GENEWATCH
 
THE AGRARIAN CRISIS IN INDIA
By Indrani Barpujari, Birendra Kr. Biru
 

Twenty-first century India has emerged as a major economic power in the world, with the growth rate of the gross domestic product reaching impressive levels and the poverty ratio coming down significantly. In the context of such a scenario, it is indeed very incongruous and difficult to believe that the Indian countryside where the large majority of its people reside is in the grip of a severe agrarian crisis. In the opinion of Prabhat Patnaik, this crisis in Indian agriculture is "unparalleled since independence and reminiscent only of the agrarian crisis of pre-war and war days".1

According to Suman Sahai of GeneCampaign, the most tragic face of India's agrarian crisis is seen in the increasing number of farmer suicides, not just in the hotspot areas of Andhra Pradesh and Vidarbha but in the allegedly prosperous agricultural zones of Punjab and Karnataka.2 Farmers' suicides are no longer limited to the drought-andpoverty- stricken areas of the country. Now farmers in the most productive agricultural regions such as Karnataka, Punjab, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, and Maharastra are ending their lives because of their massive indebtedness.

Mishra also expresses a similar view when he says that the conventional notion of agrarian distress being part of the broader landscape of underdeveloped agriculture and backwardness no longer fits to the emerging evidences from rural India.3 Manifestations of agrarian distress in contemporary India are not confined to the pockets of backwardness; even the regions with a high degree of commercial agriculture, that use relatively better technology and have a relatively diversified cropping pattern have reported high indebtedness and distress of various kinds.

More than 6,000 indebted farmers, mainly cotton farmers, have committed suicide in Andhra Pradesh alone during the period from 1998 to 2005 as its government, which had entered into a state-level Structural Adjustment Programme with the World Bank, raised power tariff five times even as cotton prices fell by half. In Maharashtra, 644 farmers committed suicide across three of its six regions between January 2001 and December 2004.

In Karnataka, 49 suicidal deaths occurred between April and October 2003 in the drought-prone region of Hassan. Over the same period of time, 22 suicides occurred in Mandya, the state's "sugar bowl;" 18 occurred in Shimoga, a heavy rainfall district, and 14 occurred in Heveri, a district that receives average rainfall. While statistics may show Punjab to be India's "breadbasket," claiming that its soils are rich and its five rivers supply abundant water throughout the state, the reality of this image of prosperity is revealed by the increasing number of suicidal deaths among Punjabi farmers. Over a thousand farmer suicides have taken place in Punjab, mainly in the cotton belt. Between 2001 and 2005, over 1,250 suicides took place in Wynaad in Kerala. In Burdwan, the region of West Bengal commonly called the "rice bowl of the East," 1,000 farmers ended their lives in 2003.

Various explanations have been offered for the present agrarian crisis. It has been felt that the present crisis is the result of deflationary public policies and trade liberalization (with falling global prices), which has slowed output growth, contributed to rising unemployment, income deflation for the majority of cultivators and laborers, enmeshing of cultivators in unrepayable debt, and loss of assets (including land) to creditors. According to Utsa Patnaik, "forty years of successful effort in India to raise foodgrains absorption through Green Revolution and planned expansionary policies, has been wiped out in a single decade of deflationary economic reforms and India is back to the food grains availability level of fifty years ago."4

Another explanation given for the agrarian crisis is the drastic reduction in state spending on rural development which has led to loss of purchasing power among rural people. Expenditures in rural development, under which fall agriculture, rural development, special areas programs, irrigation and flood controls, and village and small scale industry, have been slashed to an all-time low of 0.6% of NNP in 2004.

An attempt to have a correct appraisal of the crisis afflicting Indian agriculture in recent times has been made by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in Mumbai, which had conducted an investigation into the Vidarbha agrarian crisis and farmer suicides at the behest of the Bombay High Court. The study found that the main reasons for the crisis are repeated crop failure, inability to meet rising cost of cultivation, and indebtedness. According to Sahai, emergency in agriculture has developed because of the rising cost of agricultural production which is not offset by either the Minimum Support Price offered by government or prices available on the market.5 The combination of high cost of production (owing to higher input prices and higher cost of labor), low market price and non- availability of easy credit have contributed to an enormous debt burden. This is further compounded by personal loans taken for social needs like marriage and education. The crisis becomes acute when farmers, exhausting their credit with banks, turn to private money lenders who charge usurious rates of up to 60% per annum.

