Anarcho-environmentalism allegorised

The name Anaarkali in the present context has many meanings - Anaar symbolises the anarchism of the Bhils and kali which means flower bud in Hindi stands for their traditional environmentalism. Anaar in Hindi can also mean the fruit pomegranate which is said to be a panacea for many ills as in the Hindi idiom - "Ek anar sou bimar - One pomegranate for a hundred ill people"! - which describes a situation in which there is only one remedy available for giving to a hundred ill people and so the problem is who to give it to. Thus this name indicates that anarcho-environmentalism is the only cure for the many diseases of modern development! Similarly kali can also imply a budding anarcho-environmentalist movement. Finally according to a legend that is considered to be apocryphal by historians Anarkali was the lover of Prince Salim who was later to become the Mughal emperor Jehangir. Emperor Akbar did not approve of this romance of his son and ordered Anarkali to be bricked in alive into a wall in Lahore in Pakistan but she escaped. Allegorically this means that anarcho-environmentalists can succeed in bringing about the escape of humankind from the self-destructive love of modern development that it is enamoured of at the moment and they will do this by simultaneously supporting women's struggles for their rights.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

The Rights of the Disabled

Today is International Human Rights day commemmorating the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. Coming as it did after the excesses of World War II, it was a great document comprehensively setting out the basics of liberal rights of the individual for peaceful and just human existence. Article 25 (1)  of the UDHR states -  "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control". This is the only article that mentions that those who are disabled too have the right to live a fulfilling life. This is one area in which in India a lot remains to be done. There are some provisions from the Government to aid disabled people but they are minimal and in most cases inadequate. Therefore, NGOs have to step in to help people with disabilities.
Here is the story of one such disabled person who had to fall back on the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath (KMCS) for help and how he benefited from that. Vanji is the son of a veteran activist of the KMCS, Nevji, who has fought many battles for the rights of Bhil Adivasis in Alirajpur. On one occasion when he and Vanji were returning from the market town of Kavant to their village Vakner on their motorcycle there was an accident as another motorcycle driver crashed into them. Vanji was grieviously hurt and his kneecap was dislocated. Given the lack of proper Government health facilities nearby, Nevji took Vanji to a private hospital in a nearby town Bodeli. The private hospital did not treat Vanji properly and sent him back to his village.

After some time Vanji's leg developed gangrene and he had to be taken back to Bodeli where another doctor, an orthopaedic surgeon said that his leg would have to be amputated from above the knee. Thus, Vanji became disabled and his life became severely constrained. All through this time the KMCS had offered to provide proper medical treatment for Vanji but his father Nevji had decided to pursue his own remedies which included going to the traditional Adivasi medicine men. However, now that his son had lost his leg, Nevji finally came round to the view that the help of the KMCS should be sought. Research revealed that fitting a state of the art artificial leg which gives very good mobility would cost Rs 1 Lakh and other associated expenses. This was clearly beyond the budget of both Nevji and the KMCS. So instead a comparatively less efficient leg was fitted which was available free from the Bhagwan Mahaveer Vikalang Sahayta Samiti (BMVSS) which is famous for having developed the indigenous and cheaply manufactured Jaipur Foot. With time this organisation has collaborated with the Johns Hopkins hospital in the USA to improve the foot design so that now even feet that fold at the knee have been developed and one of these was fitted on Vanji. With a little practice, Vanji soon got habituated to this prosthesis and is now able to walk freely and even raise fifty kilo weights as shown below. He is running a grocery shop quite profitably and is very happy that he has regained considerable mobility.
The Government does provide financial help to the BMVSS so that it can provide its prosthesis to people free of cost. However, not all people with disability know of this organisation and so there are many disabled people going round without proper prosthesis in this country despite it being their right to get help from the Government. The Government has now decided to provide state of the art prosthesis that allows a person to drive motor vehicles and run also. It remains to be seen how soon and how effectively this new scheme is implemented. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The Death March!!

A trip into the remote interiors of Alirajpur district was accomplished a few days back in which Professor Anandswarup Gadde from Australia, Nagendra Subbakrishna and his wife Kathryn Baranackie from USA and Professor Swapan Bhattacharya from Indore were the special guests. Professor Gadde I first met on the internet when he read the blogpost by another internet friend Bhupinder Singh about my e-book "Recovering the Lost Tongue" and offered to finance its publication in print. Since then we have remained connected on the internet and on one occasion on his last visit to India we had met briefly. He has from time to time contributed funds to the work being done among the Bhils in western Madhya Pradesh and this time he expressed a desire to see some of this work. Nagendra or Noggy as he is more popularly known is a very close friend of mine as we were from the same batch and same hostel as students in the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur. After passing out we lost touch with each other what with Noggy having gone abroad and I having gone into the interior!! Once again the internet was instrumental in bringing us together after more than three decades year before last. He has ancestral roots in Bengaluru and Karnataka as a whole and so comes down frequently to India. He too read my book and was intrigued enough to want to see the work being done among the Bhils and his wife Kathy, who is a social worker in the USA, too showed interest. Swapanda of course is now an integral part of the Rani Kajal Jeevan Shala after he too ferreted me out from the internet about two years ago. However, he had not yet seen the really remote parts of Alirajpur where life is still very primitive as compared to the modern lifestyles we are used to in cities.
The trip started off from Swapanda's house in Indore on one fine morning and the first stop was our farm in Pandutalav village in Dewas district about fifty kilometers away where we are practicing organic agriculture. There we had lunch prepared on wood fired stoves with the organic produce of our farm. Our farm is next to the farm of Shri Raisingh Patel shown below and we had our lunch in his wooden, tiled roof home. The lunch consisted of rotis prepared from millets, rice, chawla daal cooked in buttermilk and vegetables and an indigenous breed of chicken. The dessert was laddoos made from sorghum flour and sesame seeds bonded with jaggery.
Noggy found the ambience to be very stimulating with the fresh air and the greenery all around and was mesemerised by a buffalo offspring that had just been born the day before.
After lunch at Pandutalav we had a long road journey of about 250 kilometers and reached the Rani Kajal Jeevan Shala school late at night. Everyone was tired but still they enjoyed the simple repast consisting of rotis made of millets, rice and daal. After the tiring first day the next day was devoted to interacting with the students and teachers at the school. Noggy insisted on cooking the fresh fish brought from the River Narmada in Indian Sula wine that he had bought in Indore. So with me as the assistant he proceeded to direct the cooking of Fish Nagendrano as shown below.

