The farmer’s friend


© Joerg Boethling/Alamy

Farming was the only life that Dhanraj Pawar, a farmer from Maharashtra in central India, had ever known. His farm had been handed down through several generations of his family, and his life and aspirations were firmly rooted in his land. But last year, worn out and mired in debt, he threw down his plough, sold his ancestral land and quit.

Every sowing season, he had put his faith in the latest variety of Bt cotton seeds, hoping for the bountiful yields they promised. Developed by Monsanto, these genetically modified seeds justify their high cost by claiming to generate bumper harvests by guaranteeing protection from the deadly pest called the bollworm that can ravage the crop.

But these seeds were a bitter disappointment for Dhanraj. ‘After 10 straight years of losses, I had to sell my buffalo and all my land,’ he says. ‘When I started using Bt seeds, expenses on chemical fertilizers and pesticides soared. And the price of cotton is too low to make any profit.’

Now he plans to uproot his family and move to a nearby city to work as a daily wage labourer. Dhanraj may be bankrupt and landless but, ironically enough, he is a survivor. In what is the worst agricultural crisis in modern India’s history, more than 296,400 cotton farmers have killed themselves in the past 20 years, according to National Crime Bureau Records.1

Some have swallowed a bottle of pesticide, others have hanged themselves. A number of factors are at work in this heartbreaking story of farmer suicides – including the failure of agricultural banking, the loan sharks that take its place, and the unfair international trade regime.

While Bt cotton seeds are not solely responsible for the rise in suicides in India, they are far from the magic solution they are touted to be. ‘There is a multiplicity of policies working against Indian cotton farmers, such as low prices, high costs, subsidized agriculture in the West, and the growth of seed monopolies,’ says Vijay Jawandhia, a farmers’ leader from Maharashtra.

‘Even though yields have increased, farmers are making losses, because the price they get for their cotton is lower than it was 10 years ago, while farm expenses have multiplied.’

He points out that Bt cotton seeds are meant for irrigated farms. But more than 80 per cent of Indian agriculture is non-irrigated, so the seeds don’t deliver the yields promised. ‘This high-cost GM technology is only making agriculture more risky and farmers more vulnerable,’ he says.

Bullied and short-changed

GM seeds are created by merging DNA from different species. The foreign genes may come from bacteria, viruses or other sources. The purpose of genetically modifying seeds is to create herbicide-, insect- and drought-tolerance, or crops with enhanced nutritional qualities.2

Some GM seeds, like Bt cotton, contain toxins that kill bugs without having to spray pesticides that disturb the entire farm. However, pests have developed resistance, leading to increased use of pesticides and herbicides, and greater damage to the environment.3

Monsanto, which pioneered the use of genetically modified seeds, describes itself as a ‘sustainable agriculture company’. It proclaims: ‘We are focused on empowering farmers – large and small – to produce more from their land while conserving more of our world’s natural resources such as water and energy.’4

But farmers across the world have a strikingly different story to tell. Far from being empowered or sustained, they feel bullied and short-changed by Monsanto’s products and its aggressive methods to enforce its seed patents.

Farmers in Guatemala, Mexico and Ghana are part of growing resistance to Monsanto and GM. Organic growers in the US, Canada and Australia are fighting against contamination of their fields and destruction of their livelihood by GM crops from neighbouring farms or wind drift.

So, why don’t farmers boycott Bt? Why does GM cotton dominate the market? As Monsanto itself points out, ‘If Bt cotton were a root cause of suicidal tendencies, why do Indian farmers represent the fastest-growing users of biotech crops in the world?’5

Farmer Dhanraj Pawar has an answer: ‘There is no other seed available in the market. Before Bt seeds, we used hybrid seeds. But we can’t find the old seeds in the shops any more,’ he says.

‘Monsanto has tied up with state governments and local seed companies that distribute its patented seeds, while they collect the royalties,’ explains Kavitha Kuruganti, an activist with the Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture (ASHA). ‘That’s how they have monopolized the seed market.’

Having friends in high places helps. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Clinton Global Initiative, and the US Agency for International Development, all partner with Monsanto and encourage the use of their seeds in the Global South, especially in Africa. But farmers’ organizations are not easily taken in.

‘Farmers feel bullied and short-changed by Monsanto’s products and its aggressive methods to enforce its seed patents’

In Burkina Faso, the National Union of Agropastoral Workers (Syntapa) is battling against Bt cotton and biofortified sorghum because they have impoverished farmers and had adverse effects on the environment.6 While the cost of Bt cotton seed in Burkina Faso has tripled, there has been no increase in yields, according to Syntapa leader Ousmane Tiendrébéogo.6

‘The government has every interest in encouraging GM in order to continue to attract funders and international donors like the US, which make their development aid conditional on the adoption of GMOs,’ says Tiendrébéogo.6

Several governments have proposed new laws that restrict farmers from saving, breeding and bartering seeds on which they rely. Some, including Ghana and Canada, are attempting to change their laws in line with the 1991 Act of the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants.

This is supposed to help protect plant variety and to encourage plant breeders to develop new varieties. However, farmers and campaigners see this as strengthening corporate control over seed patents, while disempowering the rights of farmers to save seeds, which may result in further losses of biodiversity.7

Around 75 per cent of plant genetic diversity has vanished since the 1900s, as farmers have abandoned their local seed varieties for genetically uniform, high-yielding varieties, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.8

Taking farmers to court

In the West, pro-corporate patent laws have been used against several family-run farms. The Canadian farmer couple Percy and Louise Schmeiser became icons of the anti-GM movement when they received a lawsuit notice from Monsanto in 1998 accusing them of patent infringement for cultivating Monsanto’s Roundup Ready canola (rapeseed) without a licence.

They said that they had never bought Monsanto seed nor intended to have it on their land.

Monsanto seeds inadvertently reached their farm either from their neighbour’s farm or from passing trucks. But Monsanto stated that Schmeiser was a ‘patent infringer’ who knowingly planted this seed in his field and used Monsanto’s patented technology without permission or licence.9

When Monsanto sued the Schmeisers for damages of up to $400,000, the couple fought the case in the Canadian Supreme Court. Eventually, the court ruled that while the Schmeisers had infringed on Monsanto’s patent, they did not have to pay damages since they had not in any way benefited from the seeds.

