Gist of The Hindu: November 2014

Gist of The Hindu: November 2014

Battle Lines Sharpen over GM

Union Minister of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, Prakash Javadekar, was petitioned by farmers and the Swadeshi Jagran Manch to halt trials of transgenic crops approved by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) on July 18 and there is some confusion if the government has actually taken such a decision. The GEAC decision has come even before the Supreme Court decides on a writ petition filed by Aruna Rodrigues in 2005, demanding a moratorium on genetically modified (GM) crops. A court hearing on July 15 did not take place but three days later, the GEAC cleared field trials for some GM crops.

The Centre had filed a response to the report of the Technical Expert Committee (TEC) in April 2014; the apex court is yet to adjudicate on it. The GEAC was quick to point out that the Supreme Court had not imposed a ban on confined field trials. But the comprehensive Parliamentary Standing Committee report on agriculture in 2012 had taken a clear stand against field trials.

The TEC called for strengthening the existing regulatory system before granting permission for conducting more field trials. In the absence of a ruling from the Supreme Court, the GEAC steamed ahead with what it thought fit, even as some States were against GM field trials. It clearly went against the opinion of the TEC and parliamentary committee reports and also a letter endorsed by over 250 scientists against field trials of GM crops. Research is important, said a GEAC official, even as he maintained that a blanket ban is unacceptable. The GEAC, it seems, could not wait for the Supreme Court’s decision.

It is this very regulatory process that has come into question in the past by the parliamentary committee and the TEC, which was constituted by the apex court in 2012 to advise it on issues related to GM crops field trials and bio-safety assessment. After the TEC submitted an interim report in October 2012, the Centre said it was scientifically flawed and did not address the terms of reference and merits outright rejection since it has exceeded its mandate. Later, the apex court appointed Dr. Rajendra Singh Paroda as a member who submitted a separate dissenting report when the five other TEC members submitted theirs in July 2013.
The Centre’s affidavit trashed the TEC report on several counts and accepted Dr. Paroda’s report which it felt had addressed all the terms of reference. It defended the present regulatory system in the country saying it was adequate and robust and the government was committed to strengthening it while praying for this writ to be dismissed.

The Centre was also perturbed by TEC’s suggestion that there should be a moratorium on trial for crops which originated in India. The TEC had also recommended a moratorium on field trials of herbicide-tolerant crops until the issue had been examined by an independent committee. The government said such recommendations were beyond the mandate of the TEC and based on scientifically flawed reports..

The GEAC, by granting approval to GM trials even before the Supreme Court ruled in the matter, has shown an undue haste which has marked the history of transgenic crop approvals in India. In a way, it has disregarded the committee of experts appointed by the government itself after the Court’s order. There are grave concerns about a loss of biodiversity — something that has happened already in the case of cotton and some other crops — and bio-safety regulations.

India is a signatory to international conventions on both subjects. It is imperative to proceed with caution on the issue of GM crops, move away from conflict of interest situations and take an impartial and rigorous scientific view which should benefit humanity at large and not just powerful corporations.

The Humble Brinjal’s Bt Moment?

Moratorium on Introduction

The moratorium had been imposed because of four crucial reasons. First, no State government cutting across party lines and ideologies supported the commercialisation. Second, there appeared to be no overwhelming consensus on it in the domestic and international scientific community. Third, there were concerns that seed supply would be the monopoly — direct and indirect — of one multinational company. Fourth, there appeared to be a persuasive case for more tests and trials under an agreed protocol and under an independent regulatory agency that would inspire wider confidence.

Professor Visvanathan draws attention to the public consultations that were held which he feels strengthened the democratic process. These took place in seven cities — Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Bhubaneswar, Chandigarh, Kolkata, Hyderabad and Nagpur. Kolkata and Bhubaneswar were selected because West Bengal and Odisha account for 50 per cent of brinjal production in India. Ahmedabad was selected because of the success of Bt cotton in Gujarat. Nagpur was chosen because it is the home of India’s premier research institution in cotton and there have been controversies over Bt cotton in Vidarbha. Chandigarh was included because it is the capital of India’s two most agriculturally advanced States while Bangalore and Hyderabad were chosen because they are the most important centres for biotech Research and Development (R&D).

