It was an irony that the man credited with introducing modern biotechnology in the country was also responsible, almost single-handedly, for blocking the production of genetically modified foodcrop in India. But Pushpa Mitra Bhargava, who died on Tuesday at the age of 89, was never afraid to take positions and never known to play safe. He was suffering from multiple health problems. He is survived by a son and a daughter.
One of the most outstanding biological scientists in India, Bhargava was a perennial and powerful dissenter and never bowed down to authority. He opposed the Kudankulam nuclear power project, dragged the then Murli Manohar Joshi-led HRD Ministry to court against its decision to introduce astrology as a subject in universities, and returned his Padma Bhushan award two years earlier in protest against the “climate of intolerance” in the country.
He even took on the scientific community for not being questioning enough and bowing down to political authority. In a 1997 article, Bhargava made a case for banning the annual Science Congress, or suggested that it should be renamed “Anti-Science Congress”. He argued that the various science academies in the country could be wound up “without any damage being caused to Indian science”.
He had opposed the Indira Gandhi government in a famous 1981 essay, ‘A Statement on Scientific Temper’, that he had co-authored with nuclear physicist Raja Ramanna and P N Haksar. The authors wrote: “…We are witnessing a phenomenal growth of superstitious beliefs and obscurantist practices. The influence of a variety of godmen and miracle makers is increasing alarmingly…. Myths are created about our past…. The ancient period of our history is interpreted to inculcate chauvinism which is false pride; the medieval period is misinterpreted in a way that would fan communalism; and the struggle of our people for freedom is over-simplified as if it was the handiwork of a few great leaders…”
Then 53, Bhargava had already left a deep imprint on Indian science. He was instrumental in setting up a separate Department of Biotechnology and the Hyderabad-based Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, which he continued to head until 1990. “Dr Bhargava’s pioneering vision and efforts led to the founding of the CCMB in 1977 as an institution for research in basic biology and for seeking its applications for the benefit of society,” CCMB said in a statement on his death on Tuesday.
Bhargava obtained his Masters in organic chemistry and a PhD in Synthetic Organic Chemistry. He made a shift to biology after working in the US. He started out with biochemistry, then dug into molecular biology and cell biology. He started publishing research papers on genetic engineering in the early 1970s. He has more than 125 research papers to his credit and won several awards.
He was confined to a wheelchair for most of last 10 years but never ceased to fight. He was responsible for ensuring that GM Brinjal did not get approval for cultivation. It is his scientific evidence that activists and anti-GM groups have been relying on to protest against GM Mustard as well. With Sreenivas Janyala in Hyderabad