Biotech’s suicide trap by Devinder Sharma (26/9/2003)

"Whether it is Andhra Pradesh or Karnataka or Punjab, chief ministers are not only doling out public resources for a risky and unproven technology but are unabashedly promoting such technology parks by diverting public funding and services meant for the poor."
Suicide Trap
By Devinder Sharma
From: BioSpectrum, Vol 1 Issue 7, Sept, 2003

'Ninety-five percent of the new science in the world is created in the countries comprising only one-fifth of the world's population. And much of that science.neglects the problems that afflict most of the world's people. -  Kofi Annan  in Science, Mar 7, 2003

It is a sad reflection on the way modern science has grown. Nothing can be more tragic for the five-sixth of the world's population that has been forced to accept science and technology that had actually not been developed for them.  Still worse, what Kofi Annan probably forgot to say was that the biggest tragedy of modern times is the way countries have allowed industries to control and manipulate science.

No, I am not talking about Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's promise of sending an Indian to the moon at a time when 320 million people go to bed hungry, but promoting the sunrise industry - genetic engineering - in the name of science and technology. And still worse, diverting scarce public resources to subsidise an upcoming industry, allowing democratically elected State governments to make available prime land for the new industry and that too at a pittance, announcing tax holidays and other financial relief. Well, you should know that subsidy is only a dirty word when the public money is spent for the poor. The rich and elite have an inherent right to government support, and knowing that the term subsidies is not politically correct - they call it an 'incentive' for growth.

Some years back, the government had doled out the public exchequer in the name of industrial growth. I remember as a development reporter with Indian Express, I had written so much about the numerous industrial estates that were set up. State after State, and district after district, demarcating prime land in the outskirts of the major cities and even mofussil towns, and announcing developing schemes for the newly announced industrial estates became a popular political exercise. Industrialists, entrepreneurs, and unemployed educated were invited to take advantage of the massive support that the government had kept aside. They came, bought the land at a throwaway price, and within a couple of years, most of them vanished after selling off the plots.

India's march to industrialization remained on paper.

Three decades later, I find the same approach (or would it be appropriate to call it a mistake?) being followed for genetic engineering. Whether it is Andhra Pradesh or Karnataka or Punjab, chief ministers are not only doling out public resources for a risky and unproven technology but are unabashedly promoting such technology parks by diverting public funding and services meant for the poor. There is no dearth of resources for setting up biotechnology parks, occupying prime land, in the heart of the cosmopolitan cities. However, in some places, many of the original allottees find it a lucrative real estate business.

A majority of the biotechnology companies that are coming up, are essentially outfits of the foreign companies and institutes, or else are serving merely as a service industry for the companies abroad. Like the IT industry, the emphasis on intellectual property is conspicuously missing. As far as agriculture is concerned, where the controversy is at its peak, most of the companies are only trying to duplicate and sell the genetically modified seeds that have been developed outside the country. Such is the great rush for profits that these companies are not even in the know of the specific needs of the Indian farmers. All they know is that they need to make a fast buck. Given the blind political support, considering that elections have begun to happen more frequently, these biotech and seed companies find a green pasture in India.

This may however not last long. Every day is not a Sunday, and it will be tragic if the biotech industry refuses to see the growing anger and social unrest in the rural areas following the Bt cotton debacle. The industry therefore must redesign its approach, re-ensure the utility and relevance of its technological product, and work on technologies that help farmers move away from the suicide trap into more sustainable farming practices. But before that, the government must stop subsidizing the biotechnology industry in the name of science and technology, and set rules and regulations that does not allow these companies to walk away with sub-standard products and public liabilities.

And like Kofi Annan said, the most important question that the biotechnology industry, controlling the science and technology of genetic engineering, needs to ask is whether the technology is relevant to India's farmers and consumers. Merely multiplying and selling GM seeds produced outside the country will for sure pit the industry in direct confrontation with farmers. And that will be suicidal for the industry. #

(Devinder Sharma is a distinguished food and trade policy analyst)

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