The controversial Seed Bill 2004, which has now been referred to a Parliamentary select committee, lays emphasis on ensuring improved quality in seeds being supplied to farmers. It seeks to make it mandatory for farmers to grow seed that is registered, therefore, but this proposal has come under severe criticism from the farmers themselves, as well as from civil society.
Seed quality is an essential aspect of crop production. For ages, farmers have traditionally been selecting and maintaining good quality seed, since it is in their interest to do so. They knew and understood the importance of quality seed in production. However, with the advent of green revolution technology, based primarily on the high-yielding dwarf varieties of wheat and rice, the mainline thinking changed. Agricultural scientists, for reasons that remain unexplained, began to doubt the ability of farmers to maintain seed quality themselves. Aided by the World Bank, the Ministry of Agriculture launched a National Seeds Project in 1967. Under the project, spread into three phases, seed processing plants were set up in the states of Punjab, Haryana, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Orissa. Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, West Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh were covered under phase III. All that the huge processing plants were supposed to do was to provide certified seeds of food crops, mainly self-pollinating crops, to farmers.
A majority of these plants have since emerged as white elephants. It was primarily for the lack of demand for certified seeds of self-pollinating crops that a majority of these seed processing plants slid deep into red, and often remained burdened with carry-over stocks. Farmers refrained from buying the certified seeds, and instead preferred to save and clean a part of the grain harvest of each season for sowing in the next season.
Studies have subsequently shown that there is hardly any difference in the quality and productivity of processed certified seeds compared to the normal seed of self-pollinating crops like wheat and rice. In fact, the 18,000 tonnes of dwarf wheat seed imported in 1966 from Mexico, which ushered in the wheat revolution, was not certified processed seed. It was cleaned wheat grain collected from Mexican farmers. If the cleaned grain could bring about record production what was the need to push expensive certified seed to the farmers?
Not only the quality of seeds, even the traditional method of sowing paddy was dubbed as inefficient, and thereby considered to be the cause for low yields. Agricultural scientists urged farmers to discard their traditional way (broadcasting) of sowing paddy. Farm extension machinery was mobilised to disseminate the improved technology of transplanting from a paddy nursery. Within a few years of the advent of the high-yielding varieties of rice, paddy transplantation changed the rural landscape.
Transplanting paddy required additional farm labour and therefore increased the cost of production. The crop was transplanted in rows which made it easier for the tractors and other mechanised instruments to operate in the rice paddies. It also forced farmers to go in for more irrigation thereby resulting in the increased withdrawal of groundwater.
In mid-1980s, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines concluded in a study, which showed that there was hardly, any difference in the crop yields from transplanted rice and from the crop sown by broadcasted seeds. Puzzled, I asked a distinguished rice breeder: "If this is true than why in the first instance were the farmers asked to switch over to transplanting paddy?" He thought for sometime, and then replied: "We were probably helping the mechanical industry grow. Since rice is the staple food in Asia, tractor sales could only grow if there was a way to move the machine in the rice fields. " No wonder, the sales of tractors, puddlers, reapers and other associated equipment soared in the rice growing areas.
Farmers spraying insecticides on crops have also been a usual attribute of modern farming. Pesticides on rice (and others crops) were deemed necessary since the fertiliser-responsive dwarf varieties would attract horde of insects. To make the pesticides reach the target pest, farmers were advised to use knap-sack sprayers mounted on their backs. These sprayers came with varying kinds of nozzles - different sizes for different crops. Tractor driven sprayers were also promoted for various crops.
Although David Pimental of the University of Cornell had concluded in early 1980s that only 0.01 per cent of the pesticides reached the target pest, whereas 99.9 per cent escapes into the environment, yet farmers were asked to go in for more sprays. IRRI, which now publicly accepts that pesticides on rice was a waste of time and effort, also came out with a study on the efficiency of pesticides application. The study concluded that there was no difference in pesticides efficiency from knap-sack sprayers and if the chemical was kept at the source of the irrigation flow in a crop field.
Much of the agrarian crisis therefore is the consequence of such unwanted and cost-intensive technologies that have been forced on the farmers. Isnt it obvious that scientists were unknowingly trying to promote the commercial interests of the seed, tractor and the pesticides industry? Blindly introducing alien farm technologies without ascertaining its utility under the Indian farm conditions has cost the farmers dearly. In fact, the lure of such unwanted and expensive technologies, has fleeced the farming community. The savings from crop harvests have actually gone towards the cost of purchasing and maintenance of these irrelevant technologies. This has compounded the plight of the farming community, thereby aggravating the farm crisis.
The politics of technology cannot be overlooked. To avoid the blunder of previous revolutions the politics behind the new agriculture technologies, including biotechnology and nano-technology, and farming systems like contract farming and corporate agriculture, should first be examined and analysed in depth, before they are pushed on to unsuspecting farmers.