Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Water export-A new concept of water logistics

Is India well advised to discourage food exports, especially fresh ones containing high moisture levels because of the claim recently made by a scientist that the water contained in these foods is irretrievably lost once for all. This is not considered a desirable situation especially for a country like India which is projected as a water stressed one facing massive shortage in the coming years. In the name of foreign exchange earning, are we exporting of foods without taking into consideration its impact on water dynamics. Can this be true? While the claim of water loss is true, whether it will have much impact on water supply is a highly debatable issue. After all export of a few million tons of food products cannot be a significant cause for water "drainage" out of the country considering that the country's water supply comes mostly from rains and Himalayan glaciers which again are influenced by cloud formation and other weather features. It is interesting to listen to the argument of irretrievable water loss through food exports though the concept put forward may not stand scientific scrutiny.   

"Have you heard of water export? Apparently, India has been sending "virtual" water to other countries through its food exports, and this trend is likely to continue. "Water used in agriculture is recirculated, but the (virtual) water exported out when we export food is not recoverable. Over a period of time, if food export is extensive, the country's water reserves go down affecting water sustainability," says Prashant Goswami, a researcher at the CSIR Fourth Paradigm Institute, Bengaluru. In answers send by email and given on the phone, Goswami, a Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar awardee, says that in contrast, China is a net importer of food and is therefore amplifying its water reserves. He suggests a change in India's food policy. Goswami, a climate and atmospheric modelling expert, warns in a study that if the current rate of net export of water in end products continues, India will lose its "entire available water in less than 1,000 years." This projection may go down further if parameters like increase in food demand and reduction in surface water due to climate change are taken into consideration, according to the study. The findings of the study 'Virtual water trade and time scales for loss of water sustainability: A comparative regional analysis' were published in the March 20 edition of Nature Scientific Reports. India, the US, and China are known to be the world's leading virtual water users and in the wake of growing consumption, such water trade plays a key role in the water sustainability of a nation, the study's author Goswami said. Goswami also said that for several decades, China has maintained a positive trade balance (more import than export) in virtual water trade and it is supplementing its water reserves".

The prediction that India will lose its entire water reserves in 1000 years cannot be taken at its face value because many experts believe that recycling of used water and conservation measures in India can solve the water crisis. Besides India has a long coastal line with access to Arabian sea and Indian Ocean and after all 97% of water on this planet is present in sea water. With solar distillation technology coming of age and reverse osmosis water desalination system, India can never be water stressed as long as it is able to find resources to invest in technology and infrastructure to augment its water needs from the sea and ocean around it. 

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Food Security Act-A "Tuglakian" venture?

India is a country of entitlements of different categories to various people and government is happy splurging public money to cater to these claimants whether they really deserve them or not. Latest addition to the entitlement landscape in the country is doling out almost free food grains to 67% of the population from the granaries of the government. The so called Food Security Act which confers on the designated population the "right" to receive practically free food grains like rice, wheat or coarse grains was hastily thought of by the previous government without much thought to the heavy burden put on future governments to harness sufficient resources to meet these commitments. Interestingly the government provided an escape clause in the Act if it is unable to procure adequate grains for supplying to almost 800 million people who were designated to receive the entitlement, though God knows what criteria were used to identify the beneficiaries. In lieu of supplying grains at the rate of 5 kg per person government intends to compensate the beneficiaries with cash transfer from the public exchequer at a certain calculated rate. Here is a gist of the scheme under which cash compensation is paid. 

