientists, social scientists, agriculture industrialists, academics, and social and development activists. Thus, all facets of opinion were presented before the Jury. The names and details of the persons on the Jury, Steering Committee, Oversight Panel and specialist witnesses may be seen at .

The daily proceedings were videographed as a record. In four 90-minute sessions per day for 3 days, each of the specialist witnesses was allotted 30 minutes to speak and 60 minutes was given to the jury to confer amongst themselves, to ask questions and hear the response from the specialist witness. After hearing the specialist witnesses, on December 4, 2009, the jury went into conclave to finalise their verdict.

The Farmers' Jury pronounced their verdict on December 5, 2009, at a public function presided over by former Chief Justice M. N. Venkatachalaiah, at the Institution of Agricultural Technologists in Bangalore. The function, attended by over 200 people, began with an explanation of the concept and process of the Farmers' Jury. An international expert and consultant to the Farmers' Jury process, Dr. Michel Pimbert, spoke about similar concerns in Africa (e.g., Benin and Mali) and South America (e.g., Bolivia and Peru).

It was clear that the Farmers' Jury as a social experiment was unique and without precedent. Members of the Steering Committee and Oversight Panel presented their frank impressions and finally spokespersons of the Farmers' Jury read out the verdict that they had arrived at after hearing the specialist witnesses and due internal discussions and deliberations. The 22-point verdict reads as follows:

Today the farmer is unable to return to traditional farming and nor can he pursue expensive modern farming practices. There is great need for pro-farmer agricultural research.
Government must recognize farmers' innovations, respect the innovators and compensate them the way it compensates scientists in formal institutions.
We do not want research in hybrid crops that demand repeated purchase of expensive chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Instead, we demand research on local landraces that adapt to their ecosystems, are drought-resistant, provide quality and tasty food and fodder, and can be produced by the farmer himself.
Information on agricultural research done in public-private partnership must be transparent and accessible to farmers.
Agricultural universities and other public sector research institutions must make farmers equal partners in research and offer farmers an equal share in profits resulting from research.
When private or multinational corporations conduct research in their own or farmers' fields, the effects of these trials on farmers' health, the changes in the soil and the impact on the surrounding environment must be monitored by citizens' groups including farmers. This information should be made known every year to the farming community through media and Gram Sabhas. If there are negative consequences (resulting from such trials), the companies or corporations must be held responsible and accountable for those consequences.
Farmer Field Days and Farmer Field Schools conducted on various crops must be held under the jurisdiction of all Gram Panchayats in the state.
Information related to agricultural research and technology must be made available in local languages and made accessible to farmers.
We feel that sufficient research on sugarcane, which is an important crop in Karnataka, is not being carried out. A research centre for improvement of sugarcane cultivation must be established.
Weather-based crop insurance schemes must be abolished and every farm must be made a unit for the assessment of losses and resultant compensation.
In order to make water and soil testing available to farmers, government must set up and use mobile laboratories.
There must be a scientific system to predict reliable information on rainfall, and this information must be available to farmers.
It is well known that there are scientists who conduct research and produce results that benefit those who pay their salaries or finance their research - and practice "bad science".
In partnership with the farming community, government must establish at every hobli level, cottage industries for processing agricultural produce and value addition. Such cottage industries must be related to the local crop produced and must be funded by government.
Seed banks of local seed varieties must be established at the level of every Gram Panchayat. Seed distribution, seed festivals, field trials and seed improvement programs must be conducted through Gram Panchayats with government support.
We oppose anti-farmer seed laws.
In view of the fact that farmers constitute 70% of the population and the farming sector makes a very important contribution to the economic system, the state and central governments must have a separate agriculture budget.
Pastures and tanks reserved for grazing of cattle and sheep have disappeared. They must be renewed and made available to the farming community.
In order to educate the younger generation on agriculture and to help them develop interest in this sector, agriculture must be incorporated in school syllabi.
Stop grabbing land from farmers in the name of development and Special Economic Zones.
The Forest Department must stop distributing saplings of Acacia and Eucalyptus to farmers. Instead of monoculture planting of such species that harm the environment and deplete ground water, the Department must plant diverse species that protect land and water and are needed by animals, birds and human beings.
Small farmers, farm labour, artisans' communities such as carpenters and potters who produce farm-related instruments must be taken into partnership in formulation of agricultural policies that are location-specific.
Shepherds and pastoralists must be part of the Karnataka Sheep Development Board and must play a role in the formulation of related policies.
What is special about the experiment?

The social experiment of Farmers' Jury has brought out some interesting facets of rural culture which are not really surprising but which bear highlighting:

Women members of the Jury were observed asking questions just as much as the men.
The questions to the expert witnesses were information-seeking, often searching and sometimes pointed, but never with rancour or ill-intent.
The Jury members who had met together for the first time on November 30, 2009, were always well behaved and cordial with each other regardless of their varied castes and socio-economic backgrounds.
Small and marginal farmers may be illiterate and uneducated in the conventional sense, but their deep knowledge of farming and understanding of the complexity of nature and the inter-dependence of all things living and non-living, spoke volumes for their innate cultural strength arising from 5,000 years of agricultural tradition of India.
In the context of climate change and the economic situation, there is a growing number of agriculture scientists who opine that the current trend of agricultural research cannot ensure food security with justice and equity for the under-fed or starving millions across the continents. These scientists, who are not a minority in the scientific community, are free from the corrupting influence of MNCs in the seeds, farming and retail food sectors, and hence practice true science. It is these scientists who are addressed by the Jury's verdict to make their science relevant to on-the-ground situations and recognise farmers' knowledge systems.

It is abundantly clear that business-as-usual, market-oriented agricultural research will not address food security but will intensify existing and growing hunger and malnourishment, and resultantly spread the existing and growing social discontentment and militancy.

Importantly, this verdict comes from people who are not heard because planners and scientists at national and state levels presume that they are ignorant or lazy. The Farmers' Jury initiative and their verdict demolishes all doubts as to their competence to judge what they need and what is good for them, and also as to their mature ecological awareness and understanding that is absent among many formally trained scientists.

Living the Constitution

This social experiment in democracy designed and led by P. V. Satheesh of DDS is path-breaking because for the first time ever, poor and marginalized farmers were enabled to form a responsible jury, and show that they are the best judges for their own progress and development. This is giving a voice to the voiceless.

Highly qualified scientists, even if they are committed, are often unaware of the actual needs and problems of poor and marginalized farmers who form the bulk of the agricultural community and are an important part of the economy since they feed the nation. The Jury's verdict clearly shows that farmers are not against science and scientific research, but they demand that science be used with due regard to people's needs. This is because it is well known that there are scientists who conduct research and produce results that benefit those who pay their salaries or finance their research - and practice "bad science".

The Jury's verdict demands more inclusive governance to "pull in" participation of the farming community. This is especially required because Chief Ministers and the Prime Minister's Office are regularly and routinely advised by the industry bodies like CII and FICCI even on agriculture matters without any manner of farmer representation.

The Constitution of India can be brought to life for over 60% Indians only when science and technology can be made to work for their progress and development - living the Constitution instead of leaving the Constitution.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Can we save the Sundarbans for our children?

By Krishnendu Mukherjee
24 Feb 2010
The international community will have to take effective measures to protect the Sundarbans, the World’s largest mangrove forest and South Asia's largest carbon-sink, from the rising seas.
Rising sea levels have destroyed livelihoods and forced people to migrate

Sheikh Motaleb's family were financially well-off when they lived on Lohachara Island in India's Sundarbans' archipelago in the Bay of Bengal. The sixty bighas (twenty acres) of fertile land they owned provided the family with an above-average income. In 1983, when their land was completely eroded by the sea, they relocated to Gangasagar Island, the largest island in the Indian Sundarbans. The two bighas of land provided by the local village council in the "colony" for displaced people, now provides a meagre income, which Sheikh Motaleb supplements with his job as an administrator at the local youth hostel which earns him Rs 2500. As a consequence, the family have slipped to the bottom of the social ladder.

Bad karma? Possibly. But what makes Sheikh Motaleb's story stand out from so many in the sub-continent is that his family may be some of the first environmental refugees from the effects of climate change. According to a 2002 study done by Jadavpur University Kolkata, an increase in surface-air temperature in the area has lead to sea-level rise and coastal erosion. The Report's findings indicate that whilst coastal erosion is a phenomenon that has been happening in the Sundarbans for centuries, it is being aggravated through human-induced climate change. Sheikh Motableb's case is however, the tip of the proverbial melting iceberg. The Jadavpur study estimates that over one lakh people could be rendered homeless by land loss predominantly caused by sea-level rise in the entire Sundarbans by the year 2020. The majority of those environmental refugees will be forced into India's already burgeoning cities to find work and shelter.

India has no proper system to deal with unnatural disaster on this scale. The Sundarbans' refugees have so far been provided the land under the land reform laws brought in by West Bengal's Communist-led government. A search of India's Natural Disaster Management Authority provided no reference of any adaptation programmes for climate change, nor has India's National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) published in June 2008, provide any real initiatives on how adaptation to climate change is to be achieved. According to India's Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, speaking at the G8 summit in July 2009, the country already spends 2-2.5% of its GDP on meeting the consequences of climatic conditions. Even the limit of a two-degree centigrade rise in average global temperature, agreed by the G8, would require a significant increase in public spending to meet its predicted environmental consequences.

