Nitish has edge in agrarian crisis
by Sandhya Jain on 07 Apr 2015 17 Comments

Inclement weather has wreaked havoc on the winter harvest in large parts of northern India, aggravating rural indebtedness, triggering farmer suicides, and ending the period of quiescence that follows the ascent of a new regime. Prime Minister Narendra Modi acknowledged as much when he dwelt on farmers’ issues at the Bengaluru rally and national executive meeting, even as party president Amit Shah shrugged aside the Delhi defeat and signalled a focus on Bihar, where elections are due in November.


The agrarian crisis highlights the fact that most of India is rural, and depends upon seasonal harvests. This is especially true of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, which the BJP hopes to win to consolidate its rule. The rains, missteps over the land acquisition Bill, loose talk by members of the Bharatiya Janata Party-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-Vishva Hindu Parishad, and a united Opposition have turned a potential walkover into an uphill task.


The Bihar Chief Minister holds an ace that could stump Mr Modi in the agrarian sweepstakes. As Chief Minister in March 2011, Nitish Kumar objected to field trials of genetically modified maize taking place in Bihar without informing his government or getting clearance from the Union Ministry of Agriculture. He held a multinational seed corporation, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research and the Union Environment Ministry’s Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee responsible. This shows the extent to which the ‘GM lobby’ has infiltrated key institutions in an area that impacts the health of people, cattle, and the environment.


Mr Kumar protested that ICAR’s experimental farms did not keep the mandatory ‘isolation distance,’ exposing other fields to contamination. Then Union Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh ordered the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee to stop the trials and placed an official moratorium on trials once he understood the dangers.


The GM controversy can tarnish Mr Modi’s image as a pro-poor, pro-farmer leader. Without urgent remedial measures, as in the case of health warnings on tobacco products, the Opposition campaign in rural areas could turn into personal calumny against the Prime Minister as ‘pro-multinational’ and anti-farmer. The Left has studied the work of Western scientists and environmentalists on this subject; Left-leaning activists organise the grassroots resistance to GM seeds; they can go ballistic in fifth gear at a moment’s notice.


Informed public opinion across the country opposes genetically modified organisms. Farmers and citizens are aware of the ills of the pesticide-fertiliser-laced ‘green revolution’, which have never been scientifically studied. Yet a cursory look shows the ruination of once fertile soils, pollution of ground water, and the rise in incidence of various diseases. In America, a recent study found that antibiotics in cattle feed have created antibiotic-resistant bacteria (superbugs) that are spreading to humans via air, water and meat. GMOs cause superbugs, superweeds and environmental pollution; a new ‘mad cow’ disease could be in the offing. This is why there is growing enthusiasm for organic foods, yoga and ayurveda. The haste with which the GEAC approved and the Centre defended open field trials has dented the regime’s credibility.


Maharashtra has approved field trials of GM rice, corn, chickpea and cotton. Prof KP Prabhakaran Nair, chairman of the Supreme Court appointed Independent Expert Committee on BT brinjal, finds approval for GM Rice disturbing. Oryza sativa var. Indica is indigenous and according to internationally accepted norms, a plant type which has its origin in a specific region must not be tampered with genetic modification, to protect the genetic stock. This is why Mexico resists GM maize as maize has its origin in the Andean region.


The lived experience of communities shows the value of heirloom (traditional) seeds. Super cyclone ‘Aila’ hit eastern India in May 2009 and destroyed thousands of hectares of rice. Some traditional farmers sowed three salt-tolerant rice varieties and they alone had harvests the following winter; all imported cross-bred “high yielding” varieties went bust. The native varieties are preserved by Dr Debal Deb in a tiny hut in Rayagada, Odisha; but despite heroic efforts by some committed scientists, much of India’s rare rice gene bank has been stolen by the West.


Environmentalist Claude Alvares was the first to warn against attempts to control India’s rice varieties by private western foundations [The Great Gene Robbery, The Illustrated Weekly of India, 1986]. He pointed out that though America is hardly a rice eating nation, it sought to control rice research in Asia. The Rockefeller and Ford Foundations set up the International Rice Research Institute in The Philippines in 1960. Today, research concerning the two major cereals in our diet – wheat and rice – is wholly directed and controlled by institutions under American control. Earl Butz, a former US Secretary of Agriculture, said, “If food can be used as a weapon we would be happy to use it”.


India has the largest collection of rice varieties (once around 1,20,000), which are adapted to different environments. America needed access to these germplasm genes to build resistance in the IRRI High Yielding Varieties seeds which had all fallen to pest epidemics. India’s disastrous harvests of 1965 and 1966 helped IRRI achieve its goal, in the process ruining the career of illustrious scientist RH Richharia, even seizing his notebooks. Later, when Dr Richharia was appointed as agricultural adviser in Madhya Pradesh and tasked with setting up a rice research institute at Raipur, he managed to preserve over 19,000 varieties of rice in situ, the greatest living gene bank in the world. IRRI tried to access his stock and when refused, succeeded in getting the institute shut down!


Such are the forces Mr Modi must tackle to save the native farmer and India’s genetic heritage. IRRI itself admitted the value of traditional varieties after genetic erosion caused by its seeds destroyed hundreds of varieties. In The Philippines, farmers junked the ‘seeds of imperialism’ by exchanging old varieties with each other. In India, the small farmsteads are highly vulnerable to genetic contamination which can kill biodiversity, with untold consequences.


At Bengaluru, the Prime Minister lauded moves by some states to ban cow slaughter as a benefit to farmers. But the promise of his election campaign was to cattle; excluding the hardworking and productive buffalo from protection has disappointed farmers in large parts of the nation, besides giving the issue an avoidable communal tinge. However, Prime Minister Modi is adept at recovering lost ground. At Bengaluru, he announced a major campaign to give land to farmers by reforming land records. This is something farmers will look forward to, particularly after the current devastation.

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