Monsanto has filed 145 lawsuits against farmers since 1997 in the United States alone.10 The company says filing these cases is necessary because the loss of revenue hinders investment in research and development to create new products to help farmers.10

In order to prevent further litigation against small farmers, the Organic Seed Growers & Trade Association filed a case against Monsanto in 2011 to prohibit Monsanto from filing lawsuits against organic farmers whose farms may have been contaminated by Monsanto’s seeds.11

The court rejected the organic growers’ case, stating they had no reason to try to block Monsanto from suing them since the company had given its assurance that it would not file lawsuits against organic growers if GM seeds accidentally mix in with organics.11 Monsanto states that two separate courts in 2012-13 acknowledged that Monsanto took no action against organic growers for crosspollination.12

Though Monsanto often appears to have the law on its side, in Brazil there have been rulings against it. Around five million Brazilian soybean farmers sued the agrochemical giant for charging excessive royalties on crops planted using seed from the previous year’s harvest.13 The company justifies its royalties by saying it reinvests $2.6 million a day in research and development ‘that ultimately benefits farmers and consumers’.

But in 2012, the court ruled in favour of the Brazilian farmers, saying Monsanto owes farmers arrears of around $2 billion in lieu of the excess royalty charged to them since 2004.13 Monsanto reached an agreement with the farmers to end the litigation.13

Later, however, Monsanto asked soy exporters in Brazil to collect royalties on the company’s behalf so that it did not miss out on royalties from seeds that are being reused.14 Brazilian traders have been reluctant to do so, leading to growing tension between them and Monsanto.

When farmers lost their crop to a pest attack despite using Monsanto’s pest-resistant corn seeds, the Association of Soybean and Corn Producers of Mato Grosso region asked Monsanto and other seed producers to reimburse them for money spent on additional pesticides.15

Maui fights back

The most impressive victory against Monsanto has been in Maui, Hawaii, in November 2014, when residents voted in favour of a temporary ban on the farming of GM crops. This will hold until Maui county conducts an analysis of the health effects of genetically modified farming and foods.16

Monsanto and Dow Chemical conduct field trials of genetically modified crops in Maui and also grow engineered seed for commercial purposes.

This has created several problems, including chemical pollution, birth defects, surface water contamination and glyphosate (the active ingredient in Monsanto’s ‘Roundup’ seeds) toxicity in residents, according to the website of the Sustainable Hawaiian Agriculture for the Keiki and the ‘Aina (SHAKA) Movement which led the campaign for the moratorium.

Monsanto and Dow Chemicals spray over 80 chemicals on their GMO fields in Maui, which is unregulated by the US Environment Protection Agency, according to the SHAKA Movement.17

‘The moratorium protects small farmers from having to use more and stronger chemicals to control the newly resistant weeds and insects being created in and around neighbouring GMO fields,’ says the website of the SHAKA Movement. Crops were contaminated by unwanted GM crops and the farmers were sued for patent infringement.17 Monsanto and Dow are fighting the ban.18

Across the world, farmers who have felt the fallout of GM seeds have staged valiant resistance movements against the biotech giant, despite the odds. Yet Monsanto’s monopoly keeps growing and its markets expanding.

‘The farmer is always in search of the next miracle. Monsanto’s marketing appeals to that vulnerability,’ says Maharashtra farmers’ leader Vijay Jawandhia. ‘Why do people still buy the lottery? We are always hoping.’

Dionne Bunsha is an award-winning journalist and editor, working in Mumbai and Vancouver.

  1. P Sainath

  2. Monsanto

  3. David

  4. Monsanto

  5. Monsanto blog

  6. GM-watch

  7. FAO

  8. FAO

  9. Monsanto

  10. Monsanto

  11. Reuters

  12. Monsanto

  13. Russia Today

  14. Reuters

  15. Russia Today

  16. Bloomberg

  17. SHAKA

  18. Natural Society

We are no lab rats!

The baingan bharta is a favourite recipe in most Indian homes. It is a mixture of smoked brinjal (eggplant/aubergine) and spices eaten with roti (flat bread). So the recent possibility that it could be contaminated with toxins rankled people across the country.

In October 2009, when Indian regulatory authority the Genetic Engineering Approvals Committee (GEAC) approved the commercial release of Monsanto’s genetically modified ‘Bt brinjal’, the environment ministry was flooded with protest letters. One of the petitions was a Greenpeace India signature campaign called the ‘world’s largest baingan bharta’.

Since this was the first GM food crop to be introduced in India, the GEAC left the final decision to the Indian Government. Before signing off on the GEAC’s decision, India’s environment minister Jairam Ramesh stepped in to hold seven public hearings across the country. He also conferred with scientists and the governments of the country’s brinjal-producing states. All of them were against introducing Bt brinjal at a time when there isn’t adequate biosafety testing and regulation in place. Based on the overwhelming public and scientific opinion against Bt brinjal, in February the minister announced a moratorium on the commercial release of the seeds.

This unprecedented decision is a big victory for civil society in India, where it’s a given that big business lobbies will trump democracy. ‘For the first time, the minister was willing to listen and hold public hearings,’ enthused Kavitha Kuruganti from the Coalition for GM Free India. ‘Our campaign succeeded because many eminent scientists and doctors spoke out. People from all walks of life responded and came to the public hearings.’

Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is a soil-dwelling bacterium that is inserted into a crop’s DNA to kill certain pests. Bt cotton, for example, is used extensively in India, despite much controversy surrounding its introduction, cost and use. According to Greenpeace India, the bollworm builds up resistance quickly – making crops ineffective after just a couple of years – and farmers still have to use chemicals to deal with secondary pests, which increases their costs without improving their yield. When it cleared the Bt brinjal seed – which is marketed by MAHYCO, the Indian partner of USbased biotechnology giant Monsanto – the GEAC said it would reduce pesticide use.

