New fertiliser policy must look at setting JVs abroad

A new fertiliser policy should cover ways and means to achieve self-sufficiency. At the same time, we need to set up joint ventures outside in gas producing countries so that fertiliser is imported and gas from India is diverted for other purposes


The weather predictions from Indian Meteorological Department (IMD), actual erratic pattern of monsoon that usually happens every year and the lurking fear of an El Nino have all had a mind boggling effect on one and all this year. Some parts of North and East India face drought conditions while many others have been hit by heavy rains and floods.


In some parts, while rains damaged standing crop, others like Punjab and Haryana had late rains, thus threatening cotton and paddy crops. Press reports show that apart from some of the affected areas as above, monsoon delays have pushed 20 of the 75 districts in Uttar Pradesh (UP) to drought conditions. Odisha's large scale flooding due to heavy rains has affected 23 districts and yet RS Gopalan, Agriculture Director, appears to be confident and is reported to have stated that they "expect above average yield". And the rain deficit in Bihar, with some floods in the north is expected to lead to a fall in production of oil seeds and pulses. Jharkhand, on the other hand, after a poor early monsoon rains had better showers in August, resulting in better paddy output this season.


All these up and down factors - vagaries of the monsoon effect - have a direct repercussion on the need and use of fertilisers. So, let's take a look at the state of fertiliser industry in the country.


As per the directive of the government, urea units have been receiving gas from Reliance Industries Ltd (RIL) to meet their needs, which, in the past couple of years, have been falling drastically, due to lower output of gas. To support farmers and to ensure continued agricultural production, the government has been subsidising fertiliser industry, which is likely to reach a staggering Rs90,000 crore in 2014-15. Domestic production of urea, for instance, has been around 22 million tonnes (mt), while the demand is around 29 mt, thus necessitating the import of 8 mt per year. Indigenous production cannot be increased due to inadequate supply of gas. Additionally, India imports about 3.5 million tonnes of potash from Russia/ Belarus.


More importantly, the use of fertilisers, both bio-fertiliser and micro-nutrients and the ratios of use, has also been haphazard. It is well-known that in order to maintain soil health and to obtain optimum benefit of fertiliser application the farmer has to use all the three nutrients, generally classified as NPK or nitrogen, phosphate and potash.


According to international practice, the most ideal NPK fertilizer ratio is 4:2:1 but in actual practice in India has been found vary from 4:2:1 to go as high as 23:2:1 and varying from state to state, depending upon what they grow! Such a reckless mix may increase the crop yield in some areas but now there is serious concern that this may lead to increased incidence of cancer.


The fertiliser industry is now being studied in detail and a road map to reach self-sufficiency is being prepared by Ananth Kumar, the Union Minister for Fertilizer and Chemicals. His plans are expected to include provisions for revival of defunct plants, such as those at Talcher and Ramagundam. Additionally, press reports indicate that proposals are being prepared to set up fertiliser units along the proposed Jagdishpur-Haldia natural gas grid pipe line.


A national fertiliser policy that will cover ways and means to achieve self-sufficiency would be a welcome change and in the long run may reduce our dependence upon imports. It is hoped that this policy will also cover the urgent and imperative need to "educate" farmers in the right use of NPK. Would it be workable for establishing a composing unit that would receive all the three nutrients and then prepare single packaged NPK in right ratios, so as to eliminate the use of fertiliser by wrong combinations?


It would be ideal if the new policy outlines proposals for joint ventures outside in gas producing countries, such as Qatar, Oman, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Iran, Nigeria and Russia, so that the fertiliser is imported and gas from India is diverted for other purposes. This does not mean we should close the existing units, but we should refrain from setting up new ones, unless, the overseas joint venture partners from Qatar, Iran and other countries, offer to ship the gas as working capital?


(AK Ramdas has worked with the Engineering Export Promotion Council of the ministry of commerce. He was also associated with various committees of the Council. His international career took him to places like Beirut, Kuwait and Dubai at a time when these were small trading outposts; and later to the US.)


Game of Secrets: Be wary of Spreading Secrets on This App

Valuable information hangs in the balance with the Game of Secrets app


We’re not entirely sure how this app contributes to the evolution of the human race but it’s probably somewhere between this movie and this dessert.

