Saturday, August 20, 2016

Smart village mission not the option for rural development

                                                 G Sreedathan 

Kerala-born Jinnet Mathew had been running a successful business in rubber products in Bengaluru for more than two decades. But when competition increased, he started feeling the pinch. Expenses started mounting and profits were dwindling. He decided to sell off his properties in the city and settle in a remote village in Kerala. With the proceeds he managed to purchase a reasonably large parcel of land in a village and started cultivating rubber and fruit and vegetables. It was a tough decision for the businessman to transplant himself and family to a village. But what gave him confidence was his passion for agriculture and love for rural life and his innovative ideas and expertise in marketing.  Unfortunately, nothing of these came to his rescue. After ten years of his rural experiment, he regrets his decision.  He sold a portion of his land to pay off loans and is exploring possibilities of shifting to a city for the education of his children. “Agriculture is the only worthwhile option for a person moving to a rural area and if it is not profitable what can one do? Farming can become sustainable only with the government support,” he insists.
In the Indian context, reverse migration – migration from cities to villages – is very rare. In almost all cases, of which I have the first-hand knowledge, those who migrated to villages returned to urban settings after a brief rural sojourn. Many complain that it takes several weeks for a simple courier consignment to reach the destination in a rural area. There is not even a semblance of health care facilities in many villages. The romantic ideas about villages will be shattered the moment you step into a village, many say.  
Our planners, decision-makers and media have a clear urban bias. In most cases, villages find mention in our mainstream media for all wrong reasons.  An estimate shows the mainstream media gives less than 5% of its space for rural issues. Rural areas find mention in reports only when there is a macabre crime or mishap or some undesirable events in those places.  It’s an irony that all governments since Independence have invariably proclaimed that their main mission was to improve the condition of the farmers and rural people. Still the rural sector continues to present a picture of squalor and impoverishment.  This is not to deny the great strides India has made in the field of agriculture. The Green Revolution has made us self-sufficient on the food front. Although many innovations have been introduced, the pace of improvement and technological intervention in agriculture has been very slow. Besides decline in land holding per farmer and other factors have made agriculture a loss-making proposition in most parts of the country. This has cast a shadow on the rural economy and overall standard of life of the rural people.
According to the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) data, over two-thirds of households in rural India still depend on firewood for cooking. In contrast, a similar proportion of households use liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) for cooking in urban areas. A rapid survey on the Swachchata Status conducted by NSSO during May-June 2015 shows that in rural areas, the percentage of persons going for open defecation was 52.1 per cent. The survey was conducted in 3,788 villages and 2,907 urban blocks.  The Census 2011 shows rural literacy rate is below 70 per cent while in urban India it is 84.11 per cent. The 70th round of the NSSO Survey on Household Assets and Liabilities has revealed that the average value of the assets per household in rural areas was found to be Rs 10.07 lakh while the corresponding value in urban areas was Rs 22.85 lakh. The difference in the average asset holding of the top and bottom 10 per cent was as high 50,000 times in urban areas.
Our cities are not free from problems either. About 31 per cent of India’s current population lives in cities. By 2030, the population in urban areas is expected to touch 40% of India's population and contribute 75% of India's GDP by 2030. Keeping this in mind, the Narendra Modi government launched the Smart Cities mission to improve the physical, institutional, social and economic infrastructure. These measures, if implemented in right earnest, would improve the quality of life of people and promote growth. There is no doubt on that.
Does that mean that a similar smart village mission is the way forward for Indian villages? Not at all. Huge investments and infrastructure projects proposed in the Industrial Policy of 1991 that heralded economic liberalisation in India had been the precursor to the establishment of Special Economic Zones (SEZs). We have witnessed how private entrepreneurs and big businesses grabbed agricultural lands from poor farmers and pushed them into the margins of urban centres as migrants.  The governments either facilitated or remained mute spectators to this naked land grab. This policy triggered huge unrest in many areas. The Central government could have doused the fire by making farmers also stakeholders in those SEZ projects. But it did not do. Therefore, what we need is not huge infrastructure investments in rural and backward areas that will result in uprooting of the farmer and divest him of his meagre income.  What the farmer needs is better access to credit, markets and technology that will enhance his income and remove hardships.  The government should also create job opportunities in other sectors so that under-utilized workforce in the farm sector could be gainfully employed and rural households could enhance income.  
Having said that, some elements of the smart cities project such as digital and information technologies can be adopted for effective delivery of services and establishing market linkages for farmers.  I would conclude this by narrating an experience of Jinnet Mathew who got Rs 3,000 just by selling just 2 kg of an indigenous banana variety to a Japanese customer through an online platform.  In the local market, he could have got only Rs 40 for the same!

