The 97th Indian Science Congress is in session at Thiruvananthapuram (January 3 to 7, 2010), the capital of the state of Kerala. For me, every session of the Congress is a new experience; an experience of learning and re-dedication to the cause propounded by the country’s first Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru.
It is a matter of pride for the scientific community in the country that it is the Prime Minister who inaugurates and sets the agenda for this annual congregation.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who flew to Thiruvananthapuram to inaugurate the session, told the scientific community about the issues facing the country.
An internationally-reputed economist, he pointed out three major concerns which need immediate attention -clean drinking water, hunger and malnutrition.
He also said that there was a nutritional emergency all over the country. That there is widespread hidden hunger in India where one-third of the population suffers deficiency of calories and micronutrients.
According to Dr Singh, even as there are concerns there are a number of opportunities. It is possible to sort out these issues by making use of biotechnology.
The enthusiasm of the young scientists who have gathered here from all corners of the country make me believe that biotechnology could be made use of to solve the nutritional problems of India. This is specifically important in India’s case where the largest number of people go to bed every night without having a single meal through the day.
Though we have launched a number of schemes to eradicate poverty, the number of people suffering from malnutrition and hunger has only increased. Over the years, our agricultural production has remained static or it has not increased in proportion to our ever-growing population.
This has made India the home of the largest number of under-nourished children, women and men in the world.
A comparative study with China gives a disappointing result. Both India and China have somewhat equally cultivated areas. But in 2009, the Chinese produced 500 million tonnes of foodgrains, while India’s figures are not that encouraging. With no prospects of getting additional arable land, our priority should be to increase the yield per hectare and, that too, substantially.
It is time we seriously consider the opportunities offered by biotechnology. Procedural delays and concerns expressed by a section of the society in switching over to modern practices of agriculture and farming should be addressed on a war footing. We have to set up an autonomous and fully independent national biotechnology regulatory authority (NBRA) by an Act of Parliament and that too very soon.
The proposed NBRA should have professionally qualified biotechnologists, food technologists, medical professionals, scientists and policymakers who are capable of independent verification of genetically modified (GM) foods. The body should be the last word as far as food safety and environmental security are concerned.
This is important in the backdrop of GM brinjal, tomato, cauliflower and paddy waiting in the sidelines to make their entry into the market. If the proposed NBRA finds, these foods are safe for human consumption, there is no justification for delaying their introduction in the market.
India is launching “Operation 2015” to ensure that poverty and hunger in the country are halved by 2015. This is part of our Millennium Development Goals and the success of this project depends on our prompt response in accepting the progress made by our scientists.
We should use science as a material to overcome the deficiencies faced by the population of India.Discussions with other scientists attending this edition of the Indian Science Congress has convinced me that what we require is a “Food and Nutrition Security Act” instead of the Food Security Act. There is no shortage of Acts or laws in India but where we lack is in delivering the goods.There are many streams of governance and yet they all fall short when it comes to delivering results.
To show that it is possible to streamline and coordinate various activities of Government, the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai is joining hands with Central Food Technological Research Institute (CFTRI), Mysore, and the National Institute of Nutrition, to launch a major initiative in Koraput and Bolanghir in Odisha.
This will also include a Total Sanitation Programme without which Operation 2015 will never succeed.
Scientists who took part in the first two days of the Science Congress told me that nearly 39 per cent of children below the age of three do not get a nutritious and balanced diet.
A study by Dr. Malavika of Chennai showed that more than 56 per cent of Indian women suffer from anemia. Dr. Prakash of CFTRI made an important observation during the Congress that old age, which previously set in at 60, now sets in by 40. This is because of the changes in the eating patterns of people.
Overall, there are several causes for worry and concern but these could be addressed if we take immediate action. We should not disappoint the young scientists of the country who have taken path-breaking initiatives in the filed of biotechnology and biochemistry.