Letter to Editor

Follow PM Standing Committee Recommendations – Ban GM Food Crops

Follow PM Standing Committee Recommendations – Ban GM Food Crops

25th August 2012

GM crops are no way forward by SATYARAT CHATURVEDI
The Hindu, 24 August 2012

Dear Editor,

It is very good to hear directly from one of the members of Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture. People must unite behind this committee’s recommendations and see that the government of India stop all field trials and ban Genetically Modified food crops (such as Bt. brinjal).

“For years the biotechnology industry has trumpeted that it will feed the world, promising that its genetically engineered crops will produce higher yields.

That promise has proven to be empty, according to Failure to Yield, a report by UCS expert Doug Gurian-Sherman released in March 2009. Despite 20 years of research and 13 years of commercialization, genetic engineering has failed to significantly increase U.S. crop yields.”

from: Union of Concerned Scientists report: Failure to Yield

Concerned Scientists in India must study and report on matters like this that impact policy and people’s lives.


Original Article
GM crops are no way forward

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Food security is not about production alone; it is also about bio-safety, and access to food for the poorest

We are predominantly an agricultural economy, with the agricultural sector providing employment and subsistence to almost 70 per cent of the workforce. There have been some remarkable contributions from the agriculture sector to food grain production in the last six decades, when from a meagre 50 million tonnes in the 1950s, the country has been able to produce a record 241 million tonnes in 2010-2011. Despite these achievements, the condition of the farming community is pitiable considering that 70 per cent of our farmers are small and marginal, and there is a complete absence of pro-farmer/pro-agriculture policies which has led us to an environment of very severe agrarian distress.


In this situation, food security has been one of the main agendas of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government and also one that the government has been struggling with. There is a strong opinion among policymakers that biotechnology holds a lot of promise in achieving food security and that transgenic crops, especially, are a sustainable way forward. But given the opposition and controversies surrounding Genetically Modified (GM) crops and the differences of opinion among stakeholders, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture decided to take on the mammoth task of an objective assessment of the pros and cons of introducing GM crops.

We expect the observations in our report to answer the big question on the role of GM crops in achieving food security. We hope the recommendations will be acted upon at the earliest. The committee felt this was all the more necessary in the light of the Prime Minister’s exhortation at the Indian Science Congress about the full utilisation of modern biotechnology for ensuring food security but without compromising on safety and regulatory aspects.


In India, the only commercialised GM crop is Bt cotton. Industry and the Central government have painted a picture of success about it — saying it has led to an increase in production and that the costs of cultivation have gone down. But the ground reality is starkly different. This was evident during the extensive interactions of the committee with farmers in different cotton growing regions around the country during study visits in March 2012.

Besides analysing the facts and figures provided by government agencies and listening to eminent cotton scientists, the committee’s consultation with farmers in Vidharbha helped us conclude that the Bt cotton saga is not as rosy as made out to be. In Vidharbha, the per-acre investment in cultivating traditional varieties, or even pre-Bt hybrids, could be less than Rs. 10,000. That was certainly the case until the first half of the previous decade. But for Bt cotton, even the un-irrigated farmer is spending upwards of Rs. 15,000-18,000 or even more per acre. And irrigated farmers complain of input costs exceeding Rs. 45,000 per acre. While the investment and acreage rose dramatically, the per acre yield and income did not increase in equal measure and actually fell after initial years. Indeed, the Union Agriculture Minister spoke of Vidharbha’s dismal yields on December 19, 2011 in the Rajya Sabha.

It was clear that at least for the rain-fed cotton farmers of our country, the introduction of Bt cotton offered no socio-economic benefits. On the contrary, it being a capital intensive practice, the investment of farmers increased manifold thus exposing them to greater risks due to massive indebtedness. It needs to be remembered that rain-fed farmers constitute 85 per cent of all cotton growing farmers.

Added to this, there is desperation among farmers as introduction of Bt cotton has slowly led to the non-availability of traditional varieties of cotton. The cultivation of GM crops also leads to monoculture and the committee has witnessed its clear disadvantages. The decade of experience has shown that Bt cotton has benefited the seed industry hands down and not benefited the poorest of farmers. It has actually aggravated the agrarian distress and farmer suicides. This should be a clear message to policymakers on the impact of GM crops on farming and livelihoods associated with it.


