Bill Gate's Secret Trip to India Raises Hackles

Gates' hushed visit to Hyd raises bio-diversity groups' hackles

JBS Umanadh , Jun 14, 2013 :

In order to avoid the media glare and prickly questions on his alleged role in promoting companies that churn out genetically modified (GM) seeds, Microsoft co-founder and chairman, Bill Gates’ recent visit to Hyderabad had been kept a ‘secret’ for almost a day.

Even though the hush-hush trip to a dryland crop research centre on the outskirts of the city and to a vaccine making company were termed as ‘precautionary,’ it is widely believed that Gates wanted to avoid protests by pro-biodiversity groups determined to highlight the functioning of the multinational seed companies and their ingenious ways of introducing new GM crops in poor and developing countries.

Bill Gates was not new to the city. He had visited Hyderabad for the first time in November 2002 on the invitation of tech savvy then chief minister Chandrababu Naidu. Gates was so impressed by the application of IT in the state that he decided to set up Microsoft’s Indian Development centre in Hyderabad -- the first such centre outside the company’s headquarters in  Redmond, USA.

But the recent one-day visit of Gates on May 30 came without notice. Even the media and junior officials at the Patancheru based ICRISAT (International Crops Research Centre for Semi-Arid Tropics) were not informed and the police entrusted with the security arrangements enroute ICRISAT  had no clue of his itinerary. He arrived at the Rajiv Gandhi International Airport in a private jet and reached ICRISAT, which is about 50 km from Hyderabad. He interacted with scientists and ICRISAT officials about various food security programmes.

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is funding ICRISAT's Village Dynamics Studies in South Asia (VDSA), a project aimed at fighting hunger and alleviation of poverty in dry lands. Gates, who is co-chairperson of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, also visited Biological E. Ltd, a leading vaccine manufacturer, according to a company statement issued the next day.

ICRISAT’s press release two days after Gates’ visit notes “This was Mr Gates’ first visit to this Institute where he held discussions with the management and several key scientists to gain a better appreciation of the foundation’s research for development investments to ICRISAT.”

His foundation is funding two projects, the HOPE project (Harnessing Opportunities for Productivity Enhancement of Sorghum and Millets) in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia which seek to increase by 30 per cent the productivity of sorghum and millets in 2,00,000 farmers’ fields; and the Tropical Legumes I & II project which aims to enhance productivity of six legume crops (groundnut, cowpea, common bean, chickpea, pigeon pea and soybean) by at least 20 per cent through improved cultivation and management practices and the development of markets and value chains.


But why was the trip kept under wraps? The answer one could gather is that he probably wanted to avoid questions on the foundation’s role in promoting genetically altered crops that benefit multinational seed producers. “The farmers often find that yields from GM crops are falling with each passing year and they have questions that need a lot of explanation,” a CPM Medak district leader observed.

The trip this time has been dubbed by the pro-biodiversity groups as a philanthro capitalist’s effort to expand the GM crop list to dryland agriculture and even rice tracts of eastern India.  There is research going on to produce GM sorghum and even chickpea. “They (the Gates) are said to have a stake in Monsanto with 5,00,000 shares worth around $23 million and their similar plans to promote the GM giant in Africa  were severely criticised,” said PV Sateesh, the founder of Deccan Development Society that has been working with women’s groups conserving biodiversity.

“I read that the foundation has teamed up with Cargill in a $10m project to “develop the Soya value chain" in Mozambique and other African countries. We understand that the efforts are actually to introduce genetically modified Soya in that continent,” Sateesh adds.

“Our understanding is that Bill Gates is not unaware of the fact that both Monsanto and Cargill have business plans suitable for mechanised intensive agriculture whereas we in India still practice traditional practices,” says a retired Agriculture economist U Venkateswarlu of state agricultural university.

There is a reason why the anti-GM groups shudder at the mention of multinational seed companies from their past experience with the Bol worm resistant Bol guard BT cotton in the district of Warangal. “Warangal district represents a perfect model for the devastation inflicted by industry promoted agriculture -- especially for small and marginal farmers,” Sateesh said in a recent interview with an international magazine. After the farmers took up GM seeds and the crops began to fail, in 1998 alone, more than 150 farmers in Warangal committed suicide unable to fight with pest infestation to cotton.

“They were told that Bt cotton was resistant to Bol worm and would  save them a lot of money as there would be no need to buy expensive pesticides,” a senior agricultural officer from Warangal district reasons out. Several farmers’ associatons blame both union and state governments for promoting monoculture and destroying bio-diversity. The introduction of Bt cotton was vehemently opposed by Andhra Pradesh Coalition in Defence of Diversity, a coalition of over 140 civil society groups in the state. The coalition with its sustained efforts in 100 villages in Warangal district against the spread bt cotton, limited the spread of Bt cotton to 1500 acres.

Even though these groups oppose cultivation of genetically modified crops fearing genetic contamination in the immediate environment, scientists brush aside the fears saying that Bt cotton had improved the lot of farmers with better quality and increased yield. They see gates’ visit as a shot in the arm as the foundation was funding several seed improvement projects in the semi arid tropics of the state. But, the farmers and biodiversity activists firmly believe that the Gates foundation has a ‘hidden’ agenda which needs to be resisted.