Saturday, June 26, 2010


Suman Sahai
If anything indicates the absurdity of India’s research priorities, especially in genetic engineering, it is the report that a group of researchers from the Jamia Hamdard University in Delhi have developed transgenic strawberry lines tolerant to salt stress. The strawberry was genetically engineered to express the gene coding for the protein osmotin. Osmotin kicks into action in response to salt and water stress and cold temperature. It also shows anti-fungal activity.

Please bear in mind that this salt tolerant GM strawberry works under cold conditions so even if it had any relevance to anyone in India, it would fail to take off under the prevailing global warming conditions. Apart from this, the scientists reported that the growth rate of these plants is slower than other plants, so this crop of GM strawberries will straggle behind the normal strawberry plants. The question must be asked, who are these high tech strawberries intended to benefit?

Precious public funds, the money that you and I pay in taxes, is being wasted on frivolous research of this kind, even as the country fails to demonstrate adequate investment in time tested technologies to secure food production. As India faces a food crisis and awaits the debilitating double whammy of global warming, threatening to reduce agriculture productivity, scarce research money is being spent on developing slow growing strawberries!
The proponents of GM crops, in the scientific establishment, the Agriculture Ministry, the Ministry of Science and Technology, the Prime Minister’s Office, and a host of lobbyists, never tire of repeating that GM technology is necessary to solve the problem of hunger. Is this their road map for a hunger free India? Is anybody in the science establishment thinking?

Monday, June 14, 2010

Bt Brinjal: What people say

Gene Campaign has been conducting polls through its website ( take a look at ). The two last ones on Bt brinjal were interesting. 97 percent of the people polled said they would not eat Bt brinjal . In a later poll on whether people think the ban on Bt brinjal will be lifted or not, almost 75 percent said they believed the ban would stay. Only 25 percent polled said they though the ban would be lifted ! This perception that the government would uphold the ban because people did not want Bt brinjal ( the Environment Minister cited this as the reason he chose to impose the ban) demonstrates that people place their trust in government and believe it will not go against their wishes.

This trust in government came through clearly in a study that Gene Campaign and the University of Hyderabad have just concluded, on perceptions about GMOs. There too, farmers and consumers across five states, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Punjab, Assam and Jharkhand said that government was the agency they trusted most among government, universities, companies , media and NGOs. This trust extended to information from government sources about agriculture, seeds, fertilizers etc, they wanted government in preference to any other agency, to test for the safety of GMOs. To label such foods and to monitor their long term impact

The government must be humbled by the trust placed in it by the country’s farmers and consumers with respect to agriculture and food technologies. This trust should propel government agencies to be that much more conscientious in discharging their duties and responsibilities as is expected from them, to safeguard the public interest.

Friday, June 11, 2010


Suman Sahai

Jharkhand is now being mentioned on par with Chattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh when it comes to the Maoist or Naxal issue. This is a new trend and it need not be this way. If Mr Shibu Soren lasts as the Chief Minister of Jharkhand , he must act decisively to curb corruption and ensure that those under investigation in both political and bureaucratic circles are punished if found guilty. This single act will make him a hero to the people and give him the legitimacy to act to bring the state back to normalcy.

Look at corruption in Jharkhand. We are witnessing the spectacle of a going nowhere investigation into the misdeeds of Mr Madhu Koda, former Chief Minister, and his cronies. If newspapers are to be believed, Mr Koda has spirited away roughly half the entire budget of the state and invested it in mines in Liberia and hotels in Thailand. Despite the evidence , Mr Koda, instead of being locked up, ran an election campaign and spent enough money to ensure the electoral victory of his wife and friends. The blatancy of this kind of corruption frustrates people and when they respond with anger and violence, they are called Naxals.

Naxalism in Jharkhand , until recently, was not so much the ideological challenge to the state by people of a certain political persuasion; it was more the rage and retaliation of the youth who were seeing their future sabotaged by venal politicians and bureaucrats. Admittedly the picture has changed in recent months, after the crackdowns in other places, the Naxals have spilled over seeking hiding places and many have come to Jharkhand ; it is likely we will now see an intensification of the kind of activities that are geared to ‘overthrow the state’ . There are already reports of roads being blown up and we have seen abductions and murders of officials in recent months. But its still early days and the situation can be reversed.

Jharkhand, is a state where there is no development. It is the only state in the country which is moving backwards and is worse off today even compared to its appalling state in 2000. Rich in minerals, its people have been displaced in expanding cycles of impoverishment as the earth is opened up displacing homes and destroying livelihoods; making many time billionaires of the already rich outsiders and leaving nothing but worsening poverty for the locals. Mr Soren has a better track record than many others on the matter of tribal rights , especially with respect to land displacement. This will become a crucial issue as the state’s huge mineral reserves are opened up further for commercialization. If the government in Jharkhand can bring in more equitable and just policies, making the adivasis partners and stakeholders in the sustainable exploitation of the state’s mineral wealth, the emerging violence can be checked.