From the various deliberations to which the committee was privy, it is clear that the technology of genetic engineering is an evolving one and there is much, especially on its impact on human health and environment, that is yet to be understood properly. The scientific community itself seems uncertain about this. While there are many in this community who feel that the benefits outweigh the risks, others point to the irreversibility of this technology and uncontrollability of the Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) once introduced in the ecosystem. Hence, they advocate a precautionary approach towards any open release of GMOs.

One of the concerns raised strongly by those opposing GM crops in India is that many important crops like rice, brinjal, and mustard, among others, originated here, and introducing genetically modified versions of these crops could be a major threat to the vast number of domestic and wild varieties of these crops. In fact, globally, there is a clear view that GM crops must not be introduced in centres of origin and diversity. India also has mega biodiversity hotspots like the Eastern Himalayas and the Western Ghats which are rich in biodiversity yet ecologically very sensitive. Hence it will only be prudent for us to be careful before we jump on to the bandwagon of any technology.

The committee’s findings on the GEAC-led regulatory system for GM crops show that it has a pro-Department of Biotechnology (DBT) and pro-industry tilt. It has also come under the scanner due to its inefficiency at the time of Bt Brinjal approval and for behaving like a promoter of GM crops rather than a regulatory body mandated to protect human health and environment from the risks of biotechnology. The DBT, whose mandate is to promote GM crops and fund various transgenics research, has a nominee as the co-chair of the GEAC, who gives the final approval for environmental and commercial release of GM crops.

The current regulatory system is shameful and calls for a complete makeover. While the government has been toying recently with the idea of a Biotechnology Regulatory Authority, the committee dismisses this and instead recommends an all-encompassing Biosafety Authority. While the committee has also evaluated international regulatory systems on GM crops, it recommends the Norwegian Gene Technology Act whose primary focus is bio-safety and sustainable development without adverse effects on health and environment, as a piece of legislation in the right direction for regulating GM crops in India.

The committee strongly believes that the problem today is in no measure comparable to the ship-to-mouth situation of the early 1960s. Policy and decision-makers must note that the total food grain production rose from 197 million tonnes in 2000-2001 to 241 million tonnes in 2010-11. A major argument by the Department of Agriculture and Cooperation before the committee in favour of GM crops was their potential to ensure the country’s food security. But the issue of food security is not about production alone; it also means access to food for the poorest. Moreover, there is no evidence as yet that GM crops can actually increase yields.

The committee, therefore, recommended the government come up with a fresh road map for ensuring food security in the coming years without jeopardising the vast biodiversity of the country and compromising with the safety of human and livestock health.

The committee unanimously feels that the government should take decisive action on the recommendations of this report and rethink its decision of introducing transgenics in agriculture as a sustainable way forward.

(Satyarat Chaturvedi is spokesperson, Indian National Congress, and member of Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture)

Keywords: GM cropsfood security

Letter to Editor

Response to Anupam Ahuja on right to inclusive education

Response to Anupam Ahuja on right to inclusive education
19th August 2012

Letter to Editor
The Hindu

Anupam Ahuja, “Don’t Disable her Right to go to School”
The Hindu, 14 August 2012

I welcome Anupam Ahuja’s vision of “acknowledging, respecting and celebrating diversity as enriching humanity and a normal aspect of society.” This will facilitate efforts to include people who are differently-abled, and in fact we should be doing this already, for everyone. Why do we discount the diversity within all of us, label some of as “standard,” and call those who do not fit into that standard as disabled and thereby uniquely able to bring about the promised enrichment of humanity? If we truly respected the diversity within each one of us, our society would be a more hospitable place for those with conditions that are normally labelled disabilities including impairment of hearing, vision, motor-functions and more severe conditions.

Instead our schools are designed to stamp out diversity and promote conformity,. To this end, a student whose learning path diverges from the standardized curriculum, who dares answer a question differently, ask a different question, or question the answer or the teacher, is punished in some way or another. At the most basic level – the student is not heard. A different answer is not explored but simply marked wrong. Soon children learn not to give different (wrong) answers, and soon after that learn not to think them either.

But what about those who don’t learn to reign in their curiosity? Children tell me stories of what happens when they ask a question or say something other than the scripted answer.

“So you think you are smart?”
“Why do you come to school?”

These are not questions designed to be answered. They aim to humiliate and forbid reply. From what the children and parents tell me, they largely succeed.

In short, since the system is hearing-impaired, the students must be silent. Is it not the school that must be certified as disabled and given appropriate services to equip it to hear and see all of its students and respect their right to education?