"If a beneficiary under the National Food Security Act does not get his or her entitlement, then he/she would get an allowance of 1.25 times the difference between the government's Minimum Support Price (MSP) for that grain and the prescribed rate under the law. This is according to the recent rules framed by the Centre in this regard. The current MSP of wheat is Rs 1,450 a quintal and so, an individual beneficiary will get Rs 80.60 a month for not getting the entitled five kg. The allowance will have to deposited in the bank account or given to him. "Suppose a beneficiary has not received three kg of wheat in a month due to non-availability at the ration shop. The state government will have to ensure he or she gets the allowance as laid down in the rules," a senior official said. The Act, passed in the tenure of the earlier government, gives a legal entitlement for cheap grain to almost 67 per cent of the population. All entitled beneficiaries will get in a month as much as five kg of wheat, rice or coarse cereals at Rs 3 a kg for rice, Rs 2 a kg for wheat and Rs 1 a kg for coarse cereals. Once implemented, the Act is expected to cost the exchequer about Rs 130,000 crore a year. Around 11 states and union territories have implemented the Act and others are in the process of doing so. The Centre has extended the deadline several times. The Centre has said a nodal officer will have to verify at the end of each month the amount of grain available in the ration shops, the status of supply to entitled beneficiaries and the reason why grain could not be supplied. "The food security allowance in lieu of grains will have to given to the beneficiary by the end of the third week of the month for which grains could not be supplied to him." However, a beneficiary will be eligible for the allowance only if he visits the ration to claim the entitlement."

It is a tragedy that under the so called food security program, the right to receive heavily subsidized cereals is conferred only to some while other citizens are deprived of the same. Is it not a type of discrimination where some are given the benefits while others are denied it? Legally is it tenable? It is another matter that many citizens would voluntarily give up this right because of their conscience not to put unnecessary burden on the exchequer and avoid wasting public money. It is possible that most of the people who receive these grains have the wherewithal to pay for the grains at rates used to be charges under the earlier Public Distribution System. With the MNREGA scheme guaranteeing job for 150 days at the rate of Rs 150 per day there may be very little justification to provide grains at throw away prices. If the nation is serious in providing succor to really poor people, the government must create a data base identifying such people through scientific surveys. Probably there might not me more than 10-15% of the population in the country who deserve such helping hand from the government in providing basic foods at affordable prices. .It is nothing but suicidal for the present day government to commit precious resources of such a magnitude, estimated at almost Rs 130 billion every year which could have been better invested on the creaking infrastructure in the country!


Indian diet changing for the worse? New findings

Recent findings that the nutrient intake among Indian population is steadily changing for the worse are some what strange considering that the economic health of the nation is considered healthy with higher income and lower inflation prevalent during the last few years. A deeper look at the figures based on which these conclusions have been drawn will tell a different story. Generally average figures do not reflect the ground reality and if these figures are true, it means there are many, mostly poor, who do not consume even the average level nutrition because higher income people consume far higher amount of foods getting much more than the recommended levels of nutrients. But can this be true? How long a human survive with lesser calories and other vital nutrients like proteins? If the nutrient intake is tending to be lower, in spite of the progress the country has made, the implication is that the productive capacity of the working population is becoming poorer day by day. Here is the gist of the argument put forward by some critics on this issue which may be some what far fetched. 

"The average protein intake of a person through normal diet has dipped 6-10% in the past two decades with almost 80% of rural population and 70% of urban people not getting the government-designated 2,400kcal per day worth of nutrition, latest data shows. Comparative estimates drawn by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Ficci) reveal that in urban areas the gap in nutrition intake is worse. While the richest get over 2,518kcal each per day, the poorest get less than 1,679kcal — a difference of nearly 50%. "The situation has very harmful health implications, apart from its sheer inhumanity," says Vaibhav Kulkarni, chairman-nutraceuticals committee (western region), Ficci.  The data shows daily protein consumption at the national level dipped from 60.2g for a person in 1993-94 to 56.5g in 2011-12 in rural areas and from 57.2g to 55.7g in urban areas. Experts say though there are many reasons behind the dip, change in eating habits and decline in quality of natural products are some of the key reasons for the reducing nutrition intake".

The reason attributed to this "dip" in nutrition status is the undesirable change in food habits though it is not clearly spelt why there should be a lowering of calorie intake?. Globally with affluence among low income groups, calories intake usually shoots up while overall nutritive value of the diet suffers with respect to many essential nutrients. The word "empty calorie" has been coined to reflect the poor quality of such calorie rich diets containing high sugars and fats. If human physiology is taken seriously, humans will not compromise on hunger if they have money in their hands and there is no reason why Indians cannot spend on calorie adequate foods such as cereals which are supplied at low prices through the Public Distribution system of the country to the poor people? In the light of these realities, it is difficult to take the figures trotted out above as true reflection of the situation existing in the country. National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) with its nutrition monitoring net work has not raised this matter so far and Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) is a reliable agency to forewarn about any such alarming trend, if it really is true.   

