Indian farmers can take on the multinationals
AT A RALLY of 300,000 people in Shegaon, Maharashtra, last November, the Shetkari Sanghatana put forward a new farm programme called chaturang sheti (four-pronged agriculture). Sanghatana leader Sharad Joshi argued the economic crises and the collapse of statist development models have resulted in the state being unable to extract surpluses for industrial development at the expense of agriculture. Welcoming liberalisation as a lifting of government restrictions, Joshi insists farmers can face competition in the world market. Chaturang sheti ranges from farming for export to Sita sheti (Sita farming), which envisions women farming small plots for household consumption.
Doesn't the programme you gave for Sita sheti at Shegaon sound suspiciously like natural farming?
Why do you use the term "suspiciously"? If the two are similar, that is a happy thing. However, any suspicions are that the two programmes, Sita sheti and organic farming, are only superficially similar. It is a fact that people all over Maharashtra and India are working for organic agriculture. We are happy about this, but there are important differences between organic agriculture and Sita farming.
While both agree that a shift away from the Green Revolution (GR) package is desirable, there is a difference in emphasis. We are neither champions nor antagonists of the GR package. In fact, we are apologists for it in the sense that we believe that in the 1960s there was no alternative. Without it there would have been massive starvation. But that period is over and we have attained some sort of food self-sufficiency.
Now, the question is: In what direction do we move? Many are talking today of replicating Punjab's Green Revolution in the eastern region, but we feel we must innovate and discover a new technology and package.
What is "Sita farming"?
It is essentially an open-door research programme, which is entrusted to women. GR was brought in through labs supported by the government. The approach we took is that the work will be done by women, who are most interested.
We want women to experiment on their own small plots and exchange information among themselves about the rational way of production. Our approach would not necessarily be organic. There will be an investigation of all kinds of products and practices for the improvement of the produce. I think, ultimately, we'll have to evolve a rational scientific mixture of the various categories of inputs.
Why is Sita farming particularly for women?
In the search for an alternative package, a basic change in paradigm is involved and I have a feeling that most men have somehow been brainwashed into full involvement with either chemical or organic agriculture. For women, the new role will bring in a degree of confidence.
Sita has been the traditional name for the goddess, as daughter of the earth, and in the Ramayana there are many references to Sita's role. Her life, her fate, her misery, her tragedy have all become a central motif of the rural women's movement led by Shetkari Mahila Aghadi.
There has been a spontaneous evolution of idiom rather than any calculation. We found that the reaction that men and women gave to the travails of Sita was a force in itself. We are not like Marxists who don't touch anything that comes from tradition. If it's called "Lenin sheti", would it be good?
Why is Shetkari Sanghatana taking up this issue just now?
In the collapse of the Nehruvian model, we've achieved the goal we set ourselves a decade earlier. Agriculture is on the threshold of being recognised as a vocation, rather than a lifestyle. We've accomplished a lot in 10 years, not only with regard to remunerative prices, but also in women's rights and organic farming.
Would you say that the extreme centralisation of capital accumulation in the process of capitalism and colonialism is mainly responsible for environmental destruction?
I have one rider. There are imbalances within the Third World countries also. A number of people who claim to be champions of the Third World today are really champions of the "Indias" within the Third World. There is no homogeneity of interest even with regard to the environment here.
But why are all these new developments in the farmers' movement and environment movement taking place now?
The historic world defeat of a system that was supposed to be the only alternative to capitalism is one factor. The economic crunch faced by the Third World neo-colonial states is another. It is understandable that the long-subjugated, real producers try to take up some programmes like the Shegaon one. Environmentalists are largely disillusioned socialists in search of an argument that would justify statist intervention, now that Marxist economics has failed.
Possibly, something more fundamental is happening below the surface.
I am talking of those who are trying to move backwards to the old agriculture and those who are trying to mobilise farmer support against the Dunkel draft by creating imaginary phantoms. They know little of agriculture and less of agricultural developments.
Aren't these stirrings among peasants in many countries in the world, in many ways, a basis?
You are out to find similarities that don't exist. And, you are out to find differences. Well, let's talk of other aspects of chaturang sheti.
Why is processing (mazghar sheti) important and is it also connected with women?
At the present stage, yes. Agroprocessing is a very important part of the alternative pattern. While export and commerce of value-added agricultural produce is important, the Alfa-Laval method of value-adding is proving to be very expensive for the farmer as the entire benefit goes to the technology vendor and the subsidy dispenser. Therefore, we have thought of a different pattern of agroprocessing, where the product is not of western style, but of Indian origin. There, we feel nobody can compete with us. And, we do that with our own technology, respecting, of course, standards of hygiene.
But aren't multinationals in the agricultural sector trying to limit the farmer to cultivating the crop? Won't you have to fight the multinationals?
I have to fight with them, but fight with them economically. And, I'm very confident that the Indian farmer with his mazghar sheti can countenance all the competition from the multinationals. There are certain areas we can't compete in and there are certain areas they can't compete in. But we would like to one day get to the position where they are today.
What gives you this confidence?
India's position should be not to introduce artificial restrictions, but to create a situation where the introduction of subsidies and restrictions on the lines of the European Economic Community would become less and less practicable. We have to be advocating more free marketing because it's in our interests. We can sell wheat right now at Rs 300 when nobody in the world can sell it for less than Rs 600. That's the advantage we have.
Many feel it is wrong to talk of exporting food when so many are undernourished in India.
We've had undernourishment because exports are banned. If we had that kind of market availability, production would have spurted. Exports have not caused malnourishment. It's the other way around.
Do you want to remain only primary producers?
I think there are regions on the earth that are more conducive to production of biomass and there are regions that are less so. It would be wrong for a country in the tropics to produce something that is more appropriate, say, to the Scandinavian countries. You ask if some countries are always to remain primary producers? Yes, as long as the terms of trade allow biomass producers to live with the same dignity and with the same standard of living as industrial producers.
Why do you talk of vyapari sheti or commercial agriculture?
It's not commercial agriculture, it's normal agriculture. What we are proposing right now is something that is very common in all industrial societies, chain store networks and retail outlets, all of which are totally absent here. We are proposing a structure that combines farmers and consumers.
So, while almost all environmentalists and left organisations have condemned the New Economic Policy, you welcome it.
Yes. Those who can compete if trade barriers, subsidies and production restrictions are dropped, will welcome liberalisation. The Indian industrial system cannot survive without subsidies; the Bharat farmer can. Therefore, we welcome liberalisation. We only ask that the government not limit liberalisation to industry but extend it to agriculture also, so that farmers are allowed full rights to produce, to process and to sell without restriction. We also ask that the government use all its strength in favour of abolition of subsidies and lowering of trade barriers that are used at present to shore up US and European inefficiencies. As the Dunkel Draft includes primarily a programme for a phased dropping of restrictions and subsidies, we support it. We are not afraid of patents. We will patent our own seeds and crop varieties that farmers have developed over the centuries. Farmers can face the challenge of the multinationals, only if our own government does not come in the way.