The enigma of Narendra Modi’s silence

Narendra Modi had in 2014 raised hopes of bringing in modern technology to help the agriculture sector. After two-and-a-half years in power, nothing has changed


A file photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: Hindustan Times
A file photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: Hindustan Times

Sluggish agricultural growth not only impedes alleviation of agrarian distress but also the success of “Make in India”. This is because the demand required for triggering growth in the manufacturing sector depends to a large extent on domestic purchasing power. Productivity growth in agriculture can boost the purchasing power of over half of the country’s population dependent on it.

Indian agriculture is starving for new technology and genetic engineering can offer hope. After years of stagnation, productivity jumped sharply in 2002 with the arrival of the first approved GM (genetically modified) crop, Bt cotton.

India now figures among the world’s largest cotton producers and exporters as a result of the spread of Bt cotton. But thereafter, the development of this technology was thwarted by anti-genetically modified organism (GMO) groups on the Left. Yielding to their pressure, the previous government reversed the decision of the country’s highest regulatory authority, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), and stopped the commercial release of Bt brinjal. This was a big jolt for the nascent biotechnology industry while farmers continued to be deprived of the benefits of modern biotechnology.

In 2014, Modi arrived on the national political scene in this backdrop of stagnant growth and desperation in the agriculture sector. His rousing speeches in the rural areas during the last parliamentary elections naturally received an overwhelming response. Posing as the “CEO” the country needed, he raised hopes of bringing in modern technology to help the ailing agriculture sector. But, even after two-and-half years in power, nothing has changed. The ban on Bt brinjal continues. The only difference is that the influence of the anti-GMO civil societies has been replaced by similar ideological opposition from the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch and Kisan Sangh, organizations affiliated to the RSS—BJP’s ideological parent. We haven’t seen a single statement of support from the Prime Minister to rescue technology from such ideological discourse.

This is surprising given the role Modi played as Gujarat’s chief minister. It would be instructive to visit that story.

In 2001, the state of Gujarat saw a massive attack of bollworms, a pest, on its cotton crop. Large tracts of cotton crops were destroyed. But there was a surprise. Amidst brown and dead patches, there stood cotton in resplendent green and white. It was discovered that these crops contained the Bt gene that kills the bollworm. This was the first GM crop that had entered the Indian soil by stealth. The GEAC had not given its approval to any GM crop by then. In fact, this illegal Bt cotton had entered the Gujarat three years ago but wasn’t noticed until 2001.

A large network operated in Gujarat which crossbred the locally successful hybrids with the variety that contained the Bt gene. These networks prospered under Modi’s watch and they supplied Bt cottonseeds all over India. The discovery of the illegal Bt cotton alarmed the central government. But the state government took no action. Thus, Modi helped the farmers in availing the first GM seeds, albeit through inaction rather than active support.

If he could allow ‘illegal’ GM crop, why is he opposed to Bt brinjal, which has cleared all the safety tests? Why is PM Modi of 2016 so different from the CM Modi of 2001? Why does the big political capital that he commands come to a naught when it comes to advocating for GMOs? From where does the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch or Kisan Sangh derive its political strength to dictate terms to the supposedly most powerful politician today?

Such influence is indeed disturbing.

Another instance of this influence is how, disregarding its assurance of ‘minimum government -maximum governance’, the centre scrapped the private contract between the Mahyco-Monsanto (MM) and the ‘Swadeshi’ cotton hybrid companies that sourced technology from the former. It expropriated about 74% of the profits of MM and distributed a large part of it to the ‘Swadeshi’ companies. The absurdity of this decision was that the reason given was the diminished effectiveness of this technology without explaining why then the government was bothered about lowering its price.

While it is important to not let any one organisation establish a monopoly over such technology solutions, the consequences of such a populist move can be equally grave for the farmers who are dependent on the technology provider when the effectiveness of the present system breaks down.

There is no doubt that the government must create a competitive environment to bring down the cost of technology for the farmers. This can happen if we strengthen our research institutes in the public sector.

But the commercial release of GM mustard, developed in the public sector, has taken a very long time. There are indications of the government’s support for this technology, but it is still not clear why it has not reversed the previous government’s ban on Bt brinjal.

In 2001 Modi followed the masses as it helped him politically. But now he must use his political capital and lead from the front. Technology-starved farmers expect a firm vocal commitment from the PM.

Milind Murugkar writes about contemporary economic and political issues.

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