''Earlier, there were no 'outside' fertilisers or seeds. There were no (plant) diseases and we were happy", recalls 83-year-old Chandrappa, farming for the last 60 years on his family's five acres in the black cotton-soil heartland of this southern Indian State.
But today, half a century of farming later, Chandrappa will have nothing to do with his own seeds. "The yield is less, so we prefer buying seeds," he says.
A group of 20-odd farmers, faces crusted with the vicissitudes of working the soil, sit cross-legged on the village temple floor at Byalahalli, 25 kilometres from Chitradurga, and echo Chandrappa's sentiments. "The 'Raitha Sangha' (a political party floated by farmers) has been telling us about how the new Seed Act will harm us, but no one is bothering," says 50-year-old Rajappa.
India has tabled a controversial Seeds Bill (2004) in Parliament that would allow foreign companies to be directly involved with small farmers. Large multinational corporations (MNCs) are now attracting Indian farmers through an aggressive extension network that promises seeds with bigger yields and better profits.
"This is an absolute no-no,'' says Suman Sahai of the non-governmental organisation (NGO), Gene Campaign. ''It overrides the farmer's rights clauses put into the Plant Variety Protection Act (PVP) of 2001. First let this Act be implemented and then bring in the seed bill."
The PVP Act authorises farmers to buy registered seeds with the option of saving and selling them, besides offering compensation for failed seed. The single biggest reason why the PVP has not been implemented, says Sahai, is corporate influence -- that is now pushing the seed bill.
According to international campaigner for biodiversity, Vandana Shiva, the new legislation has the potential of destroying forever India's vast biodiversity in seeds and crops, and take away the independence of farmers in a country of one 1.2 billion people, the majority of whom are engaged in agriculture. ''Once farmers lose control over their own seeds they will be pushed into dependency on patented seeds which are controlled by MNCs,'' Shiva told IPS.
Over centuries, Indian farmers, on a vast subcontinent with its vastly varied agro-climatic conditions, have evolved a bewildering variety of indigenous seeds capable of resisting, floods, droughts, salination and frost.
But farmers, already aware of the higher yields possible from impressive public-sector high-yielding varieties, now look to private hybrids to fill in where public-sector hybrids are failing due to intensive chemical inputs, loss of soil fertility and disease.
Larger farmers are equally unperturbed about losing their own germplasm. "I am not worried; we will go buy seed from the government, if we don't have our own", says farmer Eashappa Desai at Asundi village in an adjoining district.
Desai, who owns 40 acres of rich farmland highlights the trust that farmers still repose on the government's public-sector seeds.
But the rapid dominance of proprietary seeds, helped by India's industrial policy in 1991 that greatly liberalised the import of vegetable and flowers seeds in general and other commodity seeds in a restricted manner, has led to a decline in public sector research and production of seeds.
The volume of public-bred hybrids came down to 38,704 tons in 1998-99 from 59,671 tons in 1990-91 while private investment in research simultaneously quadrupled between 1986 and 1998.
Instead, subsidiaries and joint ventures with multinational companies accounted for 30% of all private seed industry research till five years ago.
Acquisitions of Indian companies by prominent agricultural corporates such as AgrEvo, Monsanto and Nunhems and their corresponding mergers in the global seed market has made foreign corporate dominance in Indian agriculture an emerging phenomenon. Monsanto's recent acquisition of vegetable giant, the US-based Seminis Seeds, has now made it the world's largest seed company.
The seed bill allows dominance of foreign and private companies through such methods as 'contract farming' wherein the farmer is hired to grow produce with proprietary, supplied seeds, exclusively for the hirer.
While contract-farming has aroused controversy because of exploitative terms, farmers in Karnataka who grow 'contract-gherkins' find the seed, soil inputs and pre-fixed rates an attractive system.
"We get more money from this crop than from ragi (a local cereal),'' say Siddesh and his mother Pushpavati who growing gherkins on a one acre plot at Kattehalli, near the adjoining district of Davangere. The family's holdings of 8 acres make them 'big' farmers in their village, able to grow staples on their remaining acreage.
But smaller Indian agricultural contract-farming enterprises are dismayed at the seed bill's plan to permit the entry of MNCs into Indian agriculture.
"Large corporates are applying aggressive trade practices to create a dependence on their seeds which offer immediate yields, but are not necessarily the best quality. It is difficult to make the farmer see long-term interests in this scenario," says Gopal Rao Girish, general manager of agricultural extension in the Indian company, Green Agro Pack.
Green Agro Pack's managing director, B.M. Devaiah says the farmer's mindset of immediate returns without worrying about consequences is also responsible for the loss of interest in local seeds. Similarly, he says, Indian research institutes are not interested in undertaking research that is not donor-driven.
"I can't worry about what will happen because I am not saving seed for tomorrow, "says V.S. Patil of Ukkunda village. " Who knows, there might be a tsunami before that. This is our fate.''
"The government needs to pay urgent attention to the lack of research in indigenously produced seeds in today's market," says Devaiah givingChina's successful example of using indigenous seeds.
The director of India's reputed Karnataka-based Namdhari Seed, V.S. Rao agrees with Devaiah's view that farmers are in a hurry, not giving the land adequate rest. "It's all related to cashing in on external 'help' factors like fertiliser subsidies and high market-rates," he says.
Farmers are also rushing to buy seeds for crops with good market prices, resulting in a glut that is ironically pushing prices down, pointing to the lack of guidance by India's agriculture department.
But Rao remains optimistic, speaking of the government's new attempt at countering this trend by adopting 'seed villages' wherein each village plans its own crops.
Rao urges the government to collaborate with indigenous seed enterprises, suggesting that government provide the research structure and leave field application to industry. "Both get credit whilst farmers' interests are looked after. It's a win-win situation.''
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