Addressing an agricultural crisis in the context of climate change

By Priya Prasad

Labelling itself as “A Foundation for Food Security,” former politician and executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, Marie Haga emphasised the need for a “specific mandate for food security.” “There is a need to conserve diversity of major food crops and making it available to farmers and breeders,” she adds. She says this in the context of climate change, which scientists say will benefit crops in certain areas but would have adverse effects worldwide, bringing down food production by 2%.

“The challenge facing agriculture is that there are too many people. This would need a 15% increase in food production in 10 years, and this will occur in the midst of climate change,” Haga says. In a document prepared by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), climate change will have a negative impact on agriculture. A one degree rise in temperatures globally will lead to a 10% reduction in rice yields. “Agriculture has to adapt, and it has to adapt quickly,” says an emphatic Haga.

Haga praised India’s Food Security Act, saying that more countries need to make food security and its conservation high on their political agendas. “Now they are working in the UN for the 2015 development goals. I don’t doubt that food security will be on the agenda but we’ve got to make sure that it is sufficiently strong,” she says.

According to Haga, crop diversity is the way forward. Having varieties of food crops available will help address the agricultural shortage that will occur. But the challenge now lies in making this diverse food crop available to farmers and this would require conserving crops. Plant genebanks are one such method of storing a variety of seeds. This is where the role of organsiations such as the Global Crop Diversity Fund come in, which was established at the United Nations Johannesburg Summit in 2002. “Genebanks are not meant to be museums, but seeds need to be stored and made available to farmers,” she adds.

The Trust works under the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. It was established as a system of sharing the benefits of storing seed varieties with the global community. A back-up facility was  created on an island near the Arctic pole, Svalbard which houses 781,148 samples of seeds from all over the world. The facility includes major international collections from organisations such as Africa Rice, Secretariat of the Pacific Community, Biodiversity International to name a few as well as national collections from individual member states.

The collection at Svalbard is supported via an endowment fund from the various governments that are part of the International Treaty. The proceeds of this fund account for 15% of the overall costs of managing the collection.

Questions were raised regarding patentcy issues of sharing the national collections of seeds at Svalbard with other countries. Haga and her colleague, Luigi Guarino, a senior scientist at the Trust said that this would only apply to countries that fall under the International Treaty.

The talk on food security, “Feeding a Growing World Despite Climate Change,” was held at the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation. In his opening address, Mr Swaminathan said that the work of such organisations such as the Global Crop Trust Fund is to keep “genetic resources in trust for posterity” in order to ensure the wellbeing of future generations.


For Better or Worse? The Changing Face of the Fisheries Industry

Traditional fishing boats catch not only fish but also fish eggs as they fish near the shore during the fishing ban period, which is the breeding period for the fish. This has led to a decrease in the size of the fishes. Photo credit: Jyothi Sriram

Traditional fishing boats catch not only fish but also fish eggs as they fish near the shore during the fishing ban period, which is the breeding period for the fish. This has led to a decrease in the size of the fishes. Photo credit: Jyothi Sriram

By Priya Prasad

RATNAGIRI: Once a traditional industry, fisheries in Ratnagiri has seen tremendous growth over the years. “From the 1960s onwards, technology entered the field. We started mechanisation of boats, trawling and the fishermen began using different types of fishing methods,” says Swapna Mohite, researcher and professor at College of Fisheries, Ratnagiri. This was the boom period for fisheries, she says, and with this, the number of boats and people entering the industry increased exponentially. “I have been in this field for 25 years so I have seen the industry change from being very primitive to becoming a very technology oriented industry now,” she adds.

The availability of technology such as GPS, sonar fish finding equipment and radio navigation has made it easy for fishermen to catch fish. This, though, leads to a dwindling of the fish population. The effect of this is felt by the fishermen. Bilaval Pisal, Vice Chairman of the Bhagavati Fisheries Society says that the fishing business is on the decline, “We keep our boats on the shore for 15 to 20 days because we do not get any catch. We do not earn enough for a day.” The fishermen incur a loss of Rs 5,000 to Rs 6,000 per day whenever they stop fishing for that time period.

