Archive | November, 2012

A farm in Iowa

22 Nov

This post should have been written a month ago, but here it is!  Better late, than never. And in a way, the timing is rather appropriate, given its Thanksgiving and who better to thank for our food than our farmers?

On October 19th, as a part of World Food Prize events, we visited a  farm in Iowa. This farm was made famous by Chinese President elect Xi Jinping, who visited it just a few months ago. So, yes, we were in good company. This 4000 acre farm, which grows corn and soyabean, is run by a father and son duo and they employ just one staff.  They inherited a  400 acres farm in the mid 1970, from their grandfather, who grew wheat and corn and employed 10 or more field hands. Since then, they have not only increased their farm size by 10 times,  but reduced labor employment by 10 times, and at the same time, more than doubled their corn yields. What replaced labour are giant machines– machines, that have to be seen to be believed. We saw a huge combine-harvester. This giant of a machine, for instance, takes just a minute to harvest one acre of crop, so harvesting 4000 acres takes just 4000 minutes –or a little more than 8 working days (assuming 8 hours working day). This father and son duo cultivate GMO corn and soybean and export almost entirely to China. They are a part of Iowa Soybean Association, an Association which regularly holds trade negotiations with China and rest of the world. They use latest technologies and get the Universities to do research  for them. This  was a drought year in Iowa. But, we were told that, thanks to no-tillage and GMOs that they adopted some 10-15 years back, their production was not affected by bad rainfall. What scares them more than poor rainfall, is the prospect of international price crash and hence it is very common for them to trade on the futures market. Much like their combine-harvester, the father and son duo were farmers, technicians, scientists, trade negotiators and entrepreneurs — all rolled into one. Very impressive.

Now, this made me think about our farmers back home. With stamp sized land holdings and  every kind of resource constraints that one can think of (water, labour, credit, technology, knowledge and so on) and facing policies that are seldom farmer friendly, our farmers still manage to grow more and more food every year. This year, they produced a record 250 million metric tonnes. I keep wondering how they do it, and then can’t help but think how little appreciation they get for a job so well done. We, urban folks rise up in arms every time there is an increase in food price, little realizing that such low food prices makes it harder and harder for a farmer to make ends meet. And yes, we also conveniently forget our own pay hikes every time we cry hoarse about food price rise. I don’t know what the future holds for our agriculture, but in the meanwhile, let me salute our farmers one more time. They are no Iowa farmers for sure, but they are doing an incredible job feeding us in spite of huge odds.

Rumi

22 Nov

My blog is on food, agriculture, water and this and that. But, I have never posted anything that can be called ‘this and that’. Today, I make an exception and post something by Rumi. I do hope it is really Rumi, because my source is FB page on Rumi and FB, as we all know, is not the most trustworthy site! I post this because I like it. And it strikes a familiar chord, somewhere….

I said: What about my eyes?

God said: Keep them on the road.

I said: What about my passion?

God said: Keep it burning.

I said: What about my heart?

God said: Tell me what you hold inside it?

I said: Pain and sorrow.

He said: Stay with it. The wounds are the place where Light enters you.

—- Rumi

The puzzle of agrarian growth and stagnation in the GMB basin

16 Nov

The story of agrarian growth and stagnation in the Ganga-Meghna-Brahmaputra basin (encompassing Bihar, West Bengal and Bangladesh) is a puzzle that keeps intriguing me. Pieces just don’t fall in place to yield one neat explanation. Perhaps, there are no neat explanations. Or perhaps, I am not looking at the right place. Who knows?

In the 1980s, for the first time, a century long agrarian stagnation in Bengal and Bihar drew attention of a host of scholars. Majority view opined that it was a regressive agrarian structure — a result of exploitative Zamindari system that held this region back, leading to a paradox of “hunger in a fertile land” as Boyce (1987) put it in a nutshell, in this seminal book Agrarian Impasse in Bengal: Agricultural Growth in Bangladesh and West Bengal. Around that time, West Bengal undertook relatively successful land reforms and agriculture did indeed turn around convincing many that land reforms was that much needed trigger. Agricultural growth in West Bengal, shot up in 1980s and remained high until mid-1990s. Since then, it has plummeted and is currently, one of the lowest in India. My own work points to energy squeeze as a reason for this stagnation.