However, the minister, in his public statement, highlighted the flaws in that argument, questioning the need for GM seeds. He cited other alternatives, such as non-pesticide management, which is being used by 600,000 farmers in Andhra Pradesh, one of the largest brinjal-producing states in India. His statement boldly questioned the integrity of the GEAC’s approval process. Ramesh suggested an overhaul of the regulatory process for GM technology, with an independent, scientific body testing and regulating. Despite opposition from the seed lobby, influential agriculture minister Sharad Pawar and a few farmers’ organizations, the minister made history with his stand.

It helped that the anti-Bt brinjal campaign had gained surprising momentum. Besides environmental groups, both the right- and leftwing opposition parties in India were against the GEAC’s decision. Agricultural universities, consumer groups, medical health groups, biochemical scientists, even celebrities and India’s new age tele-gurus entered the fray. The father of the Green Revolution, MS Swaminathan, expressed his concern over safety and the flaws in the regulatory process. At one of the consultations, a former managing director of Monsanto spoke out against the company’s monopoly over the food chain, the minister’s statement reports.

‘This victory is only a temporary reprieve. Now, we need to press for GM-related regulation with a mandate to protect public health and the environment, not one that acts as a clearing house for industry,’ says Kuruganti. ‘Our campaign title “I am no lab rat” says it all.’

Dionne Bunsha

India’s Viagra - <br />Special Economic Zones

Fields of gold

*Dionne Bunsha* detects the makings of another Indian mutiny.

It’s a breezy Sunday afternoon in Chirner village, just a couple of hours from the bustle of Mumbai. The hills are bursting with bright new foliage after the first monsoon showers. People are busy working in the lush paddy fields. Children are fishing in little trenches in the rice fields.

But all’s not well in this idyllic village. Though they live amidst myriad shades of green, people here can only see red. Their fertile land is being forcibly snatched to make way for a Special Economic Zone (SEZ).

This region has a history of resistance dating back to the Indian Independence struggle. On 25 September 1930, Chirner was the site of a Jungle Satyagraha (civil disobedience) against the British, to defy forest laws that denied them their right to collect firewood. Police gunshots killed 14 people, including a _mamlatdar_ (district official) who refused to give orders to fire. Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, the icon of the Dalit (lower caste) movement and author of the Indian Constitution, fought the court case for the jungle _satyagrahis_ (freedom fighters).

In Chirner village, people are fighting the second revolt for freedom. The present generation stands at a memorial for the martyrs of the Jungle Satyagraha against the British.

Dionne Bunsha

Now, Chirner is the focal point for another fight, this time for sovereignty against India’s largest conglomerate – Reliance. Envisioned as Mumbai’s satellite city, Reliance’s MahaMumbai SEZ will spread over 14,000 hectares – a third the size of the metropolis itself. The Government is acting as real-estate agent, acquiring 45 villages in Raigad district for the project.

‘We fought the British when they didn’t let us enter our forest. Why shouldn’t we fight now, when Reliance is going to take our homes, our farms, everything?’ asks Kalu Daku Kharpatil, an 88-year-old who witnessed the Chirner Jungle Satyagraha when he was 12 years old. ‘We won’t let malls and highrises come up on our fields of gold.’

Real estate

Even the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has questioned their viability and asked banks to treat SEZs as ‘commercial real estate’ and charge higher interest rates. Most SEZs are being developed as new townships on the outskirts of cities. That’s why the RBI and several others are concerned that it’s nothing more than easy real-estate development in the guise of export promotion. The Finance Ministry is also anxious about the Rs 1,000 billion ($25 billion) revenue loss from tax sops.

Rahul Bajaj, chair of Bajaj Auto, India’s second-largest motorcycle maker, says SEZs are turning into ‘land scams’. He is worried they will create zones of privilege, while industries outside the zone will be left at an unfair disadvantage. It’s questionable whether SEZs will result in new investment or merely encourage existing companies to shift into these enclaves.

Recently, the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) suggested that the Indian Government should review its tax concessions. Research suggests that they generate very little new investment.

But the fiercest protests have come from those who will be ousted. The massive land grab has stirred mutinies in villages across the country. Some have turned violent.


The mutinies forced the Government to stop granting permissions and to review its policy. Left parties allied to the Government opposed certain clauses, but not the policy itself. Sonia Gandhi, President of the ruling Congress Party, worried that popular support would be affected. But Prime Minister Manmohan Singh – the architect of India’s neoliberal reforms – is adamant that his policy must stay. In April 2007 the policy was unfrozen after the size of an SEZ was limited to 5,000 hectares, of which at least half must be used for export processing. A rehabilitation policy was promised but has yet to be announced.

The Government claims that it will only acquire wasteland or agricultural land that yields just one crop. Yet fertile fields are being taken over. Some of the SEZs are perilously close to protected forests. It’s the companies that decide what land they want, and then the Government acquires it for them.

A colonial law, The Land Acquisition Act of 1894, is still in use. The process is illogical and bizarre. Once notification is issued, public objections are invited. The Government then decides on the compensation package – archaic official records estimate the land value at less than a third of the current market value. But how can people accept or reject a deal before they know what they are getting? On what basis can they file objections without knowing the rehabilitation on offer?

‘We are not against development. But what kind?’ asks Sadashiv Patil, a farmer from Shirki village in Raigad. ‘We haven’t been told anything about where we will be resettled or where we will find an alternative livelihood. If they are truly interested in giving us a fair deal, why don’t they sit across the table and talk to us?

Revolt for freedom

‘Can you see us anywhere in this picture?’ asks Patil, pointing to a glossy brochure for MahaMumbai with pictures of skyscrapers, an airplane and a golfer. ‘We won’t get jobs here. We will only get work washing other people’s dishes.’

The majority of SEZs that have been formally approved are for the IT industry – not a likely place for farmers to find work. Most of the others are large and ‘multi-product’, like the MahaMumbai townships. Large-scale construction in these areas will cause massive environmental damage. There will be greater pressure on water resources. Without any environmental clearance, developers are carving out huge chunks of rock and mud for construction material.

