Walk into an agricultural university or an agricultural research institute being run by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and you come back dismayed. Gone are the days when agricultural scientists were somehow free and independent to plan their research priorities. When at least you could sit with them and have a free discussion on what was happening in their own laboratories. You could talk to them about the politics prevailing in the university, and how a particular scientist was being benefitted for what he was doing, and so on.
Today, when I walk into an institute or even meet some of these scientists outside at a conference/workshop, I can see their level of discomfort, the uneasiness that settles in the moment you try to find out what is happening in their universities, forget about their laboratories. They are tight-lipped, and if I may say so they are simply terrorised.
And when in the US, a group of 25-odd scientists wrote that now well-known letter saying they were no longer being allowed to conduct any meaningful research, I wasn't surprised or shocked. What actually came to my mind after having read that letter was that how could these scientists muster the courage to say this now. Nevertheless, I think it was very admirable on the part of these scientists to call a spade a spade, and this should inspire more scientists to come out of the GM shackles that is keeping their mouth shut. After all, for how long can you keep a good scientist in a box? For long can you bar a scientist from doing any meaningful research?
I wish someone in India also demonstrates the same kind of courage.
It all begins at the top. The entire research system is so well entrenched in the hands of these biotechnology companies that nothing moves without their tacit approval. We are aware the present Chairman of the Agricultural Scientists Recruitment Board (ASRB) is also on the board of ISAAA in India. The biotechnology industry therefore has made it openly clear that they have in the past and will in future be overseeing all the selections to the top posts being made. And once this is done, it is easy to ensure that the scientifc community in the university and ICAR institutes fall in line.
Isn't it strange that when Mulayam Singh's government appoints thousands of police personnel, the next government removes them saying that these were political appointees. This didn't happen only in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab too has been faced with a similar controversy. I wonder when will a similar question be asked about all the appointments that the ASRB has made in the tenure of the present chairman?
Denials notwithstanding, such is the terror psychosis that prevails that you cannot aspire to be a dean or director or a vice-chancellor in a university unless you join the GM chorus. Some of these scientists can go to any extent to demonstrate their loyalty. I remember the former vice-chancellor of the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore, had in a debate with me said that if we have accepted Microsoft, what is wrong with Monsanto. I still wonder what is the correlation.
Once the management of the institutes has been adequately managed, these centres become an open field for the company officials. I am amazed at the way the private company officials, move around in the corridors of not only the ICAR but also the universities and institutes. You have to see the easy access and the confort levels with which these company officials operate. Sometimes I wonder whether these company officials are on a deputation with the university. No wonder, you don't hear of many examples of a revolving door in India. Who needs a revolving door when the university doors have been opened completely to private companies.
Take the case of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC). It is loaded with scientists who are actually the cheerleaders for the biotechnology industry. And when Dr Pushpa Bhargava, the Supreme Court nominee to the GEAC, began to ask questions that challenged the unscientific cover the GEAC had very conveniently provided to the companies, the GEAC actually wanted him to be removed from the committee!
I thought any apex committee with good intentions would have drawn from the experience of Dr Pushpa Bhargava and set its own house in order. In fact, Dr Bhargava tells me an interesting story that should tell you for whom is the GEAC actually working for. Although I have been saying for quiet long now that GEAC is basically a rubber stamp for the industry, but still let us listen to what Dr Bhargava says. He only substantiates what I have been saying.
The Bt cotton varieties approved by the GEAC were all hybrids. The Central Cotton Research Institute (CCRI) at Nagpur, has recently developed a non-hybrid Bt cotton which means the gene is now in a variety from which the farmers can save seed and replant the next year. In case of hybrids, farmers have to buy seed for every sowing since the hybrid vigour is lost in the second generation. The CCRI application for approval for this variety had come before the GEAC several times, and yet it was not taken up.
Dr Bhargava says that he finally asked the GEAC chairman as to why it was not being taken up. The chairman replied that this will invite objections from them. Who is them, Dr Bhargava asked, and replied, you mean Monsanto. The chairman is reported to have said yes.
With the appointment of top administrative and scientific positions being overseen by these companies, and with the GM regulatory system virtually in their pocket, these companies have nothing to fear. That is why they are not even remotely concerned at the political stand against GM crops taken by every major political party except for the Congress. If you read the election manifesto of the political parties, it seems very clear that the majority is against the unbridled introduction of GM crops in the country, and yet the industry is not bothered. They know for sure that with agricultural scientists rallying faithfully behind them, they have nothing to fear.
While agricultural scientists never get tired to swear in the name of GM technology, I wasn't amazed when I asked at a recent workshop if any one of them had heard of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), I was only faced with blank stares. Ironically, India is a signatory to the IAASTD, and yet our agricultural scientists do not know anything about it. If only agricultural scientists had started working within the sustainability parameters outlined in the IAASTD, the future of Indian agriculture would be ever-smiling.