International child rights activist Greta Thunberg has come under attack for using her “bully pulpit” to wade into political issues, such as the farmers’ protest in India. Mohinder Gulati, Former Chief Operating Officer, United Nations Sustainable Energy for All, has written a letter to Thunberg, which is also marked to the United Nations Secretary-General.
“I had admired your courage, commitment, and capturing the global imagination on climate justice when you stood up at the 2018 UNCCC. As Chief Operating Officer of United Nations Sustainable Energy for All until 2015, I was deeply involved with global advocacy and building consensus for Sustainable Development Goal-7 and Paris Climate Agreement. When I heard you in 2018 and 2019 my heart warmed up since we had been advocating that the youth would drive the change for a better future, and you emerged as a torch bearer of that trust,” Gulati said in the letter to Thunberg.
“However, I am writing to you with some disappointment that you have started using your well-earned bully pulpit to wade into political issues, such as farmers’ protest in India, which may not be as simple and as straightforward as you may have been led to believe,” he added.
“You are doing a great service to the cause of climate change, an existential threat to humanity that needs to be addressed urgently. We need global consensus for implementation of the Paris Agreement and Sustainable Development Goals,” Gulati said.
“Walking into the thicket of local political issues, often mired in a battle with corrupt and vested political interests, would undermine your ability to keep the moral high ground to exhort world leaders into action for a sustainable future. I would urge you not to expend your political and moral capital on controversial local political issues. I am sending a copy of this letter to the United Nations Secretary-General H.E. Antonio Guterres for his information,” Gulati said in the letter.
Gulati said in the letter that there are other strong vested interests benefiting from the status quo. The government procures large quantities of wheat and rice for the public distribution system and pays a pre-announced minimum support price (MSP). Out of about 210 Mt of wheat and rice produced in the country, the government procures about 85 Mt for sale to the poor at one-tenth of the procurement price. About 52 per cent of this procurement is made from only three states – Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh – the hub of agitating farmers, he added.
“More than 90 per cent of the farmers in the rest of India do not benefit from this system. Normally, the market price is lower than the MSP. This is what creates a great opportunity for the broker mafia. Brokers and politicians purchase wheat and rice from farmers in other states at a lower price (about 60 per cent of MSP) and pay them in cash, bring it to government procurement stations in Punjab, Haryana and UP, sell it at a higher price (MSP) and get paid by cheque. This is counted as their agriculture income which is tax-exempt,” Gulati said.
“So these brokers, often politicians or campaign financiers, not only earn the huge arbitrage but also convert the cash (generally crime money) to legitimate tax-free income. New laws would bring in transparency and make it difficult to legitimise crime money. No wonder the farmer agitation is so well-funded. I feel the innocent farmers may not even know the source of this questionable ‘philanthropic’ funding. I wonder if you would support a system of legitimising crime and corruption money in the hands of corrupt politicians and their cronies,” Gulati said.
Gulati added that farmers in Punjab, Haryana, and a part of Uttar Pradesh have a legitimate apprehension which needs to be addressed through dialogue and not intransigence of either party. India has adequate institutions of Parliament, courts, media, and public opinion to allow peaceful protests and open dialogue to solve its myriad problems of poverty and development.
“I am sure, eventually a satisfactory solution would be found not only for the agitating farmers of a few states but also for the remaining 90 per cent farmers of India who would stand to gain from the new laws,” he added.
Gulati said that farmers demanded, and regrettably the government of India agreed, to withdraw penalties for burning crop residue. Indian farmers, mostly around Delhi in the states of Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh, burn about 100 million tons (Mt) a year of crop residue which generates 140 Mt of CO2, 12 Mt of other noxious gases and 1.2 Mt of particulate matter, choking a population of about 50 million in the area, he added.
“Smog in Delhi forces young children to skip school and stay indoors, 2.2 million children suffer irreversible lung damage. Your embassy in Delhi can inform you how they gasp for air during that period. Do you support farmers’ demand to let them continue to burn crop residue and add to emissions?” Gulati asked Thunberg.
Gulati said that every year in India, about 67 million tonnes of food is wasted, which has been estimated to be around $14 billion and could feed 100 million people. Up to 40 per cent of the food produced in India is wasted, according to the United Nations Development Program, and about 21 million tons of wheat (2.5 Mt GHG) e equivalent to gross annual production of Australia – is wasted annually.
FAO estimates show that two-thirds of food is wasted in post-harvest transportation, storage, processing, and distribution before it reaches the consumer. If food wastage was a country, it would be the third-largest emitter after the US and China, Gulati said.
Embedded carbon in the wasted food in India is about 60 Mt of CO2 equivalent. India desperately needs to modernise its agriculture, strengthen market linkages, and invest in the whole supply chain, he added.
“This cannot, and should not, be done by the governments and should be left to a competitive, efficient, and well-regulated private sector. Do you support India to continue with the current archaic systems and waste food that could feed 100 million hungry every year?” Gulati asked Greta.
Gulati said that a severe water crisis is looming large in India. About 85 per cent of irrigated agriculture in India depends on groundwater. India extracts about 230 km3 of groundwater every year of which 90 per cent of groundwater is used for irrigation.
Gulati said 50 years ago, farmers in Punjab and Haryana valiantly rose to the challenge of food insecurity and started growing rice in a semi-arid agro-climatic zone to feed the country. It has come at a very heavy environmental cost of severe depletion of groundwater, deteriorating water quality, excessive use of chemical fertilisers, and cancer-causing pesticides.
“India is now food surplus and needs to create incentives to make agriculture less resource-intensive and demand-driven. Agitating farmers want the government to lock into the current system of growing resource-intensive and chemical-ridden agriculture. Do you support that?” Gulati asked Greta.
On corruption-controlled agriculture markets, Gulati said, “You may not be aware but the current system forces farmers to sell their produce through government-established market yards where they have to pay a brokerage of about 2 to 3 per cent and market tax of about 5 to 6 per cent. Market committees collect this tax supposedly for ‘rural development’, but they are controlled by politicians, and their accounts are not audited for years.”
“The revenue is often swindled by corrupt politicians controlling these committees. The new laws give a choice to the farmers to either continue to sell in the existing market yards or sell to anyone anywhere in the country and that too without paying any tax,” Gulati added in the letter to Greta.
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