Home / Opinion / Online Views /  India needs GM food crops to boost farm productivity

There is an old joke about Communism that goes this way: Who is a Communist? Someone who reads Marx and Lenin. Who is an anti-Communist? Someone who understands Marx and Lenin.

Left-wing thinking in politics has a long history in India, and derives some of its most prominent roots from the Socialists who studied at the London School of Economics (LSE). In his riveting autobiography, American banker and philanthropist David Rockefeller, who studied at LSE in the late 1930s, recounts how Harold Laski, whom he describes as the “Pied Piper of the Left" “was particularly influential with students from India, who flocked to his classes and were bewitched by his rhetoric." Rockefeller writes that Laski had a great influence on India’s economic policy after it achieved independence, and that “India’s dominant Congress party, for instance, was largely controlled by people who had learnt socialism at his feet". J.K. Galbraith, economist and US ambassador to India under then President John F. Kennedy, once affirmed that Laski’s ideas had been at the centre of Jawaharlal Nehru’s thinking. The most widely-known and electorally-successful of these Laski students would indisputably be the late Jyoti Basu, who was chief minister of West Bengal for over two decades—and presided over the total destruction of the state’s economy and its capital city’s comprehensive degradation.

Communist parties haven’t always spoken for India’s national interest. Writing in 1995 in an article titled “The Question of Communist Unity", Harkishan Singh Surjeet, a doyen of India’s Communism movement and general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM who died in 2008, berated his brethren from the Communist Party of India (CPI) for taking a “chauvinistic" approach by supporting the Indian government’s actions during the 1962 India-China war. Surjeet recalled how CPM had asked for a “peaceful settlement of the dispute" rather than military confrontation—never mind that China had been the unilateral aggressor and India was defending its territory—and highlighted how his party had a “proletarian, internationalist outlook" in contrast to what he described as CPI’s chauvinism. Clearly, he saw himself and CPM aligned more with internationalist rather than nationalist priorities.

It’s important to understand this background of the Left in India and the CPM and its philosophy in particular to appreciate the body blow the party’s leaders are trying to land on the future of India’s agriculture sector and livelihood of farmers. Proletariat-friendly “internationalism" is the creed of this political party, and they are prepared to sacrifice what is India’s national interest and the interest of farmers in the dogmatic pursuit of their ideology.

Last month, Basudev Acharia, CPM Leader in Lok Sabha and chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Agriculture, submitted a 500-page report to Parliament supporting an outright ban on field trials of genetically-modified (GM) food crops in India. The report, purportedly prepared with extensive consultations across stakeholders from the scientific, agriculture, business and policy communities, cites “the gross inadequacy of the regulatory mechanism, the total absence of post-release surveillance and monitoring" as reasons for stopping all trials.

But is this a reasonable policy prescription? Why doesn’t the committee recommend in concrete, time-bound terms instead what the mechanisms for regulation, surveillance and monitoring might be to ensure that a balance is struck between driving agricultural productivity and environmental sensitivity? After three years of work and consultations with 50 experts from different stakeholder communities, is this what the committee came up with? It is precisely such shallow, blinkered thinking at the highest levels that is becoming the bane of India’s economic rise, and consigning tens of millions into poverty and destitution for life.

Acharia’s report claims that crops like Bt cotton have adversely affected the livelihood and well-being of farmers. Acharia has committed the oldest professional mistake in the world—that of mistaking correlation with causation. It is alleged that the higher price of Bt cotton seeds is causing suicides among farmers, as it leads to indebtedness. Has it occurred to Acharia and the assorted activists who take this line of reasoning that improving access to finance for farmers and agriculturists could be a way to prevent indebtedness?

It is short-sighted and immature to attribute wholly the issue of farmer suicides to any higher priced GM seeds. Blaming a better seed that increases agricultural productivity for farmer indebtedness is like blaming investment in productivity-enhancing, albeit more expensive, machinery for the financial collapse of a company. Economist Bibek Debroy has written extensively on the distortions created by bad policies that have caused agriculture sector to consistently underperform, identifying reforms in the minimum support price system among other measures such as opening up markets for agricultural produce that will help farmers get better prices for their output and will lead to increase in incomes. But of course, such deregulation and promotion of markets is anathema to Leftist political leaders—they are too consumed by their dogma and allow their ideology to drown out rationality.