All this leaves a large hole of uncompensated costs for developing countries, who under the international acknowledgement of "common but differentiated responsibility" in the Convention on Climate Change, have contributed least to the climate change problem. 2020 is also the year by which, under Gordon Brown's ambitious plan, $100 billion dollars a year would be transferred to developing countries to cope with climate change damage. The money would be raised through both private and public sources, and would be far less than the 1% of the GDP of the developed countries, proposed by the G77 group of developing nations. Further, it is questionable whether developed countries would be willing and able to contribute even this amount long-term, given the costs of the global recession and their own costs of adapting to the effects of climate change. The inequalities in both the resources and ability to prevent damage from the effects of climate change are writ large.

Whatever funds are finally forthcoming, the international community has to ensure that they are used properly and effectively for adaptation purposes. One such suggestion is that developing countries in particular, should pass a Climate Change Security Act. The act should mandate all relevant ministries to have nodal officials who are concerned with looking at climate change needs from the perspective of their ministry and be involved with planning and creating policies and action plans. There should be a full study of a country's vulnerabilities and adaptation needs which include analysing impacts on water resources, agriculture, biodiversity, ecosystems and human health. Anticipatory actions should be contemplated in all development programmes and the act should ensure that the legal measures for both reactive and anticipatory adaptation needs are integrated into all relevant laws.

The Sundarbans, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is globally recognised as an area of almost unique ecological and conservation importance, as the World's largest mangrove forest and South Asia's largest carbon-sink. It has been shortlisted as one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature, a competition to rank the world's natural marvels, under the slogan; "If we want to save anything, we first need to truly appreciate it", the results will be announced in 2011.

For the world to save the Sundarbans for our children, requires an appreciation of the fact that climate change is already disproportionately affecting large parts of the developing world, and that not only money and technology, but systems are also needed. Developing countries have a crucial role in identifying adaptation needs at an early stage, and preparing the necessary scientific, administrative and legal infrastructures for the implementation of adaptation plans. Developed countries need to shoulder their financial responsibility of preventing and compensating for climate change damage, but require proven evidence that a country has taken their responsibility of providing the necessary steps to ensure that the money and technology is used for its intended purpose. The countries in the world need to recognise that we are saving the Sundarbans not only for Sheikh Motalebs' children but for all our children.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Right to Education: Time for a giant leap

By Swaty Prakash
23 Feb 2010

The HRD Minister of India has new and innovative ideas to mould the education sector. His challenge lies in converting plans into concrete actions.
BT Brinjal has a strong rival fighting for news space these days —India's education sector. Suddenly, news about raising the age bar for nursery admissions to allowing foreign universities into the country has become a talking point.

To begin with, President Pratibha Patil, in her address to the Parliament, has announced that a law to make education a fundamental right of every child in the age group of six to 14 has been notified and will be effective from April 1. The Act, which was passed by Parliament in the August last year, also earmarks 25 per cent seats to children from economically weaker sections in private schools. It stipulates that the local governments ensure that the children in the specified age bracket get elementary education.

But as always, the intentions sound good, but the implementation looks bleak. When I informed my sweeper about the Right to Education Act, he just shrugged his shoulders. Since three of his children fall in this age-bracket, I rephrased the question for better understanding. I needn't have bothered because the indifference was not due to lack of understanding. He calculated the money he would have lost if his three children went to school every day for a few hours instead of working. He didn't care if education was free or compulsory.

Nevertheless, the Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal has also said that his ministry would hold consultations with the states to resolve issues such as fee structure and teachers’ salaries — issues that are likely to arise while implementing the Act. This is good thinking on the minister's part because in the no- o distant past teachers in Delhi University went on a strike when the move to extend classroom hours by a few minutes was proposed. They demanded everything from a salary hike to more leave to tackle the so-called 'stress' caused by the change in their schedule.

Sibal also said that the government will take steps to prevent commercialisation of education, and that the consultation would be undertaken to evolve a policy so that “poor, marginalised, and disadvantaged” students are not adversely affected.

“Our aim is to ensure that all children in India get quality education, but we are against commercialisation of education. Incessant fee hikes and overcharging from parents is something we do not support. I will talk to every state government on issues regarding implementation of the RTE Act from April 1." he said.

All these claims look very impressive on paper. But one wonders if these are just

The 10-point admission process for Delhi schools was a great way of putting an end to the vulgar exchange of wealth and power through school admissions but we all know how the elite schools still find ways to coin that 11th invisible point that matters most to them and least to the children. Mid-day meal has been a wonderful idea but a quick survey in the neighbouring MCD schools is enough to explain why even those poor hungry children reject the meals that are otherwise meant to lure them to school.

The ideas have been good. It is time to turn that small step into a giant leap to ensure that the implementation is visible and effective.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Protect Western Ghats from power plants

By Shankar Sharma
17 Feb 2010

If we can improve our efficiency in power generation, delivery and conservation, it could save enough power required to be generated through new power plants and thereby, we can protect the priceless Western Ghats from the destruction caused by such projects.

The Western Ghats, designated to the list of 18 biodiversity hotspots in the world, and covering an area of more than 1500 kms in states of Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka and Kerala, provide ecological services of immense economic value to our society. Western Ghats are the source of several major and minor rivers of peninsular India, and provide livelihood for millions of families.

Therefore, it is crucial not only for the adjoining states but also for the entire peninsular India that these Ghats are well protected and maintained. While many kinds of human activities have been damaging for the Western Ghats for many decades, the impacts since independence are massive and irreversible because of the power projects.

A dispassionate analysis of the impact of power projects on Western Ghats and suitable remedies is urgently needed in order to arrest their accelerated decay.

Impact of Electrical Power Projects

The power projects of relevance to Western Ghats can be broadly classified into the following categories:

Dam based hydel projects including small size hydel projects
Thermal projects based on fossil fuels like coal, diesel and gas
Nuclear power projects
Large size windmills
Transmission lines

A common impact of all these categories of power projects is the diversion of sizeable chunks of forest lands for transmission lines. Transmission lines are needed to evacuate power from large size power plants to be transmitted /distributed over large areas. As compared to small size power plants, which will cater to the local electricity needs only, large size power plants have huge transmission network destroying the forest cover, fragmenting the forests, and opening up the thick forest cover leading to accelerated deterioration.

In addition to the forest lands needed for the 'Right of Way', such transmission lines lead to deterioration of forest ecology due to dust and noise pollution during the construction activities such as forest clearing, excavation, debris dumping, temporary shelters for workers, chopping trees for firewood etc. Frequent movements of vehicles add to the problems.

Dam based hydro power stations

Amongst the four categories of power projects, the dam based power projects have the maximum impact on Western Ghats in the form of dams, reservoirs, power stations, staff quarters and other civil / hydrological structures. Combined together these will divert large chunks of forest and fertile river valley agricultural lands. Some of the major impacts of the dam based power projects are:

Submergence of lands, agricultural fields, forests, grazing lands and homes on a large scale leading to the displacement of a large number of people;
Disruption to downstream flows impacting agriculture and fisheries threatening the livelihoods of people;
Construction of dams are preceded by clearing of trees, excavation, fragmentation of the forests, dumping of debris/ construction materials, noise and air pollution due to construction activities etc. These would lead to the degradation of natural surroundings, and to degraded water sources;
Impounding of water in the dams is known to cut off access roads thus isolating villages/ communities;
Impact of one dam may not appear to be as huge as compared to the cumulative impact of a number of dams in one region or as a cascade of dams on one river. Example of 4 hydel projects in Sharavathy valley;
Impoundment of large quantity of water in dams are suspected to trigger earthquake;
The hydel dams are not renewable in a true sense, because the dam and other hydro structures have a finite life of say 50-75 years after which they will need decommissioning. Even though storing of water may be done away with after decommissioning, the forest wealth, which might have been destroyed at the time of dam building, would be lost for ever.
The official project reports [detailed project report (DPR)] are known to ignore the true costs (direct and indirect) of impact on Western Ghats. These costs when taken into objective account can have a major impact on the cost vs. benefit ratio of the project itself.
A major issue with dams is that the quantity, quality and pattern of water flow in the rivers get impacted with the result that biodiversity dependent on river flow is severely affected. One or more dams on a river will severely affect this characteristic of a river, and hence will deprive us of all the associated benefits.
Whereas the National Forest Policy has recommended a target of forest /tree cover of 33% of the land area, the national average is known to be less than 25% as per the MoEF report "The State of Environment 2009". If we continue to build more dams, not only this target will never be reached, but the region and the country as a whole will be affected ecologically.
It is very disturbing to note that there are no legally mandatory norms in our country which stipulates the minimum fresh water flow in a river with or without hydro electric dams. Authorities seem to consider the water flowing to sea as a waste, without appreciating the need for such a flow to conserve the ecosystem. Such 'Environment Flows' are required to maintain the ecological integrity of a river and its associated ecosystems, and of the goods and services provided by them.
Dams prevent the silt from flowing down the river and seriously affect the availability of nutrients to the bio-diversity down stream.
The Western Ghats are not only recognized as bio-diversity hotspots but also as fragile ecosystems with many species of flora and fauna amongst the endemic types. Dam building activities like digging, blasting, excavation, dumping of debris etc are highly likely to severely damage their ecology.

Coal based power stations, although never located within Western Ghats, can have massive direct and indirect impacts on Western Ghats, even if located on the west coast of our country.

