Parliamentary Standing Committee on Genetically Modified truths
The report tabled by the all party Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture in the Parliament on 9th August 2012 titled “Cultivation of Genetically Modified Food Crops – Prospects and Effects” is unanimous and superb and I recommend that you read it. This post is about the Parliamentary Standing Committee’s visit to Vidarbha – famous for cotton farming and farmer suicides and valiant efforts of the oh-so-caring Maharashtra Government to deny them voice. Maharashtra government still tried to take credit for the visit they did everything to prevent. Brazen.
The all party Parliamentary Standing Committee for Agriculture scheduled a visit to the villages Maregaon and Bhambraja (Mosanto’s model village as per Times of India) on the insistence of Kishore Tiwari and others of the Vidarbha Janandolan Samiti. Plans were in place; details and timings had been discussed, but Maharashtra is the unbeaten farmer suicide champ for five years running. That kind of “success” doesn’t come from letting farmers get attention! On the day of the visit, the Government of Maharashtra conspired to (no other word for this) con the Committee into a token visit with “progressive farmers”, described as “bigger farmers with irrigated lands” and “input dealers and traders” (sold things needed for farming – seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, etc).
The Committee was at the Circuit House near Panderkauda – a small cotton trading town about five kilometers from Maregaon when farmer activists who would have none of the sham were able to get word across to the Committee through rural reporter P. Sainath, who was expecting them in Maregaon, who in turn was able to get through to Basudeb Acharia on phone. Minister Basudeb Acharia was superb. He stood up and declared that he would go to the affected villages on the original plan – alone if need be – and told everyone to join him there.
Attempts to dissuade failed, they discovered that time was short to go to both villages, as a meeting at 4:30pm was rescheduled to start at 2:30pm and they wouldn’t be able to go the 170km to Bhambraja and return on time. Dr. Sudhir Kumar Goel, principal secretary for agriculture in Maharashtra was in charge of the visit and stage managing this farce. They decided to go to Maregao, which was 5km from there. The Maharashtra MLAs did not go, but the entire Parliamentary Committee did. Every single one of them. [I have drawn my own conclusions here.]
Some two thousand people crowded to meet them in spite of a police cordon under the auspices of Maharashtra government to prevent more people from more villages coming in. The state sold a dream of prosperity to these people and continued to promote it in the face of devastation it wreaked. Sharad Pawar had toured the region promoting genetically modified cotton. Government agencies and colleges like Dr. Panjabrao Deshmukh Krishi Vidyapeeth in Akola and Central Institute of Cotton Research (CICR) had promoted GM seed crop. While traditional crops resulted in seeds for future sowing, a culture of profit had been built along with the Green Revolution of recommending new purchases of seeds every year. Newer varieties would be designed to not be viable if farmers tried to sow seeds from the crop. Terminator technology to protect patents.
It was a conspiracy and a monopoly. Pre-Bt hybrid seeds sold for around Rs. 300-350 per packet of 450g. Bt at its worst (before the AP govt initiated legal action against Mahyco-Monsanto) sold at Rs. 1650-1800 per packet of 450 grams (which would mean around Rs. 3500-400 per kg. Pre-Bt hybrids would this have been around Rs. 700 per kg. Additional needs in fertilizers and “micro-nutrients” drove cultivation costs up. The government scale of finance went from Rs.5.000/- to Rs.25,000/- per acre.
GM cotton needs a lot of water, and is less tolerant of shortage. During the same duration, mismanagement and scams brought irrigated land down from 8% to 6%. The difference between the success stories being peddled and the devastation is irrigation. Irrigated land performs fine in Vidarbha too. However, with 90% of the land under dryland farming: No rain = No cotton. Die, farmer, die. 65 years post independence, we haven’t figured out irrigation, but we are planning a mission to Mars.
When the crop succeeded, the main chunk of the harvest was to repay loans. When the crops failed… a far greater investment than before was lost. Taking the cash out of cash crops. There has been a rise in illnesses in the village since 2005, devastating finances further. Chicken gunia, leukemia and renal failure count among serious ones. GM crops may not be the cause, but timings matched and it needed urgent investigation.