Pisal says this happens for a number of reasons—over fishing, cyclones, use of purse nets as well as speed boats from neighbouring states. “Speed boats from Goa and Karnataka fish in our waters. They have good capacity so they catch more fish,” he adds. These boats are allowed to fish in the deep sea, but it is illegal for them to fish near shore which they often do. This occurs despite taking them to court and a fine. “Although the matter is closed, it will happen again and again,” says Pisal.

Purse nets are used rampantly by the fishermen here. Since it can capture a large number of fish, many fish die in these nets. Use of these nets has no regulation. Photo credit: Jyothi Sriram

Purse nets are used rampantly by the fishermen here. Since it can capture a large number of fish, many fish die in these nets. Use of these nets has no regulation. Photo credit: Jyothi Sriram

However, besides these reasons, the fishermen themselves are unaware of how their fishing practices contribute to the depletion of fish species. “Traditional boats are allowed to fish in shore during the fishing ban period, which is also the fish breeding season. Most fishes lay their eggs near the shore because the area is rich in food. Since these smaller boats or traditional boats fish in that area, they catch the eggs which are about to spawn or breed,” says Mohite. Moreover, these fish eggs have a high demand in the market. As there are no new “recruits” for the next season, the number of fish reduces. “Besides this, smaller sized fishes are being caught. Consequently, they do not reach the age of maturity. If these two trends continue, the fish stock will be depleted,” she adds.

Besides over fishing, what also thretans the fish population in the Ratnagiri coastal area is their reduced size. Photo credit - Jyothi Sriram

Besides over fishing, what also thretans the fish population in the Ratnagiri coastal area is their reduced size. Photo credit – Jyothi Sriram

The smaller fishermen do not have the financial support to adopt technological innovations, and additionally, they are not ready to take up alternative methods such as culturing clams or green mussels, which are available abundantly in the Ratnagiri coastal area. “This kind of culture does not require large capital investment or 24×7 care. They [the traditional fishermen] can supplement their income by using these alternatives,” states Mohite.

Besides fishing practices, another issue the fishing community faces is lack of government support. It is a common complaint among fishermen that the sugar mill industry receives more attention from the government. “Whenever we face a loss, the government does not give us any aid or grants. They [the government] can give Rs 6, 000 to Rs 7,000 crores without interest to the sugar mills, but we fishermen get no help,” says Pisal. He further adds that about only 10% to 15% of fishermen manage to run the fisheries business with reasonable returns, the rest remain poor.

There is a considerable portion of the fisher folk population that falls under the below the poverty line category, but not much of the government services and schemes trickles down to them. “We [fisheries cooperative] register BPL families either at the Ratnagiri Municipal Corporation or at the district collector’s office. But these families do not get their dues. The schemes do not reach everyone. The corporation and collector’s offices constantly pass the buck between themselves,” says Pisal.

Mohite says the Konkan coast is rich in biodiversity and it is not fully studied. Furthermore, she adds that the aquatic ecosystem is very sensitive and every organism is interdependent from sea weeds, corals and other organisms. “If you take out one organism from that system, the entire food chain will collapse. If you want to nourish or develop this ecosystem, you have to think from the “bottom,” not just a particular fish,” she says.

Debunking the myth of the baba

Maruti Joshi visits villages across India, demonstrating the tricks used by god men to fool people. People across most of Maharashtra have very strong beliefs in superstition and black magic. Mr Joshi says that women, even educated women, fall prey to the manipulations of the babas. Photo credit: Priya Prasad

Maruti Joshi visits villages across India, demonstrating the tricks used by god men to fool people. People across most of Maharashtra have very strong beliefs in superstition and black magic. Mr Joshi says that women, even educated women, fall prey to the manipulations of the babas. Photo credit: Priya Prasad

By Priya Prasad

RATNAGIRI: The table is littered/full of an assortment of paraphernalia—multi-coloured scarves, bottled mineral water, a dagger, some metal tumblers, two coconuts, a bottle with some transparent liquid and two other small containers. After setting up his table, Maruti Joshi begins his demonstration.

