The social and political economy of an estuary worth protecting

Oyster mudflats, a political space that also serves hundreds of households

Last week I presented another set of research findings / summaries of my work with Panchabhuta Conservation Foundation. This presentation casts the Aghanashini River estuary as a political economic space, affected by multiple external and internal optics and development trends. This review ultimately ends in a call for robust valuation of this critical ecology (from non-monetary and monetary perspectives).

To see the full presentation which may yet yield a paper, click here.

Note: There are serious critiques to be made of the ecosystem services valuation paradigm. Yet such valuations remain critical for much policy and management. A balance must be struck between pricing everything all the time and pricing nothing ever. On this I straddle.

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M. K. Gandhi: No one can claim a “monopoly of right judgment”

I have repeatedly observed that no school of thought can claim a monopoly of right judgment. We are all liable to err and are often obliged to revise our judgments. In a vast country like this, there must be room for all schools of honest thought. And the least, therefore, that we owe to ourselves as to others is to try to understand the opponent’s view-point and, if we cannot accept it, respect it as fully as we expect him to respect ours. Its is one of the indispensable tests of a healthy public life and, therefore fitness for Swaraj. If we have no charity, and no tolerance, we shall never settle our differences amicably and must, therefore, always submit to the arbitration of a third party, i.e., to foreign domination.

Source: Young Indian, April 17, 1924, p. 130.

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When neoliberalism meets legal pluralism

Mangroves that will be lost if the state government has its way.

Mangroves that will be lost if the state government has its way.

Last month I presented an initial salvo of research findings on coastal development in Karnataka. The work primarily focused on my study in and around the Aghanashini River estuary for Panchabhuta Conservation Foundation.

The presentation will eventually be submitted as a journal paper, examining how classical development is clearly neoliberal and privatizing in nature, while so-called alternatives in the estuarine and coastal space are also quite neoliberal, when we consider the legal plural environment that is the coastal commons.

The thesis is still a work in progress, so if you’ve got feedback, e-mail me.

Click here to see the presentation.

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Our anniversary

Three years ago

Three years ago

…is a little difficult to pin down as we’re never quite sure whether we were married on December 22, which is what everyone else remembers, or whether it was on December 24, which is what the government recognizes.

Seeing how I failed to set a blog post to go live before we took off for holiday, I’m posting this today, now that we’re back home, on our legal anniversary.

Love you, darling.

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Want to save sharks? Let’s talk about more than shark fishing

Last week the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute released its National Plan of Action for protection of sharks. This is ostensibly one of India’s contributions to its obligations as an FAO member country. Other moves to develop an NPOA for sharks are also ongoing within the Bay of Bengal Programme, for example.

The plan mostly calls for a lot of research, data sharing, better coordination of regulators and stakeholders and, finally, the review and development of new conservation measures. The plan stops short of suggesting for very specific regulations.

While this might seem to make the report toothless — hint, it probably is — this lack of hard measures could actually be a wise move; inclusive and well-thought fisheries policy will come best from a broad, transparent and participatory process, not from top-down, command-and-control, high science advisors.

As a caveat: I’ve been following a lot of this in the background; I marginally volunteer with the Association of Deep Sea Going Artisanal Fishermen, based in far south India’s Kanyakumari region. This association of fishers concentrated around the village of Thoothoor is one of the key actors in India’s “indigenous” shark fishery. And to be clear about my own interests, I’m a diver, I do personally have great appreciation for sharks, I do not eat fish, I work in community conservation and, in general, I research fisheries.

All of that informs the following argument: This plan (and the response from, for example, my scuba diving networks) is too narrowly focused on fishers and consigns the conversation too much to debates about fisheries management. This is an example of problem closure: The problem is framed as one of unconscionable fishing habits (i.e. shark finning, killing majestic fish and so on), so the solutions target fishers.

Emblematic was the response of one mainland India scuba shop in a Facebook post:

India has the largest population of fishermen in the world. But, India does not eat sharks. So, why is it that India is the largest killer of sharks in the world?
It is the greed of a few middlemen selling shark fins to China that is causing this mindless killing of the “Tigers of the Sea”. Come, join us in saving these magnificient [sic] beasts of the ocean from extinction. ‪#‎SaveOurSharks‬ ‪#‎ProjectAware‬ ‪#‎Sharks‬ ‪#‎Fisheries‬ ‪#‎ScubaDiving‬ ‪#‎Environment‬

Yes, middlemen do contribute to unsustainable trade, but, for the record, there has also been an “indigenous” shark fishery in India for at least a few decades. The Thoothoor area fishers in Kanyakumari use longlines and medium-scale boats (under 20 meters) across the EEZ (and beyond) to catch various pelagics — sharks as well as tunas and billfishes. This is their livelihood, not simply a commodity racket; they are not just a bunch of shark finners (though that may also occur).

