American Wheat and India – Wheat and Weeds

India US Wheat Row – Wheat and Weeds

It is a queer case of double standards. Claiming highest quality standards in the world when it comes to agricultural imports, the United States has no qualms in exporting sub-standard wheat to India. In fact, diplomatic pressure is being built upon India to import weed infested wheat.

Failing to reach an agreement after recent bilateral discussions on plant health, a statement from the US Embassy in New Delhi said “… Substantial hurdles still remain, as the US cannot agree to import standards that are impossible to certify and are not in line with international norms.” At the heart of the row are the quarantine norms that do not allow wheat consignments with dangerous weeds beyond the permissible limit.

The American wheat comes laced with 21 obnoxious and alien weeds, which are not known to exist in India. As per the weed risk analysis done by the Ministry of Agriculture, all these weeds are of quarantine importance and carry high risk. More worrying is the presence of two weeds Bromus rigidus and Bromus scealinus — better known as foxtail wheat, which is similar in appearance to wheat and therefore difficult to identify.

Already, surreptitiously imported along with wheat, several weeds and pests have turned into a national menace. India is spending crores of rupees every year in fighting these alien invasive species.

Earlier too, India had in 1996 rejected wheat imports from America on reasons of inferior quality, and had instead imported one million tonne from Australia. In 2006, when India imported 5.5 million tones of wheat from Australia and some other countries, the US was unable to find a foothold into India’s burgeoning wheat market. Aware that India is likely to turn into a major wheat importer in the years to come, the US has stepped up diplomatic and political efforts to exert pressure.

Not that the Australian wheat is much superior. In 2006, bending backwards to allow the highly contaminated wheat shipments from Australia, Indian Food and Agriculture ministry had turned a blind eye to the presence of 14 weeds, two fungal diseases and one insect pest that the import consignments contained. Of the 14 weeds, 11 species are not found in India.

Interestingly, while the US accepts that its wheat contains 21 weeds, it has expressed its helplessness in cleaning wheat shipments to bring it in tune with the Indian threshold limits. At the Portland port from where much of its wheat is exported, the US grain merchants were unable to clean wheat of the menacing weeds. The US is seeking import norms of 0.3 per cent weed infestation, India is insisting on not more than 100 weeds in a consignment of 200 kg of wheat.
At 0.3 per cent weed infestation, the total number of weed seeds per 200 kg of wheat comes to a massive 12,000.

Although the US is publicly claiming that its “wheat is among the highest quality in the world and is safely shipped to over 110 nations including every importer of significance except India”, the fact remains that much of the American wheat imported by rich and developed countries like Japan is actually for milling purposes. In India, wheat imports are used as grain by farmers and therefore the worry that the weeds will take roots.

Several of the minor weeds that came along with PL-480 wheat shipments into India in past have turned into biological nuisances, often the weed becoming a national menace. Lantana camera was among such weeds, which entered India three decades ago. Today, it has spread wide and wild, and has withstood all control measures. Being poisonous, not even the cattle feed on it. Phalaris minor too came with the wheat consignments from the United States. This weed, already resistant to chemicals in the US and Australia, has established itself as a strong competitor of wheat in India. The weed has also become resistant to chemicals in India and is responsible for reducing wheat yields by an estimated 25 per cent.

It is not the first time that the US is trying to export sub-standard agricultural products. In September 2000, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) sent a delegation to press for opening up the Indian market for what would have turned into the first major import consignment of genetically modified soybeans. If allowed, the soybean imports would have brought along five exotic weeds and at least 11 viral diseases, of which two are economically dangerous. The US did insist that the accompanying pests would not pose any problem for Indian agriculture.

Earlier too, during 1998-99, the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (NBPGR) had received 359 samples of transgenic soybean from the USA for quarantine. Nearly 143 of these were rejected because of the presence of downy mildew fungus (Peronospora manshurica), which is known to cause serious losses and is not known to occur in India. Bulk imports, however, fail to eliminate the threat of import of nematodes, viruses and several fungi.

