Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Essays, essays, everywhere, not one to read

The book comes in the midst of the flood season in India. The floods have, as usual, taken their toll of human and animal life and property. So I quickly flipped the pages to see what this book may have to say on the important subject and found a solitary article.

Rohan D’Souza’s piece is about flood control in deltaic Orissa alongside comparisons with similar schemes in the USA and China. The author points out the conflicting views on controlling floods by constructing embankments and dams and how the views swung from seeing flood waters as a calamity to seeing it as a nutrient-rich resource. The history is not quite up-do date as it stops with the 1950s. What lessons does it have for contemporary matters relating to flood control?

Precious little, one would think. Whatever may have the situation earlier matters have changed since the 1850s, from when the author traces the history. Two major changes can be pointed out. One, that nutrients to enrich soils are now increasingly supplied by artificial means and with greater effectiveness and control.

The second and the major change, however, is in the impact of floods. Urban areas and populations (both absolute and in relation to rural areas) have increased dramatically. Now urban areas don’t derive any benefits from floods but bear huge costs. Even in rural areas population densities have increased. What earlier may have been a relatively simple expedient of moving away when waters flooded homes is these days nothing short of a nightmare (even if it were simple to shift in the past it must have been a terrible experience though the author doesn’t discuss this aspect).

In contemporary India we are quite familiar with what happens when floods strike and images of people marooned and forced to spend days and nights on tree-tops under rain with scarcely any food or amenities are grim reminders of the heavy costs that people face. Even the army needs to be called in at many places to rescue people. Unfortunately, waters don’t confine themselves to farm land but enter houses and offices destroying life and damaging possessions. Not only is life at risk but even in rural areas large scale inundation is extremely disruptive of economic, social and educational activities. These days there is more infrastructure (roads, banks, schools), more material possessions (household durable goods, for example) and more equipment (tractors, pumps, engines) whose submergence is hardly an inconsequential matter.

In other words India can’t afford to have large tracts of land inundated with water every year. The author quotes a source that 12-20% of the land area of the country may be flood-prone. If true, it would imply a population at risk in such areas of 100-200 million.

So the notion of floods as a resource is now merely an academic curiosity. This, however, doesn’t and shouldn’t be construed as a plea or a case for building dams or embankments. There are other important aspects to inundation and hydrology that the author doesn’t discuss - the most prominent omission is drainage – and which are critical to understanding, regulating and preventing floods and the terrible consequences they bring.

Most of the papers in the book are not about surfeit but scarcity of water. On groundwater there are two articles – both about Gujarat and oddly enough David Hardiman’s paper relies a lot on the work of the other contributor - Navroz Dubash. Not only does it make the essays repetitive but one also misses perspectives from other states. For example, even communist-ruled West Bengal has fairly extensive groundwater markets.

Both Hardiman and Dubash are critical of and reject work claiming competitive water markets. They don’t, however, demonstrate that prices deviate from competitive outcomes but merely assert that this is so. This is clearly not sufficient.

On the other hand they do claim roles for institutional factors and historical development in water markets. Dubash makes the case that kinship and caste-based understandings play an important role in determining outcomes. Hardiman also claims that in one village (of the 2 studied by Dubash) a price cartel has been at work.

In that particular village the dominant community makes up 64% of the households and owns 97% of the land and 100% of the wells. Hence the thesis that kinship and caste play an important role is a trivial conclusion and not particularly insightful. After all given the ownership pattern is it a surprise that all decisions and outcomes will be internalised within the particular community? And if as Hardiman says they have formed a price cartel it is not clear who the cartel is exploiting or targeting. After all, the cartel is itself the market!!!!

The second village is more diverse and market forces play a greater role and caste and kinship forces seem to be weaker. The thesis thus propounded by these two authors suffers from lack of evidence and seems quite tenuous.

Overall, in the book, several important areas such as pollution, urban water scarcities, waterlogging and salinity of irrigated land are missing and while no book can be expected to be comprehensive this one has a lot of articles of questionable relevance if not questionable scholarship.

Take the editor’s own article. It reads like a diary – a travel diary – of her journey through Jhabua evaluating its watershed programme. With little else apart from her own impressions and of those she met how seriously can one consider it? And one searches in vain for something on water, and then finally the last paragraph of the paper begins “Finally, water………..”