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Cyber bullying: You are just one click away


Today’s world is fast-paced and if you are not catching up with it, then you are a total outcast. So how do you catch up? Apart from the latest trends, technology is another aspect to be accepted among the cliques of the people around. With the growth of the technology, we have seen wonderful results as well as a rampant rise of unwanted or unethical things called cyber bullying and trafficking. Have you ever been insulted, harassed, been called names or teased online? Then, it is palpable that you are one among the various victims of cyber bullying. 
Basically, at some point of time we all have been a part of it, either as the victim, as the bully or as a mere spectator mutely enjoying the show and chuckling while disagreeing to this kind of online spats. People with fair knowledge about this topic, often brag about how the tweens and teens are unaware about the harms of what they do online but, no, in India there has never been any narrative about cyber bullying and trafficking and hence men, women and children alike are active participants and victims of this. It is rather a shocking fact that despite India having less internet reach, it recently ranked third in the global cyber bullying list with Indian teens leaving their American and Australian counterparts behind with about 52% of them having experiences of cyber bullying.
“The teens I met here are very energetic to work for the cause of cyber bullying but when I asked them if they have ever been a victim, no body raised their hands to talk about it. It cannot happen. They are too apprehensive to talk about their own experience”, says Parry Aftab, Head of which works on cyber security and cyber bullying, in her recent trip to India.
Studies have also found that a whopping 80% are aware of the outcome but due to sheer alacrity to post things online and no one to dissuade, especially the Indian parents, who no way care what their children are doing online has induced to serious perils. Indian parents are seemingly ecstatic if their child turns out to be an expert in social media with them blowing the trumpet about how swiftly their ward operates Facebook, Twitter, Instagram et cetera, and not even thinking that their child can be in Tinder and Snapchat too which are racy in nature and most importantly how their child is being treated online.
India saw a massive anonymous spit-spat with the Facebook confession pages which brought out a bully from every teenager when they started hurling abuses to someone they don’t like with their identity hidden, making it hard to track that who confessed the particular lines. It gave an ample rise to cyber bullying with many institutions bringing down the pages but then again it is never the children or the parents who came forward with the complaints.
Then again one might ask how complaining can teach the accused a lesson when there is currently no law dealing with cyber security in India. The Cyber Crime Cells of various states merely update information about what to and what not to do online to avoid being a victim of cyber bullying but seldom anyone visit these websites.
When someone complains to the police about cyber harassment, the police bring the crime under other existing crime of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). Recently, Jassi, a young architect from New Delhi saw a guy in her Facebook profile misusing her pictures and using nasty languages when she confronted him. This went on till Jassi reported the case to the Delhi Police and they nabbed the culprit quickly and made him confess to Jassi in front of them that he will never repeat this kind of nuisance. But after a gap of few months, he started doing the same thing with Jassi fearlessly by staying in another state. This actually shows the loopholes which is giving the bullies a fair streak of courage to carry on with this kind of audacity.
But the question that arises is that why people are so much into making their life public even after knowing the consequences of the act? The answer is quite simple, daft and was mentioned in the beginning part only. The acceptance and the so-called likes from people whom most of us even don’t know properly. It means if one child clicks a steaming pout and posts it on the social media, you will automatically be tagged unsocial or boring if you are not following suit. And why not, when the parents find it all cool and okay even after knowing how photos can be easily accessed and morphed?