The next day was the one that everyone had been waiting for. We set out early in the morning at 6.15 a.m. from Kakrana and reached the headquarters of the Mathwar forest range at Bakhatgarh. Here we left the car we had been travelling in from Indore and switched to a local jeep that could negotiate the hilly terrain and untarred roads of the Vindhyas that had been arranged for us by Nevji, the veteran activist of Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath. This jeep took us via the village of Vakner where there is a field office of the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath to the village of Chilakda on the banks of the River Narmada. Then began what Noggy has characterised as the "Death March"!! Whereas I had arranged for this trip through hilly terrain to a remote village to underline the realities of the life that the Bhils were living at the margin, Noggy jokingly alleged that I was forcing them to their death!! First of all there was a three hundred walk downhill to the edge of the river where a boat was waiting for us. Once everyone was in the boat, however, their spirits rose at the prospect of a ride through the serene hills surrounding the river as is evident from the smiles in the composite picture below.

 The man in the middle with the headdress is Nevji who not only planned and organised the trip but also provided a helping hand to the death marchers to help them negotiate the hilly slopes. The motor boat in which we made the trip is owned by another veteran fighter of the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath, Geria pictured below. He tied his hand boat to our boat and hitched a ride to his hut on the banks of the river.
Geria is a rupee millionnaire now which is saying quite a lot for a Bhil person living in these remote hills. When the Narmada River became a lake after the Sardar Sarovar dam was built further downstream he lost most of his farm land which was submerged. While he had fought against the dam to stop it along with others but he did not succeed. So he had to look for alternative livelihoods. Once some fishermen came from Gujarat and used big nets to catch a new breed of small fish that had multiplied in the reservoir water and dried them and took them away to sell in the cities. Geria had been a great fisherman earlier but then the catch was small and done with hook, line and sinker. He quickly learned the technique of fishing with large nets and bought a net himself. Thus, began his journey towards becoming a millionnaire. Today he not only catches a lot of fish himself but is also a wholesale buyer of fish from others. He then dries up the fish and sells it to big traders in cities who come to get the fish from him. Though this flourishing business is under threat as the Government is proposing to lease out the reservoir to some big contractor and eliminate small players like Geria from whom it does not get any revenue.
Finally we arrived at Bada Amba village to be faced with the prospect of climbing up a high hill to reach the Motia Bhil Bhanai Ghar school perched on the top as shown below. The school is named after a Bhil king of the region who was murdered by Rajput invaders who usurped his kingdom. Bhanai Ghar means a place of learning. 
The climb up to the school was indeed a challenge for some of the guests, especially the seventyfive year old Anandji who could make it only in short climbs with rests in between with the help of the driver Sanju as shown below. He blamed it on his habit of smoking which he said he would try and reduce.
The school was resonating with the chants of the children with the younger ones reciting the English alphabet and the elder ones the tables!! Noggy was quick to point out that it was absurd that the children were reading A for Apple when it would be more appropriate to say A for Aonla!! There is only one teacher, Mavsingh, in the school who has to do multigrade teaching. He has been given training to teach with locally relevant teaching material but this is not enough to wipe out the legacy of the way he himself was taught when he was a student. He gets Rs 20000 a year from the Government as a guest teacher. The Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath gives him another Rs 40,000 a year to enable him to do a better job. A solar lighting solution has also been installed to enable the adolescent youth to learn in the evenings. He also does some fishing on the side apart from farming. But in the end it is too much to expect him to provide quality education. At least he does better than other government schools where mostly the teachers don't teach at all. Even the school in Kakrana which is considerably better funded and has more qualified teachers cannot compete with the well provided private schools in cities. Thus, in this digital age a huge and increasing gap is builiding up between the children of the Bhils and those of the privileged sections of society. 
After a quick lunch of rice and daal we headed back from Bada Amba and reached Kakrana around 7 p.m. after a very long and tiring day. Instead of dying, the guests felt that they had seen some of the most pristine beauty of nature and met people who lived a simple life amidst it. The next day after breakfast we headed back to Indore. 
This is the first time that some of the many people who read about the Bhils and their struggles from my posts on Facebook have visited Alirajpur and that too one of its most remote villages. They were overwhelmed both by the simplicity of the people and the way in which they were working hard to lead their lives with minimal resources in the absence of much help from the Government.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Internet Blues!!

