as Political Weapon
04 March 2004
is a journalist, writer, thinker, and policy analyst who plays a crucial
role in the global effort to turn back ill-advised neoliberal trade
policies and biotechnology. Trained as an agricultural scientist, Sharma
served as the development editor of the Indian Express, the largest
selling English language daily in India at that time. He quit active
journalism to research policy issues concerning sustainable agriculture,
biodiversity and intellectual property rights, environment and development,
food security and poverty, biotechnology and hunger. He was the founding
member of the Chakriya Vikas Foundation (Foundation for Cyclic Development)
in India, which promotes sustainable agriculture practices as a means
of lifting rural populations out of poverty, and is also is a member
of the board of directors of the Asia Rice Foundation. He serves as
well on the Central Advisory Board on Intellectual Property Rights of
CGIAR the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research.
Dont be fooled by the stern or admonitory tone of Sharmas
remarks below. He is a warm and pleasant man who happens to be engaged
in a great battle against powerful forces that are using his country
as a biotech guinea pig and ravaging its farm economy. Its difficult
to imagine him being caught up short in a debate, and even harder to
imagine him losing one.
ACRES U.S.A. When did India join the WTO?
India was a founding member of GATT, the General Agreement on Tariffs
and Trade. So obviously when the Uruguay Round and the WTO came into
existence in 1995, India was one of the signatories. Before WTO came
into existence, India had built up its agriculture to a level of self-sufficiency.
Since at least the mid-1960s, India was a net importer of foodstuffs.
When the British left India in 1947, Indias independence came
against the backdrop of the Bengal famine. India consistently imported
food from America in 1965 we imported 10 million tons, and 11
million tons in 1966. That was the biggest food import ever at that
time in history. When food came to India it was called a ship-to-mouth
existence. The food would come directly from the ship and go into hungry
mouths. India was trying desperately to cover the situation but didnt
succeed until the Green Revolution came in, promoted by CGIAR. That
was when Norman Borlaugs wheat came in for the first time and
India adopted chemical-intensive technology, in the late 60s and
early 70s, and initiated strategies to assure that the technology
worked. The wheat harvest went from 12 to 17 million metric tonnes in
one year, a record bumper harvest for India. Today India produces about
75 million tonnes of wheat. So look at the growth that has taken place,
from 12 million tonnes to about 75 million tonnes of wheat.
ACRES U.S.A. Thats
more than 600 percent!
SHARMA. Yes, and
this happened because of the technology, of course, but also because
India put into place what is called a famine-avoidance strategy. The
farmers had no incentive to produce more since they didnt get
an assured price, nor did they have an assured market, so India guaranteed
both of those things. The government would step in and announce the
procurement price for the crops, which would become the floor price.
When the crops came to market at the time of the harvest, the prices
would slump because the government has already announced a floor price,
and whatever became surplus in the markets, the government would mop
up. These farmers got an assured market and an assured price and incentive
for growing more, and that worked remarkably well. We have moved on
from the ship-to-mouth existence we became self-sufficient, and
then a net exporter of whole grains. One of the measures we imposed
was border duties, custom duties so that cheaper food could not come
into our country.
ACRES U.S.A. While
this was happening, did the character of Indias agriculture change?
SHARMA. Not really.
When we got our independence in 1947, the average landholding at that
time was about four hectares. Today the average landholding size in
India is 1.5 hectares. If you want to raise a cow in our part of the
world, you need about 10 hectares of land to grow the kind of feed the
cow will need. One family is surviving on 1.5 hectares of land in India,
year after year. Also, unlike in America, the number of farmers has
increased. At the time we got our independence, the percentage of your
population in agriculture was about 10 percent, and now its less
than one percent. In India, on the other hand, the number of farmers
multiplied. We had about 250 million farmers when we got our independence,
out of the 320 million people who existed in India at that time
about three-quarters of the population. That ratio holds today
the number of farmers in India is 600 million. In fact, every fourth
farmer in the world is an Indian. If you add the farming population
of India and China, half the worlds farming population exists
in these two countries. There is a contrast that you need to appreciate.
The agriculture that exists in the United States and Western Europe
is completely different from the agriculture that exists in our part
of the world. Most of the other developing countries may not have huge
numbers, but they have 60 to 80 percent of the population involved with
agriculture. It has not gone to corporate agriculture and so on.
