Food and farming / INDIA
It's official. On the front page of The New Indian Express the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, N Chandrababu Naidu, has declared an end to all 'isms'. The one-time dairy entrepreneur and self-styled 'CEO' of the state is the principal visionary of India's brave new corporate-friendly dawn. According to him, 'the only kind of "ism" people are interested in any more is tourism'.
He's a consummate politician, skilled at spinning his own legends. He sleeps three hours a night, wakes at six in the morning to monitor the state's reservoir levels. He teleconferences with each district bureaucrat every morning - woe betide any with their ties askew.
Under his firm hands the state capital Hyderabad - or 'Cyberabad' as it is fast becoming known - has stolen the IT march on Bangalore. The World Bank has funnelled funds into massive infrastructure projects. The city bristles with billboards, the Chief Minister's face looking down benignly on commuters, urging them to pay their electricity bills on time and online.
A senior civil servant likens the administration to 'a whirlwind. All activity in the centre and absolute stillness elsewhere.'
But the Chief is a man with a vision. On a visit to Malaysia in 1997 he took inspiration from that country's ambition to have developed-nation status by the year 2020, and adopted it for his own state. To get there he employed US management consultants McKinsey. The prescription they eventually came up with for Andhra Pradesh was breathtaking in scale and ambition.
The plan is to turn this primarily agrarian state into a kind of Singapore in the space of 20 years - led by industry and services. By 2020 Andhra Pradesh will be geared for 'knowledge workers' rather than farmers. Information technology, biotechnology and the transformation of agriculture are fundamental to the plan. Its name is Vision 2020.
The essence of the World Bank's report Andhra Pradesh: Agenda for Economic Reforms is that subsidies for the welfare of the poor explain why the state has not grown as it should. This agenda forms the heart of the Vision 2020 plan, which will only meet its targets by raising 80 per cent of its funds from foreign direct investment.
Public money must be spent on infrastructure to attract private investment, rather than on subsidies and welfare - growth, not poverty alleviation, is the objective. Massive investment in hi-tech industrial parks, a 600-square-kilometre Genome Valley for biotech research, glittering shopping malls and a new international airport are all being built in and around Hyderabad.
Aside from providing infrastructure, the state's role is confined to policy reform to attract investment, including the privatization of power sectors and the introduction of user fees in healthcare. It also includes strong patent protection for the biotech industry, as well as ease of approval for biotechnology applications. On a visit to the US in 2001 Naidu signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Chief Executive of the Monsanto corporation to build a research centre in Hyderabad.
Agriculture is the lifeblood of the Andhra Pradesh economy. What is being proposed is its industrialization on a colossal scale. Excess labour will be displaced by mechanization. Small farms will be rendered efficient by 'consolidation' into vast, plantation-style land holdings farmed on a contract basis for corporations. Many of the crops will be genetically modified. Andhra Pradesh will corner the commercial-seed market as hybrid and commercial seeds replace seed-saving - currently 80 per cent of India's seed is saved from the previous harvest. Processing and packing plants will provide access to global markets. The vegetables and flowers they grow will be for export.
In a country like India, with 200 million people living below the poverty line, where too many sclerotic bureaucrats are passionate only about lining their own pockets, Chandrababu Naidu's Vision 2020 is compelling. Even before major implementation has begun - and before the majority of Andhra Pradesh's citizens know what's in store for them - there is talk of adopting it in other states, perhaps the whole of India.
This vast social experiment is seen as a vanguard project by its backers, the British Government's Department for International Development (DFID) and the World Bank. What happens in Andhra Pradesh could shape the future of agricultural 'development'. Fully two-thirds of DFID's entire aid budget for India will go to the AP Government.