Juxtaposed to the situation in Jharkhand, is the UPA government making plans for India to return to nine percent growth levels. If these plans could be stretched to cover Jharkhand as well, not even nine percent…even only half of that, then Jharkhand could be put on the path to recovery. As it stands, there is no economic development in the state. The neglect can be seen everywhere, perhaps most in the primary, life sustaining activity of agriculture, leading to growing hunger and malnutrition, which is worse in Jharkhand than in Sub Saharan Africa, according to studies done by international organizations like the World Food Program.

The money that is earmarked for development projects vaporises before it hits the ground. Even the 15 paise out of a rupee do not reach the people. The greatest challenge facing Jharkhand and its people is abysmal governance, perhaps the worst in the country , rampant corruption and such a cynical apathy among the powerful elite to the fate of the poor, that it makes the blood curdle.

As part of preparing an agriculture development plan for certain districts in Jharkhand , Gene Campaign had conducted village level surveys to assess the main problems faced by farmers. The survey asked which benefits the community received from officials in the Block and how often scientists visited their villages. Over 90 percent of the people responded that the community received next to no benefits from the Block and that scientists from the agriculture university never visited them. In addition to this, the survey recorded that 95 out of 98 lift irrigation units in the Gumla district and 84 out of 87 in Simdega district were non functional since years because they had not been repaired. This is in a water starved area which is able to take only one crop a year because there are no irrigation facilities ( irrigation cover in Jharkhand is three percent) to enable a second crop. When irrigation facilities have been set up, as in Gumla and Simdega, they cannot be used because the government functionaries responsible for their maintenance have siphoned off the money meant for their repair.

After the single rice crop is taken during the monsoons, the fields are left fallow and nothing is cultivated for the rest of the year because there is no irrigation. For 8 months in the year, the fields of Jharkhand are brown and barren, when many other parts of the country are lush and green with a second crop. There is no industry to speak of. Avenues for employment are low and the money earmarked for developmental projects that would help village boys and girls to improve their situation goes into the pockets of corrupt government officials. Such is the cruelty that when they cannot swallow the funds, these officials prefer to send it back to the center as unutilized, so as not to ‘spoil the field’. That means, not to start the tradition that resources can be allocated without paying hefty bribes.

Whereas the State must act resolutely against those who take life and destroy property, dialogue and development are needed on priority if we want to reverse this situation. I believe this is still possible in Jharkhand. Developing the agriculture sector, taking advantage of Jharkhand’s climate and altitude can make it another Bangalore. Irrigation cover must be increased immediately so that fruits, vegetables and flowers can be exported, putting money in empty pockets. The production of rice and other cereals can be stepped up making the region not just self sufficient in food but providing a surplus of premium foods for urban markets. The state is a natural to foster organic and green agriculture which will not just make agriculture sustainable in the long run but also bring in incomes.

Only talking the language of the gun and launching Operation Green Hunt against those whose dues have been denied them and who have been subjected to brutal deprivation by those who are responsible for their development is the wrong way to deal with this unfortunate situation. The enlightened approach would be for the state to have the attitude of parents and guardians to errant children. A mixture of strict discipline, justice and compassion is far more likely to engender the confidence needed to start the dialogue to find the way back, than exacerbating the injustice by hunting them down with guns.

Dr Suman Sahai is convenor of the Gene Campaign, a research and advocacy organisation which has been working in Jharkhand for several years. She can be reached at and


Suman Sahai

  • In China the mirid bug has begun to ravage plantations of apples, strawberries, pears, peaches and vegetables in the vicinity of Bt cotton fields. A once minor pest, the mirid bug has erupted as a major pest in the absence of pest control and now attacks fruit orchards and cotton fields after farmers reduced spraying insecticides on Bt cotton.

  • The State Bio-Control Laboratory of Assam has isolated two species of insect bio-agents and made it available to farmers for biological pest control. The two species of insects, Trichogramma japonicum and Trichogramma chillonis are found to be effective against borer pests like stem borer in brinjal, tomato, potato, as well as paddy, chilli and sugarcane, and farmers have already started accruing benefit from these bio-agents.

  • The major pest of brinjal, as also of tomato and chilli, all belonging to the Solanacaea family, is bacterial wilt, (caused by Ralstonia solanacearum), not shoot and fruit borer, which the Bt brinjal aims to target.

  • These findings along with data on the explosion of secondary pests of cotton in Bt cotton fields in China and elsewhere, shows how controlling one pest can trigger the spread of others.

  • The Bt approach to pest control is emerging as expensive, perhaps irrelevant, short lived and ineffective as a strategy for pest control.

  • Given the dynamic nature of host –pathogen relationships and the large pest density and pest profile in the tropics, the only possible solution is Integrated Pest Management.