ACRES U.S.A. What
happened after initial success of the Green Revolution in India?
SHARMA. The Green
Revolution was something that India required desperately at one stage,
because of the situation with food imports and famine. For that, it
did a remarkable job. But 10 years later, the yields began to plateau,
and also the negative impacts of the Green Revolution began to be seen.
The damage done by too much fertilizer, all the pesticides, the pumping-out
of water all those began to be seen. Unfortunately, the scientific
community refused to accept these challenges and come up with corrective
measures that could restore sustainability. They went on advocating
more fertilizer, more pesticides, and more pumping-out of water. The
result is that the Green Revolution area which is 30 percent
of the countrys total agricultural land is a failure. These
are the lands that absolutely require irrigation fertilizers
and pesticides only work in an area that is assured of irrigation. These
are the lands now gasping for breath. These are the lands suffering
generation environmental impacts. The impacts are visible now, but the
scientists somehow fail to stand up to rectify the mistakes that produced
them. Now farmers are using twice the quantity of fertilizer they were
using five years back to produce the same size crop, because now if
they dont put on fertilizer theres no yield at all. The
crop wont grow. We have made everything so bad, against all norms
of sustainability. Thirty or 40 years later we realize the Green Revolution
has left a kind of frightening scenario that is difficult to address
to meet our food security needs.
ACRES U.S.A. Does
the 1.5 hectares per farmer provide food security if all is going well?
SHARMA. I would
say that this 1.5 hectares is still sustainable, it still meets the
food needs of the farmers, and all they need is a policy mix from the
top that allows them to make agriculture an attractive proposition.
Unfortunately, that is not happening. They have begun to shift their
focus to corporate farming, and people have begun to believe there is
no other way out than to bring corporate agriculture to India. Thats
the kind of message that comes from international agencies and certain
institutions and so on. The policymakers tend to believe that this is
the answer, but I think it is a misplaced priority.
ACRES U.S.A. Do
the small farmers have a political voice?
SHARMA. They have,
but their voice is still very unorganized. If they would organize, things
would really change. But they are poor, and the poor have no voice in
India. Farmers dont organize well anywhere nowhere in the
ACRES U.S.A. Since
India operates from a position of greater strength than much smaller
countries who were not original members of the WTO, how has the corporate,
neoliberal agenda been imposed there?
SHARMA. GATT wasnt
a big problem because they were only trying to frame the rules and regulations.
It wasnt a big issue until the WTO came into existence. In the
Uruguay Round, which led to the formation of the WTO, agriculture was
introduced for the first time. The Uruguay Round negotiations went on
for 7.5 years, and agriculture was a contentious issue. Initially, India
did put up a very spirited opposition to what was happening. That was
the G-77 group, the original nonaligned group. They did try to voice
their concerns over what was happening, but somehow, after all the arm-twisting
and other things that go on in the trade arena, India became a signatory.
Also, there was a kind of dominant thinking in India at that time because
nobody truly understood the implications of the WTO agenda. There was
a misinformation campaign that still continues in this part of the world,
claiming that the developing countries would gain enormously when the
subsidies were phased out in the West, and that when the borders were
open, more market access would mean more opportunities for farmers to
export, and the economic wealth would go up for the farming community,
and so on. India, being a major farming region, obviously believed it
stood to gain.
ACRES U.S.A. But
of course WTO in practice bears little resemblance to its workings in
people like me began to analyze the drafts of the WTO and recognize
that this was all an illusion, and that we were going to be negatively
impacted terribly negatively impacted. My first book was titled
WTO: Seeds Of Despair. What happened was, a year back the government
of India permitted the release a document that said all of the expectations
from the agreement on agriculture had been belied. All of these expectations
that we had been given, that we would be able to export and all that,
all contradicted. We havent gained, but we have suffered a loss.
Farmers are beginning to feel the pinch, because cheaper whole grains,
cheaper commodities, and cheaper plantation crops are all getting into
India now. All this is displacing farmers. That is why India made a
very strong stand at the WTO meeting in Cancun. Along with Brazil and
China and other countries, we made the noise that this system is not
fair. This did not happen suddenly overnight farmers in my country
have felt a cumulative impact over the past few years. That has translated
into public anger and of course public policy. So now the government
of India is resisting the complete march of agriculture in the direction
that the American and European governments would like.
