In a recent press release the director general of the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) explained various issues relating to GM mustard approval. He also issued orders against presenting opinion or writing articles, different from the stated documentation and decisions made by the regulators, on the subject by serving or former officials. Since then several persons well-informed on this issue have criticized this gag-order in strong terms, saying that this shows the authorities have much to hide on this issue. The government is threatening science into silence, critics have alleged.
There is a long, even if still incompletely documented, history of suppression of scientists, their research and opinion, if they happen to be against the viewpoint of the big business interests bent on promoting GM crops and foods as a means of controlling world farm and food system. However in such cases generally attempts are also made to hide suppression in various ways so that it does not appear to be anti-science and anti-democratic. It appears that in India farm research authorities do not perceive the need for even such a fig leaf and see nothing wrong in barring serving and even retired scientists and officials from expressing anything that may be seen as a criticism or even a difference of opinion in relation to the government promoted discourse of introducing GM mustard (and presumably other GM crops). The restrictions placed even on retired scientists herald a new low for Indian democracy as in the past several retired government officials including scientists have been freely expressing critical opinion on important policy issues (and they have done so also in the context of GM crops and more particularly GM mustard). That such a new low has come from scientific authorities is all all the more regrettable as science is supposed to on the side of truth.
If the government authorities were sure that their clearance for GM mustard is based on scientific evidence, then where is the need for placing such severe restrictions? Such a draconian attitude towards suppressing free expression of its own scientists reflects a hidden fear that its decision taken in violation of the available scientific evidence stand on very false ground and hence draconian undemocratic steps are needed to push the decision in favor of GM Mustard.
It would be interesting to know what action these authorities intend to take if a retired scientist or official expresses a critical opinion on GM mustard in the wider national interest and in the interests of science. When scientists join government positions to serve their country, do they forfeit the most basic right of speaking the scientific truth, as understood by them, for their entire life?
One wonders what would have been the stand of the authorities towards Dr. Pushpa M. Bhargava, the founder of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, who was the most acknowledged authority on this subject in India and had worked for a long time within the government scientific system. He was the most outspoken critic of GM crops as well as the use of this technology by multinational companies to gain control over the farming and food system of India. He gave detailed reasons for this critical view, pointing out how the overwhelming percentage of scientific papers written by unbiased scientists, those not with conflict of interest, were opposed to GM crops. He also wrote in great detail about the weaknesses and biases of the regulatory system relating to this in India as well as the overall research effort.
The history of the ICAR has several such instances of ignoring the warnings and advice of the most honest, sincere and distinguished scientists. Some of these cases have been widely discussed in Parliament as well.
The present controversy on GM crops is one of the most important ones relating to the future of the farming and food system in India. At this time it is important to hear all voices, and it is particularly important to hear those who are or were working within the government system and so know the system well, but differ from the government stand on this issue. Hearing their views and giving them due consideration will lead to better, safer decisions. So issuing a gag order at this stage to prevent such views from being even articulated is counter-productive and such orders should be taken back.
After saying sorry and taking back these orders, the farm research authorities should issue new directives along the following lines—keeping in view the importance of taking correct and safe decision on GM crops and more particularly on GM mustard just now, all serving and former scientists in the government system are hereby requested to kindly express their opinion on this issue in a completely free and unbiased way, no matter how critical this may be of government policy and regulators’ decision, so that the country can benefit fully from their wisdom and experience.
Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Planet in Peril, Protecting Earth for Children and A Day in 2071.