1.Seeds of controversy - Frontline
2.Whose livelihoods are we talking about? - Devinder Sharma
The first article below, written before the recent news of the ban on Monsanto in Andhra Pradesh, provides a very useful roundup on the new Bt cotton approvals in India and the state of the evidence on the problems with its cultivation.
The article notes, "The All India Coordinated Cotton Improvement Project (AICCIP) corroborates, in its 2004-05 annual report, the arguments made in different studies by civil society organisations and independent scientific bodies about the failure of Bt cotton in the 2004 season. It also justifies the demand of Andhra Pradesh Bt cotton growers for compensation for crop loss."
Sudies in Andhra Pradesh have shown a catalogue of problems with Bt cotton:
* Lower yields - the non-Bt yield is nearly 30 per cent more than the Bt yield and it is also 10 per cent less expensive.
* No reduction in pesticide use (despite all the promises).
* No higher profit: The three-year average revealed that the non-Bt farmers earned 60 per cent more an acre than Bt farmers.
* No reduction in the cost of cultivation: Farmers not only had to spend three to four times more for the Mahyco-Monsanto Bollgard seeds, but... incurred 12 per cent more in cultivation costs than non-Bt farmers.
* Environmental impact: A special kind of root rot was being spread by Bollgard, or Bt, cotton and farmers could not grow other crops after Bt because it affected the soil.
The article also notes that Bt cotton was also found to have failed in a series of states in studies by the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, Gene Campaign, and Greenpeace India. "Eminent scientist and Padma Bhushan recipient Dr. Pushp M. Bhargava has gone on record that Bt cotton has failed to live up to expectations."
The only contrary voice is Monsanto's.
Here's an excerpt from the second article by Devinder Sharma:
"In more recent times, between May to August 2003, hundreds of farmers in Karnataka, in south India, paradoxically the hub of biotechnology industry, have taken the fatal route to escape the spasm of hunger and the growing humiliation that comes along with crop failures...
Many foreign companies most of them unable to operate in the hostile environment against genetically modified crops in Europe, have moved shop to Bangalore. ...invariably, they all come with the promise of higher crop yields, nutritional crops, and with the underlying thrust on eradicating hunger. A majority of these biotechnology units, subsidised heavily from the state funds, merely act as a service centre for the foreign companies.
It isn't therefore surprising to see Bangalore hosting five-star conclaves every month or so and that too in the name of fighting hunger. None of the delegates, and I repeat, none of them have ever stepped out of the hotels to even visit and meet the families of those who laid down their lives essentially to sustain flawed policies, including the misplaced emphasis on crop biotechnology." (item 2)
1.Seeds of controversy
Frontline (India's national magazine)
June 02, 2005
The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee has attracted severe criticism by granting approval to six new Bt cotton hybrids and extending the approval for seeds already under cultivation.
RCH-20 Bt cotton being harvested at a farm near Salem, Tamil Nadu. For the South Zone, the GEAC has allowed the commercialisation of the hybrid seed developed by a sub-licensee of Monsanto.
YET again a controversy has been set off by the Ministry of Environment and Forests' (MoEF) Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), the regulator in India for transgenic products, by approving certain varieties of Bt cotton hybrids for the next season.
Bt cotton is a variety of cotton genetically modified to contain a gene (cry1Ac) of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), which is foreign to its genome and is a naturally occurring soil bacterium used to control Lepidopteran insects because of a toxin it produces. The U.S.-registered multinational corporation, Monsanto, first developed Bt cotton.
The Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (Mahyco) Monsanto Biotech India Ltd. or MMB, until recently the sole licensee/patent holder of Bt cotton seeds in the country, claims that the seeds have the strength to fight bollworms within the plant, reduce the use of insecticides and give higher yield than other cotton varieties. Bt cotton is the only government-approved, genetically modified (GM) crop in India, though clearances have been given for only specific varieties of it. The Central government had permitted for three years the Bt cotton varieties MECH-162, MECH-12 and MECH-184 developed by MMB for commercial cultivation in India in March 2002. The permission expired on March 30, 2005.
Since mid-April 2005, the GEAC has approved six new Bt cotton hybrids for commercial cultivation in northern India; more varieties will be granted permission in the near future. But the GEAC is still undecided about granting extensions for the varieties already under cultivation, because of crop failures that have destroyed the livelihoods of thousands of farmers across the country, particularly in Andhra Pradesh.
