A Chinese Saying in Smog!

Beijing’s critical air quality unmasks the darker side of urbanization



The Chinese New Year – being celebrated as the year of the water snake – that was unveiled in China this year presented a rare insight of the dragon. Far from celebrating the festivities, residents of Beijing were forced to stay indoors. Schools were shut down; commercial and even essential business came to a halt. And the reason: a thick blanket of black and noxious smoke that enveloped most of the skyline of China’s capital. The smog plunged Beijing’s 20 million people into darkness for most of the days in January this year. One of the world’s top cities, Beijing, was blanketed in a thick foul-smelling layer of hazardous smog, which experts are now calling the worst air pollution disaster in China’s history. For the first time, even the Chinese government admitted that Beijing’s air was “hazardous”, and agreed with US and independent scientists about the increasing poisonous air in Beijing. As the world takes note of China’s amazing growth, the Beijing smog may have only showcased the ugly side of an increasing urban landscape in China, but revealed the darker side of increasing urbanization.

Festivities had to wait. The air smelt foul. The suffocation caused by the smog was apparent. “How do we get out of this suffocating siege of pollution?” screamed the People’s Daily, the official Communist party newspaper in an editorial. The Chinese State seemed helpless. A weather-induced curfew-like situation prevailed in most of Beijing’s streets. Hospital admissions in the city showed a 30 per cent increase, especially for respiratory illness, congestion and asthma. And when Chinese state pollution agencies admitted that air pollution levels were above the permissible limit, they were only stating the obvious.

It is well-known that air pollution standards in China are one of the worst in the world. For instance, Suspended Particulate Matter (SPM) levels of 2.5 were above 600 micrograms in Beijing in January, when the safe level designated by the World Health Organization is 25. In the US, no more than 12 micrograms is considered safe. But SPM levels in Beijing jumped to more than 900 micrograms on many peak smog days. These significant figures have alarmed scientists around the world, as they are accompanied by catastrophic public health events.

Changing times

The Chinese may well be living in interesting times, but the Beijing smog is not an isolated event. Pollution events and weather-related events are affecting everyday life in every city around the world. In Delhi, for example, a thick fog affected daily life recently, forcing schools, airports and railways to suspend work. The change in the weather pattern in Delhi is telling – for instance, winters now begin only in late December, a far cry from the 1980s and 1990s, when jackets and blankets were pulled out in November itself. On many smog days, SPM levels in Delhi were at 400, way above permissible limits. Experts admit winters in Delhi are more chilling and take away many lives of the homeless each year. In contrast, you will find almost every resident wearing a pollution mask in Beijing on peak pollution days, indicating greater awareness among common people and proper monitoring of air quality. The stench of a polluted urbanized landscape has spread across the world. In 2012, Tehran reported 4,400 deaths annually due to air pollution. In shocking cases reported in the media, many hospitals ran out of essential hospital equipments to handle the number of patients afflicted with pollution related sickness and emergencies. Delhi hospitals record an increase in the number of patients with asthma and eye infections during winter months.

Un-masking pollution

In many cities across the world, pollution levels are not even monitored or data analyzed, revealing poor awareness among local populace and exposing information gaps about individual and community health in public health systems. Governments and authorities in many countries are working towards strengthening environment protection. But in many cases, authorities are only beginning to take evasive action against air pollution like pollution masks, and not pre-emptive steps like green infrastructure, incentives and long-term city planning policies. Blanket solutions to curb air pollution may be hard to find. In China, the smog was largely blamed on pollution emanating from local industries, even though the country boasts of eco-friendly policies like cycling tracks, efficient public transport and mandatory pollution masks. Delhi has a cleaner fuel, CNG, but it also has more vehicles on its streets than ever before. Experts believe even tighter European pollution standards both diesel and petrol vehicles may not be able to reverse the worsening air quality trends for the capital. Cities today need more and tighter standards for emissions, not less. They need better and efficient public transport systems, not cheaper cars. They need proper city planning that gives space and incentives for green innovations and cleaner mobility. If we cannot come up with an ecological blueprint, cities like Beijing, Delhi or Tehran, will become a nightmare not just to live, but simply to breathe…

Frogs are falling silent…

ARE THEY DYING TO SAY SOMETHING?

By S S Jeevan

HOP, skip and jump into extinction. That's what members of the amphibian family — toads, frogs, salamanders and newts — are doing. After dinosaurs, a serious problem of extinction now threatens the amphibian population. From the windswept Rocky mountains of the US to the pristine rainforests of South America; from the cold Andean ranges to the tropical forests of Australia and even temperate Europe, the frog population has been on the decline. And even those who do not look beyond their "bulging eyes, and warts' may have to listen to what the frogs are dying to say.

Reports suggest that, in Costa Rica, 20 frog and toad species — almost half the total — have disappeared over the past five years. In Australia, a frog species that has the potential to cure cancer is affected by a serious skin disease. In the US , one-third of the 230 native amphibian species are on the decline. No continent has been spared. The bad news is yet to come from Asia and Africa only because of the relatively low intensity of research in these two continents. For most of the 250-odd described species of amphibians in south Asia, the biological status is simply unknown.

However, the good news is that not all species are affected. The population of a species threatened in one locality may be thriving elsewhere. The degree of population decline of amphibians also appears to vary from region to region and within different species. Considered "sentinel' species, their permeable skin and ability to live both on land and in water makes amphibians more sensitive to environmental changes than any other species. As tadpoles, they live on water and eat plants, while in the adult stage they live on land and eat insects. Their eggs have no protective shells. Their skin is thin, moist and permeable.

Scientists believe that they are useful indicators of environment quality and the changes that are taking place in the natural world. Thus, the decline in amphibian population could be a precursor for what is going to befall humans, too. Moreover, members of the amphibian family are an important part of the food chain. "They form an essential part of the diet of many animals, such as snakes and birds, which, in turn, form the diet of other animals,' says Michael Tyler, a researcher at the University of Adelaide, Australia.

Why are frogs dying? Scientists have zeroed in on three reasons that may be responsible for the amphibians dying — infectious diseases, chemical pollution and increased ultraviolet ( UV ) radiation (resulting from the thinning of the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere). Besides these three reasons, some scientists also blame trade in endangered amphibians, acidification of the Earth's atmosphere and deforestation for the decline.
INFECTION: It is well-known that bacteria and viruses infect amphibians. But what has startled researchers is that a fungus is killing frogs. When microbiologists analysed some dead frogs, collected from Panama in the US and Queensland in Australia, they found that a new strain of fungus was responsible in both instances. The fungus covers the frog's skin, through which respiration takes place, then suffocates them to death.
UV RADIATION: In temperate regions, such as north America and Europe, UV radiation from the Sun has been reaching the Earth's surface during the spring spawning season. This is because of the destruction of the protective ozone layer in the atmosphere due to the use of chlorofloro carbons ( CFC s) and other human-made chemicals. Researchers at Oregon State University, USA , feel that UV radiation is affecting the eggs that amphibians lay in the shallow waters of lakes and ponds. In an experiment, the researchers shielded some salamander eggs against UV rays and exposed other eggs to normal sunlight. They found that the former hatched successfully, while the latter failed to hatch or produced deformed salamanders.
PESTICIDES AND FUNGISIDES: Many researchers believe that increasing use of pesticides and fungicides may be responsible for frog deaths. Spraying of pesticides not only poisons frogs directly, it also wipes out their food supply. Amphibians are known to be susceptible to at least 211 different pollutants. Organophosphorus insecticides, like malathion, are known to disturb the frog's development, distorting the growth of their limbs at the egg and tadpole stages. Frog deformities — such as multiple or missing limbs and body abnormalities — because of unchecked use of chemicals have already been reported in many areas in the US.

Donella H Meadows, professor of environmental studies at the UK -based Dartmouth College says that a Canadian researcher reported that along the St Lawrence valley fewer than two per cent of frogs in ponds that were away from any pesticide use had deformities. While 20 per cent frogs from ponds near areas of heavy pesticide use displayed defects, in one pond it was 100 per cent. Researchers in Switzerland have exposed developing frog eggs to the pesticide triphenyltin and have found deformities similar to some seen in the ponds.

Researchers at the US -based Scripps Research Institute say that S -methoprene, a popular ingredient in mosquito sprays and flea powders, breaks down into retinoids, which are known to cause birth defects not only in frogs but among humans. As this spray kills insects and interrupts their pupation it is bound to affect the development of embryos. Australia has banned the use of the weedkiller Roundup (gylphosate) around ponds and streams because of its effect on tadpoles and frogs. The problem does not seem to be the gylphosate itself, but an "inert ingredient' added to make the herbicide stick better to leaves.

GLOBAL TRADE: Uncontrolled international trade in amphibians is also threatening several species. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora ( CITES ) or the Washington Convention, the main tool to control trade in wild species internationally, has already banned trade in two amphibian species — Hoplobatrachus tigerinus and Euphlyctis hexadactylus . This ban may help save the two species, but may drive many other species to the brink of extinction.
ACIDIFICATION: Another anthropogenic disturbance that is suspected to have a negative effect on amphibian populations is acidification. Widely reported in the industrialised nations, this is happening because of increasing sulphur dioxide ( SO 2 ) and nitrogen dioxide ( NO 2 ) emissions. SO 2 (in the presence of sunlight) and NO 2 reacts with water vapour to form sulphuric and nitric acids. The rain, contaminated with these acids, affects flora and fauna, both on land and water, adversely.

"All amphibian biologists are now convinced that something catastrophic is happening to amphibians,' says Ronald Heyer, chairperson of the declining amphibian populations task force, an international network of more than 1,000 scientists. "In the US alone, around US $8 million is needed to monitor and research amphibians,' says Bruce Babbitt, interior secretary, USA . "Since the scope of the problem is global, other countries need to fund similar research and conservation efforts,' says Heyer. In the UK, attempts are being made to save the last-known surviving male pool frog. The frog is being encouraged to breed with nine female frogs flown in from Sweden. The Swedish frogs have been chosen because of their close genetic makeup to the British variety.

