India Needs A Seed Liability Bill by Devinder Sharma

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published Published on Nov 27, 2010   modified Modified on Nov 27, 2010

For past several weeks, thousands of farmers in Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Chhatisgarh, Rajasthan, Bihar and Jharkhand have been left in the lurch. They had planted urd and til crops in a large acreage, and to their dismay no grain formation took place in the standing crop.

Unable to bear the economic loss, at least four farmers have reportedly committed suicide. Thousands of farmers have been pushed deeper into economic distress. They had also expressed their indignation by holding demonstration and protests at a number of small towns but haven’t got anything more than an official promise to provide them adequate compensation.

This is not the first time that the so called ‘improved seed’ has failed the farmers. Not only the seed supplied by the National Seeds Corporation, but even the seeds of multinational companies like Monsanto, Pioneer Hi-bred and Mahyco and others have routinely failed either to germinate or to form grains. And yet, there is no effort by the government to provide exemplary punishment to the seed companies and at the same time adequately compensate the farmers.

The controversial Seed Bill 2010 that has been placed in Parliament in the ongoing session fails to address the long standing demand of farmers. Originally drafted in 2004, the new Seed Bill that has been reintroduced after much deliberations and discussions still takes a soft line against the seed companies, and provides no succour to farmers. Ignoring most important suggestions made by the Standing Parliamentary Committee on Agriculture, and also by several civil society groups and farmer unions, it tows the line of the seed industry.

Seed Bill 2010 appears to have been drafted by the seed industry, for the seed industry. The proposed amendments once again favour private seed companies and corporations at the expense of farmers.

The $ 26 billion multinational giant Du Pont for instance has already made it clear that it is shifting its focus from agro-chemicals to sell better seed varieties. Monsanto has already created a strong foothold in the seed market, and other multinational seed giants like the Swiss-based Syngenta too have been extending its market. Over 500 private seed companies are presently setting shop in India.

As the seed industry grows, sale of spurious and sub-standard seeds has also grown. Sale of hybrid seeds particularly has become a lucrative business with a large number of fly-by-night operators who make a killing by selling seeds for a year and then disappearing the next year. In the absence of tighter controls, it is the farmers who bear the brunt and continue to suffer silently.

The Seed Bill 2010 proposes a maximum fine of Rs I lakh for not keep proper record of purity and germination of seed as per the laid-out standards. And in cases spurious seeds, the bill proposes a jail term extending to one year and a maximum fine of Rs 5 lakh. Crop losses suffered by farmers will be evaluated by a local expert committee which will work out the compensation to be paid to farmers.

This is simply unfair. When seed fails to germinate or develop grains, it is the farmers’ livelihood that is destroyed. Such is the extent of damage that many farmers prefer to commit suicide unable to bear the loss. It is therefore a question of life and death for a farmer. Considering that a good crop not only provides for food security but also economic security for the farmer’s family, the loss cannot be measured simply in terms of the seed price that the farmer had incurred. Compensation must include the livelihood loss, and should include a minimum liability amount.

What is therefore required is a Seed Liability Bill. Drawn on the lines of the Nuclear Liability Bill, the proposed Seed Liability bill must provide for a minimum economic liability that the seed companies must undertake in event of a crop failure. Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar cannot be soft on the seed industry as seed is not merely a consumer product but the means of a livelihood for a farm family. One crop failure pushes the farmer deeper into the dreaded debt cycle.

Sometimes back, we had discussed the components of the proposed Seed Bill at a national consultation in New Delhi. The following suggestions do include some of the recommendations of the national consultation held in June this year:

a) the proposed seed bill should provide for mandatory price controls. Farmers must be able to purchase seed at an affordable price. At present, companies are charging prices at will and that too without any rationale. Tomato seed price for instance varies between Rs 475 to Rs 76,000 per kg, and Capsicum seed price between Rs 3,670 to Rs 65,200 a kg.

More recently, seed companies have taken the Andhra Pradesh government to the High Court challenging its decision to regulate prices and royalty. Therefore, the seed bill must include power to decide on price and price controls (including royalties).

b) Since the penalties/punishments have been mild, the government has failed to check the menace of fake, spurious and sub-standard seeds. Companies selling spurious and sub-standard seed should be black-listed. The penalty should include an imprisonment for a maximum period of ten years and a minimum fine of Rs 10 lakh. The penalty should also commensurate with the turnover of the seed company.

In addition, in cases of complete crop loss, the seed company should be directed to pay an amount equal to expected crop output, plus a 50 per cent assured return as livelihood security.

c) Provision for re-registration increases the monopoly of the seed company for at least 20 years. This is unacceptable for the simple reason that it brings in monopoly control over seed through the back door.

d) While seeds may be registered with the National Register of Seeds, it is imperative that State Governments must be given the authority to decide on which of these registered seeds can be licensed to be used in their State.

e) The Seed (Control) Order, 1983 had allowed the unbridled import under open-general license of planting material and seeds of flowers, vegetables and horticultural crops. This Order was exploited by unscrupulous seed trade and business to import plant materials without undergoing any rigorous quality checks. The seed imports have come with a heavy load of pests and diseases posing serious damages to crop cultivation and to the country’s food security. Many hitherto unknown pests have also entered the country.

f) All imports of seeds therefore must undergo mandatory seed testing procedures, including multi-location trials, to ensure its adaptability to the Indian conditions. No self-testing or certificates from foreign seed certification agencies should hold true for Indian conditions.

g) Seed imports should only be allowed after pest risk analysis, local adaptability have been assessed. There is a need for a liability clause to be introduced that makes seed exporter responsible for any pest outbreak and also for the clean-up operations. This assumes importance in the wake of the Bhopal gas tragedy where the chemical companies have simply evaded any liability for the toxic clean-up., 18 November, 2010,

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