The Desertification of Punjab and the Liability of Opinion Makers

In August last year, we had drawn attention to a piece by Indian Express editor Shekhar Gupta on the remarkable edit page piece he had penned on what he claimed was the ‘absence of drought’, in the Green Revolution region and provided his ‘explanation’ of why it had been possible. It had been possible, Gupta had opined, because all the great things had been accomplished in decades when the most retrograde environmental and jholawala movements in the history of mankind had not yet arrived on the scene. And with no evidence whatsoever and with nothing but his blind ideological faith, Gupta had even misled his readers that ‘underground aquifers were being constantly recharged’. This when just a few days ago, NASA satellite pictures had shown the extent of groundwater depletion in this region.

In the meantime, the desertification of Punjab – the land of bountiful rivers – has now reached crisis proportions. The very same Indian Express carried a piece yesterday by Sukhdeep Kaur, entitled ‘That Sinking Feeling‘, which details the extent of the crisis. The first alarm, according to the story, was sounded in July 2007 – full two years before Gupta wrote his piece – by the Union Water Resources Ministry, asking the state government to urgently intervene. It also refers to the NASA data to underline the frightening extent of the crisis. The report – every word and every syllable of it – is a crying refutation of Gupta’s rabidly ideological claims. Not only is the recharge through rainwater harvesting woefully insufficient, the situation has reached such a pass that the Central Groundwater Board has recommended a blanket ban on tube wells.

Ridiculous though it may sound, some of the diagnostics by the government put the overuse of water to the ‘free power regime’ – as though the water is being overused because there is availability of free power!! As if it is not the frightful changes in cropping pattern – with water-thirsty crops replacing the more drought resistant ones, traditionally used by farmers in these regions – that is at the root of this crisis.

The substantive questions involved here of course call for a separate discussion. For the moment, it is worth underlining that what Gupta calls ‘the most retrograde environmental and jholawala movements’ have precisely been warning of this disaster for decades now.

As we said in our last post, everyone including Gupta is entitled to his/her opinion, however stupid it is. The question before us really is that these are opinion-makers who willfully mislead their readers and the public at large, despite the availability of huge evidence to the contrary. Most often this is done in the service of moribund ideological beliefs but often enough in the service of specific corporate interests which have destroyed every common resource in large parts of the country and are greedily eying those that remain. Not a word of apology, we know, will be forthcoming from the likes of Gupta but it is time we need to fix the liability for willfully misleading people, especially where the costs are to be borne by them with their lives.  Only then will we be able to move towards more accountable public debates.

15 thoughts on “The Desertification of Punjab and the Liability of Opinion Makers”

  1. Dear Aditya,

    There is indeed a link between the free-power regime and the over-use of water. In Punjab particularly, the free-power regime, allows farmers (and a significant number of farmers in Punjab are ‘big’ farmers with relatively large farms) to use far more electricity and water than they strictly need for their crops.

    I agree that a change is cropping patterns has a substantial role to play in water utilisation in Punjab; however, given the existing cropping patterns – free electricity does make a difference.

    The change in cropping patterns needs be understood in the context of factors like minimum support prices – which provide financial incentives for farmers to grow particular types of crops; the absence of cold storage facilities which dis-incentivise growing perishables etc etc.

    Finally, the debate isn’t really about corporations against jholawallahs. The entry of corporations into the agricultural sector is a tough, tough question to ponder – particularly when the agricultural sector clearly needs help in some form.

    Large corporations have always been involved in the farm sector – through the production of fertilisers, pesticides etc. Further, certain tie-ups between farmers and corporations in the food industry, Nestle and dairy farmers for instance – may end up helping both.

    Also, I’ve always been slightly wary of excessive reliance on “traditional wisdom” – as if the crops that farmers used to grow “earlier” (whenever that time is/was) were somehow better for the environment.

    “Earlier”, farmers used to also clear forests, plant for a few years until the soil was exhausted and then move on to clear more forest.

    As i have said – this is difficult difficult debate; and i agree that editors should be wary of excessive simplification.

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  2. Sorry Aditya, the march of India’s progress towards capitalism will not be stopped by a few facts, its the perception that counts and opinion of people who speak good english and know corporate CEO’s.

    Oh well, let me go back to my corporate job, after all I need to buy that new iPhone 4.

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    1. sorry Abhishek,
      facts may not stop the march of capitalism but an organized satygrah can accomplish the unimaginable.The tragedy, as you have pointed out, is that we do not have courage to practice what we preach. yet, all the alternatives, that have emerged in response to the cruelties of capitalism are already a threat to it. or else we wont have an elegant Home Minister and an ‘erudite’ prime minister declare it as the gravest threat to internal security.

