Brinjal is not exactly a great favourite in Indian kitchens. By choosing to make it the first ever genetically modified food crop to be released commercially, the Centre was not conferring on it an elusive honour, but simply being prudent — and with good reason too, as it now appears. Faced with loud outcries, both supporting and rejecting the move to introduce Bt brinjal in Indian markets, the environment and forests ministry has put a moratorium on the cultivation of the crop. The decision gives scores of activists and independent researchers a fair chance to present their own findings about the dangers and delights of GM brinjal. It also helps the government bide its time before it can come up with more adventurous suggestions: GM tomato, GM rice or GM mustard that are currently being experimented on. The dissenters should have been allowed a patient hearing much long ago — the fate of a billion brinjal-eaters cannot be determined by the 30-odd people who form the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee of the environment ministry.
Democracy is not merely about people electing a government — that is just the beginning of a political process which touches the lives of millions at several complex levels. To realize the full potential of a ‘thriving democracy’, its citizens must be treated as equal stakeholders in governance. It does not speak highly of a government that treats its people like faceless millions, deciding what is good or bad for them with little regard for the drift of public opinion. Policies concerning fundamental aspects of human life — health, nutrition, sexuality — must elicit a general consensus. So it is not a good idea to dismiss public scepticism as ignorant and superstitious, as some scientists are in the habit of doing. It would be wiser to keep in mind the importance of observing international safety standards, and of being accountable for the health of a vast number of consumers within the country — and even outside if the product is to be exported. It may be excellent marketing strategy to speak of the benefits of Bt brinjal in highly exalted terms, but people also deserve to know its potential pitfalls. It is not for nothing that there has been mounting opposition to GM food across Europe and Japan. The Centre has acted honourably by stalling the release of Bt brinjal. It should now make this move the basis for establishing better regulatory bodies.