Indian Farmers Protest for Seed Sovereignty on Quit India Day

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This year marks the 71st anniversary of the Quit India movement which called for civil disobedience to meet independence from the British rule in 1942. On the eve of Quit India day on August 8, almost 2000 people gathered at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi to protest against the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) bill, Foreign Biotech Multinationals like Monsanto and for protecting the seed sovereignty in India.

The protestors, mostly farmers demanded to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science and Technology, Environment and Forests reviewing the BRAI Bill to recommend the withdrawal of the bill. “On the eve of Quit India Day, we have come together from all over the country as GM technology and companies like Monsanto are threatening our seed sovereignty and livelihoods. We demand that these companies quit India and strongly urge the Government of India to withdraw the BRAI Bill which has been brought in to facilitate the entry of GM crops, and stop the promotion of flawed and dangerous technologies like GMOs” said Yudvir Singh, senior member of Bharatiya Kisan Union.

 

BRAI’s controversial journey

From the time it was slated for introduction in 2009, the BRAI bill has been marred with controversies and has had a strong opposition from the farmers and civil society organizations across India. A widespread public outrage over the approval of genetically modified, Bt Brinjal led to Jairam Ramesh, the then Minister of Environment and Forests declaring an infinite moratorium on it in the year 2010.

The activists and farmers have been highlighting the BRAI bill’s shortcomings in making the biotech companies accountable should there be any biological disaster while handling GMOs. The other pressing problem is that of bio-piracy and seed sovereignty.  In 2011, the National Biodiversity Authority prosecuted the biotech giant, Monsanto under the violation of Biodiversity Protection Law for biopiracy for using indigenous Eggplant germplasm commercially.

In 2012, Greenpeace exposed Monsanto’s GM corn field trials on the grounds of biosafety violations in the state of Karnataka. Several state governments banned GM field trials in their region and demanded for public consultations to discuss the unconstitutional nature and lack of transparency mechanisms in the BRAI bill. The bill proposes to lower the bar for GM crop approvals with no independent long-term safety assessments of GM products. It is also accused of overriding the mandate of Right to Information (RTI) and taking away the authority of state governments to have a say in GM field trials.

A ten year review of India’s only commercially approved GM crop, Bt cotton concluded that the crop has created a deep agrarian crisis by monopolistic control over seed markets in the country and the report stressed that the aggressive and unethical promotion of Bt cotton by the biotech companies has led to crop failures , rising debts and farmer suicides in the rainwater fed areas like Vidarbha.

Last year, a report by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture  called attention to stop all GM field trials in the country as the biosafety regulations are not powerful enough and recommended setting up of a comprehensive Bio-safety Authority through an act of Parliament, which is extensively discussed and debated amongst all stakeholders instead of the current BRAI bill.

“The latest among the growing scientific reports which have detailed the problems with environmental release of GMOs is the final report of the Technical Expert Committee (TEC) of Supreme Court (in the PIL on GMOs). The TEC has clearly stated that open air field trials of GM crops have to be stopped and effort to introduce Bt in food crops is not advisable. In addition the TEC has also said that herbicide tolerant (HT) GM crops, many of which are in the regulatory pipeline, are not suitable for India. Why is the government ignoring these highly credible reports and promoting GMOs and pushing the flawed BRAI Bill?” said Sridhar Radhakrishnan of Thanal, an organisation working for the promotion of sustainable agriculture in India.

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A man wears a Gandhi topi made from indigenous organic cotton to show his solidarity against the BRAI bill.

 

The struggle for seed sovereignty

According to the agriculture ministry, Bt cotton amounts to more than 90% of the total cotton cultivation in India. It was introduced in 2002 and has completely takeover the cotton seed market in India. It has becoming harder than ever to procure indigenous cotton seeds for cultivation.

There is a growing consensus in the political circles about safeguarding the indigenous seeds and biosafety measures. “Seed sovereignty is important to India. The agricultural agreements that the current government is making with foreign countries are more dangerous that any nuclear agreements. The use of foreign pesticides and fertilizers on Indian soils has ruined our farmers and agriculture. We have so many varieties of indigenous crops in our country. Promoting dangerous technologies like GMOs and foreign biotech companies will destroy the rich biodiversity of India.” said Murli Manohar Joshi, Senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader while addressing the crowd at Jantar Mantar.

Speaking about the distressed condition of the Indian farmer, Mr. Joshi also said that, “Indian farmers must go back to using organic methods for farming where they have absolute control over their land and crops unlike the proposed system of patented seeds and corporate control of seeds under the BRAI bill. There is also a widespread problem of land grabbing for agriculture by these corporates and the GM technology only benefits farmers who have large land holdings. How can India achieve food security if majority of Indian farmers who sustain on marginal agricultural lands lose their lands to biotech giants?”

India is the centre of origin for a variety of crops including rice, mustard and eggplant. The contamination resulting from GMOs in these crops might result in the loss of biodiversity and as seen before in the case of the biotech giant Monsanto, there might be increased cases of biopiracy for commercial purposes. The process of GM contamination is irreversible in nature.

 

Growing dissent for BRAI across political parties

For some time now, the political parties now have increasingly shown their solidarity in opposing the BRAI bill seeing the plight of the farmers dependent on corporate agriculture. The growing farmer suicides in some parts of India like Vidarbha and Orissa are a matter of concern for the politicians as they prepare for next year’s national elections. India is primarily an agrarian economy despite its rapid economic developments in other fields. Hence agricultural growth is a vote winner for all major political parties in the country.

The protest in Jantar Mantar witnessed senior political leaders from all major political parties like Congress, Bharatiya Janata Party , Communist Party of India(Marxist), Janata Dal(United), Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party, Biju Janata Dal and Telugu Desam Party. This might have been first time when so many important national leaders have come together to speak against the BRAI bill, GMOs and foreign biotech companies.

“BRAI is not being opposed only by farmers or civil society, it has faced stringent opposition from most political parties; except NCP and a section within the Congress party, all other political formations are against the BRAI Bill.  This is being forced upon us with its clauses restricting access to information, curtailing power of the states, circumscribing people’s right to go to court and other objectionable provisions which are clearly beneficial only for the biotech industry,” said Rajesh Krishnan, Co-Convenor of the Coalition for a GM-Free India.

However an insider source in Congress claims that the party is divided on the issue of BRAI bill and the coming months will decide the fate of food, farming and agriculture in India as the bill rests under the review of the Parliamentary Standing committee on Science and Technology, Environment and Forest currently.

Author: Pari Trivedi

Photo courtesy: Pari Trivedi