However, Vision 2020 makes no mention of the 77 per cent of the state's small and marginal farmers who have landholdings of less than two hectares - let alone the sharecroppers and agricultural labourers. What it does say is that the number of Andhra Pradesh's population working in agriculture will be reduced by 40 per cent. A mind-boggling 20 million will have to come off the land in 20 years. A recent Government 'white paper' categorically states: 'The outdated paradigm of small and marginal farmers in agriculture is no longer viable.' The AP government calls this 'voluntary liquidation'.
Some in DFID itself are uneasy. An internal memo from 2000 notes Vision 2020 has 'major failings' and that the policy 'says nothing substantial about the implied need to provide alternative agricultural income... to those who would be displaced from agriculture by [land] consolidation.' Damningly, it concludes: 'The promotion of contract farming... has many negative implications for the food security and wider livelihood security of the poor.'
Officially, DFID defends the project, saying it 'does not find any references in Vision 2020 that suggest this shift in employment will be coerced'. But I've been informed that in Chitoor, the Chief Minister's constituency, the salaries of local officials have been linked to how many farmers they can sign up to a contract-farming scheme.
So I travel down to Chitoor in the far south to find out for myself what is at stake. And the first thing I meet is a mob of furious farmers. They are in the fields of a 'demonstration' farm at Kuppam. Started in 1997, the Kuppam Pilot Project has been set up as a model of contract farming. The state government has entered into an agreement with an Israeli-owned corporation called BHC. It has brought in drip-irrigation technol-
ogy to the drought-prone region to grow baby corn, gherkins, tomatoes, paprika and other vegetables over an area of 80 hectares. The crops are sent to a 24-hour processing plant in Bangalore, three hours away, which pickles and cans them and sends them on to the US, Canada and Israel.
The idea behind contract farming is this: farmers agree to give over their land to grow vegetables for the company, and the company provides the seeds, inputs and technology required to grow them. The farmer has to repay these inputs over time. In return for the investment, the farmer grows what the company says and sells it to them. Usually the farmer will be paid a regular stipend - like a wage - rather than for the produce itself.
'If you gave me one lakh rupees [around $20,000] I wouldn't give my land to BHC again!' spits an angry, dusty, white-bearded old man in the general direction of Lokesh, one of the Indian managers of the company.
Lokesh, with a cap and a gold watch, is desperate to steer me away. 'Every day we discover the farmers stealing vegetables,' he explains, taking me into his confidence: 'Sometimes it is necessary to beat them.'
A young man with an intelligent face places his body between us, his eyes on fire, a finger pointing right in Lokesh's face. 'You're lying. You're telling her lies. Why won't you let them speak?'
Apparently the white-bearded farmer has been caught stealing carrot leaves (not the carrots, just the leaves) to feed his buffalo. Since he gave over his land to the company it's been hard for him to find fodder for his livestock. He has been accused of stealing his own vegetables from his own land - for which crime Mr Isaac, the regional manager of BHC, has been throwing rocks at him.
Cue an angry mob of hundreds of villagers walking to the fields to get justice. Cue Mr Isaac running towards his jeep and speeding off. No-one has seen him all afternoon.
Too afraid to speak here in the fields or in their own village, the crowd has promised that several of its members will come and tell me their side of the story under cover of darkness, away from the company managers. As night falls, fireflies glow in the paddy and the moon rises over the crest of the hill, one solitary figure makes the journey up to see me. When his face comes into the lamplight I recognize the young man with the pointing finger.
'The farmers are afraid,' he tells me. 'This is the Chief Minister's constituency. This is his project. If the farmers complain, what will happen to them?'
He tells his tale anyway: 'We had to sign a "No Objection Certificate" that we would allow the BHC to transform our land and build the bore wells and pipelines. All the documents are with the BHC. But we never gave our land titles to them, only these "No Objection Certificates". And we also made an agreement that we could pull out after three years... We had an agreement that they would pay every three months, but sometimes it's been as much as seven months... For the last six months they haven't paid us a penny.'
The farmers have no idea how much BHC is harvesting, nor how much they are selling - and the company won't publish its accounts.