The app is called Game of Secrets and it’s an invaluable tool for anyone looking to cut ties with family and friends while giving up valuable information to a company that doesn’t readily disclose what it’s going to do with it.

From what we can tell from several dozen disparaging customer reviews, the destruction starts with an unsolicited text message from one of your contacts indicating that someone has recently answered a question about you on Game of Secrets.

Click through and you’re taken to the app, which requests access to your contacts without saying exactly how it plans to use that information (more on this to come). Eager to find out who said what about you, let’s say you click “OK.”

But before you can find out, there’s another hurdle, as the app proceeds to ask you to answer some intimate questions about your contacts. Questions like: Would you ever kiss so and so? Would you think this person is boyfriend material? Choose the “not skip” option and then that contact gets the same text you did — that’s what allowing access to your contacts entails.

Nearly all of the customer reviews on iTunes slam the developer, Rocketeer Inc, for creating an app users say is misleading, hurtful, and inappropriate. Some reviewers even claim that the app sent out text messages despite blocking the app’s access to contacts and skipping all the questions.

One reviewer, who said he received several text messages saying people were answering questions about him on Game of Secrets, wrote:

I downloaded the app and you can’t see what people wrote about you until you answered questions. I didn’t want to answer any questions and hurt anyone’s feelings. My friends have had their feelings hurt from it because some people’s answers are very hurtful.

Added another:

Don’t get this app. I mean, unless of course you are okay with receiving texts from you grandparents asking why you answered a question about how good they look naked. Just saying… This app has spammed most of my contacts and it’s a huge mess to clean up. You will regret it.


And one more:

This app is misleading and offensive in every way. I can’t even understand how it got passed [sic] apple and is allowed to be downloaded through the App Store. The app isn’t all happy and fun as it seems in the description. It’s hurtful and mean, and it destroys friendships.

Apple’s policy would appear to prohibit such an app to be sold in its App Store. According to the company’s review guidelines, “Any App that is defamatory, offensive, mean-spirited, or likely to place the targeted individual or group in harm’s way will be rejected.”

But there’s conflicting information. Apple’s 17-plus app rating, which is where Game of Secrets falls, states that “[a]pps in this category may also contain frequent and intense offensive language.” (And while it’s rated 17-plus, readers tell that many middle school students are using this app to send unsolicited texts to fellow students who can’t block them unless they start blocking the texts with their phone carrier number by number.)

So where does Apple draw the line on apps with offensive material if they have a guideline banning it but also a rating regulating it? That’s not clear. reached out to Apple for comment about this app and its guidelines but we did not receive a response.

However, a parent whose son received unsolicited text messages from the Game of Secrets app said that an iTunes representative told them that the app has not violated Apple policy and suggested that the parent contact the developer directly.

The other issue is what Rocketeer does with the information it gathers from Game of Secrets. We looked online and even installed the app but couldn’t find a terms and conditions policy for using the program, or details on what becomes of the information they have about you once you sign up. If Game of Secrets is anything like Whisper, another secret sharing app, users may want to take note of Forbes’ article on three reasons to be wary.

The takeaway here is to think twice about apps that ask to access your contacts. They may have some secrets of their own.



Bad loans: Wages of Millions Seized to Pay Past Debts

A new study provides the first-ever tally of how many employees in the US lose up to a quarter of their paychecks over debts like unpaid credit card or medical bills and student loans


This story was co-published with NPR.

Back in 2009, Kevin Evans was one of millions of Americans blindsided by the recession. His 25-year career selling office furniture collapsed. He shed the nice home he could no longer afford, but not a $7,000 credit card debt.

After years of spotty employment, Evans, 58, thought he'd finally recovered last year when he found a better-paying, full-time customer service job in Springfield, Mo. But early this year, he opened his paycheck and found a quarter of it missing. His credit card lender, Capital One, had garnished his wages. Twice a month, whether he could afford it or not, 25 percent of his pay — the legal limit — would go to his debt, which had ballooned with interest and fees to over $15,000.

