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1. One step too far

GREAT INTENTIONS often fail to yield positive outcomes when delivered without careful thought. This is what several conservationists in Tamil Nadu fear after the Madras High Court in its recent order has restricted cattle grazing in the state's protected forest areas. They say the order will not only deprivelocal communities of their livelihood but also risk overriding laws that protect their interests, while endangering forest health. The court order was in response to a public interest petition by a Thirvadanai-based lawyer G Thirumurugan in July 2020. The petitioner sought a ban on grazing in Megamalai wildlife division (which includes a sanctuary) and the Theni forest division of Theni district, alleging destruction of grasslands and a threat of the cattle transmitting diseases to wild animals. On March 4 this year, the court expanded the scope of the petition and banned grazing in the entire 22,877 sq km of recorded forest area in the state, under provisions related to restricted entry in sanctuaries under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, and on cattle trespass under the Tamil Nadu Forest Act, 1882 The decision angered pastoralists and cattle farmers across the state, who staged protests on March 15. Two days later, the court revised its order and limited the ban to 8,102 sq km of protected forest areas after amicus curie T Mohan cited that Section 16 of the Tamil Nadu Forest Act, 1882 states “the authorities may be permitted to allow cattle grazing rights.”


Grazing cattle, particularly the native malaimadu species, has traditionally been a major source of earning for forest dwelling communities in and around Theni. “These species are reared for manure rather than milching. They cannot be stall-fed,” says S Bharathidasan of Arulagam, a conservation nonprofit in Coimbatore. The communities' grazing rights in forest areas are already protected under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition Of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 or FRA. “But instead of referring to FRA, the ruling refers to colonial-era laws like the Tamil Nadu Forest Act that are obsolete,” says C R Bijoy, an independent resource-conflict and governance issue examiner in Coimbatore. This will only lead to exploitation of forest dwellers. First, the ruling calls for the current system of issuing permits to be continued. Under the 1882 Act, the forest department issues permits for grazing. But these permits are not based on any recorded data of cattle numbers, which results in confusion among herders, says K Mohan Raj, an environmentalist based in Coimbatore. "It is also difficult to keep a tab on the cattle licensed to graze. If a grazier buys new cows, how will the forest department track them?” he asks. Bijoy says the court order severely curtails the communities' access to forests in a state that has not performed well on settling individual or community rights over forest land under FRA. His analysis of Census 2001 data shows that communities in the state can claim land titles on some 15,826.93 sq km of forest land that falls within revenue boundaries [Census 2011 data is not used as it calculates forest areas within customary or traditional boundaries, not revenue boundaries]. Latest data on FRA shows by October 2021, as many as 1,082 claims for community rights were filed. Of these, only 450 titles have been issued while 86 claims were rejected. Of the 33,755 claims to individual land titles filed, 8,144 titles were issued for 96.26 sq km. Now, with the order banning grazing in protected areas, much of the forest areas are out of bounds for the communities. Bijoy says if the order is replicated in other states, it will affect more pastoralists and forest dwellers. Leo Saldanha of Bengalurubased Environment Support Group, says the ruling must be challenged in the Supreme Court, as it "sets a legal precedent for further territorializing forests at the hands of the state and creates barriers between the people and their forests". V P Gunasekaran, executive member, Tamil Nadu Tribal People’s Association, has on April 6 written to the state government asking it to challenge the order in the apex court.


The ban goes beyond threatening communities and risks conservation of biodiversity. Grasslands are resilient ecosystems that are healthier when frequently grazed, creating niches for multiple wild species, says Saldanha. Grazing is also recognised as a wildfire prevention tool. A 2014 paper published by Societa Italiana di Selvicoltura ed Ecologia Forestale, a cultural non-profit, states, “the use of grazing animals could be an efficient method for controlling shrub encroachment and reducing the risk of fire through the elimination of dangerous fuel ladders...”. Adds Bijoy, “As of March, we have already seen wildfires in Palani Hills of Kodaikanal and the Nadugani forest range in Gudalur forest division in the Nilgiris." Abi T Vanak, Senior Fellow, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), Bengaluru, says, “On one hand, the government wants to ban grazing in forest areas; and on the other, traditional grazing areas are being usurped and converted to various other land-uses. India has a long history and culture of pastoralism, with several unique breeds. If these are to survive, then traditional grazing rights must be met." Vanak says protecting wild species from diseases, as the original petition says, is important. “For this, the government should focus on vaccinating livestock and helping owners maintain healthy herds, rather than having knee-jerk reactions,” he says,