For reasons unexplained, the Food and Agriculture ministry appears more eager to allow for sub-standard imports. In 2006, it relaxed most quality norms for Australian wheat by asking the exporting country to provide a certificate saying that the imports are “essentially free from weeds”. At the time of tender, the requirement was “free from weeds”. Over-ruling all objections raised by the plant quarantine directorate to import of exotic weed species, the Food and Agriculture Ministry has relaxed the provisions of Plant Quarantine Order 2003.

After the din dies down, India might relax quality norms for American wheat. Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar has already been quoted as saying: “It is true that talks have been held with the US government. We want that the US should also participate in our wheat import process.” What is however not being perceived is that the US participation cannot be at the cost of softening the quarantine standards.
At a time when international quality parameters are being tightened the world over to ensure that invasive alien species do not use the vehicle of commodity trade to enter into a country, India should not relax the quality norms thereby opening the floodgates to noxious weeds, deadly insect pests and dreaded plant diseases.

What Sharad Pawar needs to understand is that the same wheat that we imported from Australia (or we plan to import from America) if exported back would not be accepted for reasons of the same quality standards that we are being asked to do away with.

NDC – Right Words Wrong Direction

NDC and Agriculture – Right Language, Wrong Direction

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had time and again promised to launch a major initiative for the revival of the ailing farm sector. Addressing recently the 53rd meeting of the National Development Council (NDC) in New Delhi, he used the right vocabulary to highlight the enormity of the prevailing agrarian crisis.

If words alone could deliver, Congress-led UPA Coalition would have done it long ago. But like the story of the four blind men and the elephant, the Prime Minister, his Cabinet colleagues and the 29 chief ministers who were present continued to shoot in the dark. Three years into power, it is quite apparent the government has no clue as to what needs to be done to resurrect agriculture.

It was almost a year back when Mr Manmohan Singh had visited the suicide-prone belt of Vidharbha and announced a relief package of Rs 3,750-crores. Embarrassed at no let-up in the number of farmer suicides, he had subsequently said that the relief measures would begin to show results after six months. It sure did. Six months after the Prime Minister’s visit, the suicide rate doubled. From one farmer suicide every eight hours, it is now one every four hours.

The Rs 25,000-crore booster for new farm initiatives to be launched by states in the next four years, and the 14-point resolution adopted by the NDC which aims at achieving four per cent growth in agriculture by the end of the 11th five-year plan, falls in the same category. With the entire focus on integrating domestic agriculture with global economy, and bringing in agribusiness, corporate agriculture and food retail as the saviour, the roadmap being chalked out is likely to lead to further despair.

Ploughing Rs 25,000-crore into agriculture may seem like a mammoth effort to double the growth rate in agriculture. Fnothinor each of the 29 states, the average support will not exceed Rs 1000-crore, which is  nothing more than a drop in the ocean.

Moreover, what is not being visualised is that the farm crisis has nothing to do in terms of growth rate. It essentially revolves around declining sustainability in agriculture and the economic viability of farming. Whatever be the new location-specific schemes the states may launch, nothing significant can be expected unless the real farm income goes up.

Take Punjab, the food bowl of the country. Farm indebtedness, both in the formal and informal sector, is around Rs 26,000-crore, more than the Centre’s total pledged allocation for the entire country. No amount of renewed thrust on increasing crop productivity, and that too without restoring the highly devastated natural resource base, as well as raising farm incomes, will revive agriculture. However, the 14-point resolution dividing responsibilities between the Central and the State governments makes little mention of sustainability and boosting farm incomes.

To expect the agricultural universities and the state extension machinery to draw up research plans considering region specific priorities taking agro-climatic conditions, natural resource issues and technology into account is a tall order given that the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) has already moved away from subsistence to commercial agriculture. The Indo-US Knowledge Initiative in Agriculture Research, Development and Marketing, launched in early 2006, provides for a diametrically opposite research direction.

The crucial issue of technology fatigue cannot be addressed without first ascertaining what and where has the 1st Green Revolution gone wrong. Instead of pushing 2nd Green Revolution (read agribusiness), the effort should have been to draw a balance sheet and then prepare a cropping pattern plan based on the availability of natural resources. For instance, it does not make any sense to cultivate sugarcane and cotton in the arid and parched lands of Rajasthan.