The practice of cyber bullying in India will prevail if there is no communication on this and the first should start with the parents itself, who are the sole reason for their child’s online life.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

UPSC results: The story of aspirational India

                      G Sreedathan

This year’s Union Public Service Commission Civil Services examination results were unique in many respects.  It’s the first time that a Dalit girl topped the exam. That too in her first attempt. The second rank holder is from Jammu and Kashmir. Among winners there are many who have come from extremely poor and harsh surroundings. The results in a way present a real picture of aspirational India.
Twenty-two-year-old Tina Dabi, the topper, has created history. Tina has opted for the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), with Haryana as her cadre preference. “I opted for Haryana because it presents such an interesting example, where you have a lot of economic progress but when it comes to social indicators you are lagging behind, and that is a very big paradox.”  She wants to empower women.  Although Tina was born in Bhopal, she completed her schooling and higher studies in Delhi’s Convent of Jesus and Mary. Both her parents are engineers. Though she is a Dalit, she belongs to a middle class family. Yet it’s very important as BJP MP succinctly stated. Raj tweeted, “Napoleon said that without opportunity ability can’t be cultivated. Dalit girl topped IAS & this could not have been possible 40-50 yrs back.”
The second position was secured by Athar Aamir Ul Shafi Khan from Jammu and Kashmir, and the third position by Jasmeet Singh Sandhu, a Delhi Sikh. Khan’s victory is significant not only because he hails from Kashmir but he is the only Muslim whose name figures among the top 100 ranks. Out of 1,078 successful candidates, only 34 are Muslims. It’s the second time that candidates from J&K clearing the UPSC in flying colours. In 2010, Dr. Shah Faisal of Kashmir came first at the national level, sending a strong message for peace in the Valley. Besides Khan, six other Valley aspirants have also cracked the examination. This is a remarkable feat.
Another Muslim boy who secured a place in the rank list is Ansar Shaikh, son of an auto-rickshaw driver.  He is the son of his father’s second wife and according to him has seen poverty and domestic violence from close quarters. His mother works in fields and the family lives in a rented home at Shelgaon in Jalna - a dictrict place in Maharashtra's Marathwada region. His father used to beat his mother and his two sisters were married off at the age of 14 and 15.
Another inspiring story is that of 26-year-old Pranjal Patil, a visually challenged aspirant, who cleared the exam at one go. Pranjal was blinded at the age of six when her classmate poked a pencil in one of her eyes. Eventually, her other eye was also damaged.
There are a few more aspirants who have come from very impoverished milieu and cracked the exam. A few years ago, Sopan brought out an issue on successful candidates of UPSC exam drawn from rural backgrounds. Some of them were children of rickshaw pullers and tea vendors.
I am reminded of a friend who cracked the UPSC exam a few years ago. He hails from an impoverished village in Maharashtra. He gave the name of a backward district in Odisha as his option. He is now collector there. His innovative initiatives have changed the lives of thousands of poor tribals in his district

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Soil Testing: Fundamental to sustainable agriculture

                                                             SANJU VERMA

Mother earth is so far the only place of living organism in the Universe to live, as no other planet in the solar system or otherwise in the whole of Universe, there is any evidence of life. Air, Water and soil are the pre-requisite for existence of life, which also include human beings.

For Human beings and other animals air is compulsorily required for combustion to generate energy from food to continue life. Generation of food is entirely dependent on water and soil, which is found on the upper crust of earth.

Like the quality of air, quality of water and soil is also important for sustaining life on earth. Thus sustainability of any human activity is of paramount importance in the modern world, as our forefathers have mindlessly exploited the resources provided by mother land.

Agriculture is the core vocation of mankind and without it nothing could be perceived. But in yesteryears, with an urge to have more produce from smaller prices of lands farmers used excessive chemicals and fertilizers and have thus destroyed the quality of soil. Now a big question looms, as to how sustainable is the current course of agriculture in India.

