Nishant Sirohi

| @nishantssirohi | June 11,2019

IN this concluding piece on the agrarian crisis, we lay out a few of the key areas that need urgent reform to balance the current tilt towards large corporations.

India’s agrarian crisis has several issues starting from the old loan waiver policy, minimum support price, lack of rural infrastructure, seed politics and rural labour issues and water among others. With a newly elected government in place that has a much stronger mandate than before, all that is needed is the political will to initiate reforms to strengthen the agrarian sector – the backbone of the country.

 

Seed policy

 

Due to adverse reforms, “seed” policies in India are no longer regulated by the Government of India and have inadvertently shifted into the hands private corporations. A handful of national and international corporations, under the auspices of the Federation of Seed Industry India, lead the seeds market in India.

 

 

There is no regulation on seed pricing in India. Seed corporations have replaced native and traditional seed varieties with hybrid and genetically modified seeds which they sell at much higher costs.

Farmers who are seed producers and not seed consumers are now forced by seed dealers – who work as the agents for seed corporations – to purchase particular hybrid and genetically modified seeds. In a nation of farmers, corporations enjoy indisputable monopolyselling seeds in departmental stores due to the government inefficiency.

 

Read Part 1: A Nation for Farmers : Part I

 

Before the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Act, 2001 (PPVFRA) came into existence, there was no intellectual property law for the seed industry. The preamble of the PPVFRA says that the law was intended “to promote research in, and creation of, intellectual property in the seed sector”. However, the outcome of this Act is devastating as it has systematically destroyed the traditional seeds varieties and traditional agrarian-practices and pushed hybrid and genetically modified seeds to the forefront of Indian agrarian culture.

There are three reasons why poor Indian farmers are forced to replace their traditional seed varieties with hybrid and genetically modified seeds:

  1. Government ineffectiveness to encourage competition in the seed markets where now the corporation enjoy their undisputed monopoly;
  2. Government restraints on research and development of seeds by public agriculture institutes by dictating strict licensing terms and confusing intellectual property laws through different Acts;
  3. Government’s failure to prevent the illegal introduction of genetically modified seed technology in the market.

There are two very interesting cases of how seed corporations control the agriculture sector in this country.

 

Case 1: Monsanto

 

Monsanto, a United Stated agro-business giant, has been allowed to continue to enjoy a monopoly on the controversial BT cotton seed in India after the Supreme Court on January 8, 2019 reversed a Delhi High Court judgement and allowed Monsanto to claim patent on its genetically modified cotton seeds.

 

 

In April 2018, a two-judge bench headed by Justice S Ravindra Bhat held that “some items such as seeds, animals and plants cannot be patented under the Indian laws”. The Delhi High Court also declined to give Monsanto the right to claim royalties on genetically modified technology and hold that such royalties would be decided only by a specialised agency of the agriculture ministry.

 

Case 2: PepsiCo

 

PepsiCo initiated the legal proceedings against four potato farmers in Gujarat for illegally growing its patented potato variety, which the company had registered under the PPVFRA. However, PepsiCo later withdrew the cases against them after the four farmers signed an agreement with PepsiCo that they would purchase the seeds from PepsiCo and then produce and sell it on PepsiCo’s terms and conditions.

An interesting point in the case was that the PepsiCo variant of the seed was already registered as an “Extant Variety”, which means the variety of potato was already available and existed in the country when PepsiCo registered its seed. The poor potato farmers of Gujarat were not necessarily using the same PepsiCo variant. However, they become victims at the hands of a giant corporation.

These are just the two recent examples of how conglomerates exploit the laws to achieve their objectives.

 

Tenants’ Rights

 

In the vast agrarian sector in India, the government only has records of ownership of land; there is no official record of holdings by the tenants. If you are a tenant-farmer and do not own the land that you sow, then you cannot access the benefits of a rural co-operative bank, avail social security and loan wavers and benefit from other government subsidies. As a tenant-farmer, you are also not eligible to seek compensation or any other financial support under a given scheme for crop failure due to drought or natural calamity.

The land belongs to the tiller, but the one who does not own the land does not have any right under the present land law.

 

 

Even though the traditional feudal system was obliterated by the Zamindari Abolition Acts enacted in every state in India, even today the rent that is paid by the cultivator tenant is unregulated and subject to the discretion of the landlord.

A law that allows the landlords to make a profit by charging rent in excess of the amount to be paid as revenue, plus avail the financial subsidies given by the government even without being the tiller of the land is simply unjust and unfair. Though the Zamindari Abolition Acts had a favourable economic impact on the country it has not benefitted tenants and share-croppers as they do not have occupancy rights on the land they cultivate.

K Venkatasubramanian, member of the erstwhile Planning Commission proposed three tenancy reform measures which he said should be immediately addressed by the Government:

  1. regulation of rent;
  2. security of tenure;
  3. and iii) conferring ownership to tenants.