      Zohra

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  3. Aman,
    For one thing, as I said, this post was about liabilities of opinion makers and hence I have deferred discussion on substantive issues related to this desertification. You may be right about overuse of water – but that is no more that it is over used in urban areas. At least the farmers use it for productive purposes, but then this is not really the issue I want to get into at this stage. A more detailed post – or an essay is in order on this and I will restrain myself till then.
    In response to your final point, there are two issues of immediate relevance:
    1. The ‘freeze shot’ of the early twenty-first century is not quite the place to start discussing the relationship between corporations and farmers etc. There is something here that is almost analogous to your very finely argued point (in the comment on the social profiling post) about how the very idea of the normal gets so radically transformed once the discourse of security etc is in place: Once the Green Revolution was in place (in the late 1950 and particularly 1960s), the entire grammar of relationships changed. With the twenty years of rampant neo-liberalism, it has further changed. So,it is entirely understandable that farmers today would be implicated in this corporate economy, just as they were, in an earlier time, in the money economy. What I am talking about – in specific reference to Shekhar Gupta’s ideological blindness – is the fact that the Green Revolution then was an agenda driven by the Rockefeller Foundation and powerful global, transnational corporate interests and a whole host of global agencies including the World Bank. Now, the game has changed. Frankly, if you ask me, it really isn’t a tough tough question – you just need some retuning of vision. But then I leave that for another occasion.
    2. The other point here is that people like Gupta aren’t only pushing an ideological case. There are powerful corporate interests in agribusiness who would rather gloss over all these difficult issues… and somewhere I think, senior journalists are implicated in this game in less purer ways than their shrill moralistic tone would have you believe. Hence, the question of corporations is being repeated here with respect to one thing: declaration of assets by senior journalists and editors so that we know where they speak from. At the moment this is all I am interested in:)

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  4. What would you have, Aditya? The policies of the 1960s (“Green Revolution”) had consequences that were not foreseen at the time they were implemented (as we have now learned) but are you seriously suggesting that we are the worse-off for those policies?

    I am only a neo-liberal economist but in evaluating the impact of those policies, we have to count the benefits as well as the costs. It doesn’t make sense to just count the costs (the pollution, the loss of biodiversity etc.) and not take into account the benefits (the improvement in food production from the 1970s onwards).

    The Green Revolution was an agenda? Perhaps, but it ignores the fact that it was we (the Indira Gandhi government, and in particular, C. Subramanian as well as scientists like M. S. Swaminathan) who chose to implement it. I think it was C. Subramanian who argued to the Indira Gandhi cabinet that there were only two choices available: either we implement the Green Revolution or we go with a begging bowl to the West. We forget the humiliation that the Lyndon Johnson government inflicted on us during one of the begging episodes.

    To cut a long story short, yes, the Green Revolution has a number of drawbacks. As you note, it changed the nature of relationships (whether for good or bad is a matter of debate) and it had many other problems, some of which we are just beginning to realise. But it had benefits too and I find it incredible that the benefits are simply ignored in an honest evaluation of those policies.

    Since you find the Green Revolution so bad, perhaps you would care to enlighten us on how the “traditional” agricultural policies [which themselves are not as benign as we seem to think, as Aman notes] will effectively feed our 1 billion plus population? Note, in this context, that all our claims of “self-sufficiency in food” is just nonsense: The malnourishment rates in our beloved country are at unacceptably high levels even now and there are hunger deaths in parts of the country like Kalahandi. What we have managed to do is to avoid the mass starvation that we saw in Ethiopia, but that’s not saying a lot.

    Finally, regarding “rampant neo-liberalism.” Take a look at these pictures of what “rampant non-neo-liberal policies” can lead to:

    http://www.gerdludwig.com/html/stories_soviet.html

    In particular, note the photo about the Aral Sea. The sea shrunk because of excess water being pumped from the feeder rivers and it all happened under the very non-neo-liberal Soviet regime.

    The point is that we can have good and bad policies in any regime, neo-liberal or otherwise. Having a “non neo-liberal regime” [whatever that amounts to] is no guarantor of anything. But I suspect that will not convince you or the other posters. I’ll leave it at that. Thanks for indulging me whether or not you choose to publish my comment.

