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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 48, November 20, 2010

India Promotes what the World Shuns

Wednesday 24 November 2010, by T J S George



So everything went off well. Obamaji was nice, Michelleji was nicer, and the kababs at Rashtrapati Bhavan were nicest. A good time was had by all. Now, what about the fine print?

We can ignore Obama’s pitch that India must stand up for democracy and human rights in Burma and Iran. We can do a pahle aap number here and wait for the US to first stand up for democracy and human rights in Saudi Arabia. We can also more or less ignore the India-US strategic partnership for “East Asia” which is China. China is quite capable of looking after itself.

The fine print we should really worry about covers the pronouncements on agricultural cooperation. This is not a “sexy” subject like democracy and China, so it does not attract public attention. That means backroom operators can do their thing quietly. And the things they do are sinister and may now get more so.

For example, ten months before the Obama visit the Indian Cabinet approved, without any announcement, a Memorandum of Under-standing on agricultural cooperation and food security. It opened the doors to private investments in the farm sector, farm-market linkages (read retail trade), and agribusiness-to-business collaboration. It will clearly lead to India fitting into the US model of vertical integration of the food chain—a system that promotes the growth of monopolies.

The system works reasonably well in the US because checks and balances are strictly enforced by the government. When a citizen complains that a supermarket chicken has been found contaminated, investigators can trace the route of the chicken, where it was processed and which farm it originally came from. Remedial action follows quickly. In India the authorities are not only lax in enforcing minimum safety rules, but actually promote deadly pesticides. This attitude of irresponsibility caused tragedies in Punjab and Kerala.

Pesticides, like electricity, are good only when they are used correctly. The Green Revolution in Punjab, which Obama mentioned repeatedly, was facilitated by the use of wrong pesticides in wrong ways. Farmers, low on literacy, would let their hair, eyes, clothes be covered with the deadly poison they were spraying. The inevitable followed. From Bhatinda, in the heart of Punjab’s cotton belt, some 60 cancer patients would travel every day to Bikaner where treatment was affordable. They called it the “Cancer Train”.

LEARNING nothing and caring less, India has become the world’s only country to oppose a global ban on the deadliest pesticide of them all, endosulfan. Sharad Pawar, who sees no difference between a farmer’s plough and a cricket bat, went on record saying that endosulfan was good for some crops. He has now appointed yet another committee to study endosulfan. The man he picked to head the committee was already in an earlier inquiry committee and had given his verdict in favour of that pesticide.

The irony is that all developed countries have banned this particular poison and America itself is about to join them. US policies had already made the main manufacturer of endosulfan, Bayer, to close shop. The sole remaining manufac-turer, an Israeli company, has been told to plan its exit. The Environmental Protection Agency formally declared that endosulfan “is unsafe and poses unacceptable risks to farm workers and wild life”. A formal ban is expected soon.

Yet, Sharad Pawar wants a new inquiry. And he wants India to oppose the ban the rest of the civilised world is demanding. And, worst of all, he wants the government-run Hindustan Insecticides to go on manufacturing endosulfan even in its plant in Kerala where a High Court ban on the pesticide is in force.

The obduracy of leaders like Pawar and the general inefficiency of India’s supervisory systems are magnets for pesticide and genetic engineering companies that are thrown out of other countries. India is home to them all. That is why the Obama-induced agribusiness cooperation will lead to our food coming under the lobby-dominated American system without its saving clauses.

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