Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Indian Bt Brinjal dilemma

The debate over the approval of Bt brinjal by Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) has gone to the next level, with the consultation being held throughout India by engaging different stakeholders under the able headship of Mr Jairam Ramesh. But the consultation faced open revolts with the wide protests by NGOs and even in some cases by the scientific fraternity. Already the Kolkata and Bhubaneshwar consultations faced the ire of the protestors and was closed without any results. Several groups have expressed concern and dissatisfaction over the way in which the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee conducted and approved Bt brinjal field trials. These groups have called for tests by an independent lab.

Dr MS Swaminathan also felt for the need of a regulatory mechanism that inspires people's confidence and genetically engineered foods hold great promise for the future, especially if India intends to cut its hunger rate by half by 2015. In the recently concluded 97th science Congress, PM Dr. Manmohan Singh also expressed his concerns over the safety issues of GM foods and reiterated that safety must be given full weight, with appropriate regulator control based on strictly scientific criteria.

So, it seems just like another go around phenomenon. Why not we can go to basics and opt for the health, safety and other concerns raised? There are clear indications that people are still not ready for its acceptance without proper health and safety assurances. Just releasing a variety/ hybrid is of no use, if it doesn’t reach the end consumers at affordable rates and is proved of no damage to the human / any other creatures’ health, physiological activity and the ecosystem at large.

The data on safety and efficacy has been examined by 30 scientists who are members of the review committee on genetic manipulation and also the GEAC. The data is sufficient to allay safety and environment concerns, as claimed by the government. But one of the member Dr. P.M. Bhargava furiously revolted by noting that the report of Expert Committee II headed by Arjula R. Reddy, which recommended the approval of Bt Brinjal was full of lies and absurdities, a ludicrous document that brought down Indian science in front of the whole world. And one which looked like it had been written by the public relations officer of the Mahyco-Monsanto collaboration.

It was obvious from the Bt brinjal debate that Indians do not trust the current regulatory structure. Kerala, Orissa, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Tamil Nadu have already decided to keep Bt brinjal out. It was objected to even by former health minister Anbumani Ramadoss. But, Mr Ramesh has given assurance that no decision on Bt brinjal would be taken in a haste. He promised to arrive at a decision by February 20 only after conducting hearings in Hyderabad, Bangalore, Nagpur and Chandigarh. In the situation, when researchers’ themselves are not well assured and confident of the Bt Brinjal’s safety aspect, then how could we imagine its approval by the governing and other concerned departments?

After lot of discussions, debates out of research can only make sure/ convince the public/ consumers that, it is clean for environment and safe for humans. Government has to ensure that the decision due next month on going ahead with commercial cultivation of Bt brinjal should not be dismissed without a fair trial. As, in India even the murderer like, Kasab of 9/11 gets the trial. Govt, ICAR and corporates are in for its haste release, which may cause havoc to the health of general public and environment also.

With the widespread protests and debate over the release of Bt brinjal, even the Apex court has asked the government to come clean on the health and environmental effects of the GM food crop. The Supreme Court also wants to know from the Centre to spell out the measures taken to prevent contamination of indigenous crops varieties by open field trials of the Bt brinjal crops. Mr Jairam Ramesh, the Environment and Forests Minister expressed that India needs an autonomous bio-technology regulatory authority and an independent laboratory to conduct various tests.

Bt cotton, too, faced similar opposition a few years ago but today, the country is the largest producer of cotton. Besides, the soil bacterium has been around for many years, but here the situation is not the same as Brinjal being the food crop and a native to Indian subcontinent with unimaginable levels of diversity and consumption pattern. Tackling the debate on scientific basis is ok, other than on the basis of unfounded fears and a fear psychosis. Health and safety issues have to be well taken care of, before the unknown plunge. As there would not be U-turn, once it is introduced and reaches the farmer’s field.

The sugary tug of war

With the continuing blame game of ever high sugar prices between the centre and the Uttar Pradesh government, the retail prices are not known to come down any soon. Sugar is selling at Rs 50 per kg in retail markets in Delhi and almost at the same rate across India, more than double from the level in January 2009.

