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 sovereignty and his nationalism was rarely understood by ones who tend to define nationalism narrowly. For a person who personally contributed to nation-building till his last day, 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 nature of this (irreversible uncontrollable living) technology. He was against the way decisions related to GM crops were taken and and releasing 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 for not just spaces for dissent but for dissent to be institutionalised! 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 materials that he had been putting out regularly, 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 ignored and incorrect aspects of GM mustard testing and appraisal but got ignored in routine, tactical processes that GEAC ran, 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 would be unfair to recall Dr Bhargava’s life and living only in the context of his fight against GM crops. He made important contributions in his own way, including while he was the Vice-Chairperson of the National Knowledge Commission. 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 not a single message of condolence has been put out by the government so far for the loss of a 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 his spirit of inquiry and exploration, Anveshna (incidentally the name of the private entity he set up), alive. 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.