Saturday, March 20, 2010

Green Kerala Express

The President of the Karumalloor Grama Panchayat is facing the arc lights for the first time but he remains unfazed as he confidently fields queries from a jury on the development initiatives undertaken by the panchayat and explains how 250 acres of barren land was transformed into 750 acres of fertile agricultural land in a matter of years. The jury is suitably satisfied by the video presentation, the data provided to them and the village’s response to their queries and they award the Panchayat 46 marks out of 60.

Welcome to GREEN KERALA EXPRESS – touted as India's first and biggest social reality game show (possibly the world’s too), which aims to find the best Panchayat in Haritha Keralam. The contest is based on the performance of each local body in implementing programmes relating to sustainable agriculture, conservation of water resources, food and social security, Kudumbasree, National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), health, education, energy, housing, women’s empowerment and participation in grama sabhas in the state of Kerala. The first phase covers Grama Panchayats and the second phase will focus on Urban Local Bodies (Corporations & Municipalities together).

Doordarshan has done yeoman service in covering rural India for several years, starting with its Krishi Darshan and other socio-cultural programmes which are incidentally still watched in rural India (though the lure of daily soaps have probably torn away people from such programmes). Now, in an inspired piece of programming, the Thiruvananthapuram Kendra (DD Malayalam) is telecasting this 100+ episode show where villages compete with each other for a Kaun Banega Crorepati (yes, the winning village gets 1 crore!!!), highlighting their grassroots-level, sustainable developmental projects.

Kerala has 999 village panchayats, 53 municipalities and five municipal corporations. Two months back, DD had invited entries from local bodies. Around 200 local bodies sent their proposals, with 10-minute documentaries. Each entry was subjected to scrutiny by a couple of Technical Committees, based on the performance of the panchayat as understood from the filled-in questionnaire and other materials and input.

The jury shortlisted 150 out of 999 panchayats and a Production team was assigned the responsibility to visit the villages and make a short film based on the information submitted to them. The selection is to be narrowed down to 15 panchayat projects at the end of this first screening stage, and to three by the end of second for the final show. Of the total prize money of Rs 3 crore, the winning village would walk away with the 1 crore prize, funded by the state government.

In each episode, the film made by the panchayat is screened in front of the jury along with a short profile of the village followed by the video prepared by the production team. Then, a panchayat representative — with a group of villagers — comes into the studio, talks about the project, and fields queries from a jury comprising experts from various fields. Post-this, the jury awards them a score and the SMS voting for the village is announced.

The brains behind this fascinating game show are two humble bureaucrats - Doordarshan Assistant Director Sajan Gopalan and C-DIT Deputy Director K Mohan Kumar, who conceived it as a travelogue-type reality show which focuses on rural Kerala. The show has been produced by the Centre for Development of Imaging Technology (C-DIT) for the Local Self Government Department (LSGD), Government of Kerala. The Doordarshan Kendra, Thiruvananthapuram, Suchitwa Mission and Kerala Institute of Local Administration (KILA) are its co-producers.

The programme, which would be a unique documentation of grassroot-level positive initiatives, should inspire other local bodies to deliver better results... To add entertainment elements, there would be a little bit of drama and celebrities as members of the jury. Although the show would not have all the trappings of popular reality shows, audience would get a chance to SMS for their favourate panchayat and its project
says Sajan.

There were initial apprehensions on the quality of a DD sponsored programme but thankfully, the first few episodes (started on March 1st) of this daily half hour interactive show have proved sceptics wrong. The sets carry a green hue and the anchors are cheerful youngsters who give it a professional look. We have seen enough tantrums being thrown by judges in game shows but thankfully down south, the decorum has not yet been shattered and the producers have not resorted to unnecessary melodrama or audio-video jugglery which characterize most such shows.

Instead, presenting in such a format has ensured that it is an engaging exercise in intellect, without alienating a majority of viewers. The programme also has a fantastic title track, composed by Dr Sreevalsan J Menon. To add to the show’s green flavour, the programme anchor tours the panchayat only in a cycle, as he goes about talking to various villagers. Keeping in tune with the latest trends, the winner panchayat and project will be judged partly on SMSes sent by audience. DD has also roped in film stars to pitch in their support for the programme, trying to reach out to a wider audience.