The community owned wireless internet facility was set up with great difficulty at the Rani Kajal Jeevanshala school in Kakrana in July this year. However, in the first week of November it stopped working barely three months after its successful installation. Initially Gulab, the barefoot engineer in Kakrana who had been trained by the designer of the network, Arjun, tried to solve the problem himself. However, it appeared the problem was beyond his rudimentary knowledge and so the raspberry pi and dongle was sent to Indore. Then, Swapanda had a go trying out the various parts with online help from Arjun but even he could not solve the problem. So finally the pi and the dongle were couriered to Arjun in Delhi.
Arjun found the pi to be working fine but the dongle had stopped functioning. So he bought a new dongle and upgraded the software of the Cowmesh based on later developments he had made in the cowmeshes he has set up subsequently in Uttarakhand and tested it out and found the set up was working well again. He then couriered the set up back to Indore and now it has been installed again at Kakrana and is working fine after a hiatus of about a month.
There are many lessons to be learnt from this. The first is the unreliability of these Chinese dongles. All dongles available in the market are from Chinese manufacturer or other and invariably then go kaput in about a year or so. But in the present case the dongle had lasted just three months. The reason is that the dongle had been working 24 x 7 in Kakrana and that had heated it up continuously leading to its precipitate decay. The second is the difficulty of setting up and running Cowmeshes in remote areas, where there are very few technically competent people, given that the software is newly developed and open source. Remote online solution to the problem was not possible and so the pi and the dongle had to be sent to Arjun by courier. Luckily he was in Delhi at the time and so the set up got repaired quickly.
Seeing that constant running of the dongle greatly reduces its life, arrangements have now been made to regulate its use. The internet is turned on only for four hours in the early morning and five hours in the evening and night. This is done automatically with the use of a timer which can be programmed to turn the internet on and off at fixed times as shown below. Arjun is also now writing an operation and repair manual so that in future any problem can be set right in Kakrana and Indore instead of having to courier the system to him.

While we were setting up the timer and internet in Kakrana it came to our notice that the printer was being operated on the solar power system. Initially this did not strike us much as the printer took out a few photocopies easily. However, when we wanted to test the internet and timer we found that the batteries had discharged due to the heavy drawal of power by the printer. The staff at the school had put the printer on the solar power system because of the low voltage of grid power. There is a voltage stabiliser on the mains for the internet and so it steps up the low voltage but even so some power is drawn from the batteries to run the printer. Earlier the printer used to be run on a diesel generator but since this is costly the staff began using the solar power system which has a maximum capacity of 1000 watts while the printer has a rating of 800 watts. So when other appliances and devices and the internet runs together on the solar system, the printer drains the batteries. The printer had to be taken off the solar system and now another separate voltage stabiliser is being sourced for it. The government does not provide proper internet connectivity and proper power in remote rural areas nor does it support citizen's efforts to set up their own internet and power systems and yet it expects the whole country to go digital and cashless!!

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

A Tragedy and A Farce!!

The world today is data driven and most Governments take economic decisions on the basis of detailed data analysis. However, Prime Minister Modi has given short shrift to this principle and has instead embarked on grandstanding actions based on his intuition which he believes served him in good stead during his many years as the Chief Minister of Gujarat earlier and will do so in his present stint also. Whether it is the construction of toilets to rid India of shit or the demonetisation of high value notes to "extinguish" black money, Modi has followed his sixth sense and not the logic of data!!
What, however, is the data available with regard to black money. At the outset one is confronted with the problem that there is no reliable data. Mainly because those who are supposed to track the generation and accumulation of black money, the staff of the direct and indirect taxes and vigilance departments, are least interested in doing so as they too are mostly involved in generating and accumulating Black wealth!! Black money is generated either by fudging by organisations and citizens of their production, trade and income data or by defalcation of Government funds. In all these cases the departments who are tasked with tracking evasion and corruption can fight this evil and also form a reliable estimate of the black money generated and accumulated if they have the will to do so. For various reasons this will is absent.
Nevertheless some rough estimates can be made. The GDP of the country in 2015-16 was Rs 140 Lakh crores at current prices and should be around Rs 150 lakh crores this year. Assuming that the black economy was 50% of this we arrive at the figure of Rs 75 lakh crores. If we further assume that the black economy has the same savings rate of 30% as the mainstream economy, we get an annual accumulation in the black economy of Rs 23 lakh crores. Assuming again that 50% of this gets reinvested in productive economic activity we are left with about Rs 12 lakh crores per year as accumulation and assuming also that due to the effect of inflation the current value of the annual accumulation that has taken place in earlier years is the same as that in the present year, we can roughly estimate the total stock of black wealth accumulated over say the last thirty years or so since the economy began to be opened up from the mid-1980s and thus offered greater opportunities for generating black income, to be around Rs 400 lakh crores, held mostly as real estate, gold and jewellery and financial instruments within the country and abroad. How much of this huge stockpile of black money is held as cash? On the day demonetisation was announced there were about Rs 15 lakh crore in Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes. Assuming once again that 50% of this was black money we arrive at a figure of about Rs 8 lakh crores. Thus, only 2% of the total black wealth of Rs 400 lakh crores was held in cash.
Therefore, it is indeed farcical that instead of targeting the other 98% held in the form of real estate, gold and jewellery and financial instruments, to rid the country of black wealth, Modi should characterise demonetisation which can at most neutralise 2% of the accumulated black wealth as a great epoch making strike against it. Especially since Rs 500 and Rs 2000 notes are being reintroduced and so there will once again be accumulation of black money since the process of such accumulation has not been rooted out. Instead a much more effective strike and one that would not only root out black money but also yield substantial revenues to the Government would have been to vigorously track real estate and gold and jewellery holdings and trace out bank accounts and financial instruments that have not been declared. The huge human power being deployed in managing the demonetisation could have been better deployed in this tracking operation. 

