Monday, October 20, 2014

Himalayan blunders at people’s peril

Climate studies show that extreme rainfall events would increase over the Indian subcontinent and that the Himalayan range is vulnerable. Despite these predictions, the Himalayan states are unprepared for such climate eventualities. 

I left Srinagar a week before the floods. Passing by the Zero Kadal, Srinagar’s oldest bridge across the Jhelum I had remarked that the river was reduced to a nallah and if this was its appearance in the monsoon season, the health of the river was grim. Then within days the waters swelled and the Jhelum burst its banks.

Similar floods had hit Uttarakhand a year ago, in June 2013, centered around the Kedar Valley, involving the Alaknanda and Mandakini rivers. Heavy rain followed by flash floods caused large-scale destruction of life and property. The sad part is that in the truest sense of the expression, the disasters in Kedarnath and Kashmir were man-made. The combined effects of utter administrative failure and human greed enabling rampant, unauthorised construction across natural water channels and flood plains resulted in the devastation we saw in both places. Climate change is causing more and more extreme weather events like sudden storms and cyclones as well as cloudbursts accompanied by torrential rain and floods, but governments can prepare for these. People can be evacuated in time, relief and rescue can be planned ahead, preparations can be made to ensure availability of drinking water, food rations, medicines and clothing. All this was done by the Orissa government in preparation for Cyclone Phailin that struck the state in October 2013 so the impact of the cyclone was contained.

It’s not as though there have not been sufficient warnings about the potential for flooding in the Kashmir Valley. The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) in Jammu and Kashmir had noted in 2009 that construction in the low-lying areas of Srinagar, especially along the banks of the Jhelum, had blocked the discharge channels of the river. The INTACH report predicted that natural disasters in the Kashmir Valley could cause widespread devastation. Recommendations for action to mitigate the danger were submitted to the government but nothing happened.

In 2010, a study done by the Jammu and Kashmir Flood Control Department predicted a major flood that would inundate Srinagar. The government ignored the warnings of the experts because the concerned minister considered the prediction of a flood in the Jhelum needlessly alarmist. Such a position can only stem from ignorance about the Kashmir region where floods have been a recurrent feature for at least a 100 years. Praveen Swami has traced the history of flooding in Srinagar in his article in a newspaper and shown how floods have regularly visited Srinagar since 1893. Unfortunately, the lessons of earlier disasters did not make a sufficient impression on successive governments for them to do anything to protect their beautiful city and its people. In 2012, the Jammu and Kashmir office of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) again predicted that massive flooding in Jammu and Kashmir was a distinct possibility. To this too, there was no administrative response.

Construction continues unabated. Despite expert advice, hydropower stations are being built without any evaluation of vulnerability and disaster potential. The hydro power projects on the Jhelum in Ganderbal and on the Chenab in Sach Khas are both examples of haphazard construction. Uttarakhand has gone the same way and suffered for it. Some 70 hydro power projects are planned on the Alaknanda and Mandakini rivers. If these projects go ahead, further disasters are likely.

Granted that hindsight is always 20/20 and everyone is cleverer after the event but the warnings about flooding in the Kashmir Valley have been many and government response has not been visible. Given the heavy and sustained rains this time, flooding was perhaps inevitable but the level of devastation was not. Three days before Srinagar was flooded, the Jhelum in Anantnag had already risen alarmingly high. High enough to warn the state administration of impending trouble in Srinagar and yet the government did not act to prepare the city for the coming floods and inundation.

Shockingly Jammu and Kashmir is the only state in the country that does not have monitoring centres to warn about rising levels in the rivers and lakes that dot this flood-prone region. A Central government proposal to set up flood monitoring stations has been pending for more than five years without the state government taking any action. The Jhelum is boxed in by urban settlements and the lakes into which excess water drains are very close to towns so there is little lead time to prepare for floods. All the more reason that a well-coordinated, efficient flood monitoring system was put in place.

Partisan politics has contributed its share to the misery in Kashmir. The state’s NDMA which should have been preparing for and managing the disaster, was rendered defunct because the Modi government had secured the resignation of eight members of the NDMA, including the chairperson because they had been appointed by the earlier United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. This has cost the people of Kashmir hugely.
Climate studies clearly show that extreme rainfall events would increase over the Indian subcontinent and that the Himalayan range is particularly vulnerable. Despite these predictions, the Himalayan states are unprepared for such climate eventualities. We saw this in Uttarakhand in 2013 and now in Kashmir in 2014. Climate preparedness has to become an important part of all development planning, particularly in the susceptible mountain and coastal areas.

Political leaders and the bureaucratic machinery must be educated about climate change and its disaster potential. The lessons of Kedarnath and Kashmir are evident and they must be taken to heart by planners in the Central and state governments. There must be a comprehensive review of the development path that the country has set itself on. There will have to be radical changes in the philosophy of “growth at all costs” to ensure that the ecology is not destroyed beyond redemption. Nature has a way of hitting back when pushed beyond a point. We finally have to acknowledge that our planet has limits which must be respected if people want a secure existence.

Source: Asian Age, 11 October 2014

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Should India permit GM foods?

We must frame an intelligent policy after widespread consultations

Suman Sahai
Agbiotechnology is presented in many forms — the most common being that it will solve world hunger. To reinforce this claim, there is an interesting word play at work. Agbiotechnology is referred to as the ‘Evergreen Revolution’ or the 'Gene Revolution' but never genetic engineering, which is its correct name. Both Evergreen Revolution and Gene Revolution are deliberately coined terms which attempt to link Agbiotech with the Green Revolution. In the view of most political leaders and policymakers, the Green Revolution was a very positive happening that brought benefits in the form of high food production but more importantly, freedom from food imports and hence political and national sovereignty. 

