Wednesday, August 3

The taste of sustainable development

by Patralekha Chatterjee

It is early evening in January 2005. A foreigner driving down the National Highway in this border state in India's North West, and unfamiliar with newspaper headlines could be forgiven for thinking the country was at war. There is a virtual blackout in town after town, and in the adjoining villages. All around are vast swathes of darkness till one chances upon a 'marriage palace' where a wedding is in progress. All of a sudden, there is a riot of lights. Red, green, orange and blue bulbs, intricately arranged in floral patterns along the approach road and on the walls of the building, pierce the darkness.
In nearby Nabha town, a young woman studying for her Bachelor of Education degree flaunts a large torch. Part of her survival kit, she says, helping her to complete her course work every evening.
In town after town in Punjab, and in the countryside, electricity is increasingly being viewed as a luxury to be enjoyed in restricted doses. Farms and factories tide through the crisis on diesel-driven generators. But powerless Punjab is only one of the paradoxes of the State that won accolades last year as the 'best performer' in a nationwide survey of States and federally administered Union Territories. Home to the Green Revolution from the 1960s and 1970s, food bowl of India, the Punjab today is a totem of an aspiring India as it seeks closer integration with the global economy.
Everywhere, there are signs of affluence and symbols of the global consumer culture ? luxury cars, glitzy malls, upmarket motels, five-star marriage palaces and resorts. The lustrous vignettes of globalization from the town to the countryside of the Punjab, as elsewhere in India, are captured in the national media and prime time TV. What gets pushed to the inside pages or remains invisible are images of a Punjab where the Green Revolution has turned sour.
Punjab's relative prosperity has a lot to do with the head start it gained with the much-trumpeted Green Revolution and its diasporas scattered across the world. But today, even those who laud the State?s enterprise and achievements admit that Punjab is suffering from a stunted growth syndrome. The Green Revolution has hit upon bottlenecks. Overuse of pesticides has ruined the soil. The water table is going down drastically and the capacity of the earth to produce is plummeting. In this bastion of plenty, every other farmer has a massive debt, and in the cotton belt, in the district of Bhatinda, dozens have committed suicide, unable to repay the loans they have incurred to buy fertilizers, pesticides and agricultural equipment.
The Green Revolution was formulated partly by the US Government, and transmitted to India through the World Bank mission in the mid sixties. It was meant to be the new strategy for developing the agrarian economy of the country, and piloted in Punjab, a fertile and dominantly agrarian province. The Green Revolution was based mainly on modern, semi-dwarf, short duration high yielding varieties (HYV) and chemical fertilizers. As agriculture analyst Sutapa Lahiri points out "The short duration of the new varieties permitted multiple and intensive cropping that become possible with increased use of machines, particularly tractors, and a new set of cultural practices. The Green Revolution in Punjab was essentially a revolution in wheat production technology. With the success of the HYV wheat seeds in Punjab, the Punjab Agricultural University started its rice-breeding programme, and soon they developed new dwarf rice varieties with good yield potentials and short duration ripening. With the availability of high yielding rice varieties the farmer in Punjab brought more area under rice.'
The Green Revolution's pluses included a sharp rise in food production, an accelerated pace of modernisation and urbanisation in the State, strengthening of the economic base of the rural hinterland, and increased value of the land and growth in the educational level of the farmers' children. Its losses are serious ecological damages, regional imbalances in the production of cereals, a growing pauperization of the marginal and poor peasants, and sharper social cleavages.
Today, Punjab, like much of India, is at the crossroads with prosperity and poverty existing cheek by jowl. More than half of all children under the age of four in the country are malnourished and 30 percent of newborns are significantly underweight. India, however, as viewed through the pages of its glossy magazines, is increasingly a monoculture of mass consumerism. Fast food here is not merely cheap or convenient, but a fashion statement, an aspirational leitmotif.
As a section of India's population becomes more affluent, global chains are flooding into the country. As many as 75 McDonald's outlets are reportedly operational, as are up to 40 Subways. Domino?s Pizza is present in about 100 locations, and Pizza Hut is catching up. Coke and Pepsi are omnipresent.
India's fast-food industry is, on the whole, growing by 40 percent a year, and child obesity is on the rise, even as millions remain under-nourished.
The perils of consuming fast food, much of it junk-food, are well known. What is not so well known are the perils that the fast food industry poses to the primary producers of that food, the farmers. These perils are worsened due to the huge difference in the relative bargaining powers of the farmer and export corporation or the fast-food company that buys from that farmer. In rural India, education and awareness about interplay of local and global forces are still woefully inadequate, and that only makes matters worse.
With rice and wheat yielding less and less profit, farmers in the Punjab were told that salvation lay in diversification, specially growing produce for the export market. But many a farmer who was hoping to reap rich dividends through contract farming and exports is sadly disillusioned today.
Meherban Singh, a farmer from Punjab?s Saholi village, speaks about his experiences with Punjab Agro Export Corporation a few years ago. "We were told everything we grew would be exported. I started growing baby corn. I had a contract that said that I would get Rs 35 per kilo. But when I took my produce to the Corporation, they offered Rs 3 a kilo. The produce could not be exported and when I tried to sell it in the local market, I found there was no demand. I know five star hotels in big cities use baby corn but I did not have the connections or resources to tap that market. Another time, many of us were given seedlings to grow sweet chillies. But after six months we discovered that the climate in Punjab was not suitable for the growth of this vegetable. We lost a lot of money, but when we asked for compensation for the costs we had incurred, the managing director of the Corporation turned round and said it was our fault. We took the matter to the consumer courts but nothing happened."