Monday, May 11, 2015

Plastic Parks-Will it fulfill the dream of achieving tectonic transformation in employment generation?

On an earlier occasion there was a criticism by this Blogger regarding the proposal to set up "Plastic" Parks in different parts of the country to increase the production of various plastic materials required by many user industries mainly because of the fact that plastic produced from fossil fuels is not a sustainable proposition in the long run. Of course there are new plastics emerging using new technologies based on renewable sources of carbon with minimum environmental pollution. One is not sure from the information available from the government regarding the product mix and technology mix being considered for setting up production units in these new "Parks". If even a part of the projected "benefits" touted by the government is achievable, it could be a game changer. However if the gap between "talk" and "act" evident in the past is any indication these parks also are not going to be different from others floated by other ministries like MFPI. Here is a gist of the grand vision projected by the concerned minister recently in a "conference" and readers are free to come to their own conclusions regarding whether this is a PR exercise or a realistic and honest effort.  

"A meeting of the Consultative Committee of Members of Parliament attached to the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilizers was held on April 7, 2015 to discuss the progress on Petroleum, Chemicals and Petrochemical Investment Regions (PCPIRs) and plastic parks. "Today's challenge in the sector is value addition and for that value addition, milking the crude for further proliferation of the downstream industries is needed," said Ananth Kumar, minister of chemicals& fertilizers, in the meeting. The Modi Government is targeting to achieve an investment of Rs 7,62,000 crores and generate employment for 34 lakh people in PCPIRs, in time bound manner. Already there has been an investment Rs 1,06,000 crores which has generated employment for 2.23 lakh people in various PCPIRs. The minister informed the committee members about government's initiatives to increase the number of plastic parks from 4 to 10 to catch up with the increasing demand. He also mentioned that the number of Central Institutes for Plastic Engineering and Technology (CIPET) will be increased from 23 to 100, to create additional capacity for skill development in the area. Ananth Kumar said that the Government is emphasising on reducing the consumption of non-biodegradable plastics, and re-using and re-cycling of other graded polymers. He said that the Government has instituted awards for green technology in plastic processing, to promote environment-friendly efforts in the industry." 

The figures quoted by the minister are indeed staggering to say the least. Investments to the tune of seven and half lakh crore are breath taking while generating employment for a quarter million people is highly impressive. The proposal to set up 100 R & D and training centers for skill development is mind boggling. How far these Parks will go for new green technologies cannot be foreseen since India lags far behind many other countries in developing technologies production from renewable resources and for those with biodegradable credentials. Probably to really put into operation these ideals and aspirations large scale foreign participation may be necessary which is linked to foreign investment policy of the government. All we can do at this juncture is to wish the minister good luck and hope for the best.   


Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Water management in agriculture-New technology

Agricultural productivity is closely linked to efficient water management and optimum utilization of nutrients by the plants. In a tropical country like India water loss through evaporation and run off can deprive the plants of water required at the desired levels. There are farm technologies like drip irrigation, spray irrigation etc which are used by well to do farmers for high dividend crops but they are beyond the means of most of the farmers who depend on rain water to manage just one crop in an year. As water is a scarce natural resource, it is imperative that it is conserved as much as possible preventing avoidable losses. It is in this context one has to appreciate the innovative technology developed under the ICAR aegis which uses a type of hydrogel to retain water without allowing it to evaporate over a long time making water available to the plants regularly. Here is a report from the NRDC of India which has made this technology available for commercialization recently hoping it will help the farming community to manage their water resources more efficiently.  

"National Research Development Corporation (NRDC), under the Department of Scientific & Industrial Research (DSIR), and Reliance Industries Limited (RIL) have signed an agreement for commercialisation of a novel superabsorbent hydrogels technology. This involves a novel hydrophilic super absorbent polymer indigenously developed by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, New Delhi, to meet the requirements of water productivity in agriculture. "The scientists had successfully demonstrated the potential of resolving the problem of poor water use efficiency in agricultural crops. Besides, improved nutrient use efficiency, an array of other benefits have been achieved by using this product," said DSIR in a press release. NRDC is about to execute another agreement with a Chennai based company for the transfer of the same technology. NRDC has already executed agreements with five companies. Hydrogel absorbs a minimum of 350 times its weight of pure water. It exhibits absorbency at high temperatures suitable for semi-arid and arid regions. Besides, low rate of application it also improves physical properties of soil such as porosity, aggregate stability and hydraulic conductivity. "No undesirable effect on the crops raised in the fields treated with hydrogel has ever been observed or reported by the experimenters or the end users, the farmers," added the release."    

