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Seeds of Change
T. NARAYAN
A healthy cotton plan
AGRICULTURE: HYBRID COTTON
Seeds Of Change
Maharashtra sounds clarion call on hybrid crop liability

Competition is tough in the seed market, which may explain why marketing gimmicks are often used to woo farmers. It’s tougher still for the farmers to get compensation when the claims fail and they are saddled with a bad or damaged crop. Sometimes the state government steps in to offer compensation or the farmers turn to the consumer court for relief. Typically, of course, the lack of compensation leads farmers deeper into debt.

In a departure from the norm, Maharashtra agriculture commissioner Umakant Dangat recently directed multinational seed major Bayer BioScience to pay 164 farmers in Dhule district Rs 44.8 lakh compensation for damage to their cotton crop in 2010. The culprit: bacterial blight (the plants had stunted growth and leaf damage, which affected the quality of the cotton bolls)—even though the labelling on the seed packet had assured a good yield and the ability to resist pest or disease attack.

“The company’s claim was that the crop would be less susceptible to pest and bacterial (alternaria leaf) blight disease, but our inquiry found it to be a false claim,” Dangat tells Outlook. Prakash Sangale, district superintendent agriculture officer, Dhule, says inspection of the fields showed bacterial blight had damaged between 40-70 per cent of the crops of the 164 farmers who had complained about the Bayer’s SurPass hybrid cottonseed. The total number of affected farmers was much higher, he claims. The average crop area of the affected farmers was one hectare.

Bayer’s representatives were part of the field inspection team and also participated in the three-tier appeal system provided under the Maharashtra Cottonseeds Act 2009. In its defence, Bayer officials had told the committee of experts, which included members from the agriculture university and the Central Institute for Cotton Research, Jalgaon, that the complaints pertain to only 500 farmers from one area though 45,000 seed packets of the hybrid variety had been sold. The implication being that no direct correlation could be established between the blight and the seeds.
As the farmers wait for compensation, Bayer has challenged the agriculture commissioner’s order in the high court. In an official statement to Outlook, Bayer said, “As per our investigations, the yields below expectations in a few pockets are due to combination of inadequate crop management and adverse environmental conditions. We are in the process of contesting the unjustifiable claims through a legal course.”


The team inspects the damaged crops

In another case in Madhya Pradesh, Bayer was ordered in December 2011 by the consumer court in Khargone district to pay Rs 3 crore to farmers whose cotton crops failed to deliver the promised yield, allegedly due to poor quality of seeds. Declining to comment on the Maharashtra order due to lack of information, agriculture scientist M.S. Swaminathan points out, “In the report on biotechnology, submitted in 2004, I had recommended that seed companies should give an insurance policy to farmers who buy their seeds. Unfortunately, this has not been implemented so far.”

It is rare for the farmers to get compensation directly from companies providing agriculture inputs like seeds. Whether it is the Rs 61 crore paid in 2010 for poor performance of hybrid maize in Bihar or the Rs 2,000 crore relief announced last year for cotton crop damage by Maharashtra, it’s generally the state government that picks up the tab. A notable exception is the compensation Mahyco was made to give in 2007 to farmers in Tamil Nadu.

“Seen together with the SC verdict last month recognising farmers’ rights as consumers, it is an important development outside the ambit of the Seeds Act 1966 wherein only seeds inspectors can initiate proceedings,” says Sudhir Panwar of the Kisan Jagriti Manch. Experts feel it’d be a fitting follow-up if other states heed the call and become voices of their farmers’ interests. But, farmers too need to fight unsubstantiated claims.

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