“What crime have we committed?” asks Miro Rani, the fear visible on her face. Rani, 50, is the wife of Ishar Saini, a 62-year-old brinjal farmer near Ratia town in Fatehabad.
The Sainis, who have grown brinjal on three kanals (less than half-an-acre) of rented land, are at the centre of a brewing storm over the “use of Bt brinjal” or other genetically modified crop in Haryana.
On Thursday, a panel of experts established by the Haryana government recommended that their crop be uprooted. “Government officials came today and asked us to uproot the crop. We will do it on Friday,” says Saini.
Officials say the recommendation is based on a report by the National Bureau for Plant Genetic Resources (NBPGR), which found that samples taken from Saini’s farm had been genetically modified.
In 2010, the central government had imposed a moratorium, leaving Bt cotton as the only genetically modified crop permitted for cultivation in the country. “The committee has submitted its report. The crop should be buried deep beneath the earth, so that it doesn’t affect neighbouring fields,” says Prof K P Singh, Vice-Chancellor, CCS Haryana Agriculture University (HAU), Hisar.
“We could have conducted the test here (in HAU) but the central government has authenticated only the NBPGR to handle such issues,” says Singh. The Haryana panel of experts included the heads of the microbiology and biotechnology departments of HAU, and the Joint Director of the Haryana Horticulture Department.
Saini’s crops came on the official radar after a group of activists informed the biotech regulator, Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), about the presence of “suspected Bt brinjal” at the farm.
The group was tipped off by Rajinder Chaudhary, an activist who runs Kudrati Kheti Abhiyan, which is associated with the Coalition for a GM-Free India, about four weeks ago. “One of my friends wanted to grow pest-free brinjal for his kitchen garden and a man running a nursery in Fatehabad told him about Ratia’s farm,” says Chaudhary, a former professor at Rohtak’s Maharshi Dayanand University (MDU).
According to Saini, the crop was from saplings purchased from a vendor in Dabwali. The vendor, he says, has since gone missing.
“My son Jeewan, along with our neighbour Jogender Dhindsa, had gone to Dabwali to purchase brinjal saplings from a roadside vendor in December 2017. The vendor claimed that the saplings are free from any insects, especially sundi (shoot borer). He charged Rs 7 per plant, which is seven times higher than for normal brinjal plants. Both the families bought 1,200 plants,” says Saini.
Dhindsa, the neighbour, says shoot borer infected his plants and he destroyed his crop in December 2018. But Saini managed to sustain his crop with pesticides. “I sold my crop in the Ratia market for about Rs 20,000 last year but nobody complained. We used the brinjals at our home but we never felt any harmful impact. This year, too, we sold the crop for about Rs 12,000. But after the advice of government officials, we stopped selling it 20 days ago,” says Saini.
Saini and Rani, who have two sons and a daughter, own two kanals of land and had taken five more acres on rent for farming. “The brinjal was cultivated on three kanals of rented land,” he says.
According to Chaudhary, the activist, “a preliminary lateral flow strip test was conducted, which showed a positive result of the suspected sample being transgenic with Bt Cry1Ac”, which is a gene linked to Bt brinjal.
The Cry1Ac protein, found in bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), is a known insecticide because of which the relevant genes of this bacteria are introduced in plants to make them immune to certain pests.
In the test conducted by NBPGR on the samples from Saini’s farm, however, the gene mapping to the Cry1Ac protein was found absent. But, according to Haryana officials, the NBPGR said the samples were still genetically modified, suggesting that some other gene from the bacteria could have been introduced.
The activists had also sent samples to the GEAC, demanding in a representation that it investigate the case and take legal action against the source of supply of the seeds. “In addition to finding the extent of cultivation and action against entire seed/seedling supply network of illegal Bt brinjal, we also demand the destruction of all Bt brinjal plots. However, simultaneously we demand that no penal action should be taken against farmers who have been duped into cultivating these illegal seeds. Rather, farmers must be fully compensated for destruction of their standing crop,” the representation states.
Based on this representation, officials say, the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change asked the Haryana government to take necessary action after verifying facts on ground.
In a letter sent to the Haryana Chief Secretary, Chaudhary wrote: “The formation of an experts committee to study health effects afresh is grossly illegal… when an indefinite moratorium placed by the government of India on release of Bt brinjal is still in place and no GM brinjal has been approved for cultivation in India till date. You are duty bound to immediately identify the supply chain of Bt brinjal being cultivated in Haryana and plug it besides destroying the extant crop. It appears that by delaying taking required action, you are facilitating the destruction of evidence.”
R K Chauhan, Joint Director, Haryana Environment Department, says, “In a meeting on Tuesday, Haryana Chief Secretary D S Dhesi has asked officers of the horticulture department to conduct a survey to locate Bt Brinjal crop, if any, in all the 22 districts of the state.”
Subhash Poonia, a Haryana farmers’ leader, says “the farmer should not be harassed in the process”. “They are innocent farmers. They don’t know about the ill-effects of genetically modified crops,” he says.