Villagers question the need to acquire their land when previous attempts at industrialization have failed. Across the country, several industrial estates were abandoned after tax concessions ran out. ‘Why can’t the state give out the vacant industrial land for SEZs?’ asks Patil. ‘Or why don’t they dare to acquire the buildings of the rich in Mumbai?’

‘What would my dead father say if he were to see us now?’ asks Kalu Daku Kharpatil. “Are you a moron?” “Are you a eunuch?”’ The 88-year-old is ready for another fight. ‘I’d rather kill them and go to jail than have to wash their dishes.’

Villages across India are preparing for the second revolt for freedom.

*Dionne Bunsha* is a regular contributor to _New Internationalist_ and writes for _Frontline_ in India.

Further reference: (the Indian Government’s website)

Vitamin M

Loads of money dished out by a Korean steel company haven’t yet endeared India’s single biggest foreign investment project to the villagers who will lose their land and livelihoods. *Maureen Nandini Mitra* finds out why not.

Around the picturesque village of Dhinkia, on the Orissa coast, there are wooden ‘check gates’ operated by villagers, restricting access to the hub of a fierce resistance movement. A South Korean steel giant, the Pohang Steel Company (Posco) is proposing a $12-billion mega-project to manufacture steel in the area. Touted as India’s biggest foreign direct investment project, the complex was approved for SEZ status last year.

At a pond in Chirner village.

Dionne Bunsha

In response, for nearly two years, residents of 15 villages have effectively barricaded themselves in, refusing entry to officials of any kind. The situation is so tense that the state hasn’t yet been able to hold scheduled local elections. Fear and distrust are rife. Villagers have on several occasions held Posco and government officials hostage. The last such incident took place in May, when two company employees were held overnight and released only after they signed a letter promising never to come to the area again.

Deal inked

In June 2005 Posco inked a deal with the Government of Orissa State. The massive integrated project includes a steel plant and a hot-strip mill, a port and an iron-ore mine in the Khandadhar hills. The steel plant will require 1,620 hectares of land from the 15 villages. About 30,000 people will be displaced.

The state has already signed over about 459 hectares of government land, but the company hasn’t been able to occupy it. Villagers have been living and farming on much of this land for generations, even though they don’t have legal documents to prove ownership. They are refusing to budge.

‘For 27 generations we have lived here,’ says Karandhi Das, a 70-year-old farmer from Gobindpur village. ‘Now the Government says it’s not our land and wants to give it to a company from another country. We will fight this to our death.’

‘The company is spending Vitamin M [money] like water trying to buy acceptance from villagers, but it’s not going to get very far,’ says Abhaya Sahoo of Posco Pratirodh Sangram Samiti, one of the groups spearheading the agitation. Posco spokesperson Shashank Patnaik says the company won’t set up the project without local consent, but few villagers buy this promise.

Lost livelihoods

People here fear not just displacement, but the loss of a vibrant agrarian and fishing economy. More than 400 families depend on the betel-leaf business, which exports to Pakistan, Singapore and several Arab nations. Annual turnover from the trade is estimated at $2.5 million. Farmers also grow cashew nuts, coconuts and a single crop of paddy.

‘The company is spending Vitamin M (money) like water trying to buy acceptance from villagers, but it’s not going to get very far’

‘Posco says it will give jobs to only one person per family,’ says Kashinath Mahapatra, a betel leaf farmer. ‘But here everybody is employed. Even an 80-year-old has a job in the _paan_ [betel leaf] plantations and can earn up to Rs 5,000 [$125] a month.’

In the proposed port area the local fishing community is worried about the imminent destruction of their livelihood. The river mouth is an important migratory route for hilsa and other marine fish of high market value. Fisherfolk say the port could adversely affect stocks.


Environmentalists say that the entire project – steel plant, port and mines – will play havoc with estuarine ecosystems and protected forests. The port site is home to several endangered species, including Olive Ridley turtles and freshwater dolphins. The mining sites in the Khandadhar hills are in protected tribal areas and the forests there have a huge biodiversity.

Many question the state’s decision to grant Posco tax breaks. It has been allotted ‘captive’ mines where all the company has to do is pay the state a royalty. Until now, foreign mining companies had to buy Indian minerals on the open market.

For old Karandhi Das it feels like history is repeating itself: ‘First the British came and raped the country. Now this company is coming to do the same.’

*Maureen Nandini Mitra* is a Kolkata-based correspondent for _Down to Earth_, a science and environment fortnightly published from New Delhi.

The bottom line

*Jayati Ghosh* argues that the Zones don’t offer quite such a clear path to progress as their advocates claim.

The idea that creating spaces with good infrastructure and simplified procedures assists industrialization is not new. But its latest form goes further – there have to be tax breaks, highly subsidized land and little or no compulsory worker protection as well.

Proponents argue that these concessions are essential to attract investment, in a world of increasingly mobile capital. In fact, many studies have found that good overall infrastructure, economic growth and stable socio-political conditions are more important.

Typically, China is taken as a successful example by the proponents of Special Economic Zones (SEZs). However, the real impetus behind Chinese economic growth and export-oriented production came not from SEZs _per se_, but from massive infrastructure investment by the state. Since the 1980s, China has spent nearly a fifth of its national income on this. Chinese SEZs also provoked wild real-estate speculation called ‘zone fever’, which prompted the Government to impose a blanket moratorium on land-use conversion in 1997.

While the benefits of SEZs based on tax breaks and subsidies are not clear, there are large social and economic costs.

Land acquisition is the most controversial. What is absolutely necessary is that all those affected (not just those with property titles) are adequately compensated. Leaving this to market forces is just not good enough. Tenants and agricultural labourers, for example, would not be compensated. Large purchasers can use pressure tactics, making ‘offers that can’t be refused’ at less than the true value of the land.

Will SEZs actually generate more and better forms of employment? In many countries, minimum wage laws, trade union activity, safety and industrial accident compensation are all given the go-by in these zones, rendering the quality of new employment dubious. It is this exploitative employment that makes the zones internationally competitive.

Apart form the denial of basic workers’ rights, this can worsen the condition of labour elsewhere in the economy. It may not result in additional employment, since existing production may simply be relocated to an SEZ.