The extreme intolerance on the part of the civil society activists as well as the disdainful arrogance on the part of the scientists were on full display. Simultaneously, the views of over 60 scientists in India, the U.S., France, New Zealand and other countries were sought. A number of them supported commercialisation while many others opposed it. Some others advocated caution and called for more data.

The second step which needs to be taken is to ask the National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad and the Central Food Technological Research Institute, Mysore to undertake a careful study of the chronic effects of Bt brinjal on human health. This is analogous to the studies carried out on the impact of tobacco smoking on the incidence of lung cancer in human beings. It will be in the national interest to complete these two steps before a decision on the release of Bt brinjal for commercial cultivation and human consumption is taken.”

The speaking order had also expressed the hope that the moratorium period would be used productively to (i) operationalise the independent regulatory body in its entirety as recommended by many scientists as well as civil society organisations; (ii) build a broader political (and public) consensus on the use of genetic engineering in agriculture; and (iii) give serious thought to the strategic importance of the seed industry and how we can retain public and farmer control over it even as we encourage private investment in this area. Alas, none of these three hopes has been even partially realised as yet.

The then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had himself spoken about the issue in his address to the Indian Science Congress on January 3, 2010, in Thiruvananthapuram and the spirit of his remarks permeated the speaking order. He had said:

“Developments in biotechnology present us the prospect of greatly improving yields in our major crops by increasing resistance to pests and also moisture stress. Bt cotton has been well accepted in our country and has made a great difference to the production of cotton. The technology of genetic modification is also being extended to food crops though this raises legitimate questions of safety. These must be given full weightage, with appropriate regulatory control based on strictly scientific criteria. Subject to these caveats, we should pursue all possible leads that biotechnology provides that increases our food security as we go through climate related stress.”

Strengthening public sector R&D and reviving the public sector seed industry are critical imperatives if India is to move ahead in this vital area. The U.S. approach has been one of permissions, while the European approach has been one of prohibitions. The moratorium was the middle path based on precautions, an approach that would be both responsible to science and responsive to society. That, in my view, is the only way forward. The present acrimony must give way to a reasoned and sober dialogue.

Irrational Prejudice

That India still has no anti-discrimination law to protect the interests of HIV positive people shows how little the nation as a whole cares about them and how callous society is to their plight. As a result, discrimination against HIV positive people, including children, rears its ugly head time and again. The latest example is the case of 13 HIV positive orphans studying in a school in Rivona, Goa, being forced to leave school because of pressure from parents of other students; these children join the ranks of a couple of hundred others in India who have faced the same fate. Stigma and discrimination have affected and gravely impeded the battle against HIV. Besides anxiety and denial, the mortal fear of being stigmatised and discriminated against prevents many from seeking early testing and treatment. As a result, they not only fail to get timely intervention but also go about infecting others. Only about half of the 2.1 million people in India who are HIV positive are currently on antiretroviral treatment. It’s a shame that this situation prevails even 28 years after the first person with HIV was diagnosed in Chennai. Besides doing nothing to end discrimination, this incident amply demonstrates that the state has failed to raise awareness and dispel the myths and misconceptions about the routes of HIV transmission. The sexual route, transfusion of HIV infected blood, being pricked by a needle used on an HIV positive person, and from infected mother to child are the only modes of HIV transmission. Also, the fact that young children are infected with the virus turns the spotlight on our failing to eliminate transmission from pregnant mother to child. Preventing vertical transmission is one of the easiest ways to cut the incidence rate.

