Security vs. Sovereignty: Stories from the cotton land 
in Karnataka

This April in Bangalore, a Union Minister’s garage housed more than his sleek black Chevrolet SUV when 50 farmers from four districts of Karnataka shouted slogans and gave rousing speeches over a full-morning sit-in. They demanded to see the Minister in question, Mr. Veerappa Moily, to find out why and how he had just signed away their lifeblood by allowing field trials of ten Genetically-modified varieties of food and other crops. After emerging from his home, the Union Minister of Environment and Forests publicly shirked responsibility for the blanket approval, saying he’d stop at nothing to protect farmers’ livelihoods. This fell on unfriendly ears, who knew full well the only thing he’d protect were his own interests in the upcoming elections.

Highway shut-down on Feb 21st, 2014 in Haveri for fair compensation after failed Bt Cotton crops
Highway shut-down on Feb 21st, 2014 in Haveri for fair compensation after failed Bt Cotton crops

A month before, a state highway running through Haveri District, Karnataka was shut down by farmers of the same organization, Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha. They demanded justice for Bt Cotton (GMO) farmers who had been sold a grab bag of seeds. Eventually, a 6,000/acre compensation (to balance 30,000 rupees/acre investment!) was agreed upon. Mahyco, the local avatar of Monsanto responsible for the bait-and-switch, incurred a fine of Rs. 500. Now the company has been blacklisted, as in Tamil Nadu and other states. This is a yearly ritual in Haveri region, where failed crops appear to come for summer holiday.

Protests against Monsanto such as the 1998 “Cremate Monsanto” Campaign had been ongoing by farmers’ groups in the state, and have been joined by movements around the world through the Via Campesina network. Yet, it was only in the last five to six years in Haveri that protests unravelled against Bt cotton. In 2008, thousands of farmers gathered in Haveri Bus Circle to protest the slump in the production and high fertilizer demand of Bt Cotton. This protest was met with golibari from the police and 2 farmers died, while 10-15 were injured.

Farmers movements in India, such as KRRS in Karnataka, have articulated a strong message to the government and society at large of zero tolerance for GM crops. But ditching GM crops is only the first step in switching from an agricultural system that turns farmers into belittled beggars and consumers into additive addicts. If food sovereignty is the goal, then the cash-crop, high-input, monoculture mold must be transformed.

KRRS protesting at Union Minister Veerappa Moily's residence
KRRS protesting at Union Minister Veerappa Moily’s residence

On the surface of the Haveri scenario, we see the classic cast of wily companies and gullible farmers, nonplussed government officials and sloganeering social movements. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find farmers asking themselves questions whose answers have grand implications. Is it enough for us to demand responsibility from the producers of GM crops? Or should we demand complete autonomy from this GMO system itself? From the market system itself? What would that even look like? Slogans aside, farmers are divided on how to move forward. Santhosh, a KRRS leader, describes the trap of the cotton farmer with the metaphor of an expensive telephone call: “We have no authority over incoming or outgoing! We permanently in ‘roaming mode’!”

How Bt came to be

Globalization affected agriculture in India long before the age of the WTO. In the 1860s, after the American Civil War, the English cotton businesses no longer had legal slave labor in the US. India was next in line. Cotton mills in India began in the Konkan coast, while farmers in Central Maharashtra region of Vidarbha, Northern Karnataka regions of Haveri, Dharwad, Gadak and Raichur and Western Telangana regions of Warangal found that their red, black and even gulabi (red with sand) soils worked perfectly for cotton growth. Cotton was a lucrative crop, and required less work than other staple and commercial alternatives. Furthermore, each plant flowered and fruited about 3 times in one growing season. Although some farmers still grow maize, sunflowers or chilly for commercial purposes, the landscape in regions like Haveri is largely cotton balls.

But the story of farmers’ dependency on market-bought seeds for cotton is connected to a more recent globalization: neo-liberalism in agriculture. 35 years ago, home-prepared seeds like Jaydhar and Lakshmi began to circulate. Ten years later, DCM-32 hybrid seeds came into the market. Meanwhile, chemical and pharmaceutical companies merged into conglomerates such as Syngenta and Monsanto to peddle this century’s most profitable drug: GM seeds. Around the millenium, Bt cotton was introduced in India, promising defense against various insects and pests and impressing consumers with its initial record-breaking years of high yields. Today, 99% of cotton farmers in Haveri plant some company version of Bt cotton, the majority of which is Monsanto’s Bt Khankha.

Bt Kankha

For the first decade, most farmers saw Bt as the solution to the huge growth in demand caused by growing industry and growing populations. Bt Khanka impressed farmers with high yields and ease of plucking: it made work efficient and labour easy to find. Furthermore, the cotton was of such quality that buyers bought it based on the name, without even sample testing it. But, like all drugs, the high only lasts so long before addiction reveals its real consequences.

