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Culture and systems of knowledge, cultivation and food, population and consumption

Posts Tagged ‘legislation

Farmers’ protest and the shaping of public perception

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Rioting and violence took place in New Delhi on 26 January 2021, Republic Day, allegedly by members of the farmers’ groups that have since November 2020 been protesting the three farm acts (‘reforms’) that were passed through Parliament.

My reading of the day’s incidents in Delhi – the destruction of corporation commuter buses by tractors, the videos of the Indian tricolour being dishonoured and a Khalistani flag being hoisted in its place, scores of Delhi police being injured and hurt – points to the beginning of a signal shift concerning India’s perception of ‘farmer’.

The Samyukta Kisan Morcha – the umbrella organisation for the protesting farmers’ associations and groups – had for several days earlier said that the intentions of the movement were confronted from the outset by the central government which first stopped them from coming to Delhi, then by defaming the movement, using the Supreme Court to dilute the movement’s objectives.

It had for several days prior to today called for several events leading up to 26 January, such as a people’s ‘Kisan Sansad’ (farmers’ parliament), since the normal winter session of Parliament was cancelled.

The farmers’ organisations have been demanding a full repeal of the three recent agriculture related acts: the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020, the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020, and the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020. These have been dubbed the ‘APMC Bypass Act’, ‘ECA Amendment’ and ‘Contract Farming Act’ respectively.

The grave dangers to our systems of agriculture posed by these acts – individually, when read together, and when read against the background of legislation and policy over the last 20 years that has favoured the food industry over farmers – has been well written about and discussed in many fora and channels.

An example of the effects of changed perceptions about farmers

An example of the effects of changed perceptions about farmers

The new worry that has today come out of the shadows is that of perception: how the Indian citizen and particularly the middle-class urban citizen, considers the farmer. Until now the tone towards the protesting farmers’ organisations has been either neutral or somewhat supportive. This is so despite consistent efforts by the ruling BJP-NDA and its many forward cells in social media to paint the protesting farmers’ as ‘privileged’ by being beneficiaries of lavish subsidies, users of free electricity who don’t pay income-tax, incited by opposition parties, accompanied by anti-national groups and so on.

The Samyukta Kisan Morcha and the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee represent some 130 farmers’ associations and groups that have come together in protest. The chief coordinating organisations are the All India Kisan Sabha and the Centre for Indian Trade Unions, both of which have studied and analysed the causes of agrarian distress in India since the mid-1990s (after liberalisation began in earnest in 1991) and which have consistently mounted campaigns to forestall the corporate take-over of crop cultivation and food distribution in India.

Placed on such a time-line, the protests against the three destructive new ‘reform’ acts of 2020 represent the latest stage of a continuum.

What has however happened is the hijacking of a legitimate protest and its expression by forces about which at this point I know very little, but whose agenda is revealed. The distance between especially India’s middle-class urban citizens and the sources of their food has only widened in recent years. As long as sorted, graded, cleaned and packed raw foodstuffs are available in local markets (or from online marts) little or no thought is given by urban India to farmers.

There is a residual respect (‘jai jawan, jai kisan’ was the slogan coined by Lal Bahadur Shastri, prime minister during 1964-66) that has continued to remain. If this residual respect continues to fuel sympathy for the farmer and his lot, then it also is a potential source of support to farmers’ organisations protesting further ‘reforms’. The previous term of the BJP-NDA, 2014-19, saw the introduction of a number of policy measures (called ‘reforms’) that taken together point to the intent to corporatise cultivation and the movement of harvested crop, to a much greater degree than is currently done.

Examples of mainstream media's reporting

India’s urban based mainstream media not only is removed from the concerns of the rural population but also is absent the experience to understand the cumulative impacts of nearly 40 years of neo-liberal economics on agriculture and food cultivation.

During the first term of the UPA government (2004-09), farming was seen as unremunerative and a drag on the growth rate of India’s GDP. This is a position held by central government planners and economics advisers that did not change during the two following governments (UPA2 and NDA2), both of which added laws and policy to accelerate the industrialisation of food, and which the current NDA3 government (from 2019) wants to further fast track. Hence the three disastrous ‘reform’ laws of 2020 have predecessors going back more than 15 years.

A commentary published three years ago had stated: “The government also expanded the definition of industrial corridors to include land up to one kilometre on either side of designated roads or railway lines serving these corridors. Organisations such as the AIKS had called for provisions to ensure acquisition of land to the extent required and legal safeguards for landowners. However, the rights of landowners and those dependent on land and community rights were all diluted and the basic tenets of transparency were ignored. Food security safeguards were done away with, and even fertile multi-cropped land and productive rain-fed land could be acquired without any restriction.”

