As farmers under the umbrella of the Shetkari Sangathana start their civil disobedience movement and start planting the banned Herbicide Tolerant (HT) GM seeds as well as Bt Brinjal, chances are the authorities will treat this as yet another law and order issue and will arrest them. Should this happen, it would be unfortunate as this is not a simple law and order issue.
Of course the farmers cannot be allowed to break the law, but it remains true that their protest is against an irrational and farmer-unfriendly policy of the government; more than anything else, it is yet another attempt to get the government to see sense and reverse its policies; indeed, given the prime minister’s avowed goal of doubling farmers’ incomes, the government’s programmes make even less sense.
The benefits of Bt Cotton in terms of both increasing yields as well as farmer profits are well known, and that is why almost all the cotton acreage in the country is based on Bt Cotton; and as a result of the surge in productivity, India is today one of the world’s largest exporter of cotton.
Despite this, however, at the prodding of a few seed firms in Andhra Pradesh and perhaps the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, the government got after Monsanto, the primary supplier of GM technology seeds in the country. First, a price cap was put on Bt cotton seed prices even though it is not clear which farmer group was protesting about the prices being too high; had this been the case, all farmers wouldn’t have embraced the technology as they have.
After this, an attempt was made to put a cap on Monsanto’s royalties and, for good measure, the Additional Solicitor General Tushar Mehta even explained to the court, in a case where the government was not even a party, that the patent issued to Monsanto by India’s Patent Office was illegal! And while this behaviour led Monsanto to abandon its plans to bring in the next level of technology involving HT seeds, it was found that farmers had embraced this technology — albeit illegally — in a big way and that 15-20% of the seeds sold are illegal HT seeds.
While the government’s seed price control order has further reduced the price of Monsanto seeds, farmers are paying much higher prices of Rs 1,200-1,500 per bag of these seeds since they are found to be more beneficial. Interestingly, while the government was first investigating Monsanto for bringing in the illegal seeds, a government panel has opined that it was local seed firms who were responsible for this.
In the case of Bt Brinjal, similarly, it remains true that all tests were conducted in the country over seven years, after which the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) approved it as fit for human use. With several NGOs and others protesting, the UPA’s environment minister Jairam Ramesh decided not to give the final go-ahead.
Meanwhile neighbouring countries like Bangladesh have given approval and are cultivating Bt Brinjal. While the government is within its rights to arrest Shetkari Sangathana farmers for breaking the law — they will then have to arrest thousands of farmers who are using HT seeds already — surely it owes the country an explanation for why its policies are so anti-farmer?