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The man who fought for and against GM crops: India’s late Environment Minister Anil Dave

The man who fought for and against GM crops: India’s late Environment Minister Anil Dave

By Rajendra Shende

Walking away from the decision-making could be the hardest but it could also be the best decision. Anil Madhav Dave, India’s Minister of Environment faced this predicament recently. Whether to allow the marketing of Genetically Modified mustard or not—his recommendations were pending. However, the Minister passed away on the 18th of May, leaving the decision hanging.

Disruptive innovation by Modi

Appointing environmentalists as the Ministers of Environment has not really been the customary practice followed by the heads of the state across the globe. However, the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, in his characteristic style of ‘disruptive innovations’ in governance, selected Anil Dave, less than a year back, as his Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.

Dave was not a politician in its most common connotation. He was an activist and a hard-core environmentalist. Before entering politics, Dave was busy with community-level activities in promoting organic farming, opposing the use of chemicals to stop ‘atrocities’ on soil, writing the books on key ecological issues like climate change and dedicating himself to the cause of the environment.

Environment Minister’s report card

Dave was engrossed with his devotion to rivers that have nurtured civilisations for centuries. He dedicated his entire life to conserve the river and its ecosystem, most particularly Narmada. He even wished in his will that he be cremated on the banks of Narmada and his ashes be thrown in its water. His short tenure of less than a year as Minister of Environment of India is too short a period to assess Dave’s work as Minister of Environment. We cannot thereby pass judgment on his leadership in tackling environmental issues, which have become nothing more than man’s daily encounters with nature.

Local issues like air pollution, river deterioration, loss of biodiversity and soil fertility combined with global issues of climate change and sustainable development goals have now become the causes of conflicts, battle, and wars. However, we can examine whether the approaches and initiatives taken by Dave have been in right direction.

Understanding Dave’s environmental genome

Dave was a thoughtful environmentalist having engaged himself with people and nature. He did not have high regard for international agreements and protocols on the environment, which in his views, led to a compromise of environmental protection at national level. He had, in the past, severely criticised the behaviour of developed nations at Copenhagen Summit of Climate change in his book “Beyond Copenhagen”. He advocated national actions rather than wasting time on international agreements. After taking over as Minister of Environment, he was in a quandary on whether to modify his ‘environmental genes’ to fall in line with India’s strategy in international agreements or stick to his guns-original genes.

Dave’s environmental genes were again on real test-bed when the issue of approval of commercial production and marketing of Genetically Modified (GM) mustard came up for approval just before his death. The Supreme court had stayed the process of approval in 2016 as a consequence of civil society’s vehement call for more investigation into the safety of GM mustard.

Controversy around Genetically Modified mustard

The recommendation by Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), favouring the GM mustard was published for public opinion a year back. All civil society activists including Vandana Shiva, an ardent supporter of Organic farming, were clearly against GM mustard as it would harm the biodiversity, soil fertility and impoverish the farmers by increasing dependency on foreign companies rather than on nature. The recommendation emanating from the People’s Assembly, organised by NGOs led by Vandana Shiva in New Delhi in 2016, where Anil Dave, was also present as a Minister, stated that GEAC report, was “unscientific, irresponsible and it undemocratically imposes GM mustard on the poor Indian farmers”.

Fate made the final choice!

On the day before his death, on 17th May, Dave met delegates of a farmers’ association who were strongly opposing the proposal to approve GM mustard. The ball was clearly with the central government for the final decision. Back in time, Dave had clearly stated that he was against the use of chemicals for farming. The approval of GM mustard would imply an increased application of chemicals. Evidently, Dave was at crossroads. Giving approval to GM Mustard, which is stated to enhance the income of Indian mustard farmers by nearly 30 percent, required a change in his stance.

Amidst all this, his untimely death made the choice for him.

Rajendra Shende is the Chairman of the TERRE Policy Centre. IIT alumnus and the former Director of UNEP.

Featured Image Credits: Visual Hunt

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