Yet there is a series of hurdles that have come in the way of national governments since 2004 in their bid to justify and ram through farm and agriculture ‘reforms’. The hurdles are the conditions, created by poor policy and government’s subservience to the demands of Indian and foreign agritech industry, which from the early 1990s came to be called ‘agrarian distress’, which through the 2000s intensified as the national crisis of farmers’ suicides, and which during the last decade has taken the shape of an ‘unperforming’ sector that is seen as an albatross around the neck of an Indian economy but which is claimed to have great promise.

CITU statement

Part of CITU’s statement on the 26 January 2020 incidents.

The responsibility for the human and community consequences of India’s agrarian distress is the state’s, but none of the central governments from 2004 onwards has acknowledged it has such a responsibility.

Further ‘reform’ has been given a distinct shape and plan over the last four years. It includes encouraging (or coercing) the cultivators and agricultural labour to migrate with family to towns and cities, leaving behind their lands. It includes dramatically increasing corporate denominated farming (under contract) and corporate controlled collection, sorting and movement of food, instead of by farmers’ cooperatives and consumers’ cooperatives. It includes the plan to introduce genetically modified seed and crop. It includes the full conversion of human labour on the farm to automation (using GPS, internet-of-things, 5G, drones, real time remote sensing and robotics).

To begin to do this, the residual respect and fraying connect between urban consumer and farmer must be severed. This severance began on 26 January 2021, with the farmers’ protest movement being hijacked. The casualty will be the citizen’s regard for and trust in the farmer. That casualty will be exploited to offer to the citizen the ‘reliability’ of food that promises to be produced in an ‘agricultural reform’ regime, in which the farmer will have no place.

It is unclear to me as of now who the prime actors are of this hijacking and where the state’s interest is. India’s commentariat has little knowledge of the 30-year-old saga of agrarian distress. Its mainstream media has done everything possible to aid the demonising of the protest and has given no airtime worth the name to farmer representatives and coordinators. Both commentariat and media appear ignorant of the greater arena, that of the gradual outlawing of the hereditary farmer, and his systems of cultivation and crop management, from farming.

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Written by makanaka

January 27, 2021 at 00:12

Seeds and knowledge: how the draft seeds bill degrades both

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Rice farmer in north Goa

[ This comment is published by Indiafacts. ]

The central government has circulated the Draft Seeds Bill 2019, the text of which raises several red flags about the future of kisan rights, state responsibilities, the role of the private sector seed industry, and genetic engineering technologies.

The purpose of the 2019 draft bill is “to provide for regulating the quality of seeds for sale, import and export and to facilitate production and supply of seeds of quality and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto”. The keywords in this short statement of the draft bill’s objectives are: regulate, quality, sale, import, export.

This draft follows several earlier legislations and draft legislations in defining and treating seed as a scientific and legal object, while ignoring entirely the cultural, social, ritual and ecological aspect of seed. These earlier legal framings included the 2004 version of the same draft bill, the Protection of Plant Variety and Farmers Right Act of 2001, the 1998 Seed Policy Review Group and its recommendations (New Policy on Seed Development), the Consumer Protection Act of 1986, the National Seeds Project which began in 1967 (under assistance/direction of the World Bank), the Seeds Act of 1966 (notified in 1968, fully implemented in 1969), and the establishing of the National Seeds Corporation under the Ministry of Agriculture in 1961.

With 53 clauses spread over 10 chapters, the draft bill sees seed as being governed by a central and state committees (chapter 2), requiring registration (including a national register, chapter 3), being subject to regulation and certification (chapter 4), with other chapters on seed analysis and testing, import and export and the powers of central government. (The draft bill is available here, 68mb file.)

In such a conception of seed and the various kinds of activities that surround the idea of seed today, the draft bill reproduces a pattern that (a) has remained largely unchanged for about 60 years, and (b) is far more faithful to an ‘international’ (or western) legal interpretation of seed than it is to the Indic recognition of ‘anna‘ (and the responsibilities it entails including the non-ownership of seed).

The 2019 draft bill is attempting to address three subjects that should be dealt with separately. These are: farmers’ rights, regulation and certification, property and knowledge. Each of these exists as a subject closely connected with cultivation (krishi as expressed through the application of numerous forms of traditional knowledge) and the provision of food crops, vegetables and fruit. But that they exist today as semantic definitions in India is only because of the wholesale adoption of the industrially oriented food system prevalent in the western world (Europe, north America, OECD zone).