Other essays, for example in the section entitled “Imagining Communities” are not that neglectful of water. However, and in spite of what the editor says in the introduction there is no ecological specificity about these essays. They are not water-distinctive at all, they could have been about any resource, indeed about anything. For example substitute school for the tank in Arun De Souza’s piece and it would still read right. Or if in R Brara’s it were electricity instead of water it would still ‘enlighten”. So whatever be the other merits of these essays they don’t deepen our understanding of water issues.

The redeeming feature of the book is the essay on south Indian tank irrigation by David Mosse. It questions the idea of a pre-colonial ‘ideal’ water and irrigation regime and associated conceptions and roles of the state and the community. But it doesn’t stop there. Instead it also draws implications relevant for our times and can be read as a critique of attempt to recover or recreate the past. One does miss, however, what could have been a dialogue with another contributor with different views on the subject.

The book’s jacket has a colourful water painting titled “Small Pond, Many Fish”. I wonder if the artist is alluding to the billions of humans on planet Earth. Interesting all the fish are of the same size - no small fish, no big fish - and no fish is eating other fish!!! The rest of the landscape is verdant with trees and birds and women around a handpump giving plentiful water. Has the artist not read the book or is she making a point of her own?

Friday, July 20, 2007

Don’t Go by the Title

Making Conservation Work
Securing Biodiversity in this New Century

Ghazala Shahabuddin & Mahesh Rangarajan (editors)

Reading the book’s title and sub-title made me expect papers and discussion on urgent biodiversity concerns and priorities, an analysis of existing and required changes in laws and policies, some recommendations and prescriptions, and even a few success stories pointing the way forward. And the impression was heightened when in the introduction the editors said that that most of the papers in the book were presented at a workshop looking at solutions to biodiversity loss in India.

Alas, it was not to be. The book is not about solutions or about making conservation work or securing biodiversity. Perhaps one and a half papers would qualify. Expectations of readers based on the title may well be belied.

What the book has is plenty (5 of the 8 papers) of description and analysis of what has transpired. These review papers in the volume are not even posing the problem except in a very peripheral way. Though all 8 papers are case–studies, they are not used to pose larger questions and move towards solutions even if they were to be provisional or tentative. There is no looking at the future and in particular to relate biodiversity imperatives to the rapid changes in society and the economy.

One paper that does attempt to deal with solutions is the one by Nitin Rai (readers without access to the book may read this article) on extraction of NTFPs in a Western Ghats village. He shows that secure tenure is associated with prudent harvesting while premature harvesting and other destructive practices are seen in open access areas. On the critical matter of solutions he mentions several things such as collective control and distribution based on customary rules, addressing issues of equity, role and space for local forest-dependent communities, and active role of government and non-governmental organizations.

These measures are mentioned without detailing how they would come about and be sustained. Unfortunately, the paper stops – by listing these measures - where it should have begun.

To begin with it is not clear why communities or groups are not able to organise and prevent premature harvesting which as he notes they have done at other places. What is it about the structure of society that causes this? The village has 81 households of which the dominant community is 54% (who don’t participate in collection from open-access areas) and the next two groups comprise 15% each of the total households. The average income in the village is much higher than the state and national averages and even the relatively “poor” don’t seem destitute. The district is aware, literate and no stranger to movements. Is the effort involved in modifying extraction regime not worth the reward? Or does the community need time to sort out matters?

From the paper it is not clear if collection of other products including wood and fodder in open access areas is prudent or destructive. Is it only fruit extraction, which the author studied, which is destructive of the environment?

The author leans towards providing security of tenure as a possible solution. But such security can take various forms. Which one will work? Another pertinent question not raised or addressed is that a regime change may bring about a change in behaviour. For example, secure long term access may lead people to suppress the growth of some species and promote that of others. Vegetation composition may change.

My point is that a more detailed discussion is required to take the matter forward.

For me the most fascinating paper in the book is about the pioneering restoration work on small fragmented rainforests, being done in the Anamalais, Western Ghats by the NCF. This is a real solution, albeit on a micro scale and involves working with several partners including the forest department, local people and the corporate sector. As the authors point out restoration is a neglected sphere of work. It is also quite demanding and one significant challenge would be to scale it up. There are literally thousands of such fragments in various parts of the country. It would be beyond the capacity of individual or even several NGOs to do so. So who can run the programme and how can it expand to other parts of the country? There are also large tracts of land (semi-abandoned coffee estates, for example), which exist as enclaves in the middle of forests and protected areas. They too could be restored.

