As chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi may have extolled the virtues of genetically modified (GM) crops, after his happy experience in the state, but as prime minister, he is finding it extremely tough to carry along even his party on the issue. Encouraged, and perhaps egged on, by the RSS and affiliate Swadeshi Jagran Manch’s (SJM’s) opposition to GM crops, various BJP-ruled states like Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan have upped their protest against GM mustard even though the bio-safety panel of the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) has approved Dhara Mustard Hybrid-11 developed by the scientists led by former Delhi University vice-chancellor Deepak Pental. At a time when mustard yields have been stagnant, GM crops are promising to raise this by at least a fourth—mustard production reached 6 million tonnes in 1995-96 with a yield of 916 kg per hectare and has stagnated at around that level with 2014-15 production at 6.31 million tonnes and yield at 1,089 kg. While it is only GM mustard that has been approved by GEAC, much the same issue, of stagnant/low yields, plagues most oilseeds. Not surprising then, that India imports over 50% of its annual edible oil consumption, of about 22 million tonnes, and the import bill in FY16 was as high as $10.5 billion.
With Madhya Pradesh, the second-largest producer of mustard, refusing to undertake field-trials of Dhara Mustard Hybrid—it took its cue from Rajasthan, the largest producer—as many as seven states have already indicated they will not allow mustard; the list includes Bihar, Delhi, Punjab, West Bengal and Kerala. To that extent, despite Modi’s personal interest, the NDA government isn’t unlike the UPA which put a moratorium on commercial cultivation of Bt Brinjal in 2010. Whether Modi will be able to persuade the RSS and the SJM to fall in line, as he did when he got the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh to toe the line on the Coal India stake sale is not clear—there is also a petition in court against GM crops—but evidence so far suggests Modi may be fighting a losing battle. Indeed, in the case of Bt cotton, it was probably the RSS lobby—along with Andhra Pradesh chief minister N Chandrababu Naidu—that ensured the government came out with a cotton-pricing order and then followed it up with restricting even royalty rates on GM crops. Given how India needs GM technology, especially to battle the impact of climate change, this is an unfortunate position to be in.