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Rajasthan seed initiative wilts

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Jun 30, 2011 | From the print edition

MoUs with biotech seed companies in limbo as protests force a rethink

imageTen months after Rajasthan signed its extraordinary memorandums of understanding (MoUs) with seven biotech seed companies, the state government finds itself caught in a cleft stick. Owing to a series of protests by farmers’ organisations, the government has thought it prudent not to execute the MoUs. At the same time, with pressure mounting from some of the seed companies to formalise the agreements, it has been unable to put together a policy framework for the public-private partnerships (PPPs) it wants to implement.

When Rajasthan signed MoUs with seven seed companies, it was seen as a pathbreaking initiative on PPPs in agriculture. Never before had any state government signed such wide-ranging PPPs that brought together the departments of agriculture and horticulture along with four state agriculture universities (SAUs) and the Rajasthan State Seed Corporation. Nor had any state initialled such a comprehensive agreement as with Monsanto that would involve the total recast of its agriculture. The MoUs, although non-binding in nature, signalled a dramatic policy shift, with private companies getting access to the entire range of the state’s research facilities to test and market their hybrid seeds (see ‘Rajasthan Opens Farm Gates’, Down To Earth, November 1-15, 2010).

The MoUs were signed with Monsanto Company of the US, represented by its wholly owned subsidiary Monsanto India Ltd and the majority-owned Monsanto Holdings Pvt Ltd (MHPL); PHI Seeds Ltd, the Indian arm of Pioneer Hi-Bred International, a DuPont business; leading Indian biotech seed companies Advanta India, JK Agri Genetics, DCM Shriram Consolidated and Krishidhan Seeds, and local company Kanchan Jyoti Agro Industries on different dates in July-August 2010. The state government claims these were the first to respond after it wrote to two dozen companies asking them to enter into PPPs.

Predictably, there were protests over the nature of the PPPs by farmers’ organisations and NGOs. The biggest rally was held on March 14 outside the Vidhan Sabha when legislators were meeting for the 2011 budget session. According to reports from Jaipur, around 1,000 farmers had gathered outside Legislative Assembly demanding that the MoUs be scrapped. Alok Vyas of the Centre for Community Economics and Development Consultants Society (CECOEDECON) explains that the campaign was initiated by Sajha Manch, a collective of 150 community organisations, and Kisan Sewa Samiti Mahasangh, because the PPPs had not taken into account the concerns of farmers. The Mahasangh is a federation of farmers’ organisations that works on agriculture-related issues and has been opposing genetically modified or GM crops for a long time.

And what are the farmers’ concerns? Vyas says that apart from the haste and secrecy with which the agreements were concluded, farmers were suspicious why public institutions like the agriculture universities and their facilities such as Krishi Vigyan Kendras (KVKs) that provide the research link to farmers had been made available to companies such as Monsanto without any conditions. This was a clear violation of democratic norms since these institutions were being handed over to private companies without discussion. Besides, “Monsanto will charge for the seeds and technologies developed by using public infrastructure,” says Vyas.

With protests turning into an anti-Monsanto campaign, the company had at one time criticised the “incorrect and unbalanced news reports” put out by the media, which misrepresented the facts and did not share the real perspective on the PPPs’ benefits, besides “wrongly and unnecessarily” implying that Monsanto was the only private company to partner with the state government. Now, however, Monsanto is not speaking. It has refused to respond to queries from Down To Earth (DTE).

According to sources, representatives of the biotech industry have been meeting officials in Jaipur, urging that the MoUs be executed through specific agreements. These representatives are known to speak for the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), a powerful lobby group for international GM crop developers. ISAAA is funded, among others, by Bayer CropScience, Monsanto, JK Agri Genetics and Mahyco, a Jalna-based seed company in which MHPL has a 26 per cent stake. Two of these companies have signed MoUs with Rajasthan.

The Ashok Gehlot government’s efforts to find a way out of the impasse have not been very successful. In January, it set up a five-member committee of experts to suggest the next course of action before making the MoUs operational.

Meeting on February 14 for the first time under the chairmanship of Amar Singh Faroda, former vice-chancellor of Maharana Pratap University of Agriculture and Technology, the committee proposed measures that have done little to resolve the state government’s dilemma. If anything, these have added to the uncertainties surrounding the MoUs.

The recommendations are broadly this: SAUs should do basic and applied research on their own; public sector hybrids/varieties can be included in PPPs with non-exclusive rights according to university guidelines. Private companies should produce and market these under their original names and without losing the standard genetic purity. Another measure suggested by the committee to meld the strengths of the public and private sectors is that the latter should harness the scientific manpower available with state and provide funds to conduct research that would specifically “be in the interest of the company, state and the farmer”.

It is a carefully put together committee that includes Sain Das, formerly director of maize research at the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), Shivraj Singh, former adviser to the World Bank on plant breeding, and Surjeet Singh, agricultural economist with the Institute of Development Studies, Jaipur. However, its suggestions (see ‘What the experts committee recommended’) have not met with approval from the state government.

Agriculture minister Harji Ram Budrak is reported to have rejected its recommendations but in a conversation with DTE, he said: “Another meeting will be called to discuss these suggestions but we have not fixed a date yet.”

So where does Rajasthan go from here? While multinationals in the group are getting increasingly restive over the government’s dilatoriness, farmers’ organisations say they will continue to oppose the MoUs. The Sajha Manch points out that in the name of R&D (research and development) Monsanto experts will define the need and direction of future research. “This in itself is dangerous because it allows a purely-for-profit entity to take such important decisions but worse, the document (MoU) clearly avoids fixing accountability in case of any crop failure or loss to the farmers.”

A senior government official dismissed such fears, saying that the MoUs were not contracts. Speaking to DTE on the condition of anonymity, he said: “The specific agreements we sign with the companies will incorporate all safeguards. We have taken the MoU route only to promote Rajasthan’s agriculture which is under severe stress.”

His argument is that KVKs, which provide farmers with the critical vital link to technologies developed by the research laboratories, are in the doldrums. “For the past two decades there has been no recruitment. Many of the KVKs hardly function and the average age of technician/scientist is 50 years. PPPs were planned to infuse fresh blood and research from the private sector into the system,” pointed out the official who was involved in putting together the MoUs. “Believe me, it was a well-thought-out move.”

Not so, says a former chief justice of the Rajasthan High Court Pana Chand Jain. He has questioned the legality of the agreements on several grounds: Were all those who signed the MoUs authorised to do so? Being institutions providing education, can universities enter into PPPs with private companies? The rules say that all government property or anything related to government needs to be auctioned. So how could the PPPs give away their land to private companies without going through due process? Justice Jain also says the Rajasthan has violated Article 299 of the Constitution, which deals with government contracts, by entering into PPPs.

For Rajasthan that’s a lot of legal mess to sort out before it can commence its agriculture revamp.

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