Also, contrary to the oft-repeated myth, people in southern India (particularly in Kanyakumari) do actually eat shark. Sharks are landed whole and consumed. Furthermore, as the background research to CMFRI’s NPOA makes clear, sharks fishing is not constrained to a small group; a variety of fishing communities across India, including the concentration at Thoothoor, participate in the fishery.

I’m not in denial, nor am I an apologist. Certainly, unsustainable shark fishing occurs in Indian waters — by Indian fishers as well as foreign IUU (or ridiculous LoP) boats. Shark catches are down substantially — as much as 40 percent by my own math over the last ten or so years (depending on what data you use).

But it’s not at all clear which fishers or middlemen are the ones involved in fin trade or which fishers contribute to rampant bycatch or which fishers are simply taking too much shark (along with skate and ray) from the water.

Looking at the pictures of sharks, skates and rays landed is difficult for those who foremost wish to protect marine biodiversity; it turns even my stomach, and gives the sense that majestic and ecologically important creatures are being slaughtered. But this is also a tradition and livelihood that should not be so quickly castigated. Fishing as a practice may also generate its own conservation politics. And, from a ecological perspective, some shark fishing may yet be sustainable, if the external political and economic incentives are more properly aligned and other marine threats are attenuated.

That’s why it’s difficult to get onboard with any knee-jerk agenda that falls back on platitudes that blame one group of people (fishers, for example). The NPOA is reserved in its language, but even it focuses on shark conservation through better management and restriction of fishers.

Certainly fisheries can be better managed. Full stop. And additional restraint is likely necessary. Full stop. But if we resort to the “greedy fisher” or “ignorant fisher” or “race for fish” rhetoric, we are less likely to serve the cause of sustainability or ecological protection. Too many marine conservation campaigns draw battle lines between fishers and non-fishers and see conservation outcomes as an us-vs-them / zero sum scenario. Furthermore, when we direct our attention too sharply at fishers, we lose sight of the incredible amounts degradation that non-ocean communities perpetrate on marine biodiversity. Again, we become complicit in problem closure by framing conservation needs as the need to restrain fishing.

I can’t say enough that shark fin soup is abhorrent. But consider that it’s also an easy target. How many people complain as loudly or as quickly about any of the myriad other threats to ocean sustainability overall:

  • offshore oil drilling
  • coastal SEZs
  • microbeads in toothpaste
  • plastic effing everywhere
  • a culture of complacency in waste management and personal disposal of litter
  • ridiculous levels of fertilizer and pesticide application
  • shipping wastes galore
  • industrial fishing that specifically generates feed for chickens for urban consumers but slaughters sharks in the process
  • eco-tourism that capture biodiversity spaces / places only for those who can afford it
  • unchecked urban carbon dioxide pollution from power plants, factories and cars, etc cause acidification/warming, etc.
  • neoliberal policies that privilege some ocean uses/users over others

The list could go on and on and on and on and on. Unsustainable fishing is but one and there already are voices within the fishing community for sustainable practices and conservation.

Rather than limit our discussion to controlling a bunch of wild, ignorant, backwards, pick-your-pejorative fishers, let’s talk about a holistic, concerted effort to:

  • Embed sustainability into lifestyles and livelihoods (among fishers, sure, but also among other classes and bodies that affect the ocean, such everyone who drives a car in Bangalore, Mumbai, Delhi and everywhere between).
  • Generate and sustain conservation attitudes/knowledge/cooperation for protection of the entire community of ocean dependent life (fisher, non-fisher, non-human). We divers can help with this by sharing our passions through education, training and experiences with people other than the rich tourists who can afford dive holidays.
  • Remove perverse and pernicious incentives for degradation (much of which is rooted in runaway urban consumption patterns). Know where your food comes from; was your chicken fed on fishmeal?
  • Halt coastal developments that threaten crucial ecosystems, habitats and the like. This and this.
  • Question current and future offshore minerals prospecting thatsupport an urban, high capital economy.

Let’s do that all of that, instead of only falling back on a “target-fishers-first” rhetoric and appeals to protect charismatic megafauna.

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World Oceans Day: What else died so you could eat seafood?

