Finally, the last of the 7 national consultations on Bt brinjal ends today. As I write this, the Bangalore consultation is underway, and preliminary reports indicate of some high-voltage action. While we await the outcome of the consultation process, the real battle will begin once these consultations are over.
India's Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh has already announced that he will make his decision public on Feb 10.
While the people have very loudly and clearly given their verdict against the introduction of Bt brinjal, the next few days will see a hectic lobbying by the seed companies and their votaries seeking an aprobal for the controversial GM food crop. Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar has already been critical of the public consultations, and has been quoted as saying that the decision of the GEAC would be final. His colleague Minister for Science & Technology Prithviraj Chavan has given a clean chit to the safety of Bt brinjal even as the GEAC report is being widely considered to be rigged.
Whatever be the outcome, the fact remains that Jairam Ramesh has initiated a public consultation process that will go down in India's history as the rightful approach to decision making. In a peoples' democracy like India, ignoring public opinion, has already cost the nation dearly and led to an unprecedented crisis in sustainable development. The blind push towards industrialisation and globalisation has already caused immense devastation to the natural resources -- soil, water and forests, leading to further marginalisation of the communities. If only successive governments had followed the path shown by Jairam Ramesh, India's socio-economic landscape wouldn't have been so dark.
In a way, historians of the future will remember Jairam Ramesh for bringing the science of agriculture under the public scanner. And as a recent editorial in The Guardian (Feb 4, 2010) said: Ten years of ill-tempered debate over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has had many malign effects, not least adding to public scepticism about science and scientists. But it has had one benign one. It has pumped dye into the veins of the globalfood business, graphically illustrating the monopolistic ambitions of agribusiness and ultimately, perhaps, its ability to control the very food we eat.
Growing scepticism of agricultural science considering its covert relationship with the food and seed industry is making people realise that the recommendations emanating from the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR), the Council for Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR), the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) and the plethora of agricultural universities cannot be simply accepted without public scrutiny. Scientists are no longer holy cows. In fact, in many ways they are worse than politicians. The way they have been manipulating scientific claims for the sake of the industry, it is high time that scientists be held accountable, and if need be, publicly tried.
If a bridge or a fly-over falls down, we hold the engineers accountable. If a patient dies because of medical negligence, we seek toughest punishment for the concerned doctor. But when hundreds of farmers take the fatal route to escape the humiliation of growing indebtedness, an outcome of flawed technology interventions in agriculture, no scientist has been put behind bars. I feel outraged to see that while 200,000 farmers have committed suicide in the past 15 years, no scientific organisation or its head has been held responsible.
The Ministry of Agriculture and the ICAR should own responsibility for the blood-bath being enacted in the farms.
Similarly, there is a dire need to bring in a liability clause for the seed industry. The GM companies should be held responsible (with a provision for punitive action and compensation) if the GM seeds lead to contamination. The nation cannot be a mute spectator to the games the agribusiness industry plays, nor it should allow the scientists to get away with recommendations that leads to destruction of livelihoods and human suffering.
We are all for good science. But this can only be possible if the black sheep among the scientific community are not allowed to get away with murder. This is more so in the case of GM crops research where the stakes are very high.
Let us all work towards ensuring that science works for human welfare and not for corporate interests, for protecting the environment and strengthening the foundations of sustainable and equitable development.