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Scientific Expertise in a Representative Democracy: Bt Brinjal

The case of Bt brinjal reveals the inability of scientific expertise to provide unambiguous and complete answers to policy questions. Concerns regarding public interest, trust and legitimacy emerge as expert advice appears increasingly biased and/or incompetent. And yet, at the same time, we also see an ever-increasing role of experts in democratic politics, their specialised judgment forming the basis of policy decisions.


Scientific Expertise in a Representative Democracy: Bt Brinjal

Fatima Alam

developed into a sharply divided ideological contest between the groups that f avoured GM food and those opposed to it. Those who were favouring GM technology see it as an unmistakable scientific solution to food security. Details such as the risks associated with transgenic crops, the corporate ownership of technology and its implications for farmers’ rights to seeds,

The case of Bt brinjal reveals the inability of scientific expertise to provide unambiguous and complete answers to policy questions. Concerns regarding public interest, trust and legitimacy emerge as expert advice appears increasingly biased and/or incompetent. And yet, at the same time, we also see an ever-increasing role of experts in democratic politics, their specialised judgment forming the basis of policy decisions.

I would like to thank Sunil Khilnani for his valuable comments and Alex Etra, Parvati Sharma, Poorna Bhattacharjee and the Patna Collective for their inputs. The shortcomings in the paper are entirely my own.

Fatima Alam ( is doing her postgraduation at the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, the United States.

he public debate surrounding the commercialisation of the genetically modified (GM) vegetable Bt brinjal in India has brought into focus the relationship between science and politics and the complex character of expertise in the public decision-making process. This article considers the role of scientific experts and expertise in the policy process of democratic polities. A discussion of the deliberative process leads to questions of legitimacy, accountability, representation and public interest that policymakers must face.

Additionally, this article analyses how the numerous potential benefits and unquantifiable risks associated with the commercialisation of Bt brinjal complicate any decision about the same. Decision-making is made more difficult by the diversity of areas the fate of Bt brinjal is bound to have an impact on. These areas include food s ecurity, farmers’ rights, consumer choice, intellectual property law and the concentration of market power, public ethics, health, environment and biodiversity. Finally, it analyses the extent to which public policymaking is essentially the art of assessing risk, balancing the various interests and concerns of different stakeholders and reaching acceptable compromises.

As a result of the uncertainties associated with them, GM organisms are a highly d ebated subject all over the world. Bt brinjal is the first in a series of GM food crops to be considered for commercial release in India. As such, the vegetable became the pivot around which a number of social, political and economic concerns came to be voiced, with great urgency. The frenzied public debate that emerged following the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee’s (GEAC) recommendation for the commercialisation of Bt brinjal in 2009

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consumers’ choice, and ultimately, biosafety and food security were largely glossed over. Meanwhile, the opposition to Bt brinjal witnessed a conflation of distinct categories of concerns into an ill-fitting whole, with GM technology becoming synonymous with “rapacious multinational corporations” (Purkayastha and Rath 2010: 42-48). A number of farmers’ associations, nativist groups, left-oriented progressive movements, environmental NGOs and domestic pesticide lobbies gathered forces against a common enemy. Further complicating matters for the policy process, both civil society groups and scientific experts allied themselves on either side of the Bt brinjal debate.

This article accepts the absence of consensus on Bt brinjal among scientific experts as given. Nor does it presume to weigh the evidence and uncover the truth about the transgenic vegetable. Instead, its purpose is to analyse the deliberative process: the challenges to policymaking in a representative democracy and the strategies of decisionmaking thus adopted in the face of uncertainty, risk and vast differences of specialist opinion.

Bt Brinjal in India

Bt brinjal is a genetically engineered variety of brinjal or aubergine developed by the Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company (Mahyco). It is created by the introduction of the “cry1Ac” gene into the plant, said to make the crop resistant to insects such as the Fruit and Shoot Borer and the Fruit Borer (CEE 2010: 1). These pests are responsible for nearly 60% of crop damage. Although high pesticide use greatly increases the production costs of small and marginal farmers, it is not always successful in controlling pests. High pesticide use also makes the vegetable unhealthy. This much, at least, is undisputed.

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It should logically follow, then, that Bt brinjal provides a promising solution for controlling pests, reducing the use of pesticides and the production costs of farmers and increasing the yield of brinjal. This, in turn, partly addresses the problem of food shortages as India – and the world – is faced with a rapidly growing population. However, experience with Bt cotton, the only Bt crop under commercial cultivation in India, shows that the crop’s success is not unquestionable. A significant reason is that pests develop tolerance to the transgenic crop over time leading to an even higher requirement of pesticides in the long term (CEE 2010: 14).