The official policy response to the present agrarian crisis has generally been one of denial and insensitivity. The recent initiative of the Government regarding the rural employment program has been criticized as "a limited gesture totally inadequate to meet the enormity of the crisis", while the projected enhancement of agricultural credit by the government has been dismissed as "exaggerated" and "inadequate" in the context of the policy environment of withdrawal of reduction of minimum support price programs.6

A strange argument has also been advanced in certain quarters to account for the decline in per capita food availability. It is contended that because of a change in the dietary habits of the people, they have diversified their consumption pattern from food grains towards all kinds of lesselemental and more sophisticated commodities. Therefore, far from it being a symptom of growing distress, the decline in food availability is actually indicative of an improvement in the conditions of the people, including the rural poor.

Some have even gone to the extent of suggesting that, with the changes occurring in Indian agriculture in terms of the cropping pattern and use of machinery, peasants and workers do not need to put in hard manual labor. Correspondingly, the need for consuming huge amounts of foodgrains no longer arises. This argument is completely untenable in the light of the hard facts of rising unemployment, falling output growth, entrapment of farmers in debt and land loss and especially, when the agrarian crisis has found expression in the acute desperation and hopelessness of the farmers, leaving them with no recourse but to take their own lives. Gene Campaign strongly feels that such policy conclusions which are contrary to realities would have dangerous repercussions if implemented, reducing food security further and impoverishing farmers.

 

THE DEBATE SURROUNDING GM CROPS

In the backdrop of the severe agrarian crisis with which Indian agriculture is faced, proponents of GM technology perceive GM crops as offering a solution to hunger in the developing countries. The Department of Biotechnology and the Biotechnology industry in India have taken the position at several policy forums that raising agricultural growth from the current 1.7% to the desired 4% and alleviating the agrarian crisis could be achieved by promoting genetically engineered crops. US-led programs like the secretly concluded and controversial Indo-US deal on agriculture and the ABSP I and ABSP II (Agriculture Biotechnology Support Project) funded by the USAID, led by Cornell University and implemented in India through the Department of Biotechnology, are invoked by the government and the science administration as enabling programs to achieve the goal of uplifting Indian agriculture. Sahai has questioned the desirability of such direct US intervention in India's program on GE crops and foods and also the ridiculously simplistic approach of suggesting that one single technology could address the many factors responsible for decline in agriculture.7 She further expresses the view that as genetically engineered crops have been developed essentially for the large land holding, mechanized agriculture of industrialized countries, they do not fit the developing country context.

Further, there is little available in the repertoire of genetic engineering today that is geared to address the problems of developing country agriculture. At present, GE technology offers only four major crops: soybean, corn, cotton and canola. Apart from a few virus resistant GE varieties, herbicide tolerance and insect resistance (the Bt trait) are the two traits that dominate the field of genetically engineered crops.

Herbicide tolerant crops contain a gene that makes them resistant to the herbicide that is sprayed to kill weeds. The company that owns the herbicide tolerant crops (in this case Monsanto) is also the company that owns the herbicide that particular crop variety will tolerate. Hence the company promoting herbicide tolerant crops makes a double killing, first on the sale of the herbicide itself and, second, on the sale of the crop varieties which are tolerant to that proprietary herbicide.

Herbicide tolerance was developed for industrial agriculture with its large farms and labor starved conditions, where weed control was possible only by using chemicals like herbicides.

In developing countries, like India, weeds are controlled manually. Weeding is an income source in rural areas, especially for women. Sometimes it is their only source of income. Farm operations like sowing, weeding, harvesting and winnowing are the key sources of rural employment. As the herbicide tolerance trait is essentially a labor saving and hence a labor displacing trait, its introduction will take work away from agriculture labor and destroy income opportunities in rural India.

Bt technology is the second category of genetically engineered crops, like Bt cotton, which is the only GE crop being cultivated in India at present, although many others are in the pipeline. In Bt crops, a toxin producing gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is put into plants. The plants that produce the Bt toxin are, in essence, producing their own insecticide. Pests that feed on the plant are supposed to die upon eating the toxin.