This was the sea of desperation waiting for the Parliamentary Committee. And boy, did they listen! Faced with the outpouring of stories, the Committee, one and all, were magnificent and opened their hearts and ears and listened with patience and attention. Many of them from farming backgrounds themselves, they were able to understand what the farmers were going through as well as were not taken in by the Maharashtra Government’s efforts to mislead them. To quote Sainath, “They asked the right questions, listened to the right people and behaved like true leaders and parlimentarians”. And for once, “behaving like a true parliamentarian” was not an insult.
Let us get this straight. MPs of *All parties* together at same place, listening to the the aam janata? It happened in such an elegant and caring way that it had gratitude ringing in the words describing it. Who would have thunk it? I am still shaking my head in disbelief.
New farmers slipped past the police cordon and disrupted the meeting. They had discovered that the Committee had canceled the plan of visiting Bhambraja, their village. They refused to let the meeting continue till the committee agreed to visit them. As the leader of the Committee, Basudeb Acharia again rose to the occasion. Pointing out that all the members need not be present for the miraculously preponed meeting, he proposed that a few MPs go to Bhambraja while the others continue to the meeting and both groups fill each other in on what was missed. Congress National Spokesperson Satyavrat Chaturvedi led a small group of four MPs to Bhambraja.
Here died the myth of the model village. 14 widows of farmers who committed suicide met the MPs where farmer suicides were denied. “Prosperity”, “production” and other fairy tales were laid to rest and relentless debunking happened. The report stands testament of how much was spoken and heard. Two MPs from BJP and JD(U) with strong farming ties, touched the villagers with their empathy, though Kishore Tiwari forgot names. The extend of apathy towards farmers lay exposed. One revelation I found bizarre and infuriating was motors for irrigating fields given as part of relief measures to reduce their distress. Had they received them? Yes, and the motors were rotting in their homes for five years, without electricity connections being allocated. #Facepalm doesn’t begin to cover things like this.
A third of the village had left their fields fallow. The soil was barren. The villagers had no idea of the Times of India story. A few prosperous villagers had been taken to a large, lush green irrigated farm belonging to a distributor in Beed and their photographs had been clicked there as visuals of their prosperity. Their incomes from other sources – were passed off as prosperity from BtCotton. Money lenders were not being chased out of villages but Monsanto representatives. Feeble attempts at euphemizing losses by Monsanto representatives were shredded by villagers.
In the end, the MPs verified what they had understood. They asked the villagers to confirm that they had been heard right. And, with minor corrections and additions, they had. They had heard, and they had noted and that is the reason why you should take time to read this report.
The villagers had wanted a ban on Bt Cotton. 12 varities of Bt cotton from Mahyco seeds were banned by the government of Maharashtra – as Mahyco’s licence to sell them was withdrawn. This was not done, though on the basis of ani-Bt action, but on the grounds of serious irregularities Mahyco has been charged with by the government. Other rabbits from that hat are in normal business and a new rabbit called Krishidaan from the same hat is trying to take over the seed market with maybe a helpful nudge from this token ban, unless, of course, Mahyco “cleans up” their act. Not to be ruled out. “Miracles” are a dime a dozen here. The Maharashtra government takes its lead position on farmer suicides seriously.
I value about this visit the robust and life affirming view of our parliamentarians. That too, politicians from *all* political parties AND working with each other, unanimous in the interest of the aam aadmi. Politicians with roots in the soil, who understand the concerns of the farmer. This report with its no nonsense attitude and research oriented approach, as well as these stories of leaders with a heart give me hope that we may make something useful out of ourselves yet.
Standing ovation to Minister Basudeb Acharia and the ALL PARTY Parliamentary Standing Committee for their magnificent report “Cultivation of Genetically Modified Food Crops – Prospects and Effects” [please read] and listening with such caring! Bravo!