Trade Secrets – Why is the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) being negotiated under wraps?

Negotiating trade agreements in secret seems to be the order of the day: whether it is the Trans Pacific Investment Partnership (TPIP) or closer home the RCEP. While all trade agreements in today’s globalised world have a direct or indirect impact on all of us the RCEP should be of greater concern to us since India is a direct party in these negotiations. The RCEP is being negotiated between 16 governments i.e. 10 ASEAN countries and their trading partners Australia, China, India, Japan, the Republic of Korea and New Zealand. Its significance is akin to the large trade agreements such as the TPIP and Trans Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TATIP). What is disturbing is that even after eight rounds of negotiations very little information is available about this agreement in public domain. While the New Zealand and Australian Governments provide some level of detail about the scope of the agreement the GOI’s Ministry of Commerce website is silent on the scope. Sketchy information on the meetings is the only information available. Why the secrecy? Why the unwillingness for full disclosure?

As reported recently by G. Manicandan of the Forum against FTAs, the RCEP reportedly covers goods, services, investment, economic and technical cooperation, intellectual property, as well as competition and dispute settlement. Manicandan also asserts that the “RCEP proposes liberalization of trade beyond India’s obligation under WTO and existing FTAs with Japan, South Korea, ASEAN, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand etc. Further, it also proposes India to undertake legally binding obligations on investment and competition law and do away with public interest safeguards in intellectual property law such as Patents Act and Copyrights Act”.

Given the potential impact of such an agreement on the environment, livelihoods and lives of people in the negotiating countries it is only fair that we ask whether an environmental and social impact assessment was done for the RCEP. There is no evidence of such an assessment having been done for an agreement of this magnitude. Farmers unions and civil society in India have registered their protests against the RCEP but what is critical is that we demand a detailed impact assessment. We have a precedence for this in the impact assessment that was done for the EU-India FTA. Many civil society organisations in India participated in this assessment which warned of serious violations of the right to food, dairy and poultry farmers, street vendors and others. The impact of the RCEP could be much larger given that “it proposes liberalisation of trade beyond India’s obligations under the WTO”. What will the impact be on our ecosystems, on the health of our soils, forests, air and water? How will the RCEP affect the agrarian crisis and rampant malnutrition? There is an urgent need to demand for an impact assessment. The myriad ‘distractions’ in the form of Parliament disruption, obsession of the media and political parties with the IPL scam have successfully allowed these negotiations to go ahead without scrutiny. One wonders if this is the plan!

The Travails of Building a Toilet – Is this the road to a Swach Bharat?

As the Swach Bharat juggernaut rolls on, homes in villages across Andhra Pradesh (as I am sure in other States) are trying to build a toilet. Here is a glimpse of the process that is to be followed in Andhra Pradesh (or at least in Chittoor District of Andhra Pradesh). Families interested in building toilets must inform the Panchayat Secretary. Once their application is approved the Panchayat Secretary gives the family the go ahead. The toilets have to be built according to Rural Water Supply and Sanitation Department’s specifications which has to be communicated to the family. The conditions are – site must be located away from the house, it must be a brick and cement construction with an Indian Style latrine. A soak pit must also be constructed. The family contacts neighbours / masons / construction labour who have some experience building toilets and gets an estimate. This ranges anywhere from Rs. 25,000 to 35,000 (July 2015 figures) depending upon the size of the toilet and local costs and availability of cement, brick, sand, sanitary fitting, labour etc. Government will release funds of Rs. 12,000 – 15,000 (numbers are not clearly communicated to the family but the Panchayat Secretary) after completion of the toilet and when a photograph is provided as proof. How does the family raise the money to build this toilet? Women borrow from Self-Help groups, private money-lenders at high interest, friends and family etc. In almost all cases the costs incurred are at least Rs. 10,000 – 15,000 higher than the amount allocated by the Government. The actual cost is even higher when you factor in the cost of loan repayment. Take the case of a all women household – an old widow who receives an old-age monthly pension of Rs. 1000. She is 70 years old and therefore cannot be a member of the SHG and hence cannot avail a loan. Her widowed daughter is 40 years old with a daily wages job earning about Rs. 2000-3000 a month. They desperately need a toilet since the mother is ageing and cannot make that early morning trip to the fields to receive herself. Where are they going to get the money? Even if the daughter takes a loan from the SHG how is she going to repay it and feed herself and her mother. Where are the achhe din and swachh bharat for these families? If the Government is serious about improving sanitation it must (a) provide simpler toilet design options that are not so material intensive (let us learn from sanitation programmes in African countries, Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka) and therefore cheaper to construct while being functional (b) create a cadre of on-the ground masons and construction workers who people can hire to build these units rather than be at the mercy of various contractors and (c) create a Fund for women-headed or elderly-headed households and other marginalised sections of society, which will provide interest-free loans with flexible repayment options. For once let’s really put our best foot forward and not resort to tokenism and political gimmickry!