The need for grandstanding through a sudden dramatic announcement and the maintaining of secrecy to ensure that even this paltry 2% is neutralised, meant that no elaborate preparations could be made to immediately replace the cash that was to be suddenly demonetised. This has subsequently resulted in a tragedy of gargantuan proportions, which is still unfolding, that will set back the economy seriously in the near future. Production and trade have fallen drastically due to the lack of cash and daily wage labourers who constitute a bulk of the labour force have been temporarily laid off. The huge unbanked population is all at sea without cash and have even cut down on their already minimal consumption. Desperate measures are being taken now to salvage the situation, with the latest being an amendment to the Income Tax Act that says that only 50% of the declared black money will be taxed. This is another red herring that will not yield anything. The recent tax declaration scheme resulted in the declaration of only Rs 64,000 crores which is just 0.16% of the total black money and it is unlikely that the proportion will go up now. Simply because tax evaders are habitual offenders and will be loathe to declare their sources of income while coming clean, as it will lead to future black incomes drying up.  Another measure is the urging of people to open bank accounts and use mobile phones to transact business instead of using cash. When the banking system has already been paralysed by the huge work of replacing the demonetised cash, it is nothing short of Quixotic to expect it to engage itself in opening bank accounts for the poor which are anyway an unprofitable exercise. Mobile telephony on the other hand cannot properly provide its basic service of voice and data connectivity and so it is a great leap of faith to think that it will be able to suddenly become able to handle a huge increase in mobile banking transactions. This should have been put in place through trial over a period of a year at least before the demonetisation. Thus this too is yet another red herring. 
Finally there is the huge cost of the whole exercise which is much greater than the benefits in terms of black money and counterfeit currency neutralised. Initial estimates are that the GDP will take a hit of about 2%  due to the decrease in economic activity which is a loss of Rs 3 lakh crores to the economy and the Government will lose revenue to the tune of Rs 50,000 crores as a result of lesser tax collection. Though it is being touted that the Government will get a greater dividend from the Reserve Bank due to the net reduction in currency liability from the demonetisation, this will not be much due to the higher expenses incurred in managing the fallout of the demonetisation which is increasing every day in the form of various concessions having to be offered and the overtime having to be paid to bank staff. The banking system is in complete disarray handling the cash disbursal and not much other work is getting done.
One would have expected an economist of Manmohan Singh's stature who has been both a Governor of the Reserve Bank and a finance minister, to lay out in more detail how the demonetisation exercise is a red herring when he spoke in parliament.  But since he, like Prime Minister Modi, is not interested in really tackling the menace of black wealth, he ended up mouthing meaningless rhetoric and terming the demonetisation process to be legalised plunder and organised loot without elaborating on why it is so.

Marx once wrote, referring to the usurpation of democratic power in a coup and the becoming of emperor by Napoleon Bonaparte in France in 1804 and later his nephew Louis Napoleon in 1852, "history repeats itself first as tragedy, second as farce"!! In the present case of demonetisation, Prime Minster Modi has gone one better than the Napoleons by simultaneously enacting a tragedy and a farce!!!

Monday, November 14, 2016

The Scourge of Kalodhono!!

A new devil, as malevolent as any of the others that make their lives difficult, now plagues the long suffering Adivasis of Alirajpur – Kalodhono. He is so potent that he has for the time being eclipsed all the bounty in the form of a plentiful harvest that has resulted this year from the munificence of their rain god Kalorano. What is this Kalodhono which has suddenly made life so difficult for the Adivasis? These are the demonetized rupees five hundred and one thousand denomination currency notes!! In their typical way with all Hindi or English words, the Adivasis have picked up the Hindi word for black money, Kala Dhan, which is being bandied about on television channels frequently as being the target of the demonetization, altered its pronunciation suitably to accord with the phonetics of the Bhili dialect and have named their latest nemesis with this phonetically altered word.
The Adivasi household economy in Alirajpur these days is heavily dependent on migrant labour in the agricultural fields and construction sites in Gujarat. This migratory labour goes on all the year round and more than ninety percent of the households in Alirajpur have some people engaged in migrant labour. Many had just returned with money paid in lumpsum to them after a month or more of labour just before Diwali to celebrate their own Diwali which is held at different times in different villages. Many Adivasis have bank accounts these days but they don’t use them preferring to handle cash instead, as accessing the bank accounts is a pain given that they are situated at great distances from their homes. These bank accounts are accessed only to receive payments from the government for various schemes like Indira Awaas Yojana, Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and the like. Since most of these schemes are not being funded properly by the Government, in many cases the people are not getting any payments and these accounts are in disuse for a long time and so blocked by the banks as per the Reserve Bank of India regulations, to prevent the use of many bank accounts intermittently for laundering black money. Therefore, many Adivasi households are now sitting on thousands of rupees in demonetized notes without any easy way to deposit them and get the new notes. They will have to open new bank accounts or reactivate their blocked bank accounts and this will only happen after the huge rush of depositing notes and withdrawing money in the banks eases somewhat in about a week or ten days. Thus, most Adivasi households are without any cash at the moment and will remain so for at least another two weeks.
Given this situation and the dire need for cash of poor Adivasi households at a time when the harvest has not yet been winnowed, it is not surprising that via media have popped up in the form of middlemen who are ready to exchange the demonetized notes for one hundred rupee notes for a commission ranging from 10 to 20 percent imposing a heavy tax on some of the poorest people in this country. Not surprisingly Kalodhono has emerged as a major blight on the Diwali festivities of the Adivasis and they are running from pillar to post to exorcise it.