2. Making of a flood

A SPRAWLING PHOTO studio for wedding shoots, educational institutions, upscale resorts, villas and farmhouses crowd the peripheries of the Osmansagar and Himayatsagar lakes on the outskirts of Hyderabad. The massive campuses have been set up despite a March 8, 1996 government order that prohibits construction or industrial activity within 10 km of the century-old reservoirs. It was passed to keep the reservoirs pollution-free. Now, Telangana, instead of correcting the wrongs, has repealed the order, paving the way for concretisation of the catchment areas. Last month, the state government issued two orders, one on April 12 and the other on April 20, authorising construction around the reservoirs as long as the water quality is not impacted. The orders also announced the formation of a committee under the state chief secretary to frame guidelines to protect and prevent pollution in the water bodies, and submit the report at the earliest. The orders now allow real estate companies and other businesses to carry out construction in 84 villages in the catchment areas of the reservoirs.


The state government rationalises the decision by claiming that the reservoirs now provide only 1.25 per cent of Hyderabad's drinking water, from 27.59 per cent in 1996. Experts contest the claim, saying that the reservoirs were constructed to save Hyderabad from flooding. "In 1908, the city saw a devastating flood, caused by the Musi river," says Hyderabad-based environmentalist K Purushotham Reddy. That is when the Nizam (ruler) of Hyderabad had requested Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya, the diwan (administrator) of the erstwhile Mysore kingdom, to make a flood control plan. Visvesvaraya suggested constructing two reservoirs upstream of Hyderabad, one on the Musi and the other on its tributary, Esa, to absorb and store excess water during floods, says Purushotham Reddy. “The Nizam later decided to use the reservoirs to provide drinking water to the city and prohibited polluting activity in the catchment area,” he adds. Till 1975, the reservoirs were used to meet the drinking water needs of Hyderabad. As the city expanded, it started receiving water from Krishna and Godavari rivers, which are over 200 km away. Even today, the two reservoirs provide 226.5 billion litres of water a day to the city. "There is no logic in destroying existing facilities. It will affect the sustainability of the city," says Purushottam Reddy. Thakur Rajkumar Singh, an environmental activist who filed a petition with the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in 2015 to conserve the catchment areas of the two lakes, says the reservoirs have saved Hyderabad from at least six major flooding events between 1908 and early 2000s. “The concretisation started around the 2000s and the city witnessed floods in 2020 and 2021,” Singh adds If the catchment area gets concretised further, the flood waters could move six times faster than normal and cause unprecedented damage, says B V Subbarao, hydrologist and technical advisor at Bangalore University, adding that the latest move is not in the interest of Telangana. The Musi river originates and ends in the state. “Telangana has 100 per cent control over the river. It has a basin of 12,000 sq km and the catchment areas of the reservoirs account for almost 17 per cent of the river's catchment area,” says Subbarao. “Starting in April, wind starts to flow over the two reservoirs and it has a cooling effect on Hyderabad. Allowing construction activities in its catchment areas will mean summers will get hotter in the city,” says Purushotham Reddy.


Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao says the decision will provide employment and livelihood, but the residents are sceptical. But farmers for whom agriculture is not sustainable and residents who want to sell their land but are getting low rates are in favour of this. The real estate sharks purchased lots of land in the catchment directly. The poor sold the land at low rates as registration was not happening,” says N Saibhaskar Reddy, environmentalist and resident of Gondala village, which is in the catchment area. Purushotam Reddy says real estate companies have already purchased sizeable chunks of land in the catchment area over the past decade or so. They now want to carry out construction work legally. This is not the first time the state government has tried to repeal the 1996 order. The first attempt was made in 2014, as soon as Telangana was carved out of Andhra Pradesh. That year, there were also efforts to set up a polluting industry along the lake. The move was stalled after Singh moved NGT, which asked the chief secretary to submit a report on the number of encroachments in the 84 villages. A government report issued at the time said there were 12,500 illegal structures in the catchment villages. Singh says the actual number is over 20,000. “The area also has government buildings that are illegal,” he says. In 2016, the state government constituted an expert committee to study the merits of the order. Singh alleges the committee was supposed to submit its report in 45 days, but never released its findings.

