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The majority of the truth

August 16, 2004

How many people must die before we will end the injustice that marked their lives when they were alive? The inevitable consequence of the neglect and indifference that agriculture has been subjected to is that more of our farmers will die in the coming months too, as they have each month for the last few years -- first by the few, then by the handful, the dozens, and now the hundreds.

Each death is a personal tragedy, one that not only ends the faint hopes that may have lingered to the end, but also leaves survivors behind who are scarred forever and must live with their own burdens. And yet, even the smallest regard -- or respect -- for their deaths does not appear upon the face of our nation's policies towards agriculture and the abject poor who toil our lands.

Agriculture engages more Indians than any other occupation does. Indeed, by most accounts, anywhere between one-half and two-thirds of the people are dependent on agriculture for their livelihood directly or indirectly. In such an overwhelmingly agrarian society, the government's attitude to agriculture is significantly more important than its position on other issues.

Similarly, given this enormous footprint from one line of work, one would expect that the majority of news reports, analysis and commentary from the country's major media institutions would focus on it. Every major news organisation should be crawling with farming types pointing to all sorts of developments; by contrast, other less popular activities should occupy a small corner of space once in every few weeks. Right?

Alas. You would be fortunate to read one-tenth of the coverage of agriculture that is necessary to understand what is really going on with the livelihoods of the nation's majority. By now, the indifference to agriculture has reached such heights that in 'elite' publications, it can hardly be noticed that India is a largely agrarian nation.

But in fact it is, and however much we choose to ignore that, eventually we are forced to confront that reality. The plain truth is that if the news you are reading everyday does not include significant coverage of agriculture, then it is grossly incomplete, and for that reason, bears very little resemblance to the reality of India. Our expressions of surprise at 'unexpected' political developments are in fact more surprising for a different reason -- that we have become so deluded by our minor privileged sphere that we are unable to comprehend what great numbers of Indians experience. The most recent example of this disconnect is the election result in Andhra Pradesh, where the agricultural crisis swept our most celebrated chief minister from a glory that we imagined to near-total irrelevance in the blink of a political eye.

The inattentiveness to agriculture has made it easier for policy decisions to be made that are catastrophically harmful to the rural poor. Two recent developments in agriculture should remind us of this.

In the past fortnight, most news reports of the World Trade Organisation's negotiations on trade in agriculture have declared
progress. Somehow, it seems the developing and developed countries have found a formula by which poor farmers in Third World nations will be protected against the illegal subsidies that US and EU farmers get from their governments. These subsidies have allowed Western producers to lower their prices so much that small Indian farmers simply cannot compete. Reforming this state of affairs has been an absolute must for many years now.

Any progress, therefore, must make the playing field a little more level, one would think. But the WTO doesn't work like that. In Geneva, what matters more is not leveling the playing field, but being able to make an announcement that the arena for competition is now more fair. The actual terms of the deal brokered become unimportant if a loud enough claim is made that the negotiations have been successful. Thus, trade representatives in the US and EU have both been quick to point to the lowering of subsidies in those countries, and this is parlayed around the planet as a breakthrough in the hitherto-stalled negotiations.

But read the fine print. Cuts in subsidies that America and the European Union agreed to are not based on their actual current levels. Instead, they are based on a maximum permitted level of subsidy which is considerably higher than it is now. The 'cuts', therefore, will have no meaningful effect on the amount of money doled out to First World farmers. And understandably, as a result, this 'progress' on paper is unlikely to make any difference to unfair competitive conditions that Indian farmers actually face. They are merely being told to accept that their condition could have been worse, and that their current plight must therefore be seen as a boon in comparison to that worse alternative.

The bait-and-switch is so blatant that one can scarcely believe that this is the outcome of a negotiation. And yet, incredibly, so far I've been able to find only one Indian entity that is unequivocally happy about all this -- the government!

Another example of the under-the-radar developments in agriculture is what's happening with genetically modified (GM) crops. These are plainly risky to public health, and the claims of improved nutrition from them are mostly unproven. Don't take my word for it; that's also what the Indian Council of Medical Research had to say about this recently.

If tests on animals show that a particular gene may be causing stunted growth and damage to the immune system, how happy would you be feeding on this variety of potato? How would you respond to 'nutritional imbalances' from eating your daily diet of GM rice? If the country's leading medical body is concerned about this, shouldn't the government be going slow on providing clearances for planting and sale? The agri-businesses contend that the risks of GM foods must be proven before they can be banned. But is that any way to guard public health? Wouldn't it be wiser to demonstrate their safety first before permitting widespread planting?

Genetically Modified crops have been tested in India in only the most rudimentary manner. The test results aren't public, and the claims aren't verifiable. The few tests that were conducted failed to show any advantage and in some cases actually showed losses compared to non-GM alternatives. So much so that farmers sought compensation from GM seed producers for making false claims. Under those circumstances, why are unapproved GM cotton seeds available so widely in the country, and what are the regulators doing about it? They are supposed to care about Indian consumers' health and about Indian seed security, but what do they actually do when faced with the inconvenient data? They allow further 'testing' of GM crops on such a large scale that it is ridiculous to call it testing anymore.

There's something else you should know about GM foods. The 'high-yielding strains' are touted as the answer to the world's
problems of starvation and malnutrition. But how true is that? The ICMR report notes that three-fourths of genetic modification is for tolerance to herbicides, and another fifth is to ward off insects. Less that 0.1 per cent, in fact, is modification for yield improvement and enrichment of vitamins. What is really being starved is the truth, while GM foods that are banned in many European countries are now being pushed in the Third World under the banner of benevolence.

That, then, is agriculture. Hundreds of millions who depend on it for their livelihood have no way of engaging the secretive
deal-making that devastates their lives. And while this great majority of the nation is steered into a complete corner, the privileged are led by the media on an endless fantasy -- of an India that is growing in economic strength, and about to challenge the global powers and take her 'rightful' place in the family of nations.

That's not going to happen. Not unless we connect the personal fortunes of the rural poor with the ambitions of the privileged few. The increasingly leftist politics that is taking hold in New Delhi is the price of neglecting this connection. Remember India Shining? There's an elementary amount of math to all this. While reality isn't the exclusive domain of one profession or another, when overwhelming numbers of the people are engaged in one line of work, it follows naturally that the particular reality they experience is the overriding reality for the nation as a whole. In this case, the reality that counts is this: countless families face the loss of their livelihood, and thousands of them are driven to such desperation that they have taken their very lives.


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Power to the forgotten people

Ashwin Mahesh

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