With the recent upsurge in farmers’ movements and growing resentment over their accumulating problems, farm policy and its implementation have faced increasing criticism in recent months. While such criticism from opposition leaders and farmers’ movements is expected, it is interesting to note that even agriculture officials and ministers having expertise on this issue have voiced serious concerns over some aspects of farm policy and performance.
In an interview published in the Statesman on August 12, Mangla Rai, former director-general of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research and ex-secretary of the Department of Agriculture Research and Extension, expressed serious concern about some aspects of agriculture in India.
About the much publicised soil health scheme of the government, Rai states, “One of the biggest problems is the health of the soil of our farmlands. The government has launched an initiative to give soil health cards to all farmers, but this would hardly help until we tell farmers how to improve their soil. It is like a patient goes to a doctor, he diagnoses the problem but does not prescribe any treatment. The same is happening with the present soil health card drive.”
As for the reasons of poor soil health, Dr. Rai says, “Unfortunately, we have almost forgotten about adding organic manure to the soil or adding farm residue or recycling agricultural waste into the soil. Rather, we are burning agricultural waste, killing biological assets in the fields. The government is promoting biological manure and plant nutrients, but unfortunately, most of them are spurious, outdated, adulterated or not available in the market.”
Rai, who was also nominated to the scientific advisory committee of the Union cabinet and was on the scientific advisory council to the prime minister, has voiced even stronger criticism of agricultural research and education. He has said, “There are many agriculture institutes in the country, but most research institutes have little or no funds for research work; most of their funds go in paying salaries. We have hardly added to our warehousing capacity and we hardly provide agricultural education to our younger generation.”
On the overall situation and impact of government policies and programs Dr. Rai says, “The government appears to have done little on the ground to improve the agriculture sector….I am not seeing any change on the ground. It is not only failure of political, bureaucratic and administrative system, but also a failure to understand farmers’ problems.” Rai also warned that “India is heading towards a serious agrarian crisis.”
While much has been said on both sides of the debate on genetically modified (GM) crops in recent times, one interesting aspect that has received relatively lesser attention is that there are important critics of the pro-GM crop policies within the government and its close allies. In the states growing mustard as an important crop, several politicians have said they are against GM mustard because they feel they cannot ignore the interests of the farmers in their constituency or their state – whatever their political allegiance is.
Perhaps the most well-known and strong critic of GM crops within the government is the Union minister for Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi, who has been publicly articulating her views on the rapid erosion of India’s biodiversity.
Writing in the Statesmen, she took up the issue of threatened bees in an article titled ‘On the brink of a crisis’.
While explaining one of the reasons why bees are threatened, Maneka Gandhi wrote, “The bees are disappearing for one major reason – the use of neonicotinoid pesticides. I have repeatedly asked the government to ban these, but they refuse because they need these terrible pesticides for the GM cotton crops which Monsanto forced on India by promising that these cotton crops would not need any pesticides at all. This turned out to be a lie – infact, GM cotton needs many more vicious pesticides which are now killing off pollinators and people.”
When a senior minister with recognised expertise in the subject says that her warnings against the use of highly dangerous pesticides have been repeatedly ignored by the government and as a result, people and pollinators have been dying, then it surely is an important matter. Such public interest criticism by a senior minister needs to be taken seriously.
Bharat Dogra is a freelance journalist who has been closely involved with several social movements and initiatives.