GM Protests: An Open Letter to Manish Sisodia

The letter has been originally written by Mr Pawan Payal, Executive President, Sir Chaudhary Choturam BKS a farmer body of Chirawa, Jhunjunu Rajasthan that was inspired by the legacy of Sir Choturam , a statesman and friends of Farmers. BKS claims to represent 14 crore farmers across India and is headquartered in Shikhawati belt of Rajasthan and has a membership of five lakh farmers across India

Mr Manish Sisodia, Deputy Chief Minister of Delhi.

Dear Mr Sisodia,

I am a farmer from Rajasthan and therefore unlikely to be part of the vote-bank typically associated with your party. Neither do I belong to any significant pressure group, unable to organise a hartaal or morcha to get my voice heard. And if we met somewhere, I’m not the type inclined to throw ink (or other sundry substances for that matter) at you. Generally the only options left to the likes of me would be to take recourse to the written word and hope that I am able to reach you. Pretty much the sum and substance of the Indian humble farmer – rarely seem, never heard and almost always, taken advantage of.

Just to set the context, I am not the typical marginalised farmer that you may conjure up in your mind’s eye (those typically would not be writing to you) and neither a large Indian farmer like those in Punjab and Haryana (who would easily own a few hundred acres). But like both, I am a born farmer who took over from my father and he, from his father before him, going back some 6 odd generations. I am however a ‘progressive’ farmer, one who is technology focused and stays connected to farming developments across the country using my smartphone and the internet in addition to other platforms. The disclaimer is that I grow Bt Cotton and I believe in the merits of GM Crops and have an implicit trust in the government that any GM seed is certifiably safe for farmers and end-users.

I read a report a day or two ago that talks about the Delhi government urging the centre to not give clearance to cultivation of genetically modified mustard as allowing this agriculture technique for growing a food crop could pose threat to environment, soil, farmers and consumers’ health. This did take me by surprise. Why would AAP suddenly be interested in targeting the agri-biotechnology sector and GM Mustard in particular?  After all, there are hardly any farmers left in Delhi (some perhaps on the fringes). Was it just another stick to beat Modi with? Or about targeting the Punjab rural vote-bank?  Or turning attention away from Delhi’s civic woes that AAP seems ill-equipped to handle?

This wasn’t a question. It was a statement. Simply that GM crops are bad. Was there any thought around this? Was this intent well thought out or was it just ignorance? Did you discuss this with anyone with even a mildly scientific temperament? If so they might have mentioned that most of the edible oil imported into India (a staggering US$ 10 billion worth annually) and consumed by your household, the local dhaba-wallah and probably even at the Delhi Assembly canteen, comes in from countries such as Canada and are almost all derived from GM crops? Poor farmers in fact, the millions who live in the cotton belt of India, consume cotton seed oil. Did you know that all cotton-seed oil is a by-product of Bt Cotton (a GM crop that is grown by 95% cotton farmers across the length and breadth of India). Did you choose to perhaps test a few samples to be sure of their safety? Maybe speak to a few doctors at AIIMS? Maybe send a few samples to a government laboratory? It doesn’t seem you did. Because nothing that you said was any different from the shrill tirade of anti-GM activists such as Greenpeace or Vandana Shiva.

While this was certainly disappointing coming from someone such as yourself, what made me laugh aloud was your demand that since the research on GM Mustard is currently happening in Delhi University, located in Delhi, the university should have taken permission from the Delhi government before conducting this research.

It seemed incredible that a man such as yourself, in charge of portfolios no less important than education, higher education and technical education (in addition to finance and planning, revenue, services, power, information technology and administrative reforms) in the government of Delhi would actually say something to undermine publicly funded research happening at Delhi University and funded by the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB). It’s a different matter that Delhi University like all universities and deemed universities comes under the HRD Ministry and therefore your government would technically have no say in the matter (and thank God for that).

In fact I just thought I would also remind you that some of India’s premier institutes of agri research and learning including the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, the Indian Agricultural Research Institute and the National Institute of Agricultural Economics and Policy Research are also situated a stone’s throw away from where your office is. I have visited these institutes many times and met scientists, researchers and politicians representing their farmer constituents from across India who have been there to discuss new farm technologies including agri-biotechnology and GM technology. I have found these MLAs and MPs to be curious and interested, asking questions around its efficacy in relation to certain crops (depending on the regions they represented) as well as questions around safety, reliability and sustainability. They may choose the technology or reject it but they have never questioned the scientific validity or necessity of the research. However I’ll give you the benefit of doubt. It’s probable that you did not know of the existence of these institutions or what goes on in there.

It is also strange that you did not choose to consider what innumerable academics, Nobel laureates, economists and scientists, both globally and in India have had to say about GM technologies. Allow me to share just one example. Former President, APJ Abdul Kalam, often referred to as a ‘People’s President’ was a strong proponent of genetically modified foods. As a visionary he always underscored the role of biotechnology to feed the world. In a speech delivered at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) at Patancheru in 2013 he said, “Research breakthroughs in agricultural biotechnology hold the potential for increasing crop productivity and the resistance of food crops to pests and diseases, thereby helping solve the food crisis. The future food demand cannot be met merely from incremental gains through conventional plant breeding. A quantum change in yield improvement is needed.” He went on to further say, “There is clear evidence that the use of GM crops has resulted in significant benefits like higher crop yields, reduced farm costs, increased farm profit and improvement in health and the environment and yet there is a heated debate over GM crops. No illusionary fears can stop the advancement of what is rational and logical. The solution lies in developing beneficial transgenic crops locally.”

Mr Sisodia, you call your party as one that is not corrupt. Perhaps not in the physical sense. But how would you justify this rather unfortunate example of ‘moral’ corruption? You are a founder of Public Cause Research Foundation, a Delhi based NGO that campaigned for just, transparent, accountable and participatory governance. Since when did participatory governance become something that hinders the progress of scientific research and development? How would a housewife in Delhi, an office executive or a small entrepreneur, in fact any member of the public ever understand the merits or demerits of any technology if policy makers such as yourself, choose to malign real and home-grown scientific progress?

It comes as no surprise that our nuclear and space scientists easily become national icons but the humble research scientist who toils silently in a dusty government laboratory has no real lobby. With politicians such as you are around, I doubt if he ever will. And the poor farmer? In India he is, at best a vote-bank to exploit and at worst, just another irrelevant statistic.  Jai Hind.

Copy of e-mail sent to Mr Manish Sisodia, Deputy Chief Minister of Delhi
Copy of e-mail sent to Mr Manish Sisodia, Deputy Chief Minister of Delhi

Note: The article has originally been written by Mr Pawan Payal, Executive President, Sir Chaudhary Choturam BKS a farmer body of Chirawa, Jhunjunu Rajasthan with a membership of five lakh farmers across India. These are author’s personal views and BioVoice doesn’t necessarily subscribe to them.