(Photo by Javed Iqbal, www.moonchasing.com)
Given that it is not possible to deposit more than 50,000 rupees of demonetized notes at a time without a Permanent Account Number from the Income Tax Department and more than Rs 2,50,000 in all without coming under the scanner of the Income Tax Department and being taxed and penalized to the cumulative tune of 90 percent of the amount deposited if one cannot furnish the details of where one got the money from and also exposing oneself to the possibility of property searches later, it is unlikely that the really big holders of unaccounted cash are going to deposit the same and will prefer to lose this cash altogether as in most cases it is a small proportion of the accumulated black income that they hold mostly in the form of real estate, gold and financial instruments. Since new Rs 500 and Rs 2000 notes are being issued, the unaccounted property of high income people is not being traced and the generation of future black income is not being prevented through the compulsory introduction of cashless transactions, it is indeed doubtful as to how much of a deterrent this one time demonetization will be against the creation of black money and whether the huge costs being borne in the form of the temporary disruption of the economy of both the country and of poor households like that of the Adivasis of Alirajpur will be offset by the destruction of the stock of black money instead of its being deposited and so taxed and penalized by the Government. If the Government had the guts, it should instead have put all the human power at its disposal into tracing the property holdings of citizens. It is the people with high property holdings that are under reporting their incomes in a big way and it is they who should have been tracked and penalised instead of launching this ill planned demonetization exercise which is turning out to be a Tughlaqian farce!!

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Gimmick Man

High denomination notes have been demonetised with immediate effect and this has created a great news splash in the country. However, what will this really achieve? Most of the black income that is generated is kept in the form of real estate, gold and undeclared financial instruments such as insurance policies and only a part as cash. For instance whenever there are vigilance raids on businessman or corrupt government servants by the tax department or the anti-corruption wing, most of the undisclosed income unearthed is in the form of property and only a small part is cash. The really big players in the black economy all use offshore havens to stash the better part of their black incomes and use the hawala track to transfer cash to India as and when this is required. Thus, only a part of the huge store of black income will be neutralised through this demonetisation. It will have little effect on the generation of black money which will continue apace. Especially since the golden opportunity to curb black money generation by introducing a single flat rate of Goods and Services Tax has been given the go by.
As things stand there will effectively be as many as nine slabs of GST - no tax on essential commodities, 6% on mass use commodities, 12%, 18%, 26% on luxury goods, special tax on gold, special tax on petroleum products, cesses on various sin goods and cesses for education and Swacch Bharat Mission. There is already a big fight going on between the centre and the states over the classification of goods under these various slabs which will later be followed by even greater litigation between the tax authorities and the tax payers. The big problem will be that a huge bureaucracy will have to be maintained both at the centre and the states to administer this complex system of taxes as at present. The argument that it is necessary to have a differential tax rate with no or low taxes for essential and high volume goods so as to not burden the poor and also control inflation is a specious one. A low single flat tax on all commodities will not only not have an inflationary or anti-poor effect but will hugely reduce the cost of administration and also improve greatly the tax collection as it will be very difficult to avoid paying this flat tax. Such a flat tax will also easily end the turf war that is now going on between the centre and the states as to who is going to collect which of these taxes and from which category of tax payers. When there is a single flat tax then it only boils down to deciding on the cut off line for the cumulative amount of tax that a tax payer pays to apportion the tax payers between the centre and the states.
Once the GST system is simplified and all economic transactions become tracked then it will be very easy to determine the high value expenditures being made and track those who are making them through appropriate algorithms for the same. The huge tax bureaucracy can be redeployed from administering the indirect taxes to tracking the high value expenditures and so ferreting out the high income people who are not declaring their incomes. Thus, both the direct tax base and the total collection will go up substantially and we will have a much better direct to indirect tax ratio and a total tax to GDP ratio like it is in the developed economies. This would enhance the revenue of the government and its ability to spend for equitable and sustainable development of the country.
Like in the case of the Swacch Bharat Mission or the Digital India initiative, in this case too Prime Minister Modi has not gone into the nitty gritties of the issue and made a big announcement around demonetisation which is yet another gimmick!! It is indeed a pity that people in this country fed on the inane fantasies of Bollywood films lap up these gimmicks without realising that they are not going to achieve anything substantial.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