The worst feature, however, is the huge revenue losses. India goes beyond generous – 100 per-cent exemption from income tax on profits for the first five years and 50 per cent for the next five years. Even land developers are given tax breaks. The Indian Finance Ministry has estimated that if total investment in SEZs over a decade is around Rs 3,600 billion ($90 billion), the revenue loss to the state would be more than Rs 1,740 billion ($43.5 billion).

To give up such huge resources is a major crime, given the needs of Indian society and the utter lack of social provision.

So, before peddling SEZs as the path to progress, the Indian Government needs to look at the other side of the balance sheet. It may turn out that there are no economic benefits at all.

*Jayati Ghosh* is Professor of Economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

‘I don’t believe in love marriages’

‘I have some masala for you,’ Babubhai Patel (alias Babu Bajrangi) told me excitedly, when I called to arrange an interview with him. ‘There are three new girls with me.’ The Serial Kidnapper of Gujarat has never shied away from his mission. Every time I have met him, he has proudly bragged about the girls he has ‘rescued’. Almost as if each one is a new conquest.

A small-time Bajrang Dal leader from Naroda in Ahmedabad, Babubhai has grown in notoriety over the years. He is a prime accused in the Naroda Patiya massacre, one of the most gory communal massacres in Gujarat in 2002. Never punished for this crime, he remains free to abduct at will. As president of his Navchetan Trust, he has made it his mission to ‘rescue’ Patel girls who marry outside their community. To date he claims to have ‘saved’ 706 girls.

‘I don’t believe in love marriages. We have to marry within our own community. These girls go to college, make friends with some _lafanga_ (loafer), roam with them on their bikes, fall in love and then run off and get married,’ said Babubhai, pointing to the three girls sitting meekly by his side. ‘We bring them back, and convince them that they are ruining their future. They stay with me for a while and then return to their parents.’

I remind Babubhai that when we had met two years back, he had described to me how he and his men thrashed the boys and took away the girls. ‘That was some time back. If I say that now, the media will be after me,’ he smiles. ‘I have a magic mantra that makes the girls come back. We do whatever it takes and somehow bring them. If it’s a _Musulman_ [Muslim], we definitely use force, even if the girl doesn’t want to leave. Musulmans don’t have a right to live in our country. How dare they marry our girls?’

But it isn’t the Muslim boys who have filed the court case against Babubhai for abducting their wives. It’s a group of four Hindu boys living in Maharashtra. Yet Babubhai remains unperturbed by minor complications like police complaints. ‘Those who file cases against us are crazy. Even the Mumbai High Court has dismissed their case,’ he laughs.

The High Court had appointed a police inquiry, which found that the women had been kidnapped and forced to ask for a divorce in court. Other girls who had managed to escape Babubhai’s clutches also testified about how he captured, beat and abused the girls and forced them to break their marriages. Those who were pregnant were forced to have an abortion. The police report had said that Babu Bajrangi should be arrested and further investigations should be made into all the cases where girls were kidnapped. However, the High Court totally ignored the investigation. It ruled that since the allegedly abducted wives have not substantiated the claims, the Court cannot take any action and the matter should be settled in the matrimonial court. The case is being appealed to the Supreme Court

Powerloom prison

‘All the livelong day!’: Bhiwandi workers put in long hours at unregulated workplaces.

Dionne Bunsha

Tall stone chimneys towering above glass skyscrapers are the only reminders of the textile mills that spurred Mumbai’s growth as India’s commercial capital. Today, malls and corporate offices have replaced the mills. Workers have made way for yuppies. And condos have been built adjoining the _chawls_ (tenement houses) where workers once lived. Parel, in central Mumbai, was once a crowded working-class neighbourhood on the outskirts of the city. It is now one of the city’s hottest real-estate locations. The chimneys that rise high above the skyscrapers are the tombstones, the last remnants of Parel’s industrial past.

Mumbai was once India’s largest textile centre, but now not a single mill operates here. What happened to the city’s 250,000 workers? ‘Most can’t find work and have moved back to their village. Some are working in temporary jobs as taxi drivers or security guards,’ says Datta Ishwalkar from the Girni Kamgar Sangharsh Samiti (Mill Workers’ Struggle Association). As work shifted from the composite mills in Mumbai to powerloom sweatshops in Bhiwandi and other smaller centres, so did some workers. The composite mills were large, regulated and mostly unionized workplaces where there were machines to spin the yarn, weave it into cloth on looms and then process it. All processes took place in one location. In Bhiwandi, the yarn is bought and spun into cloth, and then sent for processing elsewhere. There is no regulation, taxes and duties are avoided, labour is much cheaper and conditions are medieval. Cotton farmers aren’t the only ones living in poverty. Powerloom workers and handloom weavers are barely managing to survive. Dire deprivation extends right down the cotton chain.

Sharad Panda moved to Bhiwandi when the composite mill he worked at in Mumbai shut up shop. He earned a lot more five years ago in Mumbai than he earns now. ‘In Mumbai, I got 4,500 rupees ($95.74) per month to work two looms for eight hours, plus a bonus of 8,000 rupees ($170.21) and leave. Here, I work four looms and earn 3,000 rupees ($63.83), with no security or leave,’ says Sharad. ‘It’s not enough to support my family. The owners don’t pay wages on time. Sometimes I have to borrow to make ends meet. I can’t save anything to send my parents in the village. I could support them when I worked in the mill.’

In the late 19th century, Bhiwandi developed as a textile producing centre. ‘After the 1857 revolt, several weavers in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, who had fought the British unarmed, were repressed. They fled south, and some settled in Bhiwandi,’ says Baliram Chaudhry, secretary of the General Workers Union (Red Flag). ‘Later, as it developed into a handloom centre, traditional weavers from Andhra Pradesh in the south were attracted to the town. With mechanization, powerlooms were introduced.’

