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 | 21:11:47 PM

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.

'Ours by right'

Keeping MNCs in check: KRSS ac (Credit: KRSS)Dharwad (Karnataka)
Opposition to GATT in Karnataka is spearheaded by the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha (KRSS), which has gained strength over the past 2 years and forced the ruling Congress government to accord comparatively greater seriousness in projecting its viewpoint of GATT. The thrust of the official programme -- to be carried out by the district administrations -- is to counter KRSS' main plank: that the Dunkel provisions are a threat to the traditional "rights" of cultivators to retain and sell seeds. The state government is busy preparing instructional booklets and is organising a collective course in the state capital.

The task of the officials will not be easy. Local political leaders of all parties feel that fears over the seed issue have spread to most villages. Says V Basavappaiah, a farmer in Bellary's Hospet taluka, "There are bands of 20-30 farmers with middle-sized holdings in nearly every village proclaiming that a great struggle to protect farmers' rights is around the corner."

While KRSS leaders like M D Nanjundaswamy refer to specific provisions of GATT when explaining their stand to the media or leading marches in Bangalore and Delhi, their appeals in villages resound with patriotism. Suresh Yavagal, a cotton farmer in Gadag taluka and a KRSS activist, explains that farmers produce "for the nation and not the market, so profits are not the major motivation for us".

KRSS members say that contemporary farming practices imply every kind of financial and technical support. "The talk of reduction of subsidies, which I have been told is the rule of GATT, is treacherous," says Gundappa, a small farmer in Gadag. He dismisses any suggestion that his information may be erroneous.

In most of Dharwad, passions are aroused easily over farmer-to-farmer seed transfers, which are the mainstay of agriculture in the district's paddy, jowar and cotton cultivation. Only one hybrid -- DCH-4 for cotton, created by the Dharwad-based University of Agricultural Sciences -- is used and even this is distributed almost free. However, this variety is restricted to irrigated areas in the northern Nargund taluka. In the rest of the district, more dependent on tank irrigation, traditional varieties are cultivated.

The degree of endorsement of KRSS' stand varies. In the middle part of the district, such as in Gadag and Shirhatti talukas, sentiment against the GATT is aggressive. H Mujahid of Mummigatti village insists seed prices must be determined by farmers and not by manufacturers.

In Nargund taluka in north Dharwad, the view is slightly modulated. Here, the beneficiaries of DCH-4 feel that the cost of research for new and better seeds must be borne by cultivators. "But such research must be carried out by the government so that prices are kept low," says Naresh Nayakar, a member of a local panchayat. "We oppose GATT because it will prevent the government from carrying out this research."

The most ironic example of the opposition to GATT is in the southern parts of the district -- Rannebennur, Hirekerur and Byadgi talukas -- where farmers are contract seed growers with companies like Cargill, Indo-American Hybrids, Sultan Seeds and Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds. Most hybrids for sunflower, tomato and, more recently, cotton, are produced on the fields of the local farmers. Although the farmers' incomes have increased, compared to that of others in the district, cash advances and stipulatory buy-back arrangements with seed companies have also increased indebtedness among them. Says a Rannebennur farmer, Veerappan Maragal, "While there is more cash evident in our hands, many of us owe much more to the private companies."

Support for KRSS in this region has been only to the extent of getting it rein in the seed companies. Says Narsingh Hossanah of Byadgi, "I support KRSS because it keeps Cargill in check." But he admits that he would not like the firm to be chased out of the country.

More interestingly, a thriving farmer-to-farmer seed trade in the hybrids produced for the firms has come into operation, although the volume and prices are yet low. Says Hossanah, "All of us do it. The companies do not stop it because of the KRSS." Seed buyer A Punnaiah of Shigaon says, "It is my right to buy seeds at the lower price. This should never be curbed." Cash crunch

Bareilly (Uttar Pradesh)
Up to 90 per cent of the farmers in Bareilly district, one of the areas in which farmers are taking up cash crops, are small and medium farmers. These farmers simply oppose GATT. As Chhote Lal, a small farmer of Inayakpur, admits, "We all oppose it, but we don't know why." Chhote Lal's fear is that the "government will take over all our fields and set up cooperatives by combining all the small fields".

The remaining 10 per cent are big farmers who buy seeds from the market, which offers improved varieties of paddy from Andhra Pradesh, seeds for wheat from Punjab and Haryana and seeds for vegetable and other crops from Govind Vallabh Pant University for Agriculture and Ecology in Pantnagar in Nainital district of the state.

Jeswant Singh, pradhan of Jeed, says, "Seeds will become costly -- that much is sure. Some of the big farmers in our village won't mind spending more on seeds if the yield is higher. But they say we will not be able to retain the seeds and plant them a second time."

Fright vs might

Dhaulpur (Rajasthan)
Dhaulpur consists mainly of farmers with small holdings. The principal subsidy provided to farmers is on seeds, which, during demonstration exercises, are sold at 50 per cent concession. The main crops are wheat and mustard.

In Roond village, Ajmer Singh says the peasants are already hardpressed and now GATT is an additional worry. "We are scared," he says. "We have been told frightening things. We will suffer once Dunkel comes."

