In her piece published in Scroll on Tuesday, Kavitha Kuruganti laments how both Girish Shahane and I have “failed to appreciate the main point that Vandana Shiva had brought up around intellectual property rights on life forms and seeds in particular” in our pieces published earlier in Scroll. She also seeks to fact-check me on a couple of assertions that I’ve made in my piece. While I’m sure Shahane will reply if he sees fit, I think it is necessary for me to respond to the concerns expressed in Kuruganti’s piece.

For a brief background, it is necessary to first outline the main points of Shiva’s piece published in Scroll in August. In that piece, Shiva defends the government’s recent moves to control cotton seed prices and also additionally regulate technology contracts between Monsanto and Indian seed companies who actually bring the seed to the market. Shiva uses generous doses of rhetoric in her piece to defend the government’s moves and omits mentioning some critical facts. My response was aimed at supplying the additional facts, which Shiva omitted to mention – facts, which inform the reader that the background to the government’s intervention is in reality a corporate war between Monsanto and Indian seed companies rather than a dispute between farmers and Monsanto. In fact, the government’s intervention has led to a marginal, almost insignificant reduction in prices for farmers, while Indian seed companies have received a bonanza.

Point-by-point response

Since Kuruganti has four distinct problems with my piece, let me respond to each in the order that she raises them.

The first allegation is as follows:

“However, both Shahane and Reddy failed to appreciate the main point that Shiva had brought up around intellectual property rights on life forms and seeds in particular. The authors of the two counterpoints only rationalise their arguments in the current legal understanding and frameworks that exist. However, that does not mean that Shiva and others cannot bring in a new, discourse challenging the current regime.”

My response to the above is that the only point of my response to Shiva was to conduct a “fact-check”, which by definition is limited to facts – I didn’t get into the policy debate of whether Intellectual Property rights should be granted over life-forms because the focus of Shiva’s piece was on the current dispute involving the government’s price control legislation. The debate on Intellectual Property rights over plants and seeds is a much larger debate and is not currently in the limelight.

The second point Kuruganti makes is as follows:

“It is interesting that Prashant Reddy talked about agricultural innovations changing countries, and introduced the example of American biologist and Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug’s high-yielding wheat varieties as having ‘saved India from famines’ without realising that such innovation progressed even without intellectual property rights.”

My response is that I was and am aware that India didn’t introduce an Intellectual Property regime for plants till 2001 – I discuss the 2001 law in my piece. What Kuruganti does not mention in her piece is that Norman Borlaug’s research was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation as a part of its humanitarian aid programs for the developing world. It goes without saying that you don’t need an Intellectual Property regime to attract private capital if charities are willing to dole out generous amounts to research. But then be prepared to follow their agenda.

The third allegation Kuruganti makes is as follows:

“Though Prashant Reddy’s piece refers to the fact that attempts by states to control the price of cotton seeds ran into ‘constitutional issues’ and ‘High Courts differed on whether states had the power to control seed prices’, the context explaining why the courts ruled thus was missing.”

My response is very simple – the cases before the High Courts were on the issue of legislative competence of the states to legislate on cotton seed prices. The Bombay High Court had held that states had the power to enact such legislation, while the Gujarat High Court had come to an opposing conclusion. The core issue in these cases was federalism and I didn’t think it was necessary to get into those issues while responding to Shiva’s piece.

The fourth allegation Kuruganti makes is as follows:

“Reddy refers to a piece that appeared in Scroll earlier to cite how there has been a ‘phenomenal increase’ in India’s cotton yields. However, that article had nothing on yield increases, but was about the growth in the number of Bt cotton hybrids and hybrid-producing companies, and the adoption of Bt cotton within cotton-growing areas of India.”

My response is to simply reproduce the paragraph from the article, which does state that cotton yields increased:

“The introduction of Bt cotton led to a dramatic increase in production across the cotton producing states and soon Bt cotton took over most of the acreage under cotton cultivation. Cotton production rose from 14 million bales in the pre-Bt year of 2001-'02 to 39 million bales in 2014-'15, a rise of almost 180%. India’s cotton imports fell, exports grew and as of 2015-16 India is expected to have overtaken China as the biggest cotton producer it the world.”

The Scroll piece uses the phrase “dramatic increase”, while I used the phrase “phenomenal increase” and even I never claimed it to be a verbatim quote. I also qualified my statement by saying that Bt technology was “certainly not the only reason” for the rise in Monsanto’s yield.

Food for thought

I would like to end this piece with some food for thought – on the one hand the opponents of Bt. cotton claim that the technology does not work but on the other hand they strongly support the government’s new law which makes it illegal for Monsanto to not licence its Bt cotton to any Indian seed company that wants to use it. If these opponents claim that the technology isn’t working shouldn’t they be telling Indian seed companies to not use it rather than support the Indian seed companies in their quest to access Monsanto’s technology at any cost? These are perplexing issues on which we must continue to have a honest, reasoned conversation.