Monday, October 20, 2014

Himalayan blunders at people’s peril

Climate studies show that extreme rainfall events would increase over the Indian subcontinent and that the Himalayan range is vulnerable. Despite these predictions, the Himalayan states are unprepared for such climate eventualities. 

I left Srinagar a week before the floods. Passing by the Zero Kadal, Srinagar’s oldest bridge across the Jhelum I had remarked that the river was reduced to a nallah and if this was its appearance in the monsoon season, the health of the river was grim. Then within days the waters swelled and the Jhelum burst its banks.

Similar floods had hit Uttarakhand a year ago, in June 2013, centered around the Kedar Valley, involving the Alaknanda and Mandakini rivers. Heavy rain followed by flash floods caused large-scale destruction of life and property. The sad part is that in the truest sense of the expression, the disasters in Kedarnath and Kashmir were man-made. The combined effects of utter administrative failure and human greed enabling rampant, unauthorised construction across natural water channels and flood plains resulted in the devastation we saw in both places. Climate change is causing more and more extreme weather events like sudden storms and cyclones as well as cloudbursts accompanied by torrential rain and floods, but governments can prepare for these. People can be evacuated in time, relief and rescue can be planned ahead, preparations can be made to ensure availability of drinking water, food rations, medicines and clothing. All this was done by the Orissa government in preparation for Cyclone Phailin that struck the state in October 2013 so the impact of the cyclone was contained.

It’s not as though there have not been sufficient warnings about the potential for flooding in the Kashmir Valley. The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) in Jammu and Kashmir had noted in 2009 that construction in the low-lying areas of Srinagar, especially along the banks of the Jhelum, had blocked the discharge channels of the river. The INTACH report predicted that natural disasters in the Kashmir Valley could cause widespread devastation. Recommendations for action to mitigate the danger were submitted to the government but nothing happened.

In 2010, a study done by the Jammu and Kashmir Flood Control Department predicted a major flood that would inundate Srinagar. The government ignored the warnings of the experts because the concerned minister considered the prediction of a flood in the Jhelum needlessly alarmist. Such a position can only stem from ignorance about the Kashmir region where floods have been a recurrent feature for at least a 100 years. Praveen Swami has traced the history of flooding in Srinagar in his article in a newspaper and shown how floods have regularly visited Srinagar since 1893. Unfortunately, the lessons of earlier disasters did not make a sufficient impression on successive governments for them to do anything to protect their beautiful city and its people. In 2012, the Jammu and Kashmir office of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) again predicted that massive flooding in Jammu and Kashmir was a distinct possibility. To this too, there was no administrative response.

Construction continues unabated. Despite expert advice, hydropower stations are being built without any evaluation of vulnerability and disaster potential. The hydro power projects on the Jhelum in Ganderbal and on the Chenab in Sach Khas are both examples of haphazard construction. Uttarakhand has gone the same way and suffered for it. Some 70 hydro power projects are planned on the Alaknanda and Mandakini rivers. If these projects go ahead, further disasters are likely.

Granted that hindsight is always 20/20 and everyone is cleverer after the event but the warnings about flooding in the Kashmir Valley have been many and government response has not been visible. Given the heavy and sustained rains this time, flooding was perhaps inevitable but the level of devastation was not. Three days before Srinagar was flooded, the Jhelum in Anantnag had already risen alarmingly high. High enough to warn the state administration of impending trouble in Srinagar and yet the government did not act to prepare the city for the coming floods and inundation.

Shockingly Jammu and Kashmir is the only state in the country that does not have monitoring centres to warn about rising levels in the rivers and lakes that dot this flood-prone region. A Central government proposal to set up flood monitoring stations has been pending for more than five years without the state government taking any action. The Jhelum is boxed in by urban settlements and the lakes into which excess water drains are very close to towns so there is little lead time to prepare for floods. All the more reason that a well-coordinated, efficient flood monitoring system was put in place.

Partisan politics has contributed its share to the misery in Kashmir. The state’s NDMA which should have been preparing for and managing the disaster, was rendered defunct because the Modi government had secured the resignation of eight members of the NDMA, including the chairperson because they had been appointed by the earlier United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. This has cost the people of Kashmir hugely.
Climate studies clearly show that extreme rainfall events would increase over the Indian subcontinent and that the Himalayan range is particularly vulnerable. Despite these predictions, the Himalayan states are unprepared for such climate eventualities. We saw this in Uttarakhand in 2013 and now in Kashmir in 2014. Climate preparedness has to become an important part of all development planning, particularly in the susceptible mountain and coastal areas.

Political leaders and the bureaucratic machinery must be educated about climate change and its disaster potential. The lessons of Kedarnath and Kashmir are evident and they must be taken to heart by planners in the Central and state governments. There must be a comprehensive review of the development path that the country has set itself on. There will have to be radical changes in the philosophy of “growth at all costs” to ensure that the ecology is not destroyed beyond redemption. Nature has a way of hitting back when pushed beyond a point. We finally have to acknowledge that our planet has limits which must be respected if people want a secure existence.

Source: Asian Age, 11 October 2014

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Should India permit GM foods?

