The country is reeling under a power crisis. Villages go without electricity for long hours. Yet, there is opposition to nuclear power and all the explanations of expert scientists do not seem to carry conviction. Even if a disaster like Fukushima were to happen, would it not be insignificant compared to the huge loss in terms of men and material, which the country is suffering due to a lack of adequate power generation? What is the difficulty in accepting all power generation strategies, from windmill to nuclear?
Grain production is stagnating at 200+million tonnes, while China is at 500+million tonnes. We will soon exceed China's population. Millions of children are dying of mal/under-nutrition. All the traditional practices and resources have not mitigated the tragedy. But the country will oppose GM technology, which has the potential to increase productivity and the nutritive quality of grain.
There is strident activism against GM technology in the name of environment and biodiversity. There is a constant vertical and horizontal transfer of genes in evolution. How did the 2,000 varieties of brinjal evolve, if it is not through gene changes? What does it matter, if a couple of transgenes (e.g. Bt gene) are transferred to unintended targets? Experience for over a decade has shown that Bt gene is benign and Bt corn and Bt cotton have not caused authenticated damage to individuals or environment. Even so, activists have succeeded in demonising the Bt with highly exaggerated negative claims.
Cultivation of Bt cotton has changed the face of India from an importing destination to an exporting country. If Bt rice with balanced protein and micronutrients were to be available, it would revolutionalise the health of millions of children in the mid-day meal programme. Why cannot organic farming, traditional practices, marker-assisted breeding and GM crops co-exist?
Even if there is one vaccine-related death, for no fault of the vaccine itself, the media would write the epitaph on the product. There are activists preaching against vaccines, a weapon for mass protection over centuries. Ayurveda is projected as a great traditional wisdom, which is true. But it need not be pitted against modern medical science. Even spiritual yoga gurus, who deride modern medicine, rush to allopathy in emergency. Is it not true that Ayurveda has been corrupted by quacks and lack of scientific validation? How can anecdotal experience make it internationally acceptable? How is it that experts abound in astrology, numerology, etc., dominating TV shows and finding solutions for every ailment?
If scientists speak up, they are labelled as arrogant or consigned to the pay books of multinationals. It is true that there is opposition among scientists themselves on some of these issues. Each area has become much specialised and older generations, barring some, are not in touch with the developments. But they would not hesitate to make sweeping generalisations.
Differences in opinion are exploited by vested interests to derail technology rather than to find ways to objectively deal with the differences and get the best out of technology. The only science the country seems to appreciate is the satellite launch shown on TV channels. I have hardly seen any scientist figuring in “Indian of the year” or “heroes of the year” shows of popular TV channels, which seem to set the agenda for the country. Scientists may say that they do not care (they do care!).
Is there nothing in this country of substance beyond Bollywood, cricket and politicians? But more seriously, if young minds do not opt for science, where are the role models? Several scientists quietly work day and night, unseen and unsung. The Nobel Prize will not descend from the heaven, unless an appropriate environment is created and the role of scientists is appreciated. No technology comes without a risk and any one technology will not solve all our problems. But unbridled activism against science and scientists will only lead us to miss out on technology options. We need to give S&T a chance to deliver. I am sure, eventually, nuclear power can take care of at least 25 per cent of India's requirements. GM technology can increase food productivity and improve nutritive quality. We cannot cut off our nose to spite our face or throw the baby out with the bathwater.
(The writer is NASI-Platinum Jubilee Chair/Honorary Professor, Department of Biochemistry, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. His email ID is: geepee@ biochem.iisc.ernet.in)