Controversy over GM trials in West Bengal (22/5/2007)

1.Controversy regarding GM seeds in Habra, West Bengal
2.GM in Habra: monitoring agency detaches itself from experimentation
3.The State Government remains indifferent to the threat of GM cultivation

GM Watch comment: Here's the background to the news of farmers trashing Monsanto-Mahyco's office in West Bengal.

We've been sent 3 local news articles - translated from the Bangla language - which appeared in two of the leading dailies in West Bengal. They were translated by SEVA, the organisation from West Bengal that discovered the field trial violations there. The second article is a particularly interesting piece, exposing the knowingly shoddy way in which India's regulatory authorities are handling field trial monitoring.


1.Controversy regarding GM seeds in Habra, West Bengal
Sambad Pratidin daily, 16th May 2007 [shortened]

A great deal of controversy has arisen in West Bengal regarding the application of genetically modified seeds... It has been discovered that the collaboration of two companies namely Monsanto, the US based multinational giant, and the nationally run Mahyco have resulted in the experimental application of GM seeds in BLOCK 2, HABRA, in the district of NORTH 24 PARGANAS.

This is being done with four crops, namely, rice, tomato, ladies finger (also known as okra) and brinjal (also known as eggplant or aubergine)

The entire responsibility of overseeing the experimentation in Habra was entrusted to the Kalyani University, Agriculture Department, but to the consternation of the authorities, the crop was removed from the field before the concerned specialists could properly examine it. Thus they could not identify the seeds as being GM or collect the sample crop and examine whether it has been produced according to the prescribed regulations.

There are two governmental departments entrusted with the duty of supervising the entire project. They are (1) REGULATORY COMMTTEE FOR GENETIC MODIFICATION and (2) GENETIC ENGINEERING APPROVAL COMMITTEE. Specialists on health, agriculture and environmental issues are members of these two committees.

According to the official procedure, anyone interested in using GM crops is first required to obtain permission from these two authorities and then, it is imperative for the department of environment to cordon off the area where the GM seed is to be planted. At the same time, it is necessary for the government to form a monitoring agency to discern whether this 'risky' cultivation is being done according to the prescribed norms.

The questions that have arisen in view of the above-mentioned incident at Habra are many. Since the specialists from the Kalyani University arrived at the spot after the crop was removed, they are not in a position to determine the damage created to the soil in that particular area. The agricultural minister Sri Naren Dey was informed of the incidents and he has assured people that investigations are going on regarding the entire situation.


2.GM in Habra: monitoring agency detaches itself from experimentation
Sambad Pratidin, 16th May 2007.

The monitoring agency for experimentation with GM rice, Bidhan Chandra Krishi Vidyalaya has withdrawn its involvement from the project, according to reliable sources. The Vice Chancellor of the University, Professor Dipak Kumar Bagchi has sent a written letter to the Ministry of Science and Technology, Government of India to this effect.

In it he had categorically stated that the Council of Science and Technology under the Government of West Bengal are expected to produce a specific infrastructure for experimentation and research regarding GM seeds within a few days. Until then the University would not associate itself with any such exercise. According to other sources within the University, the VC has decided to return a sum of Rs. 45,000 that he had received from Mahyco, the nationally run organization under Monsanto, for the purpose of overseeing the experimentation conducted in Habra.

It has been reported that in the letter written to Dr. T.V. Ramnaiya, the member secretary of the Review Committee of Genetic Modification under the Department of Science and Technology, the Government of India, Professor Bagchi has expressed his deep discontent and anger regarding the role assumed by the central government in the entire incident.

According to Professor Bagchi, in spite of BCKV being the only monitoring agency under the state government, the decision to promote GM seeds on an experimental basis in Habra were not conveyed to the University nor its prior opinion regarding the matter taken into consideration. Professor Bagchi had further stated that important issues like the location of experimentation, the crop on which it would be done, the time when it would be done are never discussed with the BCKV. The agency had received information about the proposed experimentation in Habra on October 3rd, 2006, that is, towards the end of the kharif crop.

Accordingly, the scientists from the university had visited the area only to find a fallow field lying in post harvest idleness. Thus an angry professor Bagchi has reinstated that the information sent to the monitoring agency at such a later date is actually meaningless.

According to reliable sources, apart from the delayed process of functioning in governmental departments, the role of certain eminent scientists and officials of the central government are being questioned due to the above-mentioned incident. As for example, Dr. Ramnaiya, one of the leading scientists of the Science and Technology department had informed the BCKV regarding the official permission granted to Mahyco to experiment with the GM seed in Habra in a letter dated 3rd October, 2006. The VC had received the letter on 12th October 2006. A day later, Dr. Saroj Kumar Sanyal, director of the research wing of the University received a letter regarding details of rice cultivation and a cheque of Rs.30.000. On the very next day, he received another letter regarding details of ladies finger cultivation and a cheque of Rs.15,000 from Mahyco.

Surprisingly, Dr.Ramnaiya had given Mahyco the permission to experiment with GM seeds on a letter dated 11th July, 2006 and they were directed to send the details of the procedure to the state government and the monitoring agencies within the next month, that is by 11th August, 2006. Mahyco remained indifferent to these directives and sent the said papers to the BCKV at a much later date (12th October 2006) which was almost 90 days behind the schedule. And to the consternation of the monitoring agency, Dr. Ramnaiya himself had let them know about the entire matter only a day before.

The professors of the BCKV continue to speculate about the entire course of events with surprise, anger and uncertainty.


3.The State Government remains indifferent to the threat of GM cultivation
Anandabazar Patrika, 16th May, 2007 [shortened]

As questions and debates on the positive and negative aspects of GM cultivation rages over the entire world, the government of West Bengal continues to assume an indifferent attitude about the situation.

The agriculture minister Sri Naren Dey has mentioned that there is no way to prevent GM cultivation in the state. Specialist committees are going to be set up at the district and state levels and any such activity in the state of West Bengal should have prior approval of those committees before proceeding on any such endeavor. When enquired about the effects of GM food in the human body, the minister answered that the Agricultural Commission is supposed to prepare a report on that. Nothing should be concluded before the report is available. The agriculture Director of the state Sri Dhabaleshwar Konar has clearly stated that the responsibility of such matters fall not on the Directorate of Agriculture but the Bidhan Chandra Krishi Vidyalaya.

The question that arises is that even after the Supreme Court's decision to prohibit GM experimentation in the entire state, how could the same happen in Kajla village of Habra in the district of north 24 Parganas? An organization of Maharashtra leased land, cultivated with GM seeds of rice and ladies finger and went away without raising any hue and cry among the state functionaries. When the specialists from BCKV went to examine the entire operation, they found empty land from which the crop had already been removed. The people of the village from whom this organization had leased the land for Rs.15, 000 are not conscious about the effects of such cultivation.

...Against this backdrop, the activities of the Maharashtrian organization in Habra definitely raise several questions.

Particularly the role of the state government as passive spectators surprises one and all.

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