Two weeks after it started in Maharashtra’s Akola district, the ‘pro-GM seed’ movement, also termed as a ‘civil disobedience’ movement by activists, has now spread to 10 other districts of the state, according to a report by The Times of India. Ajit Narde, a leader of the Shetkari Sanghatana, which has been at the forefront of the movement, said that the campaign has now spread to the districts of Ahmednagar, Amravati, Buldhana, Dhule, Hingoli, Jalna and Yavatmal among others. The movement had reportedly started on June 10, when over 1,000 farmers sowed genetically modified herbicide-tolerant (HtBt) cotton to protest against the Centre’s ban on genetically modified (GM) crops. Reports suggest that the sowing, selling or storing of banned GM crops invites a fine of Rs 1 lakh and five years of imprisonment. Despite that, the farmers in Akola had carried on with their protest under the banner of Shetkari Sanghatana, reportedly stating that the government was free to take action against them.
In what was reportedly the first such instance in Maharashtra, Vasant Mule, a farmer, was arrested from Umrad village in Buldhana district for allegedly trading in HtBt cotton. According to the report, the police had seized 21 packets of the banned seeds from Mule. Shetkari Sanghatana, on its part, stated that it “morally” supports the farmer. “Farmers have been planting such seeds openly despite facing the risk of arrests under existing law as they want to send a strong message to authorities that they actually need it for their survival,” Narde said. The organisation also plans on setting up demonstration field trials to display how HtBt cotton is economically viable and efficient, according to the report. The farmers who undertake the trials will then invite other “farmers, scientists, economists and experts” to monitor the progress of the crop. “This is particularly relevant in the context of a complete halt to all formal trials by scientists and companies in India, over the past few years,” Narde told the newspaper.
The National Seed Association of India (NSAI), however, has condemned the farmers’ move and called it “appalling”. “It is appalling that illegality and irreversible toxic contamination is being masked as a ‘satyagraha’. India’s laws are above GM vigilantism,” Indra Shekhar Singh, NSAI’s programme director for policy and outreach told the newspaper. According to a report by the Indian Express, while Bt cotton is the only GM crop allowed to be cultivated in India, the one planted by the farmers in Akola is not cleared by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC). The GEAC, according to the report, comes under the Ministry of Environment and consists of government representatives and experts. It is responsible for assessing the safety of a GM crop and decide if it is fit for cultivation. The Akola farmers, the Indian Express report states, planted the HtBt crop which involves the addition of the ‘Cp4-Epsps’ gene from another soil bacterium, Agrobacterium tumefaciens. The GEAC has not cleared it. The farmers, however, claim that the HtBt variety can sustain the spray of the herbicide glyphosate, which is used for removing weeds. As per the report, farmers spend around Rs 3,000 to 5,000 for de-weeding per acre, and HtBt saves them from spending that money.