Sunday, May 24, 2015

Agriculture, inequality and poverty in India - problems with the Green Revolution

I just read two papers about the plight of farmers in India and nutrition. The first is in the magazine Down to Earth, called "Why Marathwada is becoming a graveyard for farmers". The second is not open access, but published in the journal Public Health. Its title is "Modern agriculture and food and nutrition insecurity: paradox in India". The second is scholarly, the first gives it a human face, starting by describing an indebted farmer who uses pesticide to commit suicide.
There are many interacting, interlocking factors that underlie India's poverty; some of them agricultural, some of them social. For example, the farmer who consumed the pesticide in had "borrowed Rs 60,000 from a government-owned bank and Rs 150,000 from a private moneylender. " The interest rate from the moneylender is likely to be usurious - even from microcredit schemes in India etc it is often very high (even after adjusting for inflation).
The article would be strengthened by listing the interest rates.

Poor farmers are really vulnerable. There is an enormous asymmetry between them and those who are able to exploit him, such as the moneylenders. This asymmetry is not only of wealth, income, education and health, but also of information.

The part of Maharashtra discussed in this report relies mostly on rain and has been traditionally prone to droughts. Another factor in the poverty there is population pressure, which forces people to try to make a living on less agriculturally favoured areas. Yet another factor is cultural identified in the article: "They cannot take the humiliation of not being able to pay the debt or meet social obligations" - social pressure is important .. this is a cultural cause, not an agricultural cause.

Population pressure and a failure to protect the commons is also shown by the failure sufficient water.  The dam water goes preferentially to industry. Water in upstream dams are not released - this is a significant failure of governance, and a good example of the "Matthew effect" ("he who has gets"). It's a good but sad analysis - and with another El Niño declared it looks like it will get worse, at least in the next year.

Problems with the Green Revolution

The second paper is a more formal documentation of the limited evidence described in the first, from a poor part of Maharashtra. It shows how the "Green Revolution" (modern agricultural practices with high yielding seeds, intensive fertiliser and irrigation) has failed to deliver nutrition and other forms of security to the poor and vulnerable in India. The Green Revolution transformed India from a land of famines (including after it obtained freedom from British colonisation) to a net food exporter within 25 years, despite continued high population growth.  However, the paradox is that a considerable proportion of the Indian population, especially in the North, remain undernourished: surveys conducted in 2005-06 found 38% of children less than five were stunted -- with consequent cognitive impairment.

The paper in fact argues that Indian inequality has increased. Though no convincing statistical evidence of this is provided it is a reasonable assertion; in any case poverty and undernutrition (which the authors correctly attribute in part to poor health services and poor hygiene) remain at levels that should be unacceptable in a society that is more or less well governed. India (at least in its north) clearly is still not well-governed.

The paper also argues that uncritical government advocacy favoured three major cereals (rice, wheat, maize), but neglected traditional and nutritionally valuable crops including sorghum, millets, and pulses. The reduction in pulse consumption places the poor at risk of critical amino acid scarcity.

Furthermore, the reduction in (nitrogen-fixing) legume crops (especially in rotation with the main grains) has increased the demand for nitrogenous fertiliser. A combination of factors has led to aquifer depletion and soil deterioration including salinity. To this must be added high population growth (especially in the north). These are exemplify the concept that what Hardin termed as a "tragedy of the commons". (For example, if the groundwater is dropping and I fear my neighbour is taking more than his or her share, and if there is no over-lying sanction or custom to reduce my own use of the groundwater then it seems in my interest to act the same as my neighbour.) What lies ahead for India?

The authors conclude that it is vital for the new agricultural paradigm to be made truly more pro-people, including by addressing issues of poverty, gender, livelihood and environment. This cannot happen automatically without supportive government policies.

I would add that it also requires policies and a mindset far broader than most people conceive as "agriculture" - such as rural education and greater fairness in the application of laws and rules, with less discrimination against minorities and the poor.

The World Scientist’s Warning to Humanity

I leave the last word to Norman Borlaug, awarded the 1970 Nobel Prize for his role in the delivering the Green Revolution. Unlike many agricultural economists, including those who framed various world hunger targets, Borlaug and many other Nobel Laureates (including over half of those then alive) who signed the World Scientist’s Warning to Humanity. The text of this warning, one of whose signatories was Norman Borlaug, expresses far less optimism about the future than cornucopians like Bjorn Lomborg would like to believe.