Keeping this in mind, the government launched a national scheme of scientifically testing the soil quality and accordingly farmers are suggested to use limited fertilizers. The method is well recognised as a sound scientific tool to assess inherent power of soil to supply plant nutrients.

The benefits of soil testing have been established through scientific research, extensive field demonstrations, and on the basis of actual fertilizer use by the farmers on soil test based fertilizer use recommendations.

Soil testing was initiated in the country in the beginning of planning era by setting up of 16 soil testing laboratories during 1955. Government of India has been supporting this programme during different plan periods to increase the soil analysing capacity in the country. The numerical strength does not, however, decisively indicate the quality and success of the programme. Planners and agriculturalists have recognised the utility of the service fully but it suffers due to inadequate scientific support in its execution.

Thus the present government under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has given a special emphasis on the scheme. Modi personally called upon the farmers to participate in the scheme. He has also urged the schools and colleges to come up in a big way and use laboratory during holidays to test soil.

However, despite constraints, the scheme is bearing fruit up to some extent with its limited resources however another major limitation is the illiteracy factor among the farmers for whom the entire scheme is dedicated.

With about 12 crore farm holdings in the country, soil analysing capacity of 4 crore samples annually is required to enable analysis of each holding once in three years. In Haryana renewal of SHC is required after every five years while soil fertility map is also being prepared. All these require a massive expansion in soil testing programme in the States.

However, a few of the States including Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Haryana, Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh have made commendable progress in soil testing programme in various ways such as expansion of soil testing facilities, popularisation of the programme in campaign mode, development of soil fertility maps and use of information technology in delivering soil nutrient status and appropriate recommendation to farmers.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Market Linkages for Farmers

                                                       Vijay Uppal

The farming sector has been in the news of late for all wrong reasons. In many areas in the country, the sector has been reeling under a massive scarcity of water. Above all these, the farmers across the country are not able to generate enough revenue out of their produce.

The stunning facts are as follows:-

Approx. price
(at which farmer sells)
Approx. Price
(at which you buy)
Rs. 4-8/- per kg.
Rs. 15-20/- per kg.
Rs. 8-12/- per kg.
Rs. 25-35/- per kg.
Rs. 30-40/- per kg.
Rs. 100-125/- per kg.
Rs. 15-20/- per kg.
Rs. 50-60/- per kg.
Rs. 18-25/- per ltr.
Rs. 40-45/- per ltr.

Shocked? But this is true.

A farmer who produces vegetables, fruits, milk, etc. and toils in the field for hours in extreme weather conditions is getting only ¼ or 1/5 of the price at which you are buying in cities as a consumer.

Who is making the money and why the farmers are being exploited?

It is the middle man / Aadhti who is making the real money. The common farmer is unlike the AMUL scenario where farmer co-operative societies are very well organized (thanks to the pioneering efforts of Mr. Verghese Kurien). The farmers do not have the capacity to hold the vegetables, fruits, milk stocks (because of the perishable nature of these products) in order to fetch the right price. Whenever, the farmer sees that the shelf life of his produce is getting over, he under prices his product and sells it to the greedy middle man. This middle man is always on the look-out for an opportunity to exploit the farmer during such a situation.

In fact, it has been seen that the middle men create a cartel through which they buy the fruits and vegetables and other farm produce at a very low price from the farmer.

What are the solutions?

The solutions (to this growing disparity of income of the farmer) are as follows:-

1.     Farmers producing same variety of vegetable and fruits should form small groups / co-operatives of 50 to 100 farmers each in every region and collectively negotiate the fair price of their farm produce with the middle man /  aadhti.

2.     The institutional buying can be directly linked to the farmers or farming community. e.g. in Delhi / N.C.R the requirement of baby corn in 5 star / 3 star hotels is approx. 1000kgs per day. The consumption can be met easily by a group of farmers sitting in Uttarakhand. The only catch is that these farmers in Uttarakhand need to be collectively represented by any of the NGOs or a transparent Marketing Agency.

