AAS Annual Meeting

South Asia Session 361

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Session 361: Politics of Transgenic Crops in India

Organizer: Priti Ramamurthy, University of Washington, USA

The politics of transgenic crops is, once again, prominent in public discourse with a temporary moratorium on Bt Brinjal issued by the Government in India in February 2010 in response to the concerns of NGOs, scientists, and gurus. In June 2010, however, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee, permitted trials for 17 more transgenic crops including drought resistant wheat, rice, sorghum and maize. Can eight years of experience with Bt cotton in India inform our understanding of the politics of transgenic crops today? In this panel, we reflect on the Bt cotton story and explore the consequences for Bt crops in India from multiple disciplines and vantage points. Despite the well-documented exponential increase in cotton production and decrease in pesticide use in India after the introduction of Bt cotton, this “success” is complicated, controversial and still in flux. Science battles civil society; national NGOs and corporations are allied with and fight against multinational entities and imaginaries; Bt hybrid cotton seeds are manufactured with mostly children and women’s labor; cottonseed production has shifted from Andhra Pradesh to Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra; smallholders, especially Dalit and tribal smallholders, who were formerly seed children, are now being incorporated to manufacture cotton; multinational seed companies are acquiring Indian seed companies; and the price wars between multinational and Indian corporations involve the state and courts even as the seed market in India is worth $120 million annually and growing. Through our explorations of the politics of transgenic crops we aim to understand the political economy of agriculture in contemporary India, especially the consequences for smallholders and laborers.

India’s New Gene Wars: Cotton to Brinjal
Ronald J. Herring, Cornell University, USA

Science and democracy are inherently uneasy partners. From climate change to HIV AIDS, populist mobilizations of counter-expertise have attacked official science endorsed by states. Science is politically vulnerable: if honest, it is tentative, subject to revision. Regulation and law, however, depend on settled authoritative knowledge. Biotechnology in India put official science at odds with democratic processes in two episodes. In Bt cotton politics, official science was more cautious than farmers (and state governments), but was opposed by a coalition of forces in civil society. This coalition depended on hinged epistemic brokerage in transnational advocacy networks; its politics were based on evidence of horrific health effects, dead livestock, and farmer suicides. State science rejected these claims on grounds of normal science. In 2009, state approval of a transgenic eggplant ignited so much opposition that the Minister of Environment over-rode GEAC, the regulatory scientific body, and imposed a moratorium on Bt brinjal in February 2010. Scientists, now on the defensive, mobilized collective action to rescue science from “mobocracy” masquerading as democracy, deploying tools from their networks and international science. In both cotton and brinjal, politics hinged on who represents the public in public interest, whose science is authoritative, what risk thresholds the state can assume to be appropriate for society. Brinjal politics diverged from cotton most obviously because eggplant is a food crop, but that story is misleading. More decisively, brinjal is embedded in a different political ecology -- a different class of farmers, and different State, state, and international interests.

GM Crops and Transnational Activist Imaginaries in India
Richard Bownas, University of Northern Colorado, USA

For more than a decade now, activists in India have taken up opposition to Bt Cotton and more recently Bt Brinjal as part of a wider set of concerns about transnational capital in the Indian countryside, deskilling among farmers and agricultural sustainability. This paper argues that these concerns have been expressed through an increasingly transnational discourse, based in networks of foreign funded NGOs, that may homogenize as much as it illuminates the problems of small Indian farmers. Based on research interviews in India with NGOs, and farmers’ organizations the paper describes the ‘pull’ which transnational activist imaginaries have on the debate in India, while also showing that these imaginaries are just as much the product of Indian intellectuals and activists as they are of Northern environmentalists. The paper goes on to ask whether alternative perspectives on biotechnology and its place in Indian agriculture are being crowded out by this transnational discourse.

Smallholder articulation and Economic Transition in Andhra Pradesh, India
Priti Ramamurthy, University of Washington, USA

In the Raichur doab of south India, formerly untouchable smallholders are proudly taking up cottonseed production for the first time, with mostly their own labor, “for themselves” despite uncertain and often low returns. The re-articulation of caste by formerly untouchable caste smallholding peasant men, and the re-gendering of cross-pollination—which I call floral sex work-- provide the subjective conditions for the extended reproduction of capital on a global scale in the Bt cottonseed commodity chain. My study takes up Partha Chatterjee’s recent call for the vigorous study of caste and economic transformation in India in one region, the Raichur doab of south India. I argue that low caste claims to dignity, the feminization and juvenilization of labor, and “structures of feeling” around marriage, kinship, and conjugality now articulate smallholders to global capital. This is worthy of wider consideration because an emphasis on smallholder agriculture—often organized by national and multinational capital through contract farming arrangements-- is now the lynchpin of the development discourse of the World Bank, and at least one state government in India, that of Andhra Pradesh where this ethnography is based, is already supporting the practice.

Choice, Freedom and Child Labor in Bt Cottonseed Production
Kacy McKinney, University of Washington, USA

The debate over agricultural biotechnology has increasingly centered on the question of farmer choice. Biotechnology companies, farmers, and philanthropic organizations have argued that farmers are choosing the technology and therefore it should be made legal and readily available. These discourses of choice and freedom obscure both increasingly individualized risk and the experiences of farmers. Cotton seed production in Gujarat has long relied on young adivasi seasonal migrant laborers from Rajasthan. It has recently spread to south Rajasthan. Children and young adivasis are playing a central role in the transfer of the technology in West India. With the introduction of the popular and polemic Bt cotton, public awareness of child labor in the seed industry has increased. The use of child labor more actively policed and profits have dropped. In response, some Gujarati farmers have encouraged young Rajasthani laborers and their families to grow Bt cotton through informal contracts at home. The young workers are now either staying home as unpaid laborers to help produce seeds, or are being hired to work in neighboring villages. For them, especially girls, this shift away from migratory labor means the end to certain choices and freedoms. Drawing on eight months of qualitative research with adivasi households in Dungarpur District, Rajasthan I offer narrative accounts of young migrant workers that explore and trouble neoliberal notions of farmer choice. I show that, for the young workers at the center of Bt cotton seed production in Rajasthan, diminishing choices and freedoms are more commonly what characterize experiences with biotechnology.

Does Bt Cotton Show the Way Forward for Indian Agriculture?
Chandrasekhara R. Nuthalapati, Independent Scholar, India

It is well-known by now that the Indian agriculture is going through one of the worst crises after Independence. Farming has become highly unremunerative for the farming community, so much so that 40% of farmers express a desire to go out of it given a choice. The Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh declared that ‘technology fatigue’ is one of the main reasons for this deceleration in agriculture. Despite this open admission, policy makers so far have refrained from showcasing biotechnology as the answer. Besides campaigning against the technology as causing risks to human and animal health and damage to environment, civil society groups often raise doubts about the potential of the technology to increase yields and farm profitability. Also, there are concerns raised both by the civil society groups and several scholars that the proprietary nature of these technologies will be a severe hindrance in harnessing these technologies for the smallholder dominated agriculture of the country. It is maintained that the benefits from the technology will be appropriated by the seed developers. This paper tries to examine these hypotheses by analyzing panel data from the field on the experience of smallholder cultivators in different agro-climatic zones of a South Indian state --Andhra Pradesh, which is the site maximum controversy on the performance of the transgenic cotton. Also, the paper brings out necessary changes in the policy framework to achieve growth with equity by using the tools of transgenic technologies.