Running on empty

Indian farmers are entering the GATT era riding on the bogey of ignorance. Some see GATT as the golden opportunity that will unshackle them from restrictive trade practices, while others see only doom. In this background of misconceptions and rumours, political parties are wooing the farmers with their versions of GATT. Down To Earth reporters visited 6 states and filed this report:

 
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

Running on empty

Though small farmers are aware (Credit: Rahul Shrivastava /CSE)MORE than a month after the signing of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), ignorance and uncertainty about its implications continue to prevail among Indian agriculturists. The principal issues for farmers is whether they can retain and sell seeds and whether they will be able to compete in the new trade order. However, not many efforts are being made to appraise the farmers about GATT and few of them are aware of the forces that will operate under GATT.

Although the government claims that it is informing the farmers about GATT, both the district administration authorities and the farmers themselves deny this. Union commerce minister Pranab Mukherjee says, "We are organising seminars, workshops, public contact programmes and distributing literature to tell people that Indian farmers will benefit from GATT." However, Mukherjee's statement does not jell with the version put forward by Ram Babu, a farmer in Gujja village of Rajasthan's Dhaulpur district: "Hame kuch nahin batate. Hum to janna chahte hain ke achcha hai ya kharab hai (Nobody has told us anything. We want to know whether it's good or bad)."

As things stand, little GATT-related information has percolated to the rural communities. If any information has reached the villages at all, it is because of political motivations or because of activists. Pro-GATT lobbies like the Union government and the Congress are highlighting the merits of the accord, while opposition groups and activists are harping on its shortcomings.

Information shortfall
Right now, the farmers are being deluged mainly by motivated arguments. In the battle of words between the opposition parties and the Congress, the real issues that affect farmers are getting clouded. All the while, anti-GATT activists are trying to put across their message more forcefully by hunting for a political platform.

There is a difference in the various media being used by the rival groupings in their campaigns. GATT proponents are pitching their stands through the electronic media and government agencies. Anti-GATT activists are concentrating on newspapers, personal contacts and traditional rural gatherings, translating arguments into local idiom. For instance, Tejpal Singh of Ulhasgaon in Uttar Pradesh's Bulandshahr district sang at the Sisauli gathering of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) on May 17: "Beware farmers, a Dunkel disease has come/We had thrown out slavery, but here comes another calamity/The rulers have sacrificed kindness and justice/They have robbed the country of its riches." That the rumour network, too, has been functioning at a hyper pace is indicated by the general, but ill-informed, conclusions arrived at by the local populace. Although the Union government has directed district administrations to spread the GATT message, several district administrations claim that either they have no such instructions or that they are unaware of the issues. Says Dhaulpur district collector Prem Singh Mehra, "To be frank, I don't know anything about GATT." District magistrates in Muzaffarpur and Bareilly districts also echoed Mehra.

Says a senior Ludhiana district official, "I don't think it is essential for us to act because the Punjab Agricultural University is a far more effective medium." A senior Congress leader of the district said that a major propaganda blitz would be undertaken once office-bearers are briefed by the party high command.

The Maharashtra state government apparatus has also not been too pressed in trying to explain the Dunkel Draft or its implications to the district panchayats and farmers. Says the suave Sumeet Malik, district magistrate of Sangli, "I do not have any instructions from the state government to talk or explain anything about GATT. My only source of information and understanding is from what you people write."

In Bareilly, information flow has been mostly from the Gene Campaign committee. In Bihar, local Hindi newspapers like Aaj and Dainik Hindustan are the prime sources of information. Harender Sinh, a farmer, says, "The articles on Dunkel are read and discussed." These established dailies are supplemented by the village-level news-flyers.

Clear as mud
Despite the paucity of information, the villagers do have an idea of what GATT is, even if it is distorted. Some see it as an opportunity to increase production and exports whereas others imagine that it is a foreign company that is out to usurp India's farms.

Sharp distinctions -- in terms of attitudes towards GATT -- exist between small and progressive farmers and these are apparent at the ground level: in the villages.

In Karnataka's Dharwad district, where traditional methods of farming are still dominant, opposition to GATT is of a mixed character. Ironically, Dharwad is also home to the seed companies that are the target of the anti-GATT campaign. In some parts, support for the anti-GATT agitation is total; in others, it is grudgingly partial.

Rural communities in Bareilly (Uttar Pradesh), Dhaulpur (Rajasthan) and Bihar dismiss GATT as a manifestation of covert imperialism. In these areas, the cultivators are either subsistence survivors or those shifting from coarse grains to cash crops that use modern technology. For them, the spectre of an international accord is a measure beyond their control. GATT is the veritable four-letter word in Dhaulpur villages. The mere mention of it draws looks of disgust or apprehension.

The situation in Punjab's Ludhiana district and Maharashtra's Sangli district is quite the opposite: the general impression is that GATT will present opportunities that will render benefits to progressive farmers.

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