Frogs are important particularly for a country such as India, where the agricultural sector plays a vital role in the economy. They devour pests which pose a threat to crops and prevent the spread of vector-borne diseases like malaria because they consume parasites responsible for the disease. An adult frog devours its own weight of insects daily. Thus, if its population goes down, the insect population goes up. The extinction of frogs, on the one hand, means increasing the use of pesticides which is not only bad for agriculture in the long run, but poses a serious health hazard to all living organisms. On the other hand, the decline in amphibian population also means spread of diseases like malaria.

According to experts at the Bombay Natural History Society, in many parts of western Maharashtra, crops have been badly hit by proliferating insects as a result of large-scale slaughter of frogs. The Zoological Survey of India has also reported an increase in malaria in rural areas of West Bengal where 50 per cent of the frogs destined for export are captured. In India, trapping for export of frog legs poses a major threat (see box: With love, from India). However, not much is known about the commonest species of amphibians found in India. So far, 210 amphibian species are said to exist in India, making it one of the world's leading frog habitat. Most of these are said to be thriving in the Western Ghats, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the foothills of the Himalaya and the northeast. Worldwide, there are 53 species of amphibians listed in the endangered category, of which three are in India.

It is predicted that the number of amphibian species found in India will increase many fold if systematic studies are carried out. For instance, in Sri Lanka, Kelum Manamandra-Arachchi and Rohan Pethiyagoda of the Sri Lanka Wildlife Heritage Trust demonstrated — using both traditional morphological and acoustic data and molecular techniques — that the fauna includes over 250 species, a far cry from the 55 species listed till then. In the Indian context, over-extraction of groundwater for human use, which can dry up or decrease levels of water in ponds during summer and destruction of forests has led to either complete loss of forests or their fragmentation. This could isolate amphibian populations, and relegate them in smaller sub-populations that may no longer be genetically viable. Besides, certain forestry practices such as removal of leaf litter may also be working against biodiversity conservation.

So what impedes the acquisition of this information in India? What is rarer than amphibian species are people who can identify them. The science, called systematic, which deals with relationships between and within species, is not taught in India, and nearly all systematicists are self-taught. This explains why data on amphibians is still very sparse. Even the most comprehensive collections of India, such as those of the Zoological Survey of India and the Bombay Natural History Museum, do not have close to half of India's described amphibian species.

Several frog and toad species are known only from the original description, and no effort has been made to find these species since. It is possible that some of these species are common and widespread, but status information is generally unavailable. Data collection has been for the most part not with the view of providing quantitative information — rather, they are subjective evaluations of abundance. Today, one can only assume that amphibians native to India may also be facing what its brethrens elsewhere are going through. In ancient times, frogs were believed to be harbingers of prosperity and plentiful rains. This belief will get eroded along with their disappearance. And the extermination of frogs could well spell doom for the entire human society.

(Published in Down To Earth, May, 1999)

Postcards from Malaysia

Sights and sounds from a multi-cultural country

By S S Jeevan

Twin Appeal

From the moment you step into Kaula Lumpur’s newly built and yet half-empty airport, you cannot miss Malaysia’s amazing tryst with multiculturalism. Long stretches of rubber plantations dot our hour-long drive to the KL City Centre, a reminder that Malaysia was primarily a tin and rubber exporting country until recently. But it is only when you reach the KLCC that the new Malaysia begins to unfold itself — needle-thin skyscrapers, high-speed trains, sanitised roads and bustling shopping malls. At the heart of the city is the magnificent 88-story Petronas Towers, which has also become the overriding symbol of Modern Malaysia. It houses the government’s oil company, Petronas, and was the world's tallest building till a while ago.
Though an Islamic country, Muslims enjoy much more freedom in Malaysia than in any other country in the world. Women wear the tudong — a tight drape framing the face — along with jeans or T-shirts. But it is not a compulsory dress code. Pork and alcohol too are available in almost every part of the country. And you begin to wonder how this developing country has transformed itself into a modern industrialised nation, and that too within a couple of decades.
“Mahathir Mohamad,” exclaims our guide Jamil. Everywhere people talk of the man who ruled Malaysia for 22 years and changed the country beyond anyone’s imagination. Income per head rose from $2,320 when he came to power to roughly $9,000 today. The multiculturalism manifests itself in the rendang that peacefully co-exists with the kway teoh or the butter chicken in numerous food courts. And for a country with a huge ethnic minority — Chinese (26 percent) and Indian (10 percent) — Malaysia’s inclusive culture is truly remarkable.

Indian Flavour

Close to 10 percent of the country’s population comprises second and third generation Indians, most of them employed in the service sector. Indians came to Malaysia as illegal workers in the early part of the century. And the trend still continues. A few days after we left Malaysia, the government was deporting around 17,000 Indians working illegally.
A typical Malaysian-Indian would at first deny his origin, but with a little prodding, would concede his ancestry. Scratch some more and the real emotions will pour out. Take JJ for instance. This middle-aged driver in Penang — whose grandfather ran away from Kerala in the 1940s to find work in Malaysia — has the choicest of left-handed compliments for local Malays. “We have played an equal role in the country’s development, but only Malays enjoy preferential treatment from the government.” We are told the sops include special privileges for Malays to have children.
But attitudes are changing. Says Rajoo, our room boy whose grandparents hail from Tanjavur, “It’s a safe place to live and there is religious freedom, despite the fact that it is a Islamic country.” And like the ubiquitous Indian, Indian restaurants too are everywhere, and hugely popular. Hotels such as India Palace in Penang are doing roaring business and the owner has plans to start a few more. A growing number of new generation Indians now occupy Malaysia’s upper middle class society, working as doctors, engineers and computer professionals. In many ways Indians add colour to Malaysia’s multi-cultural society and they now hope to get a bigger share of Malaysia’s fast-paced developmental cake.

Sun and Shine
A visit to Malaysia will be incomplete without its breathtaking beaches. So we were taken to Langkawi — a group of 104 islands located 100 km north of Penang. Langkawi did not exist on the tourist map till 10 years ago. Mahathir Mohamad changed all that. We were told that he got his first job in one of these islands, and when he became Prime Minister he decided to develop it with large private partnerships. Many of these islands are just outcrops of coral. The largest, Langkawi Island, is the only one with sophisticated tourist facilities (it has been declared a free port and duty-free shopping is available). Several international hotels and resorts have opened as the government and international developers flood into what is set to become Malaysia’s premier island beach resort. The island’s many coves, lagoons and inlets make it ideal for all kinds of water sports such as swimming, sailing, fishing and scuba diving. Eulogised as the ‘Pearl of the Orient’, the island of Penang, is just as charming as Langkawi. It was the natural harbour that first attracted the British to Penang in the late 18th century, and the port is still one of the most important ones in the country. Though large tourist inflow has spoilt some of its beaches, many of them are still pristine with palm trees dotting the entire seascape.

Escape to the woods
We took a break from our “travel-trap” itinerary and escaped to the woods. Over 70 percent of Malaysia is forested and there are about 20 million hectares of forested land. Our destination was the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia (FRIM) — one of the leading institutions in tropical forestry research, both within Malaysia and internationally. Frim is located around 18 km north of Kuala Lumpur and is surrounded by the Bukit Lagong and the Bukit Hari forest reserve. It is a secondary rainforest and owes its origin to the British, who in 1918 replanted the area. The regeneration has been a success: Flying Lemurs, binturong, pangolin, civet, reptiles and amphibians have migrated back into the area. Among the rare species is a tree whose leaves never touch the other (the National Geographic put in on its cover) or the amazing leaf-eating tree. So it is not surprising then that Malaysia supplies 80 percent of tropical sawn timber to international trade and is the world’s second largest tropical timber exporting nation after Indonesia. The country is also fighting a fierce battle with the loggers who set off forest fires. They are said to be largely responsible for the haze that frequently envelopes the region. But the highlight of FRIM was the 150-metre canopy walk. Constructed with help from the Germans, it is literally a tightrope. After our guide’s safety instructions we walked on what seemed like the most breathtaking view of the forests, usually reserved for the resident lemurs, squirrels and macaques.

Meet the king
Located 64 km south of Kaula Lumpur, Seremban is the capital of Negeri Sembilan, which translated literally means “nine states,” so named because it comprises a federation of nine states. The city lies in a mountainous region, and with a population of just 1.6-lakh people, sports a sleepy look. It came alive though on February 20, the day we reached there. It was the opening of the Chinese New Year Open House Official Programme and more than 30,000 people had gathered at the Municipal Council field to take part in the celebrations. Our hosts — Tourism Malaysia and Malaysian Airlines — had arranged a meeting with the King of Malaysia, Tuanku Syed Sirajuddin Syed Putra Jamalullail. Malaysia is the only country in the world to have a rotating kingship.
Unlike other monarchies, Malaysian kings change every five years. Although apolitical, the king serves as a symbol of national solidarity and a defender of the Islamic faith. Following a 1993 constitutional amendment, the king’s role has become largely ceremonial. We are told that rivalry amongst the sultans is non-existent. Each sultan has the ultimate authority within his state and is fiercely independent. Inter-marriages and close-knit family ties among the royal families reinforce these close bonds. Negeri Sembilan continues to practice its own customs, dating back to the 1700s. Traditionally a matrilineal society, property passes from mother to daughter. In families that still follow pre-Islamic laws, a bride doesn’t move in with her husband when she marries, but rather brings him into her family’s home as a guest. Watch out for the state’s Minangkabau-styled architecture, reflecting the influence of its first inhabitants from Sumatra. Some public buildings showcase the characteristics traits of Minangkabau architecture, recognisable by steep, pointed, curving roof gables.

