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Revolution in the Indian Countryside
Published on Thursday, May 4, 2006 by
Revolution in the Indian Countryside
by Anuradha Mittal

George W. Bush's three-day visit to India in the first week of March 2006 was not just about the U.S.-India nuclear deal. It was also about an agreement on farm research and education, foundation for which was laid in November 2005, following Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to the U.S.

Known as the India-U.S. Knowledge Initiative on Agricultural Education, Research, Services and Commercial Linkages, the agreement is about the U.S. and India conducting joint research in transgenic crops, animals, and fisheries over a period of three years. Andy Mukherjee, a columnist for Bloomerberg.Com enthusiastically announced, "If the nuclear deal promises relief for India's power- starved industrial sector, the agricultural agreement has the potential to transform the nation's poverty-ridden countryside. The economics are simply unbeatable." Citing the success of Bt cotton in India, he states, "cotton production has been transformed since Monsanto was allowed to sell its GM cotton seeds to farmers in 2002."

Indeed, Bt cotton has transformed both the cotton production and lives of farmers in India.

The Unbeatable Economics of Genetic Engineering: A Harvest of Suicides

While the Indian government was busy opening its vast network of public sector agricultural research institutes to U.S. private companies, the first nine days of March 2006 were marked with 25 farmers taking their own life in Maharashtra's cotton growing district of Vidarbha. By April 14, 2006, an estimated 443 farmers in the region had committed suicide to escape indebtedness since the start of the agriculture season on June 2, 2005.

What is driving this harvest of suicides?

Last December, Jaideep Hardikar a journalist with India Together reported on the suicide of Ramesh Rathod in the village of Bondgavhan, Vidarbha. He had purchased Bollgard brand MECH 162 variety from companies with commercial license from Mahyco/Monsanto for Rs. 1800 ($36) per 450 grams, compared with the 450 rupees ($9) that farmers pay for non-Bt seeds. The official price for Bt cotton is Rs. 1600 ($30), but the local inputs dealer charged an additional Rs. 200 since Ramesh bought it on credit.

Ramesh's hopes were dashed when his Bt cotton crops had a severe pest attack and the leaves of his cotton plants turned red before drying up. After having spent a lot of money on inputs and the yield destroyed irreparably, he was in no position to pay back the loans he had taken. With no option left, he opted for death by consuming pesticide. Left behind to pay back the debt and shoulder the responsibility of a family including a young son and a daughter, Ramesh's grieving widow, Dharmibai used Endosulphane and Tracer - two costly pesticides - against the bollworm pest, but the three acres of land did not even yield three quintals of cotton.

More recently AFP reported the suicide of 34 - year old Indian cotton farmer Chandrakant Gurenule from Yavatmal. He too had bought the genetically-modified cotton seeds for his 15-acre (six-hectare) farm, only to watch his crops fail for two successive years. When there was no hope left, despite him selling off the pair of bullocks he used to plough the fields, and pawning his wife's wedding jewelry, he doused himself in kerosene and lit a match on April 1, 2006.

It is estimated that more than 4,100 farmers committed suicide in the western state of Maharashtra in 2004. Increasing cost of production along with sliding global prices and dumping of cheap subsidized cotton from outside the country has been compounded by failure of Bt seeds. Devastated by bollworm pest, Bt crops have been attacked by "Lalya" or "reddening" as well, a disease unseen before which affected Bt more than the non-Bt cotton crop, resulting in 60 percent of farmers in Maharashtra failing to recover costs from their first GM harvest. Some studies show that farmers are spending Rs. 6,813 ($136.26) per acre compared to Rs. 580 ($11.6) on non-Bt cotton since GE cotton requires more supplemental insecticide sprays. It is this failure of the Bt cotton that resulted in Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) of India banning Mech 12, Mech 184, and Mech 162 varieties in Andhra Pradesh while Mech 12 was banned all over Southern India.

India-U.S. Knowledge Initiative: In Who's Interest?

At the first board meeting of the Knowledge Initiative in Washington D.C. in December 2005, representatives from both the Wal-Mart food chain and Monsanto Seed Corporation were present as key stakeholders in the agreement, a clear indication as to what lies ahead: Indian Agricultural Universities and Krishi Vigyan Kendras (Agricultural Research Centers), instead of catering to the needs of poor farmers, will now be promoting the interests of GE giant Monsanto and Wal- Mart.

Then there is the fear of biopiracy with U.S. multinationals having free access to India's genetic resources. The agreement might set the American model in place where following the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, even publicly funded research in U.S. universities and institutes is patented and licensed out for commercial development to companies such as Monsanto.

Not surprisingly then, the weekly newsletter of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) wrote in protest, "Today's gene revolution depends almost entirely on private domain science. If we harness Indian scientific research to the U.S., then it is allowing the complete dominance of companies such as Monsanto on Indian agriculture. By Patenting and Branding Seeds, they will openly exploit Indian agriculture. India will be coerced into production of raw materials for the American MNCs and in turn these multinationals will sell their branded end products through misleading advertisements and catchy slogans, labeling their products efficacious, hygienic and safe from health point of view."