3. Wheat feels March heat

AMIT PUNIA is in distress. The 24-year-old farmer from Khudan village in Haryana’s Jhajjar district says abovenormal rains in January and record-shattering temperatures in March have reduced his wheat yield by almost 60 per cent compared to 2021. “In January, when the wheat spikes [which bear the grains] developed, part of my crop in lowlying areas perished after remaining submerged for several days,” says Punia, who owns 3 hectares (ha) and took another 8 ha on lease this year for '6 lakh. The remaining crop was battered by extreme temperatures in March. The losses accompany a spike in the prices of diesel, manure, seeds and spray. It has become difficult to meet our inputs cost, he says. Like Punia, most wheat-growing farmers in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh have experienced losses this year. Sandeep Singh, a farmer from Balla village in Karnal, says the yield has dropped by 20-30 per cent. “I saw such a low yield for the first time ever. Every farmer is vulnerable here,” says Bittu Singh, owner of a thresher machine in Chandpur village in Punjab’s Mohali district. Farmers are also facing difficulties in getting the minimum support price (m s p ) for their produce because of the high share of shrivelled grains. On April 13, 2022, the Centre, on the insistence of the Punjab government, said it would revise its wheat procurement norms for shrivelled grains. This year, the share of shrivelled grain in the total produce has reached 12-20 per cent, as per the Food Corporation of India, as against the usual 6 per cent.


Wheat requires cool and moist conditions for most of its growing period. The optimum temperature range for germination of wheat seed is 20-25 o C. The crop is typically sown in late October or November and harvested in April. The grains develop in February and March. But this year, India saw an early onset of summer, with large parts of central and western India recording 40 o C in March. The month was the warmest in 122 years, according to the India Meteorological Department (IMD). In the third week, maximum temperatures were 4.5 0 C above normal in the major wheatproducing regions of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, West Madhya Pradesh and a few parts of Gujarat. By the end of March, heatwaves had hit large swaths of north-western India and a few pockets of central India. The number of heatwave days during the month was significantly higher than normal, as per IMD. Heatwaves typically strike north, north-west, central, east and northeast India in May. The month was also unusually dry, receiving the third lowest rainfall since 1901. IMD suggests that all major wheat-growing states saw large rainfall deficits. This trend continued through April. Overall, the country witnessed a “deficient” pre-monsoon (showers between March and May), with a deficiency of 32 per cent from March to April, compared to the normal range. High temperatures at night force plants to redirect energy meant for grain formation to transpiration—a process that helps keep plants cool. This tends to reduce the duration of grain filling and, as a result, the grains lose weight, leading to low yield, says S P Ramanathan, professor and head of the Agro Climate Research Centre at the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University in Coimbatore. “Temperatures typically seen in May were observed in March this year. Wheat crops matured 10-15 days earlier and the grain size remained short,” says R S Sengar, head, Department of Agriculture Biotechnology, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel University of Agriculture in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh. P K Kingra, professor at the Punjab Agricultural University, says, “We expect a drop in wheat production this year. Only those farmers who sowed their crops in early October had a good quality harvest. Those who sowed the crop in the usual season or later harvested low yields.” Sengar expects farmers in Uttar Pradesh will also receive 5-10 per cent lower yield. The Union government's Department of Agriculture and Farmers' Welfare, however, still maintains that wheat production will remain healthy at 127.93 million tonnes, against a target of 121.10 million tonnes. It even plans to ramp up the exports.