Moreover, concerns regarding health and biosafety point to the imprecise method by which a new gene is introduced in the plant, posing the risk of disrupting or modifying the pre-existing genes. This may lead to significant changes in plant characteristics and cause genes to behave differently (Purkayastha and Rath 2010: 44). This, in turn, increases the risk of allergic reactions to the plant on consumption. A related concern is that the genetic modification process may re-engineer the biology of the plant causing it to generate toxins. It is argued that this danger is greater in the case of brinjal as it belongs to the solanceae family of plants, which has a natural tendency to produce toxins. However, as Purkayastha and Rath (2010: 44) note, such doubts can only be clarified by conducting pre-release tests. However, the appropriate length of the monitoring period is also a source of much debate as, in most cases, the effects of toxins become apparent only in the long term. The effective lack of a call back method for commercially released GM crops is also an oftendiscussed deterrent (ibid: 44-45).

The Indian Context

While some concerns are general to Bt brinjal, a number of these concerns are exacerbated due to the peculiarities of the Indian context. Brinjal is often consumed only lightly cooked or raw in India and this increases the risk posed by poisons in the plant. Further, the raw plant is also widely used in traditional medicine such as ayurveda and siddha, again increasing the impact of the risk of potential toxins in the plant. Ayurveda practitioners point

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out that 14 varieties of brinjal, each differing in its medicinal properties, are used in medicinal preparations. Transgenic changes to the plant will alter the currently coded characteristics of these varieties (CEE 2010: 16). Such concerns also lead to questions regarding the threat to biodiversity posed by Bt brinjal. There are currently about 2,500 varieties of brinjal grown in the country. However, there is a distinct possibility that genetic modifications will spread to both other varieties of the same species and to other related species, leading to the thinning of this diversity. While it has been pointed out that the Bt technology does not give the transgenic plant a competitive advantage over others in the ecosystem, the threat to biodiversity does not arise from technology alone. It may also accrue through the logic of the marketplace (Purkayastha and Rath 2010: 45). It is not unimaginable that corporate influence on agriculture and the aggressive marketing of high-yielding varieties of seeds may encourage monoculture.

This also leads to the question of ownership of GM technology and farmers’ rights. The method of genetic engineering involved in developing Bt brinjal is protected by a number of patents, which allow Mahyco and its multinational parent company Monsanto a disproportionate influence over agricultural biotechnology (ibid: 43). Purkayastha and Rath (p 47) note the significant difference in the price of Bt cotton seeds, largely of Monsanto origin, and non Bt cotton seeds in India. China has an indigenous Bt technology and the cost of Bt cotton seeds is only slightly higher than non-Bt ones. On the other hand, public research and development (R&D) in agricultural biotechnology in India does not even compare to private sector R&D. Thus, this could potentially lead to the control of the GM hybrid market by a single corporate entity. Although Mahyco has shared the truncated cry1Ac gene with certain public research institutions, several conditions in the Mahyco memorandum of understanding (MoU) prevent these institutions from developing their own hybrid seed based on the cry1Ac gene or having complete discretion in the marketing of open pollinated varieties (OPVs) (CEE 2010: 18).

Additionally, there remains the question of consumer choice. A clear labelling

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and liability regime, currently under c onsideration by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, could ensure a mechanism which enables consumers to differentiate between GM and non-GM v arieties of brinjal. However, even if the country establishes such a regime, the problem of differentiation remains as only a tiny quantity of brinjal is sold in packaged form (CEE 2010: 13). Moreover, given the small size of farm holdings in India, agriculturalists point out that it is unlikely that transgenic and non-transgenic varieties of crops can be kept separate at the cultivation stage itself. On the other hand, it is precisely the absence of impermeable barriers between cultivated crops on the basis of which Purkayastha and Rath (2010: 44) argue that GM crops have already entered our food chain in direct and indirect ways. The world already produces and consumes a large variety of GM crops, including India which cultivates Bt-cotton. In this light, the argument that the introduction of Bt brinjal poses a catastrophic danger seems less valid (Purkayastha and Rath 2010: 44).

As will be examined later, these arguments also highlight the dispute over the boundaries and territories of the subject of GM food. Some scientific experts have referred to the public consultative process as an “unwarranted intrusion into the technicalities of their world” (CEE 2010: 3). Jasonoff (2005: 210) points out that the nature of boundary disputes between science and politics leads to further issues of who defines “problems” of public policy, and furthermore, who decides “how, when, by whom, and to what extent”, science may be engaged to provide solutions.