The judge panel consists of two permanent jury members (Vineetha Menon, head of the department of anthropology, Kannur University and K.P. Kannan, former director of Centre for Development Studies), two technical jury members (such as environmentalists R.V.G. Menon and M.K. Prasad, agriculture expert R. Heli ) and a celebrity judge.

The choice of Padmapriya as a celebrity judge is an interesting choice (her lack of Malayalam knowledge could have been a hindrance in such a show but then she is a Ph.D student in Panchayati Raj Development!) and it presents to the contestants a chance to interact with an intelligent woman, who has taken up acting as a profession and not the usual bimbos who turn up in many shows. The primary focus of most of the interactions have pertained to agriculture, health, education and employment, specifically on the fufillment of NREGS objectives.

While most villages have done their homework, there are exceptions too who cut a sorry figure too - like Kalady village whose data provided was incomplete and incorrect and the representatives were hard pressed to answer questions put to them (including the incredible claim of providing only 8 man days under NREGS but being the highest disbursal of NREGS funds in Ernakulam!!!); the President was quick to blame paucity of time and the clerk for providing the data. The presence of an intelligent jury ensures that villages are asked questions properly and the mediocre ones are weeded out, as exhibited during the sessions.

It is interesting to note that in most Panchayats, the funds alloted to them (atleast on paper) have not been fully utilized, so is the issue of insufficient funds a valid reason? The fact that in many places changes have happened due to active intervention of the Panchayat (financially and culturally-like not alloting numbers to houses who do not co-operate as in Karumalloor or reclaiming occupied land near the Kalpathy river to protect it by Akathethara panchayat) gives an insight into the power devolution in rural areas; unlike in urban spaces where people do not even know their neighbours. Greater decentralization has helped the local self governments to take decisions on their own.

There have been a few interesting stories that have emerged in the episodes so far:

Adattu, in Thrissur, a village that ditched pesticides for organic farming

Cheriyanad, in Alappuzha, the country’s first litigation-controlled and legally-literate grama panchayat

Nilambur (under the leadership of writer Aryadan Shoukath), in Malappuram, attempts to become the country's first dowry-free village

Elappully, in Palakkad, a model dairy village with significant work in the field of dairy development and restoration of water bodies in the area (and it is my village too which is leading with 51 marks!!!)

Eloor, in Ernakulam, replaced all its incandescent bulbs with fluorescent models with the Panchayat enlisting the help of students in this plan

With most TV channels running out of ideas and resorting to cliched and stupid game shows (like swayamvar tests) and umpteen music shows, it exposes the bankruptcy of ideas that most major channels have. Bringing all these panchayats together and trying to analyse their models of sustainable developments is not an easy job but the endeavour is definitely praiseworthy. Judging a panchayat in less than 15 minutes may be a bit short but keeping the television audience in mind, anything more could turn-off potential viewers.

A lot of constructive work done in many remote parts do not get attention and this show gives an opportunity to witness such work. I do not know what the show’s TRPs are but I sincerely believe that if this show succeeds, it is a success for all those who believe in the power of television to sell infotainment creatively. Incidentally, inspired by this concept, DD is considering plans to conduct a show on these lines on a pan-India level.

Urban India is well and truly divorced from its rural cousin and this show presents an opportunity to take a peek into this world. Of course, the semi-rural/urban nature of Kerala and the decentralization of powers have ensured that this alienation has not reached the extreme end as in most parts of the country. We think that in the midst of an IT revolution, our dependency on agriculture is taking us backwards and the way ahead is to stop this trend. But when you examples of places as shown in the programme where villages have taken to agriculture in a large way and produced fantastic results, you can clearly see the urban-rural divide.  