Rather than demanding that such schools accommodate someone whose abilities differ from the norm, we should question the push to standardization and conformity in society as a whole, that has led to the social marginalization not only of those who are recognized as disabled, but of the communities that the author is concerned about, such as migrant workers and ragpickers. Why have their rights to land, housing, work, wages, rations and other entitlements that would improve their quality of life and liberty, been denied? I am not suggesting that right to education of the children with disabilities must wait for these other rights to be fulfilled. But I worry that to leave those questions behind and only seek enrollment in the same system of standardized education will not bring us any closer to the vision of society that the author has espoused. Mr. Ahuja is not advocating that we do this, but globally we are seeing a trend of emphasis on education, blinded to social factors and civil rights, as if education alone can help the individual overcome poverty and social injustice. This vision of education isolated from its social context, feeds into the cycle of standardized testing and competition over creativity and cooperation.

The author’s ideas about education, home-education, school-education, and community growth seem to be unexamined and perhaps not well-informed.

“Most often when we talk about educating a child, we think about school and believe that true learning can only take place within the four walls of a formal classroom.”

Who believes this? Does this ring true with our own experience? Is it supported by research? How many schools today are ready to embrace true learning – to allow students to depart from the script of the textbook and standardized test preparation? Such learning is more likely to take place outside the walls of the classroom, or at most, within the spaces between classes.

The author asks,
“Is education only for personal gain or does it also offer benefits for the general growth of an entire community providing a place for children, youth and adults to interact, socialise, and unify societies? If we agree with the latter, then clearly home-schooling cannot really provide for this goal.”

What home-schooling has the author observed? In contrast to schoolchildren, home-schooled children are not placed within four walls with children of the same age for hours every day. Instead they interact with people of various ages and generations in their home and community, discovering ideas and projects that mean something to them, and working with those around them, much as school-going children might do during vacations and weekends. Granted more support may be required for children with severe disabilities but homeschooling in general allows more time for children to take part in the community, not less, than standard schooling.

The author asks, “Who would identify and certify the children as severely disabled for providing the home-based education programme?”

Currently home-education is a route that anyone in India may pursue, and one not need demonstrate any specific ability or disability to avail this path of learning. Secondly, I would urge you to question the value of labeling children as disabled – I understand that it is used to help children access appropriate services, but there is a risk associated with labeling as well, a risk that one sees the disability and is blinded to the abilities of each individual, and also that any departure from the increasingly rigidly defined “normal” is labelled a disability. We are seeing this with the rise in learning disabilities that are being diagnosed in Western countries and also in India. Many people have observed that children allowed to learn at their own pace and following their own, at times roundabout paths will learn more meaningfully. Some schools allow for such learning, but increasingly the pressure of standardized curriculum and testing makes this all but impossible. Compound that with earlier start of formal education (who waits till age 6 now? the admissions race begins far earlier.) and the child who is engrossed in thinking or exploring interests other than reading, writing and arithmetic is not allowed to do so, but labelled slow or disabled, or having attention deficit, or defiance disorder. Instead can we not recognize that child as learning?

The author says:

“Many argue that the current regular schools do not offer any relevant service for children with high support needs.”

In fact, I would argue that for the most part that the current regular schools do not offer relevant service for children who are passionate about learning, who are eager not merely to answer the question but also to question the answer, and even question the question. I have observed in case after case that young children do all of these things quite persistently but the behavior is systematically ironed out of them till they can sit as passive receivers of the standard curriculum and efficient writers of standardized tests. That is a tragic denial of Right to Education, as I have written here: Right to Education.

When school systems embrace every child’s right to learn, then they will not depend on confining children for many hours each day within fixed spaces and fixed ideas. My sister went to school with a disabled child. In her classroom, children had “jobs” every day, such as changing the calendar page, arranging supplies, erasing the chalkboards, cleaning the table after lunch, etc. One of the jobs was helper for the disabled child, Kumar (name changed). The jobs rotated so that every week or month every child got to do every job at least once. My sister tells me that everyone looked forward to being Kumar’s helper. There was no condescension, and Kumar also got to do certain jobs and be helpful. Schools that equip children to accommodate difference, whether in ideas, habits, or physical ability, will ultimately serve all students.

We are a long way from that today however. To achieve that vision in our schools would require changes in our society. It would require that we sincerely live up to our constitution and believe in every person, respect rights of everyone without exception. We should foster connections between formal and informal paths of learning, not posit one as a threat to the other. Those working in home-education and those working in school-education, and who believe in a society that works “for all the children including Mira,” serve in complementary roles to articulate and achieve this vision.