Tailpiece: Uma Bharti in KL
Late one evening in Kaula Lumpur I was treated to a surreal experience. After a tiring day of sightseeing and shopping I decided to unwind with some television and light refreshments. But there was a problem — all channels were in Malay language. And the only Indian channel beamed was, lo and behold, Sahara-Madhya Pradesh. So sitting in my hotel room on the 24th floor of Times Square I sat glued to compelling television — Digvijay Singh declaring that Babulal Gaur was a better CM than Uma Bharti. And Uma Bharti declaring that she had no plans to return as CM. I decided to check out the Malay channels just in case, but it was quite mindless — soap operas and dubbed programming. I switched off the idiot box and opened the window. The skyscraper skyline of Kaula Lumpur was a welcome relief and made better viewing. I left the window open for the rest of my stay in Kaula Lumpur.

BANKING ACCESS: LIMITED

Even 37 years after the nationalisation of banks, there are only 300 million bank accounts for over a billion people. India Today’s interactive forum ICONS came up with ideas to bridge this gap.

By S S Jeevan

Ironies are part of the Indian political and economic landscape. The spin maestros can’t decide whether India’s 8-plus per cent GDP growth should be dubbed ‘Shining India’ or ‘Rising India’. Yet, even as India gallops towards the promised position of an economic superpower, the reality of the flip side is stark. Thirty-seven years after the nationalisation of banks there are only 300 million bank accounts for a populace of over a billion.

Banks have made huge strides since nationalisation. The number of branches has shot up from 10,000 to a lakh with deposits shooting up. But coverage or financial inclusion is still a far cry from what it should be. Even if one takes into account the number of people holding savings accounts with cooperative banks, only four of 10 people in India have access to the banking system. It gets worse when one looks at the figures (see chart) on other financial instruments, including critical functions like insurance.

To make sense of this paradigm of GDP growth and a high percentage of the population excluded from the financial system, INDIA TODAY brought together bankers, industry, microfinance experts and planners under its interactive forum, ICONS (INDIA TODAY Council for News and Society) in Chennai. The objective, as INDIA TODAY’S Editor Prabhu Chawla said, was to explore the ways of making banking more “inclusive”.

+C. Rangarajan, former RBI governor and chairman of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council (who also heads the Committee on Financial Inclusion) opened the debate with some startling figures. He revealed that while the national average is around 40 per cent in seven states, less than a third of India’s population is connected to the banking system. The picture is worse in the lower income groups and in the rural sector, where the proportional of institutional credit (to total credit) decreases, while noninstitutional credit (from moneylenders, for example) increases.

Studies have proved that lack of inclusion—or rather, exclusion—from the banking system results in a loss of about 1 per cent to the GDP. Some bankers believe that a huge chunk of cash transactions are not reflected in the national GDP analysis and calculations and, when brought into the system, could add to the overall GDP. Significantly, it is not just a statistical issue or one of getting the numerical picture. Financial inclusion is not just a socio-political imperative but an economic one as well. As Indian Bank Chairman and Managing Director K.C. Chakrabarty says, “There is a huge overlap between poverty and permanent financial exclusion.”

Both poverty and financial exclusion result in lack of choices and lower access to participation in the economy. Venu Srinivasan, chairman, TVS Motors, puts it in perspective: “The need for boosting financial inclusion or rather instituting measures to bring banking to all is both a challenge and a huge economic opportunity.”

As economic and management guru C.K. Prahalad says, “There is growth and gold at the bottom of the pyramid.” According to some studies, India could add as much as 1 per cent to the GDP growth if banking is accessible to all. The question that has dogged the government and the banking sector for decades is how to include the excluded. In fact, Puducherry will soon be the first place in India that can boast of financial inclusion. Under the National Pilot Project for Financial Inclusion launched on January 1, 2006, a number of banks will work to bring banking to every house in Puducherry. The hurdles range from access in rural areas where only 5 per cent of the villages can boast of a bank to literacy and cost of transactions.

Many speakers agreed on a societal problem associated with banking—attitudes of banks and society as a whole. Dr Sethuraman, founder president of micro-finance outfit Maha Semam Trust, said NABARD and RBI officials must live in rural areas for at least a month to understand the poor. Karti Chidambaram, director, CHESS Management Services, said there was acute “information shortage” about banking systems in villages. “Even knowledge on simple procedures like a student’s loan are yet to reach the masses.”

+Venu Srinivasan says lack of penetration of banks may have to do with lack of cost-effective mechanisms and that a lot needs to be done on the “credit and lending ratio”. His prescription: “Work on delivery mechanisms and deliver products without subsidy but on a profitable basis and at the same time with a competitive cost.” Chakrabarty, whose bank is playing a lead role in making Puducherry the first place where “banking for all” will become a reality, said that technology and “attitudinal willpower” can play a vital role, and for this “society must be geared up to involve everyone”.

But it is not just about systems and attitudes. R. Srinivasan, member, Tamil Nadu State Planning Commission, says the most important thing is to “first create a capability for the individual to go to a bank”. What’s the point of a bank when the farmer doesn’t have enough to save or isn’t “credit worthy” for a loan? In a sense it is a Catch 22 situation. Without economic growth there is lack of affordability or need to be a part of the banking system. The flip side is that access to the banking system not just for check-in accounts but to tap into credit and financial instruments is a sine qua non for growth. It is this challenge that will determine the growth of banking.

The solutions on offer at the ICONS meet ranged from improving information systems to tailoring attitudes to using technology to make transactions affordable. The economic opportunity— which could enable the banking system to double its size in keeping with the superpower ambitions—is clearly worth the challenge. And the socio-political imperative critical.

(India Today, October 16, 2006)

In Democracy We Trust

After 10 years of suffering elections that were at best a sham, an experiment with polls in some of Tamil Nadu's interior districts empowers Dalits to take control of their own lives.

S.S. Jeevan in Madurai

Families living on the margins in tiny villages of southern Tamil Nadu are just beginning to comprehend the price of an elected office. Here, people of lower caste communities have been getting bizarre offers for over 10 years. In 2001, when 71-year-old Karutha-kkannan of Keeripatti village was approached by caste Hindus to contest elections, he knew that if elected, he would have to resign immediately and be compensated with 25 kg of rice by the Piramalai Kallers, the dominant backward caste community comprising roughly 80 per cent of the population in these villages, that has consistently blocked Dalits from holding office.

As per the 73rd Amendment to the Constitution, the Tamil Nadu Panchayat Act, 1994, provided a three-tier Panchayati Raj system making democracy truly representative. One of its provisions was to reserve the post of panchayat president for Scheduled Castes (SCs) in villages like Keeripatti for 10 years and then rotate them. But since 1996, these villages vanished from the electoral map due to sham elections. Democratic processes stand paralysed in Pappapatti, Keeripatti and Nattarmangalam in Madurai district, and Kottakachiyendal village in Virudhunagar district. No Dalit would dare challenge caste hegemony and come forward to contest or withdraw their nominations.

That has changed. One of the first decisions Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi took after assuming office was to extend reservations for SCs and hold elections in these villages. During the October 2006 elections, Dalit candidates backed by most political parties and powered by the state machinery contested and won. "It was not just a caste issue, but a challenge to uphold the Constitution," says Madurai District Collector T. Udhayachandran. The Dalit presidents continue to hold office today and were even felicitated by Karunanidhi in Chennai. The Government and the DMK party have given Rs 25 lakh to each village for developmental activities. "Our colony has been electrified now," says P. Ganesan, Nattarmangalam panchayat president.

Since the Panchayat Act, 1994, successive governments have conducted elections over 15 times. In Pappapatti village, a Dalit candidate who dared file his nomination died mysteriously. The district has seen many violent caste clashes in the past but each time dalits have had to suffer.

In Melavalavu village panchayat, caste Hindus killed six Dalits in 1997, including panchayat president Murugesan. Most Dalits depend on the Kallers for their livelihood. "Dalits saw polls as a trap or a threat to their community," says Dinesh Oliver, a revenue divisional officer. In many panchayats, Dalits were glad to stand as puppets, like 65-year-old Alagumalai who won and resigned from Keeripatti the same day in 2005. "I got 25 kg of rice and Rs 1,000," he says.

Demarcations still persist. Dalits cannot enter temples controlled by Kallers and so have their own on the village outskirts. Chellamani, an advocate from Nattarmangalam, says he will file a case if the village is not de-reserved for the next polls. "We can ask the Dalit presidents to resign whenever we want," he adds. To counter such threats, the district administration has provided round-the-clock security for the Dalit presidents.

Nattarmangalam was the only village with a Dalit president for one term-in 1996-2001-but soon even this joined the election boycott creating a constitutional deadlock. Within a fortnight of taking over as district collector, Udhayachandran received a call from the chief secretary asking him to investigate. After approaching and understanding the grievances of the people, the election process was planned. Uncooperative officials were transferred; anti-social elements were kept under surveillance and no political leader was allowed entry during the electioneering period. Dalit Panthers party leader Thol Thirumavalavan was also told not to enter these villages.

Local elements were monitored and polling booths were made available in Dalit areas. "I conducted a detailed study on every village and evolved different strategies," he says. In Nattarmangalam, the administration generated competition by working closely with the Communist party to put up a dummy candidate, while it simultaneously evolved consensus among caste leaders to arrive at a compromise formula. In Keeripatti, nominations of other candidates were rejected and the state-backed candidate was subsequently the unanimous choice.

Unlike before, elections to all posts including vice-president were held this time, and this gave the state a chance to co-opt caste Hindu leaders. Kallers, who continue to wield power, are the vice-presidents of the panchayats. Even today, no decision can be taken without their approval, and Dalit presidents say all decisions are taken "collectively". Many believe that the elections have set the stage for opposing parties to find common ground. "The success of these elections shows, once again, that Dalits cannot save themselves. It is only the others (Kallers) who can save them," says G. Palanithurai, a professor at Gandhigram Rural Institute. "We need everyone's support to sustain this process," says Udhayachandran. For the Dalits in Keeripatti, the street lights in their hamlet remain the priceless perks of democracy.

