The humble eggplant, known in some parts as aubergine and in South Asia as brinjal, has enjoyed a rare celebrity in India over the past few weeks. It has been the topic of spirited debate in town hall meetings and on television talk shows. The brinjal in question is no ordinary vegetable: it's full name is Bt brinjal, whose DNA scientists have fortified with a gene that kills a range of common pests. Its creators say the genetically modified vegetable will increase farm yields and bring a less pesticide-laden vegetable to Indian dining tables, where the fiery brinjal-laden baingan bharta enjoys cult status.
On Feb. 9, though, India's environment minister Jairam Ramesh nixed the introduction of the Bt brinjal. Ramesh, who has come under huge public pressure to ban the genetically modified vegetable, said the scientific community was not agreed on the brinjal's safety, that public opinion was against cultivation of the vegetable, and that there was "no overriding urgency or food security argument" for its introduction. He said further tests were required on the new variety, and said India needed to ramp up its genetic engineering regulatory mechanism.
Ramesh's announcement raised the decibel level in an already shrill debate. Many of India's farmers say they oppose Bt brinjal because the seeds are expensive and would have to be purchased every year, rather than something they could harvest themselves from the previous year's crop.
But critics of the decision say it was taken because the minister is scared of annoying the powerful farmers' lobby. BT brinjal backers also question why Ramesh disregarded scientific evidence from field trials that indicated the brinjals are safe. That evidence had been approved by the government's Genetic Engineering Approval Committee. "This decision is certainly a big setback for biotechnology and I am afraid it will thwart further investment in agri-biotech research," says Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, head of Indian biotech firm Biocon.
Advocates of GM crops have also been quick to point out that China last year announced it would allow genetically modified rice. Comparing India and China is a favorite pastime of Indian economists and commentators. The country's attempts to outdo its northern neighbor are a national obsession. But in its hurry to reach double-digit growth, India is confronting a dilemma that has entangled China for years: what's more important, economic growth or human rights and the environment?
India's answer to that question seems to be slightly different to China's. Just last week, India's Supreme Court ordered French cement firm Lafarge to halt limestone mining in the country's northeast. India's environment watchdog had granted Lafarge permission to mine in forestland there, but critics of the company's operations have alleged that the company misrepresented facts in their application. (Lafarge is due to respond to those allegations in a court hearing next month). Those opposed to the mining project also say that deforestation has led to a severe change in rainfall patterns in the region.
Last year, India's environment ministry had to take back a proposed bill on coastal management after villagers protested that a change to the legislation would disrupt coastal ecology and the livelihoods of local fishing communities. India's health ministry is currently reworking legislation on human clinical trials to introduce more stringent punishment for offences. That follows concerns that Indian research firms were cutting corners and risking subjects' health and lives in their hurry to attract international drug firms. And lobby groups and non-governmental organizations have been pressing the government to introduce new rules on electronic waste, ever larger quantities of which is making its way to India for recycling, or worse, dumping in landfills.
The Bt brinjal issue is yet another reminder of how difficult the government's balancing act is and of the extra pressures that a democracy like India face compared to more authoritarian countries.
But could India be going too far?
Yes, say those impatient for double digit growth. Take agriculture. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and many farmers struggling against debt, rising expenses and stagnant yields, have called for a second Green Revolution. But for this, India will probably need the help of biotechnology, a discipline in which India has the potential to be a world leader. Because India allows protests and debate, though, pro-industry rulings are often overturned.
One of the problems, as Minister Ramesh conceded this week, is that the country's regulatory system lacks the expertise and autonomy required to put decisions beyond reproach. In the brinjal case, for instance, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee had a clear conflict of interest: it relied on data supplied by the seed developer and verified by panelists involved in genetic engineering research themselves. If a more autonomous panel had found in favor of the Bt brinjal, the government may have allowed its use. Ramesh says the moratorium period on the brinjal's introduction should be used to set up an independent regulator with the scientific capacity to take authoritative decisions on key issues.
Progress may be slow, but in India's case, the best rate of growth may not turn out to be the absolute fastest, but the one that takes into account long-term environmental and human costs. A slow-cooked brinjal decision may taste best.