Through the biotech lens
Jayanti Roy

Science, Agriculture and the Politics of Policy: The Case of Biotechnology in India
by Ian Scoones. Orient Longman. Pages 417. Rs. 795.

THIS book is the outcome of a project coordinated by the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), University of Sussex (UK) one of the world’s leading organisation to explain real-world challenges through application of academic skills.

The author, currently a fellow of IDS, is an expert agricultural ecologist. On the surface, it seems that the book is a simple study of the rise and growth of biotechnology in India in general and Karnataka and Bangalore in particular. However, through the deft strategy of empirical examination it becomes an impressive document commenting on politics, policy-making, bureaucracy, technocracy, private companies, public sectors, science and commerce of our country in the present times.

Biotechnology is used here, the author explains, "as a lens to examine the tensions and dilemmas". From Green Revolution-to-gene revolution, the sunrise industry, from IT-to-BT are the catchy slogans used to portray biotech as the usher of the rosy future of agriculture. The book scrutinises this claim of the politicians, scientists, MNCs, technocrats and finds that none of the analogies truly apply because of the extreme inequalities and contradictions existing within the spectrum.

Today, scientists no more perform experiments in their isolated labs. They have to be sharp and smart enough to be media savvy, aggressive enough to survive the intellectual property rights fights to compete for economic gains, have entrepreneurship qualities, and understand commerce and business.

On one hand, we have public funded prestigious institutes of international repute like Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, and also several slow-to-change agricultural universities. Small and huge private biotechnology companies like Biocon, Rallis, Avesthagen, and Monsanto have arisen. We have powerful and elite task forces and vision groups but policy making on these highly sensitive and technical issues is influenced by naive politicians and bureaucrats. The role of citizens and NGOs as a crucial test for application of biotechnology benefits is played through activists protests, legal challenges, crop burning, hunger strikes and hosting high profile events.

Similarly, we have regulatory bodies like Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), Dept. of Biotechnology (DBT), Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF) but we have also seen the failure of these bodies. The author takes us on a chaotic journey and leaves us at a point where all these paths intersect and create a half-emerging, half-hidden pattern of criss-cross light and shade.

We then find ourselves face to face with the most important poser—can biotech serve the interests of the poor? The author’s pursuance of the question reminds of Gandhi’ s talisman that bids one to ask at each action one does, whether the poorest person gains anything by it or not? The study sadly points out through in-depth dissection of the honeycombed issues that we are failing this test in the case of biotechnology as different players vie to extract the maximum benefit without giving a thought to the common man.

The book is based on over 300 extensive interviews and discussions and quotes heavily from newspaper stories, editorials, annual reports, websites, speeches and professional journals. There are detailed notes at the end of each paper. Yet the flow of writing remains uninterrupted and the author is able to drive home the dilemmas, dichotomies, contradictions and controversies lucidly illustrated with a rare sensitivity to the typically Indian nuances of the issues.