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Mainstream, Vol. XLIX, No 14, March 26, 2011

Is Rajasthan Government Selling Farmers’ Interests?

Monday 28 March 2011, by Bharat Dogra

DEALS WITH MULTINATIONALS AND OTHER BIG AGRIBUSINESS COMPANIES

A wide range of farmers’ organisations, Gandhian organisations, people’s movements and NGOs have united to oppose a series of disturbing agreements which the Rajasthan Government reached with various multinational and other agribusiness companies including Monsanto. These agreements, which greatly increase the control and influence of these companies over the agriculture sector in India’s biggest State (in terms of area), have proved so controversial that following widespread protests, the State Government has been forced to form a ‘review’ committee and the Agriculture Minister, Harjiram Burdak, had to assure a delegation of protest movements that these agreements had been ‘put on hold’ for the time being.

The agreement with Monsanto provides an indication of how deeply the future of agriculture in India’s biggest State can be impacted by these agreements.

“The Memorandum of Understanding for Public-Private Partnership between the Government of Rajasthan, Monsanto India Limitedand Monsanto Holdings Private Limited—This document represents the Memorandum of Understanding (‘MoU’) between the Government of Rajasthan as represented by the Department of Agriculture (‘DoA’), Department of Horticulture (‘DoH’), Swami Keshavanand Rajasthan Agriculture University (‘SKRAU’) and Maharana Pratap University of Agriculture and Technology (‘MPUAT’) and Rajasthan University of Veterinary and Animal Sciences (‘RAJUVAS’), collectively referred to as State Agriculture Universities (SAUs), Rajasthan State Seed Corporation (‘RSSC’) and Monsanto as represented by Monsanto India Limited (‘MIL’) and Monsanto Holdings Private Limited (‘MHPL’) to engage in public-private partnership.”

The document says: “The Government of Rajasthan will help create an appropriate package of policies, rules and incentives to attract the necessary investments from private sector players....”

According to this agreement, potential areas of collaboration could span different aspects of the seed value chain as described below:

• Seed production: Involving undertaking field production of seeds (i.e. growing) in locations, where feasible in Rajasthan;

• Seed processing: Involving infrastructure and processes such as drying, treatment and packaging of seeds produced for sale, supply and distribution to farmers;

• Research and development: Broadly involving development, where feasible and extensive trialing/testing of Monsanto’s proprietary germplasm in some/all of the above mentioned crops as per variety/trial norms and prescribed testing fee of the Universities.

• Farmer development: Involving making available quality seeds and associated agronomic knowledge dissemination together contributing to productivity enhancement.

Further this document asserts: “It is under-stood that the Government of Rajasthan and Monsanto will undertake careful assessment of feasibility of engagement in each of the above mentioned components of the value chain and make guided decisions thereon.”

This collaboration includes “mechanical harvesting trials to evaluate and understand feasibility and help develop this technology towards taking cotton production in India to the next level. Mechanical harvest equipment will be brought in by Monsanto/third party equipment provider at no cost to the SAUs.”

This collaboration will include “Visits to Monsanto research and development/seed processing sites for Government officials, University scientists and farmers. Technology Demonstration Farms. Guest lectures by Monsanto’s global experts and scientists. Internships for selected agriculture University students. Technology demonstration farms to showcase products, technology and agronomic practices on land made available by the Government of Rajasthan for this purpose. Training/knowledge dissemination programmes through Krishi Vigyan Kendras in mutually agreed areas and terms. Farmer focused crop management advisory service (using appropriate platforms such as mobile telephony).”

