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Truth without fear or favour

Truth without fear or favour
Science is the knowledge gained through exploration of earlier unexplained laws of nature. Scientists are believed to be those who, without fear or favour, explain the truth. The common people, by and large, place confidence in what scientists say. In other words, scientists are revered as demigods of the present times. This places the onus on them to live up to the expectations of the people.

However, in recent times, there have been some instances that show that some scientists have failed to act morally on their own and explain the truth without any fear or favour. There was much hype by some scientists about the efficacy of genetically modified (GM) seeds. The ‘so-called’ success of Bt cotton was highly publicised. But the reports of continuing distress of farmers, often leading to cases of suicides, led the Maharashtra government to relook at the situation. The Maharashtra government has effectively banned the sale of Monsanto-Mahyco’s Bt cottonseeds in July this year. The state agriculture minister, Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil is on the record saying, ‘There has been a question mark on the use of Bt cotton in Maharashtra for long. I have directed a comprehensive review of Bt cotton. Experts will closely examine and critically reassess its use.’ The minister also acknowledged that farmers would be better off if they use traditional cottonseeds.

The action of the Maharashtra government raises another question – why did the realisation come so late? Why did not the State government ban the sale of the controversial seeds before the beginning of the sowing season in June? There are reports of the clandestine sale of banned Bt cotton seeds. What the state government is doing to prevent the sale of banned seeds? The efficacy of Bt cottonseeds ran into controversy ever since its first field trials before its introduction. Several NGOs and farmers’ organisations conducted surveys pointing to health and environmental hazards, apart from the loss burden on farmers. There are several papers written by experts revealing hazards relating to GM crops, including Bt cotton. But despite such evidence, there was a deliberate push by the interested parties and the authorities for the introduction and propagation of Bt cotton. Some NGOs even submitted reports and tests about cases of mortality of sheep grazing over Bt cotton fields.

Fortunately, India has not yet gone for any GM food crops. Thanks to the then Union Environment and Forests Minister, Jairam Ramesh, who put on hold the approval of Bt brinjal (eggplant) by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee, after taking stock of wide ranging public consultations across the country. Earlier also, the apex court in the country had taken cognisance of the issue in response to a public interest litigation (PIL). The special bench imposed a temporary ban on the further approval of GM crops pending final disposal of the case.

Another case where the scientists failed to act morally on their own and explain the truth without any fear or favour is the forecast of the 2012 southwest Monsoon. After two months of poor monsoon rains, the India Meteorological Department (IMD), in a bid to save its face, came out with a forecast that the seasonal rainfall in the entire four-month monsoon season [June-September] will be deficient.

The IMD had ample time to make its forecast aiming at accuracy. In April, this year, the IMD came out with a forecast saying that the countrywide rainfall in the monsoon season will be normal, being 99 per cent of the long period average (LPA) of 88.75 cm, subject to a model error of +-5 per cent. In 22 June, the IMD revised its forecast but maintained that the countrywide rainfall will be normal at 96 per cent of the LPA, subject to a model error of +-4 per cent. On 2 August, the forecast was totally different – it was for a deficient rainfall. The IMD scaled down the rainfall forecast to 90 per cent of the LPA, which is categorised as poor or deficient rainfall.

It is not that the IMD did not know beforehand that the countrywide rainfall in the four-month monsoon season would be deficient and not normal. While making its first forecast on  26 April, the IMD said ‘the probability of a below normal rainfall is 24 per cent, which is higher than its climatological value.’

The deficient rainfall has already taken a toll on crop sowing. Ultimately who is to be blamed for the situation? Does not the farmer need adequate warning in advance? Is it proper to issue such a warning right in the middle of the sowing season? It is not that the IMD did not know of the emerging situation in advance. Way back in its April forecast, it had estimated 24 per cent probability of a below normal rainfall and said it has ‘high climatological value.’ Then why did not the IMD issue such a warning of a poor rainfall or drought-like situation in advance? Is it because it would send panic signals and the Government would be worried that the economy will be upset and prices would shoot up?

Whatever may be the prevailing political or economic situation, the onus is on the scientists to guide the farmers and the nation by exposing the truth and not misguide on account of intimidation or personal benefit.  [IPA]
Ashok B Sharma

Ashok B Sharma

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