Jan 5, 2011

Indian Science Congress remains quiet on farmer suicides; Scientists refrain from taking responsibility

The annual science jamboree began at Katankulathur, about 40 kms from Chennai, on January 3. Yes, I am talking of the 98th Indian Science Congress which will last five days. Inaugurating the conference, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh cautioned the nation against tendencies of putting the products of science to illiberal uses.

I don't know what exactly he implied when he warned against using scientific products in an 'illiberal' manner but I for once thought the Prime Minister should have drawn the attention of the science clan to the biggest human tragedy that the country is faced with. I am talking of the great tragedy on the farm, which has already taken a mammoth human toll of over 2,15,000 farmers in the past 15 years, and the nation is still counting.

Even if the Prime Minister had not mentioned it, I strongly feel the Indian Science Congress Association (which organises this annual ritual) should have on its own focused on the national tragedy. After all, scientists cannot absolve themselves of their role in the serial death dance the countryside has been witnessing for long.

Manmohan Singh did count the breeding of new crop varieties and the advancement of agro-chemicals and pharmaceuticals as the scientific knowledge applied for constructive purposes. But what he forgot to say was that if all these were benevolent technologies than why is that a large number of farmers who have been using them over a long period have been driven to bankruptcy and mounting indebtedness. As a result hundreds of thousands of farmers have preferred to end their lives drinking the same agro-chemicals.

Agricultural scientists have refrained from not only talking but even remotely making a mention of farmer suicides. I can understand why. After all, the needle of suspicion points to them. But why should the Indian Science Congress refrain from talking about farmer suicides remains unclear. Have scientists got so disconnected with the society that they can merrily ignore the killings that go on in the name of agricultural development?

A few days before the Indian Science Congress began, I was addressing thousands of farmers and activists at the third Bharat Vikas Sangam event that concluded at Gulbarga in Karnataka on Jan 1. In my address, I did say that the 2,15,000 farmers who have killed themselves actually are victims of the faulty agricultural growth model that has been promoted for the past four decades. This is no collateral damage. Scientists have to take responsibility and must find out where have they gone wrong.

Science has to be accountable to society.

At the Indian Science Congress, it is heartening to read Nobel laureate Venkataraman Ramakrishnan acknowledge that although science is an international enterprise where the traffic should be both ways, and at present the flow from the West to India is more (The Hindu, Jan 5). No where else is the dominance of western science and technology more apparent than in the field of agriculture. And it is here that the country is faced with an unprecedented farm crisis.

Let us face it. Green Revolution has already run out of steam, and with agrarian distress visible all around, I think at least for once the Indian Science Congress would have done itself justice by focusing on the great farm disaster in the country. By doing so, they would have demonstrated what is meant by the term 'value-based application' of science.

In many ways, farmers are dying because of technology failure. The growing indebtedness in farming, is the result of unwanted technologies being forced upon small and marginal farmers. As a result soils have been poisoned, groundwater is being continuously mined, pesticides have contaminated the food chain and the environment, forcing the farmers to the gallows. When will scientists find time to deliberate on the biggest tragedy that has hit India since Independence? Is it because of the fear that the finger might point to farm scientists that the Indian Science Congress invariably refrains from launching a scientific inquest into farmer suicides?

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