: Guntur & Nalgonda (A.P.): It's a well-known brand of seed ... And the reverse of its packet states "Germination rate 65 per cent." What does it mean, we ask the residents of Rentapalla in Guntur district. "It means one-third of the seeds will not work," scoffs one farmer. "When we pay, we pay for 100 per cent," he laughs. "Not for 65 per cent."

In short, if this village pays for 1,000 bags of seed, they are only getting 650.

"Would you," asks another farmer, "go to a pharmacy and buy a medicine of which one-third should not be expected to work?" Then why buy these seeds? "What choice do we have?" Most companies and dealers follow the same practice.

"This is a post-1998 system," says Malla Reddy, general secretary of the Andhra Pradesh Ryuthu Sangham (APRS). "When the multinationals entered the field, controls and regulation were dropped. Before that, seeds were certified by State authorities. Germination was up to 90 per cent. It was the MNCs who started this practice."

Abba Reddy at Chalmada village displays a bag that contained fake seed, a factor in the suicide of his relative Prathap. The bag and brand may have been genuine but the seeds were not. Such substitution is not uncommon. Yet, the worst punishment a dealer in spurious seeds can get is Rs.500.

In Rentapalla, farmers give us the bills and receipts issued to them by seed and pesticide dealers. Even apart from the very high prices, these are unique in two respects. One, they explicitly add on an interest rate of 2 per cent a month (24 per cent) on the goods sold. Two, they extract a signed undertaking from the farmer absolving the dealer of any responsibility for failed or spurious seeds.

Both clauses are clearly printed on the bills and receipts. They are part of the `legal' transaction. Take for instance the bill issued by Vijayadurga Agencies at Sathenapally in Guntur district. It carries (in Telugu) a clear disclaimer. This includes the caution that these seeds should be sown "after ascertaining that they sprout well." The onus of testing them is on the farmer.

The note also asserts: "Seeds billed herein belong to the respective companies. They are sold only on being certified as fit after carrying out all technical scrutiny." Why then should the farmer be responsible for testing them? But the note goes further. Too many things depend on nature, it says. "Therefore no guarantee can be given."

The farmer then signs below the last line which says, "I purchase the seeds agreeing to the above points."

Stockists like Vijayalakshmi Pesticides add their own clauses for the farmer to sign on. "I am aware that these pesticides are poisonous and I purchased the items billed herein for the purpose of agricultural operations."

Dealers are well aware of what other purposes the "purugu mandhu" (literally insect medicines) have been used for. The overwhelming majority of farmers who have committed suicide in Andhra Pradesh have done so by consuming pesticide. Hence the clause freeing the dealer of any responsibility. A further line tagged on says: "Agreed to pay interest at two per cent a month on this bill amount."

Meet the new moneylenders of the countryside. The seed, pesticide and fertilizer dealers. "This man is a new sahucar," says Malla Reddy of the APRS. "He is at once a merchant, a moneylender, a scientist, an agro-technologist and an expert. He can also be the man who buys the crop of the farmers he sells products to. At low prices, of course."

The power this group wields is a vital factor in the ongoing crisis and continuing suicides of farmers. With soaring input costs and the collapse of formal credit, their writ binds the dependant farmers. This group gains in many ways, of which three stand out.

First, the seeds and pesticides dealer inflates prices on the plea that he is extending credit to the farmer. "You end up paying Rs. 230 for Rs. 200 worth of pesticide," says P. Bhiksham at G. Edavalli village of Nalgonda district. "But you sign on a bill which still says Rs. 200."

Second, the two per cent interest a month is tagged on to the bill amount. "There have been repeated crop failures," says farmer Kobbanna Venkatrao at Sathenapally, Guntur. "So repayments get delayed. That's when you learn what 24 per cent interest means. Their seeds have often been responsible for our crop failure. But there is no punishment for that. We suffer the crop failure, but pay them penalty rates of interest."

Third, they might have to sell their crops to the same man who sells them seeds and pesticides — at a rate fixed by him. That rate can be "well below the minimum support price," says K. Veeranjaneyulu, a farmer in Rentapalla. "More so, if the farmer is small and cannot bargain. Last season, the market rate for chilli was Rs. 2,000 to Rs. 2,200 a quintal. Some small farmers sold to their dealers at Rs. 1,500 a quintal."

"The way it all works," says Vinod Rao, also a farmer in Rentapalla, "is this. For every Rs. 5,000 we spend, the seed fellow gets Rs. 1,000 of it. Often more." This equation imposes a deadweight on the farmer's input costs.

The unfairness of it rankles. "All gains are the dealer's, all losses are ours," says one peasant here. The APRS has tried hard to tackle the situation.

"There have been lots of crop failures due to fake seeds," says APRS district secretary Narasimha Rao. "Our experience is that it is very difficult to bring the big MNCs to book for bad or failed seeds. They never respond. So we try to compel the dealer here to compensate the peasant where a blatant wrong has been done. But the farmer is very vulnerable to his pressure. So it is not easy."

The clamour is growing for amending the Seed and Pesticides Acts at the Centre to bring some regulation to this field. The new Andhra Pradesh Government is also readying its own Seed Act at the State level. The changes won't come a day too soon for P. Bhiksham. "The old Sahucar was bad," he says. "But at least he was lenient at crop time. He was part of the village and needed the crop to succeed. With these people, they are more ruthless. You can die but they have to get their money. I tell you, the old sahucar was better." (Courtesy: The Hindu)