Shark bycatch in Ecuador

Shark bycatch in Ecuador

In 2010, I was standing on a beach in Ecuador watching all manner of sea creatures get dragged ashore, sacrificed for the targeted catches of high-value prawns and tunas (mostly for export).

Sharks, rays, even a turtle, all killed in the process. Some of them would end up in local ceviche as non-descript fish, but others (like the turtle, a protected species) would simply be left to rot.

I certainly don’t advocate an end to fishing. I work with fishers of shark, sardines, mackerel, crabs, shrimp, oysters and more. I believe small- and medium-scale fishing has a role to play in livelihoods and food across the globe.

But the sight of Ecuador’s illicit bycatch, which led to the photo above, left me asking what kinds of pernicious forces — political, economic, ecological or other — could lead to such wanton sacrifice.

I’m still asking that question. As June 8 is World Oceans Day, maybe we all should be asking it.

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Get it straight, Delhi. That’s not fog. It’s smog.

It’s the time of the year when the Indian media start writing about predictions for Delhi’s winter fog. Poisonous, toxic “fog.”

Which really makes it not fog at all, but smog. This year there may be 100 hundred dismal hours of it.

Delhi, it’s time we owned up to it. Call a spade a spade and start thinking about how to fix the problem. And to be clear, the problem is us.

Yes, weather plays a small part, but as I’ve written before, what makes the wintry choking haze particularly harmful is in fact human pollution. I’m not alone in arguing that we actually need to shift our discourse and talk about the phenomenon as anthropogenic smog, not just annoying wintry smog.

And new research shows it’s worse than you ever thought. During rush hour, pollution (particulate matter) at autorickshaw-level — where most people breathe — is apparently 50 percent higher than all what is measured by those safely cloistered ambient air measuring stations on top of buildings and away from roads.

And, in case anyone needs a reminder, even the ambient air readings aren’t exactly awesome. In fact, they’re exactly not awesome.

At least India can claim to beat both Pakistan and China in this regard:

Delhi’s air pollution levels, which, according to the latest WHO Ambient Air Pollution Database, are at just under 300 micrograms per cubic meter. The world’s second most polluted city, Karachi, clocks in at a little over 250, while the major Chinese cities of Beijing and Shanghai, internationally notorious for their pollution, clock in a relatively fresh 120 and 80 respectively.

(Really not the race we want to be winning.)

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It’s World Fisheries Day! Do you know where your fish comes from?

Karwar harbor

Karwar harbor

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If @greenpeaceIndia is anti-development, then what is this?

I have largely kept my mouth shut on the Intelligence Bureau (IB) vs. Greenpeace India showdown last month. I guess I’m — surprising even to myself — a little gun-shy.

The leaked report has been posted online; read for yourself. IB has uncovered a large network of NGOs that are attempting to “take down” India’s development.

In the interest of fairness, here’s Greenpeace’s response. You might also want to read some strong reaction here. Or just Google it for all the debate.

As I read it, the IB report (supported by “facts”) says that being concerned about the environment (often in solidarity with other people internationally) and opposing mega projects that sacrifice said environment for questionable, often inequitable, short-term economic gains makes you anti-development and anti-national. I guess that means that substantial numbers of people in our country who stand for inclusive development that doesn’t wreak havoc on people and planet are anti-development and anti-national.

The report makes a stark claim that such opposition knocks two to three percent off of India’s GDP growth. I imagine their calculations must be secret; they don’t cite any numbers but I am sure they exist. This is the IB we’re talking about, and they wouldn’t make such claims if they didn’t know what they were talking about. I certainly don’t believe this guy.

Now, I don’t know what to make of the World Bank report I remember reading a while back that said environmental degradation cuts 5.7 percent off of India’s annual GDP growth. The World Bank is foreign, so I guess it’s probably just anti-national and trying to “take down” India’s development, too.

As I think I understand the IB, having foreign friends or accepting foreign funds, even legally, is questionable. Having foreign ties makes you more likely to be anti national and interested in a “take down” of India’s development. Our current environment minister was the president of a firm that had ties to ClimateWorks, a big foreign NGO, but thank goodness he left that firm as soon as he made the cabinet.

But I’m still a little confused. The IB report makes very clear that big FDI projects like the Vendanta (UK subsidiary) bauxite mine or the POSCO (South Korean subsidiary) steel plant have been held up by all this anti-development and anti-national activity. But I thought the F in FDI stood for foreign. Maybe they’re acceptable sources of foreign money because they support neoliberal, Big Capitalist growth? But then the World Bank supports a lot of that, and I think I’m supposed to be skeptical of that one now.