Bhiwandi and other textile producing towns expanded when Mumbai’s mills shut down in the 1980s. ‘In a decade, the number of looms rose from 100,000 to 500,000. The production cost for powerlooms is four times less than the mills. Labour costs (for weaving per unit) were much higher in a composite mill,’ says Ramesh Gosrani, a powerloom owner. Moreover, overhead costs are cheaper since only 25 per cent of the looms are licensed, says Chaudhry. Power is either stolen or paid for at domestic, not industrial rates.

Avoiding regulation

Most powerlooms are housed in tiny, crammed workshops and evade the Factory Act and other labour laws. ‘It’s very difficult to pinpoint who is the owner. The room is rented out by one person, the loom is owned by another, the raw material is bought by a third party and the person contracting the workers could manage several small units,’ says Chaudhry. Bhiwandi’s powerloom sector profits from this chaos in the unorganized sector. ‘It’s very difficult for us to unionize. Workers only come to us when they are sacked. In the 35 years that the minimum wage for powerlooms has been declared, it has never been adhered to, though it isn’t even a survival wage,’ says Chaudhry.

Since Bhiwandi is a migrant town with a floating population, its local government is far less accountable and gets away with negligence. Workers live in shockingly unhygienic, crammed conditions. Some even live where they work. Many aren’t voters and work too hard to have the time to demand basic facilities like water or sanitation. Diseases are rampant. ‘Breathing in the lint makes around 80 per cent suffer from tuberculosis. The dirty living conditions, with no proper toilets and open drains, make workers even more vulnerable to several other diseases, like malaria or cholera,’ says Jalil Ansari, a political activist.

‘Besides paying for rent and food, we even have to pay 50 rupees per month to buy water and 1 rupee every time we visit the toilet. At the end of the month, I have nothing to send home to my ageing mother. She still has to work in the fields,’ says Chandeshwar Mandal, a migrant from the eastern state of Bihar.

Cloth sells for 50 to 100 rupees ($1.06 to $2.12) per metre, depending on the quality. But powerloom workers get only 1.30 rupees ($0.03) for every metre they produce. Workers like Sharad Panda labour to produce more than 100 metres of cloth every day, but he can barely afford to buy clothes for his family. The only occasion they get new clothes is Diwali, the festival of lights.

Through Sharad’s life one can trace the course of India’s textile industry from an organized industry to one that has outsourced. In his book, _Ripping the Fabric: The Decline of Mumbai and its Mills_, Darryl D’Monte quotes India’s most respected industrialist, the late JRD Tata, as saying that the reason for the deterioration of the composite mills in Mumbai was government policy promoting the decentralized sector. But many of India’s top industrial houses, which built their empires with textile plants, actually supported the growth of the unorganized sector. An 18-month strike of mill workers was beaten back in 1982-83. After that, around 51,000 workers were dismissed. It also gave the owners the opportunity to outsource work and to claim bankruptcy.

‘Mills did not go into the red because of the strike. It just gave mill owners the perfect excuse to wind up several departments and stop running the factory effectively. The mill owners lobbied with the Government to frame policies that favoured the powerlooms and those which would enable them to sell the land, which was leased to them by the Government solely for industrial purposes,’ says Datta Ishwalkar. ‘These brands, like Mafatlal and Bombay Dyeing, are still selling cloth, even though their mills are shut. They outsource the work to powerlooms in Bhiwandi and other towns and then stamp their label on it. It saves on labour costs. And they made a fortune on the sprawling real estate that the mills occupied.’

That land is now the face of ‘Shining India’, considered an emerging global economy. There’s a story behind every new highrise. Land development reeks of illegalities, corruption and mafia intervention. The Government allowed the sale of mill land on the condition that the proceeds should be used to modernize the textile plants. ‘None of the mills were ever upgraded. They were deliberately made bankrupt and closed. And no government has questioned the numerous scams,’ says Ishwalkar. For instance, one of the first new structures to replace a mill was Mumbai’s first bowling alley and bar, in Phoenix Mill. It was sanctioned as a ‘cultural centre for workers’ in government records. Now it’s a huge mall with nightclubs, designer stores and even a Marks and Spencer.

The textile industry is by no means dying. It is still India’s single largest industry, comprising a fifth of the country’s industrial production. After agriculture, this sector employs the highest number of people – 21 million. But the working conditions have deteriorated with the outsourcing of production to the powerlooms.

Sharad Panda left his village in search of a better life in Mumbai. Today he is holed up in a filthy industrial town, worked to the bone and yet penniless at the end of the month. His dreams were buried with the death of the mills. All that remains are the tombstone chimneys that loom over Mumbai’s skyline. •

  • *Dionne Bunsha* is a regular _New Internationalist_ contributor, based in Mumbai.
  • Dam lies

    It started as just another VIP visit. With platoons of security guards, fleets of flashing cars and bowing bureaucrats in tow, three Ministers of the Indian Government were sent by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to assess whether villagers submerged by the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) – a huge dam on the Narmada river – had been resettled properly.

    So the Ministers made their way from the capital, New Delhi, to Madhya Pradesh in central India, one of the three states affected by the project. The first stop: the red-carpet welcome by Madhya Pradesh’s chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan. He assured them that all project-affected families (PAFs) would be rehabilitated by 30 June 2006. On that optimistic note, Saifuddin Soz (Minister of Water Resources), Meira Kumar (Minister of Social Justice and Empowerment) and Prithviraj Chavan (from the Prime Minister’s office) set out to visit the submerging villages.

    What they experienced shocked them. Their conversations with people at resettlement sites provoked them to write an honest, scathing report exposing the State Government’s lies. Their report – written confidentially – has just been published in The Hindu newspaper.

    The Sardar Sarovar project will have 30 big dams, 135 medium dams and 3,000 small dams. The cost is high – the Government list contains 51,445 families that will be displaced by the project, while its critics estimate that, once completed, the dams will have displaced 700,000 people. While the Supreme Court had ordered that displaced families must be compensated with land, the Madhya Pradesh Government had little land to give. To some, the Government had offered barren land. The Ministerial team met only two families who had accepted, while 405 had refused.

