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Current Events 12 May 2016



12 MAY 2016


SC pulls up Centre, States for failing to tackle drought

In a scathing 53-page verdict on the “lack of will” shown by the Centre and States in combating drought and saving lives, the Supreme Court  pronounced the Centre guilty of “washing its hands of” a national disaster that consumed one-fourth of the country.

It also pulled up Gujarat, Bihar and Haryana for adopting an “ostrich-like attitude” towards declaring drought and driving their own people to suicide, starvation and mass migration.

‘No adequate relief’

The PIL plea had alleged that parts of 12 States such as Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Odisha, Jharkhand, Bihar, Haryana and Chhattisgarh were hit by drought and the authorities were not providing adequate relief. The court found that the total population in the districts affected by drought is about 33 crore.

Supreme Court asked the government that the Centre of taking refuge in the concept of “federalism” to pass the buck to the States for declaring and managing drought and providing only financial aid.

Robbed of right

The failure to declare drought by these States has robbed the poor of their fundamental right to dignity of life, the Supreme Court held.

It clarified that a drought definitely falls under the definition of ‘disaster’ under Section 2(d) of the Disaster Management Act of 2005 and lashed out at the government for not even trying to enforce the statute.

In a ‘state of denial’

The court asked the government to: establish a National Disaster Response Force with specialist cadre in six months; set up a Disaster Mitigation Fund within three months; frame National Plan on risk assessment, risk management and crisis management in respect of a disaster; and update 60-year-old Drought Management Manual keeping in mind “humanitarian factors” like migrations, suicides, extreme distress, the plight of women and children.


Insure farmers against climate change

Bundelkhand is where India’s marginal farming dream died. Known for the dacoits of Chambal and the Rani of Jhansi, the arid region, occupying districts of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, has experienced drastic variation in climate in recent times. It faced a drought from 2003 to 2010, then floods in 2011, delayed monsoons in 2012 and 2013, and drought again since 2014. Farmers tried everything to adapt — growing a mix of dry crops during the kharif season, while interspersing the winter rabi wheat with cash crops like chickpea and mustard. They invested heavily in borewells, tractors, threshers and seeds and fertilizers through formal and informal credit.

India, a climate change hotspot

India is uniquely vulnerable to rising temperatures — it ranks in the top 20 in the Climate Change Vulnerability Index. Our average surface temperature, over the past four decades, has risen by 0.3° Celsius, accompanied by a rising incidence of floods, droughts and cyclones. With the majority of all landholdings in India measuring less than a hectare, marginal farmers face a steep decline in household income and a concomitant rise in household poverty through exacerbated droughts. Climate change would impact soil health, with increasing surface temperatures leading to higher CO emissions and reducing natural nitrogen availability. Mitigating this by increasing chemical fertilizer usage could impact long-term soil fertility, leaving the soil open to greater erosion and desertification. Meanwhile, migration patterns, farmer suicides and stagnating rural incomes, along with increasingly ad hoc land acquisition in the name of public goods, have politicised the idea of climate mitigation. 

Our dependency on rain continues to amplify — rain-fed agriculture is practised in the majority of our total cropped area supporting a significant proportion of the national food basket (55 per cent of rice, 90 per cent of pulses, 91 per cent of all coarse grain). Our regional crop patterns assume a specific range of weather variability, failing to cope with the recent high periods of heavy rainfall with long dry intervals. In 2013, large crops of wheat, gram, lentils and mustard, weeks away from harvesting, were destroyed in untimely rains. India’s flood-affected area has doubled since Independence, despite generous state spending on flood protection schemes.

Some policy prescriptions

Our low agricultural productivity remains a key constraint. According to the Swaminathan Committee on Farmers (2006), for rice, we produce 2,929 kg per hectare, while China produces twice as much. For other staples, we remain woeful, producing 913 kg of groundnut per hectare, while Indonesia produces nearly half as much more. As suggested by the National Commission on Farmers, a rural spending plan, focussed on investments in agriculture infrastructure, particularly in irrigation, rainwater harvesting and a national network of soil-testing laboratories is needed. Simple water harvesting and conservation measures (micro-irrigation, watershed management and insurance coverage) can reduce the majority of the potential loss due to drought (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2013). Drought strategies should be extended to the village level — for example, each village should have a village pond, created under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme.