Like other forms of insecticide, however, pests will eventually develop resistance to Bt. This resistance is already beginning to develop. Reports are coming in about the collapse of the Bt cotton technology from China and Arkansas. Cotton scientists in India are warning that, with the way in which legal and illegal Bt cotton is spreading everywhere, and without farmers following the recommended crop management practices, it is only a matter of time before local pests become resistant to the toxin and the technology collapses in India as well.

In India, the Bt strategy for pest resistance is likely to collapse earlier than predicted, as, in the absence of any coherent policy, the Department of Biotechnology has sanctioned its use in a large number of crops. Today, about 42 percent of all the research on GE crops in India is based on the Bt gene. Ranging from cotton to potato, rice, eggplant, tomato, cauliflower, cabbage, tobacco and maize, the Bt gene is used everywhere.

Assuming that the crops that are being researched are targeted to reach the fields one day, we are facing a situation where a wide range of crops growing in both the Rabi and Kharif season will contain the Bt gene. So, throughout the year, there will be standing crops containing the Bt toxin. Not only that, in the same season, there will be a number of different Bt crops growing next to each other in small fields, especially in regions where farmers grow a variety of vegetables. When pests, such as the bollworm, are consistently exposed to the toxin in every season, year after year, resistance to the Bt toxin will surface very quickly. All pests ultimately develop a resistance to the poison that is aimed to kill it. That is why a constantly evolving Integrated Pest Management (IPM) approach, using a variety of strategies, is the only approach that can work over the long term to control plant pests and diseases.

 

ECONOMIC ISSUES

On top of all this, the high cost of Bt technology makes its cultivation economics adverse for small farmers. Bt cotton seeds cost several times the price of successful, local non-Bt seeds.

So exorbitant has the pricing been, that the Government of Andhra Pradesh has filed a case against the owner of the Bt technol- ogy, the Monsanto Company.

Gene Campaign, which presented the first scientific data from the first harvest of Bt cultivation in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, showed that net profit from Bt cotton was lower per acre compared to non-Bt cotton in all types of soils and that because of the high investment costs and poor performance of Bt cotton, sixty percent of the farmers cultivating Bt cotton were not even able to recover their investment and incurred losses averaging Rs. 79 per acre.8 Research has shown that Bt cotton has been a disaster and in fact responsible for crop failure leading to suicide by victims. The TISS study found that seventy percent of the total number of suicide victims in Vidarbha grew cotton as their primary cash crop; the district records of the region show that seventy percent of the farmers who killed themselves were cultivating Bt cotton.9

An independent study was conducted by agricultural scientists Dr. Abdul Qayum and Kiran Sakkhari on Bt cotton in Andhra Pradesh that involved a season-long investigation in 87 villages of the major cotton growing districts - Warangal, Nalgonda, Adilabad and Kurnool.10 Bt cotton was found to have failed on all counts: it failed miserably for small farmers in terms of yield; non-Bt cotton surpassed Bt by nearly 30 percent and at 10 percent less expense. It did not significantly reduce pesticide use; over the three years, Bt farmers used Rs2 571 worth of pesticide on average while the non-Bt farmers used Rs2 766 worth of pesticide. It did not bring profit to farmers; over the three years, the non-Bt farmer earned, on average, 60 percent more than the Bt farmer. It did not reduce the cost of cultivation; on average, the Bt farmer had to pay 12 percent more than the non-Bt farmer. It did not result in a healthier environment; researchers found a special kind of root rot spread by Bollgard cotton infecting the soil, preventing other crops from growing.

The Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti (VJAS) has also alleged that 170 cotton growers from Western Vidarbha, who had opted to sow Bt cotton of a US-based seeds company, had committed suicide during the period from June to December last year.11 According to VJAS president Kishore Tiwari, among the 182 suicides in Western Vidarbha, 170 were by Bt cotton growers. According to him, over six lakh farmers from Vidarbha had sown Bt cotton on the assurance that the minimum yield would be 20 quintals per acre. However, the average yield per acre was only two to three quintals per acre (1 quintal is equal to 100 kilograms, or about 220 pounds).

