Sunday, May 24, 2015

Agriculture, inequality and poverty in India - problems with the Green Revolution

I just read two papers about the plight of farmers in India and nutrition. The first is in the magazine Down to Earth, called "Why Marathwada is becoming a graveyard for farmers". The second is not open access, but published in the journal Public Health. Its title is "Modern agriculture and food and nutrition insecurity: paradox in India". The second is scholarly, the first gives it a human face, starting by describing an indebted farmer who uses pesticide to commit suicide.
There are many interacting, interlocking factors that underlie India's poverty; some of them agricultural, some of them social. For example, the farmer who consumed the pesticide in had "borrowed Rs 60,000 from a government-owned bank and Rs 150,000 from a private moneylender. " The interest rate from the moneylender is likely to be usurious - even from microcredit schemes in India etc it is often very high (even after adjusting for inflation).
The article would be strengthened by listing the interest rates.

Poor farmers are really vulnerable. There is an enormous asymmetry between them and those who are able to exploit him, such as the moneylenders. This asymmetry is not only of wealth, income, education and health, but also of information.

The part of Maharashtra discussed in this report relies mostly on rain and has been traditionally prone to droughts. Another factor in the poverty there is population pressure, which forces people to try to make a living on less agriculturally favoured areas. Yet another factor is cultural identified in the article: "They cannot take the humiliation of not being able to pay the debt or meet social obligations" - social pressure is important .. this is a cultural cause, not an agricultural cause.

Population pressure and a failure to protect the commons is also shown by the failure sufficient water.  The dam water goes preferentially to industry. Water in upstream dams are not released - this is a significant failure of governance, and a good example of the "Matthew effect" ("he who has gets"). It's a good but sad analysis - and with another El Niño declared it looks like it will get worse, at least in the next year.

Problems with the Green Revolution

The second paper is a more formal documentation of the limited evidence described in the first, from a poor part of Maharashtra. It shows how the "Green Revolution" (modern agricultural practices with high yielding seeds, intensive fertiliser and irrigation) has failed to deliver nutrition and other forms of security to the poor and vulnerable in India. The Green Revolution transformed India from a land of famines (including after it obtained freedom from British colonisation) to a net food exporter within 25 years, despite continued high population growth.  However, the paradox is that a considerable proportion of the Indian population, especially in the North, remain undernourished: surveys conducted in 2005-06 found 38% of children less than five were stunted -- with consequent cognitive impairment.

The paper in fact argues that Indian inequality has increased. Though no convincing statistical evidence of this is provided it is a reasonable assertion; in any case poverty and undernutrition (which the authors correctly attribute in part to poor health services and poor hygiene) remain at levels that should be unacceptable in a society that is more or less well governed. India (at least in its north) clearly is still not well-governed.

The paper also argues that uncritical government advocacy favoured three major cereals (rice, wheat, maize), but neglected traditional and nutritionally valuable crops including sorghum, millets, and pulses. The reduction in pulse consumption places the poor at risk of critical amino acid scarcity.

Furthermore, the reduction in (nitrogen-fixing) legume crops (especially in rotation with the main grains) has increased the demand for nitrogenous fertiliser. A combination of factors has led to aquifer depletion and soil deterioration including salinity. To this must be added high population growth (especially in the north). These are exemplify the concept that what Hardin termed as a "tragedy of the commons". (For example, if the groundwater is dropping and I fear my neighbour is taking more than his or her share, and if there is no over-lying sanction or custom to reduce my own use of the groundwater then it seems in my interest to act the same as my neighbour.) What lies ahead for India?

The authors conclude that it is vital for the new agricultural paradigm to be made truly more pro-people, including by addressing issues of poverty, gender, livelihood and environment. This cannot happen automatically without supportive government policies.

I would add that it also requires policies and a mindset far broader than most people conceive as "agriculture" - such as rural education and greater fairness in the application of laws and rules, with less discrimination against minorities and the poor.

