Grist for the US mills
The Indian media has a penchant for the sensational. Caught up in the scandals over former minister K Natwar Singh's Iraq liaisons and the surrender of Abu Salem, it paid short shrift to a landmark memorandum of understanding (mou) that was signed between India and the us on November 12, 2005. The treaty will open up the country's most important public sector agricultural research establishments to private players from the us. It is a follow-up of what transpired between prime minister, Manmohan Singh and the us president George Bush, when the former visited the us in July 2005. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research -- with a network of 47 national institutes, including four deemed universities -- the New Delhi-based Indian Agricultural Research Institute, the National Dairy Research Institute in Karnal, Haryana, the Indian Veterinary Research Institute in Izatnagar, the Central Institute of Fisheries Education in Mumbai, 29 National Research Centers, 11 Project Directorates and 4 National Bureaus will now be open to us American private sector companies to "help identify research areas, that have the potential for rapid commercialisation."
But will "rapid commercialisation" benefit the Indian farmer? It can, if there are appropriate policies and safeguards to protect poor farmers from trade-related shocks and other vagaries of commercialisation. But the country does not afford its farmers much security against the whims of the market. Lest we forget, not too far back, the bt cotton fiasco drove farmers to suicide in Andhra Pradesh and Vidharbha: there was no insurance umbrella to cover these agriculturists from financial loss.
Biowealth at stake The treaty has other perils. It threatens to expose the country's bio wealth to the machinations of us- based corporates and research institutes. Agro-interests in the us have had designs on the country's bio-resources for quite some time now. In 1995, the medicine centre of the University of Michigan even managed to secure an us patent on certain therapeutic uses of turmeric. And then in 1997, a private agricultural company in the us patented basmati rice as "texmati". Such biopiracy happened clandestinely. But now it can take place with official sanction. The mou to open up our agricultural research institutes to private players from the us will ensure exactly that.
Unequal partners The treaty is a partnership between two unequal partners. American agriculture is highly mechanised and organised, energy intensive and market centric. Indian agriculture, in contrast, has been for millennia, a way of life for a vast majority of people in the country. This is the main reason why former agriculture minister, Nitish Kumar insisted on a "livelihood box" in the World Trade Organization's negotiations on opening up our agricultural sector. This would have given us an option to deny import of food items from the developed countries and protect the livelihoods of their farmers and the poor. And then former commerce minister, Murasoli Maran, also did a magnificent job of pushing for the livelihood box at the World Trade Organization's negotiations in Doha in 2003. But, nothing has ever been heard about this protective clause ever since. It is only the farm subsidies and tariff walls that are doing the rounds. The developing word did gain some minor concessions at the recent wto ministerial in Hong Kong. But, it will not be until 2013 that the developed countries will have to phase out their agricultural export subsidies.
One thing is very clear. What the us wants is a captive market a for its farm goods. What better way then to achieve it than getting into the web of our own research and developmental activities? Indian farmers certainly deserve a much better deal. But, will it come out of the American purse?
K P Prabhakaran Nair is an agricultural scientist, known for the development of a soil management technique, "The Nutrient Buffer Power Concept". He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org