Sensitising lawmakers on enviro issues

Sensitising lawmakers on enviro issues
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Sensitising lawmakers on enviro issues 

Highlights

A well-informed legislature is the strength of democracy

The Punjab Vidhan Sabha (Legislative Assembly) has created a history of sorts. In a first, it allowed a discussion on the controversy surrounding the environment clearance for genetically modified (GM) mustard crop.

Assembly Speaker Kultar Singh Sandhwan, in a trend-setting move, invited different stakeholders, including ministers, senior bureaucrats, vice-chancellors of at least seven prominent universities, scientists, experts, environmentalists, activists and farm union leaders – to sensitise legislators about an issue of utmost public importance.

Given that mustard is an important crop of the region, especially Punjab which gifted the world 'sarson ka saag', the discussion was certainly path-breaking. As for Punjabis living across the globe, served as a combo with makki di roti (maize chappati), sarson ka saag is an emotional connect with the roots.

Nevertheless, it has been seen that legislators and even parliamentarians are often unaware of the socio-economic and health-environmental ramifications of a scientific and technological issue on which they are asked to vote. For most issues that are beyond politically hot domain, the participation of elected representatives in discussions invariably remains miniscule.

For instance, I have noticed that when it comes to issues pertaining to international trade that impacts the country's food security, not even a handful of parliamentarians are present in the House when a subjects like agriculture and World Trade Organisation (WTO) are being discussed. It is so dismal that the bell to constitute the quorum is sounded time and again.

A well-informed legislature is the strength of democracy. The lawmakers have to be properly informed before they formulate laws. This is where I found that the initiative taken by Kultar Singh would be of great significance. After all, an informed debate – exposing legislators to the pros and cons – and that too before they are asked to take a stand and thereby allow the executive to formulate good policies, is the essence of any democratic institution. What better opportunity then to invite them to a formal discussion on the controversial issue, and that too within the precincts of the State Assembly (when the House is not in a session). So when the issue comes up formally before the Assembly, the members are able to take an informed decision, that being the underlying objective.

The 15-odd legislators, who attended the discussion on GM mustard, sat through the four-hour workshop. This was heartening considering that MLAs often do not have the time and patience to sit through. The brain-storming session, I am sure, must have helped the elected representatives to grasp various dimensions of the controversial issue.

What emerged clearly was that while the scientific community was in loud support of the technology, farmer unions, environmentalists and experts were opposed to the introduction of GM mustard. The lines were therefore clearly drawn. This is also because given the recent gag orders issued by Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR), it shouldn't be expected from the scientific community, barring a few exceptions, to express dissent and thereby stand up and be counted. On the other hand, experts, environmentalists and farm union leaders had all the scientific reasons to question the technology. It was not a debate on emotive issues, like many corporate lampoons often blame the civil society voices for, calling them 'luddites' creating unnecessary fears about the technology.

They were all based on facts, solid facts. Fifteen serious violations that the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) had overseen in its quest to give a hasty environmental clearance for the GM mustard variety were adequately spelt out. The claims about the false yield potential of the GM variety were also dwelt at length. The argument about the GM mustard variety's ability to reduce the edible oil imports too was countered. This is a low-yielding variety, with the potential being much lower than the already existing variety. In my presentation I said that this particular variety should have been confined to the scientific dustbin by now.

Not only in India, even at the international level, questioning the claims being made by the GM industry bring around a strong backlash from the pro-establishment scientists. The dominant group of scientists speaks the language the corporate world does. Even in India, scientists keep quiet knowing well that they will face wrath and be subject to humiliation. The recent gag order makes it abundantly clear. This reminds me of the vilification and persecution that the eminent scientist, late Arpad Pusztai, had to face when all he did was to honestly report the finding of a lab study he undertook. I was at that time travelling in UK and was not only surprised but shocked at the way lead scientists at various institutes joined the deafening chorus against Dr Pusztai.

A molecular geneticist, Dr Pusztai during a 1999 lab research encountered something that should have reset the human health and safety template. His findings would have helped evolve safety parameters dispelling fears that are now being raised. On the contrary, he was hounded out for explicitly showing when rats were fed with GM potato it led to harmful effects. Dismayed by the scientific apathy, he wrote: "The only thing the GM biotech industry needs to do in future is not to do any testing as then the myth of the safety of GM food will be maintained for eternity."

Pusztai was not the only scientist to face vociferous onslaught and condemnation. A handful of other scientists who dared to stand out were also meted similar vilifications.

Given this worrying global scenario and knowing that the ICAR too doesn't want scientists and even retired scientists to say anything against GM crops, Punjab Vidhan Sabha's efforts to initiate a discussion on the controversial technology is quite laudable and worthy of emulation. When scientists are being coerced to toe the corporate line, at least the State Assemblies can play an important role in strengthening democracy by bringing several crucial issues to the attention and understanding of elected representatives.

As the Punjab Speaker said the other day, his objective is to take up people's issues and educate law makers about their pros and cons. By making Assembly a place for larger public debates and discussions, this pioneering initiative can help check hasty, defective and not properly-evaluated legislations that are a bane.

(The author is a noted food policy analyst and an expert on issues related to the agriculture sector. He writes on food, agriculture and hunger)

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