Gist of EPW July Week 3, 2019

The Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) is an important source of study material for IAS, especially for the current affairs segment. In this section, we give you the gist of the EPW magazine every week. The important topics covered in the weekly are analysed and explained in a simple language, all from a UPSC perspective.

 

1. Mockery of a Wage Floor

Context

  • The national floor level minimum wage (NFLMW) of ₹ 178 announced by the labour minister defeats the purported objective behind the institution of the wage floor.

Background

  • The last revision, made in June 2017, had set the minimum wage at ₹ 176 per day, increasing it by 10% from ₹ 160 per day fixed in 2015 on the basis of the rise in the consumer price index of industrial workers (CPI–IW).
  • By not taking into account the rate of inflation in the past two years, the current NFLMW, in real terms, would actually be a decline.

Significance of the minimum wage

  • Minimum wage and collective bargaining systems are labour market institutions that also exert an influence on the level and distribution of wages.
  • Therefore, in general, as a feature of labour policy, the purpose of setting a national minimum wage is to enable workers to overcome poverty and to reduce income and labour market inequality.
  • This is because minimum wage is usually set at a level that covers the needs of workers and their families, while also taking into account the rate of inflation.

Effects of current minimum wage

  • Setting a low minimum wage at ₹ 178, without adjusting for inflation, would in reality lead to erosion in the purchasing power of workers.
  • This is also a blatant violation of the recommendations of successive sessions of the Labour Conferences as well as the Supreme Court guidelines of 1992.
  • Moreover, the announcement was made without a meeting of the statutory Minimum Wage Advisory Board or its approval of the NFLMW.
  • The announcement of ₹ 178 per day as the NFLMW by the minister belies any expectation of the consideration of such standard indicators as guidelines for its calculation and is, thus, arbitrarily fixed.
  • Further, the government has also gone against the recommendation of its own expert committee regarding the level of the minimum wage that had suggested ₹ 375–₹ 447 per day (₹ 9,750–₹ 11,622 per month) as the national minimum wage.
  • Furthermore, the current NFLMW comes only to about one-fourth of the norm recommended by the Seventh Pay Commission in 2016.
  • 29 states and union territories already have minimum wage levels higher than the current NFLMW, this declaration would only deter the upward revision of the already existing minimum wage levels set by the states.

Indicators to set minimum wage

  • Some of the indicators used to guide the discussions on setting of a minimum wage are:
    • The general level of wages and its distribution
    • The cost of living
    • Levels of labour productivity
    • The rate of economic growth
    • The needs of a worker’s family

Conclusion

  • In a country where 93% of the labour force is engaged in the unorganised sector, the current NFLMW is set at a level that will have little or no effect, as it will not be able to fulfil the desired objective of positive-earning effects.
  • Positive-earning effects are improving wage levels or protecting vulnerable workers and their families.
  • At a time when distress migration from rural to urban areas in search of jobs is rampant in India due to the collapse of petty production and subsistence agriculture under neo-liberalism, the declaration of a low NFLMW is a bolt from the blue.
  • The announcement of the NFLMW is also another manifestation of the ongoing attack on the institution of minimum wages, in particular, and workers, in general, who have been targeted of late under the guise of labour reforms.
  • By diluting the hitherto existing rights and provisions for protection of workers, the government at the centre has now clearly signalled that it does not favour a pro-poor minimum wage policy.
  • Set by fiat and by stealth, the current NFLMW would only help in increasing wage inequality and widening the gaps in income, living conditions, and well-being.

2. Herbicide-tolerant GM Crops

Context

  • Perhaps, in what could be the world’s first farmer movement in favour of genetically-modified (GM) crops, farmers in Maharashtra planted the banned herbicide-tolerant Bt (HTBt) Cotton — an act that can invite a Rs 1 lakh fine and five years’ jail term as its release is not yet approved by the Environment ministry.

What is Bt cotton?

  • Bt cotton was created by adding genes derived from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, which produces over 200 different toxins, each harmful to different insects.
  • When certain insects attack the Bt cotton plant, they get killed. Such pest-resistant crops do away with the need for broad-spectrum insecticides, which harm natural insect predators in the farm.
  • Reducing the use of pesticides also prevents the agricultural run-off from polluting rivers and the food chain.
  • Bt cotton was first approved for commercial use in the United States in 1995. In 2002, a joint venture between US-based Monsanto and the Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Co Ltd (Mahyco) introduced Bt cotton to India.

What is HTBt Cotton?

  • The HTBt variety adds another genetic modification to the Bt cotton crop — it makes the crop resistant to a commonly-used herbicide.
  • HTBt plants allow farmers to spray herbicides to get rid of parasitic weeds in the farm without harming the main crop.
  • Using this variety could save the farmers from having to put in extra labour in pulling out weeds, which deprive the cotton plants of vital nutrients and reduce yield.

