Indian farmers protest against pro-liberalisation agricultural policy

The government of the South Indian state of Karnataka has introduced a new agricultural policy and proposals to reform the land laws to facilitate the corporatisation of agriculture in the state. The move has provoked a strong resistance from the state's farmers' association, NGOs, environmentalists and other activists.

By Vandana Shiva

AT a massive rally in Bangalore, the farmers of Karnataka burnt copies of the State Government's New Agricultural Policy and the Land Reform Amendment Act.

The rally was organised in resistance to globalisation and corporatisation of agriculture and other sectors of the state's economy.

The Karnataka farmers' union, the Rajya Ryota Sangha (KRRS), has been spearheading the movement against the entry of multinational corporations (MNCs) in agriculture.

In 1993, KRRS had organised protests at the offices and seed processing plant in Bangalore of Cargill, the largest grain trader and seed giant.

KRRS has also been part of the Neem Campaign started by the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Natural Resource Policy to challenge the neem patents held by W R Grace, the chemical giant which now has a 20-ton-per-day biopesticide processing plant in Tumkur, Karnataka.

In 1995, when Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), opened its first outlet in Bangalore, KRRS managed to get it closed down by the local Municipal Corporation though KFC later got a temporary stay order from the High Court.

The New Agriculture Policy of Karnataka and the Land Reform Amendment Act are accelerating and making irreversible the processes of globalisation that the KRRS has been fighting against since 1991 when the new economic policy of trade liberalisation was introduced to India as part of the World Bank/IMF adjustment package.

Besides leaders of the KRRS, the rally was addressed by Mahendra Singh Tikait, the national farm leader, Medha Patkar of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, Dr Vandana Shiva of the Third World Network and Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Natural Resource Policy and trade union leaders from the banking, insurance and transport sectors. All these sectors of the state economy are facing privatisation and globalisation.

Both the new agricultural policy and the proposed land reforms were attacked on the following grounds:

1. The total neglect of goals of sustainability and conservation.

There is no section in the Agriculture Policy that addresses the issue of sustainability of agriculture and the conservation of the natural resource base, even though the policy was drafted after the Earth Summit in Rio when all countries agreed to adopt sustainable agriculture policies under Agenda 21.

Chapter 6 of Agenda 21 focuses on the environmental aspects of sustainable agriculture.

Environmental sustainability and livelihood sustainability are both intimately linked to natural resource policy. In particular, three natural resources are at the very heart of sustainable agriculture.

1. Land

2. Water

3. Biodiversity

The conservation of this resource base should be the top priority of any policy for agriculture that is designed to ensure sustainability.

2. Neglect of food security.

There is not a word in the policy document on the objective of food security even though food security is guaranteed as a fundamental right in the Indian constitution:

'The State shall regard the raising of the level of nutrition and the standard of living of its people and the improvement of public health as among its primary duties.' (Article 47)

Food security for rural communities is a product of agricultural policies that protect their resources and their livelihoods. However, all aspects of the new agricultural policy take away the protection of rural communities and aim to divert vital natural resources such as land, water and biodiversity from meeting the needs of local communities to short-term exports. In its attempt to justify the promotion of short-term exports and non-sustainable agriculture, the agricultural policy document claims that, 'There is ample empirical evidence to suggest that Karnataka enjoys comparative advantage and has large potential in horticulture, floriculture, sericulture, fisheries, dairying, poultry and meat.'

This neglects the real comparative advantage of the state in the production of spices such as areca nut, cardamom and pepper which have been export crops over centuries. The state has the unique endowment of the Western Ghats ecosystems for spice gardens, while factory farming of livestock for meat exports or flower cultivation can be done anywhere in the world. The state has no unique 'advantage' in these sectors which the agriculture policy aims to promote.

The new agricultural policy puts a special focus on floriculture. This includes a tissue culture lab near Bangalore Airport as well as transport infrastructure for 'flower routes' to bring flowers from farms to the Airport for export.

The ecological and social impact of floriculture has been totally neglected. The horticulture industry in countries like Columbia has given rise to pesticide-related diseases.

Fainting, dizziness, nausea, skin irritation - these are some of the minor symptoms of pesticide-related problems. Extended exposure leads to miscarriages, premature births, hyperactivity of the bronchial system and respiratory and neurological problems. Up to 20 people a day are hospitalised in Columbia with chronic pesticide-related problems caused by pesticide use in the 350-odd flower companies.

Floriculture is also very water intensive. A large flower company can consume as much water as a settlement of 20,000 people. This could lead to a water famine since water is a resource that is already very scarce in the semi-arid Deccan region around Bangalore.

Like floriculture, intensive aquaculture and intensive livestock industry also have high environmental costs which have not been taken into account.

Throughout other states of India where intensive aquaculture has been introduced, coastal ecosystems and the livelihoods of fisher-folk and farmers have been destroyed. In a report submitted by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) to the Supreme Court of India as part of a public interest litigation to stop the spread of intensive prawn farming, it was shown that the annual economic costs of social and environmental destruction are five times more than the export earnings. Further, in all countries where shrimp farming has been introduced, it has proved to be non-sustainable. In 1987 Taiwan became the largest prawn producer in the world. A year later disease struck and production dropped by 70%. Shrimp exports declined from 50,000 million tons in 1987 to 800,000 million tons in 1988. In addition the excessive ground water pumping led to land subsidence. The Taiwan government had to ban the setting up of new shrimp farms for this reason. Agencies and corporations which cite Taiwan as a miracle to be followed in the area of shrimp exports should also learn from the ecological collapse of shrimp fisheries exports. Similar non-sustainability due to infectious diseases and deterioration of the environment caused by pollution from intensive aquaculture is affecting the Philippine and Thai prawn industry. In the case of intensive livestock too, the pressure on resources is multiplied many fold. Food is diverted from humans to animals. While 60% of all grain production in the US goes to feed animals, in India only 2% is used for animal feed. If industrial factory farming of poultry and cattle is introduced for meat exports in Karnataka, food will be diverted from people to animals, creating food scarcity and the undermining of food security.