Warns Bhagwan Singh of Kheda village, "Janata pareshan hai. Sochte hain jaise angrezon ke zamaane mein tha, vaisa hi hoga. Hum to hartaal kar denge (The public is upset. They think it will be like the British rule. We will go on strike)."

For Mahavir Singh Rana of Chavvni village, Dunkel means gulami (slavery) and he says the government is "selling the farmers but should be aware of the staunch, united opposition it will face from the kasthkars (farmers).

Beeda of Sarani village says that the widely prevalent practice of exchanging seeds will stop once GATT is implemented. Niranjan Singh of neighbouring Pureni village laments, "We depend on farmer-to-farmer sale of seeds. If the foreigners stop that, we will be ruined."

Uninformed

Saran, Bhojpur, Muzzafarpur & Patna (Bihar)
Barring those living in near urban centres, these districts of Bihar are populated largely by small and marginal subsistence farmers. Wheat, paddy, maize, pulses, chillies, oilseeds and fruits like bananas are the major crops. High-yield varieties of seeds supplied by government undertakings are popular.

Emotions on GATT are based on what little information is available and they are virtually always anti-GATT textured.

Mahawat Singh of Ratanpura in Muzzafarpur district narrates an interesting tale: "I was returning from the Sonpur mela when an argument broke out between 2 men over a seat in the bus. The person who first occupied the seat told the other not to behave like Dunkel. I asked my fellow traveller what Dunkel was and was told that it is a foreign company that would come to India soon and take over our agriculture." Some farmers in the state have also entered the seed business; they perceive a threat. Rajeshwar Prasad of Hathi Tola in Patna district fears, "I will have to buy their (MNCs') expensive seeds and will not be allowed to retain some of the seeds."

Harender Sinh of Baijalpur Keswa village in Saran district says, "I am totally against Dunkel because once it comes to Bihar, I will not be able to use my seeds. I use my own seeds for 3 years and change it after that. If I am not allowed to keep my seeds, I will have to sell off my land as I cannot afford to purchase fresh seeds every year."

Periodic farm fairs like the Sonpur mela become hives of information-exchange on GATT. But even here, the shades of opinion are dictated by the level of prosperity. Nandan Singh, one of the big farmers in the village, says, "I understand we will all be able to produce a double crop of wheat with the new improved seeds. Then, what is wrong with Dunkel draft?"

But Ram Kumar Singh of Chanda village in Bhojpur district is unconvinced. "How can I compete with the big American companies?" he asks. "If they sell cheap grains, most of the farmers in my panchayat would be wiped out. They say after signing Dunkel, farmers would be able to export. Here in the villages, most of the grain is consumed internally and most farmers do not even have surplus to sell. As in the past, foreign companies will come and buy our grains at cheap rates and sell them at high prices."

Impatient and opportunistic

Ludhiana (Punjab)
In Ludhiana, there is a perceptible shift from food grains to cash-crops like sunflower and vegetables. Big farmers are impatient with restrictive trade practices and look upon GATT as the opportunity they were waiting for. Supporting their aspirations are impressive predictions about export gains in the GATT era (see box).

But even in these areas, there are apprehensions about seed availability. Anti-GATT groups like the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Lakhowal) have sprung up, and there is a distinct, albeit lowscale, fear of the accord's provisions, especially those concerning seeds.

Jagjit Singh Hara of Kanganwal colony, a Padma Shri awardee whose family cultivates about 35 ha, says, "Call it (GATT) the messiah of Indian agriculture, because it will provide opportunities to grow, to compete internationally. But it will also expose the inefficient, the babies of the protected economy."

Hara, who has adopted a quadruple cropping system on his farm, says the farmers of Punjab are adventurous and can take up the gauntlet successfully because they have the talent. "And our seed industry will also gain advantage. It is sick now, it needs to be revived through collaborations, if necessary. After all, it is the foundation of agriculture. Once better seeds are available, we will have a big boom."

Spreading the GATT gospel in Punjab is the Punjab Agricultural University. PAU vice-chancellor A S Khehra says, "The general impression is that it (GATT) can create competitiveness. If we work earnestly, we will be the gainers, as far as agriculture is concerned." Khehra feels the PAU scientists can compete in the new environment.

But there are voices of protest. Gurmail Singh of Majara village in Ludhiana says, "If GATT is so beneficial, why aren't we being informed about it? And, some newspapers say it will hurt the farmer. Is that correct? What is the truth?"

There is definitely an undercurrent of expectation and optimism among the "progressive" farmers. Mohinder Singh Grewal, who has a 5-ha, triple-cropped farm, is cautious because he says information about GATT is scarce and what the newspapers say is usually biased. But, he says, "If we work hard, GATT will prove better for us. Our scientists will also have to work hard and will have to teach the farmers, lead them and make available the latest technology. Then we can get good results, no doubt." Grewal is a multiple award winner for excellence in the sphere of agriculture, and his quiet confidence is the hallmark of the average Ludhiana farmer contemplating GATT.