    To others, the Government was pushing cash compensation. But the money isn’t enough to buy even two acres (0.8 hectares) let alone the five to which they are entitled. In addition, the Ministers were shocked to learn that for every 100,000 rupee ($2,232) of cash compensation given, the Government was deducting 90,000 rupees as income tax. ‘A bribe of 20,000 rupees had to be paid for the receipt of every cheque given,’ reported the Ministers.

    Dharmapur – the largest resettlement site, touted as a success story – turned out to be the worst example of Government inaction, reported the Ministers. ‘It was not possible for anyone to live there as no infrastructure had been built... not a single plot of land has been occupied by any PAF... [even though] in official papers it has been indicated that the PAFs have been settled.’

    But this damning report – together with its central recommendation that the dam height should not be raised any further until resettlement is complete – has failed to halt the rising waters. The Narmada Control Authority has decided to raise the dam height from 110.76 to 121.92 metres. This will drown the homes of another 8,987 families. Throughout April, two displaced people, Jamsing Nargave and Bhagwatibai Jatpuria, and their leader Medha Patkar from the Narmada Bachao Andolan – a group fighting for the rights of displaced – undertook a 20-day hunger strike in Delhi in protest. In a bizarre twist, they were sent to hospital during the fast and then arrested for attempting suicide. The charges completely mis-state their plight – it is the Government that threatens their survival by drowning entire villages.

    A longer version of this article can be found on the NI website – Read more about Narmada at: ; ; ; and

    Rukshana: 'It's easy to fall in love, but very difficult to endure it'

    Photo: Ashima Narain

    First thing when we wake up, we wrap up all our bedding and hide it in a tree. It’s a 10-minute walk from the bridge where we sleep, over the railway tracks near Mahim station. Then I take my sister Deepa to the toilets near the station. We wash our faces, brush our teeth and then go to Uncle’s tea stall at Platform 1. After that we go to Bandra for breakfast, and then start work.

    We go to the shelter outside Dadar station [Mahim, Bandra and Dadar – and the names that follow below – are all areas in Mumbai or suburbs], take our goods from the locker and go into the local trains to sell them. I sell trinkets, clips, cookery and henna pattern books in the trains. Before we had the locker we used to keep all our stuff under our heads and sleep. Even when you sleep, you have to be alert. If you are deep in sleep, not only will someone take your goods, they can also pick you up and take you. It happened to one girl I know. A gang of boys picked her up and took her to Dadar Tilak bridge and did bad things to her. She had to have stitches. The boys were taken to the police station. She cried for many days. Everyone said to her: ‘You are disgraced!’ She thought: ‘Whatever I do I am shamed, so why should I live like this?’ That’s why she chose to go into wrong work as a prostitute.

    At one o’clock, we go for lunch at Bandra Platform 7, Hotel Bismillah [a café; eating places are often called ‘hotels’ in India]. It’s my favourite place. The boy I was supposed to marry worked there. That’s why I go there. He left long back, but still I go. Now he works with a caterer. Sometimes he comes to meet me. He cries and says: ‘If only we had gotten married.’ My mother used to love him a lot. But I didn’t marry him. I was forced to marry someone else.

    After lunch, we rest for an hour. Then we are in the trains till 9pm. After that, it’s back to a café to eat and drink tea. Then to sleep at Mahim or, if I feel like it, Virar station [Mumbai’s most distant suburb]. We just put down some newspaper sheets and sleep. At Virar station it’s great – no tension of boys or police. Here in Mahim, boys come and harass us.

    If the police catch us when we are selling we have to pay 500 rupees [$11]. Once a police officer caught us and asked me to pay him regularly. I told him: ‘What money? I am poor. I don’t have money to eat, from where will I pay your bribe?’ Then a shoe-shine boy who is my friend gave Rs 10 [about 25 cents] to him. The police officer told me: ‘From tomorrow you will have to give money.’ I haven’t paid once yet.

    Rukshana jostles through a packed women-only compartment of Mumbai's local trains selling trinkets, hairpins and song and pattern books.

    Photo: Ashima Narain

    We bathe and wash clothes at a bathroom in Bandra. They charge Rs 20 [50 cents]. We wait there an hour or two until they dry. Deepa climbs up to hide our clothes on the roof of the station: I’m too scared to do it.

    I don’t let Deepa work. If I have to travel for a catering job, I leave her with some people we know in Santa Cruz and give them some money to look after her. When I go for catering work, I have to roll chapattis, wash vessels, serve food, from 9am to 12 midnight. I get Rs 80-100 [$2] per day. If we sell trinkets in the trains we get Rs 100-200. Catering work is less money, but I go because I like it. We learn good work like cleaning vessels. When I have my own house, I will have to do this work.

    We work all day. We go to watch a film three to five times a week. I like family dramas and movies with Mithun – he is our Bengali hero, from our state.

    I hate boys because I have been cheated. If anyone says ‘I will marry you’, I get very angry

    I hate boys because I have been cheated. My husband left me. Whenever any boys talk to me I get angry but if they talk to me nicely, like a friend, then I don’t mind. If anyone says ‘I will marry you’, I get very angry. In Bandra, one boy was teasing me. Until then I had never lifted my hand on anyone, but I took a stone and threw it at his head. He fell down like a football. Ha ha!

    You know, many boys are after me – nice boys. One is from a very good family. His mother writes dialogues in films. I can be in such a big family, me – a girl who lives on the pavement. He ran away from home saying he wanted to marry no other girl but me. He tells me: ‘If I can’t marry you I’ll kill myself.’ I tell him: ‘I beg of you, please don’t.’ His mother came two or three times to take me to their home, but I didn’t go.

    My friends are Kajal and Gulista. My close friend is Pinky, who has been with me since we were small children. Earlier Pinky had gone into the wrong kind of work in Grant road [red light area]. Then after listening to us she left it. Hakim – her man – does coolie work in Bandra station. Some have settled down in their own homes. Some have gone to live in institutions in Lonavla [a hill town close to Mumbai].

