Family facing GM brinjal storm: ‘What’s our crime’

May 17, 2019 12:19 AM

The Sainis, who have grown brinjal on the three kanals (less than half-an-acre) of land they own, are at the centre of a brewing storm over the use of Bt brinjal or other genetically modified crops in Haryana.

Govt panel says Saini will have to destroy his crop (Image: Sukhbir Siwach)Govt panel says Saini will have to destroy his crop (Image: Sukhbir Siwach)

By Sukhbir Siwach

“WHAT CRIME have we committed,” asks Miro Rani, the fear visible on her face. Rani is the wife of Ishar Saini, a brinjal farmer near Ratia town in Fatehabad.

The Sainis, who have grown brinjal on the three kanals (less than half-an-acre) of land they own, are at the centre of a brewing storm over the use of Bt brinjal or other genetically modified crops in Haryana. On Thursday, a panel of experts set up by the state government recommended that their crop be uprooted immediately.

Officials said the recommendation is based on a report by the National Bureau for Plant Genetic Resources (NBPGR), which found that samples from Saini’s farm are not Bt brinjal but come under genetically modified (GM) crop.

In 2010, the central government had imposed a moratorium, leaving Bt cotton as the only genetically modified crop permitted for cultivation in the country.

“The committee has submitted its report. The crop should be buried deep beneath the earth or burnt, so that it doesn’t affect neighbouring fields,” says Prof KC Singh, vice-chancellor, Haryana Agriculture University (HAU).

“We could have conducted the test here (in HAU) but the central government has authenticated only the NBPGR to handle such issues. We can’t deny their report),” says Singh.

The Haryana government’s panel of experts included the heads of the microbiology and biotechnology departments of HAU, and the joint director of Haryana Horticulture Department.

Saini’s crops came on the official radar after a group of activists informed the biotech regulator, Genetic Manipulation and Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), about the presence of suspected Bt brinjal at the farm.

The group was tipped off by Rajinder Chaudhary, an activist who runs Kudrati Kheti Abhiyan, which is associated with the Coalition for a GM-Free India, about four weeks ago. “One of my friends wanted to grow pest-free brinjal for his kitchen garden and a man running a nursery in Fatehabad told him about Ratia’s farm,” said Chaudhary, a former professor at Rohtak’s Maharshi Dayanand University (MDU).

According to Saini, the crop was from saplings purchased from a vendor in Dabwali. The vendor, he says, has since gone missing.

“My son Jeewan along with our neighbour Jogender Dhindsa had gone to Dabwali to purchase brinjal saplings from a roadside vendor in December 2017. The vendor claimed that samplings are free from any insects, especially sundi (shoot borer). He charged `7 per plant, which is seven times higher than for normal brinjal plants. Both the families bought 1,200 plants,” says Saini.

Saini’s neighbour Dhindsa says shoot borer infected his plants and that he destroyed his crop in December 2018. But Saini managed to sustain the crop by using pesticides. “I sold my crop in the Ratia market for about `20,000 last year but nobody complained. We used the brinjals at our home but we never felt any harmful impact. This year, too, we sold the crop for about `12,000. But after the advice of government officials, we have stopped selling it since the last 20 days,” says Saini.

“After my neighbour’s crop got destroyed, we went to Dabwali to search for the vendor who cheated us but could not find him,” says Saini.

According to Chaudhary, the activist, “a preliminary lateral flow strip test was conducted, which showed a positive result of the suspected sample being transgenic with Bt Cry1AC”, which is a gene linked to Bt brinjal.

The activists also sent samples to the GEAC, demanding that it investigate the case and take legal action against the source of supply of the seeds. “In addition to finding the extent of cultivation and action against entire seed/seedling supply network of illegal Bt brinjal, we also demand the destruction of all Bt brinjal plots. However, simultaneously we demand that no penal action should be taken against farmers who have been duped into cultivating these illegal seeds. Rather, farmers must be fully compensated for destruction of their standing crop,” the representation states.

Based on this representation, officials say, the Union ministry of environment, forest and climate change asked the Haryana government to take necessary action after verifying facts on ground.

In a letter sent to the Haryana chief secretary, Chaudhary wrote: “The formation of an experts committee to study health effects afresh is grossly illegal… when an indefinite moratorium placed by the government of India on release of BT brinjal is still in place and no GM brinjal has been approved for cultivation in India till date. You are duty bound to immediately identify the supply chain of Bt brinjal being cultivated in Haryana and plug it besides destroying the extant crop. It appears that by delaying taking required action, you are facilitating the destruction of evidence.”

When contacted by The Indian Express, R K Chauhan, joint director, Haryana Environment Department, said: “In a meeting on Tuesday, Haryana chief secretary D S Dhesi has also asked officers of the horticulture department to conduct a survey to locate Bt Brinjal crop, if any, in all the 22 districts of the state.”

Subhash Poonia, a Haryana farmers’ leader, says the farmer should not be harassed in the process. “They are innocent farmers. They don’t know about ill effects of genetically modified crops,” he says.

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