P.S. This show is being screened thrice a day in DD-Malayalam, at 5pm, 8.30 pm and 11.00 pm from Monday to Friday. After daily scratching our heads on what to watch on television prime time, we have finally something to look forward to. Additionally, I guess, it also provides an avenue for us to get in touch with our roots, despite being away from it. Watching DD-Malayalam for the past few days has actually been an eye-opener-serious programming (a bit drab at times) actually exists!!! 

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Survival of the Humble Brinjal

When the Union Minister for Environment Jairam Ramesh announced an indefinite moratorium on Bt brinjal last month, the decision created a small window for many in India to sit and understand what the fuss is all about, without being swept away in the tides of another flawed Green Revolution, fuelled by the usage of Genetic Modified Crops. It is important that we understand that the Bt Brinjal issue is not a simple Traditional Vs Modernity fight or a rural farmer issue but a complex issue concerning National Security – there are 40+ GM food crops which are in the pipeline and covers every aspect of food security in India.

Bt Brinjal is a transgenic brinjal created by inserting a gene (Cry 1Ac) from the soil bacterium Bt into brinjal. The insertion of the gene into the vegetable is said to give the brinjal plant resistance against insects like the brinjal fruit and shoot borer and fruit borer. In India, Bt Brinjal is being promoted by Mahyco (Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company). If cleared for human consumption, Bt-brinjal will be the first GM vegetable crop approved for cultivation anywhere in the world. GM corn and GM soya are mainly used to feed cattle in North America or go into processed foods.

US multinational bio-technology firm Monsanto (which sells 90 per cent of the world's genetically engineered seeds), promotes GM crops in India through Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech, a 50:50 joint venture between Monsanto and Mahyco. In the 80s, Monsanto developed and patented a technology that enabled inject the Bt gene into seeds, as a result of which whenever a pest attacks the plant it dies. No one knows for sure what happens to the human beings who actually consume it. The scientific community is divided over the effects of this gene on us and opponents of GM (Genetically Modified) Food have raised issues on the health, environmental, economic and ethical aspects of moving over to GM food.

If you were to ask if eating Bt brinjal is dangerous or would cause cancer or any life threatening disease, the upfront answer to that would be an emphatic DON’T KNOW. Bt brinjal has not been properly tested for health or environmental safety though the advocates of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) say that they are safe and are the same as the naturally occurring organisms used to create the transgenic crop.

In October 2009, the Indian biotechnology regulator, Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), the statutory body responsible for approving its cultivation in India which is an ad hoc 30-member committee comprising mainly bureaucrats and scientists, gave its approval for introduction of Bt brinjal. The clearance was provided by the GEAC based purely on the data provided by Mahyco and the institutions it used for testing without doing any independent testing!!!

Isn’t this a clear case of conflict of interest- you create a product, do the testing yourself or sanction it and provide data to a regulator and the dumb regulator accepts it, without any form of independent evaluation. The French geneticist, Gilles-Eric Seralini, who was commissioned by the environmental group Greenpeace to check the claims made by Mahyco at the GEAC pronounced the data submitted by Monsanto-Mahyco as insufficient and misleading on several counts and the GEAC wanting in diligence. There are no proper bio-safety regulations for the environmental release of transgenic crops in India, with the GEAC, essentially adopting U.S.-style lack of regulation for GMOs.

The GEAC also says that they were not sure about the long-term health effects of genetically modified food on humans and stipulate that surveillance and long-term follow up should be conducted — essentially saying that you can eat Bt brinjal and it’s fine now but in the long term, it may or may not cause problems. How can the Government give clearance for something as radical as GM food without sufficient clinical trials? Apart from the fact that there were no long-term tests conducted for human safety, the adverse results of the short-term tests on lab rats were actually suppressed.

One of the more touted benefits of GMOs is that they reduce the use of pesticides, making it a more eco-friendly alternative. But there is always a danger of the pests developing resistance to the gene just as some populations of mosquitoes developed resistance to DDT. A Government conducted survey in 2002-03 on Bt Cotton (the first transgenic crop to be released in India) revealed an almost 99% incidence of the pink bollworm, a major pest that attacks the cotton crop.