“I am going to show you how these babas trap you. The Konkan region in particular has many of them going around,” he says.

A former traffic cop of the Mumbai Police, Mr Joshi goes from town to town and village to village across India, exposing the sham and lies of god men. “I used to practise black magic [when he was working for the Mumbai Police]. But later I stopped practising it because I realized that all of it is a myth, a falsity. The tricks have a scientific explanation,” he says.

People in the Konkan region are particularly vulnerable to these god men because they have strong beliefs in the supernatural and in methods of predicting the future. Because of such erroneous beliefs, he says, people are willing to pay these babas large sums of money in return for their ‘wisdom’. “A baba can receive Rs 50,000, sometimes even a lakh of rupees. A normal worker gets paid on Rs 100!” says Joshi.

Women are the ones who usually fall prey to these god men. “Recently, many women visited a baba for blessings, but he would abuse them. The women think these abuses are the blessings of the baba. They are assured that this will help them attain Moksha. Shockingly, many of them are educated,” says Joshi.

The tricks of the babas can range from the ridiculous to the absurd. In one trick, villagers give a cow a bath and then they drag the animal. If it falls, the villagers believe God has spoken. After this, they hunt for pigs in the mountains. “They try to shoot a pig but usually instead of the pigs, men die. They say they want to kill pigs in the name of God. This ritual is very popular in the Konkan region,” adds Joshi.

In another ruse, the god men claim that in the Konkan region, dozens of spirits roam inside men and women. The god men burn incense and put that in their mouths, which people take as a sign of the ‘spirits’ within them. “It only takes three seconds for the incense to cool down. That’s what science says. They’re all frauds!” says an emphatic Joshi.

If not their religious and superstitious beliefs, the god men prey upon the people by taking advantage of their ignorance in science by using various simple easily-available substances. A trick of this type involves a hollow coconut filled with potassium, pieces of wood and glycerine. The potassium is kept at the bottom of the coconut and the wood is kept on top. The baba will then add glycerine to this which will result in a large fire. People then worship this considering it as something divine.

“In another popular trick, these babas rub a chemical into their hands, then apply chuna [lime], after which they blow it. This results in the formation of a pink coloured powder. As they blow it, they recite a mantra and people think that this is supernatural,” Joshi laughs as he recounts this.

These are but a few of the tricks of the god men, says Joshi. Having campaigned against these god men for close to ten years, he has earned a reputation for himself. “Day before yesterday, I was in a village called Lanjha, where I lectured and demonstrated to the policeman there. Now, I have been called to Kankouli village. I go wherever I am called and give demonstrations,” he says. Furthermore, he says he does this for free. It is a service he is providing to the people.

People such as Mr Joshi are not few. Superstition and black magic are extremely contentious issues in the state of Maharashtra. This was evident in the death of rationalist and anti-superstition campaigner, Narendra Dabholkar in Pune in August 2013. In the aftermath of Dr Dabholkar’s death, the Anti-Superstition bill—which he helped draft way back in the 1990s—was passed in the Maharashtra legislature in December 2013. Perhaps, the passing the bill would make Mr Joshi’s job all the more easier.

Prospective Growth in Fisheries

The fisheries industry faces a shortage of manpower. Besides this, it also lacks innovative technology such as better equipped boats and modern nets. Photo credit: Jyothi Sriram

The fisheries industry faces a shortage of manpower. Besides this, it also lacks innovative technology such as better equipped boats and modern nets. Photo credit: Jyothi Sriram

By Priya Prasad

RATNAGIRI: As the fisheries’ contribution to the country’s GDP has grown to 1.1 per cent, it has thrown open doors not only for many aspiring job seekers but has also attracted graduates to seek training in what is seen as a profitable and prosperous career.