"It was a roundhouse from the right that just knocks you down and out," Evans said.
The recession and its aftermath have fueled an explosion of cases like Evans'. Creditors and collectors have pursued struggling cardholders and other debtors in court, securing judgments that allow them to seize a chunk of even meager earnings. The financial blow can be devastating — more than half of U.S. states allow creditors to take a quarter of after-tax wages. But despite the rise in garnishments, the number of Americans affected has remained unknown.

At the request of ProPublica, ADP, the nation's largest payroll services provider, undertook a study of 2013 payroll records for 13 million employees. ADP's report, released today, shows that more than one in 10 employees in the prime working ages of 35 to 44 had their wages garnished in 2013.

Roughly half of these debtors, unsurprisingly, owed child support. But a sizeable number had their earnings docked for consumer debts, such as credit cards, medical bills and student loans.

Extended to the entire population of U.S. employees, ADP's findings indicate that 4 million workers — about 3 percent of all employees — had wages taken for a consumer debt in 2013.

Carolyn Carter of the National Consumer Law Center called the level of wage garnishment identified by ADP "alarming." "States and the federal government should look on reforming our wage garnishment laws with some urgency," she said.

The increase in consumer debt seizures is "a big change," largely invisible to researchers because of the lack of data, said Michael Collins, faculty director of the Center for Financial Security at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The potential financial hardship imposed by these seizures and their sheer number should grab the attention of policymakers, he said. "It is something we should care about."

ADP's study, the first large-scale look at how many employees are having their wages garnished and why, reveals what has been a hidden burden for working-class families. Wage seizures were most common among middle-aged, blue-collar workers and lower-income employees. Nearly 5 percent of those earning between $25,000 and $40,000 per year had a portion of their wages diverted to pay down consumer debts in 2013, ADP found.

Perhaps due to the struggling economy in the region, the rate was highest in the Midwest. There, over 6 percent of employees earning between $25,000 and $40,000 — one in 16 — had wages seized over consumer debt. Employees in the Northeast had the lowest rate. The statistics were not broken down by race.

Currently, debtors' fates depend significantly on where they happen to live. State laws vary widely. Four states — Texas, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and South Carolina — largely prohibit wage garnishment stemming from consumer debt. Most states, however, allow creditors to seize a quarter of a debtor's wages — the highest rate permitted under federal law.

Evans had the misfortune to live in Missouri, which not only allows creditors to seize 25 percent, but also allows them to continue to charge a high interest rate even after a judgment.

By early 2010, Evans had fallen so far behind that Capital One suspended his card. For months, he made monthly $200 payments toward his $7,000 debt, according to statements reviewed by ProPublica and NPR. But by this time, the payments barely kept pace with the interest piling on at 26 percent. In 2011, when Evans could no longer keep up, Capital One filed suit. Evans was served a summons, but said he didn't understand that meant there'd be a hearing on his case.

If Evans had lived in neighboring Illinois, the interest rate on his debt would have dropped to under 10 percent after his creditor had won a judgment in court. But in Missouri, creditors can continue to add the contractual rate of interest for the life of the debt, so Evans' bill kept mounting. Missouri law also allowed Capital One to tack on a $1,200 attorney fee. Some other states cap such fees to no more than a few hundred dollars.

Evans has involuntarily paid over $6,000 this year on his old debt, an average of about $480 each paycheck, but he still owes more than $10,000. "It's my debt. I want to pay it," Evans said. But "I need to come up with large quantities of money so I don't just keep getting pummeled."

Companies can also seize funds from a borrower's bank account. There is no data on how frequently this happens, even though it is a common recourse for collectors.

The garnishment process for most debts begins in local courts. A company can file suit as soon as a few months after a debtor falls behind. A ProPublica review of court records in eight states shows the bulk of lawsuits are filed by just a few types of creditors and companies. Besides major lenders like Capital One, medical debt is a major source of such suits. High-cost lenders who deal in payday and installment loans also file suits by the thousands. And finally, an outsized portion comes from debt buyers — companies that purchase mostly unpaid credit card bills.