(India Today, January 2007)

SOUTHERN EXPRESS

The state that witnessed a growth rate of 6.3 per cent during the 1990s can today boast of a literacy rate of 73.4 per cent and an ever-increasing pool of skilled professionals. IT and ITES, hardware and real estate are key sectors wooing big ticket investors in to Tamil Nadu

By S S Jeevan in Chennai

In no state in India is politics as colourful as it is in Tamil Nadu. Congress, the only truly pan-Indian party, has been out of power for so long that without strategic alliances it cannot hope to be even a blip on the state’s political radar, which has been dominated by the DMK and its breakaway faction, the AIADMK. And in no state in India has the politics of vendetta been practised as rigorously as it has been in Tamil Nadu—whether it was the midnight arrest of DMK chief and Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi in June 2001 or the humiliation of his arch rival AIADMK chief J. Jayalalithaa in the Assembly, the state has often witnessed high voltage drama enacted by some of the former demigods of the film world. Prone to high antiincumbencies, Tamil Nadu has ruthlessly voted out the incumbent. Yet one thing has remained constant: the state’s delivery system. Be it electoral fluctuations or the vagaries of monsoons, they have had very little impact on the political economy of the state. Both Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa have extended populist schemes and claimed credit for the success the state has earned over the years.

Tamil Nadu benefited from favourable political dispensations in the past—whether it was the social reform movements of the 1960s or charismatic leaders like K. Kamaraj, C. Subramaniam and C. Rajagopalachari who gave the state an edge through their leveraging power in Delhi. Today, one of the largest contingents of ministers from any state in the UPA Government is from Tamil Nadu. And the dozen-odd ministers, led by Finance Minister P. Chidambaram and Telecom Minister Dayanidhi Maran, have worked towards driving foreign investment into the state. Out of the total foreign direct investment (FDI) that flowed into India last year, 9.12 per cent went to Tamil Nadu. The state registered an annual growth rate of 6.3 per cent during the ’90s, ahead of 15 major states. In terms of Human Development Index (HDI), the state climbed from seventh position in 1981 to third position in 2001. That apart, Tamil Nadu can boast of a literacy rate as high as 73.4 and an ever-increasing pool of skilled professionals. Also, it is one of the few states in the country to have surplus power supply. Little wonder, the flood of investments hasn’t stopped. In the past four months, over Rs 2,234 crore have been invested in the state. By August 2004, FDI into Tamil Nadu was a whopping Rs 22,582.64 crore. And the numbers are only increasing.

The global players to have invested here are Nokia, Flextronics, Hyundai, Dell, Ford, Royal Enfield and Samsung. According to the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) estimates, over eight lakh jobs are expected to be created by 2011. Moreover, it is also becoming the preferred destination for the back offices of the world. Standard Chartered, World Bank, Citibank, Sutherland Technologies, ABN Amro are some of the leading banks that have their back office operations here. In Chennai alone, there are plans for four multiplexes, housing over 30 theatres, and half-a-dozen seven-star hotels, including the Hilton. Glitzy shopping malls such as the Chennai Citi Centre are showcasing this new-found prosperity. The police too zoom around in Hyundai Accent cars patrolling Chennai’s streets.

“Good infrastructure and the advantage of connectivity with ports, a well-laid road network and numerous airports are the key drivers of investment in the state,” says economist and member of the state Planning Commission K. Srinivasan. The state is witnessing a boom in sectors like automobile, IT and ITES, hardware and real estate. IT Secretary Chandramouli says that a new IT project can be ratified in just 72 hours by the state machinery. “It’s a place where entrepreneurship is respected,” says Sanjay Jayavarthanavelu, chairman of CII, Tamil Nadu. More than 345 IT firms came up in Chennai last year. Software exports from Chennai last year stood at Rs 14,115 crore. The state is also home to some of India’s biggest corporate success stories such as TVS, MRF and Ashok Leyland, as also public sector giants like BHEL and cement companies like Ramco. There are now proposals to create SEZs in many smaller cities like Tirunelveli and Salem, while IT giants are already opening centres in other places like Coimbatore and Trichy.

The state has the fifth largest economy in the country and ranks second in per capita income. When it comes to development, Tamil Nadu definitely scores a point. It is the first Indian state to have introduced the concept of universal midday meals and make computer education available in all government higher secondary schools. There are more than 252 engineering colleges in Tamil Nadu that churn out 79,000 engineers every year. The role of women, too, has played a part in this transformation. There are more than two million women self-help groups which play a pivotal role in the administrative and financial sectors. Unlike other states, the delivery systems here have won praise, despite the fact that it has one of the largest bureaucracy in the country, not to mention an active Panchayati Raj system.

However, there are a few negatives attached to the state. While poverty levels in Tamil Nadu declined, the number of people below poverty line still stood at 140 lakh in 2004. The rate of unemployment is 5.25 per cent, against the national average of 3.77 per cent. Karunanidhi recently launched a monthly stipend scheme for the unemployed to cover more than 2,06,766 registered beneficiaries across the state. One of the reasons for a large number of people slipping below the poverty line is the fact that the backbone of the state’s economy—agriculture—has taken a beating. Yields have come down and total land area under agriculture has also dipped. “There is an overall decline and it is more acute in terms of productivity—both for food and non-food crops,” say J. Jeyaranjan, director, Development Alternatives and K. Nagaraj, a professor at the Madras Institute of Developmental Studies, in a recent study. The annual growth rate of the value of agricultural output was 2.4 per cent per annum between the early ’60s and early ’90s, which is lower than the national average of about 2.7 per cent per annum. Though the state still remains among the top producers of rice , it ranks tenth in agriculture among the 17 major states of India.

Water too remains a developmental challenge for the state. Not just Cauvery, Karunanidhi has locked horns with his Kerala counterpart V.S. Achuthanandan over the issue of water in the Mullaperiyar dam. As per a study of the dry regions of seven states, including Tamil Nadu, common property resources (CPR) have been vanishing since the early ’50s. Despite water problems, the setbacks in agriculture have been less felt— there was hardly a case of a “farmer suicide” in the state. This is largely due to the state’s diversified economy. From Chennai, now being called the “Detroit of India”, having become a manufacturing hub, or Tirupur being referred to as “Textile Valley of India” or even a small town like Sivakasi being called “Little Japan”, Tamil Nadu is today full of ingenious success stories. Sunrise sectors like biotechnology are mushrooming with companies like LifeCell strengthening their presence in the state.

Real estate has become the new calling card of growth and many believe that the IT-driven boom and large foreign remittances have led to an escalation of prices. R. Jeyakumar, one of the state’s top builders, says that land value in Chennai has shot up by 100-150 per cent in the past three years. Real estate consultants Jones Lang LaSalle estimate that 4.5 million sq ft of office space would be occupied in Chennai by the end of this year. Another sector flourishing in Tamil Nadu is tourism, as temple towns such as Mahabalipuram and other hill resorts cornered over 11 per cent of the tourist inflow in 2004. High-end medical care too is attracting a large number of foreign patients, and leading private players such as Apollo Hospitals are earning a fair share of their revenues from medical tourism.

The tremendous growth of cities and towns may have provided new means of livelihood for those equipped with professional and technological skills, but for millions employed in the unorganised and small-scale sector, this has meant loss of social security. There are wide differences in the per capita income across the state, even though it ranks second in the per capita income index. Of the 29 districts, only nine have a per capita income higher than the state average. For instance, Chennai has a per capita income of Rs 15,828 while neighbouring Villupuram district has Rs 6,013, the lowest in the state. “The underprivileged need to be empowered with professional skills to help them find a footing,” says agricultural-economist and architect of the Green Revolution M.S. Swaminathan, adding, “the agro-economy needs to be strengthened as our future is dependent on its revival.” While Tamil Nadu’s performance in healthcare is better than the rest of the country, it doesn’t match Kerala. In terms of access to maternal and child health, the state has done well, but as far as child mortality and nutrition is concerned, it is just about average. Significantly, it also scores quite low in sanitation. The Chikungunya virus affected thousands of people in the state. Also, there has been an increase in the number of AIDS cases. “The number of people infected with viruses is increasing, and this is largely due to mutating viruses and a polluted urban environment,” says Dr Suraj Balaji of Balaji Nursing Home, a clinic in south Chennai. Though access to healthcare systems in the state is quite good, the growth is taking place largely in the private sector, making cutting edge remedies out of the reach of the poor. The pattern of foreign funding is focused on communicable diseases and not much on common diseases like malaria. “The Government and the private sector must work together to arrest the growing epidemic of environmental diseases,” says Magsaysay winner and director of the Cancer Institute, Dr V. Shanta.

Such are the challenges for Karunanidhi—to be able to attract investments while bridging the ever-widening gap in the state and creating new stakeholders in the developmental cake at the same time. He was one of the leading stalwarts of the Dravidian movement—which enabled the lower castes to assert their rights and challenged the distribution of power—along with former chief minister C.N. Annadurai. In a sense, the scrapping of the Common Entrance Test last week can be seen as an acceptance of the growing urban-rural divide. And today, Karunanidhi may perhaps need to re-engineer a more common distribution system in an era of rapid economic globalisation.

(India Today, December 25, 2006)

Price of Life

Amidst secrecy and confusion the Union government changed India’s drug laws. Does this mean you medical bills will shoot up?