Pollution due to dust from the handling of large quantity of coal; coal dust from the activities such as unloading from ship /rail, storage, crushing at sea port or project site can travel the distance to Western Ghats and lead to fast deterioration of the flora and fauna;
Pollution due to flue gases from the plant chimneys; fly ash is known to be able to travel long distances of up to 100 km radius and have huge impact on nearby flora, fauna and human beings including the agricultural crops;
Sulphur gas emitted from the combustion of coal is highly likely to react with humid air of the coast and cause extensive acid-rain damage on Western Ghats;
Increase in atmospheric temperature due to flue gases from the chimneys can affect certain species of flora and fauna;
The unknown deleterious impact of the combination of salty air and coal/ ash pollution cannot be ignored;
Potential for adverse impact on micro-ecology of the locality including insects, worms, marine creatures etc. can be considerable;
The Global Warming, for which the fossil fuel power stations are major contributors through Green House Gases (GHG) emission, will have long term impact on the sensitive ecology of Western Ghats.
Nuclear power stations

In addition to the requirement of large chunk of agricultural and forest lands, if situated in west coast areas as in the case of Kaiga power plant, the nuclear power plants also have the credible risk of nuclear radiation affecting the bio-diversity of Western Ghats.

Large size wind mills

The large size wind mills, though deemed to be environmentally friendly, require forest lands for locating the wind mill, access roads and electricity network required to evacuate the power. Additionally, they are also known to be affecting the free movement of birds and land animals in the area because of the height of the windmill blades and the noise they create.

The growing conflict: electricity needs vs. environmental protection of Western Ghats

A rational analysis of the power situation in the country provides a different story. In view of the fact that a considerable portion of Indian population (about 40% of total) is yet to have access to electricity, and that our population is growing continuously, we have to take a rational look at the real/legitimate demand for electricity. The legitimate demand for electricity, which is required to meet our essential needs and which is required to run our economy, could be vastly less than what is being projected by the authorities. This will be evident if we care to classify the electricity requirements of our society into three categories; the real needs, preferable wants, and vulgar luxuries. Most of the electricity demand for the economically productive activities such as general lighting, industries, transportation and agricultural purposes can be termed as real needs; the electricity demand for certain domestic and commercial appliances such as fans, TVs, radios, refrigerators etc. can be termed as preferable wants; but our society has to take a tough call to categorize certain electricity demand such as night time sports, heated swimming pools, air conditioned homes/shopping malls etc as vulgar luxuries.

Sustainable and eco-friendly ways to meet electricity demand

An objective review of the Indian power sector reveals that there has been gross inefficiency in the way we have utilized the existing electricity infrastructure, which if taken to international best practices level, can not only satisfactorily meet all the legitimate demand for electricity for next few years, but can also go a long way in protecting the Western Ghats.

If all the potential in efficiency improvement, energy conservation and Demand Side Management (DSM) are effectively implemented, it may be feasible to achieve savings of about 50,000 to 60,000 MW in actual demand for electricity, and also achieve a virtual capacity addition of about 20,000 MW. Even if we achieve 50% of this potential, it is credible to argue that the Western Ghats can be spared from the ravages of power sector on a sustainable basis.

In addition to this huge potential in getting virtual capacity addition, India being a tropical country also has a huge potential in new and renewable energy sources (N&RE). N&RE potential is even more if they are considered as stand alone, decentralized energy sources either at roof-top or at community centers.

The scope for efficiency improvement in the existing electricity infrastructure and the potential in M&RE sources together can make it possible to meet the legitimate demand for electricity of the country on a sustainable basis without having to build large number of conventional power stations, which in turn can significantly reduce the devastation on Western Ghats.

Credible ways to protect Western Ghats from the ravages of power plants

Consider Western Ghats as a source for ecological services only on a sustainable basis;
Keep it out of the purview of the conventional thinking of developmental process;
Declare entire Western Ghats as reserved bio-sphere, and conserve it;
Improve the efficiency in the existing electricity infrastructure and explore the potential in N&RE sources to the maximum extent possible;
Since the economic value of various ecological and product service rendered by Western Ghats is immense, the real costs vs. benefits of building any power project in the vicinity of Western Ghats should be objectively calculated through costs and benefits analysis (CBA) process.
Bio-diversity has many kinds of values and potential benefits for the humans and the world as a whole. UN Convention on Biological Diversity has advocated a wise policy to apply 'Precautionary Principle' and take necessary action to conserve Bio-diversity before components of it are permanently lost.
A detailed study to estimate the immense economic value of the biodiversity of the entire Western Ghats and different sections of the same should be carried out to prove to the government that it is more valuable than any conceivable man-made projects.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Implement biofuels program swiftly: Tiwari

By d-sector Team
15 Feb 2010

IOC, Dr Ashok Khosla, President, IUCN and Mr Arvind Reddy, Conference Convenor.
Growing energy consumption and its impact on climate have made it imperative to look for the renewable energy alternatives like biofuels. However, sustainability and economic viability remain core concerns. The 7th International Biofuels Conference at New Delhi aimed to provide some answers.

Former member of Planning Commission of India, Dr D. N. Tiwari has expressed disappointment over the piecemeal approach of government on biofuels. He said that by now India should have met a significant portion of its energy requirements through biofuels but the slow implementation by the government has hindered nation's march towards energy self-sufficiency. He was speaking at the 7th International Biofuels Conference organised at New Delhi by Winrock International India, a non-profit working in the areas of renewable energy and natural resource management.

Dr Tiwari, who as Planning Commission member compiled all relevant information and prepared a detailed report on biofuels during NDA government, said that since 2003 when the Union Cabinet accepted his report, absence of comprehensive action has adversely impacted the popularity of biofuels and led to disappointment among many stakeholders.

He, however, expressed satisfaction over recent announcement of National Biofuels Policy by the government. But Dr Tiwari, who is currently Vice Chairman of Chhattisgarh State Planning Commission, remarked that this policy should have been announced much earlier. "I had prepared the document for National Biofuel Mission in 2003 and the latest policy is entirely based on that document. If government had to copy the policy from that 2003 document, then why did it take six long years," he asked. "The program is there, but money is still not there."

"The announcement of the National Biofuels Policy would not have been possible but for the efforts of Winrock International India," he disclosed. Addressing the conference participants comprising of govt officials, scientists, industry representatives, academicians, students and social workers, Dr Tiwari gave full credit to the New Delhi based NGO for keeping the pressure on policymakers by organising International Biofuels Conferences every year and providing a platform to all stakeholders to freely discuss all relevant issues on bioenergy.

Emphasizing that first opportunity and benefit of biofuel should be given to the farmers who grow biofuel crops, Dr Tiwari said that they need technological support and subsidies to grow required feedstock. "But, the government is not keen to extend any financial incentive to the growers," he said. Taing credit for the biofuel R&D facilities developed at Allahabad and Chhattisgarh, he said more such institutions were needed to help the researchers, producers and users.

Also seen Mrs Pushpa Sundar, Chairperson, WII and Dr Kinshuk Mitra, Director, WII
The two-day conference was inaugurated by Dr Ashok Khosla, President, IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), who stressed that in the quest of short term optimizing of the energy demands, the focus should not be on just one alternative as it would mean sub optimizing bigger systems.

The conference was addressed by prominent experts from the fields of Energy Conservation, Biofuels and Rural Development. Anand Kumar, Director, R&D, Indian Oil Corporation Limited shared IOC's plan to sow 3,00,000 Jatropha plants to ensure supply of sufficient feedstock for biofuel production, to be used as transport fuel. Dr H L Sharma, Director, Biofuels, Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, assured the delegates about India's seriousness towards promotion of biofuels. He said that governments, Industries and NGOs would have to work together to extend use of biofuels in various areas.

Though the National Biofuels Policy identifies several sectors of intervention and lays out directives in an attempt to expand the bio-ethanol and biodiesel sectors, the automobile sector doesn't seem to be very enthusiastic about the whole concept. Expressing his disappointment, Dilip Chenoy, DG, Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers said that the Policy lacked a clear roadmap. He added that the target of 20% blending by 2017 cannot be realistically achieved without the involvement of the transport sector including genset & automobile manufacturers. "Earlier also government made it mandatory to blend 10 percent ethanol in petrol but lack of supply forced it to make it optional," he remarked.

Mr Chenoy clarified that automobile sector would not be able to make ambitious changes in the engines of the vehicles as done in countries like Brazil since the per capita income of Indians was much lower than citizens of such countries, making it difficult for Indians to purchase expensive vehicles. He wondered why the government was subsidising the use of fossil fuels but not extending support to biofuel sector.

The conference had some thoughtful discussions on impact of biofuel crop production on Food security and Sustainability. Dr Neil Bird, an international expert on biofuels, highlighted India's higher efficiency in delivery of food crops than European Union and the rest of the world. He said that India would not be able to meet its biofuel requirement without increasing crop yield or expanding land under cultivation. Dr Bird said that enough food was produced in the world but poor distribution and consumption by livestock were responsible for hunger and malnutrition in the world.

Juned Khan Komal of Society for Promotion of Wasteland Development, Udaipur highlighted that India's North and North-West region alone increased its share in foodgrains production, whereas all other regions now have much lower share in foodgrains. Vibha Dhawan of TERI supported technology interventions like Micro Algae cultivation and GM food for increased energy and food production. Ramesh Sharma of Ekta Parishad, Chhattisgarh expressed concerns over absence of Agriculture Policy and Tribal Policy in the State. He alleged that in the rush to increase Jatropha plantation area, govt has classified arid and semi-arid land as barren land and allowed encroachment on common property land. He suggested geonomics model for development of bio-energy and promotion of by-product economy to extend help to biofuel crops growers.