Refusal of school admission and expulsion from school are but only the beginning of a long journey of discrimination and negative social response that HIV positive people encounter. Eviction of HIV positive tenants from houses, refusal to employ such people and even ostracism from villages are not uncommon. But most alarming is the refusal by most private hospitals to admit HIV positive people, and the fear among many doctors and paramedics to treat them. These individuals who are supposed to be best informed seem to suffer from the same paranoia that has seized the common man. In stark contrast, doctors have no hesitation in treating those with hepatitis B and C, which are much more easily transmissible than HIV by the same routes. Hence, the compulsion to broad-base the Health Minister’s initiative to “mainstream AIDS awareness to reduce HIV infection rate” to also address the issue of discrimination cannot be overemphasised.

A Matter of Martyrs

July 31-August 1, 1857. It was the day of Bakrid (Id-ul-Fitr). Two hundred and eighty-two sepoys of the Indian army, who rebelled against the British colonial occupation of India, were massacred and dumped into a dry well 100 yards from the Ajnala police station in Amritsar district. The remains were dug out recently by the town people themselves, without any governmental help. At the time of this article going to press, the cremation was scheduled to take place on August 1. The Punjab Government has allotted a plot of land for the cremation, and a memorial will be built on it later.

Two accounts are available about the Ajnala incident. One was the colonial version of Frederic Cooper, the then Deputy Commissioner of Amritsar district, whose book The Crisis in the Punjab from the 10th of May Until the Fall of Delhi was published in 1858 from London. The other, published in the 1920s, was a nationalist version, by Giani Hira Singh Dard, a respected Punjabi writer, historian and editor of the Punjabi magazine Phulwari from Amritsar. His version was carried with photographs in the November 1928 Fansi Ank (Execution Issue) from Allahabad, and it was later included in the nationalist historian and editor Pt. Sunder Lal’s proscribed book Bharat Mein Angrezi Raj (British Rule in India). Giani Hira Singh Dard had recorded the eyewitness account of Baba Jagat Singh, who was nearly 95 in 1928 and was in his twenties at the time of the massacre.

Rebellion broke out in Meerut on May 10, 21 days ahead of the decided date. As per Cooper’s account, thousands of Poorbeah sepoys — of the 26th Regiment of Bengal Native Infantry — were disarmed in Lahore’s Meean Meer Cant. The rebellion spread in different regions of Punjab, which Cooper spelled as Lahore, Umritsur, Phillour, Jhelum, Sealkote, Jullundur, Ferozepore, Sirsa, Hote Mardan, Peshawur and Loodhianah [Lahore, Amritsar, Phillaur, Jhelum, Sealkote, Jalandhar, Ferozepur, Sirsa, Hote Mardan, Peshawar, Loodhianah]. The British Government with support from feudal chieftains of Patiala, Jind, Kapurthla and Kashmir, hundreds of mutineers were ‘slaughtered’ in the term used by Cooper himself in different areas of Punjab. Cooper proudly and teasingly counts the killings of mutineers in August 1857 in Peshawar area to 659. “Some idea may be gathered of the terrific and swift destruction, when it is remembered that the strength of the regiment before the mutiny amounted to 871. The Punjab Infantry shot and killed 125; Captain James’ party killed 40; Lieutenant Gosling’s party killed 15. The Peshawur Light Horse, the villagers, and H.M.’s 27th and 70th killed 36. By sentence of drum-head court-martial, on the same day, there were executed by H. M.’s 87th, 187; and by a similar summary tribunal, on the 29th of August, 167; also on the same date, 84; one thanahdar killed five: total, within about 30 hours after the mutiny, no less than 659!(The Crisis in Punjab, Frederic Cooper, Page 177, Elder and Son, Smith, London, 1858) On July 30, nearly 500 disarmed sepoys rebelled near Ajnala. One of them — Prakash Singh, alias Prakash Pandey — killed Major Spencer with the Major’s own sword, and they all fled south, only to be trapped near Ajnala, by Tehsildar Dewan Pran Nath’s agents, who alerted the district administration. Armed forces arrived and rained bullets. Many people jumped into the river near the village of Daddian and drowned. Others were taken to the Ajnala police station to be hanged, while some were forced into a dungeon. Deputy Commissioner Cooper had ordered a long rope. The rebels were to be killed on the night of July 31. Due to rain, the execution was postponed until the next morning.

