ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

13 September 2002


Testimonies by farmers on the Jury suggest no number of development schemes elaborated by external agents can replace the multitude of ideas that germinate in the mind of people when they are empowered to look out for their own solutions.

The Verdict calls for a shift in policy-making processes, whereby policies are crafted in such a way as to strengthen the practices that ensure self-sustaining livelihoods for rural communities, instead of undermining them.

All things considered, maybe it is not such a bewildering turn of event that DFID-India felt inclined to reject the Prajateerpu Report. When a pioneering approach stirs the ground beneath the feet of those at the top of the political and economic ladder, how else can we expect them to react, initially, but by attempting to consolidate their position?


Understanding Prajateerpu through the Politics of Autonomy

Like many people, I have been witnessing the recent controversy over Prajateerpu with a certain amount of bewilderment. Til now, I have remained a silent observer, carefully reading through the communications emanating from all sides. More than once, I have wondered about the real stakes concealed behind the words. After all, we anthropologists do have the habit of trying to get to the core of people's thinking...

The (temporary) censoring of the Prajateerpu report tells a story of its own, that does merit thorough scrutiny. Yet, since I had the privilege of being a silent observer of the event itself, I wish to reflect on the nature of the exercise, and not on the controversy it has generated.

For the seven days over which Prajateerpu unfolded, from June 25th to July 1st, 2001, I listened to the witnesses and to the farmers composing the Jury, took notes, discussed with many people who were present, including with some of the women farmers who had come from distant regions to attend this event. At the time, I was pursuing my PhD research on the Political Control over Seeds in several parts of Andhra Pradesh and would not miss an opportunity to sit with farmers and find out - be it in broken Telugu if it had to - where they came from, which crops they grew, whether and why they saved their own seeds.

Witnessing the Prajateerpu was a unique experience. The most effective way of expressing why it was so is, perhaps, to go back to the site of this "court-like thing" (to use the words of a special witness from the Government of Andhra Pradesh). I wish to share some views and impressions on this event and its outcome, but also bring in some findings from my participatory research with farmers from three dryland districts of Andhra Pradesh in order to substantiate some of these reflections.

To start off with, let me say that there is genius in the minds that conceived this formidable encounter of people, who had, for five full days, virtually no choice but to listen to one another. Genius put to the service of people "from the grassroots", who typically have the least access to economic resources and the least political clout - which does not mean that they are not endowed with resources that many of us hardly know the existence of. And genius dedicated to a real dialogue between people from the land and people without any attachment to the land, in an arena where everyone's voice counts equally. I propose to look into four dimensions of this event which appear particularly relevant to me: the high level of participation by women in the Jury, the scope for a grounded debate on issues of core importance to farmers, the demystification of policy-making that these debates led to, and finally, the preservation of autonomy which, in my view, the Verdict very eloquently speaks about.

1. A majority of women on the Jury

A clear and well thought-out decision was made by the organisers of Prajateerpu, from the onset, to form a Jury with a majority of women. The rationale for such a decision is at least three-fold :

A. Well over half of the agricultural work in India is undertaken by women, with a number of tasks, such as weeding and post-harvest operations, being almost exclusively performed by women on their own farms, or as remunerated labourers. Turning this essential rationale into action is not such an easy task, and the organisers must have left no stone unturned in ensuring that everyone involved in the making of Prajateerpu would uphold this stand at every step.

B. There are stark differences between men's and women's perceptions about farming. The most convincing instance that I personally came across was in Pipri, a Gound Adivasi village of Adilabad District (A.P.) where I conducted two sets of semi-structured group interviews, first with men, and then with women. The descriptions the two groups gave of their respective farming practices are so far apart that one almost doubts whether they tended the same land ! The men essentially spoke of a largely commercialised farming system (around four main crops, cotton, hybrid sorghum, chillies and tomatoes), with inputs and outputs circulating in and out of the village. What the women presented, however, was a farming scenario based on a diversity of food crops (cereals, pulses and oilseeds) grown from farm-saved seeds. A major reason for these difference in perceptions and agendas - as also stated in the Prajateerpu report - is that men farmers are the primary recipients of new inputs, technical advice and credit. As a result, they are often quick to equate the adoption of new crops or technologies with modernity, without considering the social or ecological costs of these changes as critically as women are inclined to.  One can therefore surmise that without the high level of women's participation in Prajateerpu, certain debates on the inadequacy of the breeding sector, input distribution and agricultural extension networks, money-lending activities and marketing channels would most likely not have come so resolutely to the fore.