This type of a scheme, if introduced properly can eliminate the process of farmer going through multiple middlemen and only one agency with reasonable margin can take care of marketing the farm produce of farmers from Uttarakhand or Western UP.

The way to go forward is to encourage a group of farmers to produce high yield value added vegetables and fruits like Olive, Yellow/red Capsicum, Cherry tomato, Broccoli and Mushroom.
3.     At a later stage, this agency can install a mini food processing plant to semi process vegetables (at the farms) like Baby corn, Yellow/red Capsicum, Cherry tomato, Broccoli and Mushroom etc. Also, the farmers collectively can invest in refrigerated vans in order to ensure smooth transportation of highly perishable products to far off places.

4.     Another solution is that with the Ayurveda products gaining in demand and brands like Patanjali becoming household names, it makes sense to grow herbs, medicinal plants like Jatamasi, Neem, Haldi, Tulsi, Gilohi, Aloevera etc. Also, the aromatic plants can be grown whose market price is beyond the farmers’ expectations.

Yes, people are noticing disparity in farmers’ income, but the way to go forward is to explore and implement the above solutions in the right manner.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

People’s movement on water only way out!


A peoples’ movement to conserve fresh water is perhaps the only way to address the key issue of shortages in this vital resource.

If the sheer abuse of this scarce resource is any indication, we are bound to face water riots in parts of this country as seen sporadically owing to localized shortages in some parts.

Warning bells, red herrings and wakeup calls seem to have not worked thus far on judicious utilization, conservation and development of water resources as per a design in last 67 years of independence.

At every level, each sector has shown utmost disregard for managing our fresh water resources while the population continues to expand beyond 1.22 billion with no let up on either usage or abuse.

Last Sunday, in his “mann ki baat”, Prime Minister Narendra Modi did make out a case for peoples’ movement for managing and developing water resources. This was in response to some engineering and medicine students taking a stand to have a bath only when required and with minimum water.

Apart from people’s movement for scientific water usage of water, policy intervention is what’s most important to move up the ground water level. The government’s campaign to develop 50,000 check dams and village-based water storage centres is worth pursuing if we were to manage water shortages that could virtually catapult into a crisis unmanageable in few years.

Water management, usage, conservation and development is not an issue faced only by a populous country like India. US space agency, NASA findings suggest that more than half the 37 largest aquifers globally are fast depleting and virtually beyond redemption.

As per NASA satellite imaging and studies, water table in India continued to deplete by 0.3 metres each year thereby seeking policy makers to sit up and search for solutions.

Hence, Prime Minister Modi’s call for deriving more in terms of farm output from every drop of water cannot just remain a slogan. Technological intervention that would mend the way we use our precious natural fresh water resources is the immediate necessity.

World Economic Forum and UN’s water development report have pointed to the fact that water would be the biggest challenge for humanity, given that fresh water shortages would touch an alarming 40 percent globally in 15 years.

If this were to happen, it would be a larger problem than terrorism or armed conflicts happening in parts of the world.

From India’s point of view, re-designing our farming techniques, industrial and domestic consumption of water should be relooked at to provide comprehensive solutions for impending water crisis.

Apart from check dams, the government at centre and states should take the lead in reviving the water bodies that have dried up or desilt our lakes, rivers and flowing water resources. Secondly, linking rivers for replenishment and judicious usage must be hastened up. Suresh Prabhu as a central minister in erstwhile Vajpayee government did make several important suggestions apart from drawing up a holistic plan. This needs to be dusted up immediately and put into action.

Thirdly, as experimented in several villages of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Maharastra, building water banks can be done immediately. Only members of these banks can withdraw water as per a community policy that can be put together locally.

Fourthly, involving the communities, non-government organisations, youth & students apart from gram sabhas in water management is of paramount importance.