Why is HTBt cotton banned in India?

  • All GM crops in India need to be approved by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), the apex body under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change
  • According to Vijay N. Waghmare, acting director and head of division of crop improvement at the Indian Council of Agricultural Research’s Central Institute of Cotton Research, has withdrawn an application seeking approval for its next generation of GM Cotton.
  • Therefore, HTBT cotton has not been approved for commercial release.

About GEAC

  • The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) functions in the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC).
  • it is responsible for appraisal of activities involving large scale use of hazardous microorganisms and recombinants in research and industrial production from the environmental angle.
  • The committee is also responsible for appraisal of proposals relating to release of genetically engineered (GE) organisms and products into the enviornment including experimental field trials.

Approval process for commercial release of GM crops

  • Initially, the company developing the GM crop undertakes several biosafety assessments including, environmental, food, and feed safety assessments in containment.
  • This is followed by Bio-safety Research Trials which require prior approval of the regulators, the GEAC and the RCGM.
  • Approval for environmental release is accorded by the GEAC after considering the findings of bio-safety studies.
  • Finally, commercial release is permitted only for those GM crops found to be safe for humans and the environment.

Effects of GM Crops on Environment

  • GM crops are known to have adverse impacts on the environment and health, both from experimental studies and the real-life experiences of those countries that have opted for transgenic technology in agriculture on a large scale.
  • Apart from this, issues of trade security due to rejection of transgenic produce by a vast majority of countries or consumers around the world, and of corporate monopolies, have been persistent concerns with this technology.
  • In the case of HT crops in particular, there are many concerns: emergence of “super weeds,” chemical usage related to herbicides going up, many environmental and health impacts flowing from the deadly impacts of the herbicide (mainly glyphosate), etc.

Effects of GM Crops on Economy

  • HT crops snatch away the potential for employment generation that poor rural women have from agriculture.
  • That too at a time when the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme is being scaled down and when studies are showing that India’s overall workforce participation of women is coming down.
  • This is mainly because of shrinking of rural/agricultural work opportunities, allowing a technology like HT crops to enter our farming, that too illegally, is clearly unwise and unacceptable.
  • It is estimated that even if 25% of India’s mustard land shifts to this HT mustard crop, there will be a loss of 4.25 crore employment days, mainly for women. This applies to HT cotton also.
  • A Supreme Court technical expert committee, in its majority report, rejected HT crops for India.

Effects of Glyphosate

  • Glyphosate has been categorised as a probable human carcinogen (Class 2A, the second strongest category of evidence in a four-tier scale) by the World Health Organization.
  • Glyphosate in India is not supposed to be used on cotton, but its consumption is increasing drastically because of the spread of illegal HT cotton seeds which tolerate the spray of glyphosate directly on the crop.
  • Although its sale is supposed to have been stopped in Maharashtra, it is freely available over the counter and through e-commerce sites, and is being used by farmers all over the state.
  • The implementation of the orders to stop the licensing of glyphosate sales is non-existent on the ground.

Moratorium on GM crops

  • India is facing a deadlock over the approval of field trials of new genetically modified (GM) crops.
  • Initially Bt cotton was the only GM crop allowed for commercial production in India.
  • The fate of other new GM crops was pending in the Supreme Court following a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) on environmental release of such crops.
  • The Apex Court set up a Technical Expert Committee (TEC) of five scientists from various fields to review GMO related concerns.
  • The TEC submitted an interim report to the Supreme Court in October 2012 recommending an indefinite moratorium for the next 10 years on field trials of GM crops and complete ban on the commercial release of GM crops.
  • However, the drive to get GM crops like GM mustard commercialised (which would be India’s first officially-approved GM food crop) has been relentless.
  • The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) has even pushed the process by giving it the nod, but the cultivation of GM mustard remains on hold in the Supreme Court due to a public interest litigation
  • Despite official committees and reports advising against GMOs, they have already contaminated India’s food system.
  • In 2014, the West Bengal government said it had received information regarding “infiltration” of commercial seeds of GM Bt brinjal from Bangladesh.
  • In 2017, the illegal cultivation of a GM HT soybean was reported in Gujarat.
  • All of this is prompting calls for probes into the workings of the GEAC and other official bodies which have been asleep at the wheel or deliberately looking the other way.

Way Forward

  • We need proper enforcement for stopping the sale of glyphosate in the state so that there is no access to this deadly chemical which in turns abets the spread of illegal GM seeds.
  • Through cases that have been already identified as part of the illegal seed supply chain, trace back the origin of the seeds and coordinate with other states to crack down on illegal HT cotton seed production itself.
  • Continue to have a clear and strong state government policy in favour of sustainable farming, and against transgenic technology; the latter is unneeded, unwanted and unsafe.

For more EPW articles, read “Gist of EPW

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