The road to atmanirbharta may go through GM seeds
Lifting the ban on genetically modified seeds should allow tests for the new mustard seed developed by a scientist at Delhi University. But will the step be a game-changer?
Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi is an ambitious man. Last week, while laying the foundation stone of the factory to manufacture the Tata-Airbus transport aeroplane, he said, “India is moving forward with the mantra Make in India, make for the globe’’”. There surely can’t be that many Indians who haven’t heard of his ambition to make India atmanirbhar (self-reliant).
How can he achieve this in an agrarian country such as India? Farmers have been promised that their incomes will be doubled to help create this atmanirbhar India. Now, the government has taken a potentially significant step towards achieving that goal. The step is lifting the government ban on genetically modified seeds. This should allow tests for the new mustard seed developed by a scientist at Delhi University. But will the step be a game-changer? My doubts arise from the fact that an organisation affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) — the Swadeshi Jagran Manch — is prominent among the anti-genetically modified seed lobby and has already opposed the new mustard seed.
At present, India is chronically short of oilseeds. It has to import more than half of the oil it consumes, which costs it more than ₹1.5 lakh crore. The oil from seeds grown here yields 40% less than from the genetically modified seed grown elsewhere. Our mustard seed seems to be stuck at its present yield.
There has been much debate recently about India’s position on the latest Global Hunger index: 107th of the 121 countries assessed, considerably worse than Bangladesh and Pakistan, though the government has contested the methodology. Opponents of genetic modification can cry themselves hoarse that India is still short of food, of which cooking oil is an essential part. I am not suggesting that allowing genetically modified seeds would solve all of India’s agricultural problems and fill the gap in the domestic food supply chain. Agriculture here faces many other problems. The farmers’ protest last year prevented the government from instituting reforms that it maintained would have dealt with some of those issues. Farmers, on the other hand, feared the reforms would land them in the hands of private sector magnates. But whether that would have been the outcome or not, no one can deny that marketing and storage facilities must be improved if farmers are to get substantially more money in their pockets. Nationalised banks must take on the mahajans and other private lenders by enabling farmers to get loans.
Then, there is the question of farm sizes. When I travel by train through France or Britain, I see vast expanses of crops unbroken by boundaries. From Indian trains, I see fields, often small ones. There is no doubt that agriculture worked by one man and some mechanical monster is more productive and efficient than India’s small labour-intensive farms, but land consolidation and land reforms in India have not been a success.
Despite all these problems, it would be a grave mistake to regard Indian agriculture as static, incapable of moving with the times. Before the Green Revolution, Indian farmers depended on animals for their locomotive power. Now, these animals have been largely replaced by tractors. Bullocks used to trudge around in a small circle with rotating Persian wheels to pull up water for irrigation. They have been placed by electric pumps. Mobile phones, digitalisation, and better roads are all impacting farming practices. The success of genetically modified cotton, the only transgenic crop the government has allowed so far, shows farmers’ capability and willingness to take to the new mustard seed, though improvement in a number of other input conditions is also partially responsible.
If the mustard tests continue and the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, along with the other opponents of genetically modified crops, are ignored by the PM, he will find he has contributed to fulfilling his ambition of creating an Atmanirbhar Bharat.
The views expressed are personal