So what triggered the high temperatures in March and April? There were some changes in the atmospheric patterns, according to D Sivananda Pai, director at the Kottayam, Kerala- based Institute for Climate Change Studies. “Anticyclones, which cause hot and dry weather by sinking winds around high-pressure areas, had formed over western parts of Rajasthan in March. Even western disturbances that bring showers were inactive this year,” he says. But the main reason is climate change, says Madhavan Rajeevan, distinguished scientist at the National Centre for Earth Science Studies in Thiruvanathapuram. Scientists have researched the impact of climate change on wheat yields. One study published in Global Change Biology in 2018 found that a 1.5°C rise in temperatures could decrease global wheat production by 2.3-7 per cent. A 2021 paper published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters found that wheat yields in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh could reduce by 12-27 per cent by 2100 if greenhouse gas emissions are not lowered. “We need to adapt cropping practices and develop heattolerant seed varieties, while also engaging in the larger mission to mitigate climate change,” says Mariam Zachariah, post-doctoral scientist at Imperial College London, UK, and lead author of the study. “Unless we immediately take action, conditions seen in March will be the new normal,” says Pai.

4. Lost archives

YOU ARE looking at one of the most critical sites in Himalayan history,” says Manoj Kumar, former director of the Geological Survey of India (g s i), pointing at a valley along the Kalka- Shimla highway in Himachal Pradesh’s Solan district. With multi-storeyed buildings and terrace farming filling up the landscape, there is nothing that distinguishes the valley from any other in the area. “If it does not look different, it is because it has been destroyed due to construction of houses and settlements. Just fourfive years ago, you could have seen geomorphological features—the cuts of the slopes, the inclinations of the rocks—on the bare mountains that tell the story of the evolution of the range itself,” Kumar adds. The valley is among a handful of spots in India where the main boundary thrust (MBT)—a 2,400 km belt in the Himalayas, running through Pakistan, India, Nepal and Bhutan—has been studied. Formation of the Himalayas started 50 million years ago, when the Indian plate crashed into the Eurasian plate. But MBT was formed much later, some 10 million years ago, as part of the same process. These features cannot be studied just anywhere on the belt. "It is possible to identify new geological sites but the process of studying them, including estimating the age of each layer of the rock, could take decades. The process is also expensive,” Kumar adds. Pointing at the valley, Kumar says this was a prized section, a Mecca for geologists, and has been studied by students from all over the world since it was first noticed by an Irish geologist in 1864. "It has been completely destroyed due to mindless construction and road widening activities,” says an agitated Kumar, who accompanied this reporter to the spot and to many others on the Kalka-Shimla highway that have faced destruction due to developmental activities. The destruction of India’s geologically important sites in recent years is alarming, says O N Bhargava, another former director of GSI, who is an honorary professor in the geology department of Panjab University and was a teacher of Kumar. Bhargava and his colleagues have compiled data on over 50 geologically important sites that are under threat or have been partly or completely destroyed in Jammu Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh (see 'Development collateral' on p24). “Take the case of the exposed coral reef fossil found in the Spiti valley. It was perhaps one of the best exposed coral reefs in the world. The reef was under the Tethys sea about 200 million years ago and got exposed due to the collision of the continental plates. Now they have built a canal over it. They even used the reef as building material,” says Bhargava. The Spiti valley also had a fossil that captured the imprints left by the movement of a giant scorpion. Fossils that capture movement are extremely rare and have been only found at three locations in the world. They tell us the environment in which the organism lived and how it behaved. “It’s no longer there. There is a road over it,” laments Bhargava.


The loss of these sites and fossils is not just loss of geological artefacts. They provide invaluable data on past climates, tectonic movements, floral and faunal diversity, even earthquakes. “Only by studying fossils have we come to know that the Indian summer monsoon started 25 million years ago and full - fledged monsoon just 10-15 million years ago,” says Gaurav Srivastava, a scientist at Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeosciences, Lucknow. This was the result of a 2021 study published in Gondwana Research. The study arrived at these findings after analysing the shape and size of plant fossil leaves of that time span. "Each type— deciduous, temperate or rainforest—has unique morphological features. For example, rainforest trees have an extended leaf top to drain out extra rain. The researchers were able to compare patterns found in ancient plants to modern vegetation, which revealed how close fossil forests are placed to their modern counterparts. “If they are closer in morphology to temperate modern forests, we conclude the fossil forest type was temperate.” Ancient data could help in understanding future climatic conditions. The current carbon dioxide concentration has surpassed the 400 parts per million (PPM) mark. Average temperatures have also risen by 1 o C since the preindustrial era. These conditions make predicting rainfall a challenge. But prediction models can be made accurate if one has data on how rainfall changed when carbon dioxide and temperatures were high. “56-53 million years ago, the carbon dioxide concentration was greater than 1,000 ppm. At that time, the Earth was 7-8 o C warmer than in the pre-industrial era. Similarly, if you have data on how monsoon changed, current prediction becomes more precise,” says Srivastava, who is researching this aspect.