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    1. Suresh,
      There is really nothing common between you and me, no common starting point. Let me just state that I do not come from where you believe I do – your world is still stuck in twentieth century choices (essentially Cold War choices) between the free world and soviet (non-neo-liberal, as you kindly put it). The critiques of neo-liberalism in the twenty-first century no longer come from the vantage point of discredited state socialism of the soviet/chinese variety. At that level, as Heidegger once put it, ‘metaphysically they are the same’. Both are pretty much rooted in the same assumptions – a point I have been making in my critiques of the CPM and the Maoists on this very blog (though I don’t hold it against you for not reading them). That choice was/is a false choice.
      Contemporary critiques of ne-liberalism and capital are coming from a range of different view points that include, most critically, the ecological imperative. The main Copernican revolution here being the realization that ‘nature’ is not a subset of the ‘economy’ but rather the other way round – it is the human economy that is a subset of ecology and nature. And this is already beginning to reverse some of the most crucial twentieth century economic dogmas. But really, to each his/her own:)

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  5. But still no answer to this substantial question: how to solve the food security issue?

    An interesting anecdote: a group of city-based environmental activists once went to a village to spread public awareness about biodiversity. After their lec-dem was over, a shy teenager stood up and asked in a feeble voice” “Sir, we’ve understood the importance of it. Your place must be biologically very diverse. Can you please tell us something about it?” :-)

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  6. There is really nothing common between you and me, no common starting point.

    I really had no intention of commenting any further but I think the above does deserve a response.

    I comment here in the belief that though we might disagree about policies, we both care about roughly the same things: human rights, dalit oppression, gender inequality etc. etc. To me, the fact that you care about the things I also do was the commonality.

    Obviously, you seem to feel otherwise. I am sorry you feel this way about me but I thank you for your generosity in letting me comment here. I will stop here.

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    1. Dear Suresh,
      I should clarify that what the first part of the sentence means is defines by the second – that there is no common starting point. Our intellectual assumptions and worlds are quite far apart. If it sounded more than this, let me apologize for it right away. As you would have seen, despite this statement, I go on to actually explain something of where I come from. Clearly that would not be required if I were to actually mean what you took it to mean. That is certainly is the case with some upstarts who routinely comment on this blog and I really do not think they are worth engaging in debate.
      As far as our commonalities are concerned, I do agree with what you say above – but the difference is not simply about policies – about say, market versus state or some such thing. It is actually about much more fundamental issues – precisely of the kind I hinted at above. The Cold War, in my humble opinion ended two decades ago and many of us have moved far far beyond the choices presented by the world then. Equally, the entire gamut of philosophical issues that undergird simple questions like the Green Revolution are today being radically rethought and any simple statement that takes me back to some 1960s argument simply tires me. We really have moved far far away from all that. That was all that was meant in my statement above but as I said, my apologies if I sounded too dismissive. Please do continue to comment and be part of the debates here.

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  7. We are missing the point here a little bit, whether Green Revolution was an unqualified success or moderate success or a complete failure will depend what parameters are we considering, it was not unmitigated disaster in my view anyways.

    What the article tries to point out is almost fanatic support of the media to market. And we are not talking about radical journalism here, just having a perspective, I mean I understand the market that the media caters too (especially English media), middle class urban citizen is highly capitalistic and it is natural to have a ‘right of center’ point of view, but why this assumption that market can never be wrong, why can’t media challenge its audience, at least make issues debatable, instead of simplifying everything and giving market as the answer to all problems.

    The space for alternate view point has shrunk so much in mainstream media, that i think we would be much better off if we have strong online media, but as lot of research has already proved, people tend to visit the websites that reiterates their viewpoint, so left leaning individual will probably visit huffingtonpost and right leaning individual will visit pyjamasmedia.

    The question is of having a challenging media, a place for exchange of ideas, i don’t how this will evolve, but i suspect it’ll probably have a component of online journalism.

    And my last two cents, it’ll be great to have some views from scientists, technocrats, economists etc. on these issues, maybe kafila can invite such people to comment on this forum.

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    1. “The space for alternate view point has shrunk so much in mainstream media, that i think we would be much better off if we have strong online media, but as lot of research has already proved, people tend to visit the websites that reiterates their viewpoint, so left leaning individual will probably visit huffingtonpost and right leaning individual will visit pyjamasmedia.”

      You might want to push that idea a little further Abhishek – I’m not sure why people expect the media to work as a vehicle for radicalization – partly I think it has to do with the mythologies that the media produces about itself, and its tendencies to overstate its own importance.

      To turn the question around – Why should the media challenge its readers, when survey after survey says that its readers do not want to be challenged? (Apart from our frequent commentator Somnath of course :) (god bless him)

      I’m not sure that the space for ‘alternative view points’ has necessarily ‘shrunk’ – I don’t think the Indian press pre-1992 was a model of radical critique of our lives and times.

      Your point about the middle class is interesting because the people who make the most demands on the media are the middle class. Why? because they see mass-media as a useful substitute for mass-politics.