The agreement says: “The Government of Rajasthan will make available land and facilities, wherever feasible for Monsanto to undertake proposed activities on terms and conditions to be specifically agreed upon for every location/site. Monsanto will be helped in the establish-ment of infrastructure towards the fulfillment of the collaboration objectives, through access to relevant capital subsidy and other schemes of the Government of Rajasthan aimed at encouraging the activities outlined above and/or specifically discussed and agreed upon. Monsanto will undertake detailed feasibility assessment of activities proposed to be engaged in based on its own established and standard processes prior to decision making on suitability of land/infrastructure, as the case may be. This will be included but not restricted to site visits by Monsanto and/or third party personnel engaged by Monsanto. Research, training and extension activities in mutually agreed areas could also be funded jointly by the nominated agency of the Government of Rajasthan and Monsanto as discussed and decided upon.”

THE least people can expect from such an agreement with its wide-ranging impact on public interest is that it should be widely debated at all levels. But amazingly this agreement is based on high levels of secrecy. As the document signed by the Rajasthan Government with Monsanto and quoted above says, “The contents of this MoU shall be kept confidential (“Confidential Information”) and the parties shall not make, use, disclose or disseminate, or in any way share any Confidential Information to any person without the prior written consent of the other party. Each party shall treat all Confidential Information with the same degree of care as it accords to its own confidential information and shall not disclose the same except where it is required to be so disclosed by Law.”

In other words, before the Rajasthan Govern-ment gives information about this agreement to the people, it has to take the “prior written consent” of Monsanto!
An important objection raised by some experts to these agreements is that these agreements which deal collectively with almost all the main crops of Rajasthan emphasise time and again hybrid seeds while from the point of low-cost farming best suited to farmers of Rajasthan and their rain-fed, arid and semi-arid conditions of farming improved and selected traditional seeds are most suitable for the farmers of Rajasthan.

However, the real implications of the agreements go beyond such concerns, important as these are. The full implications of these agreements can be understood only in the context of the background of the real interests of big seed companies, including some colossal multinationals, with special emphasis on the companies which are promoting GM crops and technology. It is significant that these recent agreements of the Rajasthan Government involve the biggest GM giant Monsanto and other biotechnology leaders capable of spreading GM technologies.

If we look at the trends in the world food and agriculture in recent decades, then these have been dominated by the increasingly desperate efforts by huge multinational companies to increase their dominance of the world food and farming system. The way in which patents were incorporated into the WTO agenda—and so in a very clever way almost all countries were forced to change their patent laws in keeping with the interests of developed countries—provides a glaring example of the high-powered forces at work to implement this agenda of dominance. The new patent laws helped the food and farming giants to tighten their grip on plants and seeds resources of the developing countries.

It was noticed about two decades back that the nature of the seed industry was changing in several countries, particularly the rich Western countries (although similar changes were soon noticed also in several developing countries). The seed industry had earlier been based on small firms. These firms were now being gobbled by big companies, especially companies which already had big stakes in agri-chemical industry —within a single decade, chemical corporations spent over $ 10 billion in buying up seeds companies.

These trends were strengthened further by the developments in the controversial technology of genetic engineering. Genetic engineering is so important in this quest for dominance as this complex and expensive technology is concentrated to a large extent in the hands of a few giant multinational companies and their subsidiaries. The story that started with snatching the plant resources of tropical/developing/poor countries, and then proceeded with new patent/IPR laws, gets completed with genetic engineering. This is the carefully manipulated route which these companies, blessed by their governments in several cases (particularly the USA), have followed in their race for dominance of the world food system.

An eminent group of scientists from various countries who constitute the Independent Science Panel have said in their conclusion after examining all aspects of GM crops: “GM crops have failed to deliver the promised benefits and are posing escalating problems on the farm. Transgenic contamination is now widely acknowledged to be unavoidable, and hence there can be no co-existence of GM and non-GM agriculture. Most important of all, GM crops have not been proven safe. On the contrary, sufficient evidence has emerged to raise serious safety concerns, that if ignored could result in irreversible damage to health and the environ-ment. GM crops should be firmly rejected now.”

More recently, 17 distinguished scientists from Europe, the USA, Canada and New Zealand wrote to the Prime Minister of India warning against “the unique risks (of GM crops) to food security, farming systems and bio-safety impacts which are ultimately irreversible”.