Tenant farmers, generally the poorest section of the society, remain landless and work on the margins for survival. This had further led to interrelated social problems like inadequate housing, poor health and sanitation, hunger, and lack of livelihood security.

One of the reasons why tenants’ rights are never acknowledged in public policy and subsequently in the law is the absence of substantial data on land leases. This has become more serious and threatening in recent years and it continues to prevent the policymakers from examining levels of rent and variations in rent across size-classes and social groups.

 

Rural labour & migration 

 

With economic liberation in the early 1990s, industries have become the focus of development. Since then, successive governments’ policies have focused on strengthening and supporting industrialisation and propagating the manufacturing industry as a main means to boost the economy.

This has resulted in the degradation of the agrarian sector, which employs the largest number of people in the country, continued to degrade, over the last two decades with small farmers and rural labourers being forced to migrate to cities to find employment due to the rising cost of cultivation and increasing economic burden.

 

 

A NITI Ayog report said that unemployment rate was at a 45-year high in 2017-2018, even though it later debunked the report and called it just a “draft”. But this did not change the reality of India’s deepening agrarian crisis. According to a report by the Centre for Study of Development Society’s (CSDS) on the ‘State of Indian Farmers, 76 per cent of small and tenant farmers want to give up farming, for reasons including lack of rural infrastructure, poor government schemes and declining labour, among others.

It is the duty of the State to empower agricultural labour, and not to crush a sector which has guaranteed employment to the largest number of people in the country.

 

Read Part 2: A Nation for Farmers : Part II

 

The government should frame policies which gives back rural labour their inherent creative power so that they can re-organise themselves in old sustainable ways. One step in this direction will be to fix minimum wages for the labour in the rural economy.

Another major factor which has led to the decline in rural labour is technological advancement in the Indian agrarian sector. Automation in the agrarian sector is also taking away the livelihoods of the rural labourers. Technology in the agrarian sector should not be restricted, rather mechanisation or automation should be done in such a way that it makes labourers work lighter but does not replace their jobs. Technology should actually help the workers and labourers to ease the burden and not be used to marginalise the worker.

 

 

The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee (MGNREGA), which is ambitious government employment scheme, has helped in increasing the employment capacity of the rural economy with a focus on expanding activities like the construction of ponds and wells. However, the fund crunch for the rural employment scheme in the last one year has entirely crippled the scheme.

With severe distress in the agrarian sector and MGNREGA becoming a social security scheme, the demand for work under the scheme has increased to the highest in the last eight years. In 2014-15, it was reported that in the first year under of the NDA government when Prime Minister Narendra Modi had dismissed MGNREGA as “the living monument of UPA’s failure’, the person-days generated was just Rs 166 crore. That has now increased to an average of Rs 233.2 crore with the person-days fund allocated for MGNREGA between the financial years 2009 to 2o18 totalling Rs 2049 crore.

 

Water

 

Water is the most important commodity for farmers. There has been a sharp decline in groundwater in the Gangetic planes and in other parts of the country, which has significant consequences in rural India.

There are conflicting views on the question of how much water we have. According to the Central Water Commission, over the past few years, water availability in India’s 91 reservoirs has now reached its lowest level in a decade, touching 31 per cent and 27 per cent of storage capacity in Northern and Southern India in 2017. There are many reasons behind India’s water crisis.

A farmer needs more water to produce the same crop than before – the reasons include climate change (rising temperature due to global warming), hybrid seeds, and use of excessive fertilisers and pesticides. As a result, a steady decline in groundwater has been recorded.

 

 

There is also increased distribution of water. Rural water is now being supplied to the urban population. The national capital, New Delhi is dependent on water-scarce Haryana and its small towns for its water supply.

Industries across India desperately need water and the government is prioritising the needs of these industries over the farmers – seeking to often control the land so that they can control precious groundwater. For example, the water of Hirakud Dam is being used widely by the industries in Orissa, and the farmers from eight districts of Orissa who were dependent on Hirakud water for irrigation have suffered because of pro-industries government policies.

Policymakers and experts are now endorsing the idea of an independent regulatory body, as envisaged in the National Water Policy 2102, to modulate water in the country by regulating the tariffs for different stakeholders, settling disputes, and ensuring equitable and quality access for all.

The National Water Framework Bill, 2016 which was introduced by the Central Government in consultation with the State Governments, could possibly provide a way forward to ease the crisis around uniform water distribution and management.

 

Conclusion

 

Though villages are changing in terms of cultural and physical systems, they continue to suffer issues of inequality and poverty. The unequal distribution of land and natural resources are the primary reasons for increasing poverty, economic stagnation and distress migration from rural to urban in India.

India is not a deficient country, neither resource wise nor labour wise. What it is needed is a strong consensus to address the issues of farmers and to build a nation for farmers in the nation of farmers.

 

Read Part 1: A Nation for Farmers : Part I

Read Part 2: A Nation for Farmers : Part II

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