Feb 10, 2010

Bt brinjal: Good sense prevails over bad science

As I sat glued to the television set, waiting impatiently for the final word on the contentious Bt brinjal approval, my thoughts wandered to a scene from a popular TV show Kaun Banega Carorepati. I found myself sitting in the hot seat, waiting for the response from the host of the show (Minister for Environment & Forests Jairam Ramesh replacing the iconic Amitabh Bachchan in my thoughts).

I can now imagine the mental tension that Harshvardhan (I guess that was probably the name of the person who won Rs One crore) must have undergone before Amitabh Bachchan exclaimed: You have made history !

No sooner the Breaking News flashed on the screen: India says No to Bt brinjal, I heard Jairam Ramesh in my dream sequence getting up from his seat and exclaiming the magical words You have made history before hugging me (representing the Coalition for GM Free India).

Yes, it truly is a historic decision. It is a triumph of good sense over bad science.

As Jairam Ramesh enshrines his name permanently in history, for the exemplary courage he demonstrated in standing up for truth and honesty, for putting society before mad science, for protecting environment from genetic pollution, and thereby showing the pathway for a better world, I am sure the ripples would be felt across the continents.

Jairam Ramesh has done what Michael Meacher, the former Environment Minister of UK had tried to do, but was summarily removed by the British Prime Minister Tony Blair before he could strike the last nail. I am sure my friend Michael Meacher must be today very proud of Jairam Ramesh.

Anyway, the phone hasn't stopped ringing since then. I am no exception, all my colleagues and friends in different parts of the country too have been inundated with calls and messages. Even our friends in the media (except for a few industry takers) are thrilled. The response from the people for a just cause has been simply overwhelming. It has given us tremendous hope, and reinforces confidence at a time when everything looks so bleak.

While the celebrations were on, a friend from the media called and reminded me of what I must have said after the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) had accorded environment clearance for Bt brinjal on Oct 14, 2009. Accordingly, when he had told me that with the GEAC giving the nod, and nothing can be done now, I had replied: "Don't worry, Main Hoon Naa."

My conviction came from the strength that the Coalition for GM Free India provided. I think it is important to acknowledge the role the Coalition played in building up a nationwide campaign over the years. It has been a relentless struggle, often exasperating, at times frustrating, to forge on with the single objective of creating wider awareness about the dangers of the risky and harmful transgenic technology. Behind the euphoria that we witness today lies the strenuous but quiet role the Coalition for GM Free India played, a loose network of people and groups who believe in good science, who believe in building sustainable livelihoods, protecting and conserving biodiversity, and restoring the pride in farming.

The journey actually began four years ago, on Jan 26, 2006. I had gone to deliver a public lecture on WTO and agriculture at Thiruvanthapuram in Kerala. It was there that I suggested to Jayakumar, head of a local NGO -- Thanal -- that we need to bring some like-minded groups and people together on the issue of agriculture. We need to form a national alliance of people who are striving to work for sustainable agriculture, which in our thinking is the surest way to ameliorate poverty and hunger.

In the next few months we were able to identify a few NGOs/groups across the country, who we thought had the same wave length. Picking one, then other, and another, a movement had slowly but steadily taken roots. The Coalition today spans across the country, and has a huge reach through the farmer organisations, women groups and movements, NGOs, civil society groups, doctors, nutritionists, scientists, actors and film makers, consumers, students, teachers and even spirtual leaders.

I don't know at what stage the alliance thought of formalising its activities under the banner of a Coalition for GM Free India, but I remember that we were concerned at the way the agricultural universities were engaged in developing transgenic seeds, and knew that it was probably the biggest threat the country was likely to be faced with in the years to come. With the government facilitating the takeover of agriculture by the private companies, there was no other way than to educate the people of the dangers ahead. I have tremendous faith in the sangunity of the people, and have always believed that when people stand up nothing can stop them.

As I said earlier, it wasn't an easy task. But it became possible only with the kind of commitment demonstrated by my colleagues. I haven't seen such a dedicated and committed lot, and I take this opportunity to salute each and every member of the Coalition for GM Free India who have worked tirelessly to make the dream possible, often at the cost of family priorities. And it was primarily because of the underlying strength and conviction that I was hopeful.

As we moved along, the Coalition also drew strength. More and more people joined, all of them volunteering their time and effort. Yesterday, when film maker Mahesh Bhatt called to thank me for introducing him to the subject, I was humbled when he said: You created a wall against this unwanted technology. I only added a brick to it, and then went on to say: But I cannot tell you the sense of achievement that I derive today. I think Mahesh Bhatt is simply being kind with words. His documentary (and much of the credit would go to the director Ajay Kanchan) Poison on the Platter has been perhaps the most powerful tool that we had in our hands to educate the masses.