In the session on Sustainability Issues, Jeffrey McNeely, Senior Advisor, IUCN mentioned about key complexities of biofuel production like diverse components, scales and socio-economic and environmental factors. He offered several suggestions for sustainable energy usage like use of waste and residues, stationary use of bio-energy etc. He commented that sustainability can't be predicted in advance, and it can be judged in retrospect only. Mentioning the standards set by Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels (RSB), he said that commodity prices and displacement are among the few indirect impacts of biofuel sector expansion. Ganesh Pangare of IUCN expressed deep concerns over removing large dense forests for biofuel production. Highlighting water requirement of biofuel crops and its impact on food and water security, health of eco-systems and local water usage, he asked the stakeholders to choose between biofuel requirement of a Ferrari and water needs of a poor.

Graham Von Maltitz from Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, South Africa focused on managing the risks caused by invasive species that might harm the biodiversity. He appealed to biofuel producers to be very cautious in selecting the feedstock because the long term damage by invasive pests and plants could exceed the benefits from biofuels. Nadine McCormik of IUCN presented a detailed account of Indirect Land Use Change related to biofuel production and emphasized on the need for choosing the right crop at the right place in consultation with the local communities. Sunandan Tiwari of Winrock International gave a presentation on Social Impact Assessment of Bioenergy Projects and stressed on the need for matching social viability with economic viability of biofuel production.

In the concluding session on 'Converting Biofuel Policy into an Action Plan', Dr. M S Haque, General Manager, NABARD, raised concern about low availability of feedstock to meet the targets set by the Policy. He was of the view that Jatropha has not given expected results and more such species should be explored and encouraged for biofuel production. Dr D. K. Tuli of IOC suggested that the Policy should have an inbuilt mechanism and a clear roadmap to achieve the big targets set. He said auto industry can not shy away from its responsibility to meet the 2017 target for 20% blending. Dr Y. B. Ramakrishna of Biofuel Task Force of Karnataka shared the success story of his state. He said that in Karnataka they opted for multiple species for feedstock as per geo-climatic conditions to ensure year long supply of seeds. He demanded that the research and development on biofuel crops should be out of IPR regime since it involved communities at much larger scale.

Dr Ramakrishna also demanded a single body for biofuel development to stop interference of too many ministries. He emphasized on the need for decentralisation of value addition chains and establishment of district wise institutes and committees to train NGOs and farmers. He said, "to achieve success on biofuel production, we need government focus and community participation". Dr Veena Joshi, Advisor, Swiss Agency for Development & Cooperation, laid emphasis on ensuring rural energy security along with poverty alleviation. She also appealed to the policy makers to ensure that the first right over the produce and benefits for the rural poor before exporting any surplus biofuels to neighbouring areas or states.

Dr Kinsuk Mitra, President, Winrock International India thanked the speakers and participants for their contribution in sharing and enriching the knowledge on biofuels covering wider biological, technological, social and policy aspects. He concluded by expressing his faith in collective action which he felt would drive the biofuels movement forward at a rapid pace.

Indian Oil Corporation Limited and International Union for Conservation of Nature partnered with Winrock International India in organising the conference. The conference was also supported by Ministry of New & Renewable Energy Resources & Ministry of Science & Technology.

About WII:

Winrock International India (WII) is a registered not-for-profit organization, working out of its headquarters in New Delhi, and through its project offices located in Hyderabad (Andhra Pradesh), Bhadohi (Uttar Pradesh), Kawardha (Chhattisgarh) and Thrissur (Kerala).

WII addresses various environmental concerns focusing on the four principal program areas of Energy and Environment, Natural Resources Management, Climate Change and Outreach. The organization works on sustainable multi-disciplinary programs that are built by consolidating innovative concepts, sound research, new technologies, and indigenous knowledge to achieve long-term success and accomplish WII's mission to "develop and implement solutions that balance the need for food, income and environmental quality" and therefore help the people of India empower themselves to ensure their sustenance and survival of the natural environment they live in.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Losing our language

By Pandurang Hegde
15 Feb 2010

Every language represents the repository of accumulated knowledge over the generations and defines our relationship within the society and its link to nature. Unfortunately, we have begun to judge a language by only its commercial value in the existing market.

Contrary to popular perception, English is not the most spoken language

One of the major links between Africa and Asia bas been broken as the last speaker of Bo language in Andaman Islands died recently. She was the lone speaker of this historical language that originated 70 000 years back in Africa. Andaman will witness further disappearance of ancient languages as that of Jarawa and Onge, spoken only by few hundred people. Sharada, the ancient language of Kashmir is already on the way to extinction as there is hardly any one who can speak the language or read its script, which resembles ancient Brahmi. The whole world knows about the conflict in Kashmir, but the people, even in India, are not aware of the death of a language called Sharada, that was once a flourishing language in the entire western Himalayan region in the 9th century AD.

According to Bhasha, an organization working on conserving the oral traditions of marginalized communities, a total of 1652 mother tongues were documented in the census of 1961. Several hundreds are not even traceable today!

These are clear indicators of extinction of the languages. This phenomenon is not limited to ancient languages but there is lingering threat to existing languages spoken by thousands of people. However, India is about to witness a further decimation of the languages in the coming years. What are the causes for this extinction? Is it relevant to talk about the death of languages, which has become obsolete? Is this a gradual process of evolution in which the Darwin's theory of survival of the fittest is demonstrated in practice?

During 15th century about 10000 languages thrived and were alive in different parts of the world. The colonisation and industrial revolution set in a process in which the diversity of the languages started to disappear, making way for the dominant language of the colonisers. Thus, the countries of South America lost their indigenous languages and were replaced by Spanish, similarly in Africa it was replaced by English and French. In Asia, the English language got deeply entrenched, establishing its superiority over the local vernacular languages. Even though the colonisation processes have come to an end, there is acceleration in the process of economic colonization by the dominant languages of the world. As a result of this colonization we have lost almost half of the languages of the world, at present only 6000 languages survive, most of them endangered and on the verge of extinction, as those who speak these languages are only few. World's linguistic heritage and diversity is being sacrificed at the altar of modern economic development.

Colonisation of Mind

Every language is rich in its own terms. It reflects the evolution of the diversity of culture in different contexts of regions and eco systems. It represents the repository of accumulated knowledge over the generations. Each language is unique because it teaches us to think and know the world in a different way. The language is deeply related to how we think; formulate our ideas and our relationship within the society and its link to nature. It is the product of a particular eco system that has relevance to the soil and the way people live.

Unfortunately, this thinking process rooted in local people's mind gets destroyed when the dominant language replaces the local language. It is not a simple shift from one language to other, but it sets in a process of colonization of mind, it entirely changes the way people think and relate to themselves in the society. Eventually, it leads to replacement of one's own culture and values by the colonising language.

In recent years the spread of globalisation and economic liberalization has led to weakening of the local languages and the cultures. The homogenization and integration as part of the economic development force societies and nations to quit their vernacular languages in favor of the dominant languages that rule the market. It becomes inevitable for common people to jettison their mother tongues that have no commercial value in the market place. The widening role of information technology and Internet places emphasis on learning the dominant English, Spanish or Chinese leaving behind the local native languages to decay. The ongoing craze for English education in rural and urban areas in India is a clear indicator of how a dominant language is perceived as the only way to build a secure career.

It is feared that of more than 6000 currently spoken languages, 50 to 90% would be lost by 2050. The silencing of the native languages leads to erosion of cultures and the different ways to know the world. Like monocultures in agriculture and forestry, the homogenisation of the language reduces the diversity of life forms. Wade Davis, an authority on endangered languages says: "Native languages are driven out of existence by identifiable forces that are beyond their capacity to adapt to". He further remonstrates that "genocide, the physical extinction of a people is universally condemned, but ethnocide, the destruction of peoples' way of life is not only not condemned, it is universally - in many quarters - celebrated as part of a development strategy."

Alarmed by the accelerated threat towards extinction of the languages, UNESCO has launched the register of good practices for language preservation. The objective is to empower the endangered languages to adapt to the changes with hands on experience and learning from the successful ventures where languages like Basque and Catalan have been successfully rescued. Nevertheless, those cultures and languages which are endangered find it difficult to learn from the models. Each case is region-specific and ecosystem-specific and needs a unique innovative approach. Under such critical circumstances, it is doubtful if the preservation of the languages can withstand the onslaught of the economic and cultural globalisation.

The only hope is to uphold and facilitate the process in which multi or bilingualism is able to take deep roots. This will nurture the native language as well as provide a strong foothold over the dominant commercial language like English to adapt to the globalising world. In India, we have numerous examples of this being put into practice, however in recent years the native language is looked down as 'primitive' in comparison to the 'advanced' English. We need to overcome this inferiority complex and motivate the younger generations to take necessary actions to protect as well as feel proud of the native tongues of their region.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Why we should oppose Bt brinjal?

By Devinder Sharma
11 Feb 2010

Though the government of India has cancelled the GEAC approval for commercial cultivation of Bt brinjal, majority of people remain unaware of the facts related to the controversy. Here are FAQs to help the readers:

Brinjal is in the eye of a storm. With the Environment & Forest Minister Jairam Ramesh putting a moratorium on the introduction of what could have been India's first genetically modified food crop - Bt brinjal - the nation has been saved from a poisonous food.