Adverse reports about the three cotton hybrid crops have come in not only from leading voluntary agencies but also from the Government of Andhra Pradesh. In fact, local authorities in Warangal district have been demanding that MMB compensate the Andhra Pradesh farmers after crop losses last year drove scores of them to suicide.
On May 3, the GEAC renewed permission for MMB to market MECH-12 Bt, MECH-162 Bt and MECH-184 Bt in the Central Zone (Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra) for another two years. It approved cultivation of MECH-162 Bt and MECH-184 Bt in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, but not of MECH-12 Bt. According to an MoEF spokesperson, "the decision was taken on the basis of reports received from the State governments".
"It was a very difficult decision," said a senior GEAC member. "The decision not to allow the three hybrids in Andhra Pradesh was taken on receiving adverse reports from the State government as well as some 20 farmers' organisations in the State. Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh have sent mixed reports. The Gujarat government has not sent any reports so far."
THE GEAC had allowed commercialisation of the GM hybrids - which incorporate the cry1Ac gene derived from Bacillus thuringiensis - in the Central and South Zones for three seasons ending March 2005. While the GEAC renewed the permission for the North Zone, it deferred the decision for the South and Central Zones following protests by civil society groups and academics. However, for certain States of these zones, the GEAC allowed the commercialisation of two hybrids - RCH-144 Bt for the Central and RCH-20 Bt for the South - developed by Rassi Seeds Ltd., a sub-licensee of Monsanto.
The GEAC also approved large-scale field trials of three transgenic varieties - KCH-1947 of J.K. Agri, NEC-ER Bt of Nath Seeds and 02-50 VIP of Syngenta Seeds - in North India.
Four varieties developed by Nuziveedu Seeds Ltd, three each of Mahyco and Rassi Seeds and two of Ankur Seeds were not approved in the absence of adequate reports from the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (RCGM) and the Monitoring and Evaluation Committee (MEC). The GEAC, according to officials, is holding "final-level internal discussions" on the commercialisation of some varieties of Bt cotton hybrids.
In another set of new varieties, the GEAC approved six Bt cotton hybrids for commercial cultivation in the North. For Central India, five new hybrids have been approved for commercial cultivation - RCH-144 Bt and RCH-118 (of Rassi Seeds), MRC-6301 Bt (Mahyco) and Ankur-681 and Ankur-09 (Ankur Seeds).
For the South, Mahyco's MRC-6322 Bt and MRC-6918 Bt and Rassi's RCH-20 Bt and RCH-368 Bt have been approved. The GEAC also approved 20 large-scale field trials for different types of Bt cotton in South and Central India, while 12 transgenic varieties are in the pipeline for commercial cultivation.
According to a recent study by a team of government cotton experts, cotton hybrids are susceptible to diseases such as bacterial blight, alternaria leaf spot and grey mildew. The All India Coordinated Cotton Improvement Project (AICCIP) corroborates, in its 2004-05 annual report, the arguments made in different studies by civil society organisations and independent scientific bodies about the failure of Bt cotton in the 2004 season. It also justifies the demand of Andhra Pradesh Bt cotton growers for compensation for crop loss.
The report discusses the Bt cotton trials conducted in the Central and South Zones to assess the incidence of these diseases on Bt and non-Bt cotton crops. Three AICCIP teams studied the breeding, entomology and pathology of Bt cotton. The results revealed that both Bt and non-Bt cotton hybrids are equally susceptible to the three diseases and that the presence of Bt gene does not have any impact on the incidence of the disease.
The AICCIP report added: "The outbreak of the diseases in the Central and South Zones was significant, especially in certain Bt hybrids. They caused critical damage at the peak boll formation stage." According to the AICCIP report, all cotton hybrids - Bt or non-Bt - had the same yields in the South Zone. However, farmers practising integrated pest management (IPM) reported a higher net income with a near halving of pesticide use.
In Andhra Pradesh, farmer leader Malla Reddy of the AP Rythu Sangam, wrote to the GEAC not to approve the extension for the "three failed Bt cotton hybrids", while S. Jaipal Reddy of the Federation of Farmers Association (FFA) demanded an immediate extension of the approval period. This, say experts, is because the FFA has entered into a partnership with the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and floated the Farmer-Industry Alliance.