How far this technology can help the farmers under field conditions is not clear now. But in principle the hydrogel technology has the potential to revolutionize the farming sector if products are manufactured and made available at affordable cost. Also to be seen is the type of adjustments farmers will have to make in their normal operations to use hydrogels. If government is convinced that the new technology can revolutionize water usage pattern in the country, no effort should be spared to support its use nationwide. Of course this not going to be a panacea for solving the water problems in the agricultural sector, especially in drought affected areas but it will reduce unnecessary water loss in areas where water is available in lesser quantities.  


Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Prosperity, thy name is "nemesis"-Great food inflicted health crisis staring us!

Umpteen number of treatise emphasize the uncomfortable truth that an average a denizen, living in any part of the globe with high income, consumes a diet that is drastically different from that consumed 50 years ago. The catch here is that the quality of the diet has taken a beating with more and refined foods, low quality carbohydrates, less and less of fibers, fruits and vegetables, more of fats of lower quality, predominating the food that is consumed day in day out. The result is there for every one to see. Diseases like obesity, CVD, blood pressure, diabetes, kidney ailments, liver problems, cancer etc have become common and billions of dollars are being spent to treat them, the only beneficiary being the drug industry. Here is a telling commentary on this vicious situation in a super rich country like the US which is revealing.

"Today, novelty dominates American food. Those yellow arches are now golden arches and we are now a nation addicted to sugar, fat and drive-through windows. Food is mere fuel, and we eat more of it in our family car than at our family table. For proof, look how we — you and me — have changed our food patterns in the last 40 or so years.
• In 1960, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, we spent 26 cents of our food dollar on restaurant meals; in 2013 it was 50 percent.
• In 1950, the standard soft-drink bottle contained 6.5 ounces; in 1960 it grew to 12 ounces and, in the 1990s, 20 ounces became the norm.
• In 1970, according to numbers in a 2011 article published by Grist, the U.S. "churned out 2,168 calories per day per person, 402 of which came from added sugar and 410 from added fat ... or, combined, about 37 percent of the total."
• In 2008, the U.S. produced 2,673 calories per day person (" ... powerful evidence that [America's] cheap food policy ... succeeded ... ") of which "added fats and sugars [grew] to 459 and 641 calories, respectively, a 35 percent jump over the 1970 level ... "
• In 2013, according to Harvard University, Americans spent "an estimated $190 billion treating obesity-related health conditions."
• Also, in 2013, U.S. organic sales (which USDA does not track) totaled an estimated $35.1 billion, an 11.5 percent increase from 2012 but still only 18.4 percent of the amount spent we spent to treat obesity-related health problems that year. 
What's it all mean, fellow foodies? According to that brief survey, most of us ate less sugar and less fat when we ate more fresh, local food at home 40 or 50 years ago than what we buy and eat (mostly) in town today. Also, most of us were skinnier and healthier (as were our parents in comparison to us today) and all of us had more neighbors and more "community" — local banks, medical care, grocery and clothing stores and the like — than almost any of us have anywhere in rural America today. In short, we had it very, very good — despite Grandma pushing the pickle beets and lima beans every chance she got. Little wonder, then, that a new food culture, a foodie culture, is taking root across the U.S. now."

Though the above study, analyzing the hard data is considered reliable, there is no cogent answer as to what can be done to redeem the world from the curse of bad food and distorted food culture which are slowly but surely making the quality of life progressively deteriorating. While many blame the industry for this sorry situation, some blame will have be apportioned to the government regulatory agencies who have allowed this situation to develop by shirking their bounden responsibility to protect the lives of the citizens. Where does the consumer come in this complex scenario? Of course it is the weak will power and weakness for tasty foods abandoning the health concerns (similar to tobacco and alcohol) on the part of the consumer that is driving this insane rush towards health catastrophe staring at them! Unless consumers, regulatory agencies, health experts and the food business get together to deal with the crisis, this sordid "death dance" will continue unabated!

