Like a breath of fresh air
Like a breath of fresh air
Rupashree Nanda (CNN-IBN Correspondent)
CNN-IBN, February 13 2010
The controversial decision of an expert committee that Bt Brinjal is safe for human consumption triggered conflicting reactions: there was little cheer, more anger. The Establishment dismissed the legitimate concerns of dissenters as ranting of a lunatic fringe. Soon, it was raining labels on nay-sayers- anti - science, anti - development, anti- national, destructively romantic, their evidence of terrible past experience was dismissed as exaggeration or, worse a lie. The expert committee left the final decision of commercializing Bt Brinjal to environment minister Jairam Ramesh who said he will make up his mind only after consulting all stake-holders.
I cannot say which highway the Establishment was on, but it surely did not have the patience to pause, listen, or talk to the citizen on whose behalf it was taking decisions. Jairam Ramesh, although a part of the same Establishment, decided to go against the grain at the risk of being isolated. And it is for this reason the environment minister's decision-making process on Bt Brinjal was like a breath of fresh air. I am trying hard, but I cannot remember the last time a union minister took the difficult path of overriding his gatekeepers to talk to dissenters, in fact, walking into 'enemy camps' to persuade them to see 'reason' in the establishment-think. He did it even after his own expert committee had certified that Bt Brinjal was safe!
Opening up the decision making process has its hazards. It is not predictable. And given the high stakes in Bt Brinjal, tempers ran high in both camps. In Nagpur, pro Bt Brinjal farmers led by Sharad Joshi gheraoed Jairam, warning him not to give in to the opposite camp. In Bangalore, he was called an agent for Monsanto! Crucially, for the first time, many scientists who had reservations about Bt Brinjal were able to break their silence in the safety of these democratic consultations. Jairam traveled to Kolkata, Bhubaneswar, Ahmedabad, Nagpur Banglaore, Hyderabad, Chandigarh listening to scientists, farmers, activists, teachers, doctors, researchers. Like a trapeze artist, he walked on high wire balancing every little point of view.
The unusual process that Jairam adopted was causing tremors in the political world. The expert committee had given the go ahead, so what was Jairam doing? Why was he talking to these people? And who were they? What was the worth of this process? Some lamented the fact that we were losing out on the opportunity to be the first in the world to adopt Bt Brinjal. It was distressing to see that a minister's simple commitment of talking to all kinds ordinary people in a democracy was being ridiculed.
It is important to note that the opposition to the introduction of Bt brinjal cut across the political divide. In Kerala, the LDF government, asked for a reconsideration of GM policy and a moratorium for the next 50 years. Orissa cited the interest of small and marginal farmers and asked for more trials. Interestingly even Congress ruled Andhra said, "it is clear that the data generated, the tests conducted, and information disseminated by GEAC are not sufficient for suggesting the commercial release of Bt Brinjal." The minister had encouraged states to write to him, and not even one state replied in the affirmative. Not even Gujarat, the hub of biotech research.
So while Jairam was under pressure from the states and civil society organization to say no, his party wanted him to say yes. While one can understand the angsty voices on the roads and inside auditoriums, one cannot explain or justify the pressure that came from within. Prithviraj Chavan, the Prime Minister's office (that is the nuclear family), and Sharad Pawar ( the extended family). The pro-Bt voices were a minority, but they were powerful. But why were they insisting? After all, there was no urgent issue of food security. India is spoilt for choices with almost 4000 varieties. If Jairam had to say no, he not only had to go against the report of Expert Committee 2, but also against his own party.
The controversial performance of Bt cotton notwithstanding, almost 90% of India's cotton is Bt. Which means that India's cotton is indirectly in the hands of one private seed company. Instead of being worried by that, India's agriculture minister Sharad Pawar applauds it as a success story! With almost 4000 varieties of Brinjal in India what will happen if 90% of it is taken over by Bt? Is India willing to surrender its seed sovereignty to one private seed giant? Insisting seeds are as important to India strategically as nuclear research, Jairam is strongly advocating public investment in India's bio-tech research. So that there is competition in the market, so that seeds are owned by public-sector units also, so that no one has a monopoly. It appeals to common sense and reason.
The most important question remains whether this particular variety of Bt Brinjal was safe. EC - 2 says that it is safe. But there was no scientific consensus on the verdict of EC 2. Dr Pushpa Bhargava and Professor M S Swaminathan, neither are anti- GM food, gave a vote of no-confidence. The chair of the expert committee Arjula Reddy said that necessary tests were not done, and without them one cannot be sure of whether Bt Brinjal was absolutely safe. EC 2 was rigged from the beginning. Five members from EC 1 were also members in EC 2! EC 2 revised its guidelines, and critics say new guidelines came with the US pressure. The expert committee was fraught with conflict of interest. In fact, it was a perfect example of how not to constitute an expert committee. Yet, it had the support of powerful ministers, Sharad Pawar and Prithviraj Chavan. They asked us to repose faith in the verdict of the committee. What they were really asking from us is a "willing suspension of disbelief ",
something that is necessary when you see a Bollywood masala film, not while you are making up your mind on whether the committee deserves your trust.
Jairam Ramesh liberated the decision-making from the shrouds of secrecy and confines of closed doors. He had the courage to overrule the decision of a compromised committee that came directly under him. The work on a new committee that promises to be fair and transparent has already begun. So has the process of raising the bar on scientific research and excellence. And contrary to allegations of privileging the individual over the institution, Jairam is engaged precisely in building institutions that hopefully would restore our confidence. Those who think Jairam has given in to pressure from civil society must remember that he has not said an absolute no to GM food. And hence civil society organizations cannot afford to be smug.
I can think of one overriding reason why Jairam Ramesh said no to Bt Brinjal. The particular variety of Bt Brinjal simply did not meet the exacting standards of science before being declared safe for human consumption. Somewhere along the way the minister must have known that beyond all doubts.
PS 1: This transparent decision-making process deserves to be replicated. Maybe the minister might make another beginning with the Bhopal gas tragedy?
PS 2: The real story is not how and why Jairam Ramesh said no. The real story is how and why the EC- 2 said yes.