The action plan only focuses on improved seed supply, fertiliser availability and revamping of state agriculture extension system to reduce yield gaps. It also makes it mandatory for states to make amendments in Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee Act by March 2008, which will allow a variety of marketing trappings including contract farming and corporate agriculture. In essence, the entire focus of the farm strategy is to allow the private sector to take control of agriculture.

Although till date, 16 states have amended the APMC Act, some wholly and others partially, the fact remains that the entire effort of the government is to dismantle the food procurement and public distribution system in the days to come. By amending the APMC Act, the government is actually encouraging development of linkages to markets through a variety of instruments including contract farming and corporate agriculture. Such a system has already played havoc with wheat procurement forcing the country to turn into the world’s biggest importer of the golden grain.

Setting up a time-bound Food Security Mission by enhancing production of wheat, rice, pulses and edible oils comes at a time when the UPA government itself is lowering the custom tariff thereby allowing cheaper imports. Integrating Indian agriculture with global economy defeats the very purpose of ensuring food security. Take the case of edible oils. India was almost self-sufficient in edible oils in 1993-94. Ever since the government began lowering the tariffs, edible oil imports have multiplied turning the country into the biggest importer. Small farmers growing oilseeds and that too in the rainfed areas of the country had to abandon production in the light of cheaper imports.

Autonomous liberalisation of the farm sector has already seen import surges. Agriculture commodity imports have gone up by 300 per cent between 2000-2004. Coconut oil imports for instance increased from 7291 metric tonnes in 2004-05 to 22,307 metric tonnes in 2005-06. The import of pepper similarly increased from 2186.3 tonnes in 1995-96 to 17,725.3 tonnes in 2004-05. These are not isolated cases. Imports of spices and plantation crops including tea and coffee have been on an upswing. Importing food commodities is like importing unemployment.

Not even remotely concerned, the government is planning to further open up farm imports under the Free Trade Agreement with the ASEAN countries. In the years to come, import tariffs on wheat, rice, pulses and edible oils – the crops that are considered crucial for food security – are to be further lowered. Cheaper imports will negatively impact food security. Unless of course the government thinks food security can be assured by buying food off-the-shelf.


For a country like India, with 60-crore farmers, such a policy imperative will spell doom. Indian farmers are not only producers but also consumers. What is needed is a farming system that allows production by the masses in a sustainable and viable way.








The ’free trade’ explosion :

With the World Trade talks in limbo, the focus remains on aggressively pushing on the bilateral front. What could not be achieved through a multilateral trade regime, is now being pursued by the US through bilateral and regional deals. Devinder Sharma connects the dots.

The ’Free trade’ explosion

With the World Trade talks in limbo, the focus remains on aggressively pushing on the bilateral front. What could not be achieved through a multilateral trade regime, is now being pursued by the US through bilateral and regional deals. Devinder Sharma connects the dots.

13 September 2006 — Two days after the third Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organisation began at Seattle, and that was in 1999, I was caught in the mayhem that erupted after the police fired some teargas shells to disperse the wall of protesters. I recall that it was almost midnight when I was walking back to my hotel in the Capitol Hill. I took a turn on one of the labyrinth of city streets to find myself in the midst of the police action.

Protesters of all ages, a majority of them teenagers, were running away to avoid the pungent fumes. As I stepped back, I came face to face with a reporter from an American television channel. Asked, what as a foreigner I thought of the trade talks in the midst of such massive protests, I replied: “While the strong-arm tactics of the American government in the streets is muffling the voice of the peaceful protesters, the high-handedness of the American bureaucracy in the Convention centre is silencing the voice of the developing countries.”

That’s what I wrote after my return from Seattle. As we all know, amidst massive public protests Seattle WTO Ministerial failed. Two years later, the tragic events of 9/11 changed the world in such a dramatic way that globalisation — that links trade with corporate interests — became much easy. With democratically elected governments bending backwards to side with the United States, security forces continue to be increasingly deployed to make it safe for the global capital and investment. From Iraq to Pakistan, and from Korea to Colombia, the ’security concerns’ are essentially aimed at trifling public dissent and furthering the commercial interests of the multinationals.