Individuals and corporate houses in India have come to great riches, of late, but most of their philanthropic effort is directed at programmes on education, health and general welfare. Perhaps the time has come to start considering and debating initiatives such as purchases of conservation-important areas presently in private hands. As an example see the work of The Nature Conservancy.

While the book may not be about what the title purports nevertheless one may ask are the articles useful? Yes, several of them are and the book is not a waste of an effort but it is not what one expected.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Crisis that Wasn't: Fuelwood

For an excellent exposition on old vs. new wisdom on the subject see this.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Biomass Crises in India: The Case of Fuelwood

Even though many continue to hold on to the notion of a fuelwood crisis in India (try a search on it) it is quite apparent that the crisis hasn’t materialised as feared. For a useful summary see this RFF paper on the subject.

What happened? Briefly, in rural India people responded by substituting fuels and augmenting production. The RFF paper cited above provides one such illuminating case study from Madhya Pradesh.

To know what is happening with bio-fuels on all-India basis is extremely hard as data is not available but we do know a few things. Biomass increases have come from agricultural residues (agricultural production has grown 2.5% CAGR for the past 55 years); dung (livestock population up 1% CAGR along with increased fodder availability); and woody biomass from trees grown on private, community and government lands. Of course all incremental production is not available as fuel and woody biomass has reduced in many areas.

I wish to focus, however, on a potentially far-reaching development that may be underway - increasing use of LPG in rural areas. According to the NSSO “The proportion of households using LPG increased six-fold in rural India from about 2% in 1993-94 to 11.7% in 2004-05. See also this note by the NSSO for primary energy use. Since kerosene is not used in rural areas for cooking it may be safely inferred that such use is replacing bio-fuels.

In urban areas too LPG use has grown rapidly. The proportion of households using LPG doubled in urban India from 29.5% in 1993-94 to 59% in 2004-05. See the two sources cited above. But LPG in urban India may be replacing SKO (Superior Kerosene Oil) rather than bio-fuels, the latter still continue to the primary cooking fuel for about 20% of the households.

It is instructive to see what is happening with LPG. The tables below give some data:

Annual average compound growth rate %

1974-79 8.7 3.7
1980-85 18.4 9
1985-90 18.9 6.7
1992-97 10 3.9
1997-02 12.6 0.5
2002-07 8.2 0
Source: Extracted from table 17 of petstats.

LPG customers and Sales of LPG and SKO

Year LPG Customers
LPG Sales
Million Tonnes
SKO Sales
Million Tonnes
1990-91 17 2.4
4.8 11.1
5.4 12.2
6.4 11.9
7 11.3
2001-02 64 7.7 10.4
2002-03 70 8.4 10.4
2003-04 77 9.3 10.2
2004-05 85 10.2 9.4
2005-06 89 10.3 9.4
Source: Extracted from Tables 16 and 24 of petstats.

Both tables reflect the stupendous rates of the growth in number of LPG customers and use. SKO has stagnated as it gets phased out as cooking fuel and also but less so for lighting. The high rates of LPG use, far in excess of per capita income growth, in certain periods, suggest latent demand not met due to supply constraints.

These constraints have now largely disappeared due to increases in domestic refining capacities and import facilities at ports in the past 10-20 years. In addition, huge gas discoveries in KG basin and ample foreign exchange reserves will make supplies a non-issue within a couple of years. Supplies have not yet been fully eased in rural areas as affordability is much more than indicated by the 11% households presently using LPG.

The constraint of the initial high capital cost has been eased in several states by providing subsidies on the purchase of stoves, smaller cylinders are provided in hilly areas but perhaps the largest factor may be growing incomes of households and a desire for clean and convenient fuel.

Use of LPG is still quite low, especially in rural India but is growing rapidly. It seems such rates may be sustained. If so, for the vast numbers of women living in abysmal conditions in the country, this development may turn out to be more meaningful and have a more durable positive impact than having a woman president.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Biomass Crises in India: The Case of Fodder

It is customary to talk of the crisis of fodder. As a representative see the editorial by Sunita Narain. A search on “fodder crisis in India” will throw up thousands of links, virtually all of them echoing the same litany. The impression they convey is one of widespread and persistent shortage of fodder. How grounded in reality are these assertions?