We must frame an intelligent policy after widespread consultations

Suman Sahai
Agbiotechnology is presented in many forms — the most common being that it will solve world hunger. To reinforce this claim, there is an interesting word play at work. Agbiotechnology is referred to as the ‘Evergreen Revolution’ or the 'Gene Revolution' but never genetic engineering, which is its correct name. Both Evergreen Revolution and Gene Revolution are deliberately coined terms which attempt to link Agbiotech with the Green Revolution. In the view of most political leaders and policymakers, the Green Revolution was a very positive happening that brought benefits in the form of high food production but more importantly, freedom from food imports and hence political and national sovereignty. 

The Green Revolution did in fact increase food production, principally the production of rice and wheat. It made India independent of food imports and firmed up its political spine. It ensured surplus grain that could be stored in buffer stocks to be rushed where need arose and it tried to ensure that famines were not anymore a feature of the Indian reality.
These gains were so visible that the downside, the unequal distribution of the benefits, of land and water degradation, the accompanying loss of genetic diversity and the persisting endemic hunger and poverty, could not take the shine off the Green Revolution. Because of this positive image, the promoters of Agbiotech draw semantic parallels, invoking the earlier agricultural revolution. 

The subliminal message that the spinmeisters of the Agbiotecg sector try to convey is: If the Green Revolution brought so many benefits, the Evergreen Revolution would bring all those in perpetuity. The word play has actually been quite successful. Political leaders and policymakers carry over the positive association with the Green Revolution to the Evergreen one. If the earlier version brought such benefits, the newer one (more precise, with greater possibilities, as the industry says) would surely bring even greater benefits to the farmers and the poor. Conveniently left out of this portrayal are the essential and crucial differences between the two 'revolutions'.
The Green Revolution (GR) was a publicly owned technology, belonging to the people. The research was conducted in public sector universities and research institutions with public money and created public goods to which everyone had access. There were no Intellectual Property Rights (IPR), no patents vested in multinational companies, no proprietary technologies or products. If there was ownership of the GR, it was vested in the farmer. Once the seed reached the farmers, it was theirs; they moved it where they wanted. Therefore, despite its faults, the Green Revolution addressed farmers' needs and India's food production showed an upward curve.
The Evergreen Revolution is almost the exact opposite. It is a privately owned technology. Six corporations (Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer CropScience, DuPont, Dow and BASF Plant Science) control practically the entire research and output in the field of transgenic plants. Processes and products, including research methodologies, are shackled in patents and the farmer has no say, let alone any control. The technology creates only private goods that can be accessed only at a significant cost after paying licensing fees. In the case of Bt cotton, the only GM crop cultivated in India so far, a bag of Mahyco-Monsanto's Bt cotton seed costs Rs. 1,600 as compared to around Rs 400 for superior varieties produced locally.

The seed belongs to the company, which strictly controls its movement. With the development of the popularly termed ‘terminator’ or sterile seed technology, the farmer is reduced to a helpless consumer, not a partner as in the case of the GR. The Evergreen Revolution has in its 20 years, not yet produced a crop variety that has any direct connection to hunger and nutritional needs. The most prevalent crops remain corn, soya, cotton and canola and the dominant traits are herbicide tolerance and insect resistance. Despite its other faults, the Green Revolution was able to put out a number of crop varieties in a short span of time that enabled direct yield increases, which brought immediate benefits to farmers. That in short is the contrast between the two revolutions, so assiduously camouflaged by the Agbiotech spinmeisters. 

India had participated enthusiastically in the Green Revolution and is on its way to equally enthusiastically embrace the Gene Revolution or Agbiotechnology. Yet there is little debate in the country on whether any lessons have been learnt from the Green Revolution. There is even less debate between policymakers and other stakeholders on whether GM crops are relevant to Indian agriculture and if so, what path we should adopt.

There is no consultation with the public or any sharing of information about GM research and trials, as is done in almost all countries that are implementing GM technology. The Department of Biotechnology has promoted research projects randomly without any assessment of farmers' needs and the best way to fulfil them. Civil society has been uneasy with the lack of transparency and the lack of competence in regulatory bodies; the media is largely uninformed and political leaders remain unaware of the direction this new and controversial technology is taking in India and have no say in determining what it should or should not do. 

This is not the way to adopt a new technology, especially one that comes with a string of compulsory regulations. GM technology must follow specific prescribed procedures and be tested stringently. What kind of GM technology should India adopt? Should it permit GM foods or should it ban them like Europe, Africa and many other countries have done? What should our policy be on GM food crops and non-food crops? We must frame an intelligent policy after widespread consultations with a range of stakeholders. The process should be inclusive and transparent, allowing a range of expertise and insights to be brought into the decision-making process. And we should abide by the consensus view.

The writer is the founder of a research and advocacy organisation, Gene Campaign

Wednesday, October 1, 2014


The health impacts of these changes is not very  clear, but the changes in the family of genes related to immunity and sugar metabolism detected in these babies, now teenagers, may put them at a greater risk to develop asthma, diabetes or obesity.
Canadian researchers report that the number of days an expectant mother was deprived of electricity during Quebec's Ice Storm (1998) predicts the epigenetic profile of her child. Scientists from the Douglas Mental Health University Institute and McGill University have detected a distinctive signature in the DNA of children born in the aftermath of the massive Quebec ice storm.
Five months after the event, researchers recruited women who had been pregnant during the disaster and assessed their degrees of hardship and distress in a study called Project Ice Storm. Thirteen years later, the researchers found that DNA within the T cells of 36 children showed distinctive patterns in DNA methylation.
The scientists published their study (“DNA Methylation Signatures Triggered by Prenatal Maternal Stress Exposure to a Natural Disaster: Project Ice Storm”) in PLOS One.
“Prenatal maternal objective hardship was correlated with DNA methylation levels in 1,675 CGs affiliated with 957 genes predominantly related to immune function; maternal subjective distress was uncorrelated,” wrote the investigators. “DNA methylation changes in SCG5 and LTA, both highly correlated with maternal objective stress, were comparable in T cells, peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs), and saliva cells.”
The team concluded for the first time that maternal hardship predicted the degree of methylation of DNA in the T cells. The epigenetic signature plays a role in the way the genes express themselves. This study is also the first to show that it is the objective stress exposure (such as days without electricity) and not the degree of emotional distress in pregnant women that causes long-lasting changes in the epigenome of their babies.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Not the China Way

