As I picked up the newspapers at the Kolkata airport the day after the first National Consultation on Bt brinjal was held at the Bose Institute on Jan 13, I could sense the discomfort the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) and the seed company Mahyco (who are pushing for Bt brinjal) must have felt.
Every newspaper had prominantly carried reports of the consultation. The Times of India for instance sprang a surprise (normally, TOI downplays such issues) with its headline: Thumbs down to Bt brinjal and had a sub headline: Vociferous Opposition to 'Poisonous" vegetable in Stormy Meeting. I am providing you the links for some of the news reports below.
At the consultation, I was quite surprised by the surge of public outcry and anger against Bt brinjal in particular and the GM technology in general. Speaker after speaker, and that included retired agricultural scientists, entomologists, the farm technocrats association, the veterinarians association, the indian medical association, farmers and others stood up and questioned not only the flawed regulatory process but also the technology.
The Farm Technocrats and the Veterinary Association made a very forceful intervention, even challenging the claims of Mahyco seed company (and the DBT) on the extent of pest damage. The farm technocrat representative for instance said that they being involved with farmers at the grassroot level, know for sure that the damage by foot and shoot borer does not exceed 10 per cent on an average. "The claim that food borer damages upto 70 per cent is completely wrong," he said, adding: "if the insect attack is 60 to 70 per cent, please tell me why are the farmers then still continuing to cultivate brinjal?"
While nearly 200 people were protesting outside the venue, inside the atmosphere was equally charged. At times, the Minister for Environment Forests Jairam Ramesh did lose his cool on a couple of occasions, but I think generally he handled the consultation quite well. Yes, he did threaten to file a libel case against me, but that outburst needs to be overlooked. Please don't read too much into that brief episode, as such off-the-cuff remarks do fly around when you are tense.
Unfortunately, as a speaker mentioned: Bt gene is stress intolerant.
I am in fact overwhelmed by your messages pouring in from various parts of the country. I am also thankful to the lawyers who have extended their hand to me in case a defamation case is slapped against me. Well...well...as I said earlier there is no reason to get charged up. I have earlier been threatened by ministers in India and Nepal, and I am quite used to it. In fact, I would like someday to share with you the brisk political developments that followed when a former chief minister of Himachal Pradesh, the late Mr Ram Lal, threatened to eliminate me. I was then the Shimla Correspondent for Indian Express. But that's for some other day.
Returning back to the Kolkata consultation, I must tell you that the Mahyco brigade was quite in attendance. Among those I could spot were Mr Raju Barwale, and Mr M K Sharma. The GEAC was represented by its chairman, Mr Farooqui, and its member secretary, Ms Rajni Warrior. Besides, I met Mr Tripathi of the Department of Biotechnology and Dr K C Bansal of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute.
Except for Dr Bansal, who is trying to project himself as the face for the pro-technology group of scientists, none of the others I named spoke.
Interestingly, not many of the industry-sponsored participants took the mike but whenever there was a speaker in favour of Bt brinjal, you could hear a loud applause from the same section of the audience. Nothing wrong. In a democratic society, we must provide space to divergent views. At the same time, the media was in full attendance showing clearly how important and crucial the final decision on Bt brinjal is going to be for the nation.
The national consultations (or public hearings) being held are actually mandated under Environmental Impact Assessment.
What intrigues me is the manner in which the role of GEAC is being down played. The environmental clearance given by the GEAC (based on the report of the Expert Committee-II) is what needs to be revisited. The EC-II report is a scientific scandal, and has to be exposed. We cannot allow the quiet burial of one of the biggest scientific scandals in the history of Indian science.
People must raise their voice demanding the re-opening of the EC-II report, and at the same time demand liability clause to be included if anything goes wrong with the technology.
Anyway, here are a couple of news report about the Kolkata consultations:
Bt brinjal booed at first hearing
Protests mark first public consultative meeting on Bt brinjal