A perusal will suggest that such claims are usually anecdotal in nature, based on field trips and restricted to specific regions of the country. Virtually no data is ever presented. There are some studies and estimates which assert that availability of fodder is less than the requirement. What does that mean? If there are fodder deficits should it not reflect somewhere – prices, population numbers or reduced production?

If indeed there are shortages - how does one measure them? An economist would reply – look at prices. It would be a good way to start if we have time-series data for the country and individual regions of the country. I could not find them.

However, if fodder shortages have been persistent (for decades) as has been argued, we should see it being reflected in the number of livestock. The table, below, gives some figures.

(Million Numbers)
Species 1951 1961 1972 1982 1992 2003
Cattle 155 176 178 192 205 185
AF Cattle 54 51 53 59 64 65
Buffalo 43 51 57 70 84 98
AF Buffalo 21 24 29 33 44 51
Total Bovins 199 227 236 262 289 283
Sheep 39 40 40 49 51 62
Goats 47 61 68 95 115 124
Others 8 9 10 13 16 16
Total 293 335 354 420 471 485
Source : Department of Animal Husbandry, Dairying & Fisheries, New Delhi. AF=Adult Female
(Extracted from here. See the link for more details including notes and data for intervening years)

A few noteworthy features:

  • Total livestock has increased by 60 % during the period – an annual compound rate of approximately 1 per cent.

  • Among bovins the rate of increase is much higher among buffaloes especially adult female than cows. This is interesting since buffaloes are heavier, eat more and yield more milk with higher fat content.

  • Goats have increased faster than the total but not much more than buffaloes. It is cattle which have lagged the overall rate. In fact, total numbers have actually declined in the last 15 years.

The increase in livestock numbers doesn’t suggest any fodder shortages far less a crisis.

It may be argued that the high increase in the population of goats may be a reflection of fodder crisis. Goats are hardier and able to survive on resources out of bounds for and unpalatable to other animals. This is unlikely for though goats have increased faster than average the rate is not very different from that of adult female buffaloes. Further, all populations have increased – goats being the fastest. So it is not as if goats are substituting other animals. Others too have increased. So overall goats may not be replacing other animals.

The evidence about numbers is not conclusive as it may be argued that the fodder crisis does not reflect in reduced numbers of animals but makes them less healthy and less productive,

So let us examine production of livestock products. The most important product and for which the most reliable statistics are available is milk.

YearMillion Tonnes
Source: Economic Survey 2006-07

For details on wool and meat look here and here.

The figures hardly deserve any elaboration. They speak very loudly. It is interesting that the rate of growth of milk production accelerates after the 1980s when one would have expected fodder shortages to hurt more. Over the past 55 years while livestock population has grown at 1 % per annum milk production has grown by 3.3 %. In other words while livestock numbers are up 60 % milk production is up almost 500 %. Livestock numbers have not only increased, but livestock has become more productive.

This put a serious doubt on the theory of fodder crisis.

So where could the fodder to meet increased population and production have come from? Undoubtedly agriculture would have played a big part. Overall all crops have grown at 2.5 % per annum since the early 1950s and fodder availability would have increased concomitantly - both from residues and direct production. Note that crop output has risen faster than livestock numbers and milk production even faster. Animals are eating quite well. There was also reduction in requirements as mechanisation took hold in several animal-using operations. This probably explains the decline in overall cattle numbers. In the past two decades tractors have spread to non-traditional states. What about common pastures and forests? We can’t be sure as information on fodder availability from these lands is sorely lacking.

Suffice it to say there never was nor is a fodder crisis in the country. State-level data suggests a similar picture.

Nevertheless it is probably true that some regions face periodic shortages, maybe a few even chronic ones. And certain groups such as pastoralists especially nomadic ones may have lost permanent access to pastures and thence to fodder.

But a crisis for the country as a whole? Definitely not.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Livelihoods in Sariska: A Comment

In a recent article Shahabuddin et. al. raise very pertinent issues regarding eviction and rehabilitation of people from the Sariska Tiger Reserve, Rajasthan. On reading the article my attention got drawn to the results of the fieldwork done by the authors.