The Himalayas are divided into four belts: outer Himalayas or Shivaliks (lowest in elevation); lower/lesser Himalayas, greater Himalayas; and the Tethyan parts. The lower Himalayas are not rich in fossils. The rocks here are old, dating back to a time when life was not abundant or diverse. “We have found only Trilobites here,” says Bhargava. Measuring 3-6 cm, these early animals roamed the oceans until about 250 million years ago. The Tethyan part is also not a great fossil hunting site. The region was once home to shallow waters, which were not suitable for animals to find food. But researchers struck gold with the Shivaliks, which has abundant sedimentary rocks, deposited by rivers from higher elevations. These sediments have preserved abundant fossils of mammals and plants. These plants were growing during the upliftment of the Himalayas, says Srivastava. This means they can tell us about the climate during this process. The Shivaliks formed in a stepwise manner. The lower Shivaliks were the first to appear on the scene. The next to emerge was the middle, followed by the lower Shivaliks. They piled on top of each other, Srivastava explains. The lower Shivaliks contain fossils of evergreen plants. Ten million years later, deciduous forests replaced evergreens when the middle Shivaliks came up. Evergreen forests require high rainfall while deciduous forests need four to five months of the dry season. Similarly, in 2018, Srivastava and his colleagues used plant fossils to reconstruct the climatic conditions during India’s collision with Eurasia. The analysis showed that the period hosted plants that prefer warm and humid conditions. They published the findings in the Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology. About 5 million years ago, the Ladakh region had lush green vegetation and rainfall. Srivastava and his team made these conclusions after gathering palm and other plant fossils and estimating their age. These typically grow in regions with good rainfall. Also, fossils are crucial to understand how life evolved. For instance, a 2014 study published in the Proceedings of the Royal SocietyB recovered fossil remains of a big cat (related to the present-day snow leopard) in the Himalayas dated 5.95 to 4.10 million years ago. The discovery hinted at the possibility that big cats originated from Asia. Going forward, Bhargava recommends that the government set up a committee involving g GSI, state geological departments and research universities to guide road construction. He also makes a case for a law to protect geoheritage sites. “Just as there is a law to protect archaeological sites, we should have one for geoheritage sites, too,” he asserts,

5. Chilli under attack

CHILLI FARMERS in Telangana’s Subakkapalli village, Bhopalapalli district, are living their worst nightmare. A new pest, black thrips (Thrips parvispinus), has destroyed over 40 hectares (ha) of standing crop in a matter of months. In Sidduri Ravindra Rao's farm, the initial signs of the attack were reported in the first week of December last year. Ravindra increased the frequency of pesticide spraying to three times a week from the recommended two times, but the entire crop on his 0.8 ha farm perished within a week. On December 15, he died by suicide. His brother Bhaskar Rao told Down To Earth (DTE) that Ravindra was relying on this year's produce to repay his loan of over ₹20 lakh. "First, untimely heavy rainfall destroyed our crops. This season, we lost it to pest attacks," he says. Farmers in Jairam Thanda village of the state's Warangal district also narrate similar stories. The black-coloured and pinhead-sized pest has ruined the entire 20 ha under chilli in the village. Banath Venkamma, a chilli farmer from the village, says when he first saw the pest on his 0.4-ha farm, he contacted the local agriculture extension office, which recommended continuing with the existing pesticides. "I used at least six different pesticides but nothing worked. The pest has completely destroyed 70 per cent of my crop and has partially destroyed the remainder. Usually, chillies we grow are 7 to 10 cm long, but this time they are barely 5 cm long," says Venkamma.CHILLI FARMERS in Telangana’s Subakkapalli village, Bhopalapalli district, are living their worst nightmare. A new pest, black thrips (Thrips parvispinus), has destroyed over 40 hectares (ha) of standing crop in a matter of months. In Sidduri Ravindra Rao's farm, the initial signs of the attack were reported in the first week of December last year. Ravindra increased the frequency of pesticide spraying to three times a week from the recommended two times, but the entire crop on his 0.8 ha farm perished within a week. On December 15, he died by suicide. His brother Bhaskar Rao told Down To Earth (DTE) that Ravindra was relying on this year's produce to repay his loan of over ₹20 lakh. "First, untimely heavy rainfall destroyed our crops. This season, we lost it to pest attacks," he says. Farmers in Jairam Thanda village of the state's Warangal district also narrate similar stories. The black-coloured and pinhead-sized pest has ruined the entire 20 ha under chilli in the village. Banath Venkamma, a chilli farmer from the village, says when he first saw the pest on his 0.4-ha farm, he contacted the local agriculture extension office, which recommended continuing with the existing pesticides. "I used at least six different pesticides but nothing worked. The pest has completely destroyed 70 per cent of my crop and has partially destroyed the remainder. Usually, chillies we grow are 7 to 10 cm long, but this time they are barely 5 cm long," says Venkamma.