By S S Jeevan

Unlike most teenagers, Vidya Kumari didn't find time to make a New Year resolution. This 16-year-old child of a middle-class family in south Delhi spent New Year’s Eve frantically running from pharmacy to pharmacy to check out the price of Gleevec, a cancer drug. Her mother, Gita, suffers from a rare cancer, and the cost of treating her was bleeding the family. The drug now costs around Rs 10,000, but some chemists warned Vidya that its price could soon spiral to Rs 50,000. ‘‘A new law is being passed,’’ she was told.

Beginning January 1 this year, India embraced a new world order and abandoned its decades-old drug policy. The Union government issued an ordinance to amend the Indian Patents Act 1970 to introduce product patent for drugs. In the past, the government would grant patents to companies only on the process used to manufacture them, and not on the final product.

The change is a result of India’s signing the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) in 1994, when it was given 10 years to comply with World Trade Organisation (WTO) laws. With the new law, the government will now grant patents for all new products developed after 1995.. But there is little clarity as to whether the law will benefit or harm a sector that is viewed by many as the next big success story after IT, and worth more than $4.5 billion. And more importantly whether millions of patients like Vidya’s mother will have to pay more to stay alive.

The road to a new drug regime has been a long one, but not transparent. Between 1987 and 1994 when the WTO treaty was being finalised, there were hardly any discussions in Parliament on the issue. In fact, a committee headed by I K Gujral in December 1993 had warned of ‘‘the grave impact of the proposed patent’ on the drug prices in the country’’. But this didn’t fuel a debate. Even the Arjun Singh Committee report of the 1990s remains confidential till today.

When the patents act was amended - first in 1999 and then in 2002 - the government promised that the third amendment would address social concerns. But critics say no safeguards are in place in the latest ordinance. Worse, they claim that the government has resorted to a Presidential Ordinance that would have far-reaching changes in patent law without even a parliamentary debate.. Now even economists such as Jagdish Bhagwati and Michael Finger, who support the WTO, are questioning whether the TRIPS treaty should be in the WTO.

Rules of the game
The Indian pharmaceutical sector has enjoyed tremendous success for the past 30 years or so. Indira Gandhi’s bold step of abolishing the patent regime in 1970 (which it inherited from the British), and replacing it with the process patent spawned hundreds of Indian companies like Ranbaxy. Companies could produce medicines introduced by international firms via a different process and sell them at less than half the price, thus making huge profits.

This is also how pharmaceutical major Cipla managed to sell its anti-retroviral drugs for HIV/AIDS patients in African countries at less than half the drugs’ global price. There are more than 5,000 Indian drug companies in India today, and the country currently holds a 16 percent share of this $48 billion worldwide market.

But under the new rules, Indian companies will no longer be able to reproduce products that will be patented. Already some 12,000 ‘‘mail box’’ applications alleging patent infringement are pending with the government. And once these applications are awarded a patent, no Indian company can manufacturer them.

Estimates about increase in drug prices vary. According to a study conducted by the Centre for Study of Global Trade Systems and Development, prices of drugs for ailments like hypertension, stroke, ulcer, depression and osteoporosis will go up under the new regime to equal international prices. For instance, Prilosec, used to treat ulcers, currently costs $2.45 in India as against $105.50 in the US.

The government strongly denies any price increase. ‘‘The impact on prices will be minimal. Drug prices will not go up as 97 percent of the drugs are off patent,’’ says Union Industry Secretary Ashok Jha. ‘‘Totally misleading,’’ says former Union finance secretary S P Shukla. ‘‘What is this 97 percent the government is referring to? Is it the turnover, or the drugs in the market, or the patent itself?’’ he asks. Shukla says it was surprising that the government has given this 97 percent figure in 1995, and now 10 years later, is citing the same statistics.

Experts feel that Indian companies may get embroiled in litigations, unless the government specifies which drugs are off patent. There is no specific list of such drugs, adds Shukla. Moreover, doctors say the new law is less flexible.. Now they have a choice of medicines for the same illness in the market and can prescribe cheaper drugs for poorer patients. ‘‘Soon only patented drugs would be available and current drugs would be replaced within five to seven years by new drugs that would all be part of the product patent regime and prohibitively expensive,’’ says a doctor.

The government counters this claim. It says that it will empower its drug-pricing arm, the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority (NPPA), to limit the price of a patented drug. The chemicals ministry and the health ministry are now having hectic parleys to reach a consensus on pricing policy. Experts say the criteria for negotiating the price of drugs is difficult so long as the patent holder chooses not to manufacture it in India. The state can decide on a reasonable profit margin only if it inspects the manufacturing plant and finds out the actual cost of production.

Fair game?
As India grapples with a new world order, it would be interesting to study how developing countries are coping up with the product patent regime. A case in point is that of Pakistan, where consumers could have saved over Rs 100 crore on just nine medicines in 1995, if the companies had offered Indian prices. These medicines constitute 14 percent of the retail market in Pakistan.

Or take the case of the anti-inflexilant cipro flexocine. Ten tablets of the drug cost just Rs 50 in India, whereas the same would cost Rs 400 in Pakistan. The anti-ulcer medicine ranitidine costs Rs 74 a packet in Pakistan, against Rs 5 in India. So countries like Pakistan are fighting a losing battle against monopoly pricing system.

One issue that concerns analysts is that of compulsory licensing. In the interest of producing cheap medicine, the controller of patents is empowered to grant a license to produce any product, even if the patentee has refused to do so. Countries such as Brazil, Canada and China have made provisions for compulsory licence if the patentee has refused to comply. This provision was also accepted in the Doha Declaration. But the ordinance is silent on this, even though this is permitted under the TRIPS Agreement.

On May 6, 1981, Indira Gandhi had said that ‘‘the idea of a better world is one in which medical discoveries would be free from patent and there will be no profiteering from life and death.’’ Much has changed since then. And as governments, multilateral agencies and pharmaceutical companies battle it out in the coming months for a free and fair drug policy, will life-saving medicines become out of reach of millions of patients like Vidya’s mother?

THE INDUSTRY: SEARCHING FOR THE MAGIC PILL
Multinationals such as GlaxoSmithKline Plc, Pfizer Inc, Novartis AG and Aventis, who have watched copies of their drugs being sold by Indian companies for too long, are gearing up to enter the Indian market. They say that Indian drug makers can reverse engineer (copy) a patented molecule within months. For example, copies of Pfizer's cholesterol drug Lipitor and Bristol-Myers Squibb's popular anticlotting drug Plavix were sold in India within two years of their global introduction. These generic drugs were then exported to markets in Asia and Africa, sometimes a whole decade before their patents expired in the United States.

Multinational drug companies argue that discovering a drug takes many years of painstaking research and, not to mention, huge funding. Such high costs cannot be recovered instantly and generic manufacturers cannot eat into their profits. For example, multinational companies invest 14-18 percent of their sales in research and development (R&D), while Indian companies, barring a few big players, hardly spend more than 2 percent. They say that if the domestic industry wants to look beyond generics, it must significantly increase its R&D spending and come up with new chemical entities and novel drug delivery systems.

The big drug makers in India aren't too worried about competition in the domestic market. Several of them, including Dr. Reddy's and Ranbaxy, earn huge revenue from the international generics market. For instance, in the first nine months of the year, Ranbaxy's revenues in the United States totalled $304 million, or 42 percent of the company's total sales.

But there are other problems in the international market. Dr Reddy's, a leading drug company, is fighting a patent case in the US for its hypertension drug against Pfizer Inc. Ranbaxy, which suffered a blow recently after its AIDS drugs were removed from the WHO approved list, has also said that it wants to become a cutting-edge pharmaceutical research company in its own right. Some Indian companies are gearing up for competition in a different way. They are diversifying their business and finding new revenue outlets. For example, Cipla and Ranbaxy are doing contract research for other pharmaceutical companies.

Moreover, some companies are looking at outsourcing of clinical trials to offset their generic loses. According to reports, German manufacturer Mucos Pharma had approached SIRO Clinpharm to find 750 patients to test a drug for head and neck cancer. In just 18 months, the company had recruited enough volunteers across five hospitals. The same exercise in Europe took double the time across 22 hospitals, and to find just 100 volunteers.

(New Indian Express, January 20, 2005)

DEADLY DIAGNOSIS

Union Minister of Chemicals and Fertilisers Ram Vilas Paswan’s proposal to increase the number of drugs under price control could stifle the industry and affect medicine production

By S S Jeevan and Puja Mehra

Following the floods in Mumbai in July 2005, health centres were frantically looking for an antibiotic, Doxycycline, to deal with the outbreak of a waterborne skin disease called leptospirosis. The medicine, however, was just not available because all drug companies had discontinued production after it was brought under price control in 1995. Doxycycline is not a very expensive drug. After the prices were reduced by about 15-20 per cent, it cost Rs 3 per tablet. So why had the Government put it under price control?

The draft National Pharmaceutical Policy 2006, unveiled by Union Minister of Chemicals and Fertilisers Ram Vilas Paswan on July 1, has left the industry in the cold and consumers searching for answers. The Government intends to increase control over drug prices— adding 354 drugs to the existing 74 in the National List of Essential Medicines. This, the industry believes, will make several of these drugs unviable and ultimately lead to cuts in production. Says Ajit Dangi, director general of the Organisation of Pharmaceutical Producers of India, “This is a retrograde step which can cripple the industry disrupting supply and availability.” Agrees D.G. Shah, secretary-general of the Indian Pharmaceutical Alliance (IPA), and says there could be shortages of essential medicines and lead to emergence of spurious and counterfeit medicines in the long run. And this in turn could lead to importing medicines at expensive prices in the long run. The policy also makes it mandatory for companies to put the maximum retail price (MRP) on every piece of medicine from October 2. “This is to ensure that there is no overcharging at any stage,” says G.S. Sandhu, chief vigilance officer, Department of Chemicals and Petrochemicals. The policy will allow the Government to virtually dictate profit margins—8 per cent for wholesaler and 16 per cent for retailer in the case of price-controlled medicines, and for other drugs, 10 per cent and 20 per cent, respectively.