ACRES U.S.A. Could
you give us an idea of the extent of the change?
of agriculture commodities have increased 400 percent in the last eight
years, since WTO came into effect. Thats quite a huge quantity.
All this is having negative consequences. Edible oil is one of the major
commodities used in India, for our cooking. We are one of the biggest
consumers of edible oils in the world we consume about 10 million
tonnes a year. Now about 50 percent of them are being imported, which
means about 5 million tonnes a year not because we cant
produce this commodity, but because we have reduced our border tariffs,
so cheaper oil is getting in from Indonesia, from Malaysis, from Brazil
and so on.
ACRES U.S.A. What
are the consequences for Indian society? What happens when a farmer
SHARMA. First of
all, he sells off his kidney, then he sells off other parts of his body,
all that he can do. Then he can commit suicide. The rate of suicide
in Indian agriculture is phenomenally high. The government of India
will deny that, but my estimate is that in the last 10 years the number
of farmers in India who have committed suicide is more than 16,000.
If you go to Uttar Pradesh in south India and pick up a newspaper, every
other day you will find reports of a farmer who has committed suicide.
He was a cotton grower, or he was a vegetable grower, all kinds of farmers
committing suicide. The state governments are saying they can find no
reason why farmers should be committing suicide, they think there is
something wrong with the psychology of these farmers. So they say we
need to send a team of psychiatrists to talk to farmers. Theres
a lesson here. Also, people are migrating to the urban areas. In 1995
the World Bank did a study which said that the number of people migrating
from rural to urban areas in India is going to be equal to twice the
combined population of the United Kingdom, France and Germany by the
year 2010. Look at the social chaos we are going to have. It is also
anticipated that India will have 20 mega-cities in next 10 years. So
far we only have four mega-cities. There are people who have estimated
that New Dehli, which is 40 percent slums today, will be 80 percent
slums by the year 2010. Look at the kind of sad economic growth we are
talking about. There is something wrong somewhere.
ACRES U.S.A. Then
it would be correct to say that India is a country that needs to stay
three-fourths rural and agricultural to avoid social chaos?
SHARMA. Yes. There
are no employment opportunities for these people in the cities. We have
to ensure that they remain on the land. What we need are policies that
make agriculture an attractive proposition, a viable proposition for
them, so these people can survive and produce food for themselves and
for the country. Believe me, we have the capacity to produce food for
ourselves. We have the capacity to produce food to sell to the rest
of the world as well. But then everything is loaded against us. The
poor farmers are getting displaced, and I always say the biggest environmental
crisis the world is going to face is the displacement of farmers that
the WTO is going to unleash. Its already happening.
ACRES U.S.A. How
did biotechnology enter the scene in India?
SHARMA. Well, the
Green Revolution agriculture reached a plateau, and then it began to
decline. Since there is no breakthrough coming by way of Green Revolution
technology, the focus has been on genetic engineering, on biotech.
ACRES U.S.A. When
did you first hear about it in India?
SHARMA. About 10
years ago. The research began on various crops in India. We have a
huge biotechnology research infrastructure, the universities and others.
At the moment we have research going on in rice, eggplant, tomatoes,
corn, soya bean, and so on. The only genetically modified crop that
has been introduced in India is cotton. We have Bt cotton, which was
introduced in 2002.
ACRES U.S.A. What
SHARMA. The crop
failed. In the very first year. That was something that was not said
anywhere. We were made to believe that, like China, which has 7 million
acres under Bt cotton, India was also going to gain when Bt cotton came
ACRES U.S.A. Why
did it fail?
SHARMA. It failed
because the technology was not the right technology for the farmers.
If you dont give them the right variety, you dont get the
record harvest. Also, the single Bt gene was not what was required for
India. The crops now grown all over the world have one Bt gene. The
insects have already developed resistance to one kind of Bt gene, although
the biotech scientists do not accept it. The reality is that now you
have to spray more insecticides for the same crop, which means that
insects are developing resistance. Look at China. At first they dropped
to seven kilos of insecticide per hectare, back from about 32 kilos.