Swapna Mohite, researcher and teacher at College of Fisheries, Ratnagiri says that research in fisheries is a very lucrative field. “We can say fisheries education began in the 70s, but the field is still young. There is so much to do, so many species to discover,” she adds.

Mahendra Jadhav, an Assistant Fisheries Development Officer at Ratnagiri says that when he decided to enter the fisheries line, the scope was tremendous. “One could enter the medical or veterinary fields but fisheries had greater scope, people were few. Fisheries Development Officer, District Development Officer, Fisheries Curator, Fisheries Commissioner, these were some of the posts available then. A few of my batch mates have become agricultural research scientists. There is considerable scope for the future,” says Jadhav.

The degree course at the College of Fisheries, Ratnagiri provides students with the option for self-employment. However, students are not prepared to take up the hard work involved in setting up a venture. “Students’ expectations have increased. It [a job in fisheries] is not like a 9 to 5 job where you work and earn a salary. In a processing company, you have to work 12 hours or sometimes even 24 hours. If you have a fish farm, you have to be on your farm throughout the culture period because you are dealing with live specimens. If even a single parameter goes wrong, the entire culture can collapse,” adds Mohite.

However, she says that students working abroad in processing industries and fish farms are optimistic about their career prospects. This holds true not only abroad but locally as well.

A third year student at the College of Fisheries, Ratnagiri, Uday Gavidh wants to start his own business, “I want to get into the brackish water aquaculture business. I have already started one [a culture farm] in Dahanu (near Mumbai) and I want to open another one this June. There is a particular species of shrimp that grows the fastest; it has a five month culture period. I would like to sell this in the Bombay market.”

However, despite such scope and growth, the field is not receiving the development it requires. “The boats that catch fish face many problems—they do not receive ice on time, they don’t get diesel. If they do get diesel, they do not get any subsidies, if they do get subsidies, then they don’t get enough diesel, so they will incur a loss. The fisheries societies need manpower, modern nets and vessels. They need these things to start something new and the government needs to provide this,” says Jadhav.

Another problem, says Jadhav, is that the wrong people hold positions in fisheries, “Earlier, BSc Zoology degree holders would occupy vacancies as fisheries development officers and assistants. In Zoology, they teach only one subject of fisheries which has one credit. If they [the government] are giving degrees to BFSc students but taking money from BSc students and then giving them preference, what is the need for a fisheries degree?”
Jadhav says that students from the College of Fisheries, Ratnagiri discussed this issue with ministers from the Nagpur assembly demanding that only BFSc students be given preference for jobs.

This move proved effective. “In 2007, there were 14 positions but there was a stay [order] and after that there were no positions at all. So, now in 2014, after 7 years, 14 positions for the Assistant Fisheries Development Officer have opened up. The students’ efforts have borne fruit,” says Jadhav

While prospects for employment and opportunities for quality education are available a plenty for those with the means and access to the services, the fisheries industries also employs a large number of manual and migrant labourers. Akash Salunke, student at the College of Fisheries, Ratnagiri, says, “There is scope for degree holders to get government jobs, but those who do not have degrees, such as manual labourers, do not have the opportunity to improve their earnings. This is the biggest problem.”

From Local to Hyperlocal—The Water Conundrum

It’s been almost two weeks since the students at the Asian College of Journalism have settled down and they are already witnessing first-hand the infamous water shortage problem of Chennai. “It’s not only ACJ but Chennai has a water problem as well. It does get difficult for us to store water in our buckets and use it productively. Also, the water has a weird muddy colour to it,” says Oindrilla, a student at ACJ. She further states that the water is rather salty and causes a lot of throat problems for many. Besides this, students have also reported being late for class because of no water flow in the mornings.

