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Bt late than never

india Updated: Feb 13, 2010 23:37 IST
Indrajit Hazra

I’m not a fussy eater. If there is one rule of the tongue I have, it’s that what goes into my stomach shouldn’t taste bad. So, apart from a list of veggies led by cauliflower and pretty much all fruits (unless from a tin and camouflaged with ice-cream), what matters for me is the flavour of the dish rather than the nature or beneficial effects of the ingredients I ingest.

For a country that has largely got along by having the same approach towards food — barring dietary fetishes based on caste and religion — I’m pleasantly surprised that suddenly we’re worried about the food, rather than the preparation, we consume for health reasons. After all, milk diluted with water, vegetables coated with colour — not to mention general hygiene standards of street food from chuskis (ice lollies) and puris to cut-fruit and sweets — never really entered the domain of a national debate.

And yet, there’s this new terror of Bt brinjal. I’m not unhappy that our Healthy Science and Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh has decided to put the Bt brinjal in the freezer until there’s “more consensus”. After all, just because I don’t care whether the next tasty meal I’m having will make me grow horns and change my voice to Lata’s doesn’t mean that others don’t care about the dangers rubbing their wings and legs and seated on their next meal. If tobacco was discovered today, I’m sure we would all have been compelled (and blissfully happy in ignorance) of being non-smokers.

But unlike allowing movies to run in theatres or letting the country buy uranium from Uranus, scientific matters even related to as personal a matter as food should not be decided by everyone. It’s as stupid as asking everyone whether it makes sense for India to switch to nuclear power.

The problem is, of course, that even among the experts, there’s a difference of opinion. One lot thinks that Bt brinjal, a genetically modified vegetable, will have catastrophic consequences on humans ingesting it; while the other lot of folks in white coats believe that, in its current stage, it’s perfectly fine to chomp on the concoction ‘cooked’ at the genetic level.

But Ramesh wants total consensus. One rotund lady in a large bindi says that Bt brinjal is kryptonite, and the veggie’s not coming to a plate near you, no sir-ee. And that’s where the more atavistic, knee-jerk reaction to Bt brinjal — or, for that matter, to polio vaccination, electric blankets, nuclear power — has its source: science.

The notion that science is a trap set by the wicked West to keep us in our place is subliminal and more prevalent than it would seem. I have a feeling that if Bt brinjal in India was being pushed by, say, an Indian bio-tech company called Charminar, things would have been easy for the pro-Bt eggplant eggheads. Having Monsanto, an American multi-national (those two words flashing like a post-colonial gaali) pushing it (‘And to make money!’) pretty much spoils any notion of benevolent technology. And successive Indian governments not taking a tough stand against ‘Western scientific companies’ when things do get rotten — the long and continuing postscript to the 1984 Union Carbide disaster comes to mind — helps matters even less.

India’s problem with Bt brinjal is different from that in ‘Frankenfood’-phobic Europe — where protestations against GM (genetically modified) food segued from the ‘Don’t tinker with Mother Nature’ argument (thus leading to the fad of consuming ‘organic food’) to ‘My body is a temple’ argument. For an overwhelming number of Indians including myself, eating the freshest, most nutritious, most untampered-by-man food isn’t yet a healthcare issue. (But then, even healthcare isn’t much of a healthcare issue.)

If safe and tested Bt brinjal is to enter our kitchens, two things need to be done. One, the tag ‘Bt’ or other ‘scientific’ initials must be replaced by a ‘normal’ name. Bt brinjal can be called ‘tamora’, a nice, bouncy name. And two, let a religious body, preferably from any minority community, sanction Bt brinjal.