Now theyve gone back up to 28 kilos per hectare. A lot of pesticides
are used on cotton. If you look at the whole scenario, 55 percent of
the pesticides used in India are used on cotton.
ACRES U.S.A. Was
the government squarely behind the Bt cotton effort?
SHARMA. Yes. We
all know why they were everybody needs money for elections, and
the biotechnology industry has the money. So the crop failed. The parliament
set up a committee which looked into the Bt cotton case, and they reported
that the crop failed but they offered no compensation to farmers
and invoked no liability clause to see that these companies are charged,
so they go on selling more seed. These seeds are expensive, too, so
they have made their profits. The farmers have suffered. They have demonstrated
in some parts of the country, and some of the farmers involved committed
suicide. The promise was that the additional income you would have from
Bt cotton per acre of crop would be 10,000 rupees, and it hasnt
happened. Theyve gone into bankruptcy, theyve gone into
negative income. Again, nobody in power is really worried about it because
the poor have no voice, and the industries can go on pushing these products.
ACRES U.S.A. At
some point, you have to wonder about the intent behind all this. Do
you think the so-called developed nations are pursuing these policies
out of greed and self-interest, or do they have a coherent goal in mind?
Do they actually want to destroy the self-sufficiency of other nations?
SHARMA. To me it
is clear that there is a dishonesty prevailing at the international
community level, and also at the scientific community level. If youll
recall, when we had the World Food Summit at Rome in 1996, they had
all these statesmen there. They said it is scandalous, it is shameful,
it is a crime to see that 800 million people go to bed hungry every
night when we have more food than we need. Therefore, there is a need
for urgency. What urgency was expressed? That by the year 2015, then
20 years away, they would reduce the number of hungry by half
which means they would pull 400 million people out of the hunger trap.
But look at the dishonesty. They met again in Rome last year. It was
there that I stood up and said, You know, you dont have
to wait until the year 2015. And secondly, 320 million of the worlds
hungry are in India. If you link up Pakistan, Bangladesh, and some of
the other neighboring countries, roughly 45 percent of the hungry are
in this region. Yet in 2001 India had a record surplus of 65 million
tonnes of grains rotting within the country at a time when 320
million people are going to bed hungry. Why do you have to wait until
the year 2015? There is the food, and there are the hungry. All you
have to do is come up and join hands and see that hunger is taken care
of. But nobody came up. There is no urgency. There is no moral
justification for what is happening. It is purely greed which is driving
this agenda. When they meet at the WTO, when U.S. Trade Representative
Robert Zoellick goes on record saying it is the developing countries
that are going to suffer, when The Economist runs an editorial saying
that the developing countries have lost they are basically pushing
that industrial agenda. But to us the bigger problem is what to do with
the hungry. Nobodys worried. Its a shameful paradigm that
we are living in today.
ACRES U.S.A. What
happened to the surplus food in India?
SHARMA. Much of
it rotted. Of course, the rats grew fatter and the insects got busy.
If you put every bag of grain one after the other, you could have easily
walked to the moon and come back. That was the extent of the grain that
we had in our country. Look at what we have done: Last year we exported
70 million tonnes of food surplus the storage cost was too heavy,
so the government exported it. At a price for which the grain should
have gone to the poor, to the hungry, the government exported it. This
is the economic paradigm that we live in. We believe that the dollars
that we earn will feed the hungry. It has never happened in the past,
and it will never happen in the future. You realize that Mahatma Ghandi
said, The earth has enough for mans needs, but not for his
ACRES U.S.A. Youre
also fond of quoting Jawaharal Nehru, arent you?
SHARMA. Nehru said
that it is humiliating for a country to import food. Everything
else can wait, but not agriculture.
ACRES U.S.A. Can
you give me an example of how the developed countries, the members of
the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, attacked the
self-sufficiency of the developing nations?
years back, I think it must be about 10 years back, we had a minister
in India named Jagjivan Ram. He was our agriculture minister. He went
to meet the UNs FAO chief in Rome. He went with the famous agricultural
scientist M.S. Swaminathan, the father of the Green Revolution in India,
who told me what happened in that meeting. The number two guy in FAO
is always an American, so Ram went to meet this gentleman. That man
told Jagjivan Ram, You think that you will be able to stop food
imports from America? Because you are now self-sufficient, you think
that you will now be able to hold off American imports? Swaminathan
recalls that the minister had some papers in his hand, and he threw
them at the FAO mans face, and said, India will remain self-sufficient.