In Bangladesh, however, events took a different turn. Without the political will for land reforms, Bangladesh decided to embark on a path of intensive groundwater use. For this, they did away with spacing norms for tubewells and also liberalised pump imports way back in 1987.  Very soon, Bangladesh, got literally flooded with millions of cheap Chinese pumps. Now the country has 15 lakhs shallow tubewells and low lift pumps (as compared to only 5 lakh pumps in West Bengal) and majority of these pumps run on diesel. Intensive groundwater use led to massive increase in area under summer ‘boro‘ paddy and consistently high agricultural growth — a growth that is unimpeded to this day.

In Bihar, land reforms never took off, but groundwater irrigation did take off, with private investments by small and marginal farmers, only to slow down in recent years. My hunch is that energy squeeze is implicated again.  However, agricultural growth rates in Bihar has always been low, even with private investments in yield enhancing inputs like fertilizers, HYV seeds and irrigation — especially shallow tubewells. Why?

Now, this is the puzzle I am grappling with. If land reforms was indeed that trigger, how come Bangladesh’s agriculture continues to grow even without it and how come West Bengal’s agriculture stagnated even after land reforms? Now, if groundwater irrigation was the trigger, how come, agriculture never grew in Bihar and has stagnated in West Bengal since late 1990s, in spite of a spurt in private investments in groundwater? Here, my thesis of energy-squeeze looks particularly attractive– physical access to groundwater not withstanding, it is the high energy costs of pumping that  makes it economically nonviable to irrigate remunerative, but high water consuming crops.

But wait, what about Bangladesh again? With over 95% of all pumps running on diesel, how come farmers there never faced or reacted to the kind of energy squeeze that farmers in West Bengal and Bihar faced and reacted to? I don’t have neat explanations, except that four things are different in Bangladesh: paddy productivity is 30-50% higher in Bangladesh than in West Bengal or Bihar; relative diesel to paddy price ratio is more favorable in Bangladesh than in either West Bengal or Bihar; irrigation requirement for boro crop is lower in Bangladesh than in West Bengal due to higher rainfall and late recession of floods and finally, with access to land and water (pumps) in the hands of a few richer peasants, those who actually take irrigation decisions, do not face the kind of credit constraints that very small and marginal farmers face in West Bengal and Bihar. All these four factors partially explain why energy-squeeze is less of an issue in Bangladesh than in eastern India.

Not neat or complete explanations, no where near it. And so, my quest continues…

Experimental games with farmers in coastal Bangladesh

10 Nov

My colleague Arijit Das, who is an economist, has designed a wonderfully simple game. He calls it the ‘public goods game’ and it  involves 5 players deciding whether or not to contribute to a common fund for polder maintenance. Another economist colleague of mine, Marie-Charlotte Buisson and I have been helping Arijit implement this game in villages of Bangladesh. This has been a fascinating experience so far and I can’t wait to play it with friends and family (provided that they want to play it, of course!). To me, what is interesting is the impact of a single free rider in the group and how quickly it erodes trust among others. But, what is even more interesting, is the fact that free riding is much less frequent than we  anticipated. Is it because, farmers feel strongly about polder maintenance and are willing to contribute? Or is it because they are putting forward their best behavior and cooperating most of the time, in the hope that we can somehow influence the government to sanction additional funds for repair and maintenance? We don’t know, not yet, that is. But we will have a good understanding after we have played a few more rounds in polders with different characteristics. And in the meanwhile, I have decided that, if I ever to go back to school, I will study behavioral economics — it simply fascinates me!

My favourite water meeting is back!

9 Nov

Finally, another Annual IWMI-Tata Partners’ Meet after a lull of almost 5 years. I have no hesitation in declaring it my favorite water meeting ever. Of course, I have a deep personal attachment with the IWMI-Tata Program having been associated with it since its inception in 2001. And I owe my career to this amazing program which hired a bunch of fresh graduates and turned them into honed researchers in all but less than 10 years. My personal biases apart, I truly think this is a great meeting because, not being hung on methods, dogmas and theories, ITP’s APM presents all that has been happening in the real world of water, food and agriculture in India. For instance, what are farmers doing to cope with water scarcity? Are our governments responding with appropriate policies ? What can one state learn from the other? What about the private sector players, are they coming up with products that meets farmers requirements in a fast changing world? That almost everyone who is involved in India’s water sector attends this, makes it a truly special event. I for one, am very proud and privileged to be a part of the 2012 event.