At another level, the debate relates to the interactions of the various ministries associated with the review and regulation of GM food, such as the Ministry of Science and Technology, Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Ministry of Environment and Forests, Ministry of Commerce and Industry, Ministry of Food Processing Industries and the I ndian Council of Medical Research (icmr). In ways that further complicate the question, it is useful to note that agriculture is a state subject, and therefore, each state has its own agriculture policy.


Therefore, a decision on the status of Bt brinjal must also involve the agricultural ministries of various state governments. Thus, we see that while states and union territories such as Andhra Pradesh, Chandigarh, Karnataka, and West Bengal a rgued to delay the introduction of commercialised Bt brinjal until “all tests to establish full impacts” were carried out, others like Kerala prohibited all environmental release of GM organisms in the state and recommended a 50-year moratorium on GM technology (MOEF 2010: 4-5).

A Chronicle of Events

The Review Committee on Genetic M anipulation (RCGM) in the Department. of Biotechnology, Ministry of Science and Technology of the Government of India, is concerned with laboratory research, green house experiments, contained field trials and multi-location field trials. In 2004, the RCGM gave its approval for the multilocation research trials of seven varieties of Bt brinjal developed by Mahyco. Encouraged by the results, it recommended large-scale trials to the GEAC. The GEAC, a statutory body located in the Ministry of Environment and Forests, is responsible for granting approvals to large-scale field trials, experimental seed production and commercial release by deregulation (CEE 2010: 6-7).

In 2006, Mahyco submitted biosafety data to the GEAC to seek permission to conduct large-scale trials. The GEAC posted the data on its website and invited public responses. Civil society groups raised a number of concerns. In o rder to address these concerns, the GEAC constituted a subcommittee Expert Committee-I (EC-I). At the same time, a public interest litigation (PIL) regarding ongoing field trials was filed in the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court stopped the trials. In 2007, the EC-I recommended seven additional biosafety tests. However, it also gave its approval for large-scale trials. In response to this, the Supreme Court lifted its earlier ban on the ongoing field trials. However, the Court also made trials conditional on the practice of an “isolation distance technique” (CEE 2010: 12). The judiciary’s role, therefore, can be seen as a parallel regulatory process, one where citizens can directly appeal.

Thereafter, the GEAC gave its approval for large-scale trials of Bt brinjal. As per the GEAC’s directions, the Indian Institute of Vegetable Research (IIVR) was assigned the responsibility of conducting Bt brinjal trials at various research institutes across the country. The trial results, submitted by IIVR in 2009, raised much concern among national and international experts. This led the GEAC to constitute a second panel, the Expert Committee-II (EC-II), to examine the biosafety data submitted by the IIVR and address the concerns of various stakeholders. The EC-II submitted its recommendations on 14 October 2009 (CEE 2010: 12). Based on the EC-II report, the GEAC recommended the environmental release of Bt brinjal. However, given the policy implications of the recommendation, the GEAC submitted that the government take the final decision on the matter (MOEF 2010: 1).

However, the public release of the EC-II report evoked a sharp response from a v ariety of sources. Responding to the n ational outcry, the then Minister of Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh invited responses to the EC-II report and announced a nationwide public consultation process, with the objective of arriving “at a careful, considered decision in the public and national interest. This decision will be made only after the consultations process is complete and all stakeholders are satisfied that they have been heard to their satisfaction” (MOEF 2010: 2).

A series of consultations were held in January and February 2010 in various I ndian cities in which scientists, agriculture experts, farmers’ organisations, consumer groups and NGOs were invited to present their views before Ramesh. The basis of selection of cities in which these meetings were to be held reveals an emphasis on involving various stakeholders. Publics meetings were thus held in Kolkata and Bhubaneshwar since West Bengal and Orissa account for 30% and 20% of India’s brinjal production, respectively. Meetings were also held in Ahmedabad and Nagpur because of these cities’ long experience with the extensive cultivation of Bt cotton. Chandigarh was selected so that farmers from the agriculturally advanced state of Punjab and Haryana could present their views. Hyderabad and Bangalore were

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sele c ted as centres for biotechnology related R&D (MOEF 2010: 2).

Following this consultative exercise, Ramesh announced a moratorium on the release of Bt brinjal on 9 February 2010. He said,

When there is no clear consensus within the scientific community itself, when there is so much opposition from the state governments, when responsible civil society organisations and eminent scientists have raised many serious questions that have not been answered satisfactorily, when the public sentiment is negative and when Bt brinjal will be the very first genetically modified vegetable to be introduced in the world and when there is no overriding urgency to introduce it here, it is my duty to adopt a cautious, precautionary-principle based approach (MOEF 2010: 16-17).