India, the world's largest sugar consumer and currently a leading importer, after production fell two years in a row, needs 23 million tons of sugar annually. The country is expected to produce only around 16 million tons in the crop year. With farmers raising the farm gate price of sugarcane to 240 rupees per quintal from 140 rupees a year ago, costs have escalated and are likely to rise further as cane supply gets scarce in the coming months.

In the international market, sugar futures are trading near a 28-year high of 27.49 cents a pound, mainly because of anticipated shortages in India. India allowed tax-free imports of raw and white sugar in April to improve supplies in domestic markets, spiking benchmark prices in New York and London. India has contracted to import 2.9 million tones of raw sugar and 0.9 million tones of white sugar in the season that began in October. After being a net importer for two straight years, the country may become self-sufficient in 2010/11, as per the assurances from the Govt.

Uttar Pradesh government has imposed a ban on processing of imported raw sugar since the farmers' protest over cane prices in November, leading to about 8 lakh tonnes of raw sugar lying at ports. Imported raw sugar has been lying at the ports for more than two months and the UP government is not allowing millers to process. On the other hand, the UP govt is openly blaming the Central policies for the muddle, which encouraged hoarders and blackmarketeers and suggested for revamping the policies. The Agriculture Ministry has already written to UP government for lifting the ban on raw sugar processing and accepted that they have not been able to convince the state govt, and will try to request at the highest level.

The central government missed all the red flags that pointed to a sugar shortage for almost a year, generated sharply varying estimates of cane production, and kept prices artificially depressed from October 2008, due to the state elections, leading to a situation where sugar prices is at about Rs 50/kg today, and likely to only rise further. The agriculture minister was not even ready to accept the insufficient production last cane season ending September – November and most of the times reiterated that we have enough stocks to keep the prices under tab. A report even revealed that the incumbent Govt. and Mr. Pawar was aware of sugar crisis a year ago. In the case, they should have imported sugar six months ago when the sugar prices of import was just Rs.17 per kg. Sensing the crisis, the exporting countries hiked sugar prices knowing that India was going to import sugar. Sharad Pawar’s promise of bringing down the retail prices of essential commodities, including sugar within one week to 10 days, following the measures unveiled by the government is fading way. And now he is conveying that the wholesale prices have come down to 10-12 per cent during last 2-3 days and its impact can only be seen in retail after some time. Mr. Pawar should have been more empathetic and should have restrained from making insensitive comments of not being a fortuneteller and sugar prices will be high for the next three years, the moment sugar prices started defying gravity and reached Rs 50/ kg!

In situations of insufficient availability, the millers would have processed an additional 2.5 lakh tons per month. If this extra processed sugar could become available, this would have brought down prices. Besides, states should take stern action against hoarders and speculators. Additionally, steps should be taken to check smuggling of sugarcane and sugar from India to Nepal and other neighbouring countries. The govt. has already given green signal to the duty free sugar imports till December 2010, but it has to be adhered by the state and the essential commodities act has to be brought into action to contain the damage that has already been half done. So, with the Govt’s decision for importing 40 lakh tones of raw sugar, it is hoped that the situation would turn a bit placid. The regular imports would be allowed to ease the inflation and meanwhile, the current agriculture policies particularly, the marketing and pricing policy needs to be given a relook.

The lack of policy co-ordination among the Centre and States is also hindering government efforts to control prices. While the central government has been encouraging sugar mills to import raw sugar, the Uttar Pradesh has put ban on imports by mills in the state, resulting in some 900,000 tons of raw sugar being stuck at Indian ports. Some of the provincial governments are also slow to utilize the full quota of food grains released by the central government for distribution through welfare programs. While government officials have publicly stated they expect prices to fall in the coming weeks, fresh steps to control prices are a clear sign that the situation is still not under control.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Pride and Prejudice of being BIHARI !