A version of this blog is available on the Down to Earth blogs site.

Small is Cool!

Much has been written and said about the critical role of small farmers in our food production by advocacy groups such as GRAIN and more recently in a thought provoking piece by Gurumurthy. Apart from the fact that small farm holdings are more productive than large units and that most of our milk, vegetables, fruits and grains are produced by small and marginal farmers, the critical role of small and marginal farmers in climate change mitigation must be recognised. A compelling presentation by GRAIN clearly shows why and how small farmers can cool the planet! Food is not just about production and technology. It is a culture, a way of life, people’s livelihoods depend on it. It is about nurturing the health of living beings and the health of the planet. Food must be produced through agroecological methods which conserve and nurture soil – the bedrock of food production. Small and marginal farmers and indigenous communities have the knowledge to produce food this way. Every country needs to have a climate change mitigation plan that has small scale farming at its centre and more so India given the diversity of food crops, food cultures and knowledge systems that this country is home to. It is this knowledge and experience that we need to conserve and keep alive to address the challenges of climate change. It is only through the small farmer based food system that we will be able to set right our abysmal record of malnutrition.  The ridiculous notion that greater urbanisation is going to make us a superpower needs to be shelved!

Building strength through solidarity……

A lot has been written about the power of the collective and solidarity in the context of development particularly where human lives are intimately intertwined with that of nature – indigenous communities, small farmers, pastoralists etc. There are those who emphatically feel that this is the only sustainable way to engage with resources and there are others who dismiss the idea of the collective and its power as a romantic notion. Over the last six years I have been part of an unfolding experience in the drylands of Rayalseema – of people coming together in an effort to establish Manchi Jeevitham (the Telugu phrase for “Living Well” or “Bon Vivier” a political articulation of living with nature a life of self-reliance and dignity).

The coming together started in the form of weekly conversations: a few shepherds and goatherds came together with a few of us, we sat and chatted by the roadside as we tried to understand the challenges facing each of our lives. Some passers by sat in participating in the conversation. There were sceptics who wondered how conversation could change anything. There were others who asked if we were giving out loans and then quickly lost interest when they realised there was no money here. From periodic conversations which went on for close to a year emerged the need to meet more regularly in an organised manner. Fourteen shepherds and goatherds led by two dynamic young men decided to organise themselves into a collective. The reason was – these conversations had helped them articulate their main problems for which the solutions would also come from these conversations. The numbers rose to 28 members in a year. Strategies to manage their grazing lands, access their traditional grazing areas in the nearby forests were developed. The power of the collective began to be realised as they began implementing their strategies. Aikyamatham mahabalam – in unity there is strength, began to be oft quoted as they overcame several hurdles and moved forward with strengthening their livelihood. There were internal dynamics, political pressure from the outside to try and destabilise the group but they have managed to stay focussed on their goal – bring honesty, dignity and self-reliance to their lives. Banks and Government agencies became more accessible when they approached them as a collective. Today the group is registered as a mutually aided co-operative society. The collective has also produced young leaders who are now working at bringing like minded young people together at the Panchayat level to strengthen grassroots democracy.

What triggered this post was a morning out on the hills in the remote hamlet of Pulusugunthalu to discuss the problems faced by the pastoralists in accessing traditional grazing lands, growing food in an increasingly water-scarce situation. I heard one of our young leaders from the collective articulating his experience of how coming together provides strength to face the challenges. His articulation, his conviction, the energy that seemed to come from working together was a learning experience for me. The young man said that coming together is not about agreeing on everything, not about consensus but it is about talking to each other, listening, understanding our problems more clearly, struggling for solutions, emerging stronger from the effort and at the end of the day being part of it because we have a shared vision – a life of dignity – Manchi Jeevitham.

I knew about the power of the collective intellectually – I had read Ostrom and stories of movements – but that morning’s conversation was my own experience. To hear the articulation of the young leader was inspiring.


