In an interview to the journal Science (Feb. 24 edition), Prime Minister Manmohan Singh chose to focus on two hazardous technologies — genetically engineered seeds and crops in agriculture and nuclear power — as vital to the progress of science in India and the “salvation for finding meaningful new pathways of developing our economy”. He also talked about foreign-funded NGOs that were blocking this development.
What Dr Singh said in the interview saddened me because he seems out of touch with science as well as the people of India whose will he is supposed to represent in a democracy. To label the democratic voices of the citizens of India as “foreign” and unthinking is an insult to democracy, to the people of India and to the scientific community. The scientific community is dedicated to developing science in public interest and to understanding the safety aspects of hazardous technologies like nuclear and genetic engineering.
Dr Singh’s statements also trivialised the regulatory framework for biosafety and nuclear safety. Biotechnology and nuclear science have safety implications in the context of the environment and public health. We have national and international laws on biosafety in the context of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and nuclear safety in the context of nuclear power and Dr Singh should be legally bound by these frameworks. The debate on safety is vital to our science, our democracy and our ecological food and health security.
Dr Singh is misleading the nation by making it appear as if the voices raising caution are only of “foreign-funded NGOs”. The most significant voice on biosafety is of Dr Pushpa Bhargava, the father of molecular biology in India and Supreme Court Appointee on the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee, which is the statutory body that regulates GMOs for biosafety under the 1989 Environment Protection Act. The most important voice for nuclear safety is of Dr A. Gopalakrishnan, the former chairman of Atomic Energy Regulatory Board. Dr Singh should listen to these eminent experts for developing a responsible and democratic science rather than creating the bogey of “foreign interference” and starting a witch hunt of public interest groups which are the very life and blood of a democracy.
This attack on movements engaged in safety issues of genetic engineering and nuclear power needs to be viewed in the larger context of the megabucks foreign corporations pushing GMOs and nuclear power plants are looking at in India. Dr Singh has succumbed to these pressures and has sacrificed India’s food and energy sovereignty. He signed the Indo-US civil nuclear agreement and the deal got the approval of Parliament only through the “cash for votes” scandal. Dr Singh also signed the Indo-US Agriculture Initiative which seeks to put India’s food and agriculture systems in the hands of global corporate giants like Monsanto, Cargill and Walmart, though the push for foreign direct investment (FDI) in retail was stopped by Parliament.
The recent Uttar Pradesh and other Assembly election results show that the people have rejected those policies of the UPA that focus on the interests of global corporations while trampling on the livelihood and democratic rights of the people of India.
We still haven’t recovered from the huge price we had to pay when our seed sovereignty in cotton was destroyed after the entry of Monsanto: Seed costs jumped 8,000 per cent, use of pesticides increased, as did crop failure, and that in turn increased farmers’ debt. And with debt came the epidemic of farmers’ suicides. Today, 95 per cent of our cotton seed is owned and collected by Monsanto through licensing agreements with 60 Indian seed companies.
Dr Singh talks of the “double whammy” of disease but he describes it as an “opportunity”. He fails to address the “double whammy” in the food and agriculture crisis — 250,000 farmer committed suicide and half of India’s children are malnourished. The GMOs are not a solution to this double whammy. They are aggravating and deepening the crisis of debt linked to capital intensive, non-sustainable agriculture based on seed monopoly, which destroys food systems that produce nutritious food. The solution to farmers’ suicide and children’s malnutrition is the science of agro-ecology and the development of ecologically intensive, low-cost agriculture that increases the production of nutritious food as we have shown in the Navdanya report titled, “Health Per Acre”.
Navdanya’s report “The GMO emperor has no clothes” provides empirical evidence about the performance of GMOs in farmers’ fields. The GMOs have failed to increase yields or reduce the use of pesticides. The prevalence of pests and weeds hasn’t decreased either. GMOs have, in fact, increased chemical use and led to the emergence of super pests and super weeds.
To impose a failed technology with extremely high social and ecological costs undemocratically on India in the name of “science” is anti-science and anti-democracy. It is anti-science because real science is based on the new disciplines of agro-ecology and epigenetics, not the obsolete idea of genetic determinism and genetic reductionism. The latest science in energy is renewable energy and not nuclear.
Yet, the Prime Minister, under the influence of global corporations, will stop at nothing to destroy the nation’s seed, food and energy sovereignty, as well as health and nutrition security. His attack on NGOs should be seen along with the attack on Biosafety Regulatory Framework in India. There is an attempt to dismantle the biosafety rules and replace them with the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (Brai), which would rob states of the powers they have under the Constitution and in the current biosafety laws. After all, 13 states stopped the Bt brinjal. To blame the moratorium on Bt brinjal on NGOs “funded from the US and Scandinavian countries” is to turn a blind eye to the concerns of the states. The proposed Brai will also rob citizens of their right to justice and biosafety by blocking them from approaching civil courts. The corporations will be deregulated and citizens will be policed.
Dr Singh’s attack on NGOs is part of this larger attack on democracy and people’s rights, to undemocratically promote global corporations in the vital sectors of food and energy.
The debate on genetic engineering and nuclear power is a test case of the intense conflict between corporate rule and democracy, between corporate science pushing hazards and public science calling for safety. It is a contest between science and democracy on one hand and propaganda and dictatorship on the other.
The writer is the executive director of the Navdanya Trust