Who carries you on a rickshaw or an autorickshaw in Delhi? Biharis. Who drives the cars of Delhiites? Biharis. Who built the Delhi Metro? Biharis. (You may not agree with the last one.) Who is building the new houses and the expanding suburbs of Delhi? Biharis. Who made Punjab the most prosperous state in the country? The answer again is Biharis. (Here too you may not agree.) The credit for building the Delhi Metro or making Punjab prosperous will never go to Biharis. Does anyone ever say that blacks built America? In colonial days, Bihar supplied the girmitiya, or indentured, labourers who built countries like Mauritius, Suriname and Fiji. A bulk of the labour employed in the Raj capital of Calcutta came from Bihar. After Independence Bihari workers flocked to places like Delhi, Punjab and Mumbai.

At the same time, Biharis excelled in other fields. Many became great political leaders, ICS and IAS officers, scientists, doctors, engineers, writers and artists. Delhi and other Indian cities attracted huge white-collar Bihari populations and Biharis formed a large part of the Indian diaspora of professionals. But in the eyes of the rest of India, “Bihari” had come to mean a labourer, a person doing menial jobs. It had become a term of scorn and contempt. In their anglicized lingo, places like Delhi University turned the word into “Harry”, but the pejorative tone remained unmistakable. Heaping scorn on the working classes is a universal phenomenon. That is how words like Negro, Paki (used for Pakistanis and Indians in Britain) and some of the words denoting dalit castes in India earned contemptuous connotations. In fact, while Biharis were getting their hands dirty on Punjab’s farms, Punjabis were migrating in hordes to the US, Canada, the UK and Australia. Never mind that they would take up blue-collar jobs as taxi drivers, petrol pump attendants and waiters in those faraway lands. As the years passed, many of the Biharis who had come to Punjab or Mumbai as manual labourers started moving up the economic ladder as did the blue-collar Indian emigrants abroad. A usually unnoticed aspect of the so-called racial attacks against Indians abroad is the threat the rise of working classes poses to the entrenched social order. This accentuates the contempt they face. From this angle, the attacks on Biharis in Punjab, and Mumbai, and the attacks on Indians abroad are manifestations of the same phenomenon.

What stopped Biharis from bringing about a green revolution or building a Metro in Bihar? The answer is geography and history. Geography, because ravaged by floods, the land of Bihar was unable to feed its growing population. And history, because what was the centre of the biggest Indian empire in ancient times was reduced to an obscure provincial existence. The skewed landownership system introduced by the British rulers worsened the situation. Things could have improved after Independence had the political leadership of Bihar been able to exert influence on the rulers in New Delhi to get enough funds for development projects and set off a process of industry in the state.

On the contrary, Bihar continued to live the same, conveniently ignored, provincial existence. A system built on casteism, nepotism, corruption and crime came to dominate the state. It spawned a neo-rich class of netas, babus, contractors and government engineers who would build palatial houses for themselves with the money meant for dams, power projects, ration for the poor or even fodder for cattle.

The money meant for roads and public amenities would go into their bank accounts. No wonder, the roads in front of those houses would be full of ditches and become the playground of pigs every monsoon. With limited options of higher education and hardly any employment opportunities in the state, the youth of Bihar started looking out. They flooded places like Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University. They started dominating the country’s toughest competitions like the IIT-JEE and the civil services exam. With this success, Biharis started believing they had the best brains. The world began to grudgingly acknowledge their capabilities.

Academic success, however, did not do much to rid the word “Bihari” of the scorn it had gathered. People in Delhi continued to laugh at those who spoke with a Bihari accent. Those without an accent would get this compliment: “Oh, you are from Bihar? But you don’t sound like a Bihari.” Biharis, meanwhile, were retreating into a shell, with little but the historic glory of Buddha, Mahavira, Chandragupta, Chanakya, Ashoka, Aryabhatta, Guru Gobind Singh and Sher Shah to bask in. Now comes 11% growth. The state can recover from the damage it has suffered over hundreds of years only if such a high rate of growth can be sustained for many, many years. Then Biharis would not have to till others' land or build cities and countries elsewhere.

Vinay Pandey | The writer is proud to be a Bihari.