Monday, May 23, 2011

Seeds Bill 2010: a path to seed slavery?

Perspectives Description:
Seeds Bill 2010: a path to seed slavery?

Description: are as natural as our children. They are gifted by God and we pass them to future generations to keep the civilization going. The Seeds Bill, 2010 of the Government of India is trying to defy this natural cycle. It is unnatural and detrimental to the nation's interest", said Prakash Singh Raghuvanshi, known as the Seed Crusader of India, while talking to the farmers in Odisha's Sambalpur district during his recent visit to this state. In fact, as the Government of India tries to push through the controversial Seeds Bill, 2010, an amended form of the Seeds Bill, 2004, farmers of the country are up in arms. They feel that this is going to rip the country of its seed sovereignty. "The Bill, if it comes into force in the form that is being pushed by the agriculture ministry, will make the multinational seeds corporations like Monsanto the owner of our farm sector. If you do not have your own seeds, you do not have your own farms", argues Raghuvanshi.

In October 2010, when the Cabinet approved moving additional amendments to the Seeds Bill, 2004, a government release said that the new Bill would ensure availability of quality seeds to farmers. When this Bill gets passed in the Parliament and becomes an Act, it will regulate the quality of seeds and planting materials to ensure the availability of quality seeds to the farmers; protect the rights of the farmers; curb the sale of spurious and poor quality seeds; increase private participation in seed production and distribution; and liberalize imports of seeds and planting materials. The government statement also said, "Provisions of labelling, seed health, expected performance, and compensation to farmers have been included to ensure public accountability. Innovations include compulsory registration, enabling government to exclude certain varieties on the grounds of public health, environment, and so on, provision for expected performance, seed health, and farmer's compensation, and so on."

Raghuvanshi says, "It is good that the government recognizes the importance of seeds in farming, but what it does is give away the right to produce and market seeds to multinational companies". The government statement said, "Seed is the most important input for agricultural production and that the efficacy of other agricultural inputs such as fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation is largely determined by the quality of seed. Seed quality accounts for 20%-25% of productivity". As per Luthu Mirdha, a seasoned farmer of Kusumdihi village in Odisha, it is actually 50%. "If you have quality seeds, you have control over your farm", argues Luthu, who has been traditionally preserving paddy seeds and using them on his farms.

Raghuvanshi argues that no special skill is needed to make good seeds. In fact, the farmers of our country are the best at this; they have been doing this since ages. And, instead of promoting it, the government is bringing in an Act to give corporates the right over seeds under the plea of quality seeds. The government statement said, "a need has arisen for upgrading the seed quality regime by enacting a new legislation in view of emergence of new technologies; safeguarding the interest of the farmers; increasing the role of the private sector in seed production, and India's integration at the international level through the World Trade Organization (WTO) and other international organizations/treaties; and increasing the scope of export/import of seeds and planting materials".

"This is nothing but promoting business for the multinational seeds companies at the cost of poor farmers", alleges Saroj, a farmer activist. "Our agriculture minister has turned out to be an agent of the corporate houses who are eyeing the more than `4000-crore seed market in the country. While our farmers have the ability to make their own seeds, our agricultural universities and technical expertise is there to help promote indigenous hybrid varieties to provide food security to the nation. Promoting the business interest of multinational corporates is uncalled for and, hence, we are opposing it", says Saroj. "Taking clue from the local agricultural universities, I have developed several indigenous hybrid varieties of paddy, wheat, vegetables, and cereals. My varieties have proven to be very successful, even in the changing climatic conditions. Why does the government not promote such local varieties?" asks Raghuvanshi. In fact, Savajit Rao Gaekwad, a farmer from Maharashtra, confirms that during the current season, when excessive cold damaged all Arhar crops, leading to a loss to the tune of `300 crores, he and his fellow farmers' Arhar crops-from the seeds provided by Raghuvanshi-produced very good result. "Had the seeds from these companies been suitable and profitable, our farmers would have completely left preserving and germinating their own seeds. The companies use farmers to develop seeds, buy the seeds at a low price from them, and then, resell those seeds at a high cost in the name of 'certified' seeds. This is an unjust business and the Seed Bill will promote all such unethical practices".