Indian agricultural policy has made us structurally vulnerable to climate change. As suggested often by the National Commission on Farmers, conservation farming and dryland agriculture should be promoted. Each village should be provided timely rainfall forecasts along with weather-based forewarnings regarding crop pests and epidemics in various seasons. Afforestation, in a biodiverse manner, should be encouraged to help modify regional climates and prevent soil erosion. Our agricultural research programmes need to be retooled towards dryland research — it has been argued that adoption of drought-tolerant breeds can help reduce production risks by nearly a third, while offering attractive returns to breeders. Changing planting dates could have a significant impact; research highlights that planting wheat earlier than usual can help reduce climate change-induced damage. Zero tillage and laser-based levelling can also help conserve water and land resources. Crop planning can be conducted as per the climatic zones of different regions, while utilising better genotypes for rain-fed conditions.

We should focus on expanding our formal credit system to reach all marginal farmers. Insurance coverage should be expanded to all crops while reducing the rate of interest to nominal levels, with government support and an expanded Rural Insurance Development Fund. A debt moratorium policy on drought-distressed hotspots and areas facing climate change calamities should be announced, waiving interest on loans till farming incomes are restored. The Centre and States should launch an integrated crop, livestock and family health insurance package while instituting an Agriculture Credit Risk Fund to provide relief in the aftermath of successive natural disasters.

Climate change will impact the entire food production chain, affecting our food security. Livestock production, often considered to be a substitute to farming for marginal farmers, would face reduced fodder supplies given a decline in crop area or production. With India’s population rising, demand for diversified crops will be hard to square with diminishing yields. Agricultural investments in food crops, along with systemic support for irrigation, infrastructure and rural institutions can help move India beyond climate change-induced food insecurity, strengthening our stressed food production systems. Through adaptation and mitigation measures, we can overcome this Hobbesian crisis.


New Mauritius treaty signals end of shopping for tax havens

India's move to plug suspected losses in tax revenue through Mauritius, a top source of foreign investments into the country, has not sent financial markets into a tailspin as it would have just a few years ago.

But while markets took the move in their stride, analysts warn India is likely to expand its crackdown on tax treaties and make it harder for investors to shop around for new havens.

India will start imposing capital gains tax on investments coming from Mauritius starting next year, after the two countries agreed to amend a three-decade old treaty.

Now, funds from Mauritius interested in India will have to weigh paying capital gains taxes that could range from zero to as much as 20 per cent versus the expense of setting up a new structure. Investors say they will wait for final details and consider how it will affect India's tax treaty with Singapore. The rules state any changes to the capital gains exemption provided to Mauritius will lead to changes in the agreement with the city-state. Mauritius and Singapore account for the bulk of the $278 billion in foreign equity investments since 2000.

India has become a favourite destination of foreign investors under Modi on hopes of major reforms targeted to revitalise Asia's third-largest economy. Gross foreign investments reached a record $55.5 billion in the year to March 2016, up 23 percent from the previous year, according to brokerage Religare Capital Markets.


SC quashes TRAI’s call drop rules

Spelling relief for the telecom sector, the Supreme Court quashed the controversial Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s (TRAI) call-drop regulations, terming them “arbitrary” legislation whose actual intent is to penalise service providers rather than ensure quality service.

A Bench of Justices Kurian Joseph and Rohinton Fali Nariman held that the assumption apparent in the Telecom Consumers Protection (Ninth Amendment) Regulations, 2015 that every call drop is a “deficiency of service on the part of the service provider is plainly incorrect.”


Tobacco farmers find better alternative in pulse crops

Pulse crops, particularly Bengal gram and red gram, prove to be a better alternative for farmers in Prakasam district who have been traditionally growing tobacco.

If the present lacklustre market for tobacco, the principal commercial crop in the district, continues in the wake of the larger pictorial warning enforced by the Central government from April 1, more farmers will switch over to protein-rich pulse crops even if the Centre dilly-dallied on coming out with a financial package to show the farmers a sustainable economic alternative as suggested by the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) while taking steps to phase out tobacco cultivation.


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