A Climate Conscious Diwali

The festival of lights is here to ward off darkness of all kinds but these days the kind of light being used has assumed importance in the light of the danger of climate change looming darkly over our future. Generally the light used to celebrate Diwali is increasingly from LEDs powered by electricity produced mostly from coal fired power plants and these are very dark demons indeed from the point of view of climate change. This whole month of October has been an extremely satisfying one in this respect as we have installed a decentralised solar electricity system  in the Rani Kajal Jeevan Shala school in Kakrana and another along with a solar hot water system in our office in Indore.
Ever since Germany began investing in solar energy in a big way about a decade ago the efficiency and longevity of solar photovoltaic panels has increased greatly with a corresponding decrease in their cost. Moreover, the charge controller device too has evolved. Earlier charge controllers would just direct the solar direct current to the storage batteries and then an inverter would convert the direct current from the batteries into alternating current to be delivered to the load leading to a 20 per cent loss of power in the storage process. However, now there are prioritiser devices which during the day send the direct current from the panels directly to the inverter and through it to the load and only store the excess charge in the batteries for the night. Thus, there is an increase in efficiency due to these prioritisers also as even during the day solar power can be used to reduce grid power consumption without the use of batteries. 1000 watts of electricity from the panels can typically produce 5 kilowatthours (units) of electricity per day.  The cost of installation for this inclusive of panels, batteries, power controlling units, electricals and set up is about Rs 100,000. Currently the going rate for retail low tension electricity supply is Rs 7 per unit inclusive of taxes and duties. Thus assuming that the inflation rate of the cost of grid power is equal to the commercial interest rate on the investment and so cancel each other out and that there is a replacement cost of batteries every five years for about Rs 35,000, it will take roughly ten years to recover the initial cost of installation of the solar system and the battery replacement. Thereafter, for the next fifteen years or so, assuming the life of the solar panels to be twentyfive years, the cost will be only that of replacing the batteries every five years.
The economics of solar power are therefore not very encouraging even now and it requires huge subsidisation to popularise it and this is what Germany has done in a big way, given the benefits in terms of climate change mitigation. In India there is talk of subsidies but it is very difficult to actually get them. The subsidies are not given to the consumer directly but to the suppliers and given the culture of corruption in this country this leads to siphoning off of the subsidy and the supply of substandard solar systems to the retail consumer. There is not much support from the government to grow the market for decentralised solar systems either and so it is difficult to find reliable suppliers. The big corporate players in solar energy are not really interested in customising systems to the needs of small users. Especially ones like the Rani Kajal School which have special needs due to their location and the abysmal quality of grid power. After several fruitless interactions with the big corporate players, we finally ferreted out a small supplier in Indore, Dynamique Electronics, being run by a young electronics engineer named Ankit Verma. He has just started out about an year ago and is very hands on and innovative. Unlike the large corporate players who only want to sell their standard systems, Ankit was open to customising for our special needs. So together we designed a custom system and ordered its components from different suppliers so as to get the best quality and efficiency suited to our needs.
As with most other technical projects over the past year or so in the Rani Kajal Jeevanshala, like buying a second hand SUV, constructing a water supply and sanitation system and setting up the internet, the solar power installation too was beset with problems which required out of the box thinking for their solution and provided a good learning experience for all concerned. The critical thing is to connect the panels properly to the batteries and the power controlling unit. Initially Ankit had not come down to do the installation as we decided to do it ourselves so that the staff and children could understand the whole set up as shown below. 

However, even though everything was connected properly and electricity was being generated by the panels and sent to the power controlling unit, it was not recognising this power. The problem turned out to be the batteries. Such is the low offtake of decentralised solar systems that solar batteries are difficult to find. Solar batteries are different from the standard inverter batteries because they have to accommodate the frequent charging and discharging that takes place in a solar power system. The batteries that we got from one of the standard companies were low on water and charge. So they needed to be charged properly and so the system did not work initially. So Ankit had to come down to Kakrana and then this was diagnosed and the batteries charged and the system is now working. This just shows how difficult it is to get decentralised solar energy going in the current context.


In our office in Indore we already had an inverter backup. So we have installed 500 watts of solar panels and added a prioritiser to this system to generate 2 units of solar electricity per day. However, to utilise this properly some load management is required. The heavy loads like the refrigerator and water pump can be run only during the day when there is good solar power as otherwise they drain the battery very fast. So timers have been installed to allow the running of these loads only during the day when there is solar power supply. A solar water heating system has also been installed in Indore. The technology for this too has improved considerably and it provides water at 70 degrees centigrade in just three hours and then stores it in an insulated tank for use at anytime. In this way this Diwali is going to be a climate conscious one for us in Kakrana and Indore!! 

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The Unpleasant Reality of Smallholder Agriculture

Subhadra's purchase of a one acre plot of farm land and subsequent practice of sustainable agriculture on it has brought us face to face with the stark reality of smallholder farming. The other day the farmer who stays next to Subhadra's land and looks after it phoned to say that the spate of late rains had caused the groundnuts to start germinating in the soil and it was necessary to take them out immediately. Subhadra was away and so I had to rush to the farm from Indore. With difficulty I was able to get two farm hands as this being the busy season every one was occupied. However, since we pay Rs 200 per day which is slightly more than the statutory minimum wage for agricultural labourers and this is much more than the Rs 120 that other farmers pay we generally manage to find farm hands. For two days along with the two farm hands I first uprooted the groundnut plants and then separated the groundnuts from the plants.
But this was not enough as the groundnuts were wet and needed to be dried as otherwise they would germinate or get infected with fungus. Since it was raining continuously, the groundnuts could not be dried on the farm. So I carted the groundnuts in my car to Indore, cleared up the guest room in our house and spread the groundnuts on the floor on a jute sheet and put on the fan!! For two days our whole house smelt of groundnuts as they dried under the fan till the rains continued. After that I put them to dry in the sun on our roof. However, this required a constant vigil next to the drying groundnuts because of the threat of squirrels and birds which would come to eat the groundnuts if there was no one around. I had been in the middle of writing a research report for an assignment that I was doing when the groundnut emergency had arisen. So while keeping my vigil on the groundnut I worked on my laptop to finish the report!!
Eventually after three days of drying in the sun, the groundnut was finally dry enough to be stored. In the process the groundnut shells that were either empty from inside or had small nuts, shrivelled up completely and I could separate them. So in the end we had only about thirty kilograms of good groundnut after all this effort. If my initial two days of labour only are counted along with that of the farm hands we hired then the total cost of taking out the groundnuts from the farm at Rs 200 per day per worker was Rs 1200. Whereas the wholesale price of groundnuts in the market that farmers are getting is only Rs 30 per kilogram and so the return in the market for the 30 kilograms would be Rs 900. If we add the cost of preparing the soil and sowing the groundnut, weeding it and the post harvest operations that I did to ensure that the groundnuts didn't rot, then the loss is even more. This is why farmers cannot afford to pay the minimum wage to farm labourers and pay only about Rs 100 to Rs 120 in our area and themselves get even less.
In the case of our groundnuts, the productivity was low due to a variety of reasons. In between the rains had stopped in the month of August just when the groundnuts were filling up with seed. So there were many groundnuts that shrivelled up in the ground itself and many others did not fill up with seed and shrivelled up later when they were sun dried. Before this in July it had rained heavily and led to excessive growth of the plant and less of the groundnuts on the roots.
This brings us face to face with the stark reality of the unfavourable economics of small holder farming which is exposed to the vagaries of nature. The statutory minimum wage for agriculture in Madhya Pradesh is itself low at about Rs 192 per day but even that is too much for the farmer to pay to hired farm hands and so the actual wage rate is only Rs 120 and the small holder farmer also gets that much for his own labour. In most cases the farmer does not have adequate resources to prevent post harvest decay of the crop and so there is sometimes a substantial loss on that count also. All in all the farmer remains trapped in a vicious circle of low production, low income, malnutrition and low investment in agriculture.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