Says P. Chengal Reddy of the Farmer-Industry Alliance: "The GEAC should have allowed commercial cultivation of these Bt cotton hybrids in Andhra Pradesh. Farmers have already booked orders for 300,000 bags of Bt cotton seeds with local dealers."
However, the GEAC approved four new Bt cotton hybrids for commercial cultivation in South India, including Andhra Pradesh. "This has been done to give a choice to Andhra Pradesh farmers," said a GEAC member.
Farmers' groups and civil society organisations across the country have expressed deep concern over the GEAC approving new biotech cotton hybrids for cultivation in new areas when the extension of the approval period for three hybrid varieties under cultivation has become controversial. They stepped up the protests during the Global Week of Action, which was recently observed worldwide.
Scientific studies by some civil society groups proved that the Bt cotton crops had failed in South India. The Secunderabad-based Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA) conducted a study under the leadership of Dr. G.V. Ramanjaneyulu and entomologist Dr. S.M.A. Ali, which detailed the failure of Bt cotton in Warangal and Medak districts of Andhra Pradesh. A similar study by Dr. Abdul Qayum and Kiran Sakkhari on behalf of the Deccan Development Society (DDS), the Andhra Pradesh Coalition in Defence of Diversity and the Permaculture Association of India totted up the heavy losses on account of Bt cotton cultivation. The three-year study (2002-05), in collaboration with grassroots researchers, revealed the following:
* Lower yields: While the three-year average yield from Bt cotton for small farmers was 650 kg per acre, it was 535 kg under rain-fed conditions in 2005. The same farmers got 150 kg more yield from non-Bt hybrids under the same conditions as the Bt cotton. Thus the non-Bt yield is nearly 30 per cent more than the Bt yield and it is also 10 per cent less expensive.
* No reduction in pesticide use: On an average, Bt farmers used pesticides worth Rs.2,571 an acre for the three years; it was Rs.2,766 for non-Bt farmers.
* No higher profit: The three-year average revealed that the non-Bt farmers earned 60 per cent more an acre than Bt farmers.
* No reduction in the cost of cultivation: Farmers not only had to spend three to four times more for the Mahyco-Monsanto Bollgard seeds, but also had to take extra care to manure, irrigate and look after the Bt crop. Thus, many farmers, especially in the rain-fed areas, spent at least Rs.2,000 more an acre compared to the non-Bt hybrids. On an average, the Bt farmers incurred 12 per cent more in cultivation costs than non-Bt farmers.
* Environmental impact: A special kind of root rot was being spread by Bollgard, or Bt, cotton and farmers could not grow other crops after Bt because it affected the soil.
Studies by Gene Campaign, the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, and Greenpeace India have highlighted the failure of Bt cotton in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Eminent scientist and Padma Bhushan recipient Dr. Pushp M. Bhargava has gone on record that Bt cotton has failed to live up to expectations.
But a contrary view came from one survey, by Indian Market Research Bureau (IMRB) done on behalf of Monsanto India, which attests to the success of Bt cotton cultivation. Based on this study, MMB claimed that Bollgardcotton had helped farmers earn an "additional income of Rs.770 crores during 2004".
According to the study, the average per acre spending on pesticides by farmers across the country was just about a fifth for Bt hybrids compared to non-Bt hybrids. The overall average savings in spending on pesticides was Rs.1,200 an acre; the average yield was 8.02 quintals an acre compared to 5.07 quintals; and the average profit per acre was Rs.9,610 (after accounting for seed prices) and Rs.3,660 respectively. But this study was refuted by the CSA point by point.
During a two-day international consultation on Bt cotton organised by DDS and Genetic Resources Action International (GRAIN) in Hyderabad, farmers' groups and civil society organisations from Bangladesh, Canada, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mali, Nepal, the Philippines, South Africa, Sri Lanka and Thailand expressed concerns over the deliberate thrusting of transgenic technology on farmers at the cost of genetic pollution, environmental degradation and health hazards. Local farmers' groups from Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra narrated how they incurred losses on account of Bt cotton cultivation.
