Monday, December 24, 2007

Bikaneri Bhujia Battles the World's Titans

By N P Chekkutty

The case of Bikaneri Bhujia, an indigenous variety of sweet quite popular in the north, gives a graphic illustration of the impact of the global market forces on the livelihood of the poorer in Indian villages.
The bikaneri bhujia is a traditional snack produced in cottage industries in Bikaner, Rajasthan. It provides employment to around 2.5 million people in villages, the majority of them women who inherited the know-how and skills to produce this delicacy. The snack is prepared from the moth lentil which grows only in the deserts of Bikaner and Jodhpur and it has had a secure local market all these years. It provided employment not only to the producers and traders and street-vendors but also a large number of farmers in the desert region; another ten thousand women were engaged in the preparation of papads, which are eaten together with the bhujias.
But the cycle of secure employment and local consumption of produce is changing, with globalisation. A recent study brought out by the National Commission for Women, entitled Impact of WTO on Women in Agriculture, prepared by the New Delhi-based Research Foundation for Science & Technology after detailed research and field studies, provides many examples of what goes on Indian villages - where indigenous know-how is now being widely exploited by multinational corporations bent on monopolizing the traditional markets. Recently, Pepsi, the global food and beverages company, began using this traditional name in their advertisements with a view to underbid the local producers; this would destroy a market developed in the region through the hard work of many generations. The report says that Pepsi had done no special research input into developing it nor had it introduced any new technology in the production of bikaneri bhujia; it simply took the traditional know-how.
The study asserts that the global agribusiness is now attempting to take over food processing, which provides millions of Indians with a livelihood in their age-old ghanis (oils extractors), chakkis (flour millers) and dhabas (foods servers), by labeling locally produced food as inferior, while promoting their stale and frozen food clothed in aluminium and plastic foils as modern. This is the magic of powerful advertising which promotes the market forces even in a highly decentralized and culture-specific sector like food production. What is being destroyed by the food retail chains and packaged foods is the livelihood of millions who include the small farmers, the traders, the mill-operators or chakkiwallahs and the thousands of family-run kirana shops.
It also points out that the US multinational is now trying to undercut the local producers of Bikaneri bhujia, by taking up high-tech production, which holds disastrous consequences for the people of Bikaner. It would result in their traditional product going to the multinational and their market destroyed by its high volume produce backed by massive advertisements flooding the market, in the process driving out the original producers of the snack.
The book gives a description of how Cargill, a US multinational, was making efforts to take over the sphere of activities of our ancient chakkis with its recently introduced Nature Fresh Atta. It points out that Cargill, which controls over 70 per cent of the world's trade in cereals, can dictate the prices of agricultural commodities. Since they entered the wheat food market in India with their Nature Fresh Atta campaign, half the mills in Punjab, a State where wheat flour is the primary item for food preparations, have closed down. As the authors of the report says, the Cargill company had even used the occasion of Kargil war victory celebrations to launch their new brand of 'Nature Fresh Atta' in an attempt to "exploit the sentiments of the people and to create confusion among the consumers with a dexterous and unethical use of the similarity in the names of the place and the company".
What the study undoubtedly proves is the disastrous ways Indian traditional agriculture is being undermined by the invasion of the multinational corporations in the wake of our entry to the World Trade Organization and its multilateral agreements relating to agriculture.
Over 70 percent of Indian farmers depend on traditional systems of production and majority of them are small and marginal farmers in the rural areas. Often, entire communities are organised around local knowledge and production.
Brains and bullocks
Women are a major part of the food industry in the country as they are primarily responsible for most of the activities related to food, from seed preservation to food production, and their role is now being marginalised by the multinationals who are out to take over the Indian food industry. As Vandana Shiva, who led the study on behalf of the Women's Commission, notes, it was the first gender sensitive study on the impact of WTO on agriculture, based on research as well as field work involving public hearings held in four parts of the country. It focussed primarily on two major aspects; the first a review of the shifts of knowledge and control over seed and bio-diversity from women to global corporations and secondly, it examined the impact of trade liberalization in agriculture leading to loss of livelihood, women's employment and entitlement.
The fist part of the book, where WTO and its various agreements are examined with relation to India, makes an objective critique of the major agreements, viz, the Agreement on Agriculture (AoA), Agreement on Sanitary and Phyto Sanitary Measures (SPS) and Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) on Indian peasants, especially its womenfolk. As it elaborately argues, these agreements have had an extremely negative impact on the women with deprival of entitlement and employment leading to massive hunger and malnutrition; divestment of resources and livelihood and an increase in violence against women. It also notes the catastrophic consequences of the shifting patterns of agriculture leading pauperization and consequent massive peasant suicides adding additional burden on their shoulders as most often women are left behind to look after the deprived families.
The experience gained at the jan sunwais conducted in Punjab, West Bengal, Karnataka and Budelkhand actually substantiates what the academic critique of the new regime in agriculture has pinpointed. These jan sunwais were participated in by ordinary peasant women, activists from the peasants and agricultural workers organizations, grassroots level workers, etc. They threw a lot of light on the miserable situation in most parts of the Indian countryside, the deepening debt crisis and the erosion of traditional methods of agriculture, loss of traditional expertise and loss livelihood, and the massive impoverishment of the peasant class across the country.
Here is what Sabitri, a peasant woman from Bhelware, Bishnugarh in Jharkhand says about the way agriculture changed over the years. She said they used to cultivate a number of varieties like bal-bhog, man-bhog, purbi sail, kart baki and maina tho, each of them having different characteristics. They needed less water and no fertilizer. Then came the new varieties of high yielding seeds and what happened? They produced twice as much, but destroyed the fields and drained out the water resources. As Sabiri says, "khet kharab ho gaye. Labh ke liye purao dhan chhod diyo".(Now our fields are spoilt. For profit people have stopped planting the old strains.)
As the book points out, over 70 percent of Indian farmers depend on traditional systems of production and majority of them are small and marginal farmers in the rural areas. Often, entire communities are organised around local knowledge and production; almost the entire population of Bikaner, for example, was involved in one way of the other in the production and distribution of bikaneri bhujias. When traditional methods of sharing and exchange of biological resources like seed sharing are undermined by the new regime being brought in by the Seed Bill and Patent Bill, it would bring more harm to them than the intended benefits. As already seen in the case of Cargill and Pepsi, the traditional systems of exchange of know-how are now being eroded; individuals, organizations and corporations who receive bio-diversity and knowledge from indigenous communities free of charge are converting these gifts into private property.
This work is an important step in the efforts to study the malaise that has befallen the Indian rural life. As the pioneering gender specific study of the impact of the new economic policies, it should attract the attention of policymakers and officials in the government.

(First published at in July 2005.)

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