A New Scam

For whom and what are the scientists of the ICAR researching? Why have farmers in India not been able to benefit from the domestically developed genetically modified seeds? And where are the seeds of the domestic agricultural products that were claimed to have been genetically modified? Has the gene bank of genetically modified varieties of domestic seeds been handed over to foreign multinationals? The Indian seed gene bank is one of the biggest in the world.  An investigation should focus without delay on what actually happens to the crores of rupees that the government invests in the name of agricultural development and germ plasm of important crops.

 

The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has declared a number of places in India as biodiversity hotspots. The richness of flora and fauna at these biodiversity hotspots is important from the point of view of global food security and as part of the larger agricultural heritage of the world. As early as the 12th century, famous Russian botanist Nikolai Vavilov had stated that the origin of many crops was in India. Despite such a rich canvas, if a farmer has to buy seeds from foreign companies in a country so full of biodiversity, it is most unfortunate. More so when the seeds of these foreign companies supply are of a hybrid variety, which means that they cannot be used again just like Bt Cotton. Recently, a Parliamentary Panel has advised  putting a ban on genetically modified seeds, including Bt Brinjal and others, till a trustworthy structure of control management is  put in place.
In the matter of seeds, ‘trustworthy’ is certainly not a word that can be applied to recent and current situations. Chauthi Duniya is in possession of certain documents which prove that huge bungling is going on in the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and a few other institutions which come under it. Shockingly, the documents also suggest that there is a conspiracy to sell Indian seeds to multinational companies and other countries. The protagonists of this story are the senior officials of ICAR, the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (NBPGR), and the National Research Centre on Plant Biotechnology (NRCPB) and the Agriculture Ministry. In 2005, the ICAR took the initiative of developing  genetically modified species of rice, wheat, pulses and oilseeds to enhance agricultural production. The responsibility for this was given to Dr. K.C. Bansal who was then the Principal Scientist of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI). This project was worth Rs. 135 crores.

The documents with Chauthi Duniya reveal that when Dr. K.C. Bansal came to the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (NBPGR) as the Director, he did not deposit the seeds that he claimed to have newly discovered. He should have done so as per the law. The Director of the National Research Centre on Plant Biotechnology (NRCPB) sent a number of reminders to Dr. Bansal but to no avail. It should be noted that all these institutions come under the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR). This matter was taken up with Dr. S.K. Datta, the Deputy Director General of ICAR, but no action was taken against Dr. Bansal. This state of affairs prevailed till May 2012. The big question that arises is : where did the seeds of the new varieties go? Were the seeds sold to some foreign company or do they exist at all?

The documents that Chauthi Duniya accessed prove that this project was left in the doldrums. There are two main aspects of this story. First, facts regarding the officials connected to the project and the second, facts relating to the conspiracy to plunder the seed gene bank. As the Principal Scientist, Dr. K.C. Bansal claimed to have ‘invented’ a drought-resistant species of wheat and a species of slow-ripening tomato. A number of research papers in this regard were also published. But the big question is : where are the seeds ? The documents with Chauthi Duniya reveal that when Dr. K.C. Bansal came to NBPGR as the Director, he did not deposit the seeds that he claimed to have newly discovered. He should have done so as per the law. The Director of NRCPB sent a number of reminders to Dr. Bansal but to no avail. It should be noted that all these institutions come under the ICAR. This matter was taken up with Dr. S.K. Datta, the Deputy Director General of ICAR, but no
action was taken against Dr. Bansal. This state of affairs prevailed till May 2012. Now the question that arises is where did the seeds of the new varieties go? Were the seeds sold to some foreign company or do they exist at all?
Obviously, the gene bank of domestic seeds is under danger. For example, during 2011-12 thousands of varieties of wheat were cropped in Karnal, Hissar, Isapur and Wellingdon in Tamil Nadu. These varieties were the result of around 50 years of research of scientists. It is worth noting that no outsiders are allowed inside places where high quality varieties of domestic seeds are produced because allowing outsiders increases the risk of the seeds being stolen. But complaints have been made that on the field day (the day the fields are surveyed) many outsiders and people from private seed companies visit such facilities. In such a situation, seeds can be stolen and be put to commercial purposes. Apart from this the ICAR has readied itself to mortgage the improved domestic seed gene bank with foreign seed companies. According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, published on May 2012, the ICAR has decided to join hands with multinational seed companies. The reason that has been put forward to justify this is that India can make use of the expertise of these companies for developing seeds with a high yield and which have a longer shelf life.