Shauchalya Bharat to Swach Bharat……Need for a Complete Change in Approach

The dust has settled (literally) after the October 2 sweeping gesture by politicians from the Prime Minister to local MLAs and we are back to business as usual. Dirty villages, towns and cities and the “swachata” is compounded by ope defaecation – a country that is one big shauchalya rather than swachalya!  The sanitation problem of open defaecation and its effect on malnutrition, stunting has been debated extensively but there is no visible impact on the ground. Rural families interested in building toilets continue to run around for financial and technical support. Any Government support for construction of toilets requires that the CPHEEO manual’s design be followed – complex, water intensive and expensive. So what is the solution? How can we, seriously, address this problem of open defaecation? There are two studies that must be consulted and taken seriously both by planners and those working on the ground in the area of sanitation: the first is a paper in EPW by Diane Coffey and others. It provides very valuable insight into revealed preference for open defaecation through a survey of rural areas in some states of North India. This paper clearly shows the need for a region and state specific strategy taking into consideration local attitudes and preferences rather than merely focussing on infrastructure. The study urges the need for a large-scale campaign to promote latrine use together with investing in infrastructure ( Aashish_Gupta_Payal_Hathi_ Nidhi_Khurana_Dean_Spears_Nikhil_Srivastav_ Sangita_Vyas.pdf). The survey reports that – “Many survey respondents’ behaviour reveals a preference for open defecation: over 40% of households with a working latrine have at least one member who defecates in the open. Our data predict that if the government were to build a latrine for every rural household that lacks one, without changing sanitation preferences, most people in our sample in these states would nevertheless defecate in the open. Policymakers in India must lead a large-scale campaign to promote latrine use.” What works in the Southern States may not work in the Northern States and the Western and Eastern States may require a different strategy.

Another study that must be looked at seriously is a recent paper published in the medical journal Lancet by researchers from Emory University in the United States. They found that increased toilet coverage did not lead to any significant improvements in the occurrence of child diarrhoea, prevalence of parasitic worm infections, child stunting or child mortality ( This new evidence is indeed troubling given India’s 25 year strategy that has focussed mainly on building toilets. The researchers have indicated that the absence of health impact could be “the patchy implementation of the scheme, and uneven rates of use of toilets — at the end of the study period, just 63 per cent of households in the villages where the scheme ran had any toilet, and two-thirds of this group reported a family member using the toilet. Usage was substantially lower among men than among women”. This gender difference was also notes in the study of the Northern States.

Is water a human right in India?

On June 18, 2014 the Blue Planet Project, the Detroit People’s Water Board, the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization and Food & Water Watch submitted a report to Catarina de Albuquerque, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation, urging her to take immediate action to help restore water services and stop further cut-offs in Detroit ( In their submission they say that Detroit is trying to push through a private takeover of its water system at the expense of basic human rights – right to water, in this case. Residents of Detroit city, the United States and the United Nations have been grappling with this issue for the last couple of months. The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department says that half of its 323,000 accounts are delinquent and has begun turning off the taps of those who do not pay bills that total above $150 or that are 60 days late. Since March, up to 3,000 account holders have had their water cut off every week. The Detroit water authority carries an estimated $5 billion in debt and has been the subject of privatization talks. (For more on this see

This act is being considered a violation of the human right to water with the argument that the U.S. has international obligations in terms of people’s right to water. Activists are now putting pressure on the United Nations to put pressure on the Federal Government and through them on the State of Michigan to take action.

As I was reading this I was thinking about the right to water in India and the associated inequity. Millions of urban and rural poor do not have access to drinking water on a daily basis irrespective of whether the country has had a good monsoon or not. No water (both in cities and villages) is a general condition. Standing in long queues to get 2 pots of water is normal for the vast majority of Indians. Why is it that nobody in India has challenged the Government on behalf of these people?

In our corner of Rayalseema, like in many other villages, drinking water is just not available in the summer months. Over the last 3 months people have been receiving water in tankers probably once in 3-4 days and each home can fill only 3-5 pots of water which they have to use for drinking, cooking, washing, cleaning, bathing and for personal hygiene. There are not enough water sources available to fill the tankers. People approach the Panchayat which had no funds till a week ago. The Water Supply and Sanitation Department which is responsible for providing drinking water and sanitation to the villages Panchayat does not seem to think this is really an important issue…but considers it a routine matter that has to be dealt with in the course of time. Desperate some families try and get water from the agricultural borewells of neighbours who provide the water as an act of compassion at no cost! When these agricultural borewells started failing several people from some of the villages marched to the local Mandal Development Officer and expressed their anger and frustration. A special officer who has been posted to manage watershed development in the area took action last week which has provided some relief to some of the villages. Why is it that these small farmers, who produce 50% of the food in India, have to work so hard chasing the Government functionaries to get what is a human right?

This begs the question for India and particularly its poor….do we not consider access to water to be a human right? Why are we not demanding this of our Government? Maybe it is time for all of us to appeal to the United Nations to help us help our urban and rural poor to assert their right to water.