Based on the wide ranging public consultations held across the country, Jairam Ramesh's decision has also come as an indictment of the scientific regulatory process. At the same time, the Minister has for the first time questioned the need to go in for GM technology when there were other pest management alternatives, much safer environmentally and for human health, available.

As expected, the historic decision has opened up a can of worms. Agricultural scientists and the private seed companies have come under a cloud, and therefore an orchestrated media campaign has been launched. It is therefore important to explain some of the hotly debated aspects of the decision, which are getting lost in the din of accusations and counter-allegations. Let me answer some of the frequently asked questions.

Bt brinjal and GM crops are important for a country which has more than 1 billion people to feed.

There is no GM crop in the world which increases productivity. In fact, most of the GM crops actually reduce productivity. The US Department of Agriculture admits that the productivity of GM corn and GM soya is less than that of the normal varieties.

There is no shortage of food in the world. We have 6.5 billion people on Earth, and we produce food for 11.5 billion people. If more than 1 billion people are going to bed hungry globally, it is because of the faulty distribution process rather than the unavailability of food. The same holds true for India, where one third of the population cannot even buy food that is available. Poor people find it even difficult to buy wheat and rice at Rs 2/- a kilo. The question therefore is not of production but access and distribution.

Bt brinjal increases productivity. So why stop it?

This is not true. Bt gene acts more or less like a chemical pesticide which is sprayed from outside, whereas Bt produces a toxin within the plant.

If the Bt gene increases productivity, then some may argue that chemical pesticides also increase productivity. Can scientists accept that chemical pesticides increase productivity? But in case of Bt crops, they don't mind creating a false illusion to misguide the farmer.

How can Bt brinjal adversely affect farmers?

Bt is a biological pesticide. It releases poison in the plant. It has been established that compared to Bt biopesticide sprays, the concentration of Bt toxin in Bt brinjal is one thousand times more. Bt biopesticide sprays are harmful, imagine the impact Bt brinjal toxin will have on the environment.

Bt crops releases a toxin in soil through the roots. It has affected beneficial soil microflora, and studies at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) have proved this. There have been animal deaths from grazing on Bt cotton leaves in Andhra Pradesh, and Haryana. The GEAC has simply brushed this aside even though the Andhra Animal husbandry department has warned farmers not to let their livestock graze in Bt cotton fields.

Genetically modified crops also create superweeds, which are not controlled by any chemical. Georgia province in America is fast turning into a wasteland due to massive infestation of superweeds. World-over, 26 countries are now facing the menace of superweeds. GM crops also destroy biodiversity by contamination. India is the Centre of Origin for brinjal, and therefore needs to be more than cautious.

Bt is supposed to kill sucking pests like pink bollworm in cotton, and fruit and shoot borer in brinjal, thereby reduce pesticides consumption. This however does not hold true for long. In China, which was promoted as a silver-bullet case, cotton farmers growing Bt cotton are now reported to be spraying 8 per cent more pesticides than on non Bt crops and thereby incurring losses. Resurgence of secondary pests has been observed in China (like mealy bug in Punjab), as a result of which farmer's total usage of pesticides increases. This report is based on a study conducted by the Cornell University.

In India too, insects are developing resistance to Bt cotton. That is why the need to bring in Bollgard-II with two Bt genes. But no scientific study is being undertaken on pest resistance in Bt cotton.

Even in America, where herbicide-tolerant crops are prevalent, the usage of herbicides has increased. There are several USDA reports stating this.

Bt crops are safe for human consumption. So why are people expressing concern?

Numerous experiments all over the world have shown that Bt in particular and GM in general poses tremendous health risks. Even Monsanto's own studies on rats in Europe have demonstrated that the animals have terrible problems with their body organs- kidney, liver, pancreas, blood etc, and also can result in serious diseases and allergies. Some studies in Austria have recently shown that GM also leads to infertility.

All those scientists who dared to question the human safety aspect were hounded out of their jobs by the proponents of the GM industry. The only human safety trial conducted so far establishes that the alien gene in the human body does transfer to the gut bacteria. This can have serious implications. But no further tests are allowed to be conducted anywhere in the world on human safety.

Bt brinjal is one thousand times more poisonous than the Bt biopesticide sprays. If Bt biopesticide sprays can kill insects, imagine what would happen to human bodies after consuming food that has one thousand times more toxins inside.

These deformities can pass on from generation to generation, like some studies on pesticides have now shown.

But the GEAC, the regulatory authority, had conducted enough tests on human safety. So why worry?

Adequate scientific tests to determine human safety of the genetically modified food were not performed. Instead of the 29 tests that should be conducted before GM food is allowed to be served, the GEAC had expressed 'satisfaction' with some 4 to 5 tests and that too done in a shoddy manner. Interestingly, the GEAC says that it had conducted tests as per the international protocols, but the fact is that there are no accepted international scientific protocols so far.

Even in tests on rats, the tests have been conducted only on ten rats for 90 days. The results show that the rats did suffer serious abnormalities in kidney, liver and blood. These have been simply brushed aside as 'biologically insignificant'. This is shocking considering that Bt gene releases poison in the plant. How can the GEAC simply ignore the health abnormalities seen in rats, even if it is on one rat?

The normal life span of rats, corresponding with the human beings, is for 2 years. Since it has now been found that the impact of chemical pesticides for instance are passed on from generation to generation, and are even felt in the third generation, the human safety tests for Bt brinjal need to conducted for several generations. After all, we are going to eat Bt brinjal all through our life. How can its safety be determined by rat studied for only 90 days and that too inconclusively?

We know that smoking cigarettes for 2-3 weeks does not cause cancer. To know whether smoking cigarettes can cause cancer you have to tests for several generations. Why is the industry not willing to perform tests for several generations in rats to know the health impacts from continuously consuming genetically modified crops?

GEAC is an expert committee. Why doubt the recommendations of the expert committee?

The GEAC recommendations were rigged. The GEAC had set up an Expert Committee -II (called EC-II) which had some members who were also involved in developing Bt crops. This was a sure case where a conflict of interest was evident. How can people who develop GM crops also sit on the approval process?

The norms and bylaws of the EC-II were lowered to suit the interests of the private seed companies. All experiments were conducted by the private companies, and the GEAC had accepted the data provided by the private seed company. Let us also not forget that the private seed company had refused to share the analysis with the general public, and it was only after the Supreme Court's directive that the research data was made public.

The entire regulatory process is a sham. Jairam Ramesh's decision is clearly an indictment of the GEAC. The report is full of unscientific conclusions and inaccuracies. At the same time, the report blatantly ignores the dangerous impact of Bt brinjal on the body organs of rats and other animals, and also the environment. The chairman of EC-II himself has said that he is not sure of the health impact of Bt brinjal.

Let us have an open and transparent debate on the regulatory process. If the GEAC decision is found to be wrong and unscientific, the chairman of GEAC should be put to trial. After all, we cannot allow anyone to play havoc with the lives of the masses.

Farmers are better judge of a technology. Why not leave Bt brinjal as an option for the farmers to use, if he finds it useful?

This is a joke. If we leave harmful technologies in the hands of people, the world would die an unnatural death sooner than later. Cigarette smoking for instance cannot be left to people. Even though every packet contains a bold statement 'cigarette smoking is injurious to health' and yet its sales goes on increasing. Because it was unhealthy and dangerous, governments have stepped in and banned its usage in public places. Was that a wrong decision?

Similarly, GM crops cannot be left to the farmers to decide as an option. Farmer too gets influenced by the marketing blitz of the companies. The entire State machinery -- Agri Universities, Farm extension depts, companies and the media have been promoting GM crops. With such a powerful marketing blitz how do you expect the farmer to make informed choices? Also, if the farmer was so sensible, the usage of chemical pesticides would not have multiplied to the present dangerous levels.

Already farmers are committing suicide because of the faulty technologies imposed upon them. How many more farmers do we want to be killed before stopping the killer technologies from being used?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Encourage sustainable farming, not GM: KVM

By d-sector Team
09 Feb 2010

Protests against Bt brinjal have been reported from all over India

While the world awaits India's crucial decision on Bt brinjal, farmers, activists, and researchers exhort the government to use the historical opportunity to chart out a sustainable path in Indian food & farming systems.

As India awaits the decision of the Minister of State for Environment & Forests on the issue of Bt brinjal, farmers' initiative Kheti Virasat Mission (KVM) has urged him to seize the opportunity to tackle the problem of unsustainable and hazardous agri-technologies head-on and chart out a sustainable development path in Indian food and farming systems by rejecting Bt brinjal's entry into India.

Appreciating the efforts of the concerned minister Jairam Ramesh to consult the stakeholders before taking any decision on Bt brinjal, KVM thanked Mr Ramesh for adopting a democratic process on this crucial matter. "For the first time, a platform was provided for experts and others in the country to come out into the open to share their analyses and views on the subject", KVM Director Umendra Dutt said.

"Though there were some shortcomings in the consultations process adopted, it is indeed a unique initiative of the Minister to listen personally to various views from all quarters. The process allowed many people outside the formal consultations process to engage with the issue in productive ways. We hope these kinds of consultations will be streamlined better in future and made into a systemic process in regulation as required under the Cartagena Protocol", added Kavitha Kuruganti of KVM.