The Bt cotton controversy is not peculiar to India. Farmers in Indonesia have used Bt cotton and given it up; in Mali, they are dead against their entry; in Thailand civil society groups have unearthed political conspiracies around it and disallowed its entry. According to farmers in Andhra Pradesh, though the issue is about the technology itself, the GEAC, by giving approval for the cultivation of some varieties of Bt cotton in some States, appears to be turning the matter into one of seed varieties.
Activists feel that the only solution to the vexed problem is to legislate and provide a firm policy on agricultural biotechnology before allowing further cultivation of transgenics such as Bt cotton. Says Gene Campaign's Suman Sahai: "It is time to examine whether it is possible to implement technology for genetic engineering in India with its requirements for segregation, labelling and identity preservation of GM varieties, given the impact it has on India's small farmers."
In 2001, the Indian government issued a new seeds policy, which stated that GM seeds would have to adhere to norms such as environmental health and biodiversity safety before their commercial release. Transgenic seed varieties would be imported only after clearance from the GEAC and would be tested to determine their agronomic value by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR).
But Suman Sahai says this is not enough. "There are grave doubts about the competence and independence of the structures for regulation, and monitoring of GM crops and it is regrettable that neither farmers nor the public has been taken into confidence." For now, she says, it is vital that the GEAC and government agencies show more transparency in their functioning and take the public into confidence on how they grant approvals.
She says: "For years, environmentalists and independent scientists have been asking the government to share information on approvals and field trial data, which even ordinary citizens have the right to demand. However, we have always been denied that right."
The MoEF, under which the GEAC functions, should therefore bare the details about the approvals and put to rest the claims and counter-claims about the worth of the hybrid seeds.
2.ICT and Rural Livelihoods
Whose livelihoods are we talking about?
By Devinder Sharma
It was too late. By the time, Jai Lal, a landless agricultural worker of Bandali village, in Sheopur district of Madhya Pradesh, in the heartland of India, returned to share the good news with his wife that he finally managed to get a petty job with a shopkeeper she had succumbed to hunger. A week later, graves were dug for his two children, both unable to continue with the prolonged fight against hunger.
Jai Lal’s family paid a heavy price for the faulty agricultural policies that are being relentlessly promoted and pushed in the name of economic growth and development. Jai Lal is not the only victim of a development paradigm that turns a blind eye to the resulting human suffering. Travelling around the country, I am no longer shocked at the plight of the rural masses, unknowingly who continue to pay a heavy price for the agrarian policy thrust upon them. What hurts me is to see that even fifty-seven years after Independence, growing hunger and inequalities do not prick the conscious of the nation.
There is no other plausible reason that can explain why Jai Lal lost his family. After all, Jai Lal’s family died of hunger when more than 45 million tonnes of foodgrains were stacked in the open, much of it rotting for want of adequate storage facilities. This was in early 2003. Two years earlier, the country had a record 65 million tonnes of food surplus, at a time when nearly 320 million a third of the world’s estimated 840 million hungry looked in disbelief at the mountains of the food stocks that lay decaying in front of their dry eyes. None of the Nobel laureates or distinguished academicians or the chief executive officers of the IT companies, who never get tired of swearing in the name of poverty eradication, even made a passing reference to the criminal apathy exhibited through the shameful paradox of plenty mountains of food rotting at a time when millions were living in hunger.
A report of the Standing Committee of Parliament estimated that the government was spending Rs 6,200-crore every year to maintain these food stocks. Mainline economists and agricultural scientists did not even once question the necessity of maintaining the surplus stocks when millions were sleeping with empty stomach. Some parliamentarians even suggested throwing the surplus food in the sea. Instead of feeding the poor, nearly 17 million tonnes from the unmanageable food surplus was diverted for exports in 2002-03, and that too at a price that was actually meant for people living below the poverty line. Another six million tonnes were released for the open trade at the same price.
The much-publicised Millennium Development Goals aims to pull out half the world’s population living in poverty and hunger by the year 2015. If only India had attempted to feed its 320 million hungry in 2002-03, at least a third of world’s hunger could have been taken care of. Refraining from feeding its own people, successive governments took refuge by saying that the cost of feeding the poor would push up the fiscal deficit. On the other hand, between 2000-05, Rs 72,000 crores have been invested in the telecom sector. There is no dearth of money when it comes to the sunrise industries. Much of this is however in the name of building a knowledge-led rural economy.
