Over 1,000 farmers participated in a ‘civil disobedience’ movement in Maharashtra’s Akoli Jahagir village on Monday, sowing genetically modified HTBT cotton to protest the Centre’s ban on GM crops. Farmers’ body Shetkari Sanghatana has decided to take the movement across the State, with farmers defying the ban to cultivate HTBT cotton and Bt brinjal. The message will also be spread via social media.

“About 1,500 farmers came together in Akoli Jahagir village in Akola district of Vidarbha region to protest against the government’s policy towards GM crops,” Shetkari Sanghatana President Anil Ghanwat told BusinessLine . “We sowed HTBT cotton on a 2-acre plot owned by a local farmer. We couldn’t sow Bt brinjal as we couldn’t get the seeds. The police were present on the occasion, but they didn’t take any action against us. We are taking this movement to all parts of the State.”

The carrying, storing, selling or sowing of banned GM crops invites a ₹1-lakh fine and five years’ imprisonment. Farmers who participated in the protest said the government was free to take action against them, but they would continue to defy the ban. However, the State machinery has not reacted to the development yet.

Ghanwat said HTBT cotton cultivation had already been in practice in Maharashtra. “Till date farmers were sowing HTBT cotton secretively. Now we will do it openly. The ban on GM crops is atrocious on farmers who are reeling under poverty,” he added, asserting that “vested interests” were opposing Bt cotton and Bt brinjal.

In the past, the State government had seized tonnes of HTBT cotton seeds from various parts of the State, including the Vidarbha region, where farmer suicides are rampant.


Violation of law: Experts

While the Centre has not indicated whether it is contemplating any action against the Maharashtra farmers, experts said that the farmers had not only broken the law but also made the country breach international biosafety conventions.

“This is a blatant violation of the law of the land. There is a scientific procedure to be followed for releasing new seeds for cultivation,” said Suman Sahai, activist and founder of Gene Campaign, an organisation that has strong views on transgenic crops. Attempts to get officials of the Environment Ministry — responsible for biosafety — or the Agriculture Ministry — clearing seeds for cultivation — to comment did not yield any result.

Deepak Pental, biotechnologist and former vice chancellor of the University of Delhi, agreed that breaking the law cannot be condoned, but said the farmers resorted to such a drastic step because little is being done to save their crops from pests and pathogens.

Sahai said that if the government was not taking action against the farmers, it was breaching a commitment to international biosafety conventions such as the Cartagena Protocol.

Pental, on the other hand, argued that so far no transgenic crop has been found to do any environmental harm. The real tragedy, he said, was the slow decision making process, which is costing farmers very dearly.