Intensive factory farming is also polluting. It converts animal waste from a source of fertility into a major source of pollution since intensive factory farming of cattle leads to concentration of organic waste from livestock. Since such intensive production is not integrated and cannot be integrated with agriculture as in the case of small farms with decentralised livestock economies, the animal waste turns into a pollutant. Nitrogen from cattle waste is converted into ammonia and nitrates which leach into and pollute the surface and ground water. A feedlot of 10,000 cattle produces as much waste as a city of 110,000 people. This is the reason the Netherlands has been trying to export its toxic cow dung to India and is unable to reintegrate this animal waste into its own agricultural systems.

Cow dung is a fertiliser only in small-scale integrated farming systems. In large-scale concentrated and specialised factory farming systems, this wealth is converted into a hazardous waste. Further, since intensive factory farming of cattle goes hand in hand with intensive feeding and feed production which in turn requires heavy use of fertilisers and pesticides, the cattle waste from factory farms is very heavily contaminated with chemicals. An example of the toxic nature of this waste is the Dutch cow dung that a company wanted to export to India.

3. The myth of people's participation, the reality of farmers' displacement

The agricultural policy uses the rhetoric of people's participation and people's control to basically alienate the land and water and biodiversity resources from the farming community.

For example, the section on reforms of the irrigation sector talks of a shift from 'top down to bottom up' approach. The privatisation and tradeable water approach is definitely a bottom up policy. It is bottom up since it moves the control over water resources upwards from small and marginal farmers to large corporations and agribusiness interests who can buy up the 'water equity shares' of 'water users associations' and establish monopoly control on water. This has already happened in Sri Lanka, where export corporations have purchased shares from farmers, thus leading to displacement of farmers from agricultural activities and livelihoods.

4. Undoing land reform.

The recent amendment of the Karnataka Land Reforms Act (1961) is aimed at undoing the Land Reforms Act of Karnataka. Land Ceiling has been removed for aquaculture in the Uttara Kannada and Dakshina Kannada districts. Horticulture, floriculture and agro-based industries have also been made exempt of ceiling laws.

5. Intellectual Property Rights and the privatisation of research.

The policy for agricultural research is aimed at shifting the research from being directed by public need to private profit. As the policy states, 'As a first step in this direction, state level Agricultural Universities would be encouraged to work with companies having stake in Karnataka's agriculture. These may be the seed companies, agro-processing companies or those directly engaged in the production of some horticultural crops. Scientists of the Universities would be sent on deputation to work with these companies with a view to transferring the knowledge of the laboratory to land. Appropriate arrangements would be made with these companies with respect to patenting, profit sharing, etc., such that scientists as well as the research organisations are suitably rewarded for their commercial efforts.'

This thrust will lead to a total neglect of research aimed at sustainable agriculture and people's food security. The proposals on IPRs in the agricultural policy are not grounded in reality. There seems to be no understanding of patenting and breeders' rights and no awareness of the major debate on farmers' rights that has been evolving in the food and agriculture organisations over the past decades.

There is a need for innovative approaches to establishing common property rights in biodiversity in such a way that local communities continue to protect biodiversity by having secure rights to their utilisation and the benefits from products that develop from biodiversity should not be lost by the country. The case for neem patents and W R Grace illustrates the challenge well. Grace has set up a 20-ton-per-day processing plant in Tumkur and has got patents in the US and Europe for biopesticide from the neem. Karnataka state needs to think of an effective means of charging 40% to 50% royalty on the international sale price since Grace is benefiting from a biological resource of the state. Instead of only thinking of how to put public resources at the service of corporations and private profit, the Karnataka government should be thinking of ways to ensure that public resources are used for the public good. Communities which have developed and protected the biological wealth of Karnataka should be the primary beneficiaries of its utilisation. This is the obligation of the state under the Biodiversity Convention.

Steps towards this objective are totally missing in Karnataka's new agricultural policy.

The policy is also totally flawed in suggesting that 'a high priority would be given to patent all local varieties of seeds'. Since local seed varieties have been evolved over centuries of breeding, they do not pass the criteria of 'novelty' necessary for patenting. The policy also states, 'As Karnataka has abundant biodiversity, state government should make efforts to identify, protect and patent them and also safeguard intellectual property rights of our scientists in this regard.'

Instead of ensuring that alternative legal regimes are evolved to protect farmers' rights, the policy totally neglects and negates the rights of farmers as breeders. 'Sui generis' alternatives beyond patenting and beyond UPOV Convention on Breeders' Rights are necessary to protect the community rights of farmers as breeders. Such alternative frameworks have been evolved by the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Natural Resource Policy (RFSTNRP) and TWN as the 'common intellectual rights' and 'community registry' concepts.

Biodiversity cannot be saved if biodiversity rights are alienated from farmers and appropriated either by corporations or the state.

Vandana Shiva is a scientist and activist. She is also a contributing editor for Third World Resurgence.