The politics of science and democracy in India

Proposed legislation will rob citizens of their right to justice and biosafety and deregulate dangerous industries.

Thirteen states in India have prevented genetically modified aubergines from being planted [GALLO/GETTY]

New Delhi, India – In an interview with the journal Science, Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh chose to focus on two hazardous technologies – genetically engineered seeds and crops, and nuclear power – as vital to the progress of science in India and the “salvation for finding new development pathways for developing our economy”.

He also identified NGOs as blocking this “development”, and said “foreign hands” were at work.

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The prime minister’s interview saddened me. It saddened me because the prime minister seems out of touch with science, as well as with the people of India whose will he is supposed to represent in a democracy. To label the democratic voices of the citizens of India as “foreign” and as “unthinking” is an insult to democracy, to the people of India – and to the part of the scientific community which is dedicated to science in the public interest and the understanding of safety aspects of hazardous technologies such as nuclear and genetic engineering. The prime minister’s statement was also a trivialisation of the regulatory framework for nuclear safety and biosafety.

It is because these technologies have safety implications in the context of the environment and public health. We have national and international laws on biosafety in the context of GMOs and nuclear safety in the context of nuclear power. The prime minister should be legally bound by these frameworks. The debate on safety is vital to our science, our democracy and our ecological security, food security and health security.

Misleading the country

The prime minister is misleading the nation by making it appear that the only voices advocating caution in these hazardous technologies are “foreign-funded NGOs”. The most significant voice on biosafety is Dr Pushpa Bhargava, who is the father of molecular biology in India, and is the Supreme Court Appointee on the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee – which which regulates GMOs for biosafety under the 1989 rules of the Environment Protection Act. Dr Bhargava was also on the National Knowledge Commission.

The most important voice for nuclear safety is Dr A Gopalakrishnan, the former Atomic Energy Regulatory Board Chairman.

The prime minister should be listening to these eminent experts with regard to the development of a responsible and democratic science, not creating a bogey of the “foreign hand” and starting a witch hunt among public interest groups and social movements, which are the very life blood of a democracy.

This attack on movements engaged in issues related to the safety of genetic engineering and nuclear power needs to be viewed in the larger context of the megabucks foreign corporations stand to gain by pushing GMOs and nuclear power plants in India. The prime minister has succumbed to these pressures and sacrificed both India’s food and energy sovereignty.

He signed the US-India nuclear agreement and the deal got the approval of parliament only through the “cash-for-votes” scandal. The prime minister also signed the US-India agriculture agreement, which seeks to put India’s food and agriculture systems in the hands of global corporate giants such as Monsanto, Cargill and Walmart.

The push for foreign direct investment in retail was stopped by parliament. The recent election results show that the people have also rejected the policies of the United Progressive Alliance, which focused on the interests of global corporations, while trampling on the livelihoods and democratic rights of the people of India.

We have already seen the high costs of the destruction of our seed sovereignty in cotton after the entry of Monsanto. Ninety five per cent of our cotton seed is now owned and collected by Monsanto through licensing agreements with 60 Indian seed companies. Seed costs jumped 8,000 per cent, pesticide use increased, crop failure increased, farmers debt increased and, with debt, the epidemic of farmer’s suicides emerged.

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The prime minister talks of a “double whammy” of disease – but he describes it as an “opportunity”. He fails to address the “double whammy” in the food and agriculture crisis, 250,000 farmers’ suicides and half of India’s children suffering from severe malnutrition. GMOs are not a solution to this double whammy.

Science of agro-ecology

They are aggravating and deepening the crisis of debt linked to capital intensive non-sustainable agriculture based on a seed monopoly, which destroys food systems that produce healthy and nutritious food. The solution to farmers’ suicides and children’s malnutrition is the science of agro-ecology and the development of ecologically intensive, low-cost production which increases the production of food and nutrition as we have shown in the Navdanya report “Health Per Acre” [PDF].

Navdanya’s report “The GMO Emperor has No Clothes” [PDF] provides empirical evidence on the performance of GMOs in farmers’ fields, not in Monsanto-sponsored propaganda. GMOs have failed to increase “yields”, reduce the use of pesticides, or reduce the prevalence of pests and weeds. They have, in fact, increased chemical use and led to the emergence of super pests and super weeds.

To impose a failed technology with extremely high social and ecological costs undemocratically on India in the name of “science” is anti-science and anti-democracy. It is anti-science because real science is based on the new disciplines of agro-ecology and epi-genetics, not the obsolete idea of genetic determinism and genetic reductionism. The latest science in energy is renewable energy, not nuclear.

Yet the prime minister, under the influence of global corporations, will stop at nothing to destroy the nation’s seed sovereignty, food sovereignty, energy sovereignty, and health and nutrition security. The attack on NGOs should be seen in the same light as the attack on India’s biosafety regulatory framework.

There is an attempt to dismantle the biosafety rules under the environment protection attack and to replace them with the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) which would rob states of the powers they have under the constitution and in current biosafety laws. After all, 13 states stopped the Bt Brinjal (also known as eggplant or aubergine) – a strain engineered to contain the pesticide Bacillus thuringiensis bacterium. To blame the moratorium on Bt Brinjal on “foreign hands” is to turn a blind eye to the role of the states under the federal structure of India’s constitution.

The proposed BRAI will also rob citizens of their right to justice and biosafety, by blocking them from approaching civil courts. The corporations will be deregulated while citizens will be policed.

The prime minister’s attack on civic movements in his Science interview is part of this larger attack on democracy and people’s rights in order to undemocratically promote the role of global corporations in the vital sectors of food and energy.

The debate on genetic engineering and nuclear power is a test case of the intense conflict between corporate rule and democracy, between corporate science pushing hazards and public science calling for safety. It is a contest between science and democracy on one side, and propaganda and dictatorship on the other.

Dr Vandana Shiva is a physicist, eco-feminist, philosopher, activist and author of more than 20 books and 500 papers. She is the founder of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, and has campaigned for biodiversity, conservation and farmers’ rights, winning the Right Livelihood Award [Alternative Nobel Prize] in 1993.