T parvispinusis, a member of the thrips group of sucking pests, is an invasive species from Southeast Asia that has been documented in different countries including Australia, Thailand and Greece. It causes more damage than S dorsalis, the thrips pest native to India. By attacking the flowers and not just leaves, T parvispinusis removes any hope of the crop growing from it. The pest was first reported in India in 2017 when it destroyed papaya farms in Bengaluru, Karnataka. "This is the first time it has caused such widespread destruction in the country. In the past year, its population has increased by many folds," says V Sridhar, principal scientist at the Indian Council of Agricultural Research-Indian Institute of Horticultural Research in Bengaluru. He is part of the team of scientists appointed by the Centre to research the pest attack and its possible management solutions. As per the information received by the team, since October 2021, the pest has caused widespread losses in hundreds of villages across 34 contagious districts in six states— Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Chhattisgarh (see 'Massive spread', p29). They have also received information about similar attacks in Gujarat. Andhra Pradesh and Telangana are, however, the worst-hit, where at least 0.36 million ha—roughly three times the size of Delhi—has been destroyed. The remaining states have not released official figures so far. T parvispinusis is also polyphagous, which means it spreads to other crops. The Central team's scientists visited farms in Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka between October and December 2021 and found the pest in sweet pepper, brinjal, black gram, pigeon pea, watermelon, cucumber, bottle gourd, mango, and cotton, among others. "This was not on a large scale, but the presence was noted," says Sridhar.


The growing spread of the pest in India is worrying for two reasons. First, the country is the world’s largest producer, consumer and exporter of chillies and has 40 per cent of the world’s area under the crop. Second, chilli cultivation requires huge investment ranging anywhere between ₹2.5-3 lakh per ha. In Telangana, most chilli farmers pay an additional ₹20,000 25,000 to take land on lease. This year, the farmers say their investment in pesticides also shot up because of the attack. In such a situation, the crop loss has pushed many farmers to the brink. DTE in last week of March visited six villages in four districts of Telangana and found several cases of farmer suicides. While the state government has not released any numbers, a survey by Telanganabased non-profits Rythu Swarajya Vedika and Human Rights Forum shows that more than 50 farmers have died by suicide in the districts of Warangal, Mahbubabad, Hanumakonda, Bhopalapalli, Khammam and Bhadradri Kothagudem. In Subakkapalli village of Bhopalapalli, Bhaskar Rao blames the government for the deaths of his brother and other farmers. "Nobody came to talk to us or make us aware of the pest or how to deal with it. We were making our own guesses," Bhaskar Rao says. Telangana is yet to announce compensation for the crop damage. The state does not have its own crop insurance scheme and has also opted out of the Centre’s Pradhan Mantri Bima Fasal Yojana. The state government runs the cash support scheme, Rythu Bandhu, under which ₹12,350 per ha per season is transferred to the bank accounts of farmers ahead of the rabi and kharif seasons. Another scheme, Rythu Bima, promises ₹5 lakh to the families of farmers who have died by suicide. But these are not enough. Hari Krishna of the Human Rights Forum says by introducing Rythu Bandhu and Rythu Bima schemes the government has absolved itself of the responsibility for crop loss. Besides, only landed families benefit from the schemes; vulnerable landless farmers are simply not covered, he adds. Though the state announces compensation packages during large-scale crop loss, Kiran Kumar Vissa of Rythu Swarajya Vedika says it seldom reaches people. "Farmers are still waiting for the compensation announced in January 2021 for crop loss caused by heavy rainfall," Vissa alleges.