Whatever you want to do, you go and do it. And then he walked
out of that meeting. That will give you an idea that the effort has
always been to insure that the countries which became self-sufficient
would have their self-sufficiency base destroyed.
ACRES U.S.A. It
was that naked?
SHARMA. Yes, it
was that naked. This happened. Then came a situation which involved
Senator Dale Bumpers from America. Senator Bumpers in the late 80s
introduced a bill which said that America should withdraw funding from
research in crops that would go on to compete with American exports
it was called the Bumpers Amendment. That was at a time when
America was giving a lot of research money for crops such as rice and
wheat. So then the American aid was withdrawn, and now America is not
supporting research into those crops which would ensure food security
of any country if those crops are competing with their exports. It is
very clear what the agenda was.
ACRES U.S.A. How
does the trade negotiating process shape the farm subsidy issue?
SHARMA. If you look
at the WTO, it was said that the countries in the Organization for Economic
Cooperation and Development (OECD) needed to phase out their agriculture
subsidies. They brought in a system of boxes green box, blue
box, yellow box and so on. Which subsidies do they need to protect?
Theyd put certain subsidies in certain boxes as those they needed
to protect, saying they were not trade-distorting subsidies.
Look at what the trade-distorting subsidies were found to be. In India,
for our 600 million farmers, we provide a subsidy of $1 billion a year.
This is an indirect subsidy by way of cheaper fertilizer, cheaper water,
cheaper electricity and cheaper seed there is no direct subsidy.
It was considered to be trade-distorting. The subsidies that farmers
are paid here in the United States, which are phenomenal, are considered
to be non-trade-distorting. Checks written directly to farmers were
supposedly not distorting trade. It took a long time, but policymakers
finally analyzed these subsidies and decided that they, too, were trade-distorting.
These subsidies were therefore to be phased out.
ACRES U.S.A. And
look at what happened: In 2002, President Bush needed two more seats
for his party in the Senate, and these seats would come from the Midwest.
So he announced a package of an additional $180 billion in subsidies
for your farmers. That was your Farm Bill. Out of this, $100 billion
was to be spent in the first three years. He made sure that this benefit
was given to the farmers in his own tenure. This was in a time when
the subsidies were supposed to be phased out. Look at the European Union
they have gone on adding to their subsidies. Both America and
the EU have a protection built in, and it is called the Peace Clause.
The Peace Clause was put into what is called the Blair House Accord
at the time of the original WTO negotiations. It actually exempted the
European Union and America from reducing their subsidies until December
31, 2003. For instance, India cannot take America to the dispute panel,
saying that your cheaper food is destroying our agriculture. At the
same time, having built this ring of protection around their own agriculture,
they have made sure that the developing countries have phased out their
tariff barriers and other protections. So we have no tariff barriers
left, and weve become a dumping ground. We have been told, If
you are protecting your agriculture, it is a shame. But I would
respond that protecting your agriculture is economic necessity. Look
at that paradigm.
ACRES U.S.A. What
does the trade insurgency at Cancun mean in the scheme of things?
SHARMA. I think
Cancun is a mere pause in the entire process of takeover. I have a feeling
that if the developing countries take a stand and are able to halt or
restrict this process, then the world will have to renegotiate the deal.
Otherwise we will be destroyed. This reminds me of a cartoon that appeared
in my newspaper when the WTO came into existence. It showed two people
walking on the streets on Bombay, with the high-rise buildings in the
background. The banners on the buildings were Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Cargill
and so on. One chap says to the other, What does WTO
stand for? And the other answers, We Take Over. I
think thats an apt description of the WTO. If the developing countries
dont stand up to this process, we will be completely marginalized.
Agriculture will be the biggest casualty.