Selvam from Tamil Nadu was able to sensitise film actors Revathi and Rohini. I spoke with Revathi the other day, and was so delighted to learn how angry she feels at the way the government was willing to contaminate our food. Among the political leaders, I think there cannot be anyone like the Kerala Agriculture Minister Mullakkara Ratnakaran, who is simply amazing. His deep sense of involvement stems from his innate stimulation to protect the environment, which he thinks is possible by reversing the modern paradigm of industrial farming. With the backing of his chief minister, Ratnakaran has been striving hard to keep Kerala GM Free. If India has to escape the doomsday, it needs Mullakkara Ratnakaran as Agriculture Minister.

I remember when I first met Swami Ramdev and Sri Sri Ravi Shanker (and both these times I had accompanied Ajay Kanchan), it was such an overwhelming experience to know that we have the blessings of the divine. Only two weeks back when I again met Sri Sri Ravi Shanker at his ashram in Bangalore, he was so outraged at the way Bt brinjal was being thrust that he wanted to immediately hold a press conference decrying the move. And yesterday, when Swami Ramdev called to congratulate me, I wasn't surprised when he said we have many more battles ahead, and we are with you.

Earlier, I had travelled to Kerala to meet the hugging saint, Maa Amrita, and returned back equally charged. The unequivocal support extended by Bibi Inderjeet Kaur, the head of the Amritsar-based philanthropic organisation Pingalwara, have been among the strong influences.

Not only the celebrities, there have been innumerable support coming in from all sections of the society. Dr GPI Singh, for instance, who took up in all ernest the issue of GM crops and health, has today emerged on the national scene. I remember at a national conference in Kerala a few days ago, he said that he was ashamed to acknowledge that at a conference of 600 doctors that he had addressed in Punjab recently, not even one of them knew what GM crops were. It was therefore a challenge for him to take the issue to the health fraternity.

It will be practically impossible for me to name each and every one who have made this day possible. Please pardon me, if I have missed out on some of the outstanding contributions. To err is human, and I am no exception. At the same time, I am not going to take you into the merits of the historical decision, you have probably read it all by now in the newspapers, but to let you know that after you have taken off the dancing shoes, it will be time to get back to work. We have the monumental responsibility now to show an ecologically sustainable path of agricultural development to the nation. We have to draw the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) to see and appreciate the ground realities, and to make that scientifically possible.

We also need to continue build up pressure to show the exit to the multinational seed companies. We don't need them in India. Let us ensure that they remain confined to places like St Louis. In fact, I am sure the day is not far off when America too would become disillusioned with these seed and agribusiness giants, but perhaps after these companies have plundered and done irretrievable damage. I am sorry for America, but let us not allow that to happen in India.

You can do it. To know your inner strength is the first step to success. And I know for sure that like what I told my friend from the media, you too have that feeling somewhere deep in you: Main Hoon Naa.


Anonymous said...

Its nice if such high voltage activism is also shown against the problems of aam admi like price rise, inflation, hoarding, food adulteration, commercialisation, patenting etc

keralafarmer said...

Some of my Twitter friends and few menbers of internet Grops are asking me are you happy?
My answer is why not. Surely I am happy for the valuable decision of Hon Min Jaiaram Ramesh for protecting Indian environment free from GM. I have no words to Cogratulate My honourable Environment & Forest Minister on his courage to take a decision like this.
Any way the scientists, doctors (who know about human health in detail) farmers, ngo's, consumers, students, teachers & agricultural universities, many of the media etc with us for this copaign beyond party politics to stop the commecial cultivation of BT Brinjal in our Country was a remarkable one.
However this action of India received good attention from all over the World on this subject.
S. Chandrasekharan Nair

Anonymous said...

Thank you Devinderji for spearheading this campaign and your untiring efforts towards protecting Indian agriculture!


Anonymous said...

It is a great piece of history .

In future when you mention some where about Thanal please call us( Thanal) as a voluntary organisation and not NGO


witan said...

You have rightly praised Jairam Ramesh's courageous decision, but the confidence he has reposed in Dr MS Swaminathan for giving a correct assessment is disturbing. Swaminathan has been a strong supporter of genetically modified crops, and his opposition to Bt-Brinjal now is intriguing and not convincing. He probably wants to retain his clout with the government by making the currently popular and politically correct noises, or he has fallen out with Monsanto and has been recruited by some rival MNC (Syngenta?). Besides, Swaminathan was never an expert on biotechnology or on safety of GM foods, or on environment. He is 85 years old, and has been out of active science for donkey's years. Also, even when he was nominally a working scientist, Swaminathan was involved in a number of unwholesome controversies like Sharbati Sonora, "The Great Gene Robbery", and a comparatively less known affair (in 1989), involving the deliberate destruction of valuable scrub forest in which the Madras Christian College campus is located.