Suman Sahai

“India should see the warning signals from China’s growth models. China’s top down, non-inclusive policy-making has kept social and environmental concerns out of its economic growth plan at great cost to its people and the quality of their life.”

We have looked to China these past several years partly as competitor, part in fear and often as an economic growth role model. The new Prime Minister is thought to have a good relationship with the leaders in China and the government is likely to build on that.
One of the first people to congratulate Narendra Modi and his government was Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and exchanges with Chinese leaders continue at a high level. The latest has been the very cordial meeting between Mr Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Brics Summit in Brazil.

There is much to emulate from China, starting with its discipline. The Chinese have invested heavily in basic education, health, agriculture and rural employment. They have become manufacturing giants and developed markets for their products. One of their interesting models is the chain of township and village enterprises which links rural produce to urban markets. China is also known for its firm policy-making aimed almost entirely at maintaining high growth figures. It is precisely this aspect that we need to observe with caution.

The new government is trying to move fast to make up for the years of policy paralysis of the last government, but it must hurry slowly. One single statement that projects worth `80,000 crore, which were held up by the environment ministry, will be cleared immediately has been sufficient to set off the disquiet. It is certain that many projects were held up because of bureaucratic red tape, but surely there were others that were held up because of serious enough shortcomings to warrant a review and even denial of permission.

Unbridled economic growth can extract a high price as we have seen in many countries including our own. In case of China, some of the consequences have been severe, especially in the field of agriculture and food production. According to Chinese reports, the country is battling with an unprecedented contamination of its agricultural land, a phenomenon that is assuming alarming proportions. The situation is so serious that large tracts of arable land have become unfit for food cultivation. Not just food, altogether 3.5 million hectares are thought to be so polluted now that they cannot support any kind of agriculture at all. Chinese scientists hold the excessive use of chemical fertilisers and indiscriminate dumping of industrial waste to be responsible for the poisoning of the land.

A study conducted by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to evaluate the future of China’s food production potential came up with shocking findings. The study found that 40 per cent of China’s land is degraded and 20 per cent is so fouled up by industrial effluents, farm chemicals, sewage and waste water run-off from mining sites, as to have become almost unusable. The water resources are equally contaminated because a lot of water is being diverted to coal mining areas and the water that flows out from there is a toxic mix of chemicals. Contamination of the soil and water with toxic heavy metals like cadmium, nickel and arsenic is growing and is particularly high in the south-west region, which is China’s rice belt. The situation is so bad that large tracts of land are being abandoned by farmers who are afraid to eat the produce cultivated on such land.

The soil and water toxicity is impacting the food chain and contaminating the food. Rice samples taken from shops and restaurants traced the contaminated rice to the Hunan province, one of China’s most important rice growing regions. Contamination of food in the Hunan region should come as no surprise, given the fact that several industries in this area have come up in the vicinity of agricultural land and the heavily contaminated factory effluent flows straight into the rice fields. There are reports that high incidence of cancer is found in the regions near the polluting factories. This should remind us of our own “cancer train” running from Punjab to hospitals in Rajasthan. These trains carry cancer patients, mostly from farming areas which have been using deadly cocktails of chemical pesticides and excessive doses of chemical fertilisers. We should know we cannot allow this terrible situation to get any worse.

All this contamination of arable land and its becoming unfit for food production has high level policy implications. The situation is considered so grave by Chinese analysts that they fear for the country’s food security and food sovereignty. There is a real fear in policy circles that China may not be able to produce sufficient safe food to feed itself. Already affluent families that can afford to, are relying on imported foods and bottled water to feed their families. According to some reports, there is hoarding of food and water and a climate of fear about being able to eat safe food and drink clean water.
India should see the warning signals from such growth models and draw lessons from it. China’s top down, non-inclusive policy-making has kept social and environmental concerns out of its economic growth plan at great cost to its people and the quality of their life. The country already faces a challenge to its food security and the health of the environment has become a serious cause for concern. We must be cautioned by the China experience and do things differently. Yes, there must be firmness in policy-making and there must be timely and determined action. But the social and environmental aspects must be part of economic decision-making. The cost-benefit analysis of every project must be honest and transparent and inform the ultimate decision. Squandering our social capital for economic gains will be short sighted if not outright self-destructive.
The writer is a scientist and chairperson of Gene Campaign. She can be reached at

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Concerns about BT Brinjal

Suman Sahai

The only stakeholder in the game that stands to benefit from the introduction of Bt brinjal is the company that is producing its seeds.

There is a raging debate in the country about BT brinjal which is poised to become India’s first GM food if the biotech industry has its way. Its entry is resisted by scientists and civil society groups that question its safety.