ACRES U.S.A. Then
was Cancun a watershed moment in the history of the developing countries
SHARMA. We hope
so. Cant be sure about it, but it now looks like the developing
countries have finally realized their potential, realized that they
also have power. And I think that is very important. If youll
remember, at Dohar it was India alone that fought to the last. We were
dubbed the bad guy, the rogue state, and we were told that you
are now isolated in global politics. Look at Cancun two years
later. The one country that had opposed in Dohar became 21, we became
G-21. There is arm-twisting going on now, and we know that four or five
countries have walked out of the G-21. But be assured that by the time
the next ministerial meeting takes place, there will be more countries
joining us. And in any case, India doesnt need many countries
to join us now. After the failure of Cancun, the draft agriculture document
that was separated the draft that was rejected at Cancun
India has said no, we dont want this draft, we have to negotiate
a first draft now, to which Robert Zoellick replied that it was not
fair. India said, It may not seem fair in your scheme of things,
but we will have to renegotiate a draft now, because we realize
that if we are starting from the same position where we left off, we
are not going to benefit in any case.
ACRES U.S.A. What
is behind these events in terms of politics?
SHARMA. This is
all happening because the constituency of the political masters of India
are standing up and saying no to the WTO. Farmers are their biggest
constituency. The government of India right now is conservative, but
when the people are rising against this hegemonic process, the government
has to take notice because they have to go back to the people
and next year is an election year in India. The government is very worried,
just as the American government is worried. We are very hopeful because
more and more people are now coming out openly and onto the streets,
and even the economists are now coming out against the WTO. India is
a country that has shown remarkable resistance all through history,
so we are very hopeful that we will be able to stand up to this.
ACRES U.S.A. What
are your hopes for the next decade, in terms of a goal you hope to see
achieved? How would you like to see things structured?
SHARMA. In the last
10 years, we have been led to believe that we have practically invented
something new called trade. Trade has existed ever since man began to
domesticate agriculture. Why now? Why all this just now? I dont
think this kind of trade is what we need. What we need is for each country
to be self-sufficient. Each country needs to evolve policies that ensure
that its people can be fed by food that its own people grow. Thats
the kind of sustainable model we need, not this kind of corporate agriculture
under the garb of trade. Do you think India was not trading in agriculture
10 years ago? We were trading. When we needed food because we had a
shortfall, we imported food. When we needed to export food, we exported
food. There was no problem. The problem comes from the way they are
now trying to monopolize trade, forcing this model onto everyone until
everyone falls into line. If you are not with us, then you are
against us. That is the kind of paradigm that is in play today,
which I think is very unfortunate. That was a remarkable era for India,
when we were protecting our borders, our farmers were self-
sufficient, and our country was self-sufficient. There were problems
within the country that were tackled within the country. If American
agriculture faces a problem, I think you will agree it has to be solved
within America. I dont think India has a solution for American
agriculture. Similarly, America doesnt have solutions for Indian
agriculture. It has to be location-specific. That is what we need to
work towards. I am sure we will get there again, and India will be able
to resist this new kind of international trade, which is simply a process
ACRES U.S.A. Another
front in the assault on the developing world involves intellectual property
rights, such as the recent effort to patent the neem tree, which was
repelled by villagers in India who fought back in the courts. A similar
fight was recently won over tumeric. What is the significance of corporate
moves on the genetic heritage of your country?
SHARMA. These are
very serious developments in the history of intellectual property rights.
What has happened here, again, is the same process. The first requirement
of the WTO focus is, first, open borders. Now, having done that, there
is still a threat to maximum profits. India and China have huge public-
supported research infrastructures India has the second-biggest
agricultural research infrastructure in the world. We have 40 agriculture
universities, and we have 81 national institutes. They are all funded
by the public sector. We have 30,000 agricultural scientists in India,
a huge bloc of scientific minds. This is something that can always negate
the impact of agribusiness investment. Therefore the second requirement
of the world trade focus is to destroy this agriculture research sector.
ACRES U.S.A. And
how would they go about destroying it?
SHARMA. They bring
in Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights, an agreement under WTO.
All it says is that countries need to exercise intellectual property
rights over the plant varieties and animal species. Now it has gone
still further, and they want to draw up intellectual property rights
over the processes of plant breeding or transformation, and also the
processes of making products. What they are actually doing is this:
because the biotechnology research is in this part of the world
the United States and Western Europe the genetic makeup of plants
is now being mapped, and their genes are being patented. He who has
control over the genes will have control over the research.
columns and books can be found at <www.dsharma.org>.