The World Scientist’s Warning to Humanity

I leave the last word to Norman Borlaug, awarded the 1970 Nobel Prize for his role in the delivering the Green Revolution. Unlike many agricultural economists, including those who framed various world hunger targets, Borlaug and many other Nobel Laureates (including over half of those then alive) who signed the World Scientist’s Warning to Humanity. The text of this warning, one of whose signatories was Norman Borlaug, expresses far less optimism about the future than cornucopians like Bjorn Lomborg would like to believe.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Sending funds to individuals in India: reflections on life in a call centre

For the last 18 months I have been helping to support a young university student in Kolkata, India. I used World Remit, every month, to send a modest amount to the student's Indian bank account. It always worked (somewhat to my surprise) until three weeks ago. After about 10 phone calls and emails (cumulatively about half a day) World Remit eventually conceded they had indeed made an error though it is “very rare”. They promised to refund me.

In the meantime, having lost confidence in World Remit, I tried another company - called Moneygram. I bargained that I would be very unlucky to have two failures in the same month. But that is exactly what happened - though this time for another reason. Alas, the student wrote to me:

“I am really sorry I have not got the money..whole day I have been going from one money gram to another, I have been to 16 money gram but none have given me the money... All of them told me if the sender is foreigner then they will be not able to pay the money...Foreigner cannot send the money through Western union as well as money gram.. The sender should be Indian origin only then they can pay..

So, upset, I called a Moneygram representative. I imagine he was (and still is) sitting in a dismal call centre (as were and are the numerous World Remit and also Visa card people I have contacted in the last week). The representative told me that all 16 agents in Kolkata seen by the student are wrong. He suggested that I advise my intended recipient to go back to one of them and ask them to phone Moneygram. But my recipient is from an ethnic minority, she faces discrimination, she is also female and very young. I think few if any agents in Kolkata are going to go to this trouble to phone Moneygram when they “know” the answer.

I was also upset that the Moneygram person I phoned showed no empathy and did not apologise for the trouble that the student had incurred. But I am more upset with the company - don't they encourage their representatives to be sympathetic? Perhaps not. Or perhaps they do and the reality of life in call centre is scarcely bearable.

Is this the fault with Moneygram or the agents in Kolkata? It's hard to believe that all 16 could be wrong (it's upsetting too that the student tried so hard -- I put that down to youth and inexperience.)

Given the urgency for the student, and given that World Remit promised to refund me I tried them again - third time lucky I hope, with the funds going direct to her bank account. 

This worked, and I eventually recovered two refunds (minus Moneygram's charge).

The situation has improved greatly - I have much worse stories from two decades ago, including the loss of A$2000 (the Indian bank claimed to have not received it). But it is still far from ideal.

Inequality in the Anthropocene

I just watched an excellent lecture by Prof Will Steffen on the Earth system and the Anthropocene. It inspired me to write a brief blog post for BODHI US. But I got a bit carried away and called it "Health in the Anthropocene", by mistake (a topic I have written much about just the same, and is a working title for a third edited book).
Despite Will's claim that the Earth system community now includes humans in it, I think the social science community can and should go much further to collaborate and integrate the two (as Tony McMichael, Jane Dixon and I recently argued in the journal Public Health). Will speaks of a recent cover story in National Geographic called the War on Science. (Mind you, I would not include anti-GMO as an example - given for example, the recent classification of glyphosate ("round up") as a probable carcinogen. Will also speaks strongly about rising inequality, including praising Thomas Picketty's book, Capital in the 21st Century. (See this excellent review of that by Paul Krugman.)

I would go further: rising human inequality is a response (and a cause) of the changing Earth System – albeit dysfunctional. It is a response because, as resources per person diminish, those with the greatest economic power claim more, in order to preserve their lifestyle. It is also a driver because elites fear that a more sustainable economy will harm their own lifestyle. Thus, elites maintain there are no "limits to growth", there is no planetary emergency, and act to undermine sustainable and equitable policies.