Nutritional Insecurity through the PDS

The Preamble to the Food Security Act, 2013 states that the Act’s intent is to provide for food and nutritional security in human life cycle approach, by ensuring access to adequate quantity of quality food at affordable prices”(emphasis added). One vehicle that will be used to implement the Act is the Targetted Public Distribution System (TPDS). While targetting access to food in itself is contrary to the intent of the Act, the purpose of this article is not to discuss universalisation vs targetting rather it is to explore the connection between the PDS and the increasing reports on the high incidences of Type II Diabetes and cardiovascular diseases in rural India and among the poor in urban India. Why should these non-communicable diseases (NCD) normally associated with overconsumption and obesity be so prevalent among the poorer sections of our society?

There are two components of the PDS that must be examined in this context – subsidised rice and edible oil. The PDS centrally procures and distributes polished white rice which apart from being of poor quality (stale, insect infested) in most States, has zero nutritional value. In fact it has negative nutritional value by virtue of its high glycaemic index. Providing subsidised white, polished rice has forcibly replaced local fibre rich millets and varieties of red / brown rice which have a low glycaemic index. This has resulted in (i) loss of nutrition from the poor household’s food basket thereby contributing to metabolic disorders such as Type II Diabetes along with other causal factors such as stress, poor sanitation etc. and (ii) erosion of local agrobiodiversity leading to loss in ability of communities to adapt to changing climate conditions in the long-term which further compromises the country’s food and nutritional security. The centralised procurement under PDS has destroyed local nutritious varieties of rice. It has replaced more nutritious local grains – a range of millet varieties which are rich in fibre and protein. Some of the millets are excellent sources of iron, calcium, and trace nutrients.

Edible oil that is being pushed through the PDS is palm oil, a replacement for dalda which used to be supplied under the PDS in the pre-TPDS period. It is reported that palm oil contributes to nearly 48% of the domestic edible oil consumption in India partly because it is 20-30% cheaper than other edible oils. Why is palm oil being supplied at a subsidised rate across the country when (i) it has to be imported (ii) the content of saturated fats in palm oil is significantly higher than locally used oils such as groundnut oil, rapeseed oil and sesame oil which were always part of local diets? What is the justification for further compromising the health of people who are already nutritionally compromised? Introduction of Palm Oil to meet the vegetable oil demand in India is ridiculous at so many levels – it is driving the large-scale cultivation of red palm which has resulted in ecological and social devastation in Indonesia and Malaysia; it is replacing traditional fats which were suited to local climate and local dietary needs in India; it is contributing to the increase in NCDs among the rural and urban poor in India thereby increasing healthcare costs and driving people deeper into poverty. It is also destroying the local oilseeds agroecosystems where grain, pulses and oilseeds were cultivated as intercrops to meet the needs of humans and animal feed.

In this context it is worth mentioning a recent study published in the British Medical Journal in October 2013 ( content/347/bmj.f6048) which looks at how economic instruments such as taxes may affect population health in India. The study uses a mathematical model to project that if a 20% tax is imposed on palm oil for domestic consumption, it is likely to avert between 710,000 and 930,000 deaths from myocardial infarction and stroke over 2013-2014. This decline of course is a function of how the consumer uses other fats to substitute the palm oil. The discussion of taxation is probably relevant for consumers who have a choice in the market and who can afford to opt for another edible oil. In the case of India where the State is promoting the use of palm oil by providing it at a subsidised rate in the PDS this is a moot point. People are using this oil because it has been made the cheapest edible oil in the market as a result of skewed State policies. It is contributing to increased healthcare costs for a section of the population that is incapable of accessing good, affordable healthcare since India’s social welfare system does not provide universal healthcare. The PDS therefore is not enabling the individual to be nutritionally secure or adequately nourished rather it is actively compromising the individual’s health and preventing him/her from being able to earn a living or practice a livelihood which is affecting all other facets of his / her life. In essence, the State is contributing to the increase in NCDs among the poor.

While the FSA, 2013 is a step forward towards addressing the issues of undernutrition, unless the PDS basket of goods is revamped with the intention of ensuring true nutritional security it will be a huge waste of resources. The State must put in place a mechanism to decentralise the PDS – decentralised procurement and distribution. This will stimulate local agricultural systems including the much neglected rain-fed areas, revive local oil seeds,  provide access to nutritious food including traditional healthy fats as opposed to palm oil, enable people to practice their livelihoods and improve health. The resources that are being used to research and understand why there is an increase in NCDs among the rural and urban poor are probably better spent if allocated to stimulating local agroecosystems and locally relevant food systems.





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