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Seeds of despair

Print edition : Aug 12, 2005

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Farmers in a Karnataka village ploughing the field. Some of the provisions of the Bill are viewed as a direct assault on the traditional rights of farmers who have been growing, exchanging, saving, reusing and selling their own seeds for centuries.-K.BHAGYA PRAKASH

Farmers in a Karnataka village ploughing the field. Some of the provisions of the Bill are viewed as a direct assault on the traditional rights of farmers who have been growing, exchanging, saving, reusing and selling their own seeds for centuries.-K.BHAGYA PRAKASH

The draft Seeds Bill seeks to dilute all the safeguards provided by the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers' Rights Act, 2001, to the farmer, whose existence is already fragile.

BENJAMIN FRANKLIN had once said that agriculture was the only honest way for a country to acquire wealth, "wherein man receives a real increase of the seed thrown into the ground, in a kind of continual miracle... "

The magic of this miracle is wearing thin for the Indian farmer. With over 25,000 farmers committing suicide over the past few years and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh admitting that the problems of the agricultural sector extend `beyond weather', it is time policy-makers did a rethink about agricultural policy and the related laws.

In this context, one important document that needs to be looked into is the draft Seeds Bill 2004, which the Union government plans to unleash upon the farmers. It is variously described as "anti-constitutional", "savage", "pernicious", and "appalling", and accused of taking "a suicidal line" and being a "threat to democracy". It is also criticised as being anti-farmer and preparing the Indian market for seed corporations, transnational and Indian. There is also the fear that it will give rise to an agricultural bureaucracy that has the power to harass the farmers.

Some of the provisions of the Bill are viewed as a direct assault on the traditional rights of farmers who have been growing, exchanging, saving, reusing and selling their own seeds for centuries. For instance, Section 13(1) prevents anyone from buying or selling any variety of seed if it is not registered, and Section 21(1) prevents a farmer from growing or organising "the production of seeds unless he is registered as such by the State government."

In stark contradiction, the same Bill claims in Section 43: "Nothing in this Act shall restrict the right of the farmer to save, use, exchange, share or sell his farm seeds and planting material, except that he shall not sell such seed or planting material under a brand name or which does not conform to the minimum limit of germination, physical purity, genetic purity prescribed under Clause (a) or Clause (b) of Section 6".

The Bill focusses on protecting "brands"; "enhancing the growth of the seed industry" is a clearly stated objective. Though branding and compulsory registration might make seeds unaffordable for farmers, a mechanism to regulate the price is not even discussed in the Bill. There is also no provision for a cap on profit that is to be made from a given brand, nor has the parentage of the seed variety been questioned. So, farmers may end up paying hundreds of times the cost of a "registered" seed, which, in all probability, has been bred from the traditional varieties developed by them.

According to Devinder Sharma of the Forum for Biotechnology and Food Security, nearly three-fourths of the market price for brands such as Bt cotton constitute the royalty on technology. The margins of profit of seed companies are huge. He says: "Making those kinds of profits off poor farmers is criminal."

The Central government has built its case for a new Seeds Bill on the premise that the existing Seed Act, 1966, is no longer suitable. But why it is no longer suitable is not made clear. For instance, the first stated objective of the draft Bill, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, is to "overcome its [Seed Act 1966] present deficiencies".

What are these deficiencies?

The registration of all the seed varieties is not compulsory. And commercial and plantation crops and non-notified varieties are not covered. But why it is so important to "cover" all varieties is not explained.

The answer may lie in the second stated objective - to "create facilitative climate for growth of seed industry". This is likely to be achieved, though at the cost of farmers' rights.

Says Devinder Sharma: "This new Seed Bill emphasises the use of only registered seeds. Why? Who registers their varieties? Who gets certification as producers? The seed companies, of course. Not the farmer."

The Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers' Rights (PPVFR) Act, 2001, described as one of its kind in the world as few countries have laws of this kind that protect farmers, has not yet been notified though the Act has been passed by both Houses of Parliament. Devinder Sharma, for instance, alleges that the notification of the PPVFR Act is prevented primarily because of intense lobbying by the seed companies. The 10th Planning Commission report had promised that the PPVFR Act, 2001, "will be enforced strictly". This has not happened. Instead, the new Seeds Bill has been drafted, diluting the provisions of the PPVFR act.

The PPVFR Act, for instance, mentions that based on the parentage of seeds, there will be benefit-sharing. It also mentions that farmers can claim compensation from breeders. It makes it mandatory upon the PPVFR Authority to undertake "documentation, indexing and cataloguing of farmers' varieties".

Most important, Section 39 of the Act states that the farmer "shall be deemed to be entitled to save, use, sow, re-sow, exchange, share or sell his farm produce including seed of a variety protected under this Act in the same manner as he was entitled before the coming into force of this Act.... Provided that the farmer shall not be entitled to sell `branded' seed of a variety protected under this Act".

Further, the Act states: "Where any propagating material of a variety registered under this Act has been sold to a farmer or a group of farmers or any organisation of farmers, the breeder of such variety shall disclose ... the expected performance under given conditions, and if such propagating material fails to provide such performance under such given conditions, the farmer or the group of farmers or the organisation of farmers, as the case may be, may claim compensation in the prescribed manner before the Authority." But in the draft Bill, all these safeguards for farmers are diluted and an aggrieved farmer is sent to the consumer court for redress.

Also, in the PPVFR Act, Section 43 specifies that the farmer cannot be prosecuted for infringement of the law if he can prove in court that he was unaware of the existence of such a right. The new Bill does not make such allowances to protect the farmers.

Some portions of the Bill seem completely non-contextual. For instance, in Section 16, one of the grounds on which a sub-committee may cancel registration is the need to protect "public order or public morality". But which registrations will affect the "public order or public morality" and how are not explained.

Also, Section 22(1) puts a small farmer who barters seeds with his neighbour in the same category as an importer-exporter and makes it mandatory for both to acquire certification as "dealers".

The most damaging aspect of the proposed law is that it gives seed inspectors wide-reaching powers. For instance, Section 35(2) gives the inspector the power to break open containers, and even break down doors, if he thinks that the proposed Act has been violated. This gives seed inspectors the right to force entry even into farmers' homes.

Suneet Chopra, joint secretary of the All India Agricultural Workers Union, believes that in this respect, the law is hard on farmers. "Even the police do not have the right to search your house without a warrant. Such provisions will just lead to (seed) inspector Raj and will become another avenue for corruption. The Bill allows seed inspectors to `enter and search', `seize documents', interrupt exchange or delivery of seeds and even come armed `with assistance'. Which means the inspector can bring goondas, if he has `reason to believe that an offence under this Act has been committed'. The scope for harassment is huge."

The suspicion that farmers' interests are not at the heart of the Bill is further strengthened with the proposed Central Seed Committee consisting of only two farmer representatives - even these two are nominated by the Centre. Apart from representatives from the government and the bureaucracy, the Committee also has two members from the seed industry - the very people who should be regulated are thus part of a Central regulatory body.

Activists such as Dr. Suman Sahai of Gene Campaign have accused the government of leaving the primary stakeholders out of the necessary debate. Suman Sahai said: "There is a fundamental flaw in the process and philosophy of this new Bill. Legislation relating to agriculture should ensure that farmers get access to seeds at reasonable cost; the needs of the seed industry should be subservient. But the new Seeds Bill questions the whole issue of ownership of seeds... . The parentage of seed varieties is not required during registration. Which means that the seed companies could be using farmers' varieties and not giving credit, nor sharing profits."

According to the government, it is necessary to make the registration of all seed varieties compulsory, especially given the need to enforce patent laws as specified by the World Trade Organisation (WTO). This argument is misleading, Dr. Vandana Shiva of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology points out in her critique of the Bill (Navdanya, May 2005). According to her, India has already amended the Patent Act of 1970 to comply with the TRIPS agreement and, both Houses of Parliament also passed the PPVFR Act, 2001. Thus, there is no further obligation to the WTO. Also, according to Vandana Shiva, the government is misleading people by claiming that the country has no provision for "regulating transgenic materials". India has a Genetic Engineering Approval Committee to regulate genetically modified (GM) crops.