On August 1, 237 rebel sepoys were taken out to an open ground in front of the police station and killed in turns of 10. When those in the dungeon did not show up, it was found that 45 of them had suffocated to death. The 282 bodies were thrown into a dry well, 100 yards from the police station. The well was filled with sand. Cooper called it ‘rebel’s grave’ and wanted that written in Persian, Gurmukhi and English. At two places in his book, he compares this well to Holwell’s Black Hole of Calcutta of 1756 and the well of Cawnpore of 1857, where rebels dumped the bodies of British officials. Cooper’s glee on attaining revenge is evident. “There is a well at Cawnpore, but there is also one at Ajnala!” The well was in place till 1972, inscribed with the words Kalian Wala Khuh (The Well of Blacks). In 1928, it looked like a raised sand hill. In 1957, the centenary celebrations of 1857 were observed here in the presence of the then Chief Minister Pratap Singh Kairon. However, in 1972, villagers built a room over the well and turned it into a Gurdwara. In 2007, the 150th anniversary of the 1857 killings was observed at the site.

In 2012, the town people formed an 11-member committee of all practising Sikhs, led by trade unionist Amarjit Singh Sarkaria, to honour the martyrs by disinterring their remains from the well. They built a new Gurdwara nearby and began digging of the well on February 28, 2014. Before beginning the work, they tried their best to involve the State and Central Governments, but their efforts were futile as no agency, including the Archaeological Survey of India showed interest. Within three days of digging, nearly hundred human skulls, teeth and bones were exhumed. Hundreds of volunteers took part in the digging and thousands gathered to watch. Medals, jewellery and coins were also retrieved.

The managing committee renamed Kalian Wala Khuh as Shaheedan Wala Khuh (Martyr’s Well) and appealed to the Governments of Punjab and India to give them the vacant land nearby, under the control of the army, for the cremation.

Facilitation and Food

India is receiving a lot of flak for its stance at the just-concluded meeting of the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) General Council in Geneva with epithets such as “deal-breaker” being hurled at it. The country is being accused of sabotaging the first real agreement forged by the trade body in 19 years on trade facilitation with its rigid stance on the issue of food subsidy. An agreement on trade facilitation (TFA), which is aimed at easing customs rules and simplifying procedures, was reached at the 9th Ministerial Round in Bali in December last year after the developed world agreed to find a permanent solution to the contentious issue of stockpiling of food grains by the developing countries by 2017. The Bali Declaration also provided for a “peace clause” whereby countries such as India could continue with their food subsidy programmes until then. India, which supports the TFA, has questioned the current limit of “trade distorting” subsidy which is 10 per cent of the value of food grains output in a year with the base year for prices set at 1986-88. Its position is that the limit does not account for inflation and currency depreciation and the base year needs to be reset to a later period. This is a fair argument as it concerns the critical issue of food security for a country that is home to a quarter of the world’s hungry.

The passage of the Food Security Act means that the subsidy bill will bloat in the coming years and the country cannot afford to be constricted by limits that are based on flawed calculations. Politically speaking, no government can afford to be seen as compromising either the interests of the 270 million people who live below the poverty line or its farmers, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi is also obviously conscious that he will be facing elections in two crucial States in the next few months. The main grouse India has is that there has been little forward movement on discussing the issue since the Bali meeting even as much vigour has been exhibited in finalising the TFA. India’s statement at Geneva clearly highlights that despite repeated requests, discussions on public stockholding of food grains never started. The strategy to use the TFA as a lever to get an agreement on the food subsidy issue was probably born out of the assessment that it would be difficult to get the developed world back to the negotiating table once the TFA was signed. Clearly, both sides are guilty of brinkmanship. Yet, all is not lost. India has signalled that it is willing to return to the table and has suggested a permanent “peace clause” until a final understanding on subsidy is reached. Extending the TFA deadline by another six months will not cause harm, especially if it leads to a final agreement on all issues.

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