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A Meeting in Memory of Kunwar Prasoon

Kunwar PrasoonChipko Pustakalaya Evam Sanghralaya and Beej Bachao Andolan organized a meeting on 8 May 2007, which was attended by about 50 people from nearby villages besides individuals from Delhi, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarkashi, Rishikesh and Dehra Dun. As most of local people reach such meetings only after completing their household chores, this one too started late, around 11.30 a.m.

The meeting was called for several reasons. One, GM seeds and crops have been a matter for worldwide concern over the last few years. Then last year, in according an exceptionally large number of GM crops approval for open-field trials with undue haste, the Indian government only exacerbated this concern, while also putting itself under a cloud of suspicion. The meeting was called to have a clearer understanding of the issues and problems related to GM seeds.

But the primary reason for the meeting was that 8 May was the 57th birth anniversary of the late Kunwar Prasoon, and the first after his untimely demise last year. At the same time, the month of May had other significances as well. As Dhoom Singh Negi said, “Besides, Prasoon, 15 th of this month is the birthday of folk poet the late Ghanshyam Sailani. And then, 25th May is the birth anniversary of the eternal martyr Sridev Suman whose parental village Jaul is located in the Henwalghati itself, between Nagni and Chamba. It was because of these three great people that we chose to come together in this month of May so that their memory continue to inspire us in our works.”

Dhoom Singh Negi also informed that it had earlier been decided to release an issue of ‘Hewanlika’ as a memorial to Kunwar Prasoon. It was about thirty years ago that Kunwar Prasoon along with Pratap Shikhar and Shobat Singh Bhandari had brought out two issues of this magazine, which had attained wide popularity. However, the memorial issue could not be brought out, mainly because sufficient articles had not arrived.

Sunderlal Bahuguna could not come to the meeting due to ill health but sent in his written statement. It stated, “Prasoon was the best prasoon (flower) of Henwalghati who spread his aroma and is now seeded. We all eagerly will wait to see this seed re-germinate and flower once again. Henwalghati has given new meaning and dimensions to grassroots people’s environmental movements. That activism needs to be taken further and the number of its followers increased.”

He further wrote,”The fate of the world will not be changed by intellectuals alone, but the role of social activists will be paramount in translating their thoughts and visions on the ground.”

Underlining the activist spirit of the people of Henwalghati, Vijay Jarhdhari narrated a brief history of the various movements and struggles carried out here in the last fifty years. From the movement against limestone quarrying in 1962 to the ongoing Kataldi mining movement to Beej Bachao Andolan. While these undoubtedly reflected the awareness and spirit of the people here, it also underlined the need for eternal vigilance. This was particularly essential since in the last decade the problems of the people have increased manifold. The impact of globalization has been more negative than positive, and has caused widespread, harmful consequences.

Himachal Pradesh, often considered a model developed state, is itself undergoing a host of problems, and that too exactly for its reasons of development. Guman Singh from Himachal Pradesh stated that the state was undergoing the greatest stress precisely because it is infrastructurally developed. Today, people are suffering the effects of this development model so much so that there are over 40 locations where the people are currently agitating. These various protests and movements have federated into “Navrachna”, and a special Save Himalaya Campaign is being carried to determine a distinct development policies for the Himalaya.

Coming to the main topic of the day, Arun Srivastava from Delhi said that the state of the farmers in the country was getting from bad to worse. With the market system dominating our policies and priorities, wherever the farmers have been linked to the market, they are being soundly thrashed and exploited to the hilt. The market forces have become so powerful that for every Rs 100 that a farmer earns, the commercial agencies are earning Rs 540. The farmers are getting marginalized while the companies are prospering. For the latter, the latest source of mega-earning are the genetically modified seeds.

The tall claims in favour of GM seeds have so far proved to be fictitious. On the contrary there are well documented evidences of its tremendous harmful effects on human and geographical health. The danger is so real that even if one does not wish to grow GM crops, there would soon be no choice, since those will get contaminated through pollination. So if a farmer wishing to resist growing GM crops plants only non-GM seeds, his crop is very likely to have its genes altered the next season because of pollination. This way, our entire non-GM, organic crops will be swiped away.