‘Farmers’ rights’ became a catchphrase of the environmental movement that began in the western world in the 1960s and was enunciated as a response to the chemicalisation of agriculture. When the phrase took on a legal cast, it also came to include the non-ownership and unrestricted exchange of seeds, as a means to demand its distinguishing from the corporate ownership of laboratory derived seed. But farmers’, or kisans‘, rights in India? As a result of what sort of change and as a result of what sort of hostile encirclement of what our kisans have known and practised since rice began to be cultivated in the Gangetic alluvium some eight millennia ago?

Regulation and certification (which includes the opening of a new ‘national register’ of seeds) is fundamentally an instrument of exclusion. It stems directly from the standpoint of India’s national agricultural research system, which is embodied in the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), and which is supported by the Ministry of Science and Technology and the Department of Biotechnology, and is designed to shrink the boundaries of encirclement inside which our kisans are expected to practice their art. The draft bill exempts kisans from registering their seeds in the proposed national registry and sub-registries (an expensive, onerous process designed for the corporate seed industry and their research partners) as a concession.

But in doing so the bill prepares the ground for future interpretation of ‘certified’ and ‘approved’ seed as looking only to the registers – and not kisans‘ collections – as being legitimate. This preparatory measure to exclude utterly ignores the mountainous evidence in the central government’s own possession – the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources – of the extraordinary cultivated, wild, forest and agro-ecological biodiversity of India.

In the cereals category (with 13 groups) the NBPGR gene bank lists 99,600 rice varieties, 30,000 wheat varieties, 11,000 maize, 8.075 barley varieties. In the millets category which has 11 groups there are 57,400 total varieties. How have all these – not exhaustive as they are – become known? Through the shared knowledge and wisdom of our kisans, whose continuing transmission of that knowledge is directly threatened by the provisions of the draft bill, once what they know is kept out of the proposed registers, designated as neither ‘certified’ nor ‘approved’ and turned into avidya.

Vital to regulation and certification are definitions and a prescription for what is ‘acceptable’. The bill says, “such seed conforms to the minimum limit of germination and genetic, physical purity, seed health and additional standards including transgenic events and corresponding traits for transgenic seeds specified… “. The term ‘transgenic event’ is one of the synonyms the international bio-tech industry uses to mean genetically modified. The draft bill’s definition of seed expressly includes ‘synthetic seeds’.

The aspect of property and knowledge taken by the draft bill is as insidious as the brazen recognition of GM technology and produce. The taking of such an aspect also signals that the bill’s drafters have side-stepped or ignored even the weak provisions in international law and treaties concerning agriculture and biodiversity which oblige signatory countries to protect the traditional and hereditary customary rights of cultivators and the protection of biodiversity. These include the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV, 1961, revised in 1972, 1978 and 1991), the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture and Food (ITPGRFA, 2001), and the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Nagoya Protocol (entered into force in 2014).

Aside from the desultory and perfunctorily monitored obligations placed upon India by these and other international and multi-lateral treaties that have to do with agriculture and biodiversity, the draft bill aggressively seeks to promote not only the import and export of ‘approved’ seeds (including seeds that are the result of GM and later gene editing bio-technologies), it submits the interpretation of its provisions to sanctioned committees and sub-committees which by design will be controlled by the the twinned proponents of industrial and technology-centric agriculture: the ICAR and supporting government agencies, and the food-seed-fertiliser-biotech multinational corporations and their subsidiaries in India.

Very distant indeed is the intent of this draft bill – and of India’s administrative and scientific cadres for the last three generations – from the consciousness that was given to us in our shruti: “Harness the ploughs, fit on yokes, now that the womb of the earth is ready, sow the seed therein, and through our praise, may there be abundant food, may grain fall ripe towards the sickle” (Rgveda 10.101.3)

यु॒नक्त॒ सीरा॒ वि यु॒गा त॑नुध्वं कृ॒ते योनौ॑ वपते॒ह बीज॑म् ।

गि॒रा च॑ श्रु॒ष्टिः सभ॑रा॒ अस॑न्नो॒ नेदी॑य॒ इत्सृ॒ण्य॑: प॒क्वमेया॑त् ॥३॥

A hasty and stunted legislation for food security in India

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The United Progressive Alliance in India, the ruling political coalition at whose centre is the Congress party, has called it “a historic initiative for ensuring food and nutritional security to the people”. By this is meant The National Food Security Bill, which was passed by the Lok Sabha on 26 August 2013.