Buoyant and rising

Over the past decade, Sangli has witnessed farmers making a marked switch to hybrids among cash crops, especially oilseeds. Growing fruit and vegetables for exports is an even more recent trend.

Farmers in the more developed talukas of Sangli are almost buoyant in their anticipation of GATT, though they are thirsty for more information. One such area is Mahisal village in Miraj taluka.

Says Mahisal sarpanch Kaddarrao Shinde, "We are aware that there will be problems in pushing the exports of our produce and or the entry of multinationals. But there are mature thinkers in my village who are already planning to meet the challenge." The sale of hybrid seeds, developed by both Indian and foreign companies, has reached boom proportions in Sangli. Even the seed sale trends of state corporations and private agencies has changed. In 1990, for instance, 2,100 quintals of jowar seeds were bought from state corporations and 1,100 quintals from private companies. In 1993, the figures were 1,600 quintals and 2,300 quintals respectively.

Some farmers contend they buy seeds to ensure better quality. But 32-year-old Nigam Shah, manager of V M Shah & Co, the busiest seed outlet in Sangli, thinks he knows better. "Some of my customers are really knowledgeable," he says, "but there are many who are simply struck by the glitzy packaging. Mark my words, the age of marketing has arrived in the seed industry."

The political leaders of the district, including Sangli zilla parishad president Shivaji Rao Naik, explain that the confidence of the farmers of the region is a trait typical of areas that have had a longer experience of development. Talukas such as Miraj benefited from a well-developed lift irrigation system that utilised the Krishna waters from the late '60s onwards. Says Naik, "In most parts so served, agricultural prosperity was experienced by many farming families at least 15-20 years ago."

Naik also says that now "a younger generation has come up, determined to further increase their earnings in new ways". In several villages, this younger lot -- in their late 20s and early 30s -- are distinctly conscious that they are farmers with a difference: most of them are graduates and some have professional training in agriculture. "Moreover, in our mindset, we are as forward looking as any professional group in the country," says A D Patil of Mahisal, who, while being one of the youngest of panchayat members, already wields considerable influence in the body. Patil points out that the younger farmers of his village keenly keep themselves "informed of the latest ideas in agriculture" and make frequent trips to attend agricultural workshops, even if they are 500 km away.

Lurking doubts
Nonetheless, some doubts lurk among Sangli's farmers. In Mahankal taluka, those living away from the Krishna river complain that the others are better off and have had more opportunities for modern farming. Panchayat samiti chairperson Ajitrao Ghorpade says international trade is a complex affair and many honest attempts by farmers could go awry. Members of sugar cane and oil cooperatives are also apprehensive that private companies will step in and wipe them out.

Although there are no clearcut ayes and nays about GATT in any district, villagers recognise that GATT is an issue that requires political attention. Larger, progressive farmers look to GATT as an opportunity to expand horizons, whereas smaller farmers, even in the forward-looking Sangli and Ludhiana districts, are wary. The latter group has political representation in the progressive areas voicing their concerns.

For instance, Ajmer Singh Lakhowal, president of the Punjab unit of BKU, says, "The small farmer with less than about 4 ha of land will be finished because new technology will be expensive. In Punjab, more than 80 per cent of the farmers have holdings of less than 2 ha. How can we expect them to export? Only big farmers will benefit as they will gobble up the small holdings. Mahatma Gandhi boycotted foreign goods, but now we are welcoming the foreigners."

Meanwhile, the political bandwagon keeps on rolling. The opposition parties are striving to synchronise their anti-GATT campaigns in the hope that a combined protest will hit the government. Senior Janata Dal leader George Fernandes exhorts the opposition to "march separately but strike together" (see box).

In the opposition-ruled Bihar, chief minister Laloo Prasad Yadav's rustic oratory has hit hard: "Saath hazar rupaya kilo tamatar ke beej mili. Khet mein kaddu barabar tamatar hoi per usme hoi khali pani. Ye kheti tumhar na rahi aur bahar ke hawai jahaz ake keedamar dawai dali. Neem ka patta kya datune na mili. Tulsi ke jhar per jal bhi na de paiybe. (Rs 60,000 for 1 kg of tomato seeds. Tomatoes will be of the size of pumpkins but only full of water. The fields will not be yours and foreign airplanes will spray pesticides. You won't be able to use neem for cleaning teeth. You won't be able to worship tulsi)."

Regardless of the lobbies, farmers will not necessarily get converted to either cause. As Dileep Mans, a 27-year-old farmer of Mahankal taluka in Sangli, points out, "In every aspect of my profession, I take deliberated decisions. Nobody is going to lead me by the nose on my impression of what the Dunkel Draft implies for my fields."

Anirudh Bhattacharyya (Dhaulpur/Rajasthan, Ludhiana/Punjab), Anupam Goswami (Sangli/Maharashtra, Hubli/Karnataka), Koshy Cherail (Bareilly & Muzaffarnagar/Uttar Pradesh), Rahul Shrivastava (Vaishali, Bhojpur, Saran & Patna/Bihar), Anumita Roychowdhury & Rimjhim Jain (New Delhi)

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