Ten years back, while researching for my book "In the Famine Trap" (published by UK Food Group, London) I was travelling in the infamous Kalahandi region of western Orissa. It was during that time some hunger-related deaths were reported from Bolangir district. I drove to the village to meet the families of those who had succumbed to hunger. As I was approaching the dusty village what appalled me was the sight of two huge satellite towers installed right in the heart of the village. Believe it or not, each house in the village had a satellite telephone. The inhabitants of the village didn’t have food to eat but were provided with telephones.
Satellite towers in a village where people had nothing to eat ! That surely is an ingenious way to bridge the technology divide so as to help the poverty-stricken join the mainstream the of upwardly mobile !!
In a country, which alone has one-third of the world's hungry, hunger and starvation no longer evokes compassion and reaction. News of hunger and starvation no longer adorns the front pages of newspapers. Hunger is, in reality, a non-issue. It is something that we must despise, something that we must close our eyes to. After all, the elite should not spoil their morning breakfast looking at pictures of the hungry splashed on the front pages of daily newspapers.
Farmers constitute the rural majority. Some pro-liberalisation economists led the assault on farming saying that it is not the poor farmers who needed adequate infrastructure, cheap credit, an assured market, and a remunerative price but the small percentage of rich industrialists, business and trade that needed to be showered with the State exchequer. The result is that while the non-performing assets of the nationalized banks in India grew to Rs 101,000 crore -- you cannot call it bank fraud, as it has been performed by the rich -- with many individual industrialists defaulting the banks to the tune of Rs 500 crore, the recovery of outstanding dues from small and marginal farmers continued to be in the range of 85 per cent.
It is amusing that a majority of these erring business establishments have already made a foray into the ICT sector. The technology divide or the digital divide surely becomes wider when scarce public resources are first misappropriated and then invested by the same industrial houses with the ‘pious’ intention of ameliorating poverty.
Take the case of agriculture. In Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, eastern Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and even in the frontline agricultural state of Punjab, thousands of farmers had committed suicides. Reeling under mounting debt, and with the crop harvest lying at the mercy of the private grain trade, thousands took the fatal route to escape the humiliation that comes along with indebtedness. Tens of thousands of others have been known to be selling body organs. A majority of those who survived the ordeal preferred to migrate to the urban centres. Much of the agrarian crisis is because of the terms of trade being heavily loaded against the rural areas more money is being taken out of the villages than what is being invested.
In more recent times, between May to August 2003, hundreds of farmers in Karnataka, in south India, paradoxically the hub of biotechnology industry, have taken the fatal route to escape the spasm of hunger and the growing humiliation that comes along with crop failures. In fact, such is the growing crisis on the farm front, that there is hardly a week when a couple of farmers do not commit suicide in several parts of southern India. Pick up a vernacular newspaper in any region of south India and the chances are that you will find a report of a farmer's suicide. Unable to understand the ground realities, an expert committee in Karnataka has asked the government to send a team of psychiatrists to talk to farmers.
At the same time, in the past few months and for that matter a trend that continues from a couple of years, a few educated entrepreneurs in the Karnataka's Capital, Bangalore, have suddenly become the darling of the state exchequer. Many foreign companies most of them unable to operate in the hostile environment against genetically modified crops in Europe, have moved shop to Bangalore. The mice, they say cannot resist the cheese. Foreign investment therefore lures many of the educated young. And invariably, they all come with the promise of higher crop yields, nutritional crops, and with the underlying thrust on eradicating hunger. A majority of these biotechnology units, subsidised heavily from the state funds, merely act as a service centre for the foreign companies.
It isn't therefore surprising to see Bangalore hosting five-star conclaves every month or so and that too in the name of fighting hunger. None of the delegates, and I repeat, none of them have ever stepped out of the hotels to even visit and meet the families of those who laid down their lives essentially to sustain flawed policies, including the misplaced emphasis on crop biotechnology. Those talking of hunger and poverty actually have never been even close to feeling what hunger means. For the educated and the elite, hunger is nothing more than a missed lunch. Biotechnology therefore is a 'technological tool' for them that can help mitigate hunger and malnutrition. But the question that is often missed is: whose hunger and malnutrition are they talking about?