Another provision that is detrimental to farmers is that the draft Bill permits the fast-track entry of GM crops. According to the Bill, provisional permission could be granted to transgenic varieties. This can violate biosafety principles. According to Suman Sahai, such hasty clearance hardly makes sense at a time when the whole world is being extra-cautious and banning certain GM products. This is especially so as Monsanto, in its own report on the study of GM corn (MON 863), says researchers found that rats fed with the GM corn developed kidney problems and their immune system was damaged owing to changes in blood composition. The Independent first broke the story and in mid-June, a German court ordered Monsanto to make the report public.

Activists such as Vandana Shiva believe that India does not need a `National Seed Register'. At least, farmers do not. Community biodiversity registers already exist and farmers can regulate their own seeds. What India needs, in the wake of liberalisation, is a law to regulate the seed industry, they say. In the past, Indian farmers have suffered crushing losses thanks to the Bt cotton and maize seeds sold by Monsanto.

When it comes to tackling the seed companies, however, the draft Bill is spineless. Instead of establishing strict liability for seed manufacturers when the agronomic performance claimed by them on a variety of seeds is not realised on the field, the Bill simply points the ruined farmer to the local consumer court. If a farmer must turn to the Consumer Protection Act of 1986 for redress, then why have a new seed law at all?

The Centre, according to experts, needs to refer the Bill to a Joint Parliamentary Committee and prepare an amended draft, in consultation with farmers groups and agrarian experts.

A n outcry against the proposed law has been gathering strength almost since the day it was drafted. The All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) has been organising farmers' meetings across the country to discuss the Bill. Atul Kumar Anjan of the AIKS told Frontline that his organisation had rejected the draft at its National Council meeting in Karnataka in June as it was "detrimental to farmers". It has also sent its comments against the Bill to the Parliamentary Standing Committee and is braced for a nation-wide struggle unless the draft is revised.

Dr. Krishna Bir Chowdhary, former Chairman of the Farms Corporation of India, and the current executive chairman of the Bharatiya Krishak Samaj, has also sent his reactions against the Bill to the Parliamentary Committee. In a national farmers' convention in Hubli, he gave a call to all farmer organisations to focus on this issue and not get sidetracked by the immediate problems of electricity and fertilizers.

Meanwhile, the Centre has been dragging its feet over the business of gathering consensus over the Seeds Bill. According to highly placed sources in the Ministry of Rural Development, the Parliamentary Standing Committee, headed by Rajnath Singh, has not even circulated the draft to other Ministries for comments.

However, Rural Development Minister Raghuvansh Prasad Singh has said that the Centre will be "careful while passing any law". When questioned about the notification of the PPVFR Act, he said: "There is a due parliamentary procedure. That process will be followed."

One of the demands of critics of the new Bill is that it be harmonised with the PPVFR Act, 2001, and the Biodiversity Act, 2002, so that none of the rights already granted to farmers can be diluted. Also, stringent penalties should be imposed on seed manufacturers when spurious or under-performing seeds are sold. Ironically, one of the stated objectives of the Bill is to impose harsher penalties - up to six months in prison or a fine of Rs.50,000, or both.

Yet the government's enthusiasm for punitive action beats a hasty retreat when it comes to itself. It has taken great care to protect itself, through a clause which says that "no suit, prosecution or other legal proceeding shall lie against the government or any person for anything which is in good faith done or intended to be done."

As matters stand, not many people are placing bets on the "good faith and intent" of the government as far as the draft Bill is concerned. But, in the light of the agricultural crisis and with the Prime Minister making worried statements about farm sector growth, or the lack of it, the government, according to experts, would do well to listen to the warnings about the effects of the proposed Bill.

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