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Biotechnology and Agricultural Research

The Hindu (Chennai, India)
June 10, 1999
By Dr C. S. Prakash

One of the archaic ideas that India with its 50 years of socialistic history needs to shed is that privatisation and private capital are inherently evil and that profit is immoral. The noted industrialist, Godrej, once remarked that India will be on its path to progress when the word `profit' stops being a dirty word. It is in our best interests today to face the reality that the world is increasingly getting globalised whether any nation likes it or not. We must therefore work towards helping India benefit from changing realities, rather than continue to hug old illusions.

It is quite clear now that the Information Technology (IT) industry is fostering globalisation, resulting in vast benefits to our economy. The process of convergence of voice, data and video that we are witnessing today as the IT revolution progresses by leaps and bounds makes that apparent each passing day. Although India prides itself in its software exports, its market share of the global software market is still minuscule.

Here again, if misguided policies that led to the exit of IBM in 1977 had not happened, India would have been an even bigger player in IT today. Similarly, the increasing privatisation of the consumer electronics, automobile, telecommunication, food processing, hospitality and transportation sectors have already energised these sectors. The `trickle down' effect is clearly impacting the under-served sections of the Indian society.

Indian agriculture has also begun to benefit enormously from private sector investments in chemical inputs, irrigation, tractors and seeds. Public institutions like the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) and agricultural universities should continue to play a valuable and dominant role in developing crop science, especially in basic `upstream' research, emphasis on non-commercial crops and extension and outreach programs to facilitate farmer education and public awareness.

The National Seeds Corporation owned by the Government of India can meet only 8 per cent of our seed needs.Thus private seed companies will play an increasingly important role. This will also bring dynamism, accountability and customer service to the market. A synergy between public institutions and private seed companies can only benefit India as both have unique roles to play in Indian agriculture. No private company can afford to ignore the society that it serves and the success of any company depends on the tangible benefits it can deliver to the environment in which it operates. The future is bright Norman Borlaug, the Nobel laureate who helped in India's green revolution says that ``agricultural scientists and policy makers have a moral obligation to warn political, educational, and religious leaders about the magnitude and seriousness of the food and population problems that lie ahead. If we fail to do so in a forthright manner, we will be negligent in our duty and will inadvertently contribute to death by starvation. The problem will not vanish by itself; to continue to ignore it will make a future solution more difficult to achieve.''

We thus need to explore every possible avenue to help increase food production. Indian farmers will readily embrace any technology as long as it is affordable and profitable. It would be criminally irresponsible and morally reprehensible to throw away any valuable tool using archaic philosophical arguments and claiming hypothetical risks. New technology has always been resisted by no-changers down the ages. It is because a few visionaries saw its potential and pressed ahead, often at great personal risk, that we enjoy the benefits of technology today.

It would therefore be self-defeating for India to allow itself to be dictated to by a small but vocal minority of misinformed and misguided activists who are opposed to genetic modification of our crop varieties. By sloganeering, burning crops and taking to the streets, they are holding the country hostage and will only succeed in derailing India's journey to prosperity. India is facing real challenges with a multitude of problems like poverty, hunger, economic inequity, ethnic strife, urban congestion, food and water shortages, institutionalisation of corruption, exploding population, and serious concerns about its water, air and food quality.

We would be better served if these problems are tackled using technology available to us, rather than let them be side-tracked because of fears of new technology (I vividly remember bank employees in India going on strike against computerisation a few years ago!). Fears must be debated in a spirit of scientific openness. Above all, it must be remembered that no one has a monopoly on truth and knowledge - certainly not those who are unwilling to accept that there are two sides to every issue.