Pune, MAHARASHTRA — A good monsoon has lifted hopes of a bumper harvest, but not for Baurao Hark, a 37-year-old farmer in eastern Maharashtra.
Hark said he spent much of his savings on two bags of soybean seeds, fertilisers and farm labourers to help him plant his two acres of land — but his seeds failed to germinate.
Now Hark is one of hundreds of thousands of farmers across Maharashtra to have filed complaints of faulty seeds with the state’s agriculture department. Some of these complaints have translated into police complaints holding seed companies responsible for the losses suffered by Maharashtra’s soybean farmers, and farmers have been compensated for their losses in only a tiny fraction of these cases.
Data obtained by HuffPost India reveals that Maharashtra’s state-owned Mahabeej Corporation, and Eagle Seeds, an Indore based private company account for most of these complaints. Only a fraction of the farmers who have seen their crops fail and their livelihoods destroyed have been compensated, state officials said.
Last month, the Times of India reported that the Union Agriculture Ministry, headed by BJP member Narendra Singh Tomar, lowered the standards for soybean seed certification this year. Previously, seed batches were certified only when 70% of the seeds of a given sample germinated, Tomar’s ministry lowered the standards this year to 60 percent, the TOI report said.
One consequence of relaxing these standards has been a spike in the number of complaints.
“Agriculture Department till now has received over 1.16 lakh complaints from across the state,” said Chandrakant Gorad, chief inspector, Seeds of Quality Control section of Agriculture Department of Maharashtra, adding that his department had lodged police complaints against 42 seed companies including Mahabeej, Eagle Seeds and Gold Seeds — another private seed company.
Gorad said he had received 26,000 complaints from farmers using soybean seeds distributed by Mahabeej, and another 23,000 complaints from seeds sold by Eagle seeds.
“Companies have given compensation in 5200 cases till now,” Gorad said.
Mahabeej’s general manager Dr PS Lahane defended the central government’ decision to clear poor quality seeds.
“Central Government had lowered the germination rate from 70% to 60% due to non-availability of seeds in the market,” Lahane said. Lahane claimed that the widespread use of tractors this year had also lowered germination rates. At present there is no data to support this claim.
“We are giving compensation or replacement seeds to farmers whose complaints are genuine,” Lahane said.
Lahane’s words are of little consolation to farmers like Mukul Bagal, a farmer from Talegoan in Beed district, who said he bought ten bags of faulty soybean seeds of Mahabeej. “The seeds did not germinate,” Bagal said. “I cultivate soybean on all my ten acres of land and that caused more losses.”
Bagal said he had filed a complaint with the agriculture department but was yet to receive compensation.
Farm-rights activists say the Agriculture department took action only after the matter was taken up by the Aurangabad bench of the Bombay High Court.
“Many farmers registered complaints but agriculture department had not taken action against seed companies,” said Manik Kadam, an activist who runs a suicide-prevention amongst the state’s farmers.
Kadam noted that the seed manufacturers had approached the Supreme Court. The apex court stayed the Bombay High Court’s direction that the state take action against the seed companies.
“Department was anyway delaying action against the seed manufacturers,” said Kadam, the activist. “We are not surprised that seed companies immediately went to SC and got a stay order.”
Gorad, from the state agriculture department, said one reason for this year’s germination problems could be that last year’s crop was exposed to excessive humidity. India’s punitive covid-19 national lockdown, which cratered the economy without meaningfully stemming the transmission of the novel coronavirus, also played a role.
“Seed manufacturers buy soybean from farmers, process it and sell as seed in the market. Farmers could not protect soybean due to excessive rain and humidity,” Gorad said. “Soybean seed peel is delicate and variation in temperature can harm it. Another reason is seed processing units were closed in March and April due to pandemic. These are reasons why soybean seeds did not germinate.”
Eagle Seeds and Biotech Limited
Farm activists point out that this isn’t the first time that companies have been accused of selling poor quality seeds. Eagle seeds, the private company with over 23,000 complaints of poor quality seeds to its name, has been embroiled in a similar controversy before.
“Eagle Seeds has been known for cheating farmers for several years,” claimed Dr Sunilam, an activist based in Mandsaur, Madhya Pradesh. “Through good marketing techniques, it sells seeds in various states including Maharashtra.”
Dr. Sunilam claimed that farmers in Madhya Pradesh had similar complaints against the company four years ago, in 2015. This year, PTI reported that the Madhya Pradesh government had cancelled Eagle Seeds’ license after its seeds failed a quality test.
Yet the company still has a license to sell its seeds in Maharashtra.
“There is no provision of lodging FIR or taking coercive action in the current Seeds Act. But the department lodged FIRs,” Gorad, from Maharashtra’s agriculture department said. “Farmers can approach the Consumer Court to seek compensation.”
Gorad did not say if his department was considering cancelling Eagle Seeds’ license.
Eagle Seeds did not reply to HuffPost India’s requests for comment.