So shall you reap

Ajay Bhardwaj's film rips apart the mask of food politics pushed by biotech companies
Shaweta Anand Delhi 

As part of 'Filmy Feast' held in Delhi recently, Ajay Bhardwaj's So Shall You Reap stood out for its honest portrayal of the plight of Indian farmers. Many of them are anxiously trapped in the web of promises made by profit-seeking biotech companies, feeling all the more insecure in the stark absence of pro-farmer government policies. 

Monsanto and Indian Mahyco are two such companies facing scathing critique in the film for selling genetically modified (GM) cotton or Bt cotton to unsuspecting Indian farmers. Surprisingly, Indian regulatory bodies allow introduction of such GM crops even though no independent health-safety tests have been conducted on them except by the biotech companies themselves. 

In this 35-minute documentary, Bhardwaj covers a lot of ground as he strings together perils of sowing and reaping GM crops in villages of Punjab, Haryana and Andhra Pradesh. He successfully brings out the food politics played out by companies, governments and, in protest and retaliation, by farmers who are rejecting the paradigm of dependent/market-based agriculture by opting for organic methods in a few places. 

The timing of this film's screening is especially critical in the backdrop of ongoing deliberations within the central and state governments on whether or not to bring GM vegetables on our dinner plates. While the usual pro-GM argument is that GM crops will bring in food security for all, this film brings out the experience of farmers at grassroots who vouch that this food technology is not geared to help them but to allow biotech companies to mint more money at any cost. 

The film enters a rural landscape where farmers cultivating small pieces of land invest every rupee and fiber of emotion into the crops they are planting, hoping that the yield will sustain their needs. Their hope turns into rage when the promise of Bt cotton - the only GM plant allowed in India - fails the test of time, leading to dead cattle, allergic body reactions, reduced soil productivity and near bankruptcy. Agriculture becomes an expensive exercise of dependence on agri-biotech companies that prepare Bt seeds, pesticides and fertilisers, together creating a trap for more input-intensive cropping, including more water for irrigation. 

Though it's a short film, crucial minutes are spent explaining how crops are genetically modified in sophisticated labs by isolating genes for exotic traits from one species and artificially fitting them into other species, something that nature would never allow. The most touching moment is when a farmer confessed how his heart broke when he had to uproot his own Bt cotton crop ruthlessly as Bt-resistant pests had ruined it! 

He luckily managed to plant paddy as crop failure is not an option when his only piece of land was on lease and he had family responsibilities to shoulder. However, if you have seen Peepli Live, you would know that committing suicide is a definite option many farmers have already chosen in depressing times. 

Unlike the other Indian film, Poison on the Platter, screened at the festival, Bhardwaj's film talks about realistic alternatives farmers are already opting for in many Indian villages, for instance, in Punjab, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala. In a befitting reply to a cold-blooded State (and its cash-rich cricket empire obsessed Union agriculture minister), many farmers have completely stopped usage of chemicals in their fields and are doing much better by turning back to traditional, organic, self-dependent agricultural practices, including seed preservation. 

Made in a dozen regional languages, this film is a brainchild of members of Kheti Virasat Mission, a Punjab-based group, for screening all over the country, to inspire farmers to go back to traditional agricultural practices. The filmmaker, who has been exposed to life in rural Punjab for a decade and has made extraordinary documentaries on the rise of Dalit consciousness, Sufism, contrasting the 'victim narrative' of Partition days etc, was roped in for his comprehensive understanding of grassroots issues. 

For anyone willing to take a peek into what's going on in the lives of Indian farmers while biotech companies make merry, this film is a must-watch. 

Also see, To B(t) or not to B(t) (Hardnews, April 2010) http://www.hardnewsmedia.com/2010/03/3509

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: SEPTEMBER 2010