Online Course on Sustainability in the Indian Context

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After months and months of preparation and production, I’m so excited that this course is ready for launch!  It’s a unique multi-instructor course exploring sustainability ideas and actions in the Indian context.  As the course is designed with weekly faculty interaction and feedback, it’s a ‘closed enrolment’ course with a cap on class size and not an impersonal MOOC.  We’ve already gotten quite a few applications.

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A crisis of farming or of farming families?

Yesterday Bina Agarwal wrote a column in the Indian Express, “Seeds of Discontent” on the continuing agrarian crisis in the country. She mentioned an NSSO survey which showed that 40% of farmers stated not liking farming and added that “Two-thirds cited low profits and one-fifth cited riskiness for disliking farming.”  “Age and gender also affect farmer satisfaction — younger farmers tended to be more dissatisfied, and women farmers more than men, understandably since few women own land and most face difficulties accessing irrigation, credit, inputs and markets.”…

Read more here.



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Small farmer productivity

In an earlier blog, I had tried to examine the claim that productivity of small farmers is higher than large farmers (the so-called “inverse relationship”).  I had presented some studies which seemed to support this claim at an aggregate level but did not account for different crop choices of small and large farmers.

I recently finished reading Nilotpal Kumar’s book “Unravelling Farmer Suicides in India” where he starts by describing in detail the farming practices in the study village, located in Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh.

His study shows that on unirrigated land, productivity of groundnut cultivation follows a simple relationship: small farmers have lower productivity than large farmers.  He surmises that this is due to multiple factors (none of which are surprising):

  • “The large and middle farmers are likely to own superior quality dryland plots, draft power and ready capital”
  • No double-cropping in drylands
  • “These advantages afford them greater flexibility in responding to precipitate moisture-related fluctuations, pest-related vulnerabilities, and labour scarcities, as compared to small farmers”
  • Disadvantages of scale in costs of production

In irrigated lands, the relationship is more complex, see table below:  Small farmer productivity - table Nilotpal

Even for irrigated lands, while there is a significant inverse relationship between medium and small farmers, the productivity of larger farmers is much higher than both of these categories.

As Nilotpal Kumar points out himself: “My cost and budget analysis for dry-land groundnut has shown that yields – the value of output per acre – on large farms in NRP are superior to those on small ones.  This finding … casts doubts about the possibility of an ‘inverse relationship between yield per acre and size of holding’ in dry lands. The ‘inverse relationship’ argument has been key to the neo-populist claim that small farms are technically superior to large farms and they are, therefore, amenable to capitalistic growth with the help of a developmental state (like in the case of South Korea/ Taiwan) — something that the Marxists have long disputed.”

Placing this study in the context of other literature, some of which I cited in the previous post leads to a nuanced conclusion:  While in aggregate, productivity (Rs./hectare) of small producers appears to be higher, it is probably largely due to different crop choices, double-cropping and intensive farming practices on irrigated lands.  On drylands, the farmers’ advantages of larger scale, quality of land and greater capital lead to an expected relationship: namely greater productivity of large holdings.

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Footprint of the food we eat

I came across this interesting article on the greenhouse gas (GHG) footprint of the food we eat, recently published by the World Economic Forum. This is particularly interesting as it focuses on fresh produce, and less on processed foods.

The summary infographic is below. As usual, vegetarians can rejoice in their lower GHG footprint.  But the dairy question remains unanswered.  Cattle have very high footprint, so why is milk shown with low footprint?  This is important to ask because India has the largest number of cattle in the world.





Full link:

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X-Ray Vision


A post on a slightly different topic, something which I have been thinking about again, as I’m back in academia…

When I was in 10th, my physics teacher asked in a test, “What would happen if our sun gave off only X-rays instead of visible light? What would we see?”  I wrote, “Humans would probably have evolved to see in x-rays. We would see everything around us in shorter wavelengths, and people as skeletons with shadowy muscles.”  He marked my answer wrong.  What he wanted us to reply was that we won’t be able to see anything since our eyes only see visible light.

Over time I have come to see this small exchange as emblematic of some of the problems of how school subjects are taught.  My response to the x-ray question combined my knowledge of evolution and physics, but was treated as an unacceptable answer in a physics class.

When teachers define learning in narrow ways and require students to see the world through the lens of only one school subject, they fail to help students interpret, understand and explore the world around them.  They fail to inspire.

Another example, which is more embarrassing: When I was around 17-18, one day I looked up in the sky and was shocked to see the moon in daylight.  Throughout my school years I had been taught that the moon comes out at night.  I never questioned the textbooks:  I simply believed what was written in clear black print in the textbooks.

