Read the distress signals

(The Hindu)

Conserve every drop

(The Hindu)

Is Big Data a threat to free democratic choice?

(Live Mint)

 

Read the distress signals

(The Hindu

Synoptic line: It throws light on issue of ongoing farmer’s protest in the country.

(GS paper II)

Overview

 

  • Recurrent farmers’ agitations in the last few years across the nation, led to the question that why only extreme distress and street protests alert us to the deep and chronic problems of agriculture?

 

  • After covering 180km on foot week-long farmers’ march reached Mumbai earlier this month, on the anniversary of Gandhi’s Dandi March of 1930, was unprecedented in many ways, as it was mostly silent and disciplined, mostly leaderless, non-disruptive and non-violent, and well organised.

 

Assessment

 

  • The protest received the sympathy of middle class city dwellers, food and water from bystanders, free medical services from volunteer doctors, and also bandwagon support of all political parties from the left to the right.

 

  • The most remarkable thing about the march was that it was successful. The State government agreed to all the demands, including pending transfer of forest land to Adivasis, expanding the scope of the loan waiver and ensuring higher prices for farm produce.

 

  • There was ceremonial signing of acceptance of the demands, although the Chief Minister of Maharashtra said that he had tried to dissuade the farmers from undertaking the gruelling 200 km march itself. The farmers, however, were determined to march to make a point, and to ensure that they received firm (signed) and publicly visible commitment, rather than assurances.

 

  • Over the years and decades, there have been numerous committees, reports and commissions with extensively researched policy recommendations. Yet farming is a story of recurring distress, this implies that the recommendations are not working and need a paradigm change, or there is a huge gap in their implementation or a bit of both.

 

  • The most comprehensive recent blueprint for reforms and rehabilitation of the farm sector is the report of the National Commission on Farmers, chaired by M.S. Swaminathan. That report is already over 10 years old. Several of its ideas are yet to be implemented. For instance, decentralising public procurement of food grain to the lowest level possible, and setting up of grain banks at the district level.

 

Farm problem

 

  • The “farm problem” of India is a huge mountain; the biggest priority is to reduce the workforce which depends on agriculture for its livelihood. There is considerable underemployment and low productivity but farmers are unable to exit to other livelihood options. It points to the obvious conclusion that the solution to the farm crisis lies largely outside the farm sector.

 

  • If job opportunities abound elsewhere, then we should see an exodus out of farming. That points to the urgency of accelerating industrial growth and improving the ease of doing business. Also it has been acknowledged that the farm sector has been shackled for far too long. Farming is to be treated as a business and has to be viable on its own terms.

 

  • Historically, farm prices were kept suppressed to keep industrial wages low. This meant monopoly procurement laws and the intermediation through the Agriculture Produce Market Committees (APMC). But that was compensated by providing the farmer with highly subsidised inputs -water, electricity, fertilizer, credit and seeds. But this did not benefit the really needy, subsistence farmers. Nor did it alter the terms of trade which to this day remain tilted against agriculture.

 

  • Over the years the policy framework is increasingly complex and a patchwork quilt of mutually compensating measures. Thus, we have ended up with all the shackles which remain intact. The APMC is not discontinued. Monopoly procurement continues. There is little progress in direct link between farmer and buyer.

 

  • Foreign direct investment in farm to fork chain is very restricted. Half the farmers don’t have access to formal credit, since most of them don’t own the land that they till. Contract farming remains virtually banned. Land leasing is not possible. Moneylenders are taboo, even though they might be in the best position to address credit needs, albeit with proper regulation.

 

  • The farmer’s plight is full of woe, exposed to risks from prices, demand, weather, pests and whims of policy and regulation. It’s no surprise that crisis is chronic, and loan waivers become imperative, more for moral and ethical reasons, than economic.

 

  • Loan waivers punish those who worked hard and repaid, and the cash anyway goes to banks, not to farmers. Banks don’t issue fresh loans out of their own risk aversion. Hence, loan waivers are a bad economic idea but often a political compulsion. The same is true of rewarding farmers with 50% more minimum support price (MSP), no matter what the cost.

 

  • This paradigm of cost plus pricing is bad economics. Sugarcane grows cheaper in Uttar Pradesh in the Gangetic plains than in drought-prone Maharashtra. But with an assured cost plus MSP, there is little incentive to diversify crops to suit weather and cost conditions.