The Green Revolution did in fact increase food production, principally the production of rice and wheat. It made India independent of food imports and firmed up its political spine. It ensured surplus grain that could be stored in buffer stocks to be rushed where need arose and it tried to ensure that famines were not anymore a feature of the Indian reality.
These gains were so visible that the downside, the unequal distribution of the benefits, of land and water degradation, the accompanying loss of genetic diversity and the persisting endemic hunger and poverty, could not take the shine off the Green Revolution. Because of this positive image, the promoters of Agbiotech draw semantic parallels, invoking the earlier agricultural revolution. 

The subliminal message that the spinmeisters of the Agbiotecg sector try to convey is: If the Green Revolution brought so many benefits, the Evergreen Revolution would bring all those in perpetuity. The word play has actually been quite successful. Political leaders and policymakers carry over the positive association with the Green Revolution to the Evergreen one. If the earlier version brought such benefits, the newer one (more precise, with greater possibilities, as the industry says) would surely bring even greater benefits to the farmers and the poor. Conveniently left out of this portrayal are the essential and crucial differences between the two 'revolutions'.
The Green Revolution (GR) was a publicly owned technology, belonging to the people. The research was conducted in public sector universities and research institutions with public money and created public goods to which everyone had access. There were no Intellectual Property Rights (IPR), no patents vested in multinational companies, no proprietary technologies or products. If there was ownership of the GR, it was vested in the farmer. Once the seed reached the farmers, it was theirs; they moved it where they wanted. Therefore, despite its faults, the Green Revolution addressed farmers' needs and India's food production showed an upward curve.
The Evergreen Revolution is almost the exact opposite. It is a privately owned technology. Six corporations (Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer CropScience, DuPont, Dow and BASF Plant Science) control practically the entire research and output in the field of transgenic plants. Processes and products, including research methodologies, are shackled in patents and the farmer has no say, let alone any control. The technology creates only private goods that can be accessed only at a significant cost after paying licensing fees. In the case of Bt cotton, the only GM crop cultivated in India so far, a bag of Mahyco-Monsanto's Bt cotton seed costs Rs. 1,600 as compared to around Rs 400 for superior varieties produced locally.

The seed belongs to the company, which strictly controls its movement. With the development of the popularly termed ‘terminator’ or sterile seed technology, the farmer is reduced to a helpless consumer, not a partner as in the case of the GR. The Evergreen Revolution has in its 20 years, not yet produced a crop variety that has any direct connection to hunger and nutritional needs. The most prevalent crops remain corn, soya, cotton and canola and the dominant traits are herbicide tolerance and insect resistance. Despite its other faults, the Green Revolution was able to put out a number of crop varieties in a short span of time that enabled direct yield increases, which brought immediate benefits to farmers. That in short is the contrast between the two revolutions, so assiduously camouflaged by the Agbiotech spinmeisters. 

India had participated enthusiastically in the Green Revolution and is on its way to equally enthusiastically embrace the Gene Revolution or Agbiotechnology. Yet there is little debate in the country on whether any lessons have been learnt from the Green Revolution. There is even less debate between policymakers and other stakeholders on whether GM crops are relevant to Indian agriculture and if so, what path we should adopt.

There is no consultation with the public or any sharing of information about GM research and trials, as is done in almost all countries that are implementing GM technology. The Department of Biotechnology has promoted research projects randomly without any assessment of farmers' needs and the best way to fulfil them. Civil society has been uneasy with the lack of transparency and the lack of competence in regulatory bodies; the media is largely uninformed and political leaders remain unaware of the direction this new and controversial technology is taking in India and have no say in determining what it should or should not do. 

This is not the way to adopt a new technology, especially one that comes with a string of compulsory regulations. GM technology must follow specific prescribed procedures and be tested stringently. What kind of GM technology should India adopt? Should it permit GM foods or should it ban them like Europe, Africa and many other countries have done? What should our policy be on GM food crops and non-food crops? We must frame an intelligent policy after widespread consultations with a range of stakeholders. The process should be inclusive and transparent, allowing a range of expertise and insights to be brought into the decision-making process. And we should abide by the consensus view.

The writer is the founder of a research and advocacy organisation, Gene Campaign

Wednesday, October 1, 2014


The health impacts of these changes is not very  clear, but the changes in the family of genes related to immunity and sugar metabolism detected in these babies, now teenagers, may put them at a greater risk to develop asthma, diabetes or obesity.
Canadian researchers report that the number of days an expectant mother was deprived of electricity during Quebec's Ice Storm (1998) predicts the epigenetic profile of her child. Scientists from the Douglas Mental Health University Institute and McGill University have detected a distinctive signature in the DNA of children born in the aftermath of the massive Quebec ice storm.
Five months after the event, researchers recruited women who had been pregnant during the disaster and assessed their degrees of hardship and distress in a study called Project Ice Storm. Thirteen years later, the researchers found that DNA within the T cells of 36 children showed distinctive patterns in DNA methylation.
The scientists published their study (“DNA Methylation Signatures Triggered by Prenatal Maternal Stress Exposure to a Natural Disaster: Project Ice Storm”) in PLOS One.
“Prenatal maternal objective hardship was correlated with DNA methylation levels in 1,675 CGs affiliated with 957 genes predominantly related to immune function; maternal subjective distress was uncorrelated,” wrote the investigators. “DNA methylation changes in SCG5 and LTA, both highly correlated with maternal objective stress, were comparable in T cells, peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs), and saliva cells.”
The team concluded for the first time that maternal hardship predicted the degree of methylation of DNA in the T cells. The epigenetic signature plays a role in the way the genes express themselves. This study is also the first to show that it is the objective stress exposure (such as days without electricity) and not the degree of emotional distress in pregnant women that causes long-lasting changes in the epigenome of their babies.