I’d never been in doubt about the links between globalisation, trade, and corporate interests. But the blatant usurping of human rights and national sovereignty that began some five years back through an unprecedented explosion of discriminatory bilateral and regional trade agreements is something that shocks me. Close to 200 Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) — a misnomer for one-way trade — are being negotiated or have already been signed. A majority of these involves the US, which has either struck a deal or is in a negotiating process in every part of the hemisphere. There is race globally now to seek bilateral and regional agreements as if there is no tomorrow. Many of these, like the Central American Free Trade Agreement (Cafta 2004), are in the name of ’security issues’. Some others come as a ’reward’ to its allies in the Iraq war, like Thailand and Australia.

With the World Trade talks in limbo, the focus remains on aggressively pushing on the bilateral front. What could not be achieved through a multilateral trade regime, and that was peanuts compared to what is now being pursued through bilateral and regional deals. Developing countries have been made to believe, and there seems to be no plausible basis for such flawed thinking, that getting market access to America is the only way to economic nirvana. In return, developing countries (and also some of the economic giants) have buckled under pressure putting their own economies under a perpetual risk.

Country after country has agreed to eliminate tariffs barriers over the next ten years or so, and have already removed technical barriers to imports. Explicit guarantees have been provided on the treatment to American investors and services. Current barriers to agricultural biotechnology are being removed. Specific commitments pertaining to national laws and commitments to strong and transparent disciplines on government procurement procedures, rules of origin and effective enforcement of domestic labour and environmental laws have been sought. In short, all impediments in the march of the multinational companies have been cleared.

And yet, the American and European markets remain impregnable.

The enactment of the US Patriot Act, 2001 made it still more difficult. Take the example of gems and jewellery trade. Considering that diamonds could be used as a replacement for hard cash in arm deals, money laundering and other crimes, the US has used the provisions to restrict gems and jewellery imports. Thailand is the worst affected, with Bangkok’s Anti-Money laundering Office cracking on the domestic gems trade. More than 6000 gold shops and thousands of jewellery shops throughout the country are being targeted. For India, a major player in cutting and polishing of diamonds, the US has threatened to use the same provisions to check the ’blood diamond’ trail.

Returning to bilateral agreements, the common thread that flows through all the FTA is the demand for a stronger Intellectual Property (IP) Protection. No IP means no market access, is the usual American refrain. In addition, generic companies will have to wait until the patent expires before obtaining the marketing approval, which means effectively extending the patent monopoly. Further, in order to delay competition from generic manufacturers, multinational companies have been pushing hard to obtain exclusive rights over their test data. During this period of “data exclusivity”, the companies are able to ensure that the generic manufacturers are not able to use the companies research data to produce their own generic version. In turn, ’compulsory licensing’ provisions are rendered useless if generic companies cannot use the ’test data’ of pharmaceutical companies, extended terms for patent protection and restrictions on parallel imports.

The US has already managed to coerce a number of other countries to offer stronger IP protection. Among these are Peru, Morocco, Jordan, Central American nations, Bahrain, and Australia. Between 2004 and 2005, all these countries have been made to agree to a TRIPs-plus agreement (Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights), aimed at blocking generic competition and removing laws and regulations coming in the way of pharmaceutical trade. Although India has still to sign a bilateral trade agreement with the US, the drug companies are exerting considerable pressure in this direction to seek data protection and block generic competition. At the same time, stronger IP protection is also running the risk of free use of traditional knowledge linked to genetic resources by American and other biotechnology companies.

All of this comes with a heavy price for the developing countries that are finding it difficult to make available medicines at affordable prices. In India, consequent to the recent amendments to the Indian Patents Act, medicine prices are on the rise. As per reports, the government is planning to ask 11 pharma companies to roll back prices of key brands of medicines. The prices rise in these medicines had exceeded 20 per cent in a year, with some going as high as 59 per cent. On the same lines, public protests in the past few weeks against the US-Thailand FTA that seeks strong IP protection have been loud.