"The Minister is well in his rights and authority to invoke the precautionary principle as required under the Cartagena Protocol and the process of consultations has shown that never before was this approach more relevant than in the case of Bt brinjal, where the scientific community was severely divided on the matter with a majority of scientists who participated in the consultations cautioning the Minister against Bt brinjal", Ms Kuruganti said.

KVM reminded the Environment Minister of the cornerstones set down by the Task Force on Agri-Biotechnology in 2004 as "the safety of the environment, the well-being of farming families, the ecological and economic sustainability of farming systems, the health and nutrition security of consumers, safeguarding of home and external trade and the bio-security of India".

"It was heartening to hear from Mr Ramesh that the Bt brinjal issue was not just a technical matter but had socio-political implications. This was critical because the regulators (GEAC) failed to ensure independent, scientific, transparent and rigorous bio-safety evaluation of Bt brinjal before allowing its commercial cultivation", said KVM leaders.

In the consultations held in seven prominent centres of India, numerous farmers and scientists claimed that Bt brinjal was not needed in India since there were other ecological, safer and affordable ways of pest management. Some FSB (Fruit & Shoot Borer) resistant cultivars who participated in various consultations shared their pest management techniques and challenged the GM crop developers to come and see the effectiveness in the crop-yields. Farm activists also pointed out that the data being shown to rationalize the entry of Bt brinjal in relation to crop damage and pesticide usage was exaggerated and scientifically incorrect. Farmers also highlighted the brinjal glut in the market and the resultant low prices as the main problem repeatedly faced by brinjal growers.

Umendra Dutt said that several farmers want to move towards pesticide free farming and KVM would like the government to move in that direction without introducing more harmful technologies. He said it was high time the government took the problem of chemical pesticides in our farming head-on and ensured that sustainable and successful eco-practices for pest management reach the last farmer without turning to more hazardous and unpredictable technologies like Genetic Engineering. He appealed to Mr Ramesh to use this opportunity to acknowledge the problem of pesticides and to join hands with the Agriculture Ministry to tackle this issue squarely.

Raising the issue of regulatory process, Kavitha Kuruganti said that the issues around lack of credibility in the regulators' intentions and capabilities for objective, scientific and transparent evaluation were brought up time and again in the public consultations and there was an urgent need for a complete recasting of the regulatory system. "The interference of American agencies in Indian regulation should also be addressed squarely", she emphasized.

Mr Dutt said that scientists and others in these consultations repeatedly highlighted the insufficiency of data to back safety claims about Bt brinjal. He alleged that there were problems with the safety tests undertaken so far and the many gaps in evaluation and decision-making were also brought up.

He said KVM wanted the die-hard proponents of GM crops including some media houses to realize that the innumerable concerns on Bt brinjal and its safety assessment were being voiced by scores of scientists across the country and it was unfair to brand Bt brinjal opponents as "anti-science" and "anti-technology". "Several State governments and universities have come out against Bt brinjal's introduction in the past couple of months", he added.

"Farmers and researchers from Bt Cotton cultivation areas raised issues like animal health impacts, soil impacts, erratic crop performance, seed pricing and unviable economics, pest and disease changes in cotton, human health impacts, increased burden on organic farming etc during the consultation process", claimed Ms Kuruganti.

She added that in addition to farmers and scientists, people representing Indian Systems of Medicine also dreaded the potential impacts of Bt brinjal on their treatment systems and medicines.

Similarly, activists mentioned about lack of liability regime and how the entry of GM seeds like Bt brinjal would increase seed monopolies in favour of large corporations like Monsanto", said KVM leader.

It has been reported that several representatives of consumers expressed concerns that their right to eat safe food and to know what they are eating would be violated by introduction of GM food crops. "Since labelling on vegetables is impossible in a vast and poor country like India, giving choices to consumers would not be practically feasible", said Mr Dutt.

Umendra Dutt urged the Environment Minister to invoke the precautionary principle, a legally valid approach and reject Bt brinjal's entry into India on the simple ground that this controversial technology with its inconclusive proof of safety was not needed for pest management given the various alternatives available with the agriculture research establishment and practicing farmers all over the country.

Summary of public consultations held on the issue of Bt brinjal

Details of discussions

Kolkata (West Bengal is the largest producer of brinjal in India and also has the largest diversity.)

13 Jan 2010

Out of 56 people who spoke, 41 were against Bt brinjal, including senior scientists, brinjal farmers and others. The State Agricultural Technologists Service Association consisting of hundreds of agriculture officials declared their opposition to Bt brinjal. Members of the state agriculture commission also recommended a ban on GM seeds.

Bhubaneswar (Orissa is the second largest brinjal producer in the country)

16 Jan 2010

Total 65 persons got opportunity to speak, but only 5 of them spoke in favour of allowing Bt brinjal cultivation. Scientists from the State agriculture university, Orissa University of Agriculture Technology demanded a cautious approach on Bt brinjal.

Ahmedabad (Gujarat has maximum cultivation of Bt Cotton in India)

19 Jan 2010

Out of 28 farmers who spoke, 18 opposed Bt brinjal; 10 out of 15 scientists present argued against and 3 had balanced views on Bt brinjal. All speakers from civil society said No to Bt brinjal.

Nagpur (Vidarbha region of Maharashtra has seen crisis in cotton cultivation)

27 Jan 2010

Here, out of 21 farmers who spoke, 7 seven were in favour of Bt brinjal anticipating higher yields; out of 19 scientists who spoke, 10 were against and 9 in favour of Bt brinjal. Out of 18 others, only 2 favoured Bt brinjal.

Chandigarh (Punjab and Haryana are heartland of intensive agriculture)

29 Jan 2010

Out of 20 farmers, 12 spoke against Bt brinjal’s introduction. Many said how pesticides were also marketed as ‘safe’ and highlighted the present environmental health crisis unfolding in Punjab and the terrible cost being paid by farming families. Out of 10 scientists who spoke, 6 were against Bt brinjal. Few civil society members who got the chance to speak opposed the entry of Bt brinjal.

Hyderabad (Andhra Pradesh has seen many successful sustainable farming initiatives)

31 Jan 2010

12 farmers spoke in favour of Bt brinjal and 12 against. Amongst the scientists, 13 spoke against and 5 in support of Bt brinjal. 5 civil society groups present said No to Bt brinjal. The emphasis here was on large scale ecological alternatives being available for pest management in various crops.

Bangalore (Hub of biotech companies)

6 Feb 2010

14 farmers spoke against Bt brinjal, while 16 in its favour. 21 out of the 30 experts (scientists, doctors etc.) spoke against Bt brinjal’s permission and called for conclusive, long term and independent tests to prove its safety. 5 civil society representatives who got a chance to speak were against Bt brinjal’s approval in India. Former PM Deve Gowda also expressed his concerns against Bt brinjal while the Organic Farming Mission Chair pointed out to the recent de-notification of Brinjal from the Biological Diversity Act’s purview in the name of “traded commodity” which is highly questionable. A former Managing Director of Monsanto India spoke against Bt brinjal and advised the Minister not to approve it.

Meanwhile, few selected scientists approached by the Minister are reported to be in favour of conditional release of Bt brinjal in India. However, Dr P M Bhargava and Dr M S Swaminathan, the two Supreme Court observers in the apex regulatory body (GEAC-Genetic Engineering Approval Committee) have opposed the permission to Bt brinjal citing various grounds.

At State level, at least 10 state governments have decided to oppose Bt brinjal's approval - these include Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, West Bengal, Bihar and Uttarakhand. In addition, some Ministers and officials of Rajasthan, Punjab and Mizoram are also reportedly against Bt brinjal on health and environment concerns.

The three states which grow more than 60% of brinjal in India - West Bengal, Orissa and Bihar - have notably said no to Bt brinjal's approval. Their arguments range from lack of conclusive proof of its safety, to fears of monopolistic control over Indian farming belonging to small and marginal farmers of the country. The public consultations in these majority brinjal producing states reflected this official position of rejection of Bt brinjal.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

GM push will crush traditional farming

By Claude Alvares
09 Feb 2010

Indian farmers taking out death procession of Bt Brinjal

Facing tremendous pressure from the very influential agri-business lobby, the Government of India was keen to introduce GM food crops but nationwide protests and strong opposition from various quarters might force it to take a decision in the interest of the people.

The green revolution which was set in motion in 1966 was engineered outside the country. It was implemented within by the then agricultural establishment without a thought to its environmental consequences. With genetically modified crops we have a repeat, with one crucial difference. This time the technology comes with private ownership as part of its baggage and naturally, a demand for royalty and fees.

The question on everyone's lips is why is the Government of India so keen to allow powerful and ruthless US corporations like Monsanto (represented in India by companies like Mahyco) to privatise the basis of our food production system - the seed?

Monsanto has gone on record saying that it is working towards creating a world in which all farmers everywhere will only use Monsanto seed (and naturally pay it fees for doing so). Since when did Monsanto's aims become those of the Government of India as well?

Take the priorities facing us (and the govt including Jairam Ramesh) in the environmental arena today. Measures to deal with climate change - which is endangering the planet - deferred. Actions to tackle issues like sewage, garbage, polluted rivers, critically polluted areas, tiger loss - all deferred. But the introduction of GM brinjal has convulsed the Government into action. But is brinjal production one of the Government's priorities? Since when? There is hardly any one connected with agriculture in the country today who would venture to plead that there is any crisis in brinjal production. In fact, we have more than enough of brinjal that we make it into pickles. So why the hyperdrive? Who decided the brinjal agenda? The answer is Monsanto and USAID.