Leading farmers' organizations have demanded a ban on Bt cotton and a moratorium on any further approval of genetically modified crops for commercial cultivation. Three varieties of Monsanto's Bt cotton failed miserably in Andhra Pradesh.12 The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) had to ban its cultivation in Andhra Pradesh on receiving adverse reports from the state government and farmers. The GEAC also banned the cultivation of Monsanto's Mech-12 Bt in all South India. The government also had to concede for the first time that Bt cotton had indeed failed in parts of India, particularly in Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh.13

Complaints of allergic reactions arose from farmers growing genetically modified cotton has come in from Barwani and Dhar Districts of the state of Madhya Pradesh.14 A report from Nimad district states that Bt cotton is causing allergic reactions in those coming into contact with it, and cattle have perished near Bt cotton fields in another district. Sixteen hundred sheep died in Warangal district after grazing in fields on which Bt cotton had been harvested.15 This year again, Bt cotton has been found to have raised its ugly head with the deleterious effect of Bt cotton on livestock starting to re-surface in Warangal district.16

No comprehensive health and risk assessment of Bt cotton has been done. Thus, in the light of the above facts, it is unrealistic to assume that GM crops, in their current form, could contribute to alleviating the agrarian crisis.


RECOMMENDATIONS

An in depth analysis of the above issues reveals the severity of the present agrarian crisis. To mitigate the present crisis, the Jan Sunwai came up with a number of recommendations, which are as follows:

  • Input costs should be reduced.
  • Markets must be made available for agricultural produce.
  • A good market price must be provided for agricultural products.
  • For farmers , credit should be made available at low interest rates.
  • The extension system should be revived to solve problems in the field.
  • There should be a proper system to address the issue of water scarcity.
  • Adequate water for irrigation should be provided.
  • Conserve Agro Bio -Diversity in Gene and Seed banks.
  • Increase budget outlay for Agriculture in every Five Year plan of the Government of India.
  • Agricultural land should not be given to SEZ.
  • The use of Genetically Modified Seeds should be stopped and organic agricultural practices encouraged.
  • Farmers' Rights law to be implemented immediately.
  • Investments should be made to restore soil health.
  • Agriculture should be diversified with introduction of new varieties.


This article originally appeared as part of "ÃJan Sunwai on the Present Agrarian Crisis: A Report" and appears courtesy of Gene Campaign. Gene Campaign is an Indian non-profit that works on food security and GE issues. The accompanying images are from a "jan sunwai," or a public hearing, was held on March 30, 2007.


REFERENCES

1. Patnaik, P., "The Crisis in India's Countryside", http://ccc.uchicago.edu/docs/India/patnaik.pdf , accessed on May 5, 2007.

2. Sahai, S., "Are Genetically Engineered Crops the Answer to India's Agrarian Crisis".

3. Mishra, D.K., (undated), "Behind Agrarian Distress: Interlinked Transactions as Exploitative Mechanisms", Epov (a newsletter of the Centre for Science and Development)

4. Patnaik, U., "It is Time for Kumbhakarna to Wake up", The Hindu , August 5, 2005

5. Sahai, S., "Are Genetically Engineered Crops the Answer to India's Agrarian Crisis?"

6. Shukla, S.P., "An Initiative for Agrarian Analysis and Action", ATIS (Agricultural Trade Initiative from the South", September 30, 2005.

7. Sahai, S. "Are Genetically Engineered Crops the Answer to India's Agrarian Crisis?"

8. "Performance of Bt .cotton", Economic & Political Weekly, July 26- Aug 2003, Vol. XXXV111, no. 30; pp.3139- 3141.

9. Tata Institute of Social Sciences, "Causes of Farmer Suicides in Maharashtra: An Enquiry", March 15, 2005. 10. "Science Finds against Bt Cotton", Genet, February 5, 2006.

11. "Most Farmers who Committed Suicide were Bt Cotton Growers: VJAS", Genet 20/04/06

12. "Farm bodies seek ban on Bt cotton cultivation", Genet 26/09/2005.

13. "A Disaster Called Bt Cotton", Genet 05/12/05.

14. "Bt Cotton and Farmers' Health", Genet 24/03/2006.

15. "1600 sheep die after grazing in Bt cotton field",Genet 04/05/06.

16. " Goats/ sheep Mortality after Grazing on Bt Cotton", Genet 10/02/07

 
 
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