Analysts predict that the policy will reduce the net profit margins for most companies from the current 9.7 per cent to less than 5 per cent. The industry’s concern is that a cap on profits will dry up funds needed to develop the infrastructure for expanding the generics business (generic drugs are those that are not protected by patents and hence companies can mass produce them at low costs) and funding R&D to develop new drugs. “By expanding the span of price control, the Government will severely impact the sector’s ability to invest in R&D, hurt its competitiveness and retard its expansion in the global generics market,” says Wockhardt Chairman Habil Khorakiwala.

Estimates on the Government’s enhanced control over the affected proportion of the drug market vary. While the Government figures say it will be about 35 per cent, industry experts put it between 50 and 70 per cent. The draft is now being circulated among government departments and will come up for Cabinet approval later this month. Paswan’s proposals have, in fact, come as a bolt from the blue. His ministry was expected to give up its control over drug pricing, as it has done consistently over the past 30 years— from over 400 to just 74 at present. Two government committees had also recommended the same, which had led to the speculation that the list would be further trimmed to just 30 drugs. The trigger for Paswan’s populism appears to be the Supreme Court’s admission of an appeal on essential commodities. By bringing 354 drugs under fresh price control the Government might be successful in making them cheaper by 30-70 per cent, but in the long run this could drive out competition.

The rationale behind the alarming move is unclear. According to a study commissioned by the Indian Pharmaceutical Alliance to ORG-IMS, most of the medicines brought under the latest price control are inexpensive, their prices have remained stable over the last three years in the face of intense competition. “The Government’s focus should be on improving infrastructure rather than killing the spirit of enterprise,” says Satish Reddy, COO, Dr Reddy’s. While Paswan admits that the industry may be unhappy with his policy, he says the measures are justified to bring down the “unjustified” increase in prices of drugs. “Some drugs extract 1,000 times profit, making them out of the reach of poor patients,” he says. The industry counters this. Says Kewal Handa, MD, Pfizer, “Governments in most other countries, including some African nations, bear 50-85 per cent of the healthcare costs. But 85 per cent of Indians pay for their healthcare from their pockets.”

If there’s any consolation for the industry, Paswan has revised the maximum allowable post-manufacturing expenses (MAPE), which are now 100 per cent over manufacturing cost, to 150 per cent in general and 50 per cent additional MAPE for R&D intensive companies. But even here, for the 74 drugs already under price control, MAPE would continue at 100 per cent for another year to prevent any sudden price escalation. And in a move widely welcomed by everyone, prices of anticancer and anti-HIV/AIDS drugs would be totally exempted from Central taxes and drugs that cost Re 1 per tablet would be out of price control.

A drug policy for India can succeed only if it makes medicines affordable and at the same time allows discovery of new drugs. The sector has made it to the top three pharma industries of the world by launching copycat versions of patented drugs at low costs over the last 30 years. This is because the Patents Act, 1972 allowed reverse-engineering of novel drugs under patent, as long as a different process was used. Indian companies now need to develop their own drugs instead of just mass producing cheap copies of those discovered by global majors. This can, however, no longer be the mainstay for the industry as India stepped into the product patent regime on January 1, 2005. But the real growth opportunity in new drug discovery needs heavy doses of investments. Price controls or caps on profit seriously hamper the industry’s ability to spend on R&D. Drug prices in India are among the lowest in the world, even lower than in most developing countries. Citing the example of Poiglitazone, a medicine for diabetes, which costs Rs 4,500 in the US but only Rs 240 here, Khorakiwala says, “Our industry has made prices the most affordable in the world. It has done more to make medicines accessible to wide sections of the Indian population than any government scheme.”

Consumer complaints over the rising unaffordability of some life saving drugs due to the new patents regime may have been at the back of Paswan’s mind during the formulation of the controls- heavy policy. A couple of years ago, the cost of an anti-cancer drug called Gleevec had suddenly jumped from Rs 10,000 to Rs 1,20,000 after a Swiss-based company, Novartis AG, got the exclusive marketing rights to manufacture the drug in India. Such developments will hurt consumers, but India’s commitment to the World Trade Organisation on patents means that they can not be wished away.

Paswan will have to deal with such paradoxes. On one hand, he has to ensure cheap medicines for the poor and on the other he must provide oxygen for the industry to grow and discover new drugs. Controlling prices may lead to shortages, and curtailing profits may sound the death knell for business. Maybe Paswan needs to leapfrog in a patent era and explore alternative mechanisms such as public-private partnerships like drug quotas for poor patients and improve the fundamentals of the healthcare system. Everybody needs to win in this politics of life and death. After all, it is a question of survival.

(India Today, August 7, 2006)
ARE THEY DYING TO SAY SOMETHING?

By S S Jeevan

HOP, skip and jump into extinction. That's what members of the amphibian family — toads, frogs, salamanders and newts — are doing. After dinosaurs, a serious problem of extinction now threatens the amphibian population. From the windswept Rocky mountains of the US to the pristine rainforests of South America; from the cold Andean ranges to the tropical forests of Australia and even temperate Europe, the frog population has been on the decline. And even those who do not look beyond their "bulging eyes, and warts' may have to listen to what the frogs are dying to say.

Reports suggest that, in Costa Rica, 20 frog and toad species — almost half the total — have disappeared over the past five years. In Australia, a frog species that has the potential to cure cancer is affected by a serious skin disease. In the US , one-third of the 230 native amphibian species are on the decline. No continent has been spared. The bad news is yet to come from Asia and Africa only because of the relatively low intensity of research in these two continents. For most of the 250-odd described species of amphibians in south Asia, the biological status is simply unknown.

However, the good news is that not all species are affected. The population of a species threatened in one locality may be thriving elsewhere. The degree of population decline of amphibians also appears to vary from region to region and within different species. Considered "sentinel' species, their permeable skin and ability to live both on land and in water makes amphibians more sensitive to environmental changes than any other species. As tadpoles, they live on water and eat plants, while in the adult stage they live on land and eat insects. Their eggs have no protective shells. Their skin is thin, moist and permeable.

Scientists believe that they are useful indicators of environment quality and the changes that are taking place in the natural world. Thus, the decline in amphibian population could be a precursor for what is going to befall humans, too. Moreover, members of the amphibian family are an important part of the food chain. "They form an essential part of the diet of many animals, such as snakes and birds, which, in turn, form the diet of other animals,' says Michael Tyler, a researcher at the University of Adelaide, Australia.

Why are frogs dying? Scientists have zeroed in on three reasons that may be responsible for the amphibians dying — infectious diseases, chemical pollution and increased ultraviolet ( UV ) radiation (resulting from the thinning of the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere). Besides these three reasons, some scientists also blame trade in endangered amphibians, acidification of the Earth's atmosphere and deforestation for the decline.
INFECTION: It is well-known that bacteria and viruses infect amphibians. But what has startled researchers is that a fungus is killing frogs. When microbiologists analysed some dead frogs, collected from Panama in the US and Queensland in Australia, they found that a new strain of fungus was responsible in both instances. The fungus covers the frog's skin, through which respiration takes place, then suffocates them to death.
UV RADIATION: In temperate regions, such as north America and Europe, UV radiation from the Sun has been reaching the Earth's surface during the spring spawning season. This is because of the destruction of the protective ozone layer in the atmosphere due to the use of chlorofloro carbons ( CFC s) and other human-made chemicals. Researchers at Oregon State University, USA , feel that UV radiation is affecting the eggs that amphibians lay in the shallow waters of lakes and ponds. In an experiment, the researchers shielded some salamander eggs against UV rays and exposed other eggs to normal sunlight. They found that the former hatched successfully, while the latter failed to hatch or produced deformed salamanders.
PESTICIDES AND FUNGISIDES: Many researchers believe that increasing use of pesticides and fungicides may be responsible for frog deaths. Spraying of pesticides not only poisons frogs directly, it also wipes out their food supply. Amphibians are known to be susceptible to at least 211 different pollutants. Organophosphorus insecticides, like malathion, are known to disturb the frog's development, distorting the growth of their limbs at the egg and tadpole stages. Frog deformities — such as multiple or missing limbs and body abnormalities — because of unchecked use of chemicals have already been reported in many areas in the US.

Donella H Meadows, professor of environmental studies at the UK -based Dartmouth College says that a Canadian researcher reported that along the St Lawrence valley fewer than two per cent of frogs in ponds that were away from any pesticide use had deformities. While 20 per cent frogs from ponds near areas of heavy pesticide use displayed defects, in one pond it was 100 per cent. Researchers in Switzerland have exposed developing frog eggs to the pesticide triphenyltin and have found deformities similar to some seen in the ponds.

Researchers at the US -based Scripps Research Institute say that S -methoprene, a popular ingredient in mosquito sprays and flea powders, breaks down into retinoids, which are known to cause birth defects not only in frogs but among humans. As this spray kills insects and interrupts their pupation it is bound to affect the development of embryos. Australia has banned the use of the weedkiller Roundup (gylphosate) around ponds and streams because of its effect on tadpoles and frogs. The problem does not seem to be the gylphosate itself, but an "inert ingredient' added to make the herbicide stick better to leaves.

GLOBAL TRADE: Uncontrolled international trade in amphibians is also threatening several species. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora ( CITES ) or the Washington Convention, the main tool to control trade in wild species internationally, has already banned trade in two amphibian species — Hoplobatrachus tigerinus and Euphlyctis hexadactylus . This ban may help save the two species, but may drive many other species to the brink of extinction.
ACIDIFICATION: Another anthropogenic disturbance that is suspected to have a negative effect on amphibian populations is acidification. Widely reported in the industrialised nations, this is happening because of increasing sulphur dioxide ( SO 2 ) and nitrogen dioxide ( NO 2 ) emissions. SO 2 (in the presence of sunlight) and NO 2 reacts with water vapour to form sulphuric and nitric acids. The rain, contaminated with these acids, affects flora and fauna, both on land and water, adversely.