One of the major reasons of GM crops being extremely dangerous for health is their very character. If a plant has been genetically modified to protect it against certain pests, what happens is that the said pest dies when it feeds on the plant. So, in effect, a GM crop is not a crop at all. It acts like a pesticide. And by growing GM crops we are actually growing poison and not healthy crops.

Our government, far from protecting the farmers and the people from the established ill-effects of GM seeds and crops, has sold out to the multinational companies peddling GM ware. Last year, on 1 May 2006, the Supreme Court had advised that approval for open-field trials of GM seeds be not given. And yet, on 21 May, within three weeks, GEAC, the government body granting such approvals, approved 91 different crops for open field trials. This was not only illegal but inhuman as well. According to Srivastava, our government has sold out, our administration has sold out, even our media has sold out. People are not being told the truth. No politician is daring to speak out the truth in Parliament.

Currently a PIL is admitted in the Supreme Court against open field trials of GM seeds, and its hearing is to come up soon. It may be recalled that on 22 September 2006, the Supreme Court had passed an injunction that no further approval of open field trials of GM seeds be given.

Dr Harshvanti Bisht, Arjuna awardee and a Lecturer in Economics at the Degree College in Uttarkashi stressed on the need to exercise caution while encouraging tourism, particularly in the higher regions. She stated that although tourism may have brought in some economic benefits, the damage to ecology was far greater. She cited the instance of hundreds and thousands of Kanwarias ascending to Gaumukh in the month of Sravan. They not only create hygiene problems but also deliberately cause damage to the plants and pose a deeper environmental threat to the region. “Why can’t their movements be controlled?” she asked.

She stressed that due to lack of a responsible approach to tourism and one’s own harmful lifestyle, the water in almost all our rivers has shrunk considerably. The Hydel Department at Uttarkashi, commenting on the Maneri-Bhali Hydel Project, confesses that there is insufficient water in the river, which does not allow the turbines to function at full capacity – and yet we are planning more and more hydel projects! Adding to this, Guman Singh said that we can not allow the entire mountains to be destroyed in the name of energy development. He added that while earlier, we all were in favour of micro-hydel schemes, we now realize that these cause more immediate and invasive damage. As such we need to think on alternatives like producing electricity from gharaat, small water mills.

Dr Bisht said that climate change is very rapid now. Earlier, we had snow falling in December, which would stay longer and play a major role in keeping our rivers perennial. Now, we have snow falling as late as February-March. Snow in this period can only bring disaster. In the Garhwal Himalaya, as elsewhere, the glaciers are fast receding. These are likely to swell the glacial lakes, which can break banks to create flood to begin with, followed by total dry and arid landscape.

She said that we glibly shake off our own responsibilities in this and say that after all it is part of ‘global warming’ and not our fault. But global warming has not visited us from alien space; it is very much our own creation. We need to realize our own failings and roles, and need to ask ourselves – what is our own responsibility. Or else we will only be jeopardizing the lives of our future generations.

Referring to the Nahikalan Andolan against limestone quarrying in the nineteen eighties, Bhupal Singh from Nahikalan said that at the time the people of the nearby Baderna village were the ones against our stand. Long since the quarry’s closure, we have now effectively returned to farming, and it is the people of the same Baderna village that are doing the best of profitable organic farming.

Rajiv Nayan Bahuguna from the TV channel AajTak was of the opinion that the state of the media was a matter of concern. He said that while the print media still offered some space for issue-based journalism, there was none in electronic media. Which is why you have TV channels telecasting inane news day in and out. He said,”They do not have place for your work. So it is a challenge for you as well, to work in such a situation.”

Towards the end of the meeting a film was shown on the tragedy of a farmer in Canada, who grew organic canula but has a court case against him. He has been charged by the multinational company Monsanto of theft of GM canula seeds. The farmer had never grown GM canula seeds and was in fact against them; but his latest crop had traces of GM seeds. It turned out that GM canula seeds had been growing in a nearby farm, from where his seeds had got effectively pollinated through wind and birds or bees! So, according to Monsanto, it was a case of theft! The matter is still under court, but it clearly brings out the diabolic character and designs of companies propagating GM seeds.

At the end of the meeting, a resolution was passed to condemn the open-field trials of GM seeds to be sent to the government to urge it to stop the trials. With this the meeting came to an end.