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Art, science and commerce of Brinjal
By Sudhirendar Sharma

If a large section of mainstream media is to be believed India may soon witness mass hunger, demoralised scientists and economic recession if Bt brinjal is not allowed to be commercially cultivated.


Childhood memories of brinjal, popularly called baingun, are curiously uniform across the country. As kids, no one seemingly had any fascination for the violet vegetable. From elongated to round and from small to big, brinjal diversity has always been on offer without many takers to savour its predictable recipes. At school, brinjal helped children remember 'violet' being a conspicuous colour of the rainbow. Rarely would the relationship with brinjal extend any further.

That the lowly vegetable would gain national significance and the hyperactive environment minister adding a 'brinjal' on his cap could be the gravest surprise ever. That some of the 2,400 varieties of brinjal that middle class mothers selected from the vegetable vendors would be under pest threat unless impregnated with an alien gene could be no less amusing.

This would have made my grandmother happy who, as a staunch vegetarian, had an eerie feeling about some legless worm roaming freely within the encased flesh of brinjal. Pest control in brinjal had meant liberal sprinkling of woodstove ash to ward off the devouring pest from its broad leaves. Since no one ever heard of a pest epidemic on brinjal, the indigenous method had seemingly worked to keep the market price of brinjal under check.

The proponents of Bt brinjal are well within their means to push science and to make profit but not at the cost of making bhartha of our lives.

But this has seemingly not gone well with those who consider that Olericulture, the science of growing vegetables, be given a lesson. After all, science has to progress even if the poor brinjal has to be its unsuspecting guinea pig. And, why should it matter that an annual 8 million tonnes of brinjal production in the country is not under any crisis? The bedtime story of a tiger devouring a lamb for the crime that it never committed seems real for once!

Could the lowly brinjal cloud the scientific vision of the country? It seems it already has if the thwarted exasperation of the science & technology minister is anything to go by. The minister argued that the scientists would be demoralised should the progress on Bt brinjal is put on hold for long. One would expect the scientific community to contest such irresponsible utterance because brinjal isn't the only topic of research they have been engaged in!

The minister, Prithvi Raj Chavan, reminds me of my history lessons. While his namesake stood for bravery, courage, principles and patriotism, the modern-day Prithvi Raj is behaving more like Jaichand. History has been known to repeat itself and it seems to be doing so again after 820 years. But that it will repeat with characters switching sides has been beyond imagination. Brinjal is sure to rewrite history!

Unassuming brinjal has triggered a new wave of nationalism, with people rallying around the most unlikely of symbol to assert patriotism.

A bit of history has already been written. Unassuming brinjal has triggered a new wave of nationalism, with people rallying around the most unlikely of symbol to assert patriotism. For once, brinjal is at the centre stage of discourse to challenge colonialism of the kind that takes genetic route to control peoples' lives. If nothing else, it has helped identify the enemy within.

Brinjal has clearly become a big hurdle on way to a $1 billion a year seed industry, with any number of paid employees of the biotech industry and those willing to accept any kind of 'sponsorship' vouching for its safety. The same biotech industry that had thumped safety related aspects of Bt cotton now secretly accepts that not only have cattle died after consuming Bt cotton residues but skin allergies to farmers have been on the rise too. By its own admission, the pest resistant vigour of Bt cotton has been on the decline.

Without doubt, the claims on Bt brinjal are not above suspicion. Science ought to be held accountable, as no one can afford slow genetic transformation on account of consuming genetically modified vegetables. A recent report indicating conversion of male rats into females through exposure to widely used weed killer atrazine has sent alarm bells ringing. A genetically modified food product could indeed be doubly potent. One would only argue that the proponents of Bt brinjal are well within their means to push science and to make profit but not at the cost of making bhartha of our lives.

The views expressed above are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of d-sector editorial team.

Sudhirendar Sharma  |  sudhirendarsharma@gmail.com

Dr Sudhirendar Sharma is an environmentalist and development analyst based in New Delhi. Formerly with the World Bank, Dr Sharma is an expert on water, a keen observer on climate change dynamics, and a critic of the contemporary development processes.

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