"All amphibian biologists are now convinced that something catastrophic is happening to amphibians,' says Ronald Heyer, chairperson of the declining amphibian populations task force, an international network of more than 1,000 scientists. "In the US alone, around US $8 million is needed to monitor and research amphibians,' says Bruce Babbitt, interior secretary, USA . "Since the scope of the problem is global, other countries need to fund similar research and conservation efforts,' says Heyer. In the UK, attempts are being made to save the last-known surviving male pool frog. The frog is being encouraged to breed with nine female frogs flown in from Sweden. The Swedish frogs have been chosen because of their close genetic makeup to the British variety.

Frogs are important particularly for a country such as India, where the agricultural sector plays a vital role in the economy. They devour pests which pose a threat to crops and prevent the spread of vector-borne diseases like malaria because they consume parasites responsible for the disease. An adult frog devours its own weight of insects daily. Thus, if its population goes down, the insect population goes up. The extinction of frogs, on the one hand, means increasing the use of pesticides which is not only bad for agriculture in the long run, but poses a serious health hazard to all living organisms. On the other hand, the decline in amphibian population also means spread of diseases like malaria.

According to experts at the Bombay Natural History Society, in many parts of western Maharashtra, crops have been badly hit by proliferating insects as a result of large-scale slaughter of frogs. The Zoological Survey of India has also reported an increase in malaria in rural areas of West Bengal where 50 per cent of the frogs destined for export are captured. In India, trapping for export of frog legs poses a major threat (see box: With love, from India). However, not much is known about the commonest species of amphibians found in India. So far, 210 amphibian species are said to exist in India, making it one of the world's leading frog habitat. Most of these are said to be thriving in the Western Ghats, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the foothills of the Himalaya and the northeast. Worldwide, there are 53 species of amphibians listed in the endangered category, of which three are in India.

It is predicted that the number of amphibian species found in India will increase many fold if systematic studies are carried out. For instance, in Sri Lanka, Kelum Manamandra-Arachchi and Rohan Pethiyagoda of the Sri Lanka Wildlife Heritage Trust demonstrated — using both traditional morphological and acoustic data and molecular techniques — that the fauna includes over 250 species, a far cry from the 55 species listed till then. In the Indian context, over-extraction of groundwater for human use, which can dry up or decrease levels of water in ponds during summer and destruction of forests has led to either complete loss of forests or their fragmentation. This could isolate amphibian populations, and relegate them in smaller sub-populations that may no longer be genetically viable. Besides, certain forestry practices such as removal of leaf litter may also be working against biodiversity conservation.

So what impedes the acquisition of this information in India? What is rarer than amphibian species are people who can identify them. The science, called systematic, which deals with relationships between and within species, is not taught in India, and nearly all systematicists are self-taught. This explains why data on amphibians is still very sparse. Even the most comprehensive collections of India, such as those of the Zoological Survey of India and the Bombay Natural History Museum, do not have close to half of India's described amphibian species.

Several frog and toad species are known only from the original description, and no effort has been made to find these species since. It is possible that some of these species are common and widespread, but status information is generally unavailable. Data collection has been for the most part not with the view of providing quantitative information — rather, they are subjective evaluations of abundance. Today, one can only assume that amphibians native to India may also be facing what its brethrens elsewhere are going through. In ancient times, frogs were believed to be harbingers of prosperity and plentiful rains. This belief will get eroded along with their disappearance. And the extermination of frogs could well spell doom for the entire human society.

(Published in Down To Earth, May, 1999)

SNAPSHOTS OF INDIA'S ENVIRONMENT

Had our forest policy not been so pathetic, Veerappan may have never happened. Behind every asthma patient in our polluted cities, there is a clueless administration unable to check air quality. Behind every case of pollution, water crisis, species extinction or even farmer deaths, the hand of the government is unmistakable. At the heart of the problem is India’s environment policies that suffer from a colonial hangover. They are horribly out of tune with the changing times. Paradoxically, they have come as a handy tool for the corrupt to abuse the environment. In some cases, a legitimate demand has become an unlawful act. As we celebrate World Environment Day on June 5, here are a few snapshots of things gone wrong.

BLAME IT ON PAYAL
When Payal Singh saw noxious fumes belching out of her brand new Santro, she was about to cry. She rushed angrily to the company’s office in Faridabad only to find that she was not the only one. Worse still, Maruti’s office in the same area had received similar complaints about their cars. It turns out that Payal’s problem, just like others, has its genesis at a makeshift garage located on the road to Faridabad. Here tankers from public sector oil companies stop over for a ‘quick refuel’ before they reach their respective gas stations. In a matter of a few minutes, hundreds of litres of petrol/diesel are pilfered and replaced with kerosene, cheap dry cleaning solvents or aromatics. The car company says the culprit is adulterated fuel. When Payal confronts oil companies, she is rudely told that their responsibility ends when the tankers leave the company gates. The fuel station owner says he cannot be held responsible for poor fuel quality. And the hoodlums at the garage are just part of a large network of fuel adulterators that exist all over the country. She dare not take on this well-connected dangerous cartel. Whether she likes it or not, the poisonous fumes emanating out of cars such as Payal’s, make Indian cities the most polluted in the world. Now shall we make Payal our scapegoat and blame her for the foul air we breathe?

PROBLEM MINE
Mining is a profitable business. But can mining be done in an environmentally sensitive area? Yes. Ask the criminal-politician nexus in Madhya Pradesh. Four years ago, the Supreme Court sent an expert team to investigate illegal mining near the reserved forest of Madhav National Park. The findings were so shocking that ‘several parts of the report were read in silence lest it shocked the court room’. Here’s what the team found. The law requires an environment impact assessment (EIA) and an environment management plan (EMP) for mining above five hectares of land. The MP government amended its Minor Mineral Rules in 1997 apparently ‘to allow poor people to mine’ in land holding that were less than five hectares in area. However, the team found that the real beneficiaries were only rich contractors. The team also found that in contravention of the rules, each contractor had more than 100 hectares of land under his control. How? The government had issued multiple leases to same contractor, with each lease giving permission to mine within five hectares. None of which would require an EIA or EMP. Howzzzat?

SCANDAL WOOD
Imagine this. You cannot grow a tree that can fetch you lakhs of rupees in the international market. You could land up in jail if you sell the tree, even if it’s growing in your backyard. That’s the strange story of sandalwood in India. And also the secret behind the success of forest brigand Veerappan, who has smuggled sandalwood worth more than Rs 100 crore. (Not to mention the Rs 300 crore governments have spent to nab him.) In many ways, Veerappan is the creation of India’s forest policy. A policy that forbids people to trade in a tree that will instantly make them rich. In the forests where Veerappan’s writ runs large, this law has alienated local people. That’s the reason why poor villagers are willing to become Veerappan’s foot soldiers because they stand to benefit from his illegal trade. Without this law, there wouldn’t be a Veerappan. A direct fallout of this archaic policy has been the loss of foreign exchange. Despite India’s huge potential for sandalwood trade, Malaysia and Thailand are today market leaders in Asia. ‘Why should I protect a tree if it is being culled by smugglers and why shouldn’t I assist Veerappan,’ asks Murugan, a villager in Satyamangalam forest. Even the forest bureaucracy will be at a loss to reply to Murugan.

NUCLEAR PUZZLE

Irony doesn’t get any more ironic. Nuclear power technologies are obsolete, environmentally hazardous and prohibitive. So it is not surprising why most European countries including Germany, England and Sweden are phasing out nuclear power. But India has warmly embraced it. There are close to 14 projects underway in different parts of the country. And these wherever the projects are located, they have been greeted with protests by local people who fear radiation. Recently, the Supreme Court was shown studies that allege that some 50,000 people in Jaduguda are at risk, many suffering from genetic deformities. At other places, people have demanded compensation for relocation. For example, in Jharkhand’s East Singhbhum district, irate villagers have stopped officials from mining uranium in their area. The problems don’t end there. New technology is becoming impossible to get as most countries have decommissioned their reactors. And to top it all, uranium stocks have almost run out in the country. So why is the Indian government persisting with nuclear power when it constitutes just 2 percent of the country’s power generation? There are no clear answers to this one.

PEST ATTACK
Don’t make the mistake of uttering the slogan ‘India Shining’ to Subbaiah. He will knock your head and throw you out of his house. Most of Subbaiah’s friends have committed suicide. But that’s not an unusual phenomenon in the parched district of Warangal in Andhra Pradesh. Subbaiah is a farmer who believed pesticides were supposed to kill pests, not farmers. His friends consumed the pesticide to end their lives ruined by debts and crop failure. He can barely pronounce Methomyl, a highly poisonous pesticide banned in many countries but used freely in the state. ‘How am I supposed to know that it should not be used,’ he asks. Subbaiah is right. There are almost 13,000 retailers in Warangal district alone selling pesticides manufactured by some 93 companies. With very little information and awareness about their usage, indiscriminate use of pesticides is leading to crop failures and environmental nightmares. Subbaiah’s problem can be squarely placed at the doorsteps of the Central Insecticides Board, whose job is to certify and monitor pesticides. Under the rules, once a pesticide is certified and enters the market, there is no mechanism to either recall or ban it. So whether it is Methomyl in Andhra or the dreaded Endosulfan in Kerala, farmers like Subbaiah will continue to live dangerously.

