Seed Bill must serve farmers, not MNCs

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GV Ramanajaneyulu

GV Ramanajaneyulu, the executive director of Hyderabad-based Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA), tells DH’s JBS Umanadh that the draft Seed Bill 2019, if passed in its current form, would end up regulating the farmer to encourage the commercial seed business that is dominated by a few multinational companies and kill the diversity in indigenous seed varieties.

What is your view of the draft Seed Bill 2019?

India had a seed legislation made in 1966 when the government was the only major player. After that, a lot of new technologies, and several private companies have come.

Sowing seeds of destruction?

So, to address the changes, in 2004, the government sought to bring in a new legislation. Because the existing seed law was unable to provide good regulation of seeds, farmers faced problems. There were several cases filed during 1998-2004.

Based on that, the Centre proposed a new legislation and several states also wanted to make their own legislation. Fifteen years have passed, but the legislation still remains a draft Bill. The Centre could not come up with a viable, useful legislation.

Why do you need a seed regulation?

Because seed is an important commodity in agriculture and seed quality affects farming. When there are many players in farming, there should be a good regulation. The entire 2004 draft was made to allow companies to do good business, rather than to enable farmers to do so. Farmers were asking for access to good quality seeds and to make seed-producing companies accountable. If the seed fails, the company should pay compensation. In both the seed legislations, the accountability of seed companies has been very minimal.

What changes would you want Parliament to make in the draft Seed Bill 2019?

Under the draft Seed Bill 2019, if there is a seed failure, farmers have to go to a consumer court to obtain compensation. There is no provision for compensation as part of the seed legislation itself. In terms of compensation, the legislation talks about a fixed quantity, a minimal amount. What we are asking is that it should be proportionate to the damage caused.

At the farmer’s level, if the seed does not germinate, the loss is only of seed cost and cost of land preparation. But if the entire crop is grown, and in the end it does not flower, farmers incur a huge expenditure and all that time is lost. So, compensation should be very different. I know cases that are pending in consumer courts for more than a decade. So, we were asking that compensation should be built into the legislation itself.

Legislation says that the seed has to be registered at the central level. But states should have power to decide what seed to be allowed and what not to be allowed. It should not be left to the Centre alone. So, local registration must be allowed.

Seed Control: Another important aspect is that the new Bill will replace all existing Bills. If that is the case, seed control, an important piece of regulation under the 1955 Essential Commodities Act and the 1983 seed control order will no longer exist. When there was controversy over Bt Cotton seeds as producers increased the price, the State brought the prices down with the help of the Essential Commodities Act. If the seed control order and the essential commodities provisions are nullified, they must be incorporated into Seed Bill 2019.

Royalty: Internationally, seed companies are paid not more than 5%. In India, companies charge 100-200% royalty as there is no regulation. But the government uses the Essential Commodities Act to force the price down. Government cannot regulate royalty, but it can regulate the price. We want the royalty issue also to be a part of Seed Bill 2019.

Certification: This Bill talks about self-certification. Foreign certification agencies and seed imports are allowed. Both should be discouraged. If a Chinese company certifies seed in China, how do we check whether it is suitable for Andhra Pradesh or Telangana.

What will be the impact if Seed Bill 2019 is passed in its current form?

In the last 15 years, small seed companies and state seed corporations have mostly got eliminated, so the oligopoly of the few big companies will be strengthened. India’s Rs 16,000 crore annual seed business is dominated by four or five companies. Small companies and farmers who produce and use their own seeds currently will simply perish. Among the big companies, some sell seeds for only a few crops. As a result, even the diversity of the cropping system will disappear.

What about farmer’s security and our food security?

The diversity of crops will come down. Larger areas will go to a few crops. If the choice of seeds are limited, obviously the crops will be limited, too. Today already, in 65% of the area under cultivation, only four crops are grown. Mono-cropping is on the rise because of the oligopoly of the seed companies. Diverse seed varieties and diverse cropping patterns can grow only if there is diversity in the seeds available. The Seed Bill must allow diversity to grow, control the trend towards monopolisation and allow several players to grow. While it is farmers who must be assured security through compensation, the draft Bill looks at how to provide security to the companies.

Does it also potentially mean the entry of more GM crops?

The GMO is, more than technology, an exclusive right through patents like on Bt cotton. One company had the patent over the seed and they tried to monopolise the market. When you give exclusive right to one company and there is no regulation on the royalty part, it will monopolise the market. It is like allowing some varieties based on your regulation and not allowing the diverse varieties and knowledge existing with the farmer because they don’t fit into your definition.

A lot of varieties in red chilies exist in the North East, but they don’t come into this regulation because they won’t fit into uniformity of growth and all that. I would say that the Seed Bill should look at promoting diverse production systems, which means there should be a localized seed system, and only larger production systems must be controlled. The Bill must regulate the commercial seed market, it should not regulate farmers to encourage the commercial seed market.

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