Column: The business of manufacturing dissent

Written by Vivian Fernandes | Updated: Jun 24 2014, 13:42pm hrs
A crackdown on non-governmental organisations like Greenpeace, allegedly sought by the Intelligence Bureau according to reports in The Indian Express, for being a threat to Indias economic security has been criticised as an attempt to silence opposition to government policies. Is it

Dissent is essential to democracy. It is the peoples right to vent their discontent. A caring government is expected to address their concerns. A large number of people seeking redress for a grievance give rise to peoples movements. I place organisations like Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghatan, which organised labourers in Rajasthan to demand minimum wages through the right to information, and the National Campaign for Peoples Right to Information in this category. The countrywide agitation of farmers against corporates acquiring swathes of arable land on the cheap for special economic zones may have impeded industrial development but was not a threat to economic security. It was venting of genuine anger.

Are NGOs like Greenpeace peoples movements No. They are multinational organisations with multi-million dollar budgets, in the business of manufacturing dissent. Their agendas are imported. They are vexatiously persistent. Compromise is alien to them. They will stubbornly agitate on an issue even when facts do not support their stand.

Imported agendas should not be deemed as suspect just because they are of alien origin. I certainly support the Western campaign against use of child or bonded labour in exported products, whether carpets or garments, because our own society, government and officials are not quite sensitive about such issues.

But some of the issues that NGOs like Greenpeace articulate do not stand the test of reasonableness. Evidence should be the sole criterion for judging the usefulness of a technology. Take the case of genetically-modified (GM) crops. The evidence so far says they are not unsafe. Climate change concerns make their adoption necessary. Unlike the Green Revolution, which was high-input, high output agriculture, we need to move to farming which is low in use of resources and gives high output.

Greenpeace is vehemently opposed to GM crops. It has been trying to discredit Bt cotton. Bt technology, approved for commercial use in cotton in 2002, has made India the second-largest producer and exporter, from being a net importer. According to K R Kranti, head of the Nagpur-based Central Institute for Cotton Research, Bt cotton has reduced pesticide use for control of bollworm by 90%. As an entomologist who has seen bollworm larvae refusing to die even with the strongest possible concentration of pyrethoids and insecticide cocktails, I know the value of Bt cotton. I do not hesitate to express my gratitude to the technology because it came at a time when farmers needed it the most, says Kranti in a book.

Indian farmers have taken to Bt cotton like youngsters to smart phones. It has the highest acreage under Bt cotton, at 111.9 lakh ha, and an adoption rate of 91.79%, despite the US, Mexico and Australia having a six-year head start. Bt cotton is currently grown over 161 lakh ha in thirteen countries. This is 48% of total global cotton area. Indias cotton productivity in terms of lint per hectare has risen from 308 kg in 2001 to 554 kg in 2007 (but has declined since then for various reasons). Greenpeace latches on this to denounce Bt cotton.

Bt cotton is not supposed to increase yields. It does so tangentially by saving the crop from the bollworm weevil, which is impervious to conventional insecticide sprays (because they are hidden feeders). We can criticise multinationals like Monsanto, which has 90% of the Bt cotton seeds market, for capturing value by selling only Bt hybrids (whose seeds cannot be reused) and not Bt straight varieties (whose seeds can be reused). This calls into question the judgment of regulators; it is not a case against the technology.

On its website Greenpeace calls GM crops, a bitter harvest and makes the assertion: Perhaps most worrying, we do not know if GM crops are safe to eat. Well, studies so far show that they are not

unsafe either. In a report published in 2010, the

European Commissions Directorate-General for Research and Innovation stated after examining more than 130 research projects, covering more than 25 years of research and involving more than 500 independent research groups that biotechnology, and in particular GM organisms, are not per se more risky than conventional plant breeding technologies.

The Bt protein with which Bt cotton plants are spiked is a toxin derived from a soil bacterium, which was discovered by a Japanese scientist in 1901. Bt has been used as an insecticide since 1938 in France. In 1961, it was approved for use in the United States and thereafter in many countries including India for integrated pest management. They have a long record of selective toxicity to insect pests and of not causing harm to those not intended.

There is, therefore, a strong case for allowing commercial cultivation of Bt maize, Bt mustard and Bt rice (which uses up a third of Indias agricultural pesticidesthe highest for any crop). The US has 317 lakh ha under Bt maize followed by Brazil. It has a productivity of 9-11 tonnes per hectare compared to Indias 2.5 tonnes. Yet NGOs obstruct even the introduction of non-Bt hybrid maize in Gujarats tribal areas for fear that it would pave the wave for GM varieties.

Vexatious opposition on the part of Greenpeace prompted columnist Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar in an article last year to accuse Greenpeace India of spreading green liesand of green McCarthyism. Greenpeace

Indias Executive Director Samit Aichs position on Bt cotton is not a mere disagreement. It is a falsehood, Aiyar said.

Greenpeaces position on mining is as cussed. Here it is in the august company of Amnesty International (AI). AIs concern for the rights of prisoners is very laudable. But its stand on bauxite mining in the Niyamgiri hills is rather baffling. AI says it favours responsible mining. But it opposed Vedanta groups offer to rehabilitate the Dongria Kondhs. Amnesty International Indias chief executive told me in an interview last year, that he does not believe in the concept of greater common good. When opinion was being sought from the Dongria Kondhs for the mining project under instructions from the Supreme Court were Greenpeace and AI activists merely helping with the process or inciting the tribals to oppose it

Development cannot be painless. There will be winners and losers. The losers must be compensated and their concerns addressed. Eternal opposition without any scope of give and take cannot be democratic.

The author is a senior journalist, formerly with CNBC TV18