At a time when jobless growth proliferates, the government has found an easy way out. Realising the importance of developing an information and knowledge-based rural economy "especially among the ultra poor and socially underprivileged sections of the society," it has embarked upon an ambitious programme to take information communication technology (ICT) to the villages.
Didn’t we hear of the woman weaver in remote Tamil Nadu who was able to sell traditional handloom saris at a fabulous price? Haven’t we read in the New York Times about the info-kiosks and 'e-Choupal' that Indian Tobacco Company has provided in rural countryside? Don't we know of the government’s initiative to encourage farmers to go in for future trading in commodities? We are often told that these opportunities are merely a peep into the enormous potential ICT has in promoting the principles of social inclusion, gender equity and reaching remote areas and remedying regional imbalances.
One such approach is to set up virtual agriculture universities. In Maharashtra, a virtual university for agrarian prosperity has been suggested. Fifty internet kiosks have already been set up as a pilot project in the villages of Baramati and Khed tehsils of Pune district. Like the disbanded ‘Training and Visit’ (T&V) system of farm extension where each trained farmer was expected to spread the technology to another ten farmers in the village, the virtual university too is embarking upon the same strategy. What is perhaps not known is that despite the backing of the World Bank, the T&V system of agricultural extension had miserably failed in disseminating improved technology. Maharashtra meanwhile has already spent Rs 150 lakhs for the pilot project in 2003-04 and has promised Rs 175 lakhs for 2004-05.
The new order of empowerment is being hailed as a revolutionary paradigm transformation in the life of the Indian farmer. After all, the 'e-Choupal' project has already benefited over 2.4 million farmers with in six states. In the next ten years, its reach will extend to 100,000 villages and in the process create more than 10 million e-farmers. What will then happen? It will improve the farmers decision making ability, help aggregation of demand by creating a virtual producers cooperative and in the process facilitate access to higher quality farm inputs at lower costs for the farmers.
This is more or less what was promised when the country was waking up to the visual medium the television. The government had then come up with numerous schemes for providing community TV sets in each village with the same aims and objectives. While the TV failed to inspire the farming community to bring about a technological revolution, the fact remains that despite the reach of the visual communication medium, hunger and poverty continued to grow in absolute terms. Who gained in the process were the manufacturers and suppliers of the TV sets.
Let us first analyse the motive behind the commodity exchange. At a time when thousands of farmers have committed suicide in the past few years throughout the country, the government’s intention of introducing future trading in rice, wheat and other commodities shows the complete bankruptcy in finding alternatives. In India, the average land holding size is 1.47 hectares, and only five to ten percent of the farming population has land holdings exceeding 4 hectares. To expect these farmers, who continue to survive against all odds year after year, to go online and trade seems to be a wild imagination of a stockbroker that has been accepted by apathetic official machinery.
It is known that the government is slowly withdrawing from food procurement citing the unwieldy procurement structure and the inefficiency in the system as the main reason. Food procurement however was an essential measure to provide an assured market to the farmers. By withdrawing from food procurement, it is obvious that farmers are being penalised for the inefficiency of the food corporation and various other government agencies, which includes some of the original promoters of the NMCE.
At the same time, the government is also withdrawing from providing an assured price to farmers by saying time and again that the minimum support price (MSP) has become the maximum support price. This is a wrong conclusion, and does not hold true. The reality is that the MSP looks higher than the international prices because of the massive agricultural subsidies in the western countries that depress global prices. In the richest trading block Organisation for Economic Cooperation (OECD) countries a subsidy of US $ 1 billion is provided every day to agriculture as a result of which the international prices slump.
The question is why should the Indian farmers be penalised for the subsidised agriculture in the rich countries? Furthermore, by withdrawing the support prices, the Indian government is only helping the American and European farmers who continue to produce at subsidised prices and then dump the produce in the global markets. The cheap and subsidised commodities that are dumped on the world markets, actually is the key reason for growing rural poverty and loss of livelihoods.
Even in America, it is not the farmers who trade at the stock markets. It is the trade, which does that. If only future trading was a viable mechanism to ensure lock in prices of future production or sales, and provide efficient management of price risks through hedging, there was no need for the rich countries to shell out a monumental subsidy for agriculture. If the American farmers, with the level of education and the size of landholdings, do not find future trading to be helpful, it is strange how the Indian government is promoting it as a saviour for the farming community.