The water shortage problem also poses a major inconvenience to those with the six-room occupancy. “The water doesn’t start till 7 or 8 am, and there are six of us in one room so it gets very inconvenient,” mentions Harsh.

However, this isn’t a one-sided issue of negligence on the part of the management. Some students do feel that it is up to them to take responsibility to conserve and utilise water judiciously. “It’s actually up to us to save water because there are a lot of people who leave the taps open when the water is not running and when the water comes on again, the whole tank empties,” says Oindrilla.

ACJ is equipped with a motor that supplies water throughout the college as well as two to three sams or storage tanks. The administration states that water scarcity is bound to occur—there are nearly 150 students residing in the hostel and the faculty comes to the college between 9 and 5, so water usage is at its peak during the working hours. Regarding students leaving the taps open, the administration says, “We haven’t put up any notice so we tell students to pass on the message to keep the taps closed when they leave their bathrooms.”

This issue reflects the wider water problem that Chennai faces. In June, there were media reports of a reduction in the groundwater table. “There is water shortage mostly in the months of summer when the metro water system is not as effective as you’d want it to be, but people have circumvented it by installing bore wells wherein they harvest the ground water. But that again leads to depleting water table levels,” says Zahaan a student at ACJ and a local resident.

Eventually, it comes down to how we conserve water and the environment at large, and this effort has to stem from individuals, governments and institutions.

Pallikaranai: Conserving Biodiversity

Much has been written about the Pallikaranai marshlands, a site famous for its diverse ecological habitat of plant and animal life. In recent years, the site has been in the news as its viability is under threat. A visit to the marshlands and you will know why.

Pallikaranai Wetlands

Pallikaranai Wetlands

Located near the wetlands is a 200 acres garbage dumping site. Senthil is a Conservancy Inspector working at the garbage dump yard at Pallikaranai. His job is to oversee operations at the yard and to ensure that the garbage being gathered is properly weighed. He says that about 150 acres of that land has already been filled with garbage, which approximates to about 2,500 to 3,000 tonnes.

Another hazard that the dump yard faces, he says, is frequent fires which is caused by methane gas. The gas develops because of the excessive amount of garbage that is collected there. Besides this, sewage water is also accumulated from the neighbouring areas and treated near the yard which then connects back to the city’s main drainage system.

Sewage treatment plant at Perungudi garbage dump

Sewage treatment plant at Perungudi garbage dump

The issue of preserving the Pallikaranai marshlands has been taken up by a consortium of NGOs led by Care Earth, an environmental conservation and advocacy group. In a study, Management Plan Conservation of Pallikaranai Marsh, the consortium has highlighted the various ways in which the marshlands are being destroyed because of ‘man-made activities’. The consequence of such destruction, they say, results is increased flooding in the area.

The importance of this marshland cannot be further underscored. In an effort to curtail the degradation of the wetlands, the consortium has put down several recommendations—setting up of a coordinating agency to conserve the wetlands; according the marshlands a Ramsar site; promoting education and awareness regarding Pallikaranai; and developing a ‘Detailed Management Plan’. These recommendations serve as “a reconciliation of conservation and development goals”.

While preservation efforts are being undertaken by such advocacy groups, the government too is doing its bit: the garbage at the dump is divided into biodegradable and non-biodegradable trash. Rather than setting up a treatment plant, the Chennai Corporation calls in rag pickers to segregate the rubbish. They regularly collect all the biodegradable trash, thereby helping in recycling.

Garbage Dump, Perungudi

Garbage Dump, Perungudi

Given that approximately 50 lakh tonnes of garbage are dumped in the yard, the Chennai Corporation is now planning to close the present dump yard site and start two new ones outside the city limits. The fate of the Pallikaranai marsh is yet uncertain, but with such conservation attempts from both private and public enterprises, there is much hope for the future of Pallikaranai.