This is a simplification, but my PhD thesis (published 2002) was called Inequality and Sustainability. I have mostly written about the second aspect of this argument (that elites exercise too much control on the Human Titanic), eg "Inequality, Global Change and the Sustainability of Civilisation". For several years I have been making the argument about the first part, too, though I have yet published much on this idea. There is a third reason for rising inequality, well expressed by Professor Robert Wade in his paper called On the causes of increasing world poverty and inequality, or why the Matthew effect prevails. Essentially, s(he) who has gets - elites rig the system to increase their advantage. Unfortunately, I cannot find an open access version of this paper to link to.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The tightening fortress world; too much "fend" not "enough "glue"

This is the original (longer) version of an editorial in BODHI Times 48, the newsletter of the NGO I co-founded in 1989.

I recently watched and listened to a British programme starring Jacques Peretti called “The super rich and us”. It’s very good, though I think it’s a bit too simple to say that the concerted attempts to rig the economic system started only in the last ten years, leading to the global financial crisis. I think it can be traced much earlier, since the events which led to ascent of Mrs Thatcher in the UK and President Reagan in the US. The theme of this two hour long documentary is depressing. It’s consistent with with my PhD thesis, completed in 2002, called “Inequality and Sustainability”, in which I likened civilisation to the Titanic, destined to sink after colliding with the iceberg, in part because of the recklessness of those living on its upper decks, those who hold the greatest political and economic power, prepared to take great risks, especially with the lives of others. Speaking of the Titanic, there are claims that it was not the Titanic that sank, but that its sister ship the Olympic was deliberately sacrificed in an insurance fraud. One review of a book about that, is, however scathing.

I haven’t been able examine recent economic data in the way I did in my doctoral thesis, when I found a marked rise in global income inequality between 1960 and 2000. There is considerable evidence that the inequality I documented then has gotten worse, such as from the French economist Thomas Piketty and a very positive review of his bookCapital in the Twenty-First Century” by Nobel Laureate in Economics Paul Krugman. Another form of evidence is the rise of the “precariat”, a term popularised by Guy Standing, who used to work for the International Labour Organisation of the UN. For example, there is now an increasing number of people paid to work on freelance “microjobs”, some of which offer paid employment lasting only for an hour. Peretti interviews an entrepreneur who set up a website called “people per hour” – this person said on camera that he supports a world with no minimum wage, and no safety net. The documentary claims there are up to two million such freelancers in Britain alone.

A third line of evidence of growing global inequality is the increasingly strident calls and support for a “fortress” or “enclave” world. Australia has for years now aggressively repelled asylum seekers, people who, under an international treaty, ratified by Australia, are legally entitled to seek refuge in the “lucky country”. Thailand (which has not ratified this convention) has long treated Rohingyas fleeing poverty and persecution in Myanmar by boat even worse. In May 2015, Indonesia and Malaysia joined with Thailand (and Australia) in denying refuge to a reported 8000 desperate people from Mynamar and –reportedly – Bangladesh, seeking landfall. No one wants these people. In the last two years, perhaps a million people have fled poverty, war and misery in Africa and the Middle East, seeking safety and opportunities in Europe. Joseph Chamie, the former Director of the U.N. Population Department, is stated as believing that there are at least 50 million "illegal" or "undocumented" migrants in the world today. (I met Joseph in 2011, when we were both speakers at a meeting hosted by the Foundation for the Future, in Seattle, to mark “7 billion day”. I found him unusually sympathetic to my “carrying capacity” arguments.) 