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It is not that there is a dearth of research institutes in the country or that newer kinds of seeds are not being discovered. In the era of genetically modified (GM) seeds, the government has spent crores on research. Why then is the state of agriculture and farmers deteriorating rather than improving? What is the role of institutes like the Indian Council of Agriculture Research and the Agriculture Ministry in all this?

Dr. S.K. Datta, the Deputy Director General of ICAR, has proposed ‘opening’ the seed gene bank of India in exchange for the expertise of these companies. According to an estimate, the ICAR can give the germ plasm of around 4 lakh seeds to these companies. All this is being done, it is being argued, internationally as well as domestically, because despite having such rich biodiversity, India accounts for just 2 per cent of the global seed market and this is mainly due to lack of expertise and absence of a strong marketing system. This means that the multinational companies will directly benefit from the seeds that were domestically produced with the help of about 50 years of research. According to Datta, the farmers of India will benefit from this. The moot question : when the farmers of the country have been pushed to committing suicide as a result of buying seeds from multinational companies year after year, isn’t ICAR’s  step tantamount to further pushing them to the wall?
However, there are a few questions related to this story which not only need to be answered,  but require speedy investigative action from the government, specially the Agriculture Ministry. An inquiry should be instituted into this apparent seed scam without delay and the real truth should be established in the most transparent manner possible. The investigation should also focus on what actually happens to the crores that the government invests in the name of agricultural development and germ plasm of important crops. For whom and what are the scientists of the ICAR researching? Why have the farmers not been able to benefit from the domestically developed genetically modified seeds? Has the gene bank of genetically modified varieties of domestic seeds been handed over to foreign multinationals?

 

QUESTIONS, AND MORE QUESTIONS

What should be the parameters for appointing the head of any project? First, Dr. K.C. Bansal who headed the government project for developing the germ plasm of major crops did not deposit the seeds he had claimed to have developed. Secondly, he got the prestigious Rafi Ahmed Kidwai Award of ICAR, claiming to own patents on GM brinjal which did not exist. On 21 July 2011, P. Anand Kumar, the Project Director in NRCPB, wrote a letter to the Deputy Director General of ICAR complaining that Dr. Bansal had not taken official permission for the patent which was mentioned in the citation of the Rafi Ahmed Kidwai Award. This matter was discussed in a meeting of the Institute Technological Management Committee held in the NRCPB. The proceeding of this meeting mention that Dr. Bansal had
submitted a patent application named ‘Plastid Transformation in Brinjal’ (application number 1621/DEL/2009) on 4 August 2009. This application was submitted by the Project Director when information was asked for regarding the patent mentioned in the Rafi Ahmed Kidwai Award. It should be noted that Dr. Bansal got this award on 16 July 2009, on 21 July the Project Director asked for a clarification from Dr. Bansal and on 4 August Dr. Bansal applied for the patent on brinjal. Along with this, in answer to an RTI application by Dr. H.S. Sangwan, in which Dr. Sangwan wanted to know about the patent on chloroplast transformed in brinjal, many institutes associated with ICAR said that they do not have any such patent in their records. The selection process through which Dr. Bansal was appointed as Director has also come under the scanner. Farmers rights activist, Dr. Harpal Sangwan has alleged that this appointment has been orchestrated by Dr. S. K. Datta and Dr. Deepak Pental (ex-Vice Chancellor of Delhi University). Dr. Bansal holds a Ph.D in plant physiology which he completed under the supervision of Dr. Deepak Pental’s father-in-law, late Mr. S. K. Sinha. Also Dr. Bansal is facing two ongoing vigilance inquiries.  However, the question as to whether Dr. Bansal has such a patent in his name or not is not as important as the questions that have arisen over institutions like ICAR and the scientists who are researching for the development of agriculture in the country. It is high time these questions are answered.

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