Fifthly, one needs to consider an effective pricing policy towards water only to dissuade companies and commercial establishments from exploitation of this vital resource. For drinking purposes, no one what so ever should be charged as a matter of human right.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Banking the women

                                                         Lakshmi Singh

With access to financial services like bank accounts, loans, etc, women’s bargaining power in society increases 
Our country is positioned at the 29th rank among 146 countries across the globe on the basis of Gender Inequality Index.  It is ironical that a country, which has recently acclaimed the status of the first Asian country to accomplish its Mars mission in the maiden attempt,  There has been amelioration in the position of women, but their true empowerment is still awaited. While the world has achieved progress towards gender equality  and women’s empowerment under the Millennium Development Goals, women and girls continue to suffer discrimination and violence in every part of the world. Women are considered a taboo and still are not allowed in a few temples with nationwide debates discussing this. Experts say that women can achieve gender parity only by 2135. 
We all know that women constitute half the population and so their equal participation in society is imperative for sustainable development. As long as a financial security is not achieved, their emancipation becomes impossible. Financial inclusion plays a crucial role in helping provide numerous benefits through the strengthening of the banking system. In countries like Mexico, Government has made schemes for women which are directly connected to their bank accounts.
There is no denying that the banking sector plays a critical role in bringing financially excluded people into the formal financial sector. Many government initiatives towards financial inclusion are implemented through banks.
In one of the Financial and Digital Inclusion Project report India ranked ninth among 21 countries in financial and digital inclusion efforts. This was based on four dimensions of financial inclusion: country commitment, mobile capacity, regulatory environment, and adoption of traditional and digital financial services.
The Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana (PMJDY), the biggest financial inclusion initiative in the world, is a case in point. PMJDY is enabling citizens at the grassroots to perform financial transactions and keep their hard-earned money safe. A year after the scheme was implemented, its success has highlighted the enormous role that financial inclusion programmes can play in the growth of the economy. Today, atleast 17.5 crore bank accounts have been opened in which women have deposited more than Rs 22,000 crore in them. Moreover zero-balance accounts under PMJDY have declined from 76 per cent to 45.74 per cent since its inception.

 Many of the private sector banks have come forward in the rural markets through microfinance institutions.
Some of the State governments like Rajasthan have taken the lead. In Rajasthan, financial inclusion forms a critical component in the form of  Bhamashah Yojana that connects itself  with women’s empowerment. The scheme was launched in 2008 based on the premise that conditional and direct transfer has the highest impact of government spending on poverty reduction. Monetary benefits to which families were entitled under a number of welfare schemes were transferred to the bank accounts of the women in the family.
It was the first direct benefit transfer scheme in the country. At that time, 50 lakh families were enrolled and 29.07 lakh bank accounts were opened under which Rs 161.49 crore had been transferred in 10.76 lakh accounts.
In 2014, the Bhamashah initiative was refurbished with a broader coverage of gender empowerment, financial inclusion and family-based benefits. It now provides end-to-end delivery system for individuals and various family-based benefits of the government’s social welfare scheme like the PDS, pension funds, health insurance, MNREGA and scholarships through a centralised e-government platform by leveraging the enhanced electronic infrastructure of the state.
These transfers are made to the bank account of the woman of the house through the Bhamashah smart card, which also provides biometric identification of family members. The card is also a co-branded debit card with the participation of several banks.
Many of the NGOs have taken active step in this direction. The Mahila banks in a state like Jharkhand where women are not considered other than child rearing is an innovative solution in a dominant patriarchal society.

Alternative for India Development (AID), an Indian NGO that works to better the lives of tribal communities. AID established Mahila Bank in 2007. Mahila Bank is a unique twist on the mobile banking trend that had been sweeping the development sector. Instead of simply providing accounts to women across these communities, AID employs women from the community to manage local ‘branches’ in easy to access locations. When applying for a bank account, these branches use biometric technology to ensure the bank accounts are secure and may only be accessed by the owner.  Additionally, AID employs a cadre of local women who provide training, and lead community meetings in the scattered villages across Jharkhand on the various schemes available and why banking is important.
The merits of financial inclusion are deeply rooted in citizen empowerment.  Financial inclusion can be a powerful agent for strong and inclusive growth of women and their empowerment