In response to the growing pressure on its borders, Europe is inevitably going to try to make it harder for people to enter, to increase its “fend” signal. I don't fully disagree with this, though the extent of cruelty that Australians and others are collectively capable of to people it locks out of the fortress approaches that of a totalitarian state. What upsets me more is that there is far too little thought to how to enhance the“glue” determinant of migration, including by reducing inequality and slowing the pace of climate change. For millions of people in Africa, the Middle East and Myanmar it already seems too late. Even if that is the case, targeted aid can give hope, and slow the rate at which things are now clearly deteriorating.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Reflections on my five minutes in court (protesting Earth poisoning)

On March 12, 2015 I faced the magistrate in a courtroom in Sydney, at the Downing Centre. My original maximum penalty was 7 years in jail, and the NSW police charge sheet also stated that the Maules Ck coal mine (Whitehaven) would be paid at least $40,000 by me to compensate their loss from me delaying two trucks, each carrying about 40 tonnes of coal, for 50 minutes. This charge was reduced to one with a maximum penalty of two years in jail, and a maximum fine of $5,500. There was no further mention of the $40,000.

The magistrate, more familiar with drug offenders, appeared to have not heard of civil disobedience in defence of the public good, in this case avoiding dangerous, even catastrophic climate change. If she had any sympathy to the concept of civil disobedience, she was not letting on.

I did not read my planned statement (which included a mention of written warnings to coal companies issued several years ago by some of Australia's most senior climate scientists). If I had tried it would have risked extreme irritation. She seemed irritated enough! She was very business-like. I thought she was quite skilful and even compassionate towards some of the people who appeared before her, especially the drug dealers and drunken drivers who represented themselves. But I don't think she had much experience with political protesters.

In the end I was found guilty, but no sentence was recorded. This may have been helped by the three character references I had, but that was hard to tell, as it was all so quick she could only have skimmed them. She mis-read my date of birth by 20 years (younger!)

I was given a two year good behaviour bond. I was not fined, I only paid modest court costs. I am very grateful to my Environmental Defenders' Office lawyer.

Three days after my five minutes of magistrate attention, I attended the iDEA meeting, the student-run meeting of Drs for the Environment, Australia. During it, a NSW politician called Rob Stokes spoke, in defence of coal exports. He claimed that Australians need to sell coal to promote India's development. 

I wanted to tell him about the NSW police, and also to state that India does not need Australian coal; they have their own, or can buy it from Indonesia etc. The true motive for Australian coal sellers is profit, and it is immoral. Alas, the chair seemed to choose to not to give me this chance to speak. I rather think she thought my remarks might introduce unnecessary rancour at a public forum. But I think she was too deferential.

Meantime, Australia's coal frenzy deepens and worsens, and so does the likelihood of stranded assets. The Guardian has taken to calling this Australia's carbon bomb. David Pratt's new report on the illusion that 2 degrees of warming is safe, called "Recount: It's time to do the math again" makes me feel very glad I took my stand - but at the same time it's not enough. Yet, given the aggression of the state, how can I recommend what I did to others?

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Development, inequality and co-operation: reflections, including on climate change

This paper was prepared for a meeting held in New Delhi in April 2015, called “Research and education for rural development and food security to build resilient rural environments: Australian and Indian perspectives. It was organised by the Australian India council, the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, the NGO Pradan and the Ambedkar University of Delhi.

Here is the early version. I will add some links if I get time. The slides, however, are available here.


This paper argues that, despite considerable rhetoric to the contrary, privileged populations have long undermined “development”, in several ways and scales. The degree of this erosion of development has arguably increased in recent decades, although there are countering trends, especially the spread and declining cost of communication technologies including mobile phones, the internet and now social media.

Aid has become unfashionable, and many attempts to increase fairness have instead been denigrated, with language such as the “politics of envy”. Arguments that it is in the rational self-interest of societies and indeed of the whole world to become more equal have also had little effect, despite phenomena such as the September 11 attacks and the rise of the Islamic State, which now attracts violent idealists from many countries.

Finally, this paper argues that anthropogenic climate change is a manifestation of global inequality, which, unless addressed, is likely to not only make inequality worse, but even to threaten the fabric of global civilization, in combination with other stresses that reflect aspects of “planetary overload”.