M V Madhusudhan, deputy director of Telangana’s horticulture department, agrees that the pest attack has substantially reduced the yield of chilli this year—from the usual 5-6 tonnes per ha to 2.5 tonnes or less. Its effect can be seen at the Warangal mandi, Asia’s second largest chilli market. In February and March 2022, the mandi received 27,514 tonnes of chillies, nearly half of what it got in the two months last year (52,106 tonnes). "The pest attack and the hailstorm in January have created a supply problem. There could be a high shortage of red chillies in the coming months in the market," says B V Rahul, selection grade secretary, Agricultural Produce Market Committee, Warangal. The price of the crop has already skyrocketed. Currently, average mandi price of chilli is ₹1.8-2 lakh per tonne, which is almost double the usual rate of ₹ 1.1-1.3 lakh. "On March 30, a farmer received a record price of ₹5.2 lakh a tonne because there is an acute shortage of good quality chillies this season," says Rahul. Farmers say the inflated price will not do them any good as the yield is low. They are now worried about a similar attack in the next crop season.


On February 4, 2022, Union Minister for Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare Narendra Singh Tomar said in Parliament that the change in climatic conditions during the cropping season might be responsible for the spread of T parvispinus. Scientists agree that weather aberrations could have aided in the proliferation of the pest. "Thrips usually proliferate in hot and dry conditions, but this particular species, T parvispinus, thrives in hot and humid conditions," says Sridhar. Warangal and nearby districts received heavy rainfall in September, October and November 2021. During the southwest monsoon, the state received 40 per cent more rain than usual. In the second week of January this year, several parts of Telangana had experienced hailstorms and heavy rains. Continuous stretches of crops further allowed the pest to spread rapidly. In Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Karnataka, chilli cultivation has increased by 30-35 per cent in the past one year. The pest is also known to displace formerly established species from habitats. This has been seen in Indonesia and is now being observed in India as well. This year, it has replaced S dorsalis. This could have happened due to indiscriminate use of pesticides. Farmers told DTE that unapproved pesticides are being sold at shops, and since they are cheaper than the approved ones, distressed farmers use them freely. "As the replacement was observed this year alone, we need to monitor the various chilli pest species to understand if this is permanent or temporary," says Sridhar. He adds that the pest has to be tackled in an integrated way from the first sight. "Farmers have to use blue- coloured sticky traps and all farmers must use the same methods to keep the pests away," he adds. A 2021 paper from scientists at the National Bureau of Agricultural Insect Resources, Bengaluru, recommends destroying infected crop fields to stop the spread of the pest to newer locations. It adds constant monitoring, microbial biopesticide-based management practices, such as the use of neem oil, pongamia oil, or soap solution in heavily infested sites, and judicious use of chemical insecticides as well as fertilisers,

