Farmers' battle for seed rights

Print edition : August 01, 2003

Women working in the fields at Khapridih village in Raipur district, following a paddy crop failure due to lack of rains last year. Chhattisgarh, which was once the `rice bowl of India', is among the most food-insecure States in the country today. - V.V. KRISHNAN

A struggle by farmers in Chhattisgarh to protect indigenous seed varieties from being appropriated by multinational corporations is snowballing into a major movement in the State.

THOUSANDS of people - farmers, landless labourers, women, youth and children - from Sakri, Cheeka, Baronda, Dehrva, Mandir, Hasod, Abhanpur, Pateva, Kahira, Jamgaon and 50 other villages of Chhattisgarh are now engaged in a massive show of solidarity to assert their rights over the 22,972 varieties of paddy seeds evolved over generations and kept in the safe custody of the Raipur-based Indira Gandhi Krishi Vishwavidyalaya (IGKV). These people have been fighting for the past eight months to protect their crop seeds, which represent not just their livelihoods, but a way of life preserved over several generations.

This struggle, called the Chhattisgarh Seed Satyagraha, was organised under the auspices of the Chhattisgarh Mukthi Morcha and 10 grassroots organisations (the Chhattisgarh Kisan Panchayat, the Chhattisgarh Mahila Jagriti Sangathan, the Chhattisgarh Bal Shramik Sangathan, the Indian Social Action Forum, the Chhattisgarh Labour Institute, the Ekta Parishad, the Multi Niketan, the Sabla Dal, Richharia Campaign and the Nadi Ghati Morcha) in December 2002, to stop Syngenta, the Switzerland-based multinational corporation (MNC), from entering into an agreement with the IGKV to take over all the paddy varieties in the custody of the university. They are continuing their fight as their "problems are far from over" even though the MNC has withdrawn from the deal (Frontline, January 31, 2003).

Says Akshay Sohail of the Chhattisgarh Labour Institute: "After a lot of effort, we managed to stop Syngenta from taking away our rice collection from the IGKV. But a number of questions remain to be answered by the university and the State government. It also brings into focus larger issues that need to be addressed particularly in the light of the coming into force of intellectual property rights and patent laws. That is why we are continuing with our agitation." According to him, the Chhattisgarh Seed Satyagraha, apart from focussing on local issues, is also addressing larger aspects that will have a bearing on the fate of the millions of farmers in India. Over the last eight months, the campaign has held meetings, rallies, demonstrations, dharnas, picketing and seminars, apart from running a poster campaign, to garner public support. The response has been gratifying and with the Delhi-based Gene Campaign also joining the fight, the campaign is snowballing into a movement.

The Chhattisgarh Seed Satyagraha has placed seven demands before the State government. These include unconditional cancellation of all agreements regarding the sale of paddy seeds to Syngenta; a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) inquiry into the Syngenta-IGKV deal; a decision making all the seed varieties in the custody of the IGKV community property to be kept in a community gene bank and used for the common public good and not for private, commercial purposes; and the return of all paddy varieties with the IGKV to the farmers, according to the informal agreement with the university when the seeds were collected from the farmers three decades ago by Dr. R.H. Richharia and his team. (In 1971, Richharia had embarked on what came to be called `adaptive rice research' to evaluate and document all local rice varieties. The implicit agreement was that the farmers would hand over the varieties and knowledge to Richharia, who would, with the consent of the farmers, improve them to suit local conditions, and give them back to the farmers for cultivation.)

Says Jacob Nellithanam of the Richharia Campaign, a movement seeking to revive the work of the late scientist: "The original idea was to implement, in a decentralised manner, the `adaptive rice research' for the conservation and development of rice varieties, which would act both as a repository of public knowledge and help enhance local farming." All of this would have come to nought had Syngenta got access to the repository.

According to Akshay Sohail, no MNC or any other private company should be allowed to have private partnership with any of the country's seed banks, which have in their custody thousands of rare varieties of seeds cultured by farmers over centuries. This, he says, is a serious issue, particularly in the light of IGKV Vice-Chancellor V.K. Patil's statement that in a globalised era such collaborations were increasingly becoming necessary and that if any other company offered greater financial support than Syngenta, the IGKV would negotiate with it. That international treaties and laws are being cleverly interpreted and used by the developed countries to their advantage is clear from the statement of Pawan Malik, the president of the Syngenta seeds division: "Rice is one of the 35 crops and 29 forages covered by the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, which aims to facilitate access to genetic resources and benefit-sharing, and the collaboration with IGKV was totally in keeping with the Treaty."