To quote:

The average household economy, based on livestock grazing and milk sales, literally subsists on the edge. While the average gross annual income per household is approximately Rs 48,175 (Table 4), the average household spends approximately Rs 18,000 every year on farm fodder and commercial fodder. Therefore, the average annual disposable household income is approximately Rs 30,190. A significant share of the average gross household income goes toward healthcare (on average Rs 8,500 per household per year). That leaves approximately Rs 27,000 per household annually as expenditure on food which works out to an average of Rs 350 per capita per month. In terms of proportions, about 50 per cent of household expenditure is on food, 21 per cent on commercial fodder, 11 per cent on farm fodder and 16 per cent on medical care. The economy of the average household is debt-ridden and precariously balanced, highly vulnerable in the event of natural disasters such as drought.

Now if one subtracts Rs. 8,500 from Rs. 30,190 one doesn’t get 27,000 but Rs. 21,690. Maybe it is just a typo. However, neither Rs. 21,690 nor Rs. 27,000 is 50 % of the gross (48,175) or net (30,190) agricultural income. Similarly Rs.18,000 (the amount spend on fodder) is not 32 % of either 48,175 or 30,190. The numbers don’t quite add up.

The households also spend Rs 8,500 per annum on medical care which is unbelievably high – 28 and 18 – per cent of net and gross income, respectively. Even the absolute figure seems very high. Note that there is no expenditure on transport, clothing or any other household item. And though the households are debtors they don’t pay any interest and do not seem to repaying the principal as well!!

The numbers relate to one year, there is no measure of dispersion and no comparison with other villages in the district or in the state.

The authors describe the households as debt-ridden (no figures, though) and state:

By way of livestock, each household among the 190 surveyed owned nine buffaloes, one cow and 12 goats, on average. While goats comprise as much as 54.65 per cent of total livestock holdings, buffaloes make up 40.09 per cent. For the villagers, goats form a liquid asset because they can be sold easily at any time of the year. Herds are commonly doubled each year.

A simple calculation would show that the value of livestock alone, as listed above, would add up to a couple of lakhs of rupees. Add to it value of the house, land and other assets the households would have to borrow absurdly large sums to be net debtors. What on earth would they be doing with such funds? Trading on the stock exchange?

Finally, read the last line again. …………………. . it would put hedge fund operators to shame!!!

On wage employment the authors say:

People said that the income sources are more diverse today than about 15 years ago due to the fact that people have started going out of the area in search of employment. Most people spend four to six months of the year working in nearby cities – mainly Bhiwadi, Jaipur and Bharatpur.

For the 190 households surveyed the total wage income is estimated at Rs. 5,88,100. The number of adults (>18 yrs) in these households is 631. Assuming that only one adult per household works in the nearby cities and does so for 125 days (5 months @ 25 days per month) we get a daily wage rate of Rs. 25 which is an absurdly low figure.

Some of the problems in the study may due to carelessness. However, the article also highlights the pitfalls of relying on recall data using questionnaires without independent corroboration. The internal inconsistencies in such responses are not always as easily apparent as in this particular case.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

History of Deforestation

In an earlier post I had examined the notion that industrial demand, in particular that for railway sleepers, was the major factor in the deforestation starting the second half of the 19th century.

Is it just a matter of historical curiosity? Not so, certainly to some. Ramachandra Guha calls the coming of the railways the “crucial watershed in the history of Indian forestry”(pg. 92.) He sees it as leading, among other things, to extensive destruction of Indian forests, to The Forest Act (1878) and associated policies and what followed as a result – conflicts and agitation by forest users and dwellers in various parts of the country.

This argument finds its way in a recent article on the contemporary matter regarding the definition of forests. The article traces the history of Indian forests to the coming of the railways and discusses how it paved the way for land use change and the decimation of wildlife.

While I am not convinced about railways being an important factor, did things change materially with the coming of the British? What was happening in the pre-British period, say from 300 years before their arrival? Specifically:

  • Was there extensive deforestation?
  • Was there extensive hunting and serious depletion of wildlife numbers?
  • Were there conflicts over the use and control of natural resources?

In other words was there continuity or was there change?