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Plant Biotechnolgy: Neeed to Foster Responsible Debate and Dialogue

The Hindu (Bangalore, India)
May 6, 1999
By Dr C. S. Prakash

The recent well-orchestrated campaign in Europe and in India against genetically-improved crops indicates a critical need to develop a credible forum or network to debate new scientific developments and their impact on society.

The tone of the debates in Europe and India indicate the need to correctly inform the media, the public and farmers about the diversity issues arising from new technologies. Scientists, thinkers, ethicists, sociologists, economists, journalists, environmentalists and citizens need to come together to debate emerging issues in a civilised and responsible manner, and to foster creative ideas to enable the progress of the humankind. This would also ensure that collective of voices of reason will prevail in the face of paranoid outbursts and prevent destructive anti-science sentiments from spreading amongst the public. Such an informed debate is particularly important in India which, unlike Europe, can ill afford to miss the biotech revolution in agriculture. We cannot forget that India was in dire straits on the food front in the '60s. It was only the application of science to agriculture that quickly provided the country with food security, despite the concerns raised then about high-yielding varieties and hybrids. India just cannot afford to listen today to 'science-bashing' activists with pseudo-scientific rhetoric.

India was once a great scientific powerhouse and made enormous scientific contribution to the world. Albert Einstein once said: "We owe a lot to Indians who taught us how to count, without which no worthwhile scientific discovery could have been made." Beyond the modern number system, India has contributed richly to world science, including astronomy, ayurvedic medicine, meditation and wireless communication. The world's first university was established in Takshila in 700 BC However, modern India is far from being a science power and its intellectual resources are not being harnessed to its full extent. Yet, a small group of Indians overseas have made a formidable mark on global science and technology enterprises. Expatriate Indians working in a more nurturing environment have developed tetracycline, invented gene synthesis, discovered white dwarfs in the universe, created Pentium chips, and have dominated the IT industry. The best and brightest individuals are, however, still in India. Think of what they can do if they had the right environment!

India should rightfully exploit Intellectually Property Rights (IPR) mechanisms world-wide to enable Indian society to benefit from scientific knowledge and innovation. While we all feel proud of the accomplishments of our ancestors and our heritage, xenophobic and paranoid outbursts such as the recent ones involving turmeric and neem patents, or the burning of experimental cotton plants under scientific supervision in southern India, indicate our preoccupation with missing the wood for the trees. In today's technological world, India will progress only by fostering a creative and scientific environment that nurtures talent, supports enterprising individuals and encourages looking critically and dispassionately at controversial issues. Many of yesterday's controversies are today's success stories, heart transplants and in vitro fertilization (test tube babies) being two of them. Modern Indian heroes are not naysayers and opportunistic sceptics, but individuals of the likes of M.S. Swaminathan, Verghese Kurien, Sam Pitroda, Abdul Kalam, Vikram Sarabhai, Raja Ramanna, B.R. Barwale, Ratan Tata, Narayana Murthy, Amartya Sen and CV Raman, Bose, Hargobind Khorana, Subramanya Chandrashekar and countless others who have made a difference in India and the world.

A Bold Vision for Indian Science and Technology

Rizwan Salim wrote in The Hindu (May 1, 1997) that "The Indian ruling elite must feel a 'burning desire" to enter the 21st century in the company of the industrially advanced nations. Once such fervour has properly taken hold, a bold, visionary, far-reaching policy must be developed to make full use of the country's latent intellectual capability, science talent and creativity. India cannot march ahead without a strong science and technology base that is indispensable to shape our future.

We need a major national initiative to reorient India's policies in building its scientific infrastructure. Such a massive overhaul in our strategy should, in addition to allocation of vast resources for science, include a change in our mindset to create an enabling environment for empowering creative people who can advance our society. We should provide greater reward and recognition to creative and productive scientists, unshackle the bureaucracy in our scientific system which has stifled the genius and enterprise of our scientists, facilitate transfer of technology, encourage participation of the commercial sector in the discovery process through tax incentives and through links with academia, promote intellectual property rights (IPR) to reward and foster innovation, and demand more accountability from scientists and public research institutions. World Bank's prediction that India will be third largest economic power by the year 2020 after China, USA and Japan will not come true without such a mammoth reengineering of our scientific enterprise.