An Act in haste

Published : Oct 09, 2009 00:00 IST

Sowing paddy seeds for the samba crop in Thanjavur district, Tamil Nadu. Preventing farmers from providing advice to fellow agriculturists amounts to attacking their fundamental rights.-M. SRINATH

Sowing paddy seeds for the samba crop in Thanjavur district, Tamil Nadu. Preventing farmers from providing advice to fellow agriculturists amounts to attacking their fundamental rights.-M. SRINATH

THE Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government has beaten a hasty retreat from implementing the Tamil Nadu State Agricultural Council Act, 2009, which was aimed at regulating the farm practice and establishing an agricultural council, in the face of stiff resistance from farmers associations, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), organic farmers, agricultural experts and environmentalists. The State Assembly passed the Bill on July 21.

Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi announced on September 10 that the government, which is keen on protecting traditional farming, had decided to keep in abeyance the notification of the Act, respecting the views of the farming community and the press. He also claimed that the Bill, drafted on the basis of the recommendations of agricultural experts, was passed unanimously. But leaders of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI(M), have challenged his claim. They recall their legislators registering opposition during the brief debate.

Leaders of various farmers associations point out that the Agricultural Council Bill, along with 29 other Bills, was rushed through in the Assembly on the last day of the Budget session, offering little scope for debate. This, however, did not prevent them from holding a purposeful debate in different fora across the State.

Dubbing the Act as draconian, leaders of farmers associations say Tamil Nadu is the only State in the country to have enacted such a law. Though the governments decision to shelve it has provided the farmers some respite, they feel that it hangs over their head like the sword of Damocles.

Their objections to the Act stem from apprehensions that it would create a situation in which the traditional wisdom of farmers would be curbed and organic farming discouraged, that multinational corporations (MNCs) would tighten their hold on the farm sector, that agriculturists would be deprived of their rights, and that agriculture would become subservient to agri-business.

The Statement of Objects and Reasons of the Bill moved in the Assembly by Veerapandi S. Arumugam, Minister for Agriculture, on June 23 said, At present there is no law to provide for the regulation of agricultural practice in Tamil Nadu. It has, therefore, been considered necessary to regulate the agricultural practice and for the registration of agricultural practitioners in the State and to establish a council called the Tamil Nadu Agricultural Council.

The council, it said, would consist of twenty members to be elected from among themselves by persons whose names have been entered in the register [Tamil Nadu State Agricultural Practitioners Register] and five senior faculty members one each representing the faculty of agriculture, horticulture, forestry, agricultural engineering and home science to be nominated by the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (TNAU). The council would also comprise two qualified members of the Agriculture Department, one member each of the Horticulture and Agricultural Engineering Departments and a leading agricultural entrepreneur preferably with agricultural qualification. All of them will be nominated by the government. The register should contain the names of all persons who possessed agricultural qualification, it added.

The Act outlined the privileges of the registered agricultural practitioners thus: Rendering agricultural services to crop husbandry, pre-harvest technology, seed technology, soil testing, water testing, prescription for fertilizer, plant growth regulators, weedicides and plant protection materials, post-harvest technology, seed production technology and agricultural bio-technology.

These practitioners would prepare agricultural projects for private or public sector enterprises and sign or authenticate the projects, besides issuing valuation certificates.

They are authorised to organise and run agricultural clinics and laboratories to help farmers in assessing soil and water qualities and the quantity of organic manurial substances and fertilizers, identifying pests and crop diseases and prescribing remedies, formulating and helping in the implementation of cropping programmes suited to different soil conditions and agro-climatic factors, adopting hi-tech farming systems in kitchen gardening, floriculture and in the development of perennial plantations.

There is a view that the government came up with the idea of forming the council in order to provide employment to a large number of graduates produced by the TNAU, the University of Madras and Annamalai University.

Farmers associations say that they are not opposed to the setting up of a council for agricultural graduates on the lines of professional bodies for medical personnel and veterinarians. But Clause 29 of Chapter IV of the Act says, No person other than a person whose name is borne on the register shall practice as agricultural consultant within the State of Tamil Nadu or render agricultural services.

It goes a step ahead in Chapter V, If any person (a) not being a person registered in the register makes or uses the description as agricultural practitioner or not possessing an agricultural qualification, uses a degree or an abbreviation indicating or implying such qualification, he shall be punishable on first conviction with fine which may extend to rupees five thousand, and on any subsequent conviction with imprisonment, which may extend to six months, or with fine not exceeding rupees ten thousand or with both... . No court shall take cognisance of any offence punishable under this Act, except upon complaint made by an order of the government or the council.