In recent weeks, criticisms of the provisions of the bill and suggestions for its amendment gathered quickly, from political parties, from state governments, from civil society and NGOs and academics, and from citizens who have followed the twists and turns of the draft legislation since 2010. How many of these have been incorporated into the bill as passed by the Lok Sabha is still unclear, but a government press release stated that ten amendments were approved. I don’t know which ten but these would be small in number compared with the scores of amendments, corrections, modifications and re-draftings suggested by groups and coalitions that have long worked for food security in India and its states.

Sifting through news reports for relevant information, I find that:

(1) The government has said that the word ‘meal’ as used in the approved bill means hot cooked or pre-cooked and heated food and not the packaged food, which was a definition that provoked many when it was spotted in the draft. This is an important amendment as it has an impact on the enormous mid-day meals (for schoolchildren in government schools) and the integrated child development services (ICDS) programmes, which reach tens of millions. The fear was that packaged food would supplant, to the detriment of the children, hot and fresh cooked meals.

(2) As far as I can make out, another approved amendment gives states a year to implement the bill instead of six months. Earlier, under the ordinance (whose passage was roundly condemned), the central government was to determine the number of eligible beneficiaries in each state. Not only was this centrist in nature, it required the process by which beneficiary households were to be identified to be completed within 180 days, even though the guidelines for such identification are yet to be issued by the central government. Moreover, there has been no consultation with the states on this aspect.

(3) There is some reference made to the states determining their approach and measures towards implementing the bill, which will be (or may be) governed by “rules” that are to be drawn up in consultation with the state governments. This is important for, in the text of the Food Security Ordinance the central government reserved the right to introduce cash schemes instead of food in the Rules of the proposed legislation. This had signalled quite clearly its longer-term agenda of dismantling the system of procurement of grain from farmers at notified minimum support prices.

The reportage of the passing of the bill has touched upon a variety of issues and concerns, and here is a selection:

Lok Sabha passes Food Security Bill
Sonia Gandhi’s ambitious food bill gets Lok Sabha nod; UPA gets its ‘game-changer’
The Food Security Bill will cost a lot more than projected
Food security bill: Is it right or fight to food?
Long due, Food Security Bill meets mixed reaction
Food Bill will not raise fiscal deficit: Chidambaram
‘Not against Food Security Bill, but want certain changes’: BJP
Food Security a ‘historic opportunity’ or mere ‘vote security’?
Food security Bill gets Lok Sabha nod as Sonia lauds ’empowerment revolution’

The government has said that the Bill will cover 75% of the rural population and 50% percent of the urban population in all states, coming to an average of 67% for the total national population. This however will use (we await a full reading of the approved amendments that will clarify this matter) the methodology of the Planning Commission for poverty estimates which is to provide the basis for dividing the population between below and above the poverty line. This is the same methodology and ratios that have been soundly discredited.

The point that has been made forcefully by the Communist Party of India Marxist (CPIM) is that these caps on population compromise utterly the right of state governments to decide criteria as contained in the bill. The caps are set by Planning Commission methods, not by state governments themselves. That is why the guidelines that are to be drafted – via consultation, the central government has said – by the state governments must ensure the maximum inclusion, and not the limited inclusion decided by the Planning Commission.

Moreover, the All India Kisan Sabha at its 33rd All India Conference (24-27 July 2013 in Cuddalore, Tamil Nadu) had in a resolution of food security described the policy canvas against which this food security bill has now been passed:

“India has become more food-insecure over the last decade in terms of all three dimensions of food security: availability, access and absorption. Availability has been undermined by policies reducing productivity growth and making grain cultivation unremunerative. Access has been weakened by jobless growth and massive inflation destroying people’s purchasing power. Absorption has been undermined by the failure to invest in safe drinking water and sanitation. All three consequences are directly traceable to neoliberal policies. Yet, the UPA government hypocritically talks of food security and has promulgated a so-called Food Security Ordinance in an attempt to gain political mileage while flouting all norms of parliamentary democracy.”

Documents for reference:

The National Food Security Bill, 2013
The National Food Security Bill, 2011
The National Food Security Ordinance, 2013
Report of the expert committee on the national food security bill
Lok Sabha Standing Committee report on National Food Security Bill
Food subsidy and its utilisation
NRAA – Challenges of food security