India Insight

Why let a debate determine the fate of GM foods?

February 11, 2010

Students hold a mock funeral procession against genetically modified brinjal crop in Chandigarh January 28, 2010. REUTERS/Ajay VermaThere’s nothing Indians like better than a good debate.

So when Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh announced last month that he would hold public debates to decide the commercial fate of genetically modified brinjal (eggplant), there were hopes these would provide a chance for all stakeholders to be heard.

But the debates, in seven cities including Kolkata, Hyderabad and Bengaluru, were chaotic, nothing more than acrimonious shouting matches between environmental activists and scientists, who say they were not given a fair chance to voice their opinion.

One scientist said he had his hand raised for more than half an hour, but was not allowed to speak. Another said he was told he could make a presentation, but was again not allowed to. Others were not even permitted to enter the premises.

So are townhalls such as these the best way to discuss matters of serious scientific weight?

Sure, the decision affects farmers who grow brinjal and people who cook it in their homes everyday. And a decision to let them speak is a laudable one.

But perhaps a better idea would have been separate discussion forums for scientists, NGOs and the public.

A common platform for all meant that only the loudest voices were heard, giving the debates a format not unlike popular reality TV shows. What chance did the scientists have?

In a democracy, public opinion counts, but can that be allowed to overrule science?

Ramesh is now taking the public hearing route for a roadmap for cleaning up India’s polluted rivers. Perhaps that will result in some real action rather than a temporary suspension.

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