M.S. Swaminathan, eminent agricultural scientist, says that there is nothing wrong in recognising farm graduates as registered practitioners. But at the same time, there are others in the community, including farmers, who have a long experience. No law should prohibit farmer-to-farmer learning. As recognised by the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers Rights Act, 2001, they should be respected as breeders and conservers, he says. An ounce of practice is worth tonnes of the theory. Farmers have great wisdom from experience and not just knowledge. Farmer-to-farmer learning is the most effective learning. We are a free country where land is individually owned and it is not owned by the government. Agriculture is the largest private sector enterprise in our country, as over 60 per cent of the people are in agriculture, Swaminathan points out.

According to him, the government has enacted the law probably to accord some recognition to farm graduates so that they remain in farming and take up activities in this sector instead of migrating to other sectors. The other purpose of the Act may be to ensure that farmers get proper advice from qualified people. It is also aimed at facilitating a large number of young people in the villages to take up self-employment, he says.

Swaminathan suggests an amendment to Clause 29 of Chapter IV of the Act, which prohibits non-graduates to practise as agricultural consultants. He urges the government to clear all ambiguities when developing Rules for the Acts implementation to ensure that nothing will come in the way of farmers adopting organic farming or any other method and farmers serving as advisers to fellow farmers. Steps are needed to ensure that they get the best possible advice from successful farmers, as the present extension service is not in good shape, he says.

Even the National Commission on Farmers had recommended that the government should establish hostels near the fields of successful farmers so that others can go and stay there for a week and learn from their experience, he recalls.

K. Balakrishnan, general secretary of the Tamil Nadu Vivasayigal Sangam and CPI(M) leader, feels that the Act would only facilitate consolidation and expansion of MNCs monopoly over the food and agricultural sectors in the context of the State government pursuing policies to attract foreign investments in industrial and agricultural sectors. MNCs would get a free hand to alter farming methods and cropping patterns to suit their requirements, he says and points out that around 82 per cent of seeds used by farmers are distributed by private companies.

Curbing traditional knowledge of the farmers will make the situation worse as the TNAU and research stations have not had any major breakthroughs in introducing plant varieties or innovative methods in recent times, cautions Balakrishnan.

He points that the Bill was introduced close on the heels of the Agriculture Ministers recent visit to some foreign countries. The government should not try to ape rich countries, where agriculture is corporatised, as landholdings in the State are fragmented and over 80 per cent of the farmers belong to the small and marginal category, he argues.

According to official data, 58.48 lakh farmers have less than 1 hectare of land, 12.75 lakh own 1-2 ha, while 6.18 lakh have 2-4 ha and 2.28 lakh farmers have 4-10 ha. Balakrishnan called for steps to remove all the anti-farmer provisions from the Act.

V. Duraimanickam, general secretary of the Tamil Nadu Vivasayigal Sangam and Communist Party of India (CPI) leader, has urged the government to resort to comprehensive measures to safeguard the interests of the farming community from terminator seeds, pesticides and fertilizers supplied by foreign companies and natural calamities besides ensuring remunerative prices for agricultural produce. Technology and traditional wisdom should go hand in hand to redeem the farm sector from the brink of collapse, he said.

G. Nammalvar, an organic farming scientist, says there is no need for the Act at all. We have to learn from history. The Green Revolution sponsored by agricultural universities and departments has created unimaginable damages. He subscribes to the view that the Act is a follow-up to the WTO agreement and would only benefit big companies.

Throughout the world it is proved that low external input agriculture is not only economically viable but also ecologically sound. But this has not been recognised by agricultural universities which act like agents for company seeds, poisonous chemicals and industrial goods. That is why I feel if monopoly rights are given to the agricultural graduates, our community wealth and wisdom will be lost once for all, he asserts.

Welcoming Karunanidhis announcement to put the Act on hold, R. Selvam, coordinator of the Organic Farmers Federation of Erode region, says that Tamil Nadu has been the pioneer in organic farming owing to the efforts made by all categories of farmers. Preventing farmers from providing advice to fellow agriculturists amounts to an attack on their fundamental rights.

It is unfortunate that the Act has been passed in the Tamil Nadu Assembly when other States such as Himachal Pradesh are turning to organic farming, he regrets. Farmers representatives who participated in the farmers grievances day meetings held in Erode, Perambalur, Tiruchi and other districts had demanded the repeal of the Act.

In a bid to allay apprehensions, Veerapandi Arumugam came out with an explanation on August 11 that the Act was passed only on the recommendations of the panel headed by G. Rangasamy, former Vice-Chancellor of the TNAU, after interacting with representatives of farmers, political parties, government officials and self-employed agricultural graduates in different parts of the State. The Act was aimed at curbing irregularities in the farming sector, he claimed.

But the farmers were in no mood to relent. Several organisations of organic farmers had announced that a padayatra, covering 500 km, would be launched on October 2. Various farmers organisations, including associations led by the CPI(M) and CPI functionaries, planned to hold protest programmes calling for the repeal of the Act.

They have postponed the protests in view of the governments announcement. It was against this backdrop that the Chief Minister announced that the Act would be put on hold. But all major political parties have urged the government to repeal the Act.

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