Why could Bt brinjal be unsafe ? It belongs to the plant family Solanacea which has important food plants like potatoes, tomatoes and chilli but also the poisonous datura and the deadly nightshade ( belladonna). Many plants of the Solanaceae family are rich in complex chemicals called alkaloids and contain some of the  most poisonous plants known to mankind. They produce alkaloids in their roots, leaves and flowers. These alkaloids can be hallucinogens, stimulants or outright poisons. Even plants like potato ,that have had their toxins bred out by generations of out breeding, when exposed to light, produce a chemical called solanin which appears as a green tinge. Green potatoes can be toxic, damage an unborn fetus and cause abortions.

Farmers have worked for thousands of years to domesticate wild plants to make them safe for eating. Much of this exercise involved selecting out the toxins contained in the wild plants. Scientists too have used careful, selective breeding to  ‘clean up’ crop varieties which had good qualities but contained harmful substances. Now through genetic engineering, brinjal, a member of a family known to carry poisonous substances, has been genetically engineered to produce the Bt toxin inside the plant, to kill the bollworm pest. This seems to be a perverse process to reverse thousands of years of effort to detoxify natural plants to make them safe as human food ! 

Genetic engineering is still relatively new and the process is ad hoc. We have no control over what the foreign genes do once they are forced into cells by gene guns, which is how genetic engineering is done. This random and aggressive process creates new products in the cell which could be normal but could also be poisonous or harmful. There are many known instances of new compounds being produced in plants which were genetically engineered that were found to be harmful.

When GM peas were being developed by the CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial  Research Organization)  in Australia to protect the peas from a pest called the pea weevil, it was found that newly formed proteins in the GM peas caused immunity problems and lung inflammation when fed to mice. The experiments had to be abandoned. In another case, when mice were fed the genetically engineered Flavr Savr tomato, seven  out of forty experimental animals died within 14 days and the others suffered from stomach lesions.

Genetic Engineering in plants of the Solanaceae family could be dangerous since disturbing the balance of the cell’s genetic material through the process of inserting new genes specially the toxin producing Bt gene, may trigger off metabolic processes that have been lying dormant.  There are apprehensions that not only new toxins could develop but that old toxins that were removed by selective breeding, may reappear. Disturbing the cell metabolism by genetically engineering of species that are naturally genetically hardwired to produce toxins,  is likely to call up old plant toxins in these species.

Testing for food safety is a crucial component of genetically engineered plants; it becomes more so with plants of the Solanaceae family. At present safety testing of GM crops is very poorly done in India and all kinds of short cuts are being used. The Technical Expert Committee (TEC) appointed by the Supreme Court to examine the way GM crops are being tested , has delivered a scathing report about the inefficiency and lack of competence in the regulatory bodies. The TEC has therefore recommended a ten year moratorium on releasing GM foods since poor testing could prove to be a threat to human health.

Apart from the critical safety issues, there are other questions that arise with the proposed release of Bt brinjal. There is no system in place for labeling these foods. Indeed, how can one , in the Indian situation label  a vegetable that will be sold from farmers’ fields, laden into trucks and taken to wholesale mandis. How will the vegetables on the vendor’s cart or the corner shop be labeled  as GM?

The government of India acknowledges the need to label GM food, and its official position in international forums has been for mandatory labelling. Accordingly, the Ministry of Health has drafted rules under the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act to include labelling of Genetically Engineered food and food ingredients.. But there  are as yet, no mechanisms in place to label GE food and food products, nor have any awareness programs been conducted to explain the nature of GM foods and the need for labelling them.  For most consumers, especially rural consumers, GM foods are a black box and unless they are made aware of the nature of GE foods, labelling would be meaningless. Putting GM foods on the market without provisions for labeling, would amount to taking away the consumer’s right to informed choice about their food. This right is enshrined in India’s Consumer Protection Act. 

There is no reason to introduce Bt brinjal. Farmers have not asked for it, it is not a crop of any great relevance to food security, nor is it a crop that has a more than average pest problem. The only stakeholder in the game that stands to benefit from the introduction of Bt brinjal is Mahyco-Monsanto , the company that is producing its seeds.

Dr Suman Sahai is a scientist trained in genetics. She is the founder of the research and advocacy organisation Gene Campaign.

Greater Kashmir, 28 August, 2014

Monday, August 25, 2014

Scattered Approach to Agriculture

Sukhpal Singh/ Suman Sahai

Leaving aside a focus on warehousing and farm credit, the Budget has sprayed Rs 100 crore across a clutter of schemes
The new government’s budget is marked by a fractured approach to the farm sector, where perhaps the most significant spend has been on irrigation, after the large allocation to farm credit.
Credit push

A sum of Rs1,000 crore sounds good if instead of large irrigation projects and canal networks, the money is used largely for decentralised (rainwater) conservation and storage.

Agriculture in rainfed areas, plateau regions and mountain ecologies could get a boost if a network of tanks, ponds, wells, check dams is established along with efficient lift irrigation schemes for protective irrigation.

The new project “Neeranchal” to give impetus to watershed development in the country with an initial outlay of Rs. 2,142 crore is welcome. However, micro irrigation which is a relative success in Gujarat and is part of its agri development model, unlike other states, surprisingly finds no mention in the Budget.

There are also a number of small sum token schemes now known as the Rs.100 crore schemes’..

However, a significant increase in farm credit from Rs. 7 lakh crore to Rs. 8 lakh crore is a desirable move given the extreme paucity of formal credit to farmers.