Bacchan Singh, another farmer from Rohti Mauran village in Patiala district in Punjab, and a former village headman, also has similar stories. He has been a 'contract farmer' for almost a decade. But Singh's experience in growing vegetables for the global market has not been a happy one. "It is always a one-sided contract. That has been my experience. I grew tomatoes on a contract with the Punjab Agrofood Export Corporation. But one year, if the open market was flooded with tomatoes and the price came down, the Corporation found fault with our produce and rejected them. If tomatoes were in short supply in the open market, then we had fewer rejects. It was the same story with green chillies. Last year, and the year before that, though we had a contract, 50 quintals of tomatoes and green chillies we grew were rejected. We had no choice but to sell them at throwaway prices in the open market. So much for a contract!" As an 'experiment' he has entered into a contract this year with Pepsi Co to grow potato saplings for chips marketed under the brand name ?Lays' in a part of his land. "We are growing seeds. Not the potatoes that will be used in the chips; and the rate is good. But this is also a game of chance. You have to trim the leaves of the plant after 75 days and then again after 20 days. Then, you are likely to get the right sized potato. Pepsi with whom we have a contract, closely monitor the growth,? says Kuldeep Singh, Bacchan Singh's son. Father and son say they would like to go back to growing wheat and rice if the experiments with contract farming come a cropper once again. To minimise potato supply constraints, Frito Lay, a subsidiary of Pepsi Co, has already extended its contract-farming programme beyond Channo, in Punjab, where it works with farmers who grow the potatoes that make the chips.
As one takes leave of the Singhs, Bacchan Singh insists on showing us his spanking new two-storey mansion and adds in a low voice that Punjab's affluence is misleading. Singh has a debt of Rs 16 lakh and knows many others who are in a similar situation.
The despair among the dazzle is driving many farmers in Punjab back to traditional farming practices, such as organic farming. They say the state faces not only 'an ecological, but also a civilizational crisis.'
To them the answer lies in going back to nature and to a life-style that contrasts sharply with the global culture being promoted through mass media.
At the heart of the current debate surrounding globalisation lies the much used and abused words 'sustainable development.' Like globalisation, which The Economist called "the most abused word of the 21st century," 'sustainable development' is at once a profound truth, jargon, and a cliché.
Inderjit Singh does not follow the global discourse on sustainable development. He explains the term with a few simple observations from the world around him. Every morning, the 50 year-old farmer from Saholi village, Punjab, drives up to the wholesale vegetable market in a neighbouring town, carting organically produced mushrooms, tomatoes, radishes and other vegetables from his farm. Once in the market, he hands over the produce to his agent. In the market, his produce has to compete with other chemically produced vegetables and often he makes a loss. The market for organically produced fruit and vegetables is still miniscule in smalltown India, but Singh, the President of Kheti Virasat, believes he is on the right track.
Singh comes from a farming family. The family had been using chemical fertilisers since 1967 to grow wheat. "I saw how the soil was getting addicted to fertilisers. One needed to put in more and more fertilisers to get the same yield. And the soil kept getting destroyed. Globalisation is supposed to have opened up all these opportunities, but our produce has higher than acceptable pesticide content and no one wants it. Four years ago, I decided I would not grow poisonous food"
Today, Singh is one of the most vocal proponents of organic farming, though he concedes that in the short term, organically grown fruits and vegetables have less yield and earn less profit. "The market for organic produce may be limited at the moment, and it is more labour intensive. Out of my four and half acres, I get half the yield compared to the time I used fertilisers and pesticides. I am making much less money and my wife does not like it. But I believe that this is the way to go in the future, and we have to stop using pesticides if we are to save our children and grandchildren. Even if you want to export, organic produce has a better chance. Of course, we need to do a lot more to promote organic farmers in the country."
Inderjit Singh believes that given low levels of education and awareness among farmers in India, contract farming is likely to be exploitative. "Multinationals cannot solve the problems of farmers. Uneducated farmers are being taken for a ride in the name of contract farming" Every time there is an oversupply of a product, the terms in the contract are ignored and the farmer is paid less. Sometimes his entire produce is rejected. If there is an undersupply then more than the contracted amount is taken. So it is no different from the open market. And contract farming uses pesticides."
Rajesh Jindal, a rice mill owner in Nabha town in Punjab and one of the leading lights of the local chapter of 'The Art of Living' a spiritual/lifestyle group, says organic food has a great future. In Nabha itself, 1000 families who attend 'The Art of Living' gatherings regularly, will be willing to buy Singh's organic produce. "It is about saving our lives and our future," says Jindal.
The case for going back to nature is also powerfully articulated in India's only 'slow food' café located in a South Delhi neighbourhood. Inaugurated last October by Carlos Petrini, the Italian founder of the movement that tries to counter the consumption of fast food worldwide, the Navdanya slow food café offers millet tabouleh, dhoklas and apple amarnath crumble to name a few delicacies. Vandana Shiva, the internationally-renowned green activist and director of Navdanya, says the café will double up as "a place for food literacy for the young who are in the 'McDonalds-Coca Cola' culture."
For those trying to fight the extraordinary imperialism of the American hamburger, the café offers the ultimate weapon , a burger which looks much like any other but is prepared from naturallygrown chickpeas!
(Patralekha Chatterjee is a Delhi-based journalist and photographer with a special interest in contemporary development issues)

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