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MAY 20, 2007
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Web Censors
Internet censorship is on the rise worldwide. As many as two dozen countries are blocking content using a variety of techniques. Distressingly, the most censor-heavy countries such as China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Myanmar and Uzbekistan seem to be passing on their technologically sophisticated techniques to other countries of the world. Some examples of censorship: China's blocking of Wikipedia and Pakistan's ban on Google's blogging service.

Temping Trend
Of late, temporary staffing has become a trend in India Inc. In industries such as retail and logistics, temporary hiring has become a business strategy as it enables them to quickly ramp up teams. It is becoming increasingly important for the survival of Indian firms, given the growth rates and talent shortage. Although the salary gap between temporary and permanent jobs is narrowing, temporary staff in India earn lower salaries than permanent ones, which is contrary to the global trend.
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Business Today,  May 6, 2007

A Special Agricultural Zone?
M.S. Swaminathan says it's time the country set up special agricultural zones that will allow more efficient contract farming.
Let farmers have an SAZ: Swaminathan's new concept

When the father of the green revolution talks of setting up Special Agricultural Zones (SAZs) along the lines of Special Economic Zones (SEZs), it merits serious attention. M.S. Swaminathan is convinced that SAZs are the way forward for Indian agriculture. "Urban India thinks of agriculture as some kind of food factory for it. It is not; it is the backbone of 70 crore livelihoods and it will be disastrous for India to jeopardise the income and work security that agriculture provides," he says.

SAZs, says Swaminathan, will conserve prime farm land for agriculture, optimise the economic and social benefits from good farming practices, rationalise the use of water, realise the untapped production potential of Indian farms and ensure national food sovereignty.

APEDA Director Sanjay Dave emphasises the "good farming practices" that could accrue from an SAZ that incorporates a model farm within. Apart from healthy cultivation mechanisms, certification is increasingly becoming an important part of agriculture. "We need an Indian GAAP (generally accepted agriculture principles) for agriculture a la Thailand. This is very necessary not just for the export market but for our own requirements too," he says. Food safety is a major concern among consumers and large companies like Reliance, Bharti and others, which are entering the retail trade in a big way (see Agriculture's Second Wind, Page 112), will want to know what they are buying. "Wal-Mart, which is a massive buyer of agricultural commodities in the US and some other countries, monitors every aspect of safety, quality and traceability (which farm it is grown and when)," he adds.

This requires technology and documentation and SAZs will facilitate this "as infrastructural and operational costs will be shared by large groups of farmers," he points out. APEDA has successfully implemented this for grape exporters in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and north Karnataka.

Then, there's the marketing aspect that is almost totally neglected in Indian agriculture at present. Manju Jha, General Manager (Operations), M.R. Morarka-GDC Rural Research Foundation, a leading resource organisation offering solutions for sustainable agriculture, points out that a concerted marketing effort is needed to weed out middlemen who make a killing at the expense of farmers. "An SAZ should have warehousing and post-harvest and processing facilities to preserve and add value to crops. They should also organise and participate in trade fairs to promote their products," she adds.

But given the controversy over SEZs, will Swaminathan's idea see the light of day? That's the million dollar question, but given the credentials of the man behind the concept, the government can ignore it only at the risk of India's food security.

GM Crops: Boon or Bane?
The Supreme Court will have to take the final call on whether or not to allow genetically engineered crops into the Indian market.

Seeds of discontent: Bt Cotton farmers in Andhra

The debate over genetically modified (GM) crops is currently being heard by the Supreme Court (SC) which had imposed an interim ban on their field trials and subsequent commercialisation in September last year in response to a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by Aruna Rodrigues. The key concern: the release of potentially dangerous living organisms into the environment (unlike in the case of pharmaceuticals where experiments are carried out in a closed environment).

The All India Crop Biotechnology Association, an association of companies engaged in agricultural biotechnology (mostly seed companies), defends GM crops, saying the availability of arable land in India will decline from 170 million hectares now to about 100 million hectares by 2020. The number of farmers available for agriculture will fall by more than 50 per cent. "So there is an urgent need to increase agricultural productivity through research and newer production technologies," says R.K. Sinha, Executive Director, All India Crop Biotechnology Association.

At the moment, only Bt Cotton is available commercially in India (only those varieties approved prior to the sc order), though there are problems relating to pricing-some seeds cost as much as three times the regular ones. Besides, about 21 food crops, mostly vegetables and rice, which were being tested and undergoing trials, have now been put on hold following the sc order.

Greenpeace, which is running a campaign against GM crops, warns against "the irreversible, uncontrolled, and potentially dangerous release of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into the environment" and likens them to a new drug with potentially dangerous side effects that cannot be contained "as, at the end of the growing season, the crop is generally ploughed into the soil". There's no effort to get rid of every single trace of a GMO. In 2005, it points out that genetically engineered (GE) rice was sold in Chinese markets while it was still under field trials. Divya Raghunandan, GE Campaign Manager at Greenpeace, says: "The halo around GE crops is gradually fading and consumers across the world are increasingly rejecting it."

But the GM lobby is quick to defend its project. "We have regulations in place (to monitor safety) and the case of Bt cotton has shown that there is readiness on the part of farmers to adopt this technology," says K.V. Subbarao, Country Manager, phi Seeds, a Dupont company. Adds K.C. Ravi, Director (Public Affairs), Monsanto India, another leading company in the GM space: "The Indian regulatory system is among the best and has some of the most stringent guidelines in the world for commercialisation of GM crops."

But Greenpeace's Raghunandan is not convinced. "There has been no public debate on whether GE is a good solution for the agriculture crisis. And though we have regulations, they are not followed," she says. "We have no GM labelling law to indicate the threshold level or percentage of contamination that will allow the consumer to make an informed choice," she points out.

The country also does not have a mechanism to segregate and test levels of GE contamination.

There is, obviously, no meeting ground between these competing arguments. The Supreme Court, which will hear the matter next on May 1, 2007, will have to take the final call.