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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