Activists have demanded a Seed Liability Bill, along the lines of the Nuclear Liability Bill, reports Bhavdeep Kang
Union Agriculture minister Sharad Pawar’s made a last-ditch effort to win support for his controversial Seed Bill, 2010 by calling an all-party meeting in Parliament earlier this week. He was candid about the fact that this legislation tops his “must do” list. But the Opposition — supported by a section of the Congress—weren’t having any of it.
“The proposed bill is not only anti-farmer but also brazenly favours multinationals in the garb of higher productivity. Any attempt to pass the bill in its present form will irrevocably damage Indian agriculture” Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar had told Pawar. Members of Parliament from across the board had endorsed his stand, saying seed was the most critical and basic input for agriculture. They cautioned the Government against undermining India’s “seed security”.
As the MPs wrangled inside Parliament on Wednesday August 3, farmers’ organisations staged a protest outside. They gave five good reasons for opposing the Bill, which is intended to regulate the 1.5 billion dollar commercial seed sector in the country, but is riddled with holes:
• No seed price control mechanism
• Token liability in case of spurious or sub-standard seeds
• No adequate protection against bio-piracy of farmers’ varieties; threatens India’s bio-diversity
• Loophole allowing registration of transgenic seeds; provision for re-registration may lead to monopolies
• No adequate phytosanitary curbs on seed imports
The first and most obvious lacuna is the lack of a price control mechanism. Seed companies are free to charge whatever they deem fit. Tomato seeds, for instance, cost anything from Rs 475 to Rs 75,000 per kg. Unlike farmers’ varieties, commercial hybrid seeds cannot be saved; they do not breed true and must be purchased every season.
When seed prices go up, the farmers’ input costs naturally increase and he passes the burden on to the consumer. In an already inflationary scenario, the Seed legislation will push up food prices. A proposal has been made for including seeds in the Essential Commodities Act, so that states can regulate seed price, but Pawar has yet to respond.
If these expensive commercial seeds fail, the farmer stands to lose his entire crop. If, as is very often the case, he is a tenant or his land is mortgaged or he is deep in debt, he may lose his livelihood as well. When this happens on a large scale (as in Bihar with Monsanto’s ‘Kargil 900 M’ maize crop cultivated over 1.4 lakh hectares), food production suffers, necessitating imports. The country’s food self-sufficiency is undermined.
Activists have demanded a Seed Liability Bill, along the lines of the Nuclear Liability Bill, to ensure exemplary damages and criminal as well as civil liability for spurious/sub-standard seeds which fail to germinate or grow properly. Last year, it was the Bihar government which had to step in and pay Rs 61 crore in compensation to farmers when yet another maize crop, produced form private hybrid seeds, failed.
The third lacuna has to do with controlling theft, pure and simple. Monsanto has been accused of basing many of its products on traditional varieties of seeds (after tweaking them in the laboratory). As the term “farmers’” varieties implies, these varieties have been developed over generations by practicing farmers, who selected and bred them for high yields and disease, pest and drought resistance.
Prakash Singh Raghuvanshi, a Varanasi-based farmer and plant breeder who won a Presidential award for developing high-yielding cultivars of wheat, paddy, pulses and vegetables, says, “Wherever I have distributed my ‘Kudrat’ seeds, Monsanto’s sales have suffered. It is my fear that they will now adopt my varieties as their own. So I have decided to get them registered, but this does not offer much protection”.
Nor does the Bill recognise the threat to India’s bio-diversity. The thousands of desi or indigenous varieties of seeds are disappearing under the assault of commercial hybrids, as farmers are beguiled into adopting “new improved” seeds in place of their own. In most Indian households desi cereals and pulses are preferred over hybrid varieties, apparently because of superior taste and flavour. But these are already getting hard to access.
The fourth caveat has to do with the registration mechanism. Farmers say that to prevent bio-piracy, the parental lines of the variety from which the seed is derived should be minutely detailed before granting registration. The Bill is not clear whether registration is exclusive, or whether two people can register the same variety. It allows registration of seeds for an initial ten years, extendable to 20. If, as is likely, the registration is exclusive, it amounts to a virtual monopoly.
The Bill also allows registration of transgenic seeds, although existing legislation forbids commercialisation of genetically modified plant materials without trials. There are fears that this may constitute a kind of backdoor entry. Even farmers see this as Monsanto’s input in the Bill – in a cheeky comment on the relentless promotion GM seeds by US multinationals, a popular brand of Bt Cotton seeds in MP has been dubbed “Obama”.
The fifth problem with the Bill is that it allows import of seeds without adequate safeguards. Weeds and diseases enter India through these seeds and then simply cannot be eradicated. The ubiquitous Videshi Babool and Congress grass which have colonised India are cases in point.
Nitish Kumar’s other crib – and this is supported by some of his fellow chief ministers – is that since agriculture is a state subject, state governments should have a say in choosing seeds and fixing royalties.
Currently, the commercial seed market has only a one-quarter share in the total seeds planted in the country, but this is growing by over 12 per cent annually. The steady inroads of big seed companies into Indian agriculture have raised red flags among green lobbies, underscoring the need for protection of farmers’ and consumers’ interests. This the Seed Bill fails to do.
Bhavdeep Kang is an independent journalist writing on agriculture and food policy