Another man I meet says: 'In the last year the farmers in these villages have got organized to fight this company's takeover of their land. There has been a lot of resistance.' But, he explains, BHC will only give land back in consolidated form to groups of five or six farmers.
Vision 2020 is built on the notion that small farmers will benefit from 'consolidating' their land into larger holdings and investing in new and improved technologies. But, as another farmer explains: 'We want to culti-vate our own lands in our own way, and grow our own crops. We don't like this kind of joint farming.'
Which is rather bad news for Vision 2020. You can't build export agriculture with small farms. You need large plantations and processing plants. How do you persuade India's fiercely independent farmers into this kind of farming?
Even if small farmers are left out of the contract-farming system entirely, there are related pressures to leave the land. According to a health worker in Kuppam, in a survey of the eight villages which have been taken over by BHC, 'there has been a huge decline in the ownership of livestock and cattle. People sold them because there is no land to graze them on.' Many of the lowest-caste workers look after livestock. 'All that land has been occupied by this company and none of the crops which are grown on that land are useful as fodder for livestock. So there's been a huge migration of people out to Bangalore because there is no work.'
'In my opinion,' he continues, 'this is also a way of displacing agricultural labour... Part of the technical assistance includes tractors, mechanization - and you can carry out agriculture without having to hire any labour. At least 60 per cent of people in my villages are surviving because of agricultural labour. So if something like this comes in it really hits our livelihoods.'
Ramana is a shepherd from Chitoor. When I ask him whether he wouldn't be better off getting a job in the city, he replies: 'We have a saying here. The city is like a lover, and the countryside is like a mother. The city just takes - the country always gives.'
Grand political visions, from Stalin's Five Year Plans for the glorious production of pig-iron to the World Bank's Structural Adjustment models of efficient economic liberalism, worry me. Any plan that doesn't take people - where they live, what they know, what they need or want - as its starting point is doomed never to deliver.
J Savitsiri is a forceful woman from an indigenous peoples' organization, Adivasi Adeka. She's clear who will be the losers from the project. 'This Vision 2020 may benefit some very lucky individuals amongst a whole class of adivasis. For the bulk of us, if we do come to cities, what work will we get except for washing someone else's cups and plates or domestic labour? This is not our vision, we have never been consulted. Let us develop our own vision, on our own terms!'
If there is to be an alternative vision it will have to come from the opposite direction - that is, not from the top down but from the ground up.
Satheesh has been mobilizing with the Andhra Pradesh Coalition in Defence of Diversity, a group of over 100 NGOs and popular organizations. He says: 'Andhra Pradesh has a tradition of referenda, particularly in rural areas. We spoke to people in over 80 villages and we got up a petition of 100,000 people against Vision 2020. We gave it to the Government, but there was no response.'
In July 2001 a prajateerpu (literally, 'people's verdict') or citizen's jury of 24 predominantly dalit, female farmers heard evidence from a variety of witnesses - from the Syngenta corporation to government officials to local NGOs - in an attempt at democratic intervention.
Their verdict roundly rejects much that Vision 2020 proposes. Rather, they say: 'We desire food and farming for self-reliance, and community control over resources; to maintain healthy soils, diverse crops, trees and livestock, and to build on our indigenous knowledge, practical skills and local institutions.'
I tell Savitsiri: 'If I write about the problems with this project, you know they'll say I'm trying to prevent you from developing.' Her eyes are fierce: 'If they say that to you, you ask them this. We have had so many development projects, and we are still poor. What guarantee do they have that Vision 2020 isn't going to make us poorer?'
Subramianiam, an animal-health worker from Chitoor district has the final word: 'Vision 2020 is a big illusion, maya, like in Hindu mythology. Can they really assure us that in 20 years all the people in the villages will be sitting in nice houses, with air conditioning and cars and enjoying the comforts? You notice they haven't dared call it "Reality 2020".'
© Copyright 2003 New Internationalist
Publications Ltd. All rights reserved.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7