 

Way ahead

 

  • The recent initiatives taken by the government are laudable, for example-Neem-coated fertilizer has reduced leakage, and direct benefit transfer to the farmer-buyer will reduce subsidy further. Soil cards ensure appropriate matching of inputs to soil conditions. Giving tax holiday to the farmer producer companies is also the right fiscal incentive. The government’s aim to double farm income in the next four years is a near impossible feat, but signals the right intention.

 

  • There is need to create opportunities outside farming for large scale exit of the workforce; to connect farmers to the value chain of farm to fork, including agribusiness; to remove restrictions on movement and exports of farm produce and let them tap into international market, to also allow easier land transfers including leasing; to encourage crop diversification and land consolidation that reverses fragmentation.

 

Question –The Indian farm sector has been shackled for far too long, suggest some measures to address farmer’s distress.

Conserve every drop

  (The Hindu)

Synoptic line: It throws light on the issue to conserve water before the water crisis situation turns more alarming.

(GS paper III)

Overview

 

  • The grave water situation in Cape Town in South Africa is a wake-up call to everybody across the globe, from policymakers to the common man that it cannot be business as usual when it comes to water usage. A similar crisis is looming large in other cities in the world as people continue to be reckless in their use of water.

 

Assessment

 

  • The situation of water crisis is so worrisome that 12 world leaders, 11 heads of state and a special adviser of a high-level panel on water wrote an open letter to global leaders a week ago warning that the world is facing a water crisis and issued a New Agenda for Water Action. Observing that we need to make “every drop count”, they called for a new approach: rethinking how we understand, value and manage water as a precious resource, and catalysing change and building partnerships to achieve the water-related goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

 

  • The social, cultural, economic and environmental values of water to society need to be reassessed, the panel said. “Water needs to be allocated in ways which maximize overall benefits to our societies,” it observed. The panel also mentioned the need to put in place policies that will allow for at least a doubling of water infrastructure investment in the next five years. It called for governments, communities, the private sector, and researchers to collaborate.

 

Indian context

 

  • With the growing population, lack of adequate planning, crumbling infrastructure, indiscriminate drilling of bore wells, large-scale consumption of water, and a false sense of entitlement in using water carelessly are causing water shortages in India.

 

  • Unless drastic measures are taken to minimise water usage, the day may not be far off when authorities will be forced to ration water supply in cities like Bengaluru, which has been ranked second in the list of 11 global cities which might face the imminent threat of running out of drinking water. Already, water is being supplied on alternate days in certain cities and for a limited duration in some places.

 

  • The World Bank’s Water Scarce Cities Initiative seeks to promote an integrated approach to managing water resources and service delivery in water-scarce cities as the basis for building resilience against climate change. The demand for water in urban areas is projected to increase by 50-70% in the next three decades.

 

  • India’s current water requirement is estimated to be around 1,100 billion cubic metres per year, which is projected to touch 1,447 billion cubic metres by 2050. According to a forecast by the Asian Development Bank, India will have a water deficit of 50% by 2030.

 

  • India’s water needs are basically met by rivers and groundwater. Water scarcity can lead to disastrous consequences impacting food production as most of the farming is rain-fed. With ground water catering to about 60% of the country’s irrigation, 85% of rural water drinking requirements, and 50% of urban water needs, replenishing the aquifers has to be accorded top priority. Millions across India still do not have access to safe drinking water and this problem has to be tackled on a war footing.

 

Important data

 

  • The oceans make up for about 97% of the Earth’s water. Less than 3% of Earth’s water is freshwater and most of it is not accessible. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, over 68% of the freshwater on Earth is found in icecaps and glaciers, while just over 30% is found in groundwater.

 

  • According to the United Nations, 2.1 billion people lack access to safely managed drinking water services; water scarcity already affects four out of every 10 people; 90% of all natural disasters are water related; 3.4 lakh children under five die every year from diarrhoeal diseases; agriculture accounts for 70% of global water withdrawal; and 80% of wastewater flows back into the ecosystem without being treated or reused.

 

  • In 2010, the UN General Assembly recognised the right of every human being to have access to sufficient water for personal and domestic uses (between 50 and 100 litres of water per person per day). It has to be safe, acceptable and affordable (water costs should not exceed 3% of household income) and also physically accessible (within 1,000 metres of home).

 

  • According to the annual report of the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, about 77% of rural habitations in India have achieved a fully covered status (40 litres per capita per day) under the National Rural Drinking Water Programme, and 55% of the rural population have access to tap water. It was mentioned that the Ministry has also taken special steps to address the issue of water quality.