      Could it be that we (and this is something that is particularly true in the case of Kafila readers and writers, and i include myself in this) fall prey to this very same trap by according it that same exalted status?

      Here on Kafila we seem to constantly talk about how the biases in our newspapers reflect the biases in our society – Well Yes! Given that a sizeable amount of the liberal arts – anthropology, history – involves examining the media of a given time period to “read” into the prevailing public mood, it is hardly surprising to see ideological battles play out in this manner.

      Finally the newspaper is an edited summary of the day’s events – period. It has its politics, it has its pressures, it has its clear and present agenda – like every institution.

      Lets use it as a starting point to start a fresh dialogue rather than falling back into the tired argument that of “Media is right-wing hindu biased world bank minority supporting woman hating masculine patriarchy sensationalist dangerous when used in conjunction with alcohol (fit in your pet angst).

      If you want a challenge, challenge yourself – why wait for the media to challenge you?

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    2. Aman,

      But I never blamed the media, it was just an observation, and of course like any other organization media has to cater to its markets needs.Although media has a responsibility of reporting facts, even if they contradict their stated positions.

      Though what i’m interested in is future of media, or lets say information dissemination, we know for a fact that people will not go out of their way to seek out difficult information, or at least the majority doesn’t. So what about people who would like to get the facts, don’t they have the right to be informed.

      My point is that we need to find ways of disseminating information in a cheaper way (because of smaller audience), and web seems to be the right platform for it, because for mainstream media it doesn’t make commercial sense to give space to such information.

      And what we need is a platform for exchange of ideas, and thats why your point about Somnath is important, he is as important for Kafila, as Kafila might be for mainstream media.

      And a slight aside, why read James Joyce or Thomas Pynchon, because people better than us need to challenge us, that is not to say that TOI reporters should start reproting in stream of consciousness :-)

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  8. Well, Aman, the pre-1992 media may not have been a model of a radical critique of our lives and times but I think it is gross oversimplification to suggest that nothing has changed. Yes, the media was very very restricted and very few people could publish but I think you are completely off the mark if you are suggesting a straight line from say the 1960s and 1970s to 1992 (whatever that cut-off point may mean to suggest). For one thing, your claim that

    ‘Finally the newspaper is an edited summary of the day’s events – period. It has its politics, it has its pressures, it has its clear and present agenda – like every institution.’

    seems to me to represent the very self-image of the media in its most uncomplicated form.
    The fact is that (even though no media researcher, I have been its avid consumer from at least the early 1970s) the media has had its ups and downs that have much more to do with simply pushing a corporate, neo-liberal agenda as it has been doing since the early 1990s.
    First, the end of the Emergency and the dark days of censorship made the media somewhat of an ally of democratic struggles and a kind of voice of a sentinel of democracy – ‘speaking truth to power’ in its own self perception. The explosion of newspapers and magazines in the immediate post Emergency period is a testimony to that. Very few newspapers and magazines of those days could afford to be as partisan and completely dismissive of alternative viewpoints as they are today. Indeed, may of the mainstream newspapers like the Times of India started a special supplement called Agenda (under Chandan Mitra) where even relatively new people, beginning their free-lancing careers could write. Mitra took this to Pioneer when he went there as editor. Pioneer was a paper that you cannot even imagine in today’s scenario – starting off in those days with a left-liberal character. What is more, even the now pro-American, neoliberal fundamentalist Indian Express used to run a full page every Wednesday on Development – which really had a serious component of a critical take on Development. In no newspaper was it anathema to write and discuss about labour in relatively more balanced ways – not merely in terms of loss to the corporations and the messages their agitations send out to prospective investors. Having had half my family in the media/ news business and having myself been a freelancer and a columnist on Labour for a few years in the 1990s – I can actually pinpoint the exact point at which for one brief moment it became possible to speak of labour once again: this moment was in early 1994, when the Uruguay Round negotiations on GATT concluded and the US and other governments came up with the proposal of a social clause – that included guaranteeing of workers’ rights. That is a separate and complex story and I have written about it elsewhere but it was when these Western and especially US govt started ‘championing’ the cause of labour, that our by-then-transformed media woke up to the issue. I could actually go on and on but let it be.
    Second, and no less important from the point of being a forum of critical thinking, we communists who believed that newspapers were the bourgeois press – even we used to wait for the daily newspapers and especially the sunday newspapers to come in. There used to be critical write-ups on literature, theatre and cinema, there used to be book reviews (serious book reviews that have now simply disappeared) and there would be stories on a whole range of social issues including poverty. I have of course now most delectable stories of how in edit meetings not only right wingers but even supposedly ‘radical’ editors insist that they can only show glamorous and glitzy faces and pictures. Pictures and reports of poverty for example are positively pooh-poohed and journalists wanting to do them ridiculed. A whole book could be written – and surely somebody somewhere will write it someday – on this amazing transformation of the media.
    Are you in the last line addressed to Abhishek (“If you want a challenge, challenge yourself – why wait for the media to challenge you?”) suggesting that there it is incorrect or illegitimate to demand of the media that it behave in socially responsible ways? I suppose the question is not one of ‘challenging’ anything but rather of passing off as news, planted stories (not just from IB but form corporations), of passing off advertisements as articles and selling off edit space for corporate representatives; of ‘treaties’ executed by some enterprizing newspapers with some corporations that they will not carry any negative stories against them.
    The story is far more complicated than your newspapers-as-daily-digests appears to suggest. You seem to collapse the specificity of the 1990s media into some general line about what the media is and is not. But precisely because the line is not straight and the media has and play a different role – within certain parameters of course – the task of holding the media accountable remains a serious one, politically speaking – at least to me.