Monsanto admitted this week that during field monitoring in 2009, the Bt cotton variety used in four Gujarat districts — Amreli, Bhavnagar, Junagarh and Rajkot — failed to control pests. Similar cases have been reported on the American bollworm, increasingly indicating that the pest is growing immune to the Bt gene. Some studies have shown that GM crops have destroyed useful insects as well as changed the nature of the soil (Monsanto had developed a herbicide called Round Up which when sprayed killed not only weeds but also soya. So it developed a GM soya bean which was resistant to Round Up and sold both the herbicide and the seed – a perfect double whammy!!!).

Conventionally in India, farmers buy seeds from the Government (centres like Krishi Bhavan) and then save their seeds from year to year obtained after the initial produce, for further usage. These seeds are diverse and replicable and over the years given the climatic conditions, these native seeds develop resistance to pests and disease attacks. The cost of a packet of Bt Cotton is Rs. 1600 as compared to the non-Bt hybrid that costs between Rs. 380 to Rs 460 because seed costs are higher.

Also since the Bt Cotton plant is not effective in controlling secondary pests like the white mosquito, aphids and other sucking pests, more pesticides have to be used, escalating total input costs. Monsanto patents its seeds and insists on contractual agreements with farmers that they will not save and replant seeds the next season, increasing the price of the seeds when compared to the inexpensive seeds available in the market (To enforce this, it had developed a terminator gene which produce sterile seeds that do not germinate, ensuring that farmers buy the seeds every year).

Another strong argument in favour of the Bt seeds is their claim to increasing crop yields by ushering a second Green Revolution. This is a false promise; Bt cotton destroys bollworm while Bt brinjal prevents the fruit and shoot borer but beyond this, they remain the same in their susceptibility towards other issues. Every year we have bumper harvests but the final produces lie rotting in government godowns and are burnt later on while millions suffer due to starvation and hunger. The problem we face is more related to distribution and less with production, so is increasing the yield through such suspect methods the only way out?

Access to food of our choice is a basic human right; we all can exercise this human right by refusing or agreeing to purchase engineered and manufactured food. But how can we differentiate between a normal brinjal and a Bt brinjal? Monsanto has consistently refused to label its GM foods, leading to most European countries banning GM foods. Moreover, India does not have a proper labeling system to distinguish and inform us of the GM content in our food.

In the words of Jeffrey Smith, author of Genetic Roulette on Bt Brinjal - If Bt brinjal produces allergic or toxic symptoms in the population, it could be years or decades before authorities are able to track the cause. The brinjal is not labelled, so some may get reactions to some meals with brinjal, and not to others isolating the cause is difficult. By the time it is discovered, the brinjal will have contaminated so many varieties; abandoning brinjal altogether may be the only recourse.

There are more than 2400 varieties of brinjal available in India due to local flavours and conditions. Fostering these bacterial genes into the brinjal could rapidly contaminate the thousands of brinjal varieties because the structure of its flower is conducive to a high rate of cross-pollination, leading to destruction of many of the home grown varieties. With an annual yield of 8 million tones, we do not face any crisis in brinjal production. If food security was an issue behind introduction of GM food crops, then why was brinjal chosen though it is not a staple diet? Maybe the answer lies when you are told that Monsanto spends 2 million dollars a day on research – it’s Payback Time!!!

The First Green Revolution in India in the 1970s regarded chemicals as the magic wands to transform Indian agriculture but these same chemicals are now being looked at as monsters that have adulterated many of our crops. The rest of the world may have banned DDT and Endosulfan but we continue to patronise them and kill our people. Now, there is a demand to bring GMOs to counter these same insecticides. We do not know whether the risk that was taken 30 years back is worth it but now do we want to tempt history again?

There is a risk that bio-technology may be branded as a villain and halted totally but surely, there is a middle ground. Maybe many of us are wrong, maybe GMOs will actually help make a difference but then should we not wait till a proper Cost-Benefit and Risk Analysis is done and we have concrete evidence to actually prove this rather than jumping the gun?

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