"In India, where more than 3,500,000 farmers have already committed suicides during the last one decade-owing to increased cost of farming and failure of all these company-provided seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides-promoting further corporate control of seeds will be disastrous", warns Lingaraj, a leader of farmers associations in Odisha. Seed cost is already growing. But, the poor farmers can still afford it because they have the right to preserve and use/circulate their own seeds. The new Bill curtails these rights and makes seeds preservation and use by local people themselves illegal. This is undemocratic and a symbol of an arbitrary rule", he alleges.

Debjeet of Living Farms, an organization that is working on the issue for quite a long time, says, "The Seeds Bill is flawed on several aspects and we are opposing it from the beginning". "What is important to note is that the Bill has no clause to monitor or regulate the price and royalty of seed corporations. This implies that seed corporations are allowed to sell seeds at whatever price they want. Since seeds have royalties, seed prices can increase manifold, which would only add to the woes of the already-stressed farmers", says he.

The Bill, which gives an arbitrary and liability-free control over the seeds market in India, can be very dangerous. "Let me give you one example of what could happen. In 2005, when Monsanto-Mahyco sold Bt Cotton seeds (cotton seeds with insecticidal genes from Bacillus thuringiensis) at exorbitant prices and the Andhra Pradesh government tried to control them, the company dragged the government to court. Unfortunately, the High Court gave a ruling in favour of the companies", said he. This is the reason why Andhra Pradesh-despite being a Congress-led government-is one of the forerunners in opposing the Seeds Bill. The current Bill, too, has no accountability fixed for the companies and, hence, there is no way that their liability can be gauged and fixed. Further, the Bill makes it very difficult for the farmers to lodge any complaint if the seeds that they buy from the companies fail to deliver. "While the Bill gives a sort of a 'do anything and go scot-free' license to the companies, it gives no legal backup to the farmers. A poor farmer has to go to Delhi to file a complaint against a company if he is cheated. This is just impossible and will marginalize the farmers further", complains Saroj.
Stiff opposition

In fact, many farmers groups from across the country are protesting against this Bill. Even the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has started a sustained campaign against it. Recently, during his visit to Odisha, Om Prakash Dhankar, National President of the BJP Kisan Morcha, dubbed the Seeds Bill as "anti-farmer and pro-companies". "If the union government does not agree to bring amendments, he said, BJP will not allow the passage of the Bill. The Bill, introduced in the Rajya Sabha, envisages anti-state and anti-farmer provisions, though agriculture is now under the state list. It has been prepared to do away with state control of seed management," said Dhankar.

"The central government has made draconian provisions in the Bill to appease the multinational companies dealing with seeds. The Bill is silent about the prices of seeds and there is no provision in the present Bill to impose limit on the royalty to be recovered on patented seeds by foreign companies", he alleged. In fact, the Odisha government is also opposing the Bill. The agriculture minister, on 23 November 2010, said on the floor of the Assembly that they would send a strong letter to the Centre against this Bill.

According to Indian food policy expert Devinder Sharma, "The Seed Bill, 2010, has kept farmers out of its purview. Accepting the recommendation of the Standing Committee, the Seed Bill, 2010, clearly states that it will not restrict the right of the farmer to grow, sow, re-sow, save, exchange, share, or sell his farm seeds and planting material, except when they are into the business of selling branded seeds. At the same time, it has also expanded the definition of a 'farmer' to include all those who conserve or preserve, severally or jointly with any person, any traditional varieties, or adds value to such traditional varieties through selection and identification of their useful properties." He further says, "Since the Seed Bill, 2010 focuses exclusively on the commercial production, sale, and distribution of good quality seeds by seed companies and public sector agencies, and the farmers as well as the informal seed saving and cultivation system are outside its ambit..."

"I have been distributing seeds free of cost and lakhs of farmers in 14 states of the country have already benefitted out of this. My seeds are from Mother Nature, and the farmers have complete right over them. I want the farmers to use them, develop them further, and distribute them again to fellow farmers", says Raghuvanshi. "I keep propagating among the farmers to use 25% of the produce, convert 75% of the remaining produce into seeds for future growth, and distribute some seeds to at least 10 farmers. This way, in five years, the entire country and its poor farmers can be seed secure. Therein lies the key to growth of the farming sector in India. The current Bill will only bring seed slavery for the people and the nation, and it cannot be accepted", he says.

Ranjan K Panda is a freelance journalist and winner of the NDTV Green Hero Award.

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