This, according to Akshay Sohail, raises several important questions for developing countries, which are rich in genetic resources. For instance, there is a question whether intellectual property rights can be applied to the genetic resources in the `Multilateral System' that is, the 35 crops and 29 forages that the Treaty covers. Article 12.3 (d) of the Treaty, which states that "recipients shall not claim any intellectual property or other rights... in the form received from the Multilateral System," was objected to by developed countries, particularly the United States. But the subsequent interpretation, that while patents cannot be taken "in the form received from the multilateral system", they can be taken on the genes "derived from the seeds kept under the rules of the multilateral system," made the developed countries finally sign the Treaty.

THE recent patent (EP 445929) granted to the U.S.-based MNC Monsanto by the European patent office based in Munich for developing a wheat variety called Galahad 7 by crossing the Indian variety Nap Hal with another naturally existing plant that was conventionally bred (not genetically modified) is a clear example of what can be expected if issues of legal mechanism to protect India's biodiversity are not addressed. While the Plant Varieties Protection and Farmers' Rights Act and the Biodiversity Bill have been passed by Parliament, the rules for implementation are yet to be framed. Says Akshay Sohail: "It is to arrest this dangerous trend of MNCs acquiring patents using our local varieties that our campaign is trying to mobilise support by creating awareness and starting off a public debate."

The IGKV's collection of rice germplasm is the largest of its kind in India and the second largest in the world. The Indica rice variety originated from Chhattisgarh, which is home to some rare rice varieties in the country. It has varieties with varying harvesting periods, from 60 days to 150 days from the time seeds are sown; the largest rice variety (dokra-dokri); varieties that can grow under 10 feet (three metres) of water (Naatrgoidi); several varieties that are high in protein and have medicinal properties; one of the largest collections of scented rice varieties; and the longest and the shortest varieties. These varieties did not come from the laboratories but were produced after years of hard work with ingenuity by generations of farmers of Chhattisgarh. But, today, the State's rice productivity and cropping intensity are among the lowest in the country. Chhattisgarh, which was once the `rice bowl of India', is among the most food-insecure States in the country today (Food Insecurity Atlas of India, M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, Chennai).

Akshay Sohail explains the factor that led to this plight. Five decades ago, each region in the State (then part of Madhya Pradesh) cultivated rice varieties that were suitable to the soil, climate and other variations. (Of the 22,972 varieties with the IGKV, over 19,000 were indigenous varieties collected by Dr. Richharia.) But in the 1960s, almost all the local varieties were replaced by high-yielding varieties of rice, which were insensitive to the local conditions. The HYVs depended on heavy use of fertilizers and pesticides for increased productivity. Over time, the soil quality depleted because of the indiscriminate use of fertilizers and pesticides, and productivity began to fall.

In the 1970s, Dr. Richharia came up with the `adaptive rice research' project to increase productivity by using clonal propagation and instilling hybrid vigour in the indigenous rice varieties. This project stopped with the completion of collection of all local varieties (that Syngenta was about to gain control of), most of which are not in use and remain as museum pieces with the IGKV.

It is this IGKV collection, which are no longer cultivated in the fields, that the agitating farmers want to get back and use. The original samples collected by Dr. Richharia will not germinate again but can be used to tally with plants that can be developed now. Once the varieties are cultivated in the fields, the farmers want to follow in situ (on-farm) conservation methods rather than keep them in gene banks, which the farmers will have difficulty in accessing.

Dr. N.K. Motiramani, a senior scientist with IGKV who is in-charge of the gene bank, admits that the farmers do not have easy access to the gene bank. The farmers first have to sign an agreement with the IGKV that they will use it for personal purposes only and not for any commercial purposes. This, says Akshay Sohail, is just the opposite of what Dr. Richharia had envisaged - while the MNCs seem to have easy access to the farmers' seeds for commercial purpose, the farmers themselves do not have easy access to them. "Community ownership of all seed varieties in the various gene banks in the country is one of the first steps that should be taken up to protect our rights over our property," he says.

After all, says Akshay Sohail, rice is not only a staple food for most Indians, but a way of life. He says with determination: "The Chhattisgarh Seed Satyagraha will not give up its fight until many of the questions it has raised are satisfactorily answered."

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