Neoliberalism and shift away from global development

In 1969 representatives of most “developed” capitalist countries participating in the Pearson Commission on International Development agreed to raise their levels of overseas aid to 0.7% of gross national product. During the height of the Cold War, these economies felt at least slightly obliged to try to minimize or reduce poverty in “Third World” nations, lest communist ideology should capture another client. At this time, the leading dogma of development economists, shared by a series of US Presidents, was that slowing population growth would favour development, including by changing the dependency ratio, that is, by lowering the proportion of dependents (children, as there were few retired people) in the economy. At least in theory, smaller families would enable more investment in their education; a lower quantity of children could be offset by a higher quality.
Yet, soon after, in part triggered by the first oil crisis, almost all high-income countries reneged on their pledge to give more aid, becoming less generous, with the exception of four small northern European economies, and very recently, the United Kingdom. In the late 1970s a resurgence of free market economics commenced, especially in English speaking economies, also affecting the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Supporters of this doctrine, most commonly known as “neoliberalism”, reversed the dominant thinking of the 1960s that development required aid, in order to supply determinants such as nutrition, education and concepts (Freire, 2006).

Adherents of neoliberalism claimed that unconstrained market forces would provide a much surer and faster route to prosperity. Remnants of aid might be justified as levers for foreign policy influence, but it was no longer seen as morally valuable, not only by high-income governments, but by most of their populations. Of course, some people and organisations remained advocates of aid, but gradually they became less influential. Books criticizing aid also emerged, supported in some cases, by corruption among aid groups. Instead of aid, supporters of neoliberalism held that populations in rich countries could continue to consume with a clear conscience about inequality and poverty, each of which was automatically to be solved by the free market.

The failure of the free market and the emergence of the 1%

The triumph of neoliberalism was deepened in the late 1980s by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rejection of Communism in Eastern Europe. Funds freed by the end of the Cold War were briefly touted as fuelling a “Peace Dividend” that could be used, in part, for poverty alleviation and development. But this did not occur. Instead, inequality continued to rise, not only between countries, but within many countries. Today, phrases such as the “top 1%” reflect growing public awareness of rising inequality.

Various forms of corruption in so called developing countries have long been scandalous (eg Mobuto in Zaire, various kleptocrats in Nigeria, Suharto in Indonesia and Thaksin in Thailand), but the accumulation of enormous wealth has now contaminated several high-income counties, including the former political leaders of Britain (Blair), the US (the Clinton family) and Italy (Berlusconi). Inevitably, wealthy leaders are inhibited from supporting policies that harm their own economic class.
This context of relentless and worsening global inequality is partly alleviated by the attainment of some the Millennium Development Goals. The target for poverty has been pronounced as successful, largely due to the reduction of extreme poverty in China, a country with a greatly reduced population growth rate. Until recently (and paradoxically, given the claimed poverty success) the target for global hunger relief was stated by the Food and Agricultural Organization as severely failing, but a revised method introduced in 2012 has greatly narrowed the gap (Butler, in press).

The key ingredients needed to promote development are not indecipherable. They include better nutrition (from conception), better treatment of infections, including parasites, better health systems, and improved sanitation and handwashing. Primary school education is also vital as are tolerable human rights, acknowledged by other, more powerful groups. Given sufficient ingredients the poor might further escape poverty through self-organising processes such as trade unions, night schools and self-help, triggering further self-reinforcing virtuous cycles. Increasingly literate parents might not only value education, but effectively agitate for improved education for their children and for better health care.

However, the delivery of these determinants on a sufficient scale is a formidable challenge. Reduction of poverty is too often seen, whether or not correct, as a threat to the privilege of more wealthy groups. Very often, higher income populations use their existing power to maintain, or even seek to increase their advantage. Similar arguments apply globally. That is, despite rhetoric to the contrary, most rich countries do not want poor populations to catch up.