In almost all these negotiations, the US is unwilling to talk about the massive agricultural subsidies, which make it difficult for the developing countries to find an export niche. Instead of sitting down and talking of a phase out in farm subsidies, the US argument is that agriculture policy is something that cannot be discussed bilaterally and will only be open for negotiation in the WTO. And when it comes to WTO, the US has refused to reduce even a single dollar from its monumental farm subsidies in the past ten years. The WTO talks are in a deadlock because the US is unwilling to cut domestic support in agriculture.

The result is that while the US agriculture exports are on an upswing, the developing countries are turning into food importers. In India, agricultural imports have gone up by 300 per cent in volume since the WTO came into effect. In China, farm imports are increasing at 27 per cent a year. The scenario in the rest of the developing world is no better. On the contrary, US agriculture exports post 9/11 have increased by $10 billion. EU farm exports have gone up annually by 26 per cent.

From agriculture, pharmaceuticals, and services, the US interests is now moving towards energy. Riding on the same bandwagon is the European Union. Aggressive trade interests have topped the EU economic and political agenda. With the developing world increasingly seeing through the mischief of world trade, the focus of the US is to seal as many bilateral and regional trade agreements before civil society in developing nations wakes up.

Devinder Sharma – 13 Sep 2006 :

Devinder Sharma is a food and trade policy analyst. He also chairs the New Delhi-based Forum for Biotechnology & Food Security. Two of his books are GATT to WTO: Seeds of Despair and In the Famine Trap.
Source :

Escape from Punjab – Hidden Numbers

Escape from Punjab : By Devinder Sharma –

I was at a dinner with a Punjabi family in the outskirts of London. Mohinder Singh’s youngest brother who had only a few months before made it to England was visibly upset : “You are the only Punjabi I know who keeps on going back to India. Why don’t you stay here permanently ?”

When I told him that I am often invited to UK to speak at various conferences, and yet I don’t want to settle here legally or illegally, he couldn’t believe me. “There are instances when I am abused on the streets by the whites if that is what you are meaning, there was also this bizarre incident of one of the white teenager’s pissing on me while I lay on the beach one day but bhai ji this is still heaven. Come on, think about it again !”

Surinder Singh, the youngest brother in the Punjabi family I am talking about, is not the only one who feels he has crossed over to heaven. Millions of Punjabis’ cherish the dream to escape from Punjab. Legally or illegally, they are willing to take all kinds of risks. Such is the desire and desperation to escape that scores of villages in the ‘migration belt’ of Punjab — Phagwara, Jalandhar and Kapurthala districts – are empty. Almost all houses in these villages remain locked throughout the year.

Punjabis are by nature enterprising. Defying all academic norms of ‘distress migration’ or the ‘pull or push factor’ in migration, most Punjabis believe that migration is the best form of economic growth.
They have seen this happening with generations of migratory workers who made it to the plantation sector in Southeast Asia or as industrial workers in England, Canada and to some extent as farm workers in New Zealand, California, Germany and Italy.

It was in early 1980s that I first tracked a group of asylum seekers who had landed in East Berlin (than part of the German Democratic Republic). Once in East Berlin, they would crossover to West Berlin by train where with the help of some lawyers they would have their papers ready. A majority of those who followed this escape route were apprehended at West Berlin. While their papers were being scrutinised, these migrants would be lodged in what was then popularly called ‘flower houses’ – an apology for a dingy accommodation herding some 20-25 people in one room.

The German government provided them with subsistence allowance as long as they were in the ‘flower houses’. Realising that migrants were ‘saving’ from even such paltry amounts ostensibly to send some money back home, the government finally provided them with food stamps that could be exchanged in the grocery stores. I remember asking one of the Punjabi migrants who was awaiting deportation back to India as to why did he take the risk. His reply still reverberates in my ears: “My parents have sold off the land to collect money for my travel.
They are under the impression that within months of my landing in Europe, I will start minting money. I therefore save as much as possible from my daily allowance so that I don’t let their dream die.’

