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.

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Electricity Blues

Next to the High tension transformer grid of the electricity department in village Chhaktala in Alirajpur district there is an illegal country liquor outlet. The line men on duty at the transformer grid can be found at this liquor outlet at all times of the day. They make forays into the villages nearby from time to time to confiscate the electric motors of the adivasi farmers and bring them to the grid. The adivasis then have to pay them a bribe either to prevent them from confiscating the motors or if they happen to be absent and the motors are taken away then to regain the motors. The bribes are then used by the linemen to slake their throats with the cup that inebriates. Behind this black comedy hangs a long tale.

The agro-ecological characteristics of western Madhya Pradesh is typical of the physically water scarce region that extends over a vast swathe of India south of the Indo-Ganjetic plain from Rajasthan to Tamil Nadu. The characteristics that cause this physical water scarcity are as follows –

1. The average annual rainfall is low at 700 mm, with the number of rainy days being around 50.
2. The soil is mostly clayey and so infiltration of rain water is low. Moreover such soils tend to get waterlogged if subjected to flood irrigation.
3. The underlying rocks are basaltic and sedimentary having low porosity and permeability and so their capacity to store water in underground aquifers is limited.
4. The average evapo-transpiration rate for the area is very high at about 2100 mm and so a considerable amount of the rainfall evaporates immediately. In the dry periods during the monsoons and later the moisture retained in the soil gets evaporated. A large amount of the water stored in surface storages big and small too gets evaporated.

Consequently lack of adequate soil moisture is the major constraint on agricultural productivity in this basin similar to other dry land areas. Since the proper conservation and utilisation of soil moisture is the most important determinant of agriculture in dry land areas and the key to survival, the farmers of this region traditionally adapted their agriculture towards attaining higher productivity through soil and water conservation. As Sir Albert Howard, the pioneer of organic farming who carried out his research in Indore has stated - “What is happening today in the small fields of India ... took place many centuries ago. The agricultural practices of the orient have passed the supreme test, they are as permanent as those of the primeval forest, of the prairie, or of the ocean”. The clever use of rotation of a large variety of crops and an ingenious husbanding of soil and water resources ensured that some part of the crop always came home even in years of drought. The major constraints on the further development of this sustainable agriculture in the pre-independence era were the backbreaking taxes levied by the colonial rulers and the usurious interest rates charged by moneylenders which starved agriculture of capital.

While the taxes and levies on farm produce were drastically reduced after independence nothing was done by the government to remove the stranglehold of the moneylenders or to promote research in the traditional sustainable agriculture of the region. Instead water availability was sought to be augmented from the 1970s when it became necessary to increase agricultural production by the provision of electricity at a subsidised rate for the operation of pumps and subsidised loans to purchase these pumps and other accessories. Farmers could tap the water in the deeper confined aquifers through bore-wells and submersible pumps and also the base flow in the streams and rivers through lift irrigation at relatively small capital and operating costs to themselves. In 1993 the new Congress government in the state made the supply of electricity to agricultural pumps of 5 horsepower or less free thus further reducing the cost of water.

While this boosted agricultural production considerably it also created what has come to be characterised as a "tragedy of the commons". Normally in the case of a non-renewable resource the user has to trade off resource use between successive time periods to optimise production in the long run because more the resource is used the more is its extraction cost and more is its scarcity value. The water in the deep confined aquifers in dry hard rock regions is akin to a non-renewable resource because it has accumulated over thousands of years from the minimal amount of percolation into these aquifers that has taken place annually. Thus when this water is pumped out in large quantities in a particular year far in excess of the minimal recharge that is taking place, the water level goes down and in the next year the extraction cost will be greater and this will go on increasing with time. However, in a situation in which this extraction cost was rendered close to zero by electricity being made free and the water itself being a common property resource did not have any price attached to it and neither did its depletion result in a scarcity value, all the farmers tended to use as much water as they could get as in the long run the water would be finished even if a few farmers adopted a more conservationist approach.

In situations where there are no well defined property rights over natural resources, as with groundwater in this case, either the government has to step in to regulate its use through fiscal or legal measures or there has to be communitarian command by the people to ensure sustainable use. However, in this case the government adopted the opposite stance of subsidising the greater use of water instead of promoting a regime which would have led to its conservation and the consequent establishment of a more sustainable agricultural paradigm.

The crunch came at the turn of the century when the Madhya Pradesh government as part of the conditions for getting a loan from the Asian Development Bank for restructuring its power sector had to begin charging farmers for electricity supplied to them at cost plus profit rates. The ADB imposed this fiscal prudence on the government so as to ensure that it could pay back the loan that was being given. This has made agriculture an unprofitable proposition all over the state and especially for the small and marginal adivasi farmers. Consequently they are in no position to pay the electricity bills they run up and default on them. The electricity department staff then go and confiscate their pumps. Sometimes electricity supply is cut off to whole villages. Then somehow the villagers pay up some amount of the dues and also bribes and get electricity again. However the quantity and quality of electricity supply remains abominable.

First agricultural production is sought to be beefed up through free supply of electricity, building of bid dams to store surface water and unrestricted withdrawal of ground water. Then all these reach their nemesis of natural limits. So now agriculture is in crisis. Most small farmers are in distress and adivasis like the ones below even more so. While the adivasis drown their sorrows in sweat and tears not having even the money to buy hooch the electricity linemen and all the others in the set up right upto the directors of the Asian Development Bank are getting sozzled on ill gotten gains. Yet another tragedy resulting from idiotic modern development.

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