But such strategies are ultimately self-defeating. Excessive inequality is not only morally repulsive, but it ferments resentment and insurrection. Our modern world not only has nuclear weapons, but is evolving towards one with perhaps ubiquitous 3 D printers, armed micro-drones and robotic surveillance. Greater inequality will undermine security and well-being, even for populations who today consider themselves impregnable.

Climate change as a case study of global inequality

The reality of anthropogenic climate change is now beyond doubt. Myriad forms of evidence support concerns that not only were hypothetical only fifty years but which could then be only poorly measured and monitored. Yet, despite overwhelming scientific support, some governments and corporations remain openly skeptical of the findings of climate science.

The scientific community is calling, almost desperately, for most fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas, tarsands) to remain unburned and underground. At the same time, cost-effective sources of renewable energy are emerging, especially solar and wind. Advocates of these technologies claim that their large-scale introduction could limit global climate change to a relatively “safe” level of no more than 2 degrees C average warming. More warming than that threatens the fabric of civilization, through cascading pathways that included conflict, famine, mass migration and economic collapse (Butler, 2014).

Slowing climate change would require an enormous restructuring of the global economy. Not only would some corporations lose vast amounts of money and power, but so would some countries, including Saudi Arabia and Russia. Until very recently, the self-interest of so many powerful sectors has led to the effective suppression of action to adequately tackle climate change. But this elite consensus is now under strong attack, not only from the rising power of cleaner energy generating technologies (eg solar and wind), but also by civil society of the global middle class. China is also now an important actor, in part motivated by its rising middle class which increasingly protest at that nation’s life-expectancy reducing air pollution.

Australian corporations and politicians are at the forefront of the movement to delay the clean energy transition. They have some allies in India, although India is now showing signs of following China along the route towards cleaner energy. But it is disturbing that India is not threatening to expel GreenPeace India.

India is highly vulnerable to climate change. Agricultural models consistently forecast a reduction in its food-growing capacity. Unlike China, India lacks potentially arable land at higher latitudes where its farmers might migrate. Neighbouring Pakistan and Bangladesh face risks from reduced flow to the Indus and Brahmaputra rivers, not only from glacier melt but (in the case of the Brahmaputra) from Chinese dams. Increased instability in India’s neighbours, one of which is nuclear armed, is not in India’s national interest.

Overall, wealthy countries have been slow to act on climate change in large part because they believe (arguably incorrectly) that their own wealth insulates them from all but trivial harm. At the same time, they have been reluctant to do anything which might reduce their capacity to make money. Poor countries have been generally slow to act to tackle climate change, not only because they have limited funds, but, I would argue, because those who are relatively wealthy in poor countries not only feel similarly insulated (as in rich countries), but also lack sufficient concern for the people who are on the front line of climate change and who are vulnerable in so many ways.


Reducing inequality, poverty, and climate change is not only morally right, but offers hope that civilization as a whole will prosper long into the future. Elites, both in low and high-income countries, need to see that such actions are in their own self-interest. Those of us who are not in that elite, but who can see the value of these arguments, need to use our influence to try to change local, regional and national policies. It is an extraordinarily difficult path, but technology such as mobile phones, the internet and social media is assisting. The fact that the UK now exceeds its Pearson aid promise is also very encouraging. Technology and mechanization might one day reach such a level and scale that cheap labour is not needed to produce the goods and services that the rich crave.
Literacy, including of health, might allow the self-propelled spread of minimally acceptable living standards, especially if assisted by mobile phones and the internet. Children living in huts (or under platforms) next to railway lines may vanish. Conflict over inexorably diminishing resources might decline, as birth rates fall. New technology might also slow the rate of climate change.

This does sound utopian, but together we can strive towards these goals. However, the current stranglehold which elites have on policy needs to be strongly challenged. Development will not happen by itself, though its rapid growth could occur once sufficient seeds can be planted.


Butler C.D., editor. 2014, Climate Change and Global Health. CABI, Wallingford, UK
Freire, P. 2006, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 30th Anniversary ed. New York: Continuum.