But this money should not go overwhelmingly to high end agriculture/agribusiness to support cold chains, warehouses, reefer trucks, high tech packaging etc. Significant portions of the credit portfolio must be made available to enable small and marginal farmers to become not just self-sufficient, but also entrepreneurial.

An important provision is the Long Term Rural Credit Fund set up for the purpose of providing refinance support to Cooperative Banks and Regional Rural Banks with an initial corpus of Rs. 5,000 crore.

These banks were being marginalized in the rural and farm credit sector resulting in the exclusion of marginal and small farmers in the last decade.

Another amount of Rs 50,000 crore allocated for Short Term Cooperative Rural Credit is a good step as co-operative societies reach the last mile.

Another welcome step is the allocation of Rs 200 crore to promote 2,000 farmer producer organisations. This essentially means promotion of existing and new farmer producer companies.

This new set of entities which number more than 500 already are struggling for working capital and investment support though they appear to be quite promising in the modern agribusiness context.

Mixed bag

Warehousing will get a boost with an allocation of Rs. 5,000 crore . This is needed since there is a pathetic shortage of storage facilities both for cereals and perishable produce and the warehouse receipt system has not really made any headway so far despite its extreme relevance for small holder agriculture.

The provision for financing 5 lakh Joint Farming Groups of landless farmers who lease in land is a welcome move too as these farmers who now cultivate more than 15 per cent of the land do not have any facility to avail loans in the absence of land titles.

But, financing alone may not help as seen in the Andhra Pradesh experience a few years ago when identity cards were given to make such farmers eligible for loans. In any case, this large provision will drive attention to the issue.

An unfortunate fact is that farmers are vulnerable to high levels of production and market risk but no measures exist to make crop insurance work or make markets deliver stable prices.

In this situation, the budget provision of Rs.500 crore as a price stabilisation fund is highly inadequate.

There is no specific focus on the problem of making agriculture in rainfed areas viable — by investing in soil health, enhancing water retention capacity, identifying and producing locally adapted seed suited for the specific rainfed area and so on. A scheme to provide every farmer a soil health card in mission mode will be launched, for which Rs. 100 crore has been provided and an additional Rs. 56 crore to set up 100 Mobile Soil Testing Laboratories have been allocated.

This is adopted from the Gujarat experience and is much needed but to be effective, it requires participation of local agencies and institutions.

Disappointingly, there is just a very modest Rs 100 crore allocation to a National Adaptation Fund to meet the vagaries of climate change. Conserving genetic diversity to save valuable genes that could build climate resilience and investment in breeding climate resilient crops, would have buffered Indian agriculture against climate shocks.

However, there is a worthwhile investment in the creation of a fund with a corpus of Rs. 10,000 crore for providing equity through venture capital funds, quasi equity, soft loans and other risk capital specially to encourage new start-ups in the MSME sector. This can also be leveraged for agribusiness ventures to support farming and farmers.

However, the Budget could have acknowledged the reality of malnutrition and made an allocation.
The writers are with IIM, Ahmedabad and Gene Campaign, respectively
(This article was published on August 13, 2014)

Thursday, July 31, 2014


Gene Campaign welcomed move that the Government has held up the permission given by the Genetic Engineering Approval committee (GEAC) to conduct 15 field trials of five GM crops. Dr Suman Sahai of Gene Campaign said although the GEAC could only have proceeded with a green signal from the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), it is nevertheless good that the MoEF has reconsidered its decision.

For one, the matter is sub judice since the Supreme Court is still considering the report of the Technical Expert Committee (TEC) appointed by it in response to two PILs, the first filed by Gene Campaign in 2004. In its report, the TEC has advised abundant caution in the matter of releasing GM crops in the absence of an adequate regulatory system and suggested a moratorium till the regulatory system was substantially improved. This is in keeping with the prayer of Gene Campaign in its 2004 PIL.

The government must move in a transparent and intelligent manner on the issue of GM crops and give itself time to develop an informed opinion on the subject after comprehensive consultations.  The MoEF Minister Mr. Javadekar has indicated that he is inclined to do this.  There is no compelling reason to rush ahead with the release of GM crops. There is nothing in the pipeline that promises anything for either food or nutrition security. Nor do we have a food crisis at hand. In any case, we are producing large amounts of food by conventional agriculture already.

The BJP had stated in its manifesto that it would consider GM crops only after careful scientific testing and evaluation.  After government formation, one of the first public statements made by the new Agriculture Minister Sri Radha Mohan Singh was that GM crops were not the priority of the Agriculture Ministry. Then suddenly out of the blue, in a significant turnaround, came the announcement that permissions to go ahead with field trials had been granted for a large number of crops.

Dr. Sahai said that sending such conflicting signals is not good for policy making and does not help any of the stakeholders.  Indian policy has been favorable to moving into a high tech era. However technologies are seldom value neutral and their adoption must be done after due reflection. The new Prime Minister is known to be a technology buff.

Genetic engineering is a regulated technology and if we want to adopt it, it must be regulated properly to protect the environment as well as human and animal health. There are several outstanding concerns about GM crops and despite the biotech industry’s rhetoric about their safety, these concerns need to be resolved in an open and transparent manner.