    Last week my sister Deepa got lost. I went to Vashi [a distant suburb] for catering work. I told her: ‘Go and get some clothes, I have to go for five days, and then meet me at the park.’ While she was waiting for me in the garden, she’d started talking to a woman. The woman told her: ‘Come with me. I will look after you.’ That lady took her on a crowded train so she couldn’t escape and went directly to Malad [a distant suburb]. Then she hit her a lot and put her in wrong work. But after some days, Deepa ran away.

    Family fortunes

    Deepa and Rukshana, inseparable sisters.

    Photo: Ashima Narain

    I want to put Deepa in a boarding school. She doesn’t like to be away from me for even a second. She shouldn’t ruin her life like me. Her life will improve. She will learn to read and write, and meet different people. She was very small when our mother died. I cried so much and was so upset that I fell ill. Deepa looked after me. She was the only one. That’s why she doesn’t leave me.

    Even I was taken into wrong work. One day I told Deepa: ‘You sell the stuff. I am going out with my friend to watch a film.’ My friend took me to a place in Bombay Central. There, she took some money from a man and told me: ‘Go into my room.’ She took off my dupatta [cloth worn draped over the shoulders]. I asked her what she was doing. She said: ‘Take off your dupatta and go to sleep.’ How could I if that man was there? I put my dupatta on, kicked the man in his pants, and ran out.

    Our village is in Murshidabad, West Bengal. My two brothers live in the village. Both are married. My younger brother loves me a lot. But how can I live with them? He has five children and no house. When my father was ill, he asked his brother – my uncle – to leave all his land in his children’s names. You know what my uncle did? He put it all in his name. My father died and my uncle removed us from our house. He is the one who threw us into problems. He brought us to Kings Circle in Mumbai, made us work and didn’t give us anything to eat. We almost died of starvation. My mother cried a lot. She told me: ‘My daughter, do honest work to eat. Don’t go on the wrong path.’ Since then I have worked hard and come up. There is no question of going astray.

    When we lived in Kings Circle our two brothers were with us. No-one would give my brothers work, and my mother was very weak. She was very hungry, very hungry. I used to go to beg to look after her. One day my mother started beating me a lot. She said: ‘You shouldn’t beg. It’s not good.’ So I told her: ‘Mummy, I don’t like it if you are hungry.’ My mother was angry. I was small: nine or ten years old.

    Then we moved to Panvel [a township at the edge of the city] where my elder brother worked on a construction site. I stopped begging and started selling trinkets on the train. Then my mother fell ill. I also used to work in homes – washing, cleaning and sweeping. And with that money, I looked after my mother with food and medicines. I don’t know how to cook, but I used to make food for my mother. I used to start work at 8am and come home late – 1am – and feed my mum. I spent at least Rs 15,000-20,000 [$340-450] looking after her. I worked hard, all on my own.

    My elder brother used to hit my mother. One day, I told him you are not my brother and started abusing him with very filthy words. I told him: ‘You are beating my mother. You should fall off a building and die.’ He actually fell off the sixth floor of a building while he was working, but he didn’t die [laughs]. Do sinners ever die?

    My mother died two years back when I was 13. When she died, my brother threw me out of the house in Panvel. He told me: ‘Go to the boy with whom your marriage has been arranged.’ My mother had fixed my marriage. She had told his family: ‘Wait for two years until my daughter becomes big and then we will have the wedding.’ In our community we get married very young. My brother gave me Rs 50 [a little over $1]. With the Rs 50 I went to Surat [a city in neighbouring Gujarat state] to look for him. I looked everywhere, but I couldn’t find him. Then I came back and kept searching in Mumbai, but I still didn’t find him.

    The vanishing husband

    I was sitting outside a café and crying. One woman came up to me and took me. She said she would give me work. ‘I have a big house in a four-storey building.’ That’s what she told me. I said: ‘No, I don’t want to go. You will take me and eat me up.’ She took me to Marine Lines beach. She used to show me to all the boys and take money. I used to cry a lot. There was one boy – he was a nice boy – she forced me to marry him. She said: ‘You have no parents to support you. This boy will look after you.’ So she got me married.

    Then someone accused my husband of murder. They put a police case on us. We ran to my village. From there my husband left me and went to his village. I didn’t go with him. I was scared.

    I don’t want to marry again now, but later. Once I become someone and show the world, then I will get married. Now I am still a child. Marriage is no small matter. It’s easy to fall in love, but very difficult to endure it.

    God knows what these Mumbai boys are like. They’ll take you on the excuse of going back to the village and instead kill you somewhere. My husband said he would be back in three days. And he never came back. It’s been one and a half years and he hasn’t come back.

    So here I am in Mumbai. We all sleep together – four or five of us single girls on the bridge at Mahim. It’s difficult for girls to live alone on the street. There are people so horrible that they won’t even leave a one-year-old girl alone.

    Most street kids live at railway stations. Some are begging or pickpocketing, others are addicted to solution [glue]. I have never even picked up another person’s penny. I get very scared. And I’ve never tried drugs. Many boys have offered them to me but I abuse them and chase them away.

    I really want to learn to read and write and then get married. I hate boys after what happened to me. Until I improve, I won’t get married. I don’t even know how to cook. I should learn properly. Then I should get a proper house – make something of my life and show people. I should have some gold jewellery of my own. Then my life will be stable.


    Soon after telling her story, Rukshana left for a catering job, but then vanished for weeks. Finally her friend Pinky told us that Rukshana had moved in with a new boyfriend, Raju. Pinky took us to meet Rukshana in her new home: a small bamboo shanty in a slum [see photo below].

    Rukshana was happy playing the housewife. She had given up work to look after the home while Raju went to work as a painter at a construction site. She had met Raju through a common friend and had known him for several months. Then he had disappeared for six months, on catering assignments. He returned with enough money to rent a house and asked Rukshana to join him. Deepa lived with them and had enrolled in a local school.

    It looked like ‘happily ever after’... but street life rarely is. A second visit to her new home brought a shock. Rukshana, Deepa and Raju had packed up and gone.

    Wake up sleepyhead! Rukshana photographs Raju, who managed to win her trust.

    Photo: Rukshana

    Rukshana spoke to Dionne Bunsha, a journalist for Frontline magazine and a frequent contributor to the NI.

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