Krishna Bir Chaudhary, leader of Bharat Krishak Samaj, a farmers' organization in India in an opinion editorial wrote, "The Indo-U.S. agreement on agriculture will cast a demonizing spell over the country and is bound to cause large-scale plunder of the agro-society and definitely tend to capitalize on our living, life pattern, culture and social norms. Already much maligned, misconceived and utterly irrelevant second green revolution is a clever ploy to promote the interest of America and other Multi National Corporation's (MNCs)."

Revolutionizing Profits of Agribusiness

Celebrating the accord, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said, " Our first Green Revolution benefited in substantial measure from assistance provided by the U.S. We are hopeful that the Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture will become the harbinger of a second green revolution in our country."

It was the U.S. initiative that brought the Green Revolution and its "miracle" wheat seeds to India four decades ago. Fueled by large doses of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, manufactured by the U.S. corporations, the Green Revolution put the Indian farmer on the treadmill of imported seeds and chemical inputs. Now with the revolution at a dead end, with pests resistant to pesticides and fields choked with chemicals, the U.S. is offering India the revolution of Genetic Engineering.

To add to the destitution in the countryside, the Indian government has decided to liberalize agricultural sector. For instance, despite the increase in wheat production this year to beat 73.1 million tons, which is more than sufficient to meet domestic needs, the Indian government decided to import 500,000 tons of wheat from AWB Ltd., an Australian public sector company, that has been investigated for alleged payment of $290 million kickback to the Saddam regime in Iraq for supply of wheat. Citing "rising domestic prices due to shortage" as a pretext for imports, India is buying wheat at a higher price of $178.75 a ton from AWB, when the Australian exporters have sold wheat in the global market at $131 per ton.

Price of wheat did increase, particularly in the South, in January and February 2006, but it was a result of artificial shortage. As Ashok Sharma, a journalist with India's Financial Express explains in his Farm Column, "Last year wheat output was 72 million tons but the government agencies procured about 18 million tons while the private trade procured and stocked a substantial amount. With liberalization of the economy, the government removed all restrictions on the stocking limit. The result is that the private trade is now in a position to stock any amount and manipulate market prices. It is a shame that the government, instead of re-imposing stocking limits, is citing the need for imports on the pretext of shortageŠ Wheat can be transported through railways in bulk in silos at a cheaper cost. The food ministry could pay the amount out of the earmarked subsidy to another government department - railways - for transportation. It is just an adjustment of the accounts within the government without involving any extra cost."

Instead, at the recommendation of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Indian government has decided to import an additional three million tons. Abdicating its responsibility to the farmers, the Indian government is not willing to pay them more than Rs. 7,000 ($120) per ton while it is prepared to import wheat, the cost of which including handling and transportation would amount to Rs. 10,000 ($200) a ton.

The Way Out

With India home to 50 percent of the world's hungry and two thirds of its population depending on agriculture for its livelihood, the Indian countryside does need a revolution.

This revolution, however, will look very different from the one envisaged by the India-U.S. Knowledge Initiative or opening up of markets. Based on the principle of food sovereignty, this revolution will recognize "the right of peoples to define their own food and agriculture and to protect and regulate domestic agricultural production and trade in order to achieve sustainable development objectives."

This revolution would entail:

- Prioritizing local, regional and national needs and protecting local and national markets of basic food stuffs to give priority to the products of local farmers;

- Promoting and enforcing farmer's rights including access and ownership of commons including land, water and seeds;

- Promoting sustainable peasant agriculture;

- Promoting the formulation of trade policies and practices that serve the rights of peoples to safe, healthy and ecologically sustainable production;

- And, recognizing food sovereignty as a human right.

India is the already the third largest producer of food in the world - world's largest producer of milk, second largest producer of rice, wheat, sugar, fruits and vegetables, and the third largest producer of cotton, to mention a few. Looking at the economics of it all, genetic engineering and Bt cotton will not revolutionize India's countryside, help increase production, or help feed over 350 million of its people who live on less than $1 a day, but a new farm economy as the centerpiece of the country's economic development model will.

Anuradha Mittal is the executive director of the Oakland Institute, a policy think whose mission is to increase public participation and promote fair debate on critical social, economic and environmental issues in both national and international forums.


1. A. Mukherjee, "Biotech Can Transform India's Countryside." March 9, 2006, Bloomberg.Com
2. A. Sharma, "Wheat Imports Undermine India's Position in WTO." Farm Front Column, April 24, 2006, Financial Express
3. India-US. Bilateral Documents. March 2, 2006, Jansamachar.Net⟨=English
4. "India Throws Open Farm Research Sector to U.S. Companies." November 11, 2005, Domanin-b.Com
5. "GM Crops, Animals High on Agri Pact." March 3, 2006, Financial Express 119301
6. "More to India-US Tango Than Just N-deal." February 27, 2006, Rediff.Com
7. "India-US to Work for 'Evergreen Revolution." March 2, 2006, OutlookIndia.Com
8. J. Hardikar, "350, and Counting." Cotton Farming Crisis, March 11, 2006, India Together.
9. "Farmer Suicide on Rise as India's Rural Crisis Deepens." April 22, 2006, Yahoo News
10. J. Hardikar, "Vidarbha 2004: A Suicides Diary." January 8, 2006, India Together
11. S. Roy, "Slash And Burn: Sow Tons of Debt, and it's a Bumper Harvest for the Grim Reaper."
12. "People's Food Sovereignty is a Right." The Agriculture Trade Network


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