The unsavoury trend still continues. After the collapse of the Berlin Wall, illegal trafficking has found new escape routes. Whether it is through Morocco, Egypt or Turkey or whether it is through sports and culture, the fact remains that Punjabis are more than eager to escape. After all, what makes them so desperate that they are willing to take the risk of their life? Why is that Punjabis, who are economically well off as compared to the rest of the country, are still not satisfied? Is something terribly wrong with the underbelly of Punjab that we don’t see?

Punjab is undoubtedly the food bowl of the country. It is the harbinger of the Green Revolution that swept through well-endowed regions of the country.
For 40 years now, ever since Green Revolution began, the nation has eulogised the Punjab farmer. Newspapers have reported time and again about the visible prosperity ushered in through intensive agriculture. Magazine articles have featured the opulent life style of prosperous Punjabi farmers.
Not many of the feature writers however tried to look beyond the false sense of pride the farmers exhibited. Not many journalists tried to explore the reasons behind the new- found prosperity — not because of agriculture but because of monthly remittances or their side business activities.

Punjab’s underbelly was gradually caving in. Agriculture had turned not only unremunerative but also highly unsustainable. Intensive farming had led to the collapse of Green Revolution. Farmers were pumping in more chemical inputs to maintain their crop harvests.
Over the years indebtedness began growing to phenomenal levels. A recent Punjab Agricultural University shows as many as 89 per cent of Punjab farm households are reeling under debt. The per farm family debt today stands at a staggering Rs 1,78,934. In other words, for every hectare of land holding, the outstanding debt is Rs 50, 140.

Still worse – tractors — the symbol of prosperity have now turned into a symbol of suicides. Tractor owners are more heavily indebted with the average outstanding exceeding Rs 2 lakh. Marginal and small farmers owning tractors are still worse off. With the input prices climbing year after year and the output prices remaining static, Punjab farmers became a victim of the same economic policies that projected them as country’s heroes. No wonder, the average income of a Punjab farm family hovers around Rs 3,000 a month.

Over the years, intensive farming practices have pushed farmers deeper into debt. High-chemical input based technology has already mined the soils and ultimately led to the lands gasping for breath, with the water-guzzling crops (hybrids and Bt cotton) sucking the groundwater acquifer dry, and with the failure of the markets to rescue the farmers from a collapse of the farming systems, the tragedy is that the human cost is entirely being borne by the farmers. In Punjab, of the 138 development blocks, 108 have already been declared dark zones, the level of groundwater exploitation in these blocks has been in excess of 98 per cent against the critical limit of 80 per cent. The resulting destruction wrought on the natural resource base – soil health deteriorating, water table plummeting and pesticides contaminating the environment – agriculture has turned into a losing proposition. More and more Punjab farmers therefore began to abandon agriculture. With no job opportunities coming in handy, escape from Punjab became a viable alternative.

What is intriguing are the missing numbers. In 1990-91, there were 2.95 lakh marginal and 2.03 small operational landholdings. In ten years time, by 2000-01, these had come down to 1.23 lakh marginal and 1.73 lakh small operational holdings.
A careful perusal would show that nearly 1.20 lakh farm families had moved out of agriculture in the ten years period. Where have these families gone? What alternative employment opportunities have they adopted? No one knows about that.

I am not suggesting that they had migrated in search of greener pastures. But with rampant corruption keeping them out of government jobs, the only avenue open for the Punjabi youth is to migrate. Whether they apply for a police constable job or for a bus conductor, they are invariably asked to cough out money. “If I have to pay Rs 20 lakh to Rs 35 lakh for a Class III government job, what do you expect me to do?” asks Manpreet Singh, a resident of Ropar district. “Isn’t it better that I spend the same money to pay to the travel agents to find me an escape to Europe or Canada?”

Punjab’s underbelly is certainly in an unforeseen crisis. It is time to feel the pain and anguish the youth are faced with. It is time to put the house in order. The sooner the better.
Indian Farm Exit Policy –
Farm Debt –
Land Acquisition –