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  9. yes, things are not in a straight line, as far as this issue is concerned. there is a person called
    shikha trivedi–her reportage on poverty and discrimination( on the ndtv) is better than most documentary film-makers of this country who seem to think they have some absolute right over social issues. but, of course, she is not well-known.

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  10. Aman: Certainly, overuse of water was accentuated after free-power regime (especially after 2002), but was it not ingrained in the very concept of Green revolution (GR)? What was the extent of damage before 2002? Although, I agree with you that ‘this is difficult difficult debate’

    Suresh: I agree with you that it should not be simply traditional vs. new political economy of agriculture. But, green revolution is only contingently (not necessarily) linked to so-called ‘self-sufficiency’ of foods in terms of feeding each. For despite GR there are starvation deaths and ‘scarcity amidst plenty’. Perhaps GR policies should be placed in the larger context of dynamics of India’s political economy.
    The point is not so simple that there are ‘good and bad policies in any regime, neo-liberal or otherwise.’ – Then why is there any need of your preferring neoliberal policies over statist. You are self-professed neoliberal economist, perhaps, because you find this BETTER than other models. Can there be other choices amidst traditionalist (or organic) and GR agriculture?

    Aman: ‘Why people expect the media to work as a vehicle for radicalization – partly I think it has to do with the mythologies that the media produces about itself, and its tendencies to overstate its own importance.’
    True, media is media and not in itself a vehicle for radicalization. But importance of media is not mythology. The society is getting more and more mediatized because of technological, social and political changes. This process was started in early modernity, which gave media a social and political role, but predominantly under the condition of its private ownership. It was a liberal paradox that the very form of bourgeois ownership which restricts its potential, gives it formal and relative autonomy. The strength of this relative autonomy can be contrasted with totalitarian and so-called communist states. Unfortunately, we are still in the search of a concrete socialistic democratic vision, which can transgress bourgeois-ness of democracy.

    Aditya: I agree with you that there are specific changes in the character of media after 1990, which should be studied, perhaps that is also the Aman’s point pressing for ‘a fresh dialogue’ for an more nuanced understanding of media as institution.

    Media is an industry; a democratic institution; a social (not passive but active thus often manipulating- under present conditions) mirror; a medium of channelising and organising (if you like today’s expression- ‘managing’) knowledge. These roles and functions are inherently conflictual. But the conflict is always negotiated. The negotiation is influenced by various factors like level of democratic consciousness; specific political conjecture; character of social movements; ‘challenge’ put forward by alternate views and their reach in the society. In the very process, media consumes, creates, and recreates for itself its ethical, social and professional image.

    In neo-liberal times, reader-citizen is being replaced by reader-consumer-citizen, not simply because of internal dynamics of media, but because of overall structural changes.
    Today’s media is BOLD in every sense of the term. If it is bold (in comparison to pre-1990 media) in investigation, it is also bold in its disarming frankness or cynicism.

    My some years in (hindi) media gave me the impression that media is not a monolithic entity. One example is Jansatta and Loksatta, which are also the publication of Indian Express Pvt. Ltd, but their character, general editorial line are different from each other. Whereas the question of ‘the Indian Express’ is concerned, this paper never hide its partisanship and its campaigns and ‘crusades’. Even during emergency and despite RNG’s romance with the ideas of JP and Lohia, it has been an anti-establishment but not an anti-capitalist newspaper. When capitalism in India started changing colours, coincidently the ownership of IE also started changing (RNG died in 1991 and the group was split in 1999.)
    I totally agree with the point that the generality of media must not be conflated with its specificities under different times.

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