We need to keep in mind that it is those very scientists who developed GM technology and who better than any one else understood the positive and negative aspects of it, who asked that this technology be carefully regulated. Just like the technology for generating atomic energy is regulated and is subject to several safeguards that must be carefully implemented, genetic engineering is also a regulated technology with its own set of safeguards and testing protocols that must be implemented.

The government would do well to make a new beginning with a review of existing reports and hold consultations to put in place a stringent regulatory system. Much thought and many inputs , the latest being the TEC report, have gone into defining  the contours of a rigorous biosafety testing process and  a credible regulatory system that can evaluate both the scientific and socio-economic impacts of GM crops. The outputs of such a system will enable policy makers to take correct decisions.

Suman Sahai

Tuesday, June 24, 2014


The content and allegations in the Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) section of the IB report are shocking. The title itself “Concerted efforts by select foreign funded NGOs to ’take down’ Indian development projects” is more than extreme.

We question the IB’s jurisdiction to decide which projects are in favour of India’s development and which are not. As we understand, in a democratic set up like India, which is governed by the Constitution, policies have to be made and laws have to be enacted in accordance with the Constitution and any policies and laws against the Constitution can be struck down by the High Court as well as the Supreme Court. Whether a decision taken by the Government or law made by the legislature is for the common good has to be legally determined by the Court. Equally, the people of this country have a right to object and to put forth their point of view on law and policy as well as what constitutes public interest. This is in consonance with the Rule of Law and the democratic principles which have been affirmed time and again, by the highest court of the land.

With respect to GMOs , Rules were made in 1989 under the provisions of the Environment Protection Act, 1986. The Rules are neither in consonance with the international conventions like the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety nor the provisions of the Constitution. Nor do they address the principles of sustainable development, precautionary principle and intergenerational equity. These rules are under challenge before the Hon'ble Supreme Court and therefore the first question is how the IB can report on a subject that is sub judice ? Does this not amount to an attempt to influence the decisions to be made by the Supreme Court ?

The IB in effect says that those who are fighting on scientific and legal principles to strengthen the regulatory system for dealing with GMOs are ‘anti development’. And the IB quotes an American scientist , Dr Ronald Herring of Cornell University, known for his open advocacy of GM crops, especially those owned by American multinationals like Monsanto, to make its point that Indian NGOs are causing economic damage !  We therefore,  feel that  the  GMO  section  of the report is

motivated and is designed to benefit some vested interests. Why has the IB not quoted several international scientists of repute who advise abundant caution in dealing with GMOs ?

It would have been advisable for the IB to have done its homework and gone through the records and orders passed by the Hon’ble Court, which appointed a Technical Expert Committee (TEC) to examine the questions raised in the matter of GMOs. All TEC members, barring one, have said that “Based on the safety dossiers , the TEC has found in unambiguous terms that at present, the regulatory system has major gaps and these will require rethinking, investment and relearning to fix. A deeper understanding of the process of risk assessment is needed within the regulatory system for it to meet the needs of a proper biosafety evaluation. This is not available in the country at present. It is therefore recommended that the requisite understanding be developed through consultation, collaboration and capacity building”.

The IB also neglects to refer to another official report on the state of GM technology and its implementation in India. The Sopory Committee Report  of 2012 was commissioned by the Ministry of Agriculture. The committee’s findings raised disconcerting questions over the claims made by developers of GM crops, the role of regulatory bodies, the public sector research institutions and their ethical standards. The establishments dealing with GMOs have been indicted in this report for lies, fraud and lacking scientific expertise in GM technology.

The IB should inform itself of the 'National Policy on the Voluntary Sector'  prepared by the Planning Commission in 2007. The said policy recognizes the important role played by the voluntary sector and that it has been serving as an effective non-political link between the people and government. One of the objectives of this policy was to enable voluntary organizations (VO) to legitimately mobilize necessary financial resources from India and abroad. It is clearly stated in the National Policy that independence of VOs  allows them to explore alternative paradigms of development and that international funding of the VOs play a significant role. The foreign funding has to be regulated under the provisions of existing laws including the FCRA.

It is very unfortunate that the IB has levelled the charge that the TEC report is influenced by the NGOs. The decision taken by the Ministry of Environment regarding Bt Brinjal as well as the reports of the Parliamentary Standing Committee have also been projected in a similar insulting  manner by the IB. This is a very serious matter. Is the IB report an attempt to influence the functioning of the Executive as well as the Judiciary and the Rule of Law governed by the Constitution ?

Is the IB attempting to influence the decisions of the Supreme Court when it makes biased statements on matters that are sub judice ?
Is the IB attempting to position itself above Parliament when it questions the wisdom and independence of the Parliamentary Standing Committee ?
Do its insinuations not bring down the prestige of our sovereign Parliament ?

The intentional leaking of the IB report and its statements  are tantamount to contempt of the Hon'ble Supreme Court and denigrating the majesty of Parliament. These are very serious issues. Given these circumstances, the government should immediately order an enquiry into this IB report and put the correct facts as well its own stand on the Report before the people.

Suman Sahai

Monday, June 2, 2014

Trans Pacific Partnership to overtake WTO ?

A highly controversial trade agreement led by the US is being negotiated in such utter secrecy that until recently just a handful of people had any knowledge of what was being decided behind  closed doors.  The Trans-Pacific Partnership  Agreement , TPP for short, has now reached the public domain , thanks to WikiLeaks, the global watchdog that leaks ‘secret’ information that has a bearing on public interest. 