Speed has always been a key element of Monsanto strategy. Before Americans could even know it (and protest), GM foods were upon them. Today, 85-91% of corn, cotton and soybean are planted with Monsanto engineered seed. Now the company is gunning for America's wheat as well. With less than 1% of the US population left as farmers, it's easy to get them all to purchase seeds dutifully every year from corporations. They have no alternative.

Could that happen in India? Well, it appears that the Government of India is trying very hard.

Already in some cotton growing areas in the country today, only GM seed is available for farmers - spurious or authentic nobody seems to care. Once every other variety of cotton seed is out of the market, we are at Mahyco's mercy. For good reason the Andhra Government acted sternly against Mahyco for extortionate cotton seed prices and the Monopolies Commission had to move against the same company to prevent monopoly price fixing.

At a time when rising costs of inputs are making agriculture unviable and are one of the reasons for farmer suicides, it is absurd to promote a seed replacement system in which seeds can only be frightfully expensive. GM seeds are many times more expensive than normal certified seed due to extortionate royalty charges. This is because they carry proprietary patented genes. The sale and profiting out of life commenced when the Supreme Court of the United States decided that corporations could patent genetically altered organisms which none of them created in the first place.

All GMOs come in with stringent Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) laws. The US Supreme Court has in a recent case held that a farmer whose crop had been contaminated by pollen from an adjacent crop which used patented genes would not be able to use the resulting seed to plant a new crop even though he was the owner of the seed and it had grown on his land. If he did this nonetheless, he would be violating the provisions of the US Patent Act which does not permit illegal, unauthorised use of patented goods without payment of charges.

How would that scenario emerge in India?

Begin with brinjal since it is eaten by almost everyone. Introduce it through popular varieties like the Udipi Gulla or the Agassaim variety from Goa. The Bt versions cannot be distinguished from the farmers' non-Bt varieties. However, the Bt gene is bound to cross over into the non-Bt varieties where it can be easily identified by looking for its markers. After a period of 3-5 years, all brinjal growing in an area will be contaminated and will carry the proprietary gene (belonging to the corporate concerned). Besides contaminating common brinjal varieties, the gene will have also crossed over into tomato, potato and other solanaceous crops. Wherever it goes, the IPR would apply.

After Bt brinjal, they are planning to tamper with bhendi, rice and 52 other crops with the same methods. These varieties will carry either proprietary genes that kill insects or proprietary genes that will make crops safe from Monsanto's proprietary chemicals (like weedicides).

Imagine a situation in which more than 50 of India's major food and commercial crops come under the ownership of one or two or three companies because they carry willy-nilly proprietary genetic material and every seed for these crops will carry a tax to be paid to Monsanto, Cargill or their agents.

Can someone tell me how this predictable scenario is incorrect, false, distant, unrealistic?

So what's the immediate plan to get this scenario in motion?

Introduce genetically modified brinjal before people have time to think. Take them by surprise. Disarm them with sponsored scientists claiming that GM food is needed for increased production (false) and that it is safe (false). Once its cultivation becomes widespread, there is no looking back because genes released into the environment cannot be recalled even by God. What is more important, they will cause so much of contamination of other crops that India's agriculture and food will never be the same again.

For organic farmers as a class, GM crops spell a bleak and grim future. Organic farming certification standards do not permit the use of GMOs. Already certifying agencies are refusing to certify organic farms that are adjacent to farms using Bt cotton. States like Gujarat, where most of cotton grown is of the Bt variety, will soon lose organic status completely. In April 2009, European markets found to their horror that 30% of Indian certified organic cotton exports were contaminated with Bt genes. (India produces more than half the world's organic cotton.) We have carefully built up an export market of over Rs.500 crore for organic cotton (growing leaps and bounds every year) which we now see collapsing before our eyes. I am not referring to the crores being spent by both Central and State governments to promote organic farming within the country which is additional.

The tragedy is that by killing organic farming in this manner we are killing ecological agriculture and turning our backs on ecology. Ecological agriculture has always been a win-win proposal. It builds the soil instead of depleting it; it takes the assistance of soil fauna including earthworms and beneficial microbes. It rejects synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and thereby grows safe and nutritious food. It preserves biodiversity and insect balance. It encourages best use of resources as it encourages farmers to generate all their inputs on the farm.

Genetically modified agriculture turns its back on all this. It replaces farmer-generated seeds with corporate owned seed. It promotes more intensive use of chemical fertilizers. It claims to reduce the use of pesticides. In fact the entire genetically modified plant (in this case, Bt Brinjal) has been made into a toxic: every cell reproduces the Bt toxin. As organic farmers we use naturally occurring Bt sometimes to get rid of unwelcome pests, but then this is not to be consumed and we wash it off the plant when its use is done. No one in his right mind would want to use a brinjal whose every cell reproduces the Bt toxin.

The most careful assessment of sustainable use technology for agriculture was carried out by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), a UN group which studied all options including GMOs. India is a participant and therefore signed the final report (2008). The report in fact recommends more reliance on non-GM technologies, especially ecological agriculture. If the government of India promotes GM based agriculture, it will be turning its back on the most up to date assessment of agricultural technologies done under the UN system.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Act green, get bonus!

By Shankar Sharma
03 Feb 2010

Environmentalists call Tehri dam in Uttrakhand as a major ecological disaster

Our forests, rivers, coastal areas and the overall biodiversity are immensely valuable and crucial for the health of the nation. Therefore, any initiative to reward their protection should be welcomed.

Union Minister for Environment & Forests Jairam Ramesh has indicated that the government is considering 'Green Bonus' for protecting forest cover. This is a novel idea to encourage the states to adequately protect forest cover. This proposal could help Himalayan states which rely on commercial exploitation of the forest wealth for revenue generation since they do not have many other avenues.

Uttarakhand is a good example in this regard. The officials think that since the state has large hydro electric potential, it should fully exploit it. Since electricity demand within the state is not huge, it plans to set up more than 100 hydel projects and sell power to other states. Obviously, setting up so many hydel projects will accelerate depletion of forest cover and degrade the rich bio-diversity of the state.

The other Himalayan states like Himachal Pradesh and Sikkim are also keen on exploiting their hydel potential on an accelerated basis. Even though some of the hydel projects in Sikkim are facing many hurdles because of environmental and social concerns, a majority of such proposals in Himalayas should be of major concern from bio diversity aspect alone.

Arunachal Pradesh is another state where huge hydel potential (totaling about 40,000 MW) has been identified. Many large-size hydel projects on river Subansiri, Lohit, Dibang etc are being proposed. The deleterious impacts of such big hydel projects on rich bio-diversity and poor tribals of nearby areas, though well known for decades, are sadly ignored by the policy makers.

Since revenue needs of these mountainous states are crucial, they should be helped to explore many other alternatives available. These states should realize the dangers of exploiting the forest wealth on an unsustainable basis by damming the rivers. Providing adequate financial incentives to conserve and develop the forest wealth on a sustainable basis can be a good idea. Such an initiative must be designed to also encourage non-Himalayan states like Karnataka, Kerala, Maharastra and Goa to arrest the destruction of forest cover there. A large number of power projects being planned in the vicinity of Western Ghats in these states without due diligence is a matter of serious concern.

Recently, Mr Ramesh commented that, "the health of the Himalayan glaciers is poor and we need to take immediate remedial measures." But, will the large number of proposed hydel projects in Himalayas not negate 'immediate remedial measures'? The same argument holds true in case of hydel /coal /nuclear power projects in the vicinity of Western Ghats.

The economic, environmental, and social impacts including many cultural and heritage impacts of building large dam based power projects cannot be ignored any longer. World Charter for Nature was adopted by consensus by UN General Assembly in 1982. It has provided some guiding principles for protecting biodiversity. Two key principles are: (a) activities which are likely to cause irreversible damage to nature should be avoided; (b) activities which are likely to pose significant risk to nature shall be preceded by an exhaustive examination; their proponents shall demonstrate that the expected benefits clearly outweigh potential damage to nature, and where potential adverse effects are not fully understood, the activities should not proceed. Since forests are the predominant source of bio-diversity, the protection of forest wealth can not be more emphasized.

A recent report by Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) - "Achieving 2010 Biodiversity Target: India's contributions" - has copiously described the rich bio diversity in the country, the threats to it and the tall claims about the remedial measures taken. But without holistically reviewing the present practice of issuing environmental clearance to almost all projects presented before MoEF, policymakers can not take any credit for contributing to the conservation of global biodiversity.

As per State of Environment Report 2009 by MoEF, India is a mega diversity country and despite having only 2.4% surface area of the globe, it has 7-8% of the recorded species of the world. It is also home for 11.8% of the plant species documented so far. The National Forest Policy 1988 envisages one third of the geographical area of the country to be covered by forests and trees, and considers it as essential for economic and ecological security of the country. But as per the MoEF report 'Achieving 2010 Biodiversity Target: India's contributions', at present this figure is only 23%, of which forest cover alone accounts for 21%. Hence it is critical that we do not loose the pristine forest cover anymore, but increase it, as early as possible, to the target figure of 33%.

