Not all protests are necessarily a confrontation between the state and people like the one on the CAA and the NRC. A group of farmers in Maharashtra have chosen to register their protest against the government’s lax response to demands for genetically modified or GM crops as a celebration of freedom.
Six months ago, more than a thousand farmers from across Maharashtra, and a handful from Haryana, had gathered to witness the sowing of the unapproved genetically modified herbicide tolerant cotton (HTBt) crop by Lalit Patil Bahale in Akoli-Jahagir village in Akot taluka of Akola district on 10 June, 2019. This Sunday, under the auspices of Shetkari Sanghatana, a farmers’ union in Maharashtra, cotton farmers will exhibit the post-harvest success stories, and discuss the challenges they face, in Hiwari, a village in Yavatmal taluka.
Currently, Bt cotton forms the bulk of GM crops grown in India and remains the only GM crop approved by the government. The audacious act by farmer leader Bahale was nothing short of historic because it set off a mass disobedience movement among Maharashtra’s farmers. Farmers wanted to test the new variety of GM cotton themselves, on their own farms, at their own cost, and accepted the risks associated with planting any unauthorised product.
Vijay Niwal, a leader of the Sanghatana who had also sown HTBt cotton on his land in Hiwari, is now inviting other farmers in the celebration.
This audacious attempt by farmers to ask people to see for themselves the results of HTBt cotton crops can prove to be decisive in establishing that the demands of farmers are not uninformed.
GM crops have been vilified by many over the decades. The congregation on 5 January will also be an opportunity for GM technology critics to interact with farmers from across Maharashtra to hear their experiences and their perception of GM crops.
Cotton has been India’s most successful agriculture crop after the advent of the Green Revolution in the mid-1960s. With the arrival of Bt cotton in 2002, and particularly the second generation Bt cotton in 2006, India has emerged as the largest cotton producer and the second-largest exporter in the world.
However, weeding is a serious problem in agriculture, and it significantly increases the labour cost in cotton farms. HTBt cotton allows farmers to use certain herbicides that kill the unwanted weeds and grass in a cotton field without negatively affecting cotton plants. This approach significantly lowers the cost of growing cotton, which can eventually help Indian cotton become more competitive in the global market.
A government survey estimated that about 15 per cent of cotton grown in states like Maharashtra in 2017 was of the unapproved HTBt variety. While the media has reported on the survey, the government has chosen not to make the report public. It illustrates the desperation of farmers who have been surreptitiously sowing HTBt cotton over the past few years.
On the contrary, the last decade has seen HTBt cotton being legally grown in other countries. Today, it is estimated that 60 per cent of cotton grown in the world is HTBt. And yet, Indian farmers have been denied access to this new generation of GM cotton seeds.
Access to technology
Cotton is not the only GM crop available in India. Bt brinjal, another insect resistant GM variety that has been developed by an Indian company called Mahyco, is being commercially grown in Bangladesh since 2014. Although the Indian government had placed an indefinite moratorium in 2013. Scientists at Delhi University have developed GM mustard that allows hybridisation of a very popular oil seed, improving quality and productivity of mustard. The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee mysteriously put on hold its own decision to allow the commercialisation of GM mustard.
GM crops are being grown across the world in countries like the US, Mexico, Canada, Australia and many more, covering more than 190 million hectares, an area much larger than the total agricultural land in India.
The Kisan Satyagraha stands for the overall freedom of farmers, not just for those who may want to adopt GM crops but also for those who may prefer to go organic or adopt zero budget farming. The Sanghatana demands that farmers must have the freedom to choose the way they cultivate crops, what they sow, to whom and where they sell.
History repeats itself
Agriculture is the original ‘made in India’, yet the promises of the Modi government’s ‘Make in India’ do not touch agriculture. Agriculture is the largest private enterprise in the country, yet ‘Ease of Doing Business’ has nothing to say about agriculture. Agriculture employs the largest number of people in the country, yet programmes like ‘Skill India’ have nothing to offer farmers. The world once saw India as a basket case. Today, India is a significant exporter of agriculture produce, yet agriculture trade suffers from the most ad hoc, arbitrary and absurd government restrictions.
The government has become the largest hoarder of food grains, but Indian agriculture continues to lurch from one crisis to another, even as 40 per cent of children in India suffer from malnutrition.
Every aspect of agriculture in India has remained tied up in regulations. And the industrial sector has not been able to avoid the price of keeping agriculture in chains. India, the world’s largest cotton producer, has fallen behind Bangladesh in terms of manufacturing and export of garments.
It was 40 years ago, in 1979, when Sharad Joshi, the visionary farmers’ leader, established the Shetkari Sanghatana to demand freedom for farmers. He had successfully led the farmers’ movement in support of Bt cotton, which made the government approve the first GM crop in India in 2002.
The Kisan Satyagraha’s current jubilation and the event to mark the potential of HTBt cotton on 5 January reflects the spirit of those farmers who are defying all odds in India.
The author is an independent commentator with an interest in agriculture and land-related issues. Views are personal.