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Soda market moving to India? Latest investment on soft drinks in Hyderabad

When we are being bombarded with the Prime Minister's pet theme of "Make in India", day in and day out, there was great hope that products identified for manufacture, both for domestic and export consumption would be highly relevant to the country's needs. Of course the relevance of a product is determined by factors like consumer demand, environmental hazard, health implications, employment generated, water exploitation, farmer linkages etc. By no stretch of imagination manufacture of soft drinks can fit into this bill but if current trend is any indication foreign investors will invest only if they have a market for their products, rightly so.  Is soft drink an item of consumption that must be encouraged in our country when world over these products are being condemned for their empty calories and vulnerability of consumers to a host of diseases including CVD, blood pressure, kidney ailments, obesity, diabetes etc ? Recent report coming from Andhra Pradesh claiming that an MNC is investing in that state on a piece of land measuring 85 acres of government land for setting up a mega bottling plant is indeed disturbing. Should India be rolling red carpet to such investors who have very little regard for the well being of the citizens in this country? It is difficult to justify or rationalize this industry as the highly automated plant is unlikely to provide much employment or earn any foreign exchange! Here is a take on this paradox that is happening in front of our eyes with all and sundry paying obeisance to the dollar lord!   

"For the past 25 years, PepsiCo has been investing in the Indian economy and its people. As we move forward into our next 25 years, that commitment is stronger than ever. This plant is an investment in India's bright future," said Nooyi. Spread across 86 acres, the first line of the plant started manufacturing on Friday. When it becomes fully operational, it would benefit nearly 33,000 farmers thanks to local sourcing of mangoes and other fruits, Nooyi said. Speaking on the occasion, Naidu said local sourcing of mangoes would immensely benefit the region economically. Complimenting the Sri City management for attracting dozens of companies to set up shop there, Naidu said it could become India's largest industrial park in 10 years. The PepsiCo plantwill manufacture fruit juice-based drinks, carbonated soft drinks, and sports drinks, among other beverages. PepsiCo has deployed state-of-the-art technologies with an emphasis on production efficiencies, environment protection and safety. The plant will be PepsiCo's most water-efficient beverage plant in India and the firm aims to procure LEED certification for this facility, company officials said. a LEED, or Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design, is a set of rating systems for the design, construction, operation, and maintenance of green buildings, homes and neighborhoods. It is developed by the US Green Building Council. PepsiCo has a large manufacturing facility, with seven production lines in Telangana to cater to the markets of the undivided Andhra Pradesh and parts of Karnataka. The company, which has 22 brands in its product portfolio comprising food and beverages, has annual retail sales of about $1 billion. Sitting on a land bank of 8,000 acres, Sri City currently houses 106 companies employing 25,000 directly The GVK group plans to set up a hospital, medical college and a research centre at Sri City with an initial investment of Rs 100 crore, according to officials."

Andhra Pradesh government which is bending backwards to please the MNC seems to be forgetting what happened in Kerala years ago when the people of Plachimeda, a small hamlet in that state where a similar bottling plant was allowed to be set up led to one of the most virulent opposition campaigns India has ever seen against the corporate investor. Besides over exploiting water resources, the spent water polluted the area heavily causing many problems to the local population and thanks to people's power the bottling plant was forced to be shut down once for all. Interestingly the investors in A.P are using sugar coated words like employment generation, benefiting the farmer, high technology, research and innovation etc to mislead the government. It is difficult to imagine how farmers are going to benefited if the major product made is flavored sugary water, though there is a sprinkling of fruit based but sugar sweetened drinks containing traces of natural fruit solids! Unhealthy products like potato chips, fried and heavily salted extruded snacks etc are going to be the major part of the turn over expected from this factory. There is not even a single healthy product in the portfolio of products churned out by this company justifying conferring so much favors on it. If this is the forerunner of things to come under the "make in India" slogan, where is this country going to end up? God save the country!