Sowing Discontent by Jayshree Nandi

The fraught issue of introduction of Bt Brinjal has been shelved but all eyes are now set on the controversial Seed Bill 2010, likely to be tabled in the monsoon session of Parliament beginning July 26.

The bill aims to regulate the quality of seeds for sale, import and export and to facilitate production and supply of seeds of quality, but fails to address a crucial issue — seed pricing. Marginal farmers are getting sidelined even further, not being able to afford technologically modified seed varieties. The bill has no clause to regulate seed prices and ensure high quality with affordability. Besides, the bill outlines that state governments will have no authority on registration, price controls and thereby, no control in ensuring that the seeds used by their own farmers meet the agro-ecological conditions of the state. Nor can they interfere in the sale of transgenic seeds.

Experts are concerned that the bill gives too much leeway to seed companies by having a liability clause that doesn’t ensure proper compensation or punishment in case of crop failure or spurious seeds. In case of misbranded seeds or violation of minimum standards, the fine is Rs 5000 to Rs 30,000 and in case of spurious seed or spurious transgenic seeds, it could be imprisonment up to six months and/or fine of Rs 50,000 as per the new bill.

“For seed companies that have sold a few hundred of those seed packets, Rs 30,000 doesn't mean anything but for farmers it would be a heavy loss,” says G V Ramanjaneyulu of Centre for Sustainable Agriculture. Seed prices for some crops have increased by 400% in the past five years, he said, but the crop prices have not even increased by 20%. “The bill fails to address this lopsided situation.”

Over the past four to five years, a few companies — including Mahyco, Monsanto and Proagro — have enjoyed a monopoly in the seed market. “In case of crop failure, the mechanism for compensation has been very complex. This bill should have the scope to simplify the process of compensation and make companies liable for it. Seed failures are the biggest reason for farmers’ losses today,” Ramanjaneyulu said.

In the worst affected and most discussed Vidarbha, for instance, the cost of cultivation has been increasing but the technology being provided is not suitable for the region.

Hybrid seeds that have responded well in states like Gujarat are being hard-sold in Vidarbha where the soil and climatic conditions are very different. “It is a vicious cycle where expensive seeds are sold with claims of high yield and then they fail because there are hardly any nutrients in the soil due to excessive chemical fertilizer usage,” explained Ramanjaneyulu. Soil health has deteriorated over the past few decades in Vidarbha while the rain pattern had also changed.

Besides, the seed bill also allows the import of seeds for commercial sale. But this again raises concerns about the performance of these seeds that are meant for different geographical conditions and could also lead to massive pest contamination here.

“The Seed (Control) Order, 1983, had allowed the unbridled import under open-general licence of planting material and seeds of flowers, vegetables and horticultural crops,” says a document prepared by Devinder Sharma of Forum for Biotechnology and Food security and other experts who proposed amendments to the bill.

“This order was exploited by unscrupulous seed trade and business to import plant materials without undergoing any rigorous phytosanitary and quality checks. Most of the importing agencies did not even deposit a sample of the imported seed with the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources.”

It added: “It is believed that the imports have come with a heavy load of pests and diseases, posing serious damages to crop cultivation and to the country’s food security.”

Experts have suggested that all import of seeds should at least undergo mandatory testing, pest risk analysis and trials.

“There is a need for a liability clause to be introduced that makes the 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 cleanup,” the document pointed out.

OPPOSITION WISHLIST

PRICING At present, states play no role in pricing of seeds sold by companies. Will take modified seeds farther from the reach of marginal farmers

LIABILITY Bill does not fix liability of crop loss on seed companies, penalties too slight. Proposes a national committee to compensate farmers but that may not percolate to grassroots

IMPORT Bill allows import of seeds for commercial sale, raising fears that Indian fields might be used as testing grounds


The Times of India, 9 July, 2010, http://epaper.timesofindia.com/Default/Scripting/ArticleWin.asp?From=Archive&Source=Page&Skin=TOINEW&BaseHref=CAP/2010/07/09&PageLabel=13&EntityId=Ar01300&ViewMode=HT

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