So imagine my shock one day suddenly seeing this anomaly hanging brightly in the sky, defying everything I thought I knew.  Luckily I was studying physics as my undergraduate major and later that day I did various calculations, looked up sunrise and moonrise times in the newspaper (this was pre-internet) and calculated the outcomes of some gedanken (thought) experiments and figured out that, indeed, moon can and is often above the horizon simultaneously with the sun.  Recently, my mother-in-law asked me the same question. She had gone through decades of life with the same belief.  I had to explain the phenomenon to her and convince her that this is completely natural.

This is not a problem just with science teaching. I still distinctly remember another incident:  I was sitting in my high school history class. We were going through a passage on the American civil war.  After having us all read a short paragraph in the textbook the teacher asked us, “What would you have done if you were General Lee?”  I had shifted to a new school and this was one of the first few history classes there. I was so completely surprised by this question, that even now, so many decades later, that scene is crystal clear in my mind.  In my school, history classes were the process of memorizing important dates and lifetimes of emperors and empires.  Memorizing entire passages about the Russian and French revolutions from cyclostyled sheets and regurgitating them whole in exams.  Even though I was good at regurgitating, I never really saw the point of it.  But as I sat through this class on American civil war, I had a life-changing epiphany about the purpose of learning history.  This experience changed my relationship with history:  As I grew into adulthood, I acquired a taste for reading history, so much so, that some of the most enjoyable books I have read have been about history of people, of places and of ideas.

Such encounters with the school education system made me realize the importance of having good teachers who encourage students to think beyond the “text” of the curriculum, to engage with subjects and ideas and not just focus on completing the curriculum in the time available.  It led me to get deeply involved in school education issues in India from a fairly young age. And it led to a lifelong interest in teaching and exploring classroom pedagogy.

Like most people, I’ve had some exceptional teachers and many mediocre ones.  But the strength of the exceptional ones was not necessarily the depth of knowledge of their subject areas, but to inspire students to really think about what we were reading, to reflect upon subjects and topics deeply and to internalize their meanings in our own ways.

My physics mentor used to say that you should be able to explain any physics concept, no matter how complex, to your grandmother.  I took that to heart.  I worked hard at developing an intuitive understanding of physics, something I could articulate in words.  As I was completing my Ph.D. and giving “job talks”, the most common comments I received were about how well I had explained my area of research to people not from my field.  To me, these compliments mattered as much as, perhaps even more than, comments about the importance or quality of my research.

Years later, when I started teaching, my approach was to avoid jargon and focus on the underlying concepts and ideas.  To excite students about the topics I was teaching, whether it was physics, or later in life, business management or, more recently, agricultural livelihoods.  Some students, who view learning a subject as familiarization with disciplinary jargon, find this approach disconcerting.  But I persist because I still agree with my mentor, that if you cannot explain your ideas to your grandmother, perhaps you yourself haven’t really understood them well.

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Solar energy versus water tables

What would you choose: Earn Rs. 93 by selling power to grid or Rs. 250 by selling pumped water to neighboring farms.

“Since May 10 this year, when this solar co-operative began supplying power to the grid, farmers have been switching off their solar power pumps after irrigating their farms. The excess solar power generated by the solar panels at their farms was getting diverted to the grid, thus providing them a supplementary income. However, finding this income too minuscule some of them have started to keep their irrigation pumps working overtime and supply water to farmers who don’t have irrigation facilities. Pravin has been selling water to at least 20 neighbouring farmers using his pumps. “The rate fixed in the power purchase agreement is pretty low. The government should pay us more,” he feels. Ramabhai Chavda, another member of the cooperative, sells water, said a family member.”

““For irrigating one bigha, we need about four hours and 20 units of solar power. If we switch off our irrigation pumps and supply the power to the grid we will earn about Rs 93. However, if we sell the water from our tubewells to the neigbouring farmers, we end up earning Rs 250 for the same four hours,” said Parvin Parmar, a member and secretary of the cooperative.”

Read full article:  Gujarat solar co-operative sells water instead of electricity.


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Overuse of fertilizer and pesticides in India and its impact

India’s uses more fertilizer (kg/ hectare) than the US, something which I have written about previously.

A recent report by the Standing Committee on Agriculture shows heavily skewed (over)use of fertilizers and their impact on quality of soil, water and human health.

Read some of the findings: “42% of India’s districts use 85% of its chemical fertilisers”

Download the full detailed report: Impact of Chemical Fertilizers and Pesticides on Agriculture and Allied Sectors in the Country: Standing Committee on Agriculture (2015-2016)


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