While the Indo-U.S. civil nuclear agreement continues to flounder in the ‘Intensive Care Unit’ of the Prime Minister’s Office, Indian bureaucrats look all set to kill yet another high level Indo-U.S. bilateral agreement called the Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture (KIA).
The KIA which was announced on July 18, 2005 by the then U.S. President George Bush and the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was intended to facilitate technology transfer and research in the field of Indian agriculture. The aim of the agreement was to create a second Green Revolution by bringing new technology into Indian agriculture. The first Green Revolution in the sixties and seventies was also midwifed by the Americans. It was the Rockefeller Foundation which had got Norman Borlaug to India along with his high yielding variety of wheat that had turned Mexico into a wheat exporting country from a wheat importing country.
The second Green Revolution through the KIA was supposed to replicate this success, primarily through genetically modified food but also through better research, training and education for farmers and scientists at Indian agricultural universities. Genetically modified food such as Bt Brinjal is the direct result of the KIA. The opposition and inter-Ministry war over safety clearances to Bt-Brinjal has been public news for long.
Another story which has not got much attention is the proposed criminal prosecution of the people behind the research that resulted in Bt. Brinjal. (We’ve blogged about this story over here, here and here) According to recent media reports and a press release put out by the Environmental Support Group, a Bangalore based NGO, the Karnataka High Court has lifted a stay on criminal complaints filed by the National Biodiversity Authority (NBA) and the Karnataka State Biodiversity Board (KSSB) against the Vice-Chancellor and Registrar of the University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad (UAS), the representatives of Monsanto’s Indian subsidiary Mahyco and the representatives of Sathguru Management Consultants.
The last of these three parties, Sathguru, is the Indian co-ordinator of the Agricultural Biotechnology Support Program (ABSP-II), which in itself is a consortium of public and private agencies funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and headed by Cornell University. USAID, is an agency of the U.S. Government. A proposal to prosecute the agent of USAID, is in effect a proposal to prosecute USAID.
So what was their crime?
On the 2nd of April, 2005 the three parties above entered into a tripartite agreement whereby Mahyco was to transfer its Bt. technology to UAS and help incorporate the Bt gene into Brinjal supplied by the University. The University at Dhaward was funded by the Department of Biotechnology, Government of India and is one of the several universities involved in projects under KIA. Sathguru was to act as a facilitator for the entire process and the University was to have the right to test, produce and distribute the resultant Bt. Brinjal seed to only farmers.
The charge against all three parties is that they violated the provisions of the Biological Diversity Act, 2002 which regulates the manner in which Indians or foreigners may access genetic material within Indian boundaries. This legislation was enacted in pursuance to the signing of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in 1993, with an aim to create a statutory framework governing not only the commercial utilization of Indian genetic material but to also control the manner in which it was accessed and researched upon. The framework under the Biological Diversity Act is not to be confused with safety protocols for genetic research, which comes directly under the Ministry of Environment.
A foreign entity accessing genetic material within Indian boundaries would require prior permission from the NBA or the SBB but the law does provide for an exception in case of a collaborative research venture between Indian research institutes and foreign entities provided that the scope of the project falls within guidelines announced by the Central Government. Although the exact nature of the complaint in this case is not clear, it appears that the main allegation is that the project to create Bt Brinjal is in violation of these guidelines.
Without getting into the legality of the prosecution, let’s just have a look at the overall political picture. The Prime Minister signs an agreement with the President of the U.S. Government. As a result of the agreement, the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) of the Government of India decides to sponsor a Public Private Partnership between a public University, a private company with the technology and an agency of the U.S. Government. Now the NBA, which operates under the Ministry of Environment, Government of India has decided to prosecute all people involved in this initiative which has been funded by their counterparts in the DBT in pursuance of a bilateral treaty signed by the two heads of states. Prima facie, it appears to be a rather absurd state of affairs with one arm of the government trying to hold back another arm.
Upholding the law is certainly a noble goal but the problem in this particular case is two-fold.
The first problem is that the law itself is unfair – presuming that NBA does have a case against UAS and its partners, we really need to question why scientists and academics should be prosecuted for undertaking a research project for the greater public good when there is no evidence that their actions are harming anybody or causing a monetary loss to the exchequer. Why criminalize such behaviour and empower power hungry bureaucrats?
The second problem is the selective nature of the prosecution. There are several other government run scientific establishments which apply for patents (for inventions based on genetic material), regularly before the Patent Office without the requisite permission from the NBA but the NBA has not prosecuted any of these other establishments. Why then is the agency indulging in what appears to be a vindictive prosecution against the UAS and its partners in a manner which is bound to embarrass the Prime Minister’s initiative to collaborate with the U.S. Government on raising the standards of Indian agriculture? Is it just because a NGO is bringing pressure on them or is the Ministry of Environment trying to score yet another brownie point in its crusade against genetically modified food?
Either way, the message has gone out loud and clear to both Indian and foreign scientists – don’t collaborate with Indian scientists on Indian soil – you could end up in jail – this is not the message that India was supposed to send out during its decade of innovation.