FREE TRADE
Mohammed Gaine, a resident of Jammu & Kashmir, doesn’t consider himself an outlaw. He thinks it’s his birthright to weave and sell the banned Shahtoosh shawls. (A single shawl can fetch Rs 75,000 in the illegal market.) ‘Weaving Shahtoosh is a tradition that goes back to more than 600 years,’ says Gaine. Many environmentalists disagree. They argue that its wool comes from the endangered Chiru (only 70,000 are left in the world) and India is signatory to an international convention that bans trade in Shahtoosh. Gaine says that there are thousands of weavers like him whose livelihoods depend on Shahtoosh shawls. ‘What happens to us? Why doesn’t the government encourage captive breeding of the animal and legalise the trade.’ ‘That way weavers would have a selfish interest in the survival of the animal and the Chiru population could well increase,’ he adds. Gaine may have a point. A strict ban may make the trade even more secretive and lead to the quick extinction of the chiru. And that’s not what environmentalists as well as Gaine would want. Would they?

PASSING THE MUCK

As the Americans gets paranoid about losing their jobs to Indians, here is a different perspective on outsourcing in the Indian context. Image-conscious automobile companies will flash ISO 14001 certificates whenever they are asked to prove their green credentials. Sure, going by their proven track record it will be hard to pin them down. But a close scrutiny reveals a different picture altogether. Of the 15,000 parts that go to make a vehicle, over 80 percent is outsourced to the small-scale sector. Companies conveniently shift these polluting processes to keep their backyard clean. And the result: 80 percent of pollution is generated at the vendors’ site and only 20 percent at the automakers’ production plant. Little wonder then that the small-scale sector is always at the receiving end of environmentalists. And even the small-scale sector, which employs about 20 million people, has managed to manipulate the system. Small-scale industries get benefits from the government as long as they continue to remain small. Government policy discourages them to move towards medium or large sector, where they can invest on the pollution control technologies and better resource utilisation. So it is common to find one entrepreneur owning 8-10 small industries under different names just to get the subsidy. Welcome to the pollution chain.

BUSINESS SENSE
Tirupur sits on a huge paradox. On one hand it is the biggest export success story of India. And on the other, it is home to an ecological nightmare. This sleepy town in Tamil Nadu has grown rapidly in the past few decades. Textile exports have been increasing, and traders are confident of overcoming the Chinese scare as the quota regime is dismantled. But over the years, the water-intensive industry has sucked every drop of groundwater in the region. To make matters worse, the Noyyal river is nothing but a sewer with effluents being dumped indiscriminately. And industrial waste is piling up all around the town. As the demand for water increases, several private firms are getting water from nearby towns and a huge private initiative is underway. Tirupur has many lessons to offer. With the government doing little to improve infrastructure, the industry’s investments have increased drastically. Unplanned industrialisation can become a threat not only to local people but also to the survival of the industry. Now many foreign clients are checking on environmental performances to do business with these companies. As they say, sound environmental policies always make for good economics. A lesson Tirupur’s entrepreneurs are learning the hard way.

(New Indian Express May 30, 2004)

M S SWAMINATHAN: Our future depends on agriculture

Only three Indians find a place in TIME magazine's 20 most influential Asians of the 20th century. Professor M S Swaminathan is one of them. The other two being Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore. A plant geneticist by training, Professor Swaminathan is considered the architect of the Green Revolution. His advocacy of sustainable agriculture leading to an ever-green revolution makes him an acknowledged world leader in the field of sustainable food security.

Professor Swaminathan has won many awards including the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership in 1971, the Albert Einstein World Science Award in 1986, and the first World Food Prize in 1987. Recently, the Union government appointed him as the head of the National Commission on Farmers.


Excerpts from an exclusive interview:

How big is the crisis facing Indian agriculture?
The nature of crisis varies from region to region. In the dry farming areas, there is a crisis of water and high rates of interest from money lenders. These farmers are not perceived to be credit worthy under the present system. Indian agriculture is in a crisis because the second and third generational problems were not addressed to the extent they should have been. Academicians and politicians knew these problems all along. But in the quest for urban boom, agriculture was not given adequate attention.

Is the situation changing?
Today there is widespread appreciation that farmers were bypassed in our nation's road to progress. We can ignore these people only at our peril ‘not just for food security, but also for the security of the country at large. For example, the recruits for the People's War Group in Andhra Pradesh are mainly poor and unemployed youth. We have to realise that there is a cry for change and attention, which we have to recognise without any delay.

What are the factors responsible for farmers committing suicide?
This can be due to many reasons. We will have to analyse each case separately. Many studies indicate that several of these suicides were related to debt burden and a sense of hopelessness.

What do you think went wrong since the Green Revolution?
Green Revolution was a term coined in 1968 when we achieved a quantum jump in food production. For the first time in the 1970s and 1980s, our growth rate of food production went above the population growth rate. But the challenge now is to look for ways that will sustain, deepen and expand this revolution. We must also look at the problems of ecology and work towards an ever-green revolution.
We have no more land available for agriculture. Therefore, we must produce more and more from less land and even less water. We must also extend the benefits of the ever-green revolution to dry areas, hill areas and coastal areas. (Nearly 20 per cent of our population lives in coastal areas.)
Farmers need three things: credit, water, and assured market. Depending upon how well these three pillars are developed, the nature of crisis will be circumscribed by these parameters. We must address these issues with the farmers. If we listen to them, we will understand that they know the problems and they will also tell you the solution.

Have farm subsidies contributed to this crisis?
I don't think so. A major portion of subsidy goes to fertiliser and food. Today the agricultural sector is crying for investment. I am not in favour of any perverse subsidy, but I will not recommend that we must take away the money meant for agriculture. Suppose I have to give Rs 200 crores for free electricity, I will use that money for constructing roads and godowns in rural areas and improve trade literacy and marketing infrastructure. Many things can be done with the same amounts of money. We must remove subsidy and divert the money to need-based services, which may vary from region to region.

What would you suggest to the government about subsidy?
The policy of appeasement like free electricity to farmers is adding to the problem. This policy will be detrimental to our future generations. It is just not sustainable. Of course, some subsidy may be needed -- like in the dry farming areas of Rajasthan where farmers are not able to pay for electricity. So there is a difference between trade-distorting subsidy or ecology-distorting subsidy and life-supporting subsidy. What we need is a life-supporting subsidy. This could be in the form of insurance -- both for the farmer as well as for his crops. Life insurance for farmers must be subsidised because only the private health sector is growing today. The public health system is breaking down. And health cost is going up in this country. Therefore, we must work towards low-transaction, corruption-free credit system, which is linked to health and crop insurance. Already a beginning has been made in the form of Kisan Cards and the SBI Life. This is the first step. But we must deepen and widen it.

We need to also think of a long-term policy because 50 per cent of our population is below 21 and over 70 per cent of them live in rural areas. Do we want them to migrate to town and urban slums? Or should we create infrastructure for them to take up farm and non-farm employment in the rural areas?

How critical is the water situation in India?
Exactly 60 years ago, I joined the Agricultural College in Coimbatore. At that time we were alarmed that the water table was going down to 10-15 metres. But now it has gone down to 1,000 metres. How much can we keep digging? When I was in the Planning Commission in 1980, I along with Manmohan Singh and Mohammed Fazal made water as the first priority in the Sixth Five Year Plan. But over the years, more and more irrigation has come under groundwater and our policy of free electricity has sucked every drop.

What policy changes would you prescribe to reverse the paradox of food insecurity amidst plenty?
We have come to a stage where we can have a food guarantee scheme. My concept is a combination of employment guarantee and food for work. The Maharashtra employment generation scheme is a good model. Food as a currency is very powerful because the needy can get food for their stomachs and farmers can market more if they produce more. The paradox of poverty amid plenty can be done away with imaginative food guarantee schemes. I hope that by August 15, 2007, when we complete 60 years of Independence, we will overcome this paradox.

Do you think it is time to take a re-look at pesticides?

The Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) -- set up after the Centre for Science and Environment found pesticides in soft drinks -- has clearly recommended that we must look at our standards for pesticides in food and drinking water. We still use pesticides that have long-term residual toxicity. This is affecting our food chain. I hope the government will start looking at the recommendations of the JPC and take follow up action. We must not just revise standards, but we also set up more monitoring laboratories.

Do you think enough efforts have gone into what you call "monsoon management"?

I think we have not been pro-active. For some reason our agricultural administration has remained very archaic. Monsoon management means alternative cropping system. The Tamil Nadu Agricultural University has come up with alternative crops depending on water availability. But what's the use of having these models only on paper. These must be put to use.
We must have a system of administration that is highly professional. But we hear about officers being transferred almost every other day. For example, an agricultural commissioner is suddenly transferred to a museum. In a country like China, even cabinet ministers are thorough professionals. In fact, two Chinese ministers have been awarded the World Food Prize. We need such professionalism. Unfortunately we have a system of administration where generalists are occupying technical posts.
We must also look at agricultural management, of which monsoon management is an integral part. I suggest that we train a male and female member of every panchayat as monsoon managers.

What steps do you think we must take to bridge the numerous divides that exist in India?
If we can bridge the agricultural divide in a country where 70 percent people live in rural areas, then we would be closer to bridging the nutritional, gender, technological and digital divides. We must simplify our rules on radio so that every community or panchayat can have its own radio. This will go a long way in making information location-specific and in giving market and trade-related news.

What safeguards would you prescribe as we experiment with biotechnology?
The reason why the Americans are not afraid of genetically modified (GM) food is that they have immense faith in their Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environment Protection Agency (EPA). If someone falls sick as a result of consuming GM corn, the fine is US $2-3 billion in the courts. We have recommended a national biotechnology regulatory authority that is professionally managed. We must work towards regulatory mechanisms that people can trust.
It is wrong to condemn or decry a new technology. We must study the use of the technology case by case. There cannot be any generalisations. We have recommended that the health and environmental safety must be the bottom line for any food security system.

What does the India's agricultural future look like?
The Green Revolution gave us self-confidence. Now we must shape our agricultural destiny. Because our future will depend on agriculture.

(New Indian Express, June 27, 2004)