From Bt Brinjal to GM Mustard: how resisting GM is no longer the same

The democratic processes so alive at the time of the Bt Brinjal debate appear to be missing today

By Bharat Dogra

There have been two big moments in the debate on genetically modified (GM) food crops in India. The first one was in 2009-10 when the high-power efforts to introduce Bt. Brinjal were very fiercely contested and finally defeated in a very democratic debate which was applauded all over the world.

The second big moment is NOW when even more high power efforts have been launched to get approval for the commercial introduction of GM Mustard but very unfortunately the democratic processes which were so alive at the time of the earlier debate appear to be missing today.

However, two factors were common to both the situations. First, very important evidence had been presented by senior scientists and other experts to show how adequate tests had not been conducted and how the case for the introduction of these GM crops was very weak. Secondly, despite this, very powerful and resourceful forces had exerted tremendous influence to ensure that somehow or the other approval for commercial cultivation of these crops can be obtained.

In this situation, Jairam Ramesh, Environment Minister in the UPA government in 2009-10, initiated a highly democratic process in which public hearings were held in various parts of the country and scientists, representatives of farmers, social and health activists, environmentalists and others could present all the facts and evidence relevant to this debate. Experts holding important positions in the government were encouraged to give their sincere and unbiased opinion. Opinion of other independent experts was also sought and examined. Above all the opinion of all state governments was sought in detail and given due importance.

An efficient system was put in place in which all the massive evidence coming in could be properly examined to take a proper decision which could be well justified . When finally a decision was taken against the introduction of Bt Brinjal even the powerful forces lobbying hard for this GM food crop could not really protest much because the entire process of placing a moratorium on Bt. Brinjal was so transparent and democratic.

An excellent official document providing the entire reasoning and justification for the decision was released at the same time as the moratorium was announced. In this document Jairam Ramesh provided a particularly detailed descriptions of the objections to the introduction of GM food crop by state governments because, as he wrote, “ this is extremely important in our federal framework.” This document remains very valuable even today in terms of what kind of opposition to GM food crop had been voiced by various state governments and important experts.

This kind of democratic decision making on such an important issue appears to be missing today at a time when the crucial decision on GM Mustard has to be taken in the near future. It is of course true that in a scattered way very well argued opposition to this GM food crop is coming in from several sources. Apart from the evidence presented by several scientists several eminent economists have also written to the Prime Minister debunking the false or exaggerated claims being made on behalf of GM Mustard while several Gandhian leaders and activists have also released a well-argued statement against GM food crops.

Most prominently, the Parliamentary Standing Committee attached to the Ministry of Environment and Forests has raised very serious questions about the desirability of GM crops . Worldwide the evidence against the health, environmental and other adverse impacts of GM crops has increased much beyond what was available at the time of Jairam Ramesh.

Despite all this the political will and the ability to take forward all this in a democratic, decentralised and transparent manner does not seem to exist today and instead the drift is towards secretive decision making and over-centralization and domination by powerful vested interests. The efficiency seen earlier in getting together all the relevant information and unbiased processing of mounds of information is also missing. The tendency appears to be to sense what the big bosses want and proceed in that direction. The independence and strength of civil society which was so admired in 2009-10 appears to have been lost to a significant extent and this is a big loss for democracy.

The writer is a freelance journalist who has been involved with several social movements and initiatives.

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