C. Creating a context where rural women feel comfortable enough to voice their concerns, without any interference by men, can in itself be quite a challenge. Women often hesitate to speak up unless their number outweigh the number of men present in a group. Moreover, direct interactions with small farmers in different agricultural contexts made it clear to me that as farming turns into a commercial venture, women's domain of expertise and influence in the conduct of agriculture drastically reduces. The oft-repeated decree, which I heard men utter so many times, that women "don't know anything" becomes a real barrier in eliciting women's knowledge about farming, and in understanding their perceptions of the changes that have taken place at the household and village levels after the adoption of a market-oriented cropping system. The only way to transcend these barriers is to create a space where women farmers can freely express themselves, engage in an analysis of their own knowledge and practices, and come to an understanding of the socio-political mechanisms that influence the practice of agriculture in their own communities.  This is precisely what was achieved during the Prajateerpu process. Because the jurors' panel was composed of a "critical number" of women, most of them from low castes, there was no obstacle to any of the Jury members speaking up with confidence. There is little doubt, in my view, that the deliberations and the verdict would taken quite a different course had women not been empowered - as they were - to energetically present their views and concerns throughout this entire process. This high level of sensitivity to gender concerns on the part of the people who designed Prajateerpu and those who worked towards making it a concrete event is highly commendable. It reflects a rare political will to enable rural women to develop a vision tailored to their preoccupations and aspirations.

2. A real space for examining critical livelihood issues

Another strength of this particular Citizens' Jury lies in the very choice of the subject matter under scrutiny. What we have here is not a narrowly framed question of approval or rejection of a given technology, but a debate around a political, social and economic model of development for food and farming in a State.  Every step in the elaboration of this Citizens' Jury concurred towards ensuring that this broad debate could take place : from the selection of Jury members amongst small and marginal farmers from the State, to the careful choice of special witnesses representing a wide range of sectors and interest groups, to the composition of the oversight panel. An innovative methodology was crafted with the same aim in mind of enabling all participants to review the proposed visions in their totality.  I would argue that these efforts were not vain. Indeed, as days unfolded, the panel of jurors acquired a fuller grasp of their role in this process, and the confidence to address a vast array of issues. Gradually departing from questions pertaining to their individual situations, the Jury members found more and more effective ways of questioning the special witnesses on the impact of new technologies on their lives, on the differential treatment between farmers of different socio-economic categories, and on the stakes of control and access by producers like them to productive resources.  There was a very strong will, on their part, to connect happenings in their daily life to the larger policies defended or contested by the special witnesses.

A juror from Warangal District spoke about the plight of farmers in his region, who are for the great majority of them "heavily in debt".  A visit to Warangal in November 2001 enabled me to understand the depth of the problem raised by this farmer. In countless fields of cotton, the pest could not be controlled that year, and farmers were easily convinced by pesticide dealers to buy the costliest brands of pesticides on credit (most often to no avail). The level of indebtedness of small farmers was such that in every village, many women had had to mortgage their jewellery (including the sacred mangalsutra worn by married women), and several families had left their houses and land behind, unable as they were to repay money-lenders. This had struck me as the ultimate loss of control by these families over their own livelihood and resources : land which, a few years back, ensured food security for an entire family, had suddenly and irreversibly slipped out of their hands.  What the Warangal farmer from the Jury demanded is quite telling. He didn't ask for fancy technology, or for a new pesticide, or for genetically engineered cotton. He just wanted "seeds and agriculture that are within our reach - grains that come without debts and crops that come without huge investment".  This eloquently illustrates the extent to which the jurors managed to steer the debate around central livelihood issues, without letting the witnesses stray away for too long into statistical or theoretical considerations. Other core economic or ecological problems addressed by the jurors included low market prices, overproduction, soil fertility depletion, diminishing cattle population, repeated rain failures and health concerns linked to the use of chemicals.

Apart from donors, who did not take in the Scenario workshop, most of the major socio-professional groups involved at one level or another in the food and farming sectors were represented and had to answer the queries put to them by farmers on these various issues. There was no real scope for any of the special witnesses to "hijack" the process by cornering farmers on the Jury into a purely technical or scientific debate, as is so often the case in encounters of this sort. This is not to say that noone attempted the trick. Partha Dasgupta from Syngenta (a leading agro-chemical company) did for instance attempt to conjecture on the alleged interconnectedness between world population, hunger and genetic engineering, but he was soon brought back into the fold by incisive questions from the Jury members, pertaining to their own reality.  Thus, Prajateerpu gave small farmers an opportunity to question practitioners of science, technology, law and policy from their own standpoint. This is no small achievement. It also sets this event apart from a number of other Citizen's Juries (held in various parts of the world, on topics like nuclear waste, genetically modified crops...) that have largely served to raise the threshold of social acceptability of given technologies, without generating an informed debate on the assumptions underlying these technologies, on the worldview they imply, and on the alternatives which they undermine.

