Rice and rights

Print edition : June 04, 2004

The Chhattisgarh Seed Satyagrah continues its struggle to prevent foreign multinational companies from getting hold of the rice germplasm collection with the Indira Gandhi Krishi Vishwavidyalaya.

AKTI signals the start of the farming season in Chhattisgarh. But this April, farmers across the State observed Akti not by going to the fields but by taking to the streets to assert their rights over the 22,972 varieties of paddy seeds evolved by their forefathers, which are with the Raipur-based Indira Gandhi Krishi Vishwavidyalaya (IGKV). Joined by a large number of landless labourers, women, youth and even children, they held protest meetings, rallies and demonstrations, organised seminars, and ran a poster campaign.

Farm workers use a unique fan to winnow the rice crop at Keshkal in Chhattisgarh.-V. SUDERSHAN

The April 22 action signalled the start of the third phase of the 18-month-old struggle, the Chhattisgarh Seed Satyagrah (CSS), organised under the auspices of the Chhattisgarh Mukthi Morcha and several 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, the Richharia Campaign and the Nadi Ghati Morcha) to stop Syngenta, the Swiss multinational corporation, from signing a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the IGKV to take over all the paddy varieties in the custody of the university. Last year the campaign managed to stall the deal, but it is continuing its fight as the "problems are far from over".

According to Akshay Sail of the Chhattisgarh Labour Institute, this phase (the first intensive phase took place from end 2002 to early 2003 and the second was organised in mid-2003) focussed on "seed sovereignty and sustainable agriculture" and addressed such larger issues as farmer suicides; migration from the State of over 10 lakh farmers; the anti-farmer policies pursued vigorously by the Central and State governments; the danger posed by the introduction of genetically modified seeds into the country; and the failure of civil society to make the plight of farmers an election issue. The CSS is also collecting indigenous rice varieties in order to promote their use. Chhattisgarh is a repository of some rare rice varieties.

The campaign culminated at Mahasamund, 55 km from Raipur, on May 11 with the CSS working out a strategy to pressure the Central and State governments and the IGKV to return the rare paddy germplasm so as to help the farmers tide over the farm crisis looming over the State.

The IGKV's collection of rice germplasm, the largest such in India and the second largest in the world, includes the Indica rice variety that originated from Chhattisgarh. Some 19,000 of the 22,972 varieties in this collection are local to Chhattisgarh. These include those with varying harvesting periods (from 60 days to 150 days); the largest (dokra-dokri), the longest and the shortest rice varieties; some varieties that can grow under 10 feet (three metres) of water (Naatrgoidi); those with high protein content and medicinal properties; and the scented rice varieties. These were not developed in laboratories but are the product of the ingenuity of generations of farmers. This rich rice legacy is belied by the present state of agriculture in the region, which was once considered the rice bowl of India. Today, the State's rice productivity and cropping intensity are among the lowest in the country. Chhattisgarh is among the most food-insecure States (Food Insecurity Atlas of India, M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, Chennai).

Akshay Sail 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 for the soil, climate and other variations. But in the 1960s, most of these were replaced by high-yielding varieties (HYVs) that were not sensitive to the local conditions but relied on heavy use of fertilizers and pesticides for increased productivity. Over time, the soil quality deteriorated because of the indiscriminate use of fertilizers and pesticides, and productivity began to fall (Frontline, August 1, 2003).

In 1971, the late Dr. R.H. Richharia 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 upon them to make them suit better the local conditions, and give them back to the farmers for cultivation. He planned to raise productivity by using clonal propagation and instilling hybrid vigour in the indigenous varieties. However, this project did not go beyond the collection of all local varieties, most of which are not in use and only remain on the shelves of the IGKV. (According to Akshay Sail, Richharia was removed from office before he could realise his dream of developing the seeds and returning them to the farmers.)

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

Dr. N.K. Motiramani, a senior scientist in charge of the IGKV's gene bank, admits to the problem of accessibility. This, says Akshay Sail, is the opposite of what Richharia had envisaged. While the MNCs seem to have easy access to the farmers' seeds for commercial purposes, the farmers themselves have no 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 to our property," says Akshay Sail.

THE CSS is planning to meet the IGKV's scientific community and the State Agriculture Minister to seek free access to the rare paddy germplasm collection. The CSS alleges that not only did the IGKV stop Richharia's work but it also negotiated with various international research institutions and MNCs to sell the rare collection.

In 2003, the CSS prevented the IGKV from handing over its repository of 22,972 varieties of rice germplasm to Syngenta (Frontline, January 31, 2003). As news about the proposed MoU between Syngenta and the IGKV leaked out by end 2002, the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha launched the Seed Satyagrah. The protests spread quickly across the State and the deal fell through.

Says Akshay Sail: " 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 CSS, apart from focussing on local issues, is also addressing larger aspects that will have a bearing on the fate of millions of farmers in India. According to Akshay Sail, none of the nine demands of the CSS (these include a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) inquiry into the Syngenta-IGKV deal, a community gene bank in which all seed varieties in the IGKV's custody will be kept and used for the common good and not for private gains, and the return of all paddy varieties with the IGKV to the farmers) has been met by the government. 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 both act as a repository of public knowledge and help enhance local farming." But this never happened.

According to Akshay Sail, no MNC or private company should be allowed to have a private partnership with any of the country's seed banks.

That international treaties and laws are being interpreted and used by developed countries to their advantage is clear from the statement of Pawan Malik, 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 the IGKV was totally in keeping with the Treaty."

This, according to Akshay Sail, raises several important questions for developing countries, which are rich in plant genetic resources. For instance, can IPR 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", is interpreted by developed countries to mean that while patents cannot be taken "in the form received from the multilateral system", they can be on the genes "derived from the seeds kept under the rules of the multilateral system".

Says Akshay Sail: "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 a public debate."

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

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