The Coalition for a GM Free India registers with great sadness the demise of scientist Dr Pushpa Mittra Bhargava (1928 – 2017) yesterday in Hyderabad. The Coalition members express our deep sorrow at the passing of Prof Bhargava and pay profound and respectful tribute to the man and to the scientist.

Dr Bhargava was an upright, honest, uncompromising scientist who stood not just for scientific outlook, rigour and integrity, but for science that benefits the most marginalised. It was science for the largest part of humanity, not for profiteering by a few. He steadfastly fought for national sovereignty in decision-making though hi commitment to the nation may not fit into the parameters of those who tend to define nationalism narrowly. As a person who personally contributed to nation-building till his last day, his public interest objectives were clear.

He was fearless and bold in standing for what he believed in, and did so by presenting rational, empirical evidence. His clear admiration for genetic engineering and its potential in contained conditions, in the pharma sector for instance, was known to all. In the same vein, his caution with regard to environmental release of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) was equally rational, based on his understanding of the irreversible and unpredictable nature of this technology. He was against the way decisions related to GM crops were taken and against the release of GMOs into the environment without long term testing.

It is quite unfortunate that in an establishment that tends to tame scientists into narrow, reductionist thinking and bowing down to top-down commands, such a disposition is seen as ‘activism’, an unaccepted tag for a scientist.

To speak out in dissent was a right that Dr Bhargava zealously upheld, and he argued not just for spaces for dissent but for dissent to be institutionalized! It should not be misunderstood that he defended dissent for dissent’s sake, but did so because he understood the nature of power-play. He knew very well about the lobbying powers of multinational corporations and other powerful lobbies in our decision-making corridors.

Ironically, by being placed as a Supreme Court appointee into India’s apex gene technology regulatory body called GEAC (Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee), such an institutionalisation of dissent did take place in this sphere of his life, but without the Supreme Court or the Regulator actually implementing his suggestions. At least now, the Supreme Court should look at the specific ideas he has put forward, cautioning against irresponsible regulatory decision-making.

Towards the end, as Dr Bhargava cut down on numerous engagements that kept him busy throughout life, transgenic crops and the possibility of the approval of herbicide tolerant GM mustard made Dr Bhargava quite concerned and anxious. He made the effort to join GEAC meetings despite ill-health. When several of us made detailed presentations to the GEAC on numerous incorrect aspects of GM mustard testing and appraisal but got ignored as a routine by GEAC, he did not keep quiet. He not only sent to the regulators what he considered were correct minutes of the meeting proceedings, he approached the Economic & Political Weekly to publish his article on this matter.

It is obviously incomplete to recall Dr Bhargava’s life and living only in the context of his fight against GM crops. His numerous important contributions have been lauded by many – being the founder of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Vice-Chairperson of the National Knowledge Commission, a mentor of People’s Science Movements, and chairman of Sambhavna Trust set up for victims of Bhopal gas tragedy.. He was deeply concerned about farm livelihoods in the country and worked to promote agro-ecology based farming. He wanted to see our anna daatas live dignified lives and rural India to prosper.

We note with sadness that the Indian government has not responded so far to the loss of this pioneering scientist who explored the potential of molecular biology and was instrumental in getting the Department of Biotechnology set up, in establishing and running the Centre for Cellular & Molecular Biology. Many of the office bearers of this establishment are trained by him or his institutions directly or indirectly.

We urge the Supreme Court of India to pass Orders based on the inputs painstakingly provided by Dr Bhargava with regard to the regulatory regime for GMOs in India, but also specifically on GM mustard.

We call upon committed and honest scientists in this country to take inspiration from Dr PM Bhargava’s life and step forward to work for responsible science, for sustainability and for plurality.

We pledge to keep alive his spirit of inquiry and exploration, Anveshna (incidentally the name of the private firm he set up after retirement.). We re-dedicate ourselves to the struggle to ensure that Indian farms, environment and food are kept GM-free, and that ecological, sovereign solutions are found for any problems facing the farming community.

Kapil Shah: 09427054132,