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Tea with BS: MS Swaminathan

Brinjal battles

Kalpana Jain  |  New Delhi 

The father of the explains how the genetically-modified version of brinjal may kill biodiversity.

MS SwaminathanHe introduced high-yielding wheat varieties in India to feed a country struggling with droughts and famines, but in the debate, he has sided with its opponents, saying biodiversity must be preserved and health concerns addressed before this technology is introduced.

Has MS Swaminathan, the man who favoured new technology for ushering in India’s green revolution, changed his views on technology? Or is he opposed only to gene-based technology? “Not at all. My own PhD was in genetics from Cambridge University,” he says with a smile so indulgent that it conveys a sense of his achievements, which, undoubtedly, are vast. There is no arrogance, only grace and humility, in the way he explains his ideas and experiences, writes Kalpana Jain.

There is no denying that he is the patriarch — here, in his home as also in his area of work. And this feeling remains all through the conversation. He walks in holding his cup of tea, settling down at the head of the dining table, where I choose to be seated. “Will you have something to eat?” he inquires, very gently. Briefly, my cup of tea arrives along with some bhujia. It would be hard to guess his age, until he chooses to tell you, “I was born in 1925 in Kumbakonum. It is in Tamil Nadu.”

He settles down for this conversation over a cup of tea with me as I munch on some bhujia. Without my prodding, he chooses to give all answers right away to questions on the Bt debate. “If you’ve gone to the market to buy baingan (brinjal), you would have seen the round baingans, the long baingans, the green baingans, the purple baingans… ” He pauses to make sure I’ve absorbed this, adjusts his spectacles and goes on with what he wants to convey: “We don’t want them to be wiped out.” Then, pressing his argument further and gently tapping me on my shoulder as you would do to a child, he asks, “Do you know India is the birth place of brinjal.”

Even though I am the journalist here, he is quite a master at the art of communication. He was on Time magazine’s list of world’s 100 most influential Asians in 1999. There couldn’t have been a better way of saying how the genetically-modified version of brinjal may kill biodiversity. It doesn’t take him too long to start talking animatedly on a subject on which he has spent a lifetime. I am finally having a conversation with the renowned agricultural scientist we’ve all heard about. And I have to check him when he calls me Kalpanaji.

I ask him if he believed that putting on hold will affect India’s food security? “My brother was getting married — the year was 1947. We had invited 30 people to the wedding as that was the maximum number of people we could feed those days. Yet, there were policemen posted outside our house to count the number of banana leaves,” he says. And, once again gently tapping me on my shoulder, he adds, “You were not even born then. This is what it meant to be in a serious food crisis. There wasn’t enough food.” I repeat my question. “The issue is now about access and affordability and not productivity,” he replies.

I know he is glancing at his watch. He has another meeting to rush to. I am so absorbed in this conversation that I’ve even stopped sipping my tea. It is clear he did not just learn from his research and his books, he learnt from the farmers. Initially, farmers were reluctant to take up his ideas of setting up a seed village. But they learnt to trust him gradually as they saw him come into the village on every Sunday, week after week, with his students. “This was non-verbal communication,” he says.

He still goes to villages in Ludhiana and elsewhere and talks to farmers. He talks about those early days when the political environment was so different — how Indira Gandhi agreed to go to a village which was a two-and-a-half hour drive on rough roads to support farmers. “Something you wanted to happen, happened.”

And then he recalled with a great deal of nostalgia how farmers in the village — Jounti, where Indira Gandhi went to inaugurate a seed cooperative — surprised him by honouring him with a medal. For a man, who has won so many accolades and awards, it is interesting to see the ones he values the most are those that have come to him directly from the farmers. “The village became very prosperous. Those farmers became very rich. They put up a seed processing plant.” Now, of course, everything has changed. “I went there last week. Their children have gone abroad. They have sold their land.”

Even now, when he talks about Bt brinjal, he mentions the farmers and how it would affect them. “In India, farmers keep their seeds. Whereas you have to buy seeds every year, when companies start developing hybrids.” The one argument for introducing the Bt gene into plants is that it makes them pest-resistant, I point out. “Bt succumbed to pests,” says Swaminathan, “even DDT was given a Nobel prize. But after some years, it was not effective.”

I want to know what made him work on hunger and poverty. “The values of Mahatma Gandhi shaped my childhood,” he explains. “I first met Gandhiji when I was about five or six. One day, my mother told me that tomorrow a man would come who would ask for your gold chain and bangles. It was a tradition in those days for both boys and girls from middle-class families to wear ornaments. That was my first lesson in life that you are not an owner, only a trustee. That is how my attitudes were shaped — as they say from cradle to grave. That is how I gave away my prize money and my ancestral land.”

How do you view India’s now; widespread use of pesticide in Punjab is now being linked to rapid increase in cancer cases in some areas, I ask him. “If the farm ecology and economy go wrong, nothing will go right. Farmers need support, not subsidies,” he says. “For instance, instead of giving free electricity, you give money in a different form. Storage issues are serious. There is a lot of damage every year. We don’t care. How will they store the grains? Last year’s wheat is still in gunny bags.”

Doesn’t he think the use of genetically-modified food will reduce the use of pesticides? “You need a regulatory mechanism that inspires data confidence. Thirteen states felt it is not good for the consumers. There are concerns about whether all tests have been done, and whether there has been an independent verification of results submitted by a company. In the case of lifelong consumption, there should be chronic toxicity tests. In food items of life-long consumption, chronic toxicity tests should be conducted on animals. There is need for a regulatory body with independent facilities for testing. I had recommended setting up of the National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority. As of now, 40 per cent of research on the Bt gene is from Monsanto,” he says, listing out all the reasons for not backing

I could go on. But it’s time for Swaminthan’s next meeting.