The TPP is a US led initiative of 12 member countries comprising apart from the US, Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, , Chile, Peru, Japan, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore  and Brunei . These countries account for approximately 40 percent of the global GDP. Russia, China, India  and Brazil have been kept out of this exclusive club.  The scope of the TPP is vast and includes subjects like  Intellectual Property Rights (IPR), Biodiversity and the Environment, State Owned Enterprise (SOE) , Agriculture, Sanitary and Phytosanitary Standards (SPS) Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT), Investment, Public Procurement , Financial Services,  E Commerce,  Trade in Information Technology Products  (TITP), Market Access for Goods, Textiles etc. , Many of these are part of the WTO.

As with the WTO, the US clearly dominates the TPP and the negotiations in its various sectors. It exercises its veto like powers  and is able to put considerable pressure even on this group of countries which have significant economies of their own.  The available TPP documents which are excerpts from internal commentaries and notes of participating countries, show, the extent to which the US dominates the agenda and the discussions  in the TPP negotiations.  Member countries are constantly on their toes to keep articulating and amending  their positions on each aspect in the fast paced, often aggressively  negotiated text  so as not to leave any room for the US to force an agreement based on an ambiguous text or one that was not updated.

So where does the WTO fit in ? The impression is gaining ground in the last years, that unhappy  with the increasingly democratic nature of the WTO, where countries are asserting themselves more and more, the US  in a sense wants to  walk away from the WTO. After the Doha Round, which the US sees as a setback, among other things, to its pharmaceutical industry, its trade representatives have made clear their displeasure over the multilateral platform where the US is facing growing resistance.  The TPP appears to be the Empire striking back to recover lost ground.

An extraordinary feature of the Trans Pacific Partnership is the status being accorded to multinational corporations . The TPP proposes to give the corporate sector powerful advantages, tilting the scales in their favor at the cost of  consumers, in almost every sector. In a path breaking move, the TPP is putting in provisions that will enable corporations to take on nation states directly.  Among the proposals is the setting up of an international tribunal to rule on legal disputes between nations as well as between corporations and national governments. .
So corporations could challenge the laws and regulations of a country before this tribunal which is empowered to overrule the country’s legal framework and  impose economic penalties.  In the WTO only nation states can act against each other before the Dispute Settlement Court. In an unprecedented paradigm shift, the TPP seeks to elevate corporations to the status of sovereign nations  and empowers them   to challenge governments. 

This proviso is a triumph for the capitalist economic model where money trumps democracy and democratic rights !All is geared to make big money happy. This is not surprising since the US leads the TPP and the US economic  and for that matter environment policies, are designed to benefit the corporations who are considered privileged  partners in the governance and policy making  process and structures.  Critics have slammed the TPP as the escalation of  the  ‘neo-liberal agenda’. Celebrated academic and author Noam Chomsky has called the TPP a ‘ neoliberal project to maximize profit and set the working people in the world in competition with one another  so as to lower wages ‘. Commentators on the IPR program of the TPP have called it a ‘Christmas wish list’  for the big corporations . 

Another American viewpoint  pushed forward by the TPP is deregulation. Never a votary of regulation which is antithetical to the interests of big money, successive US governments, starting at least from the Reagan administration have sought to keep regulation to the minimum in most economic spheres.  Giving a free hand to capital and the market, US administrations have sought to limit the activities that governments can regulate and have consistently rejected regulation as a tool of governance and international trade. The TPP takes deregulation to a new level and introduces provisions that protect only the rights of the investor  but not that of the consumer  or the citizen.

A case in point is  the area of environment where  the US has been a reluctant player on the global stage.  It has chosen to remain out of international agreements like the Kyoto Protocol, the treaty designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It has also refused to be part of the  Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) through which nations agree to conserve biological diversity, respect the knowledge of local communities and acknowledge their ownership of such knowledge.  Both these exclusions are designed to give a free hand to business. In the Kyoto Protocol,  by not requiring industry to make emission cuts and in the case of the CBD, by not restraining biopiracy by pharmaceutical companies. Pharma giants help themselves to the indigenous knowledge of communities and create patented drugs based on that.

The draft  text pays lip service to protecting the environment , dealing with such subjects like illegal logging , overfishing,  wildlife trafficking, marine pollution from ships and ozone depleting substances. But predictably, there is nothing related to climate change,  biodiversity and indigenous knowledge . Even in this limited engagement , the US insists that environmental issues be dealt with only if they affect trade and investment.  With respect to trade in biodiversity for instance , the US position is antagonistic to that proposed by the other members . Peru and Mexico are attempting to link CBD features like acknowledging the rights of holders of indigenous knowledge in biodiversity trade but the US opposes this.

Notably, there is no requirement for compliance in the Environment section, and implementation  is left to the discretion of individual countries. No penalties have been proposed for violations, unlike in other TPP chapters like Investments, where penalties are severe. The environment sector is left completely unregulated and everything is voluntary.  Not surprisingly, there is a lot of tension in the Environment negotiations with several countries resisting the US proposals to limit engagement in this field. There are at least three areas where there is clear discord among the TPP members. 

These relate to balancing the need to protect the environment with ambitious commitments on trade and investment. The current way out seems to be to make nothing binding in the environment chapter so that the parties can push their investment and trade agendas  and take only that much notice of environmental protection as they want to. Another point of disagreement relates to  handling commitments already made in other multilateral fora like the WTO and for countries other than  the US,  also the CBD and Kyoto Protocol. How are these to be brought in resonance with the far more ambitious goals of the TPP , especially in fields like Intellectual Property Rights. 

