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Krishan Bir Chaudhary, chairman of India's largest farmers' organisation

Krishan Bir Chaudhary, executive chairman of Bharat Krishak Samaj

India's farming crisis

Krishan Bir Chaudhary is executive chairman of Bharat Krishak Samaj, India's largest farmer organisation. He is a farmer and leader, known for his anti - GM and anti-globalisation views, and for speaking out about the losses incurred by local farmers in the light of agricultural globalisation and liberalisation.

The distress of farmers in India can be traced back to the introduction of technology-led, capital intensive farming in the heyday of the Green Revolution. With the advent of 'economic liberalisation' and the globalisation of trade, this distress has been aggravated. Unfair rules of the multilateral global trading regime have depressed global and domestic prices, and denied Indian farmers adequate remunerative prices. The poor farmer is squeezed between high input costs and low returns. Credit obtained from formal or informal banking systems is unable to bail him out of this precarious situation. Caught in a vicious debt trap, many farmers have resorted to suicide.

BT cotton and the debt trap

Misled and misguided, the changeover to Bt cotton proved to be a total failure, causing severe losses for our cotton growers. The enormous loss and the resultant debt trap forced thousands of cotton growers to commit suicide. Bt cotton proved to be a total fiasco. Thousands and thousands of farmers have already committed suicide, and there seems to be no end to this tragic situation. Trends in suicide remain unabated even now, especially among cotton growers.

Significantly, farmer suicide is reported mainly from the high-tech agriculture belts, such as Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Punjab. All these states have embraced capital intensive and 'cutting edge' technology in the name of boosting production. In areas where traditional agricultural practices and organic farming are prevalent, such as Orissa, Jharkhand, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, suicide is unheard of.

The ripple effect

As far as agriculture is concerned, it is alarming that India is moving towards a point of no return. From being a self-reliant nation of food surplus, the country is becoming a net importer of food. In this context, policies to promote contract and corporate farming, the use of genetically modified seeds such as Bt cotton, and genetic synthesis in aquaculture and industrial poultry farming, threaten to undermine food security and the livelihoods of poor farmers.

There are authenticated reports that alarmingly high numbers of cattle have died from grazing on Bt cotton residues in fodder. And, the Government of India's Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), under the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, is baffled at the news of sheep mortality, on account of grazing in the Bt cotton fields in Warangal district in Andhra Pradesh. The GEAC has already admitted that toxicity studies on Bt cotton leaves have not yet been conducted, and although it has now asked the department of biotechnology to conduct studies, the lukewarm attitude of GEAC to ascertain the level of Bt toxin responsible for killing livestock is highly questionable.

Whose trade organisation?

The production of transgenes through genetic manipulation is bad science, unethical, and totally against the natural order that is responsible for the evolution and sustainability of life. It is fraught with the danger of genetic pollution and contamination, the destruction of ecosystems, environmental degradation and DNA deviations. The regimes of the WTO promote technology-driven, high-cost farming, and encourage the corporate monopolisation of the sector. This mainly serves to promote the interests of agri-business multinationals at the expense of small and marginal farmers in developing countries. With the interests of agri-business pre-eminent, all efforts to reduce agricultural subsidies in developed countries are being stonewalled.

The link with trade liberalisation

The impact of liberalisation on agriculture is best illustrated by India's experience in the oil seed sector. The liberalisation of heavily subsidised edible oil imports led to the decline in oil seed prices in India, financially ruining oil seed growers in the country. This totally negated previous efforts to make India almost self sufficient in the oil seed sector by 1998. Now, almost 50 per cent of edible oil is imported, resulting in annual spending of $1,800 million in foreign exchange.

Inept, amateurish and mediocre handling of our priorities is to blame for this ugly situation. The Government is playing a faulty game of cash crops over food crops, and promotion of corporate farming at the cost of traditional agro-rural systems, especially in the dry and arid zones of the country. Such policies will further add to displacement and migration to urban areas. Blind trade liberalisation and a market driven economy will throw the country into a cobweb of trans-national corporations. Importing oil seed is only the tip of the iceberg; it is a prelude to the beginning of the end of Indian agro-systems and their ultimate take-over by multinational corporations.

Distorting, or not distorting...

Heavy subsidies given to the farming sector in developing countries are basically responsible for dismantling India's agro-system, making it economically unrewarding. Some 'trade experts' and negotiators in the developed world try to justify their misdeeds by putting subsidies into categories: "trade-distorting" and "non trade-distorting." But all subsidies are distorting, and India needs to be emphatic about their removal in developed countries, where commitments to reduce subsidies have not been fulfilled. Instead, subsidies have been increasing, making it more difficult for developing countries to compete in the world market.

The World Bank and the IMF have become instruments in pressurising developing countries to open up their markets. The core motive of the WTO is to promote the interest of agri-business and multinationals at the expense of small, marginal and family farms across the world. It is imperative that developing countries are given the option to apply quantitative restrictions on imports, whenever needed, to protect the livelihoods of poor farmers and agricultural workers. India should not tolerate the obstinate and irrational attitude of developed countries, which caused the collapse of WTO negotiations. Government should remain determined in all future negotiations to focus primarily on the interests of small and marginal farmers. Agriculture is not only for trade; it is a way of life.

Date published: March 2007

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