The United Nations programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) in developing countries is a collaboration between FAO, UNDP and UNEP. REDD is accepted as a critical step in addressing the threat of Global Warming. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that deforestation is now contributing close to 20 per cent of the overall greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere. Forest degradation is no less responsible for emissions from forest ecosystems. Therefore, IPCC says, there is an immediate need to make significant progress in reducing deforestation, forest degradation, and associated emission of greenhouse gases.

As per a study report "Bio-diversity Impact of Large Dams" prepared for IUCN / UNEP / WCD, the value of ecological functions as well as resources of the environment (both terrestrial and aquatic) has been estimated to be about $33 trillion per year, which is almost twice the global GDP. Bio-diversity is of immense value for the humans and the world as a whole. As per the Convention on Biological Diversity it will be a wise policy to apply Precautionary Principle and take necessary action to conserve Bio-diversity before components of it are permanently lost. Since forests are the major source of bio-diversity, we need to take into account the potential value of ecological services associated with forests in the country.

As per the report 'Economics of Climate Change' by Nicholas Stern, emissions from deforestation are estimated to represent more than 18% of global emissions. Hence, curbing deforestation is a cost-effective way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

While it may appear that exploiting the natural resources can accelerate economic development of our communities, there are also credible risks of upsetting the delicate equation of ecological sub-systems. Hence an objective study of all the issues concerning a sustainable development model will be critical for the long term welfare of not only the people in the mountain states, but also of lower riparian states. The potential of revenue generation for the state through hydel generation should be carefully viewed in this context.

Amongst various 'developmental activities' in India, large size power projects lead to massive destruction of forest wealth, as has been noticed since independence. Whether it is due to the drowning of forests in dam waters, or due to forest clearance to set up buildings, hydraulic structures & transmission lines, or due to the need to open up more coal mines etc, large tracts of rich evergreen forests have been irrevocably lost all over the country.

As per the Integrated Energy Policy of the Planning Commission - "by 2031-32 the power generation capacity must increase to nearly 800,000 MW from the current capacity of about 160,000 MW inclusive of all captive power plants." 90% of this additional 640,000 MW capacity is projected to come from coal based and dam based power projects. Such a large number of coal based and dam based power projects will have massive impact on the extent and quality of forests & bio diversity in the country. Scaling up of conventional power capacity in a short period will also have far reaching consequences on social, environmental and economic aspects of our society.

There are many benign alternatives to building hydel projects as a means of revenue. Similarly, various better substitutes to dam based or coal based power projects can be explored to meet our electricity demand. Hence the need is to initiate policy measures to ensure that every state considers biodiversity as of immense value to our country, and reviews projects from a holistic perspective to ensure a sustainable development model.

Keeping in mind the multi faceted importance of adequate size and quality of forests, it is in the long term interest of our society to objectively review various developmental processes being followed now wherein the forests are not being given their due credit. Bio-diversity, including forests, rivers, coastal areas are crucial for the health of the nation, and hence will need appropriate valuation. In the light of these facts, the Green Bonus idea is a good initiative.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

'World-class' Delhi can't tolerate cycle rickshaw

By Gaurav Sharma
02 Feb 2010

Confiscated rickshaws are dumped at MCD’s store before being dismantled

In order to accomplish their desire to make Indian Capital a 'world-class' city, the elitist and myopic administrators of Delhi are pushing environmental friendly cycle rickshaw out of city to increase space for swelling number of polluting cars.

Sitting hunched with face cupped in his hands, pensive looking Dharmendra was restless. He would often rise on his toes to have a glance at his confiscated cycle rickshaw languishing in the backyard of walled MCD’s (Municipal Council of Delhi) rickshaw store. A sense of gloom and doom had descended upon him as he had been stripped of his only source of frugal subsistence in the city which cares only for the rich and the powerful.

The confiscation of rickshaw was a double whammy to his insurmountable problems. His wife, who had developed some complications during labour, was in dire need of blood. To save bus fare, poor Dharmendra opted to ride his cycle rickshaw to the blood bank. Caught unaware of the MCD’s rickshaw confiscation drive, he was nabbed on the way by Delhi Police and MCD officials and ended up losing his rickshaw before reaching his destination.

That day, nearly 150 cycle-rickshaws were impounded from the same area and dumped into the MCD’s rickshaw store which looks like a junkyard. Dreading over the prospect of not getting his rickshaw back, Dharmendra said, ‘How will I get the rickshaw back? I don’t have enough money to pay the heavy penalty or grease MCD officials’ palms”. His worry was not without reason. MCD, as a policy, dismantles the confiscated rickshaw, if the owner/puller fails to pay penalty within stipulated period.

Delhi’s administrators and the elites, who have considerable influence over policy making and public opinion, believe that cycle-rickshaws are an eyesore amongst shining cars and not eligible to ply on the Capital’s roads because they cause inconvenience to cars and other vehicles.

Ferrying people in their pedal powered three-wheelers, cycle-rickshaw pullers provide the cheapest mode of transportation in the Capital city of India. For elders, women and students, rickshaw is an easily available and reliable source of movement.

“There are areas where buses and autos do not ply and rickshaws are the only way of transportation in such areas. On the sprawling North Campus of Delhi University, rickshaw is essential for many students to move around,” says Vaibhav, a student of city’s Hansraj College.

New Delhi is getting ready to host 2010 Commonwealth Games, and the ‘city beautification drive’ for the Games has become a tool for these administrators to destroy shelters and livelihoods of poor rickshaw and handcart pullers. If the judiciary, which has often come to the rescue of the poor and marginalized of India, doesn’t put brakes to such drives, nearly 6,00,000 cycle-rickshaw pullers and their more than 2 million dependents, will lose their only source of livelihood. “Government should think of ways to spruce up the city rather than banning cycle-rickshaws. The traffic problem is not caused by cycle-rickshaws alone,” Vaibhav says.

There are many citizens who agree with Vaibhav. According to them, these non-motorized vehicles do not create as much problem as the motorized vehicles which cause fatal accidents, and are environmental hazards. “When the whole world is worried about the catastrophic climate change, these eco-friendly vehicles should have found government support and encouragement rather than wrath,” they say.

Ironically, the efforts of destitute are always disparaged in a country which is in awe of handful of elites. The Delhi administration is notorious for harassing, fleecing and hounding the poor migrants from other parts of India who earn their livelihood from rickshaw-pulling and street vending. The confiscation drives, daily assaults, extortion and sheer apathy of Delhi administration have brought misery to thousands of such poor and marginalized people.

The laws of the land are no less discriminating. According to the Cycle-Rickshaw Bye-Laws of 1960, “No person shall keep or ply or hire a cycle-rickshaw in Delhi unless he himself is the owner thereof and holds a license. No person will be granted more than one such license.”

The above clause reflects sheer injustice meted out to rickshaw pullers. A person or a company may own a whole fleet of cars, trucks, or even airplanes but owning more the one rickshaw will invite wrath of administration. On top of that acquiring that single licence is a Herculean task as licenses are not given round theyear. The MCD, at its discretion and convenience, decides the period for accepting the applications for license.

The MCD justifies this inane clause in the name of protecting rickshaw pullers from the greed of rickshaw owners who hire out their rickshaws to the pullers. According to MCD, these owners act as ‘rickshaw mafia’ and charge high rents of Rs. 40 to 50 per day from the rickshaw pullers.

However, the fact is MCD officials are hand-in-glove with such rickshaw mafia, many of them petty entrepreneurs who own fleets ranging from five to more than a thousand rickshaws. To acquire license for several rickshaws in bulk, owners have to grease the palms of MCD employees who issue licenses in the name of real or imaginary rickshaw pullers.

Narayan (name changed), who owns 45 rickshaws, says, “MCD officials would not make money if they legalise rickshaw plying business. First they ask us for bribes to issue licenses and then extort money from the puller because he is not the registered owner. Even after fulfilling their monetary appetite, they assault the rickshaw-pullers and confiscate the rickshaw to keep us on toes.”

Laxman, a rickshaw puller, says, ‘It does not help even if you are a licensed puller. The licensed rickshaw is also impounded without any reason. I hold a license but it has expired as I could not renew it. The MCD has stopped renewing license.”

“Driving a car without a license and putting others’ life at risk amounts to a penalty of few hundred rupees but riding a rickshaw without license invites confiscation. On top of it, the MCD officials often crush the confiscated rickshaws to no use,” rues Laxman.

Not all MCD officials are indifferent to the plight of rickshaw pullers. But they claim to be working under pressure from higher-ups. An MCD official who is not authorized to talk to media, said, “The class which travels in chauffer-driven cars and lives in gated community considers these rickshaw pullers as nuisance. They often get irritated when a rickshaw obstructs their big cars. Their access to the policymakers gives them an upper hand in having their way. We are reprimanded by seniors for not acting tough with rickshaw pullers”.

It’s difficult to predict whether the environment friendly cycle-rickshaw will survive the administration’s onslaught. The policymakers’ inclination towards car manufacturers and owners but apathy towards the poor self-employed citizens is all too evident. The administration conveniently forgets that it’s not the rickshaw but ever proliferating cars which end up choking roads and polluting environment. Any plan to popularize public transport by expanding network of Delhi Metro or DTC Bus service will be effective only if rickshaws are available in all localities to help people reach Metro station or bus stand and to come back home. But this common sense does not matter for those who would never use public transport. What they don’t realize is that rickshaw is not merely about traffic and environment. It is a critical source of livelihood for millions who do not have many options available to them.