Seed accountability

Better regulations

For past several weeks, thousands of farmers in Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Chhatisgarh, Rajasthan, Bihar and Jharkhand have been left in the lurch. They had planted urd and til crops in a large acreage, and to their dismay no grain formation took place in the standing crop.

Unable to bear the economic loss, at least four farmers have reportedly committed suicide. Thousands of farmers have been pushed deeper into economic distress.
This is not the first time that the so called ‘improved seed’ has failed the farmers. And yet, there is no effort by the government to provide exemplary punishment to the seed companies and at the same time adequately compensate the farmers.

The controversial Seed Bill 2010 that has been placed in parliament in the ongoing session fails to address the long standing demand of farmers. Originally drafted in 2004, the new seed bill appears to have been written by the seed industry, for the seed industry. The proposed amendments once again favour private seed companies and corporations at the expense of farmers.

As the seed industry grows, sale of spurious and sub-standard seeds has also grown. Particularly the sale of hybrid seeds has become a lucrative business with a large number of fly-by-night operators. In the absence of tighter controls, it is the farmers who bear the brunt and continue to suffer silently.

The Seed Bill 2010 proposes a maximum fine of Rs 1 lakh for not keeping proper record of purity and germination of seeds as per the laid-out standards. And in case of spurious seeds, the bill proposes a jail term extending to one year and a maximum fine of Rs 5 lakh. Crop losses suffered by farmers will be evaluated by a local expert committee which will work out the compensation to be paid to farmers.

This is simply unfair. When seed fails to germinate or develop grains, it is the farmers’ livelihood that is destroyed. It is therefore a question of life and death for a farmer. The resulting loss cannot be measured simply in terms of the seed price that the farmer had incurred. Compensation must include the livelihood loss, and should include a minimum liability amount.

What is therefore required is a Seed Liability Bill. Drawn on the lines of the Nuclear Liability Bill, the proposed Seed Liability Bill must provide for a minimum economic liability that the seed companies must undertake in event of a crop failure. The proposed Seed Liability Bill should have the following components:

a) The seed liability bill must provide for mandatory price controls. At present, companies are charging prices at will and that too without any rationale. Tomato seed price for instance varies between Rs 475 to Rs 76,000 per kg, and Capsicum seed price between Rs 3,670 to Rs 65,200 a kg. More recently, seed companies have taken the Andhra Pradesh government to the high court challenging its decision to regulate prices and royalty. Therefore, the seed bill must include power to decide on price and price controls (including royalties).

b) Since the penalties/punishments have been mild, the government has failed to check the menace of fake, spurious and sub-standard seeds. Companies selling spurious and sub-standard seed should be black-listed. The penalty should include an imprisonment for a maximum period of 10 years and a minimum fine of Rs 10 lakh. The penalty should also be commensurate with the turnover of the seed company. In addition, in cases of complete crop loss, the seed company should be directed to pay an amount equal to expected crop output, plus a 50 per cent assured return as livelihood security.

c) Provision for re-registration increases the monopoly of the seed company for at least 20 years. This is unacceptable for the simple reason that it brings in monopoly control over seed through the back door.

d) While seeds may be registered with the National Register of Seeds, it is imperative that state governments must be given the authority to decide on which of these registered seeds can be licensed to be used in their state.

e) The Seed (Control) Order, 1983, had allowed the unbridled import under open-general license of planting material and seeds of flowers, vegetables and horticultural crops. This order was exploited by unscrupulous seed trade and business to import plant materials without undergoing any rigorous quality checks. The seed imports have come with a heavy load of pests and diseases posing serious damages to crop cultivation and to the country’s food security. Many hitherto unknown pests have also entered the country.

f) All imports of seeds therefore must undergo mandatory seed testing procedures, including multi-location trials, to ensure its adaptability to the Indian conditions. No self-testing or certificates from foreign seed certification agencies should hold true for Indian conditions.

g) Seed imports should only be allowed after pest risk analysis and local adaptability have been assessed. There is a need for a liability clause to be introduced that makes seed exporter responsible for any pest outbreak and also for the clean-up operations. This assumes importance in the wake of the Bhopal gas tragedy where the chemical companies have simply evaded any liability for the toxic clean-up.

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