Sustaining growth, environment
Reviewed by Nirmal Sandhu

Economic and Environmental Sustainability of the Asian Region
Eds Sucha Singh Gill, Lakhwinder Singh and Reena Marwah.
Pages 461. Rs 895.

THE book is a collection of papers read out at a three-day international conference organised by the Centre for South West Asia Study and Punjabi University’s Department of Economics in collaboration with the Association of Asia Scholars, New Delhi, at Patiala from November 14 to 16, 2008. An anthology of papers has its advantages — one can read one piece at a time — and disadvantages too — there is no coherent argument built through the book.

Though most writers are Indian, particularly Punjabi, there are also representatives from Pakistan, China, Sri Lanka and Japan to give a sort of justification for the book’s focus on Asia. It gives a glimpse into the diversity of thought on common issues. The 460-page tome is packed with dry data, tables and the mandatory references, indicative of the writers’ scholarship. For a lay reader, it is a tough call.

But the issues raised — ecological concerns of economic growth, globalisation, peasant distress, sustainability of agriculture and Bt cotton — are relevant, especially for states like Punjab, Haryana and western UP, where farming has reached almost a saturation point and the excessive use of chemicals over the decades is taking its toll on public health.

With 1.57 per cent of India’s geographical area, Punjab accounts for 15 per cent of pesticides and 8 per cent of fertilisers used in India, and is now faced with widespread disease and death. The alarming level of pollution in the ground, canal and river waters has led to the spread of cancer and water-borne diseases, raising the household spending on health. The cost of production has shot up with "degraded soil, depleting aquifers and depletion of non-renewable natural resources such as fossil fuels and minerals".

Contract farming is not favourably viewed as it creates problems, including the "over-exploitation of groundwater, the salination of soils, a decline in soil fertility and pollution" — all contributing to environmental degradation.

Globalisation is seen as a problem rather than as a challenge to be met head-on since it is inevitable. Usman Mustafa and Muhammad A. Quddus from Pakistan argue: "With globalisation and the WTO regime, the protection of agriculture through tariffs and subsidies has been eliminated and coupled with the use of biofuel has reduced the world cereal production which has increased its prices. All these have serious consequences on food security and the well-being of poor people."

The food price rise, says Munim Kumar Barai, a professor from Japan, is due to "increased costs to farmers due to high fuel and fertiliser prices, neglect of agriculture, reduction in food stocks held in developing countries, supply disruptions caused by natural factors, rising demand due to rising household incomes in growing economies and decline of the dollar".

What holds back agricultural growth? Rajeev Sharma and Indervir Singh list the following reasons: Slowdown of public investment in agriculture, lack of technological development, low levels of inputs use, including water, and increasing volatility of prices in the post-WTO era.

Crop diversification will not work in Punjab because there is no alternative crop combination which can replace the paddy-wheat and cotton-wheat cropping system. Regardless of the damage to water resources, paddy is here to stay. Forget oilseeds, pulses and maize, only three crops — chilli, basmati and paddy — have an economic edge over cotton.

Though Bt cotton has yielded bumper profits this year, writers are skeptic about its success. They claim that "mixed reports are emerging about the farmers’ experience with this new seed technology". While conceding that Bt cotton has yielded higher returns to growers than other cotton varieties, P. K. Viswanathan and N. Lalitha maintain that Bt cotton has failed to lower the use of insecticides.

Sucha Singh Gill, Sukhwinder Singh and Jaswinder Singh Brar sound an alarm: Bt cotton seed consumption (oil and oil cakes) may inject toxic protein into our food chain that may be injurious to human health. More research is needed to find out whether genetically modified crops, particularly consumable items, have an adverse effect on human health.

Issues like globalisation, environment-friendly sustainable growth, water pollution, declining returns from shrinking farms, paddy replacement, contract farming and Bt cotton require pragmatic solutions. Experts could have provided tips on preparing agriculture to meet the challenges of climate change and raising productivity without the use of chemicals to achieve the goals of global food security and fast growth without harming the environment.