In the name of full disclosure, I’m an OCI Indian. That means I’m half and half (though I live in India, have Indian family and consider myself Indian). What am I do to? I don’t think there’s an operation for me to cut ties with myself.

The IB report report names a bunch of NGOs other than Greenpeace, including some that sound mostly like poor villagers trying to stop “development” from taking their land or destroying their fishing grounds. I guess they could be threats to national security as well.

I do think this “debate” hasn’t gotten enough coverage. I suspect that our own civil society is scared now that the curtain has been pulled back on their anti-development, anti-national activities that were “people centric,” as the IB put it.

For more full disclosure, I actually do disagree with Greenpeace on some policies/strategies, but I’ve also done consulting work for the organization and I have been donating monthly, because I thought they were protecting trees and fish and the like for poor people who rely heavily on trees and fish and the like. Maybe should I think about putting my money into other investments, like energy projects for the tens upon tens of millions of Indian villagers who don’t have power.

Which brings me to my headline question: If Greenpeace India (or any other NGO interested in protecting the environment) is ant-development or anti-national or both, what should I think about its effort to electrify villages with renewable, distributed technology? IB is telling me to be wary of Greenpeace, but should I be wary of the #bijliforall campaign, which seems to support “development” among some of the poorest members of our nation?

Take Dharnai, Greenpeace’s test village, where residents themselves are buying into a distributed solar micro grid. When I hear their stories, I can’t figure out exactly who or what they are “anti.” Dharnai is a village in Bihar on the Patna-Gaya road. I’ve been to Bihar and seen city and village life. My wife and her family are from Bihar. Large parts of Bihar are very poor and still without electricity.

The general notion behind Greenpeace’s decentralized renewable energy (DRE) pilot is to prove that renewable tech (solar, wind, micro-hydel, biogas, etc.), which are continually decreasing in cost, can be implemented locally and sustainably. More details were unveiled this week, including a Q&A for media, which get into the logic behind DRE.

Thanks to the IB report, I know I should be skeptical; perhaps these villagers are just greedy and want power without paying for it from centralized, large-scale coal, nuclear and megadams. But it really does seem like there might be an opportunity for local solar and other tech to light up villages in Bihar without massive infrastructure, associated costs, subsidies, inequities and environmental destruction.

Maybe another IB report will clear up all of my confusion. Or maybe Prime Minister Narendra Modi could set me straight. He told Parliament last month that he wants to “empower the poor man so that he can fight poverty.”

Solar panels in rural villages do seem empowering. Quite literally, in fact.

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Working/conference paper: The value of schooling in traditional sectors, with special reference to Indian fisheries

Because I’m being slow in getting this in a better state for publication, I’m posting it here now. Trying to light a fire, as it were.

This paper was presented at the symposium Understanding and Eradicating Poverty in South Asia: Lessons and Options at the University of Rajasthan (Jaipur, India, Oct. 17, 2013). This remains in a draft format; please contact me before citing.

ABSTRACT: The international community has enshrined formal education as one of the key tools necessary to alleviate poverty, on par with ending hunger and fighting disease. In addition, education is often considered a key component of the “modern” geographic, demographic and economic transition off the land, out of the village and into wage jobs in cities. But what does education mean within the rural or traditional economy? What does education mean for the legions of villagers who remain poor farmers and fishers in developing countries such as India? This paper examines the relationship between education and poverty theoretically and empirically in traditional economic sectors. First, the paper sketches an outline of neoclassical economic growth theory, with specific attention to the basic Cobb-Douglas production function. Next, the paper reviews literature on the economic returns to education or human capital, with special attention to traditional sectors when possible. Finally, the paper conducts a quantitative analysis of marine fishery census data from India, testing the empirical relationship between poverty and education within a traditional sector.

The paper ultimately finds evidence to support the idea of returns to education even within India’s coastal fishery economies; in other words, education need not simply be a ticket out of the village. In line with much development literature, female education may have an inverse relationship to poverty stronger than male education. Furthermore, the effect of education can rival that of mechanized capital, often thought to be the key to improving poverty among fishers. However, the results may be attenuated both by the structure of the economy as well as socio-political institutions. Finally, the findings have a spatial quality to them. Some relationships shift when controlling for the fixed or unobserved effects of place, and the effects of education are not uniform across geographies. Taken together, these findings suggest the need for education that is locally tailored, decentralized and relevant specifically for traditional economies.

Click here to download.

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