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An MNC harvest in the Indian fields?
COMMENTS PRINT

Crafting A Revolution

  • Public-private partnerships in critical research involving Indian institutions may mean privatisation of profits
  • Sees biotech as the only way to enhance yields and productivity to usher in a second green revolution in India
  • Changes possible in the Indian policy framework to ensure GM foods are not treated as 'unnatural' ones
  • Interaction between the US and Indian researchers may mean outflow of patentable knowledge
  • To push the American system of mechanised farming to enable Indian farmers to opt for contract farming


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It's being billed as the second significant phase to "revitalise the US-Indian partnership in agriculture that was born of the (Indian) Green Revolution in the '60s". In the words of Montek Singh Ahluwalia, deputy chairman, Planning Commission, "The motive is to usher in a second green revolution which is not only concerned with wheat and rice, but takes into account the processing, marketing and storage aspects." He's talking about the Indo-US Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture (KIA), whose architects are Manmohan Singh and US President George Bush, and its chief proponents are Ahluwalia and agriculture minister Sharad Pawar.

Less than a year after the deal was inked in November '05, opposition against it is growing. This November 20, the All-India Kisan Sabha, a wing of the CPI(M), plans a protest because it feels the agreement "enables (US) MNCs to exploit" the Indian agriculture sector. Nilotpal Basu, MP and a senior CPI(M) leader, agrees that "a particular section of the Indian government is being seen as facilitating the interests of a few US MNCs." And Suman Sahay of Gene Campaign thinks the initiative is akin to 'hijacking' the term green revolution.

Before we get into the pros and the cons of the agreement, let's take a look at the areas of cooperation.

 
 
"I'm not completely sure but I know that no preferential treatment will be meted out to the MNCs in the light of access to our resources." Montek Singh Ahluwalia
 
 
The minutes of the third meeting of the Indo-US KIA board in June '06 states the benefits are higher food production in India, increase in technology transfer in areas like biotechnology, ensuring a "key role for the US and Indian private sector", and "to reinvigorate US-India university partnerships". The focus areas include food processing, biotech for a sustained 'evergreen revolution', capacity development and water management.

A major criticism is the involvement of US MNCs like Wal-Mart, Monsanto and Archer Daniel Midland group, which are on the KIA board. The fear is, research by Indian state-owned institutions like the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) will be controlled by the private sector, mostly US firms. The same has happened in the US where knowledge created through public funding is patented and, later, licensed to private firms. Thus, it's not used just for the public good but also results in private profits.

Sahay makes a distinction between the first Green Revolution in India and the proposed second one. The first one was a result of publicly owned technologies and the research was done with public money to fulfil a public need—to hike the country's food production. But now, she says, it'll result in privately owned technologies that'll be "shackled in exclusive company-owned patents". "The two revolutions are as different as chalk and cheese. The second one has been cleverly packaged as another green revolution by agri-business firms," she concludes.

The pro-KIA lobby disagrees vehemently. Explains Ahluwalia, "I'm not completely sure, but I know that no preferential treatment will be meted out to them (American MNCs) in the light of access to our resources." Seconds Nawab Ali, deputy director (engineering), ICAR, "We are getting ready to negotiate terms wherein we want a part of the profits accruing to US firms from their engagement with Indian agriculture to be ploughed back to the field and to view the Indian farmers as business partners. "

Another apprehension in the anti-KIA group relates to contract farming. The minutes of the June meeting of the initiative board states that "training on growing crops under contractual agreements will be conducted in both the US and India and will include the legal mechanisms of contracts and adapting the US system to India's conditions." One of the board members also emphasised that "before the mechanism of contracts can begin, (Indian) farmers need to switch to plant varieties that are more suitable for processing, which is currently not the case."

For Sahay, this stress on contract farming "will further threaten the food security of the country as it'll coerce the marginal farmers to grow export-oriented crops. This will also affect the farmers' ability to feed their families as most of them only eat a part of their produce," she explains. What she implies is that Indian farmers will be cajoled to cultivate crops they may not wish to and the weightage of the country's overall foodgrain production may shift from wheat and rice to cash crops.

Biotechnology is a contentitious issue in India due to controversies surrounding genetically modified (GM) food. In the June meeting of the KIA board, while the US representatives "expressed concerns over recent regulatory and policy developments in India", their Indian counterparts "emphasised the commitment of the Indian government to the use of biotechnology to sustainably increase agricultural productivity." Critics feel this may lead to New Delhi accepting Washington's objections against mandatory labelling for GM food. "The MNCs will then have the patents and an exemption from labelling GM food as unnatural," says Sahay.

Vandana Shiva of Navdanya says the KIA "will allow American MNCs to duplicate what they did with basmati, neem and nap hal (a strain of wheat)." In some cases, the foreign firm can claim a monopoly over certain seed varieties by doing a marginal gene makeover, as in nap hal, claim an innovation and get a patent abroad. "This disregards the basic fact that nap hal's qualities are the outcome of generations of Indian farmers who spent years cross-breeding varieties to come up with the current strains," explains Shiva. A few experts believe the KIA may also lead to both legal and illegal transfer of India's precious gene pool by giving access to foreigners. Since the two main processes to develop modified strains are patented abroad, it'll be difficult for Indian researchers to develop new GM varieties without infringing them.

Such fears are dispelled by KIA supporters. "It's clear that conventional agri-technologies that ushered in the first Green Revolution have plateaued and the next breakthrough is only possible through biotech," says N.K. Singh, principal facilitator (biotech), ICAR. Adds Camille Gonsalves of Monsanto India, which has introduced GM cotton seeds, "Increasing yields and productivity is the only way to solve India's food insufficiency problems. While biotech is not a panacea to do that, it's the single-most powerful tool India has right now to address its food and fibre requirements. Apart from quantifiable benefits like higher farmers' incomes, biotech crops offer non-quantifiable ones reduced health and production risks." Finally, Mangala Rai, director general, ICAR, thinks the "benefits of biotech include increased production and productivity through sustainable and ecologically friendly agricultural systems. It has a great potential in enhancing nutritive value of food products."

Even if one agrees with this reasoning, what's still surprising is the apprehension among policymakers to talk about the KIA. Ahluwalia insisted he didn't have the complete information and asked Outlook to talk to ICAR's Rai M.S. Swaminathan, the father of the first Green Revolution and the honorary advisor to the KIA board, says he doesn't "have access to relevant information". And Prithviraj Chavan, the minister of state in prime minister's office (PMO), has said matters relating to the Indo-US Knowledge Initiative are directly under the purview of the PM and the Planning Commission.

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