Throughout the villages I visited, the same story was repeated: “There has been a huge fraud in the seed boxes sold to us this year! Those of us who bought later lots of seeds, paying much more than the MRP, paying Rs. 1500 instead of Rs. 930, and received no more than 3-4 quintals of cotton per acre. Most of our plants did not even flower, there was hardly any leaves, and the fruits were of varied sizes.“

Farmers demand: “Our way, or the highway!”

In February 2014, the cotton myth imploded (and not for the first time) for the farmers in Haveri district. The Bt Khankha seeds sold to farmers failed to reach their promised yields of 10 quintals per acre. Farmers found that the seeds were adulterated, with some big, some small and some with big fruit, some with small fruit, and some with none at all.

The news spread from village to village. Farmers came together to camp outside the District Collector’s office for 13 days, betrayed by Mahyco and demanding compensation. Most farmers had taken loans to buy seeds or fertilizers and now were deeper in debt. On Day 13, The District Collector offered 4,500 per hectare compensation. This would not even allow farmers to break even. After holding various meeting in different tehsils and with local krishi committes, the farmers’ union Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha (KRRS) demanded Rs. 6,000 per hectare. But demand had to be matched with force to be taken seriously. Thus, on 21st February 2014, more than 5,000 farmers blocked the National Highway for 13 full hours, a strategy to get state and national attention often used by farmers’ movements. The Central Government eventually agreed.

In conditions where farmers have less access to literature and a strong market force that attempts to keep them trapped, farmers’ organizations step in to advocate, organize, and agitate. Although the recent protests have brought farmers together and they have a developed a set of demands, there are still question marks and disagreements within each of the demands.

Farmers with the District Collector after agreeing to Rs. 6000 compensation
Farmers with the District Collector after agreeing to Rs. 6000 compensation

As fair compensation, 6,000 INR/acre is laughable. With investment of 30,000 INR/acre and potential profit of 75,000 INR/acre, the current compensation doesn’t come close. As resistance, farmers have taken in this case is to refuse to pay off bank loans, although they still have to pay hand loans taken from local money lenders. But who should be held responsible? The compensation is being provided largely by the Central Government, with Monsanto contributing a pittance, and the State government nothing at all. Scientists, who are meant to certify the seeds, too have been bought over, and collude with the companies. Who is at fault?

Regarding the role of Multinational Corporations in agriculture, few farmers are ready to give Mahyco the boot once and for all, contrary to the slogan “Mahyco out of Karnataka”. They feel that they have learned the trick to Bt cotton: changing the seed company every three years.  Many are against GM food crops, however, though some still remain ambivalent even about those. Farmers’ movements have to step up the flow of information to farmers about the economic, health, and environmental impacts of GM crops, and show the strength of commitment behind the slogans they shout.

As for the struggle for control of seeds, farmers hold strong that the current Seed Act does little to protect them. Farmers are demanding this law to be changed to reflect the gravity of seed adulteration, as well as increased stringency on conditions and standards for sale.

But farmers are not only consumers of seeds, they are producers as well. As consumers they are activated in the struggle, but as producers they are often silent. The very seeds bought by Bt cotton farmers were grown by the community itself on contract, chemically treated by the company, and sold back again to the farmers with a patent (in the case of sunflower seed, at three times the price). The model itself is a trap, but few are ready to throw it out. Some farmers would prefer state-guaranteed seeds, but few farmers would prefer to return to the traditional method of saving seeds. Almost all farmers say that the days of preparing seeds at home and exchanging between houses are long gone: the yield is not sufficient. Yet supporters of agroecology advise that with TRIPs and other threats looming, seed saving is the only way to reject corporate agriculture’s influence once and for all.

Syngenta Seeds in Haveri
Syngenta Seeds in Haveri

From Twelve Kinds of Rain to None at All

Cotton farmers from Haveri talk of twelve kinds of rainfall during the four months of monsoon, according to which they would plant different seeds. Forty years ago, the Kumudravati river near their houses flowed fiercely, the soils were soft, and the surrounding forests trapped water in their depths. Lakshmi, a home-made seed, was sowed in May-June in lands of red soil while Jaydhar was a home-made seed that was planted in the month of September and October in lands of black soil. The cotton would flower at least twice, once after the rains and once after the shabnam fell in the cold months.

But now cotton farmers in Haveri have no guarantee that their crop will flower. Home-made Jayadhar and Lakshmi are replaced with market-sold Bt Cotton. Cotton is a cash crop and often leaves farmers starving (no matter the amount of genetic engineering, we still can’t eat cotton for dinner). Climate change rewrites the rain pattern each year, and indigenous drought and flood resistant varieties of crops have been lost. Only 30% of cotton farmers in Haveri have wells, and even they are sucking the last drops from a distant groundwater. The seed-tin from the shopkeeper has a guarantee of 60 day germination, but it takes 4 months to really know the outcome. Forty years ago, the first rain brought anticipation and home. But today, the first rain is a dice-roll.

Pics – Aditi Pinto

With inputs from Laura Valencia