Consensus also eludes the nature of the dispute resolution mechanism the TPP should adopt . The TPP is a much more close knit group than the WTO and their interests are largely convergent, especially with respect to the unfettered deployment and use of capital. In the WTO, there is a clear division between wealthy,  industrial nations and developing countries with smaller economies. The dispute settlement process is invoked largely ( but not exclusively ) to bring the less powerful economies in line with the trade ambitions of the rich countries. It will be difficult enough to institute a structure like the Dispute Settlement Court of the WTO and  the US is pushing for a more firm dispute resolution mechanism  than the other members are willing to agree to.

After Wikileaks made available portions of the TPP negotiations, there is a growing backlash, largely  in the US,  against the clandestine, non-democratic  nature of the negotiations. In what may be a first,  the  Obama administration is treating the TPP negotiations as so classified, that information  even  to members of the US Congress is restricted.

India must take note of the TPP provisions and prepare responses in its areas of interest. For surely, once concluded, the TPP will set the benchmark for negotiations in other multilateral and bilateral forums. India must also act quickly to strengthen its partnerships and alliances to protect its trading interests.

Saturday, April 12, 2014


Suman Sahai

There is a view that the Brazilian model of sugar cane based ethanol is what we should follow for transportation. But is ethanol a viable alternative fuel for India as it is for Brazil ? India first promoted an ethanol blending policy in 2002, making  it mandatory for oil providers to blend  oil with five percent ethanol.  This policy never took off since there are fundamental problems with it which cannot be wished away with the pronouncement of an inadequately thought through diktat.  India’s production of ethanol is based on sugarcane. Its production of a little over 2000 million liters annually is claimed mainly by two sectors, the manufacturers of  IMFL(Indian Made Foreign Liquor ) and  the chemical industry. The ethanol production in India is simply not enough to satisfy the demands of the liquor and chemical industry and also provide ethanol for five percent blending . This and the fact that sugar cane production fluctuates greatly from year to year, are  the principal reasons why  the government’s  ethanol blending policy has not taken off.

Brazil’s ethanol production stands at about 23 to 24 billion litres annually ,roughly ten times what India produces . This is more than enough to  satisfy its  diverse domestic  needs, divert  ethanol as fuel  and leave over enough to export to other countries like India.  Brazil with a land mass of over 8.5 million square km is more than twice the size of the Indian land mass at 3.2 million square km. The population of Brazil at 198 million, is a fraction of India’s 1.24 billion and growing population which needs substantial amounts of  land and water to produce food.

Most significantly, Brazil’s water resources are enormous, of central importance  for a water guzzling crop like sugar cane.  To compare at the level of river basin volume, as an indicator of water availability, Brazil has a total river basin volume of  over 11 million square km whereas  India’s river basin volume  stands at some 3 million square km.  The fact is that India’s sugar cane production is largely based on ground water which is being overexploited, with many ground water blocks having become critical. 

In addition to its huge advantage with natural resources,  Brazil also has a very small population compared to India. It is a percentage of this small population  that is the consumer  of ethanol biofuels.  India’s  large population base  would  have a much greater demand for ethanol as fuel . Can India divert more land and water  to increase sugar cane production for ethanol  to satisfy its ethanol needs  without coming into conflict with its food and nutrition needs ?

To suggest that India should follow Brazil’s ethanol example, is to turn a blind eye to India’s ground realities. Most notably, India’s grinding poverty ,its shocking levels of hunger and malnutrition (India is home to the largest number of hungry and malnourished people in the world), must force us to stop and reflect on the way we should use our land and water. Should these critical resources be used to  grow more food or should the land and water be diverted to the production of sugarcane for ethanol for cars.

Clearly, ethanol cannot be a long term or sustainable  option for India, nor for that matter , can Jatropha derived diesel .Any source of alternative fuel that will work ,  can only be one that does  not divert land and water from the production of food and  maintaining the integrity  of ecosystems and biodiversity. However, before introducing an alternative plan, we must realize that the most logical way for India to reduce its dependence on imported oil and  minimize the pollution from fossil fuel combustion is to rationalize its system of transportation.  The proposal favoring public transport over private transport will always remain valid because it is the only sustainable way of transportation. The bane of our transportation system is following the American model of personal motorized transport  without having America’s resources .  The number of personal cars that are allowed on to the road every month, in one city alone,  is unsustainable for the planet and  a  recipe for global disaster.

India has access to at least two  sources of viable energy for transportation. The first is solar energy , abundant and free which remains  practically unexploited barring primitive solar heaters  and solar light panels. The other really promising option is more high tech, to produce alcohol by fermenting algae.  Algal oil and alcohol along with solar generated power is the way forward for alternative fuels. Algae can produce up to 300 times more oil per unit area than crops such as sugarcane or Jatropha. As algae have a short life cycle, they can be harvested every  1–10 days. Sugarcane takes the best lands, masses of water  and blocks the farmer’s land for almost a year. 

Algae can be grown in open ponds or bioreactors which are just plastic or glass containers through which nutrient rich water is pumped. The water can be brackish or wastewater, fresh water is not required. And algae yield two types of biofuels. The lipid, or oily part can be used to produce biodiesel and  the carbohydrate in the algae biomass can be fermented into bioethanol and biobutanol. This is a promising way to move ahead.