 

  • A sub-mission programme is being implemented to eliminate the problems of water quality in about 28,000 habitations affected by arsenic and fluoride by 2020. Although India receives an average rainfall of 1,170 mm per year, it is estimated that only 6% of rainwater is stored.

 

Revival of traditional practices

 

  • Ancient India had well-managed wells and canal systems, in fact, our culture always believed in treating nature with reverence and most of our rivers are considered sacred. The Indus Valley Civilization had a well-managed canal system, while Chanakya’s Arthashastra also talks of irrigation. In the ancient past, different types of indigenous water harvesting systems were developed across the subcontinent and such systems need to be revived and protected at the local level.

 

  • Micro irrigation practices like drip and sprinkler systems have to be promoted in a big way for efficient use of water for agriculture. Both in urban and rural areas, digging of rainwater harvesting pits must be made mandatory for all types of buildings.

 

Way forward

 

  • Conscious efforts need to be made at the household level and by communities, institutions and local bodies to supplement the efforts of governments and non-governmental bodies in promoting water conservation.
  • Sustained measures should be taken to prevent pollution of water bodies, contamination of groundwater and ensure proper treatment of domestic and industrial waste water. Reduce, reuse, and recycle must be the watchwords if we have to handover a liveable planet to the future generations.

 

Question – Before the water crisis situation turns more alarming, we have to collectively act now and here, explain some measures to be taken in Indian context.

 

 

Is Big Data a threat to free democratic choice?

(Live Mint)

Synoptic line: It throws light on the issue of ongoing Cambridge Analytica scandal.

(GS paper III)

Overview

 

  • In the ongoing Cambridge Analytica scandal, the firm is alleged use of data from some 50 million Facebook users to target US voters as a data breach. Facebook is contesting that it was a breach, but this is about more than semantics. A breach would imply a failure in Facebook’s security, and thus liability on its part.

 

  • Facebook is thus trying to push a different narrative-that academic Aleksandr Kogan, who collected the data via his app, thisisyourdigitallife, did so according to Facebook guidelines. When he then passed on that data to Cambridge Analytica, however, he was in contravention of the guidelines and Facebook took appropriate action.

 

Cambridge Analytica Scandal

 

  • London-based data mining and analytics firm Cambridge Analytica misused user data from as many as 50 million Facebook users in the 2016 US election. The data was obtained by Cambridge psychology professor Aleksandr Kogan and given to the affiliated behaviour research firm Strategic Communication Laboratories in a violation of Facebook’s terms of service.

 

  • The actions of the firm, which denies any wrongdoing, has kicked up a massive debate over Facebook’s failures to police its platform and its responsibility to both user privacy and the institution of democracy itself.

 

Assessment

 

  • With the ongoing scandal, the fact remains that such vast amounts of data were so easily collected in the first place and without breaking the rules points to the larger issues to do with the economics of the internet. Since its inception in 2004, Facebook, more than any other company, has propagated the norm of digital businesses fuelled by private data that users sign over willingly in exchange for notionally free services.

 

  • Certainly, privacy advocates have helped put some guardrails in place. For instance, in 2015, Facebook altered the rules that allowed apps like Kogan’s to collect data not just on individuals who signed in but also of people on their friends’ lists. However, the core model has remained unchanged.

 

  • Data localization conditions can ensure that user data collected within a country must be kept within it. Regulations can also compel businesses to adopt privacy by design principles that foreground user choice and consent.

 

  • The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which takes effect from 25 May this year, has adopted this approach. Perhaps the most stringent data protection regime globally, it will be a litmus test for companies’ ability and willingness to comply. US lawmakers, protective of Silicon Valley champions until not too long ago, are also starting to lose patience.

 

  • Regulations cannot alter the fundamental economic value of user data or the business models they fuel. Besides, the regulatory approach often hinges on user consent as the GDPR does and the growth of social media companies over the past decade is fair evidence that consent is not hard to obtain, even with the knowledge of private data being signed over.

 

  • It has political implications as well, Cambridge Analytica and other such firms have boasted of the merits of psychographic targeting based on user data. This is currently a dubious proposition with little proof to back it up. But that might change as algorithms grow more sophisticated.

 

Way forward

 

  • The current controversy may seem far removed from India, but political parties here are also embracing Big Data analytics to understand voter behaviour and perhaps alter it. Whether privacy concerns will compel a change in digital business models will depend in the end on the market and consumer choice.

 

 

Question – Is Big Data a threat to free democratic choice? Critically analyse. Also explain its usage in various fields with examples.