In his widely acclaimed book Genetic Roulette, Jeffrey M. Smith has summarised the results of a lot of research on the health hazards of GM crops/food: “Lab animals tested with GM foods had stunted growth, impaired immune systems, bleeding stomachs, abnormal and potentially precancerous cell growth in the intestines, impaired blood cell development, misshapen cell structures in the liver, pancreas, and testicles, altered gene expression and cell metabolism, liver and kidney lesions, partially astrophied livers, inflamed kidneys, less developed brains and testicles, enlarged livers, pancreases, and intestines, reduced digestive enzymes, higher blood sugar, inflamed lung tissue, increased death rates, and higher offspring mortality.”

Such examples of the opinion of eminent scientists about the serious risks and hazards of GM crops can be multiplied. The question that arises is: then why are some big multinational companies so eager to promote these hazardous and risky crops? The answer is that these companies are not interested in improving food security, they are only interested in tightening their grip over the world’s food and farming system so that they can squeeze huge profits out of it, regardless of any adverse impacts on farmers, consumers and environment.

The support given by the governments further greatly increases the power of the MNCs to push their hazardous products and technologies in their quest for dominance.

Dr Pushpa M. Bhargava has written: “According to the US Securities and Exchange Commission, Monsanto bribed at least 140 Indonesian officials or their families to get Bt cotton approved without environmental impact assessment. In 2005, the firm paid $ 1.5 million in fine to the US Justice Department for the graft. This is one of the many penalties that Monsanto has paid in its country of origin in spite of its close ties with the US government and its various regulatory agencies.”

In India also the linkages between officials and GMO companies can be seen in several instances such as the illegal release of GMOs to start with and the way in which estimates of damages suffered by the Bt cotton crop were brought down. Unknown to most people and even neighbourhood farmers, several highly unsafe and questionable trials of GM crops were permitted.

Another serious concern is the efforts of MNCs to penetrate, influence, corrupt and dominate the national farm research.

In developing countries large-scale corrupt practices of these GMO companies have been documented. In India there are many tell-tale signs that this corruption has reached up to very high levels, including some Ministers known to be very ruthless. So learning from Gandhiji, we should prepare for a nationwide satyagraha to save our nation from the very serious danger of GM/GE crops.

Cancel Agreements with Multinational and Big Companies

HOWEVER, the kind of agreements which the Rajasthan Government has signed with the multinational companies and other big bio-technology companies go in the opposite direction of preparing the ground for the rapid expansion of profit-oriented seed interests and possibly

of GM crops. As is well known, MNCs like Monsanto have been lobbying for getting clearance for more and more GM crops (so far only Bt Cotton has been cleared) and from their point of view one big advantage of such agreements for these companies will be to prepare the ground so that once clearance is obtained the GM crops can spread rapidly. Another advantage for them will be to influence some government officials and scientists in their favour and to obtain their approval for GM crops and tests of GM crops which by themselves can be very risky.

It is in this wider context that the agreements which the Rajasthan Government reached with the big companies in the year 2010 taken collectively (with special emphasis on the Monsanto agreement) can be very harmful. All these ‘memoranda of understanding’ should be cancelled immediately.

A Mockery of Panchayat Raj

IN this context a particularly important concern is that while the Rajasthan Government has always expressed its commitment to panchayati raj and the transfer of important subjects like agriculture to the panchayats, this kind of agree-ments are a mockery of rural decentralisation and go in the entirely opposite direction of over-centralisation. What an irony that a government which says that livelihood issues like agriculture should be in the hands of panchayats goes ahead and signs secret agreements on the most critical aspects of agriculture (seeds, research) without even informing the panchayats and gram sabhas. The Rajasthan Government, while cancelling these agreements, should strive to move in the direction of genuine rural decentralisation.

The author is currently a Fellow at the Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi.

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