In reality, future trading is a recipe for sure destruction of the gains achieved after the advent of green revolution. This is a recipe for the elimination of small and marginal farmers, forming 80 per cent of the agricultural workforce, and is meant to pave the way for the smooth entry of the private sector. This is a recipe for further marginalisation of the farming communities. This is a recipe to ensure that India slips back into the dark days of the 'ship-to-mouth' existence.
The emergence of ‘e-Choupal’ is also timed with the withdrawal of safety nets for the farmers. It is coming at a time when the retail sector is fast moving into the rural areas. The real objective of the 'e-Choupals' is to create a direct marketing channel for the promoting company, by what it calls as 'eliminating wasteful intermediation and multiple handling'. It actually aims at harmonising the business pursuits of the promoting company rather than helping the farming community with pro-environment, pro-women and pro-farming systems that lead to sustainable livelihoods.
If the retail sector (read supermarkets) is an endeavour for achieving the broader objectives of social and economic development, farmers in the rich and developed countries would not have been driven out of the farm lands. It is a fact that corporate agriculture in collaboration with the retail sector has plundered the natural resource base thereby rendering agriculture unproductive and environmentally-unfriendly. Promoting such a system in India is sure to compound the existing agrarian crisis and lead to some unforeseen socio-economic problems.
Setting up a vision for a rural knowledge revolution is certainly not incorrect. But what is needed is a mission that takes advantage of the existing knowledge and wisdom in the rural areas and incorporate strategies that actually help mitigate the existing problems.
Change is not only desirable, but vital. But the time-tested technologies of the past cannot be confined to a dead museum. Take the case of the traditional water harvesting structures. These have been perfected with time, and have incorporated the wisdom of the people who lived in water scare situations. The need is to rebuild these structures, rather than to allow the water tankers mafia to ruin the remarkable traditional system.
History tells us that civilisations were nurtured along the rivers, the meandering rivers acting as a lifeline. At the same time the population in the cities drew its food requirements from the adjoining hinterland. The synergy between the cities or towns (call it urban) and the rural areas was therefore economically integrated. This has been gradually dismantled. Instead the entire effort is now to privatise the rivers and lakes, de-link it from the people who protected these water bodies. Similarly, the food supply of the mega cities and urban centres is now being passed into the hands of supermarkets. These highly subsidised retail malls are now moving into the villages.
Pushing the farmers and the rural populations into yet another alien ‘knowledge’ system is unlikely to meet Mahatma Gandhi’s dream of a gram swaraj. Mahatma Gandhi realised the strength of the villages and wanted these to be self-reliant. The tragedy is that those who design such massive networks in the name of poor and hungry have actually lost touch with the ground realities. The problems exists somewhere else and we come out with solutions that actually help the corporates garner more profits.
It is true that the ICT sector despite massive government funding has only generated not more than 600,000 jobs. In addition, the BPO industry employs some 200,000 people. This is not even a drop in the ocean looking at India’s huge crisis in job creation. We are aware that the ICT sector promises to create one million jobs by 2007. It is also a fact that the ICT industry can meet its own obligations from its own resources. The technology is certainly very useful and this writer is not opposed to technology interventions but what has to be immediately checked is the faulty emphasis in promoting the commercial interests of the hardware manufacturers in the name of creating rural livelihoods.
It is time to redefine the national priorities. It is time the government first understood the limitations of its own ‘knowledge’ in grasping the real problems and obstacle in rural development. Talking of steering a job-led growth for the ultra poor with the help of the ICT is like the four blind men trying to figure out the elephant. Jai Lal is one of the millions who constitute the ultra poor. Where is the technology intervention that can help create a livelihood or empower people like him and other under-privileged? And who cares as long as our own livelihood remains protected and is sustained by such glorious statements??
Poverty cannot be removed by providing the poor with mobile phones and knowledge-kiosks whereas hunger cannot be fought by setting up a nationwide network of ‘e-Choupals’. If we are honest in fighting hunger and squalor, let us begin by making an effort where it is needed. #
Devinder Sharma is an expert on food and trade policy and is based in New Delhi