Aug 22, 2014

Industry-sponsored study tours are a malpractice.

In the mid-1980s I was working with the Indian Express. As the Agriculture Correspondent for the newspaper I had followed keenly the claims Pepsico was making to re-enter India. In the garb of bringing a 2nd Horticultural Revolution in the trouble-torn Punjab, Pepsi had its eyes set on the vast Indian market for its beverages. The studies and reports Pepsico had presented were not so convincing. In my columns I had repeatedly questioned the claims.

Pepsico was certainly not happy with my reports. I was contacted by a senior Punjab bureaucrat who wanted me to sit across with the Country Director of Pepsico to know the other side. As a journalist this is what I am supposed to do. So I readily agreed. The three of us met for a cup of tea and after a lot of discussions, Pepsico invited me and my wife for a fortnight visit to the US to see for myself the remarkable research that was being conducted on agriculture. I was also told that Pepsico would be keen to take me to Venezuela to show me the success they have achieved in potato cultivation. When I just smiled and said "thank you" (and perhaps sensing that I may not take it as an unethical practice), I was told they were also taking a senior bureaucrat (who incidentally was responsible for the development sector, and was not very enthused with Pepsico's proposals) to the US.

Well, the bureaucrat did visit Pepsico's headquarters (he had sought permission from the Punjab Govt to attend a family marriage in the US) and once he returned he became a die hard champion for Pepsico.

Pepsico did subsequently make an entry into Punjab in the late 1980's. But all I know is that after some 30 years, in 2014, when I look back there is no trace of the 2nd Horticultural Revolution the soft drink giant had promised.

This incident came to my mind the moment I read the news report After GM trials ban, BJP, Sena MPs heading for Monsanto-funded study tour (Business Standard. Aug 22, 2014. The news report said: "A group of members of Parliament from BJP and Shiv Sena are heading to the US on a week long study tour sponsored by global seed giant, Monsanto. The group departs on Saturday."  It also quoted a Monsanto spokesperson who admitted that this is in line with industry practice. The visit would cost approximately $ 6,000 per head for food, accommodation and travel which would be entirely borne by Monsanto. Considering there are no free lunches, you can just imagine the kind of indirect return the company was expecting for this visit.

Within hours of the news report appearing the social media went berserk. The BJP responded by saying that none of its members would be part of the junket.

Nevertheless, the fact remains this is not the first time industry has sponsored such study junkets. And also Monsanto is not the only company to have done so. This is a usual lobbying practice adopted by Big Business and somehow the media is game with it. Monsanto itself has taken in the past scores of journalists, farmer leaders, scientists, and officials of the Department of Biotechnology on study tours. It will be interesting to know how many such junkets have been organised by Monsanto in the past, and to know who all went and what did they write when they came back. No wonder you see a very spirited defense of the controversial genetically modified (GM) crops that are under consideration for commercial approval.

This also reminds me of a news report that has appeared in the national daily The Hindu some years back. A group of visiting scientists (for an International Science Congress in New Delhi) had gone and met the then Chief Justice of India inviting him and some senor judges on an 'educational tour' of the US to understand the virtues of GM technology. I later found out that judges from some 20 countries including India, South Africa, Brazil, and Egypt had traveled to an institute named after Albert Einstein. The basic objective of such education trips for the judges was to expose them to 'the great potential of GM crops' so that they don't easily admit legal cases that would be filed in due course of time.

This malpractice must stop. Already enough damage has been done by manipulating the public discourse by such sponsored visits. Just like the Prime Minister Narendra Modi has put an end to the malpractice of carrying an entourage of journalists on his visits abroad, and has also directed ruling party MPs to take his permission before travelling abroad on sch junkets/study tours, it is high time the Indian media too on its own announced putting an end to this malpractice. Media can't be standing on the high moral ground without first setting up an example.

Why only MP's it is time the government also stops agricultural scientists, economists, sociologists, and also bar officials of the Department of Biotechnology, Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Science & Technology as well as the Ministry of Environment & Forests from such sponsored studies. This is a corrupt practice and it must be put to an end. #


Anonymous said...

A very insightful article. The so-called study tours are just blandishments to buy off potential opponents to their ecocidal plans. It would be unfortunate if the national interests are compromised for a mess of pottage! One may take inspiration from G.V.Ramakrishna, the former Union Petroleum Secretary, who when offered bribe by a foreign contractor in a pipeline-laying project for choosing them from among other bidders, honestly declined taking it and asked the company to discount the same sum from the contract fee they were charging, so that the GoI can save costs !!!
Of course in the current Monsanto case, both bribes as well as the company itself must be avoided!!

If posterity is not to blame today's intellectuals for destroying their health by failing to take timely action - it is time now for them to act and save their nation, remembering the immortal Burkean quote : "All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing"

Dr. Joseph Christie said...

The view by Devinder Sharma that "the government should also stop agricultural scientists, economists, sociologists, and also bar officials of the Department of Biotechnology, Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Science & Technology as well as the Ministry of Environment & Forests from such sponsored studies" is preposterous and silly. It makes a mockery of scientific pursuit, and with the country doing so badly when compared with its giant Asian neighbor, it will drive the scientific impetus down into ground. I am sure DM as the Agriculture Correspondent for the newspaper(when he snooped around and followed keenly the claims Pepsico was making to re-enter India) was not an Agriculture Chemist or researchers but just a history or commerce major graduate with the flare to criticize that he felt he ought to criticize, with no justifiable reason

Devinder Sharma said...

I hold a Master's degree in Plant Breeding & Genetics.