Monday, 10 June 2013

Decision making for climate change adaptation

In a recent talk at the Walker Institute, climate change adaptation specialist Suraje Dessai stressed the need to move away from the linear model of  'predict and provide' which believes that more science = better decisions = successful adaptation, towards an understanding of the limits of what science can provide. Talking in the context of decision making for climate change adaptation in the UK, he emphasised the need to make climate science more useful (matches user needs), usable (user-friendly) and valuable (salient and applicable). 

A smallholder farmer in Rajasthan, India. He decides how much wheat to
grow in the winter based on residual soil moisture from the rains, amount
of seed he has, and family's food requirements.  
This led me to think of similar issues in a very different context. That of rainfed agriculture in semi-arid regions of India. In this landscape, smallholder farmers are highly dependent on agriculture for income and sustenance, making them vulnerable to an increasingly erratic monsoon. In addition to environmental stressors of erratic precipitation (both amount and timing) and fluctuating temperatures (e.g. unusually hot winters), farmers are exposed to market dynamics and changes in the larger institutional landscape (e.g. land tenure reforms or amended public welfare schemes). These factors create a picture of farmers operating in highly uncertain environments, where decision making at the household level is not necessarily driven by profit maximisation. Dennis Wichelns, former IWMI Deputy Director General, explains the levels of uncertainty smallholder farmers deal with:
"farmers dependent on rainfall don't know when its going to rain for sure."..."There is so much uncertainty and risk in rainfed farming that many farmers, particularly at the small scale, have to spend quite a bit of effort managing that risk and uncertainty; often because they have very little freeboard by which to absorb great reductions in yield or sudden shortfalls in output or revenue."
In an attempt to facilitate local adaptation to climate change, policy makers look to science to 'provide answers' to this situation. This points to the belief that 'enough' science will lead to 'appropriate' solutions. A belief that the answers are 'waiting to be found'. Thus, there has been a push for higher resolution models, more accurate rainfall forecasting, as a way to allow for robust decision making. However, while important in its own right, this approach has to be questioned. Why an emphasis on better climate information (and not better market information, welfare schemes information, credit availability information)? Is the climate information given to farmers useful, usable and/or valuable? Are there adequate channels to deliver this information? And finally (perhaps most importantly), will this information help farmers make more robust decisions in their contexts of high uncertainty?

Further resources on the topic:
  1. Dennis Wichelns's video which questions the efficacy of water productivity as a tool to evaluate sustainable strategies of water use.  
  2. Providing climate services that make sense to farmers, a video and blog by CCAFS (CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security) documenting their initiatives in trying to find solutions to making climate services more farmer-appropriate. 
  3. Experiences of dealing with uncertainties in practice, a presentation by Suraje Dessai

Sunday, 2 June 2013

National Food Bill: A short review of the critiques

Picture from Forbes India
What? The National Food Security Bill aims to  provide food to 67% of India's 1.2 billion people by distributing heavily subsidized food grain (5kg of grain @ Rs.1/kg). First introduced in 2011, the bill has invited heated debate, caused parliamentary disruptions and is yet to be passed. 

Why the criticism?  
  • Where will the money to finance the scheme come from? Gurcharan Das argues that the key problem is "70% of the people will get food at 10% of the cost when only 1% should be targeted. The rest is a waste." The government plans to source some money for grain by reducing fertiliser subsidy but this will have implications for agricultural productivity and farmer input costs. Scheme touted as well-intentioned but fiscally irresponsible.
  • Targeting vs universalisation: Who do we target? The statistics are contradictory and one must be careful when defining and counting people who are 'hungry' vs 'malnourished' vs 'starving'. Regarding identifying beneficiaries, is is more prudent to identify the rich and exclude? Or identify the poor and include. Experts say the former may be easier because it is highly onerous for the poor to prove through paperwork that they are 'poor enough' to be eligible for benefits.
  • Only focuses on carbohydrates (through grain), what of malnutrition, chiefly due to protein deficiency? This is particularly alarming when considering the argument that  food security is necessary but not sufficient for nutrition security. NGOs have also flagged the issue of child malnutrition not being adequately addressed by the bill.
  • What of the system? How does one plug leakages and avoid bypasses (hoarding, black markets). Surjit Bhalla quotes statistics to show the PDS is "a massively corrupt, wasteful system" and argues against propagating a similar system without addressing systemic problems. 
  • Repercussions on food production: Will cause significant decrease in food production because a farmer who can buy grain at Rs. 1 per kg will have no incentive to grow grain it.  Also, will this result in India's forced integration into global agricultural markets because of increases in agricultural  imports?
  • The government hopes to reduce intermediaries and sources of leakages by  cash-for-food transfers into bank accounts, routing the transfers through Aadhaar numbers. However, the Aadhaar card is still a voluntary biometric social identity system. 

Way forward? Can the Chattisgarh model be upscaled? Chattisgarh  enacted the Chhattisgarh Food Security Act (CFSA) which has universal coverage. It's strengths are based on (a) full computerisation of PDS, (b) ensuring greater transparency by allowing for public scrutiny of all records, and (c) creating accountability by giving Gram Panchayats (local governance institutions) priority in running ration outlets strengthening accountability. One needs to question. How do we want to alleviate poverty? Is it by just giving food or empowering people to be able to grow/buy their own food and thereby enhancing capabilities? Gurcharan Das maintains that by giving virtually free assets, the state undermines its social contract with the public and "reinforces the present malaise over poor governance and corruption, and widens the gap between people’s aspirations and government’s performance". MNREGA has spawned a similar public expectation of right to work without strengthening livelihood securitySwaminathan Aiyer says that growth will lead to a food secure nation, not bills that distribute food to the poor.

References are linked within the text. Further reading:
  1. Khera, Ritika, 2012. The Revival of the PDS the National Food Security Bill and the Question of Cash Transfers [Video
  2. India-Seminar, June 2012 issue (#634) on 'Ending Hunger: a symposium on the proposed national food security bill' [Link]
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