6. Will Biden dare to use march-in rights?

THE PUBLIC campaign against patent policies in the US is important for the rest of the world, because it is the Washington model that has set global standards for the stifling monopoly rights enjoyed by innovator drug companies. So when a group of leading public organisations recently asked the US Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra to use his executive power to override patent rights on six important therapies, it signals the growing pressure on the US administration to curtail monopoly patent rights on the drugs it helps to develop; either through research collaboration with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) or public funding. Such a measure would widen access to life- saving medicines and reduce their prices. The covid-19 pandemic has prompted health activists to pursue such a strategy, spurred by the dispute between NIH and Moderna Inc over patent rights to the biotech company’s mRNA covid-19 vaccine. Moderna’s vaccine was developed in collaboration with scientists of NIH who had earlier done the vital groundwork on mRNA technology, the reason why the vaccine could be developed in a short time. Yet, Moderna excluded key NIH scientists when it filed patent claims on the vaccine (see 'Bizarre patent tussles over a covid-19 jab', Down To Earth 1-15 March, 2022) allowing it to rake in huge profits. Who really owns the intellectual property rights (IPRS) on the vaccine is a vital question in these pandemic times. If NIH insists on its innovator rights, that means the public organisation can license the technology to companies of its choice, in addition to receiving a share of the US $18 billion profits that Moderna is forecast to earn this year. NIH scientists involved in the development of the vaccine are understandably incensed by Moderna’s heist. The head of NIH has indicated that the dispute is headed for the courts. However, the US administration is holding back because of the clout of the pharma industry. The representative organisations of the big innovator companies are among the most powerful lobbyists on Capitol Hill, easily influencing policymakers by bankrolling their elections; a notable beneficiary being Hillary Clinton. The Biden administration’s response to the consumer and health organisations' demand that it use its march-in powers to curb monopoly rights will have a significant impact on how the world deals with the pandemic. On the global front is the demand that the World Trade Organization (WTO) suspend its malign Agreement on TradeRelated Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), proposed by India and South Africa in October 2020 and backed by over 100 developing / member-states. It has made little headway because of the opposition of the EU and several other rich nations such as Japan and Switzerland. The US is ostensibly in favour of the TRIPS waiver, but in a restricted manner and with several caveats. But it was clear from the start that President Joe Biden was unlikely to upset drug giants who are making extraordinary profits from the pandemic. Big Pharma, including vaccine-makers like Pfizer Inc and firms such as Gilead Sciences that offer therapies to treat the deadly sars-cov-2 virus, are predictably dead set against waivers. They have maintained relentless pressure on Washington not to yield at WTO. The use of march-in rights, embedded in the US' law, is the new front against Big Pharma. In a detailed letter to Becerra, the Make Meds Affordable group has underlined the crushing effect of high drug prices on the lives of Americans. It says one in four Americans, especially in the "black and brown communities", are unable to afford their drugs and have to make “impossible choices between medicines and other necessities”. Reminding Becerra that he has the power under existing law to expand affordable medicine access, the group has called on him to override patent rights on six important therapies for cancer, covid-19, HIV, Hepatitis C, diabetes and asthma that critics claim are too costly for patients to afford. Exercising such executive powers could be transformative for public health. The lot of millions of Americans is pretty dismal, because they pay 2.5 times more for prescription drugs than people in other countries. In fact, pharma giants earn more profits from the sale of the 20 top-selling drugs in the US than from the rest of the world. This is a strange situation, considering the substantial role that public funding pays in facilitating the development of new medicines. The NIH alone spends $40 billion on research and development (R&D) each year, setting the foundation on which medical research is built. Make Meds Affordable argues that once monopolies end, robust generic competition can bring prices down. A study by the US Food and Drug Administration has found that allowing just six generic producers to enter the market can lead to price reductions of 95 per cent. An egregious example is Xtandi, a wonder drug for prostate cancer which was developed at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) with substantial funding from the Pentagon and NIH. Although UCLA has profited handsomely from the royalties it earns—more than $520 million at the last count— consumers are paying through the nose (about $200,000 a year) for the drug produced by Pfizer and Japanese company Astellas Pharma. A single 40 mg capsule can cost as much as $100. Sensing the threat posed by Make Meds Affordable's demand, pharma companies have rallied to squelch any action by Becerra. They have put together a large counter-attack group of IP lawyers, academics and R&D organisations to warn that dismantling the IP system would weaken the “strong, predictable” patent protections they claim are critical for the fast development of new covid-19 vaccines and drugs. In India, where the situation may not be similar, the government has been reluctant to use the flexibilities in the patent law to make covid-19 drugs despite the nudging of the court. In an affidavit filed in the Supreme Court, the Narendra Modi government said it preferred to opt for voluntary negotiations with the drug manufacturers instead of resorting to compulsory licences (CLs) although these are TRIPS-compliant. It said the use of CL “can only prove to be counter- productive at this stage”. The pusillanimity was obvious. It said “any discussion or a mention of exercise of statutory powers either for essential drugs or vaccines having patent issues would have serious, severe and unintended adverse consequences” on India’s efforts made on a global platform. The reference was to its trips waiver plea at WTO. In the event, India has lost out twice over. Such is the power of the pharma industry,