3. Demystifying the practice of policy-making

In the course of seven days of debates and deliberations, the farmers of the Jury applied their mind, imagination and discerning skills to the appraisal of different policy orientations for food and farming in their State. In the "live" context of a court, they engaged, simultaneously, in a critique of existing schemes and policies, and in the elaboration of specific recommendations for policy-makers. Put simply, the Prajateerpu was nothing less than a novel way of exercising participatory democracy.  This event provided a unique forum for a collective and grounded critical analysis of the way in which particular technologies or policies can not only fail to meet their goals, but also actually inhibit the use of local resources and knowledges by people at the grassroot level. Understanding these processes appears to me as vitally important. I still marvel at the vast and compelling evidence brought forth by the jurors to show how poverty gets generated in their communities (with the increasing recourse to money-lenders), how small and landless farmers get further marginalised by adoption of certain technologies (like tractors) or how water resources get depleted with the spread of irrigation. This evidence clearly demonstrates that farmers and other primary producers can make a case for the counter-productivity of a whole array of "development" schemes probably better than any other group.  These testimonies show that, more often than is generally admitted, the choice of a particular political and technological course does close off other options, including options that have been sustainably put to use by people for generations.

I wish to give two brief examples to further illustrate this phenomenon.  The first draws from participatory research on local means of control over seeds in Andhra Pradesh, and it echoes some of the declarations made by women farmers in the Jury. In a nutshell, one of the main findings of this work is that the advent of the industrial seed sector in India threatens the very existence of a local (non-monetarised) seed economy. What is alarming here is not the substitution of a system by another (which could be seen as a healthy process of evolution), but the fact that the local seed economy (that still exists in thousands of Indian villages) is the only system that can sustainably cater to the needs of the marginal farmers of dryland region. Moreover, this mode of seed production builds on local skills and food culture, which is not the case with commercial seeds. The second instance pertains to transformations in the realm of health and medical practices, carefully examined by Ivan Illich three decades ago. He was able to demonstrate that the setting up of a full-fledged medical system (including professionally trained doctors, pharmaceutical research, hospitals...) gradually but invariably precludes autonomous health care practices (based on local herbal remedies, orally transmitted know-hows, "grandmother's formula"...) from continuing to exist. The decline of local knowledge on medicinal plants and their use in Europe (of which old people are virtually the only remaining depositories) is but one manifestation of a trend at work in various spheres of human activity. It is noteworthy that in the Andhra Pradesh Jury, farmers strongly opposed the export of medicinal plants, which they equated with a loss of control over their means of taking care of their health.

In weighing the various options presented to them with respect to production, distribution, and marketing of agricultural produce, the Jury members essentially tried to assess whether and how each of these could enter into synergy with the practices and modes of organisation they had found to be reliable in their own life experience. Options that appeared to condemn their own means of accessing, managing and sharing resources were generally rejected ; those that did not came under further scrutiny, and adjustments were sometimes proposed.  Clearly, the criteria taken into consideration by farmers in this discerning exercise go far beyond norms of efficiency and progress on which technocrats base their projections. Some technologies were rejected not on account of their inadequacy, but because their nature was found untrustworthy and unappealing.

On several occasions, women jurors emphatically referred to their own perceptions about the natural world and their place in it to stake a claim about the unwanted nature of a technology (like gene transfers between species). In other words, they did not hesitate to act on inner feelings and impressions to dismiss some of the proposed options.  It is quite uncommon for such intuitive insights to have a place in debates around scientific, technical or policy matters. That women jurors would feel sufficiently at ease to express such concerns, and to base policy recommendations on them is, in my view, a sign that the Prajateerpu really offered them a space where all meaningful matters could be raised. The lack of serious attention to people's cultural and spiritual concerns may well be an important factor behind the failure of numerous "poverty reduction" or "crop improvement" schemes and the like. If one takes a close look at the reasons why farmers, and especially women, often stay away from introduced crop varieties, one finds subjective factors like mediocre cooking quality and unappealing taste ranking high on the list. While learning about crop diversity from women farmers in the Deccan Plateau, I realised that diversity in crops and foodgrains does not merely ensure a balanced nutrition, reduce the risk of crop losses, and limit cultivation. Beyond these more or less pragmatic factors, crop diversity also resonates with people's beliefs, and it appeals to their senses, not least of all the aesthetic and culinary senses. When women farmers have to pass a judgement on the desirability of moving from crop diversity towards a much more uniform cropping pattern, I suspect that their senses tell them that this is no great bargain...