In Search of Women's Health

Dalit Activist Subhadra Khaperde of the Mahila Jagat Lihaaz Samiti, a collective of Dalit and Adivasi women working for women's rights and environmental conservation writes -

The Mahila Jagat Lihaaz Samiti (Majlis) has initiated a programme of gynaecological health camps for women residing in slums in Indore. The programme consists of a preliminary baseline survey to assess the felt needs of the women regarding their reproductive and gynaecological health and the various barriers they face to achieving a healthy status. While this survey is conducted, discussions are also held about these barriers to health and the offer is made from Majlis of holding a health camp which is to include clinical checkups by gynaecologists, laboratory tests and provision of medicine, all done free of cost to the women. After this a first health camp is held and then a follow up one fifteen days later. This whole process takes a month in one slum. Even though all girls and women who are menstruating and those who have had menopause are treated, for the purposes of research only married women who are still in the menstrual age group are considered. 

The preliminary results of the first 150 women to benefit from the programme are as follows. The tables below present a comparison between the National Family Health Survey IV  2015-16 data for urban areas of Madhya Pradesh and that from the Majlis sample.  Table 1 provides a comparison of the demographic indicators that are common to both the surveys .
Table 1: Demographic Indicators (% of respondents)
Sl. No.
Indicators
NFHS IV
Majlis
1.
Sex Ratio
933
976
2.
Women 15-49 years who are literate
77.5
55.4
3.
Women with 10+ years of schooling
43.6
6.8
4.
Women 20-24 married before 18 years
24.6
53.8
While the sex ratio is better in the Majlis sample than in the NFHS IV sample, the literacy and education levels are much poorer for the Majlis sample and the proportion of women in the 20-24 year age group who have been married before reaching the legal age of 18 years is more than double. Thus, overall the Majlis sample has a worse demographic profile than the NFHS IV.
The comparison between the Drinking water, sanitation and Cooking Fuel situation is given in Table 2 below.
Table 2: Drinking water, Sanitation and Cookiing Fuel Indicators (% of respondents)
Sl. No.
Indicators
NFHS IV
Majlis
1.
Good Drinking Water Source (Piped Treated Water Supply)
96.8
33.6
2.
Good Sanitation (Toilets)
66.6
67.2
3.
Clean Cooking Fuel (LPG or Electric)
74.8
53.2
The NFHS IV sample has a higher proportion of households with a Good Drinking water source and clean fuel while the proportion of households with good sanitation is almost the same for both samples and so in the case of these indicators also the Majlis sample overall has a worse situation than the NFHS IV sample. The comparison of the indicators related to pregnancy and childbirth are given in Table 3 below.
Table 3: Pregnancy and Childbirth Indicators (% of respondents) 
Sl. No.
Indicators
NFHS IV
Majlis
1.
Contraceptive use among 15-49 years
51.6
33.8
2.
Mothers with full Antenatal Care
19.5
5.6
3.
Institutional births
93.8
44.7
4.
Total Fertility Rate (children per woman)
2
2.32
5.
Mothers who received Janani Suraksha Yojana (JSY) cash
49.3
1.6
6.
Average Out of Pocket expense for delivery (Rs)
1746
2400
The Majlis sample has much poorer values for all the indicators with the economic values of out of pocket delivery expense and cash support under JSY  being particularly disadvantageous.
The comparison of the reproductive health indicators is given in Table 4 below.
Table 4: Reproductive Health Indicators (% of respondents) 
Sl. No.
Indicators
NFHS IV
Majlis
1.
 Women who are anaemic
49.7
76.4
2.
Women of  15-49 years who have undergone examination of cervix
29.1
4.1
Anaemia due to factors like overwork and malnutrition are the bane of women in India and there is an epidemic of Vitamin B12 deficiency which directly contributes to anaemia. The Majlis sample has an alarming proportion of 76.4 % women who are anaemic much more than the NFHS IV sample. While many women suffer from gynaecological problems and especially erosion of the cervix, very few ever get themselves checked up by gynaecologists. The Majlis sample had only 4.1 % women who had had their cervix examined and these were all those who had had hysterectomies.
The indicators of women's empowerment are given in Table 5 below.
Table 5: Women's Empowerment Indicators (% of respondents) 
Sl. No.
Indicators
NFHS IV
Majlis
1.
Married women who have experienced spousal violence
27.3
33.1
2.
Women who own house
41
40.5
3.
Women with Bank A/c
50.1
56.1
4.
Women who use Sanitary Napkins
65.4
26.1
While with regard to owning of house and having bank accounts the Majlis sample is more or less on par with the NFHS IV sample, the situation with regard to suffering spousal violence and the use of sanitary napkins is much worse for the Majlis sample.
Thus, overall the women who have been chosen for the gynaecological health programme by Majlis are in a very disadvantageous situation as compared to the NFHS IV survey results, which themselves paint a very sorry picture of the status of women's health in urban areas of Madhya Pradesh. Therefore the implementation of the current programme by Majlis is eminently justified.
During the preliminary survey the women were asked whether they were suffering from any of twenty specific women's health problems that most commonly afflict women.  92.6 per cent of the women reported reproductive health problems with an average of three different complaints per woman with some having as many as ten complaints. Table 6 below gives the summary of the results with the proportion of women suffering from the most prevalent complaints as reported by the women themselves.
Table 6: Proportion of Women Complaining of Various Health Problems
Health Problem
Dizziness
Waist Pain
Vaginal Problems (Discharges, itching, swelling etc)
Urinary  Tract Problems
Menstrual Problems
Proportion of Women with complaint (%)
64.9
71.6
44.7
20.9
49.9
