Mumbai: After receiving a complaint from the agriculture department, the Maharashtra police on June 25 filed two separate FIRs against 16 farmers for sowing banned herbicide-tolerant Bt (HTBt) cotton seeds in Akola district in eastern Maharashtra. This was the second such case registered in less than a month. Earlier, police in the neighbouring Buldhana district had booked another farmer for allegedly possessing banned HTBt or Bt3 cotton seeds.
The police were suddenly reacting to a phenomenon that many farmers claim has always been “open and widespread” but hadn’t been addressed as a challenge to the state before. Then, the farmers’ organisation in Vidarbha began organising themselves to confront the ban on the use of some particular types of genetically modified (GM) seeds, and the legal fight began.
In a “GM satyagraha”, styled after M.K. Gandhi’s civil disobedience movement in the pre-Independence era, a farmers’ organisation named Shetkari Sanghatana has launched a full-fledged protest against the state and has been sowing HTBt seeds. On June 10, these agitating farmers gathered at the farm of Lalit Bahale, a local leader, in Akoli village and, as a token protest, sowed the seeds. Two weeks later, the state’s agricultural department moved the Akola district police to act and had the FIRs registered.
However, the police have since been struggling with their investigation. Sahayaji Rupnar, a sub-inspector and the investigation officer, told The Wire that it is challenging because their case is under the Seeds Act 1966. “Since it was a protest sowing, only a few seeds were used. We managed to confiscate lesser than 50 grams from the protest spot,” he said.
If found guilty under the Act, one can be jailed for a maximum term of five years and be fined Rs 1 lakh. Rupnar said the seeds had been sent to a government-run seed-testing laboratory in Nagpur. Meanwhile, the accused have neither been interrogated nor arrested. Three of the 16 have applied for anticipatory bail.
Bahale, one of the 16 accused, said the agitation began last month and that it has gained momentum in other states including Haryana. To him, it is a desperate attempt to start a dialogue around scientific innovation and farming. “Whether we like it or not, farmers are using GM seeds. The HTBt varieties are widely available on and under the counter and it is getting sowed and has entered our food chain,” he explained over the phone, during breaks between public gatherings he has been addressing in Haryana over the last week. “What we need is a dialogue and our movement demands that the state brings in a scientific dialogue to the fore.”
His colleague Avinash Nakat, who is also the Akola district head for the organisation, says Shetkari Sanghatana doesn’t support GM crops per se as much as support scientific inventions in agriculture. “Regulatory clearances on the seeds have been withdrawn on political rather than scientific considerations. We have been insisting that a dialogue should resume and for once and for all, we should return to scientifically supporting or opposing GM crops,” he said.
Nakat has also been booked for participating in the protest. However, he is disappointed that the conversations he wanted haven’t taken off, and the farmers have been criminalised. “We have been pushing for a dialogue between the farmers, the state and the environmentalists who have been opposing GM crops. The pending discussion from 2010 should be taken forward. As of today, the picture is unclear and farmers have been indulging in unlawful means to procure the same seeds that the government has banned.”
In 2010, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee, which operates under the Union environment ministry, had cleared Bt brinjal for commercial cultivation. But the then-environment-minister Jairam Ramesh was opposed to it and placed an indefinite moratorium on the product. Since then, politicians and officials have handled biotechnological innovations with a characteristic indecisiveness. “Most of these bans have been due to inconclusive reasons,” Ajit Narde, a farmer and head of the technology cell at the Shetkari Sanghatana, said.
Sharad Joshi, the economist and agriculturist, founded the Shetkari Sanghatana as a pan-Maharashtra farmers organisation in 1979. It began its work with a catchy slogan – “Freedom of access to markets and to technology” – and has always supported GM crops. Narde himself believes that there are more reasons to accept, and not reject, innovations in agriculture.
The 2010 moratorium had no impact on the farmers of Gujarat and little impact on those in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. Farmers have continued to grow transgenic cotton on a wide scale in these states. According to a report submitted to the government in 2018, nearly 15% of the cotton grown in India is likely HTBt cotton.
“Farmers have for long been deprived of agricultural innovations,” Narde continued. “We can’t be overlooking the fact that genetically modified crops need less pesticide and also help with weed control, leading to lower labour cost.” He points to countries like the US, Canada and Australia, which have allowed farmers to grow GM crops.
However, Rajshree Chandra, who teaches political science at the University of Delhi and is the author of The Cunning of Rights: Law, Life, Biocultures (2016), said the intentions and the politics of the farmers’ movement needs to be understood fully before we can respond. “Debates [over GM foods] are posed in such a manner that one might wonder if there is a blanket ban on GM crops. It is amusing, since more than 90% cotton produced in the country is of the Bt variety. The ban is primarily only on Bt brinjal and HTBt cotton,” she said. “But once the discourse is shifted towards the non-existing blanket ban, it is easy to get public support on your side.”
Ajit Nawale, a member of the All India Kisan Sabha, sharply criticised the protests. “As long as the Shetkari Sanghatna is pushing to have a dialogue around GM crops, it can be acceptable. But pushing farmers to blindly accept GM crops as the future of agriculture, without thinking of the extent of its ill effects, is dangerous.”
“Farmers are indulging in illegal procurement of these seeds. As it is illegal, they don’t have a redressal mechanism to claim losses.”
Indeed, this seems to be a common and acknowledged problem: farmers in Maharashtra have been using HTBt cotton seeds of dubious quality procured through illegal means. Even Shetkari Sanghatana’s activists agree that this is a serious issue. “There are so many dubious varieties in the market that it is impossible to determine their genuineness,” Nakat said. And farmers are ready to pay a much steeper price: about Rs 1,200 per packet against Rs 800 for the normal Bt variety.
Mirroring Chandra’s apprehension, Nawale also believes the movement is undergirded by hidden political issues. He said there have been “serious concerns” raised about Bt brinjal and HTBt cotton, pointing a finger among other things at the alleged rise of a variety of super-weeds resistant to existing herbicides. “When this reality is widely known, one can’t blindly ingrain the idea of using these varieties into the farmers’ minds without proper monitoring mechanisms.”