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Not on fertile ground

There are so many groups fighting for Indian farmers today. But why aren’t they equally vociferous, as they have been on GM crops, about the existing problems? KumKum Dasgupta writes.

india Updated: Feb 24, 2010 23:50 IST
KumKum Dasgupta

In the past few weeks, the media have been abuzz with arguments and counter-arguments on genetically-modified (GM) foods. The storm is far from over, although the Environment and Forest Minister Jairam Ramesh’s announced a indefinite moratorium on the commercial cultivation of Bt brinjal. In fact, now Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has also stepped into the ring after Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar wrote to him suggesting that ad hoc decisions on GM crops would “demoralise Indian scientists” and “jeopardise R&D crucial to food security”.

However, what surprised me most was the nature of the protests. It was almost as if it was streetfight — which was probably good because you need that kind of decibel level to make things heard in this country. Civil society was at its most aggressive — and creative — best: at one such raucous public meeting in Bangalore, Ramesh got an unusual gift, a brinjal garland.

The debates were reported on Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and, of course, the good old mediums: television and newspapers. In India, everyone loves a good debate, and why not? After all, at least 46 per cent of India’s population relies on agriculture for its livelihood — a far cry from the home ground of GM crops — the US — where less than 2 per cent depend on farming for a living.

However, I wonder, why don’t we hear such strident civil society protests and debates when it comes to the ‘old’ issues of Indian agriculture? The same holds true for our ministers, especially Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar and Science & Technology Minister Prithviraj Chavan whoa are lobbying for GM crops. Why aren’t they equally aggressive about the other pending agrarian problems as they are about GM crops?

Travelling through Punjab two years ago, I met R.K. Singh, an official with the agriculture department in one of the blocks of Jalandhar.

So what are your responsibilities, I asked.

“My staff is supposed to provide extension services to the farmers: tell them about new seeds, pests and new farming techniques,” Singh replied.

“So, you travel a lot in the your block?”

Singh smiled a bit and then added shyly: “Travel? I don’t even have an official vehicle.”

“So how do you reach out to the farmers? Mobiles?”

“Err... the office has no telephone connection. I wait for the farmers to come here for information,” Singh said apologetically.

Just two kilometres from Singh’s two-room office was a vegetable collection hub of an agri-retail giant. Inside, the hub had everything that could help a farmer with information and market knowledge: it was linked to the nearest mandi, 40 kms away, for tracking the rates and internet to download information on pesticides and new seeds. The company’s ‘agents’ met farmers regularly to tell them about new developments in the sector.

Later in Delhi, the CEO of the agri-retail chain told me that his company has mapped the agricultural potential of the country though satellites. “We are way ahead of the government,” he said confidently.

A year later, I was at Tim Seifert’s huge farm, near St Louis, Illinois, USA. As he explained the benefits of GM crops, we walked to his workshed. He had everything at his disposal: satellite-linked tractors, sprinklers to hi-tech threshers. Later at an agriculture fair, I was amazed what is available to an American farmer: technology solutions, information on new seeds, pest control techniques and real time talk shows to clear his questions. And, most companies were falling over each other to entice farmers.

There is no dearth of issues that affects the Indian farmer. Take irrigation for example, a key requirement to increase farm productivity. According to the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, in the last 15 years (1991-92 to 2006-07), there has been no addition to the total irrigated areas by canals from major and medium irrigation projects.

Hopefully, activists will not lose sight of such problems when they take to the streets next.