A charge that has been repeated ad nauseum by opponents of GM food crops is the alleged profiteering of companies such as Monsanto India, citing the example of Bt cotton. In his statement to the Parliamentary Committee, the Monsanto chairman has said that India is the most competitive Bt cotton seed market worldwide, with multiple providers who offer the product, clarifying that even as the inventor of the technology, Monsanto enjoys only a 6% market share. Acharia’s report claims that farmers using Bt cotton seeds have seen no improvement in their socio-economic conditions. This charge is patently false. In his Internet-based interaction on 31 August, Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi stated how Gujarat’s cotton production had increased from 2.3 million bales to over 10 million bales since 2001. Gujarat is a case study of how adopting the latest technology has resulted in manifold production increase, with monetary benefits accruing to farmers. The report claims farmers in Vidarbha, where water is scarce, have been hit hard by use of Bt cotton because the new seeds use more water—is dearth of water availability for agriculture the fault of the seeds or a governance failure of the state government? Chief minister Prithviraj Chavan conceded recently that though over 70,000 crore had been spent on irrigation in the last decade in Maharashtra, just 17.9% of the land had been covered, well below the national average of 42%. Where are the returns to Maharashtra’s citizens and farmers to show for this investment of taxpayer money? It is also notable that the irrigation portfolio in the Maharashtra government was held by Ajit Pawar, nephew of Sharad Pawar, between 1999-2010.

Given that the committee has representations from individuals cutting across party lines, the whole political establishment is silently complicit in this pseudo-scientific exercise. At one point, legendary agriculture scientist M.S. Swaminathan, the man credited with bringing the Green Revolution to India, was also a member of the committee from 2009-2010. But let it be said—the report by the Committee chaired by Acharia is an ideological document that has focused selectively on the testimony of some individuals to put forth its recommendations while ignoring others. Acharia seems to have turned the entire consensus-building exercise into a kangaroo court and used his constitutional platform to drive forward his party’s ideological opposition. Acharia has insisted in interviews that “GM is not a panacea for food security", constructing a classic straw man argument—there is no one panacea for food security. India has both a large population and a high population density—land and water resources are relatively scarce and productivity-multiplying solutions are vital. Acharia’s vociferously anti-industry, pro-consumer and pro-farmer rhetoric reeks of the highest hypocrisy, given that his party CPM, which has a meaningful footprint in just two states in India, raked in 335 crore from corporate donors between 2007-2012. Acharia has raised the familiar Leftist bogeys of pressure from US and “neo-liberal" economic policies as reasons why GM food crops are being launched in India. It is telling of India’s intellectual climate and the depth of public debate that such rambunctious ramblings even qualify as sensible opinion in this day and age.

Where does the anti-technology argument lead to—will those opposing GM food crops propose next that modern irrigation be banned and tractors not be used because they are also not “natural"? What has been equally disconcerting has been the near-total silence of the scientific community on Acharia’s one-sided report that reads like a Communist propaganda document, not a reasoned analysis that offers balanced solutions to the incredibly important issues at stake. Though the final policy decisions shall be taken by the Union government, the Committee’s output is an important influencer of public opinion on the issue. To that extent, it is very important that its arguments and recommendations should be dissected and analyzed.

The issue of agriculture productivity and food security is complex and requires policy action in several different areas, from improving access to finance for farmers, to creating markets in agriculture for better pricing, and investing in irrigation and allied infrastructure that helps increase agricultural yields. One hopes that for the sake of national interest, the government takes a broader view of the issues at hand than what is portrayed by the Parliamentary Committee’s report because productivity-multiplying GM food crops can do India’s farmers and the agriculture sector a world of good. It’s a self-inflicted economic tragedy that a sector that employs over half of India’s labour force contributes less than one-sixth of the national gross domestic product. India needs to move from viewing farmers and workers in agriculture as victims to viewing them as vital contributors to the national economic growth. The plight of farmers shouldn’t be glorified or romanticized. This requires a change in mindset more than anything else a shift from Laski’s ideology that has only been successful in keeping India poor over the decades.

Rajeev Mantri is director of GPSK Investment Group and Harsh Gupta is a Hong Kong-based co-author of an upcoming book on financial derivatives.

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