Proportion of women who complained of dizziness is very high at 64.9 percent which correlates well with the proportion of women who were tested and found to be anaemic which is 76.4 percent. A very high proportion of 71.6 percent of women complained of waist pains which generally arise from a combination of anaemia, overwork and problems of the reproductive tract. The proportion of women reporting vaginal problems which mostly arise from lack of menstrual hygiene was 44.7 percent which correlates well with the proportion of women who use cloth washed and dried in the shade during periods which is 59.5 percent. A very high proportion of 49.9 percent of the women reported having menstrual problems which too arise mostly from a combination of anaemia, overwork and lack of menstrual hygiene.
The summarised results of the clinical examination and laboratory tests are given in Table 7 below.
Table 7: Proportion of Women Diagnosed with Major Gynaecological Problems
 Gynaecological Problems
Cervical Problems (erosion, cysts, hypertrophy etc)
Vaginal Problems (discharges, itching, eruptions etc)
Urinary Tract Problems
Menstrual Problems
 Proportion of Women Affected (%)
67.6
49.1
5.5
11.5
A very high proportion of 67.6 percent of the women suffered from cervical problems like erosions and cysts and as much as 30 percent had serious problems requiring cauterisation and repeated medication. This is something that the women did not know about at all as they had never had their cervix examined by a gynaecologist. Many of these women also had vaginal problems and on the whole 49.1 percent of women were suffering from these. The proportion of women with urinary tract and menstrual problems was less than what they had reported in the survey because at the time of clinical examination they were not suffering from these problems which they do from time to time only.
Clinical diagnosis and laboratory testing of blood and urine samples are quite costly if done individually but since these were done in bulk, the costs came down by as much as 60 percent. Similarly medication for cervical and vaginal problems is quite costly if branded medicines are used. However, generic medicines were used in the camps and sourced at wholesale rates through bulk purchase and so the medicine costs were only about 15 percent of the retail value of branded drugs. All the women were cured of their problems over the month's time in which they were diagnosed and treated. Some required hospital procedures such as cauterisation. There was one woman who had stitches in her vagina which had not been removed after delivery a few years ago. She was repeatedly complaining of pain in her vagina but had never visited a gynaecologist afterwards. Some women had to be given intravenous iron drips as they were highly anaemic.
Clearly, the women had poor gynaecological health mainly due to inability to access good health services, prevalence of malnutrition and overwork, which are all due to a combination of poverty and patriarchal oppression. We have already seen that there is a high level of gender based violence. The survey also revealed that other indicators of women's disempowered status were equally bad -
1.       The gender division of labour is highly skewed for this sample with 81.8 percent of women doing all domestic work.
2.       The proportion of women who said that their men decided when to have sex and they had no say in the matter was very high at 90.4 percent. 
3.       The proportion of women who had some knowledge of governnment schemes favouring women was only 31.8 percent.
4.       The proportion of women with knowledge of the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act was only 33.8 percent.
Meetings were held with the men also as without their cooperation, the women would fall back into ill health. In many cases the bacteria, fungi and viruses that cause vaginal infections in women are there in the penises of men also but do not affect them. Thus, it is necessary for the men also to take the medicines so that both are disinfected. These meetings with the men revealed that they too were unaware of the complexities of the reproductive tract problems of the women. In some cases the men were themselves suffering from infections of the penis but were too shy to go to a doctor for treatment. Thus, these meetings served the purpose of raising the awareness levels of the men also. This is very crucial as there is a culture of silence that stifles reproductive and sexual health issues and the absence of cheap government reproductive and sexual health services further aggravates matters.
The total cost of the month long intervention in one slum including the preliminary survey, the clinical diagnosis, laboratory tests, medication and documentation and analysis is Rs 50,000 catering to about 60 women. Thus, for an average cost of about Rs 800 per woman, complete diagnosis, testing and curative treatment is provided which would have cost the women at least Rs 3000 if they had tried to do it individually. Moreover, in most cases, the women do not have access to gynaecologists for their own problems even if they have the money due to lack of awareness. This programme of Majlis is consequently not only very essential but also a high impact one. Most importantly this programme is funded by individual donations raised through crowd funding on the internet. This has resulted in flexibility and innovation in conducting the programme.
         
The question naturally arises as to why the Government, which can get the clinical diagnosis, laboratory tests and the medicine at even cheaper rates than an NGO like Majlis, isn't providing this important service to the women. The survey revealed that let alone provide these gynaecological services, it is not even providing properly the safe motherhood services which are such an integral part of its family welfare agenda. Gynaecological health problems lead to both economic loss through inability to work and mental stress due to illness. An adverse gender division of labour, lack of sexual rights and domestic violence further queer the pitch for most women. Under the circumstances a more effective Government programme of reproductive health and women's empowerment would reap huge benefits in terms of economic and social progress for the society.