The previous government gave in to Luddite, anti-development NGOs and deferred the introduction of GM food crops in our country. The present government seems to be held in thrall by an unusual coalition of nativists and leftists. In the process, the Indian farmer is suffering. It appears that, for several years now, we have been importing edible oil derived from GM oilseeds. The oil importers lobby are OK with this. But we will not let the Indian farmer grow GM mustard—even if this mustard has been developed by the state sector (the Delhi University) and not by that evil multi-national, Monsanto.
Oliver Moody, writing in the London Times of May 24 has this to say: “Genetically modified crops are safe to eat and cause no more damage to the environment than conventional strains, according to the Royal Society.” Those who worry that the Royal Society may be a sinister imperialist body should note that its president is a desi—Venky Ramakrishnan. He had this to say: “We recognise that our answers will not end the controversy, but we hope they will inform people about the science.” I would like to assure Professor Ramakrishnan that the controversy will definitely not end in India—which probably has more NGOs per capita that any other country. And these NGOs are least bothered about “science”. They care about shrillness and hysteria and if you believe conspiracy theorists, they want to keep India poor and underdeveloped, because if India ever becomes wealthy and developed, then these NGOs would become redundant. Their very raison d’être would disappear. Another fascinating conspiracy theory making the rounds is that European pesticide manufacturers are funding the anti-GM Indian NGOs because GM crops would reduce the demand for pesticides. Methinks that here is a fit case for our venerable and underworked investigating agencies like the ED, and the DRI to investigate whether any unpatriotic violations of the venerable FCRA have indeed taken place.
Indian agriculture is in the doldrums—even the most bullish McKinsey-esque consultants who haunt our sad land would concede this. Food price inflation is an ongoing headache in our country. Even the distinguished statisticians in Lutyens’ Delhi, when they are not busy recasting Time Series, will agree with this. Why, oh why then don’t we allow farmers the freedom of choice to go in for GM crops, if in fact this will be simultaneously pro-farmer and pro-consumer? There is really no answer for this question. Except perhaps to delve deep into our history and conclude that we have a solid tradition of cutting off our noses in order to spite our faces. Another way of describing our situation is to state that we need no external adversaries and enemies. We are perfectly capable of hurting ourselves—and guess what, we are even eager to do so.
In 1947, when our erstwhile evil imperialist masters left, we had a glorious, world-class textile industry. Drill, gaberdine, calico and other fabrics from Indian mills had a reasonable global market share. China had no textile industry worth talking about. In seven decades, we have successfully and systematically marginalised this industry. Even tiny Bangladesh, which had zero textile mills in 1947, is now considerably ahead of us. I think all the Bollywood producers who made movies portraying mill-owners as evil bloodsuckers must be feeling good. We have destroyed our home-grown mill-owners and helped the non-evil mill-owners of China and Bangladesh. Similarly, we are now determined to import palm oil and mustard oil from foreign producers—but we will make sure that our farmers are denied this opportunity. Sometimes, I think it is a waste of time our trying to work hard on our global trade negotiations. Why bother? We are so completely determined to unilaterally weaken our competitive positions and comparative advantages.
I often think of the anguished interview Manmohan Singh gave to an American journalist about how US-funded NGOs were thwarting the Kudankulam nuclear power plant. Luckily, better sense prevailed. But not before the plant costs went up. And not without months and months of delay. But then is it not also part of our culture to attach no importance whatsoever to the time factor? After all, how does it matter if a power plant remains idle for a few months, even a few years. The long-suffering Indian tax-payer will simply pick up the double digit interest tab and perhaps even be grateful for the privilege of not having power for months, for years.
The US, Brazil, China, Korea and Bangladesh (yes, even our neighbor which is likely to outstrip us economically; take that as a conspiratorial prediction!)—country after country—have systematically increased the productivity gap between their agriculture and ours. We know the remedy. But we will not act. We will simply stand and watch our agricultural sector withering away even further. Our production of mustard seeds and brinjals may be poor. But we will produce more hot air in NGO conferences than any other country—that seems to be the mantra we have adopted.
We have a persistent water problem. One would think that we would be putting pressure on our research universities and laboratories to develop, on a war-footing, GM crops that would be less water-intensive. No such luck. In fact, after the recent fiasco, one wonders if any scientists will bother to stay in Delhi University, or elsewhere in India. They will surely be treated with greater respect and like Venky Ramakrishnan, they can focus on “science”, not on unfounded Luddite fears.
We must shed our fears and our paralysis. Because despite our cultural inhibitions, we do have a tradition of action, if only occasionally. Lal Bahadur Shastri and C Subramanian did take the risk to launch hybrid seeds and the Green Revolution despite reactionaries trying to stall them. The rest is history. “Kshudram hrudaya dourbalyam. Tyaktvaa uttishta parantapa (Shed this faint-heartedness. Arise, Arjuna, o vanquisher of foes),” says Krishna in the Gita. It is high time that our prime minister gave this same advice to the ministers and officials of our agriculture and environment ministries. The country badly needs to move on.
The author is a Mumbai-based entrepreneur