When these creditors and collectors go to court, they are almost always represented by an attorney. Defendants — usually in tough financial straits or unfamiliar with the court system — almost never are. In Clay County, Missouri, where Capital One brought its suit against Evans in 2011, only 7 percent of defendants in debt collection cases have their own attorneys, according to ProPublica's review of state court data. Often the debtors don't show up to court at all: The most common outcome of a debt collection lawsuit in Missouri (and any other state) is a judgment by default.

In a Clay County courtroom recently, the court was filled with creditors, but debtors were in short supply. Attorneys for hospitals, debt buyers, and lenders milled about, approaching the podium when their cases were called. Often they simply asked for default judgments when debtors failed to show.

Christopher McGraugh, an associate circuit court judge in St. Louis, said the system is designed to give debtors a chance to dispute allegations in suits against them. But in debt collection cases, "it just doesn't happen that much."

Some debtors, he said, may believe that they had no reason to attend since they owe the debt. For others, unable to afford an attorney, handling the case on their own is "beyond their sophistication," he said. As a result, the facts of most cases are never questioned, leaving the plaintiff with a judgment and the ability to pursue a garnishment.

McGraugh, who has presided over thousands of debt collection cases, said when defendants do obtain lawyers, particularly in cases involving debt buyers, they can point to possible holes in the suit. Those cases, he said "are rarely pursued."

Millions of debt collection lawsuits are filed every year in local courts. In 2011, for instance, the year Capital One went to court against Evans, more than 100,000 such suits were filed in Missouri alone.

Despite these numbers, creditors and debt collectors say they only pursue lawsuits and garnishments against consumers after other collection attempts fail. "Litigation is a very high-cost mechanism for trying to collect a debt," said Rob Foehl, general counsel at the Association of Credit and Collection Professionals. "It's really only a small percentage of outstanding debts that go through the process."

"Legal action is a last resort," said Capital One spokeswoman Pam Girardo, and the bank only filed suit after Evans "didn't complete the payment plan we agreed to."

Experts in garnishment say they've seen a clear shift in the type of debts that are pursued. A decade ago, child support accounted for the overwhelming majority of pay seizures, said Amy Bryant, a consultant who advises employers on payroll issues and has written a book on garnishment laws. "The emphasis is now on creditor garnishments," she said. Today, only about half the seizures are for child support, she said.

To illustrate the rise overall, Bryant provided ProPublica and NPR payroll statistics from a major retailer with approximately 250,000 employees nationwide. The company allowed the data to be used on the condition its name was not used. Since 2007, the number of employees who had their pay seized for consumer debt roughly doubled. As of June of this year, 2 percent — about 5,000 employees — had ongoing garnishments for consumer debt and just under 1 percent for student loan debt.

ADP's analysis also found that the rate of garnishment for child support was most common (3.4 percent), but closely followed by consumer debt, including student loans. The next most common reasons for garnishments were tax levies and payments for bankruptcy plans. (Disclosure: ProPublica retains ADP to provide it with professional employer organization services.)

Wage seizures for student loan debts are governed by different laws than other consumer debts. Collectors can obtain a garnishment after an administrative procedure set by federal rules. Borrowers must also be more than nine months behind before a collector can seek one. Finally, such seizures are capped at 15 percent of disposable income.

Department of Education data shows that approximately $1 billion has been collected each year over the past several years through these garnishments. The amount is up by about 40 percent since 2006, even after the figures are adjusted for inflation. ADP's analysis did not break out student loans from other types of consumer debt.

Bryant said the rise in garnishments has become an unanticipated burden for employers.
"It becomes very complicated," she said, particularly for national employers who must navigate the differences in state laws. "It's very easy to make a mistake in the process." If an employer does not correctly handle a garnishment order, she said, they can become liable for a portion or even the entirety of the debt in some states.

The burden was enough to prompt the American Payroll Association to request in 2011 that the Uniform Law Commission draft a model state law on wage garnishment. Bryant said employers are hoping that the new law, which is still being drafted, will be adopted by a large number of states and reduce complications.

What's it like for a family trying to live on wages reduced by old debts? Tomorrow ProPublica and NPR will examine how much creditors and debt collectors are allowed to take from debtors' wages and bank accounts, and how it impacts their lives.

Courtesy: & NPR


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