4. The politics of autonomy and contentment

In industrialised societies, where autonomy in matters of food production, education, health, transport, etc... has been reduced to its most minimal expression, it has become difficult to fathom what autonomy yields and means to people living on the land. Although this dimension is rarely explicitly discussed by people, it does filter through words, attitudes and reactions, provided that one is attentive enough to these expressions of inner motives. The most striking expression that I came across in India was the response made by a Santal Adivasi woman of Bankura district, in West Bengal to a question regarding the extent of purchased food in their diet. When I asked, specifically, whether anyone bought dal (leguminous grains such as greengram or pigeonpea), she vehemently answered: "Why should we buy dal when there are plenty of leafy greens around ?!" The level of conviction with which she expressed her preference for freely available nutritious greens over purchased legumes made a great impression on me.

Later on, in Andhra Pradesh, I heard a number of people expose, with similar emphasis, the merits of self-reliance. When village women served a meal prepared from foodgrains harvested on their own land, it often struck me that they offered it with what I perceived as a sense of dignity and pride. Many overtly expressed contentment at being able to eat and serve their own food, as Anjamma, a farmer from Medak District, stated it during the Jury. In areas where commercial crops have replaced the diversity of foodgrains earlier grown, however, discontent seems to have crept up in the place of pride. In parts of Adilabad District (of A.P.), many women dislike hybrid sorghum grains that can hardly be stored for a year before getting infested with pests. Some overtly voice their dissatisfaction with the sharp decline in food crops on their farms. Others, like Gangamma, a high caste woman, hesitated to do so in front of their sons, who are responsible for turning the farm into a largely commercial operation. Despite these differences in expression, a commonality in practice emerged : in one village (Bhoraj), it turned out that most women farmers go into the fields of hybrid cotton, sorghum, and soyabean after germination to sow a handful of seeds of food crops (legumes or oilseeds) wherever they find empty spaces. This would seem to show that even where commercial farming systems curtail their own cropping priorities, small women farmers strive to maintain a degree of self-reliance in seeds and foodgrains.

Most interestingly, much of the Jury's verdict speaks to this quest for autonomy. In fact, it tells us that the aspiration to build up self-reliance is not just a marginal concern, but quite a central one to small and marginal farmers. That the entire verdict would be lined with this fundamental concern came to me as a surprise. In my view, this outcome has much to do with the ample space given to women farmers, from the onset and over the entire process, to express their own set of convictions and concerns. This is undeniably one of the greatest merits of Prajateerpu.

The question one is left with, then, is whether strands of independent thought and action at the grassroot level are compatible with a "development" approach, insofar as development, however participatory it is made out to be, entails the growth of the organised sector, market expansion, and the promotion of lending institutions (including micro-credit). If the corpus of improved technologies, management schemes and regulatory agencies that governments and donors seek to implement - as illustrated by Vision 2020 - is shown to effectively inhibit communities from acting on their own terms, then should the very foundations of policy-making and aid not be reconsidered?

Testimonies by farmers on the Jury suggest no number of development schemes elaborated by external agents can replace the multitude of ideas that germinate in the mind of people when they are empowered to look out for their own solutions.

The Verdict calls for a shift in policy-making processes, whereby policies are crafted in such a way as to strengthen the practices that ensure self-sustaining livelihoods for rural communities, instead of undermining them.

All things considered, maybe it is not such a bewildering turn of event that DFID-India felt inclined to reject the Prajateerpu Report. When a pioneering approach stirs the ground beneath the feet of those at the top of the political and economic ladder, how else can we expect them to react, initially, but by attempting to consolidate their position? But as time passes, an alternative course - that of recognising the legitimacy of a constructive critique addressed to them and engaging in dialogue - may well emerge.

Over and above these speculations about the willingness of the people without any attachment to the land to give due consideration to the concerns of people from the land, I would like to acclaim the Andhra Pradesh Prajateerpu as a very sensible, balanced and mature exercise in the nascent movement of participatory democracy.

Carine Pionetti,
Sète, France. September 2002.

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