The minister thus invoked the precautionary principle as the reason behind his decision. The moratorium was imposed for an indefinite length of time until the safety of the product was established by independent scientific research “to the satisfaction of both the public and professionals in the field” (MOEF 2010: 17).

The Politicisation of Science

In the present-day, the interaction of p olitics with expertise is characterised by the great diversity of available expert opinions on a vast range of subjects (Maasen and Weingart 2005:2-4). Moreover, the source of expertise is no longer confined to academia alone. As an example of the diversity of both the subject a reas and sources of expertise, Maasen and Wiengart (2005: 5-6) point out that the most recent entrants into the arena of policy advisers are consulting firms, their area of expertise being the art of public management.

At the same time, the interaction is also characterised by an increasing dependence on expert opinion to justify political decisions. As a result, politics is often accused of exploiting the diversity of opinion to select and put forth “knowledge” that justifies its agenda, thereby leading to the “politicisation of science” (ibid: 4-5). The increasing dependence of politics on experts and the legitimacy that expert opinion bestows on policy decisions also pose crucial questions of responsibility and accountability, particularly in a representative democracy. Thus, while expert advice legitimates public

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policy, it does not hold experts responsible to the general population.

Should concern about representation and responsibility, then, allow an elected representative to overrule the recommendations of a statutory committee of experts? This is an issue that arose in the deliberations over Bt brinjal. On 9 February 2010, Ramesh imposed a moratorium on the GEAC’s recommendation for the environmental release of Bt brinjal, saying his decision was “responsible to science and responsive to society”: “I am also persuaded that the studies being demanded by responsible civil society groups before release of Bt brinjal should be conducted as a measure of our sensitivity to public opinion” (MOEF 2010: 16). However, he also recognised the GEAC’s status as a statutory body authorised to grant approval for the environmental release of GM

o rganisms (MOEF 2010: 1). The emphasis on public opinion is representative of the “extended participation” model (Liberatore and Funtowicz 2003: 146-50) of the interaction between science, expertise and politics: “Science is a crucial but not exclusive form of relevant knowledge, citizens are at the same time (while to different degrees) users, critics and producers of knowledge”. According to this model, the plurality of opinions ensures both procedural legitimacy and the quality of knowledge (ibid: 147).

However, according to Rao (2010: 1-2), the MOEF’s decision has created a “regulatory uncertainty” and is bound to affect future research and development in agricultural biotechnology in the country. “The moratorium may have gladdened those who claim to represent the public, but threatens the deployment of a safe technology aimed to benefit the public” (ibid: 3). This also raises the question of public interest and who should decide what it consists of. This, in turn, raises the issue of the struggle over the fixing of boundaries between science and scientific expertise, on the one hand, and politics and public policy on the other (Jasonoff 2005: 210). By imposing a moratorium on the recommendation of its own committee of experts, the ministry served also to remind scientific experts of where their boundaries lay, thereby establishing its autonomy over the decision-making process.

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That territories are jealously guarded is also evident in the criticisms of the MOEF’s decision. Scientific rationale is frequently juxtaposed with the “unruly” crowds that attended the public consultations held by the MOEF: According to Rao (2010: 3),

With emotion riding a rough shod over scientific reason, decision-making has been further politicised. The critical science based activity of bio-security evaluation of GE crops is now replaced by the whims of the politicians and the professional protestors on the street. The MOEF has supported the alarmist and paranoid activism that imagines demons where there are none. At this rate, the nation will not be able to derive the full benefit of modern agricultural biotechnology for a long time to come.

The socio-technical conflicts such as these lead us to consider the nature of the relationship between politics and science. Brown (2009: viii) argues that the notion of representation is intrinsic to both science and democratic politics. Scientific representation stands for phenomena and entities occurring in the natural world; in democratic politics, where a few are s elected and authorised to make decisions on behalf of and for the many, it stands for authorisation, accountability, participation, deliberation and resemblance. In each case, then, representation mimics the real form and transforms it in the process. Brown further argues that the n otion of political representation is concerned with how the representative’s knowledge and expertise relates to those of the people he or she stands for. According to Jasonoff (2010: A312), this analysis leads to several complex questions: Is the representative, then, to speak for the general will? Or are they to recognise that popular understanding may be driven by ignorance and irrationality? And in such a case, should they speak for the majority or the wisest and the best informed?

Disinterested Knowledge Broker

It is telling that Rao (2010: 3), whose voluble criticism of the moratorium is based on the juxtaposition of scientific reason with an emotional outburst of public opinion, also falls back upon the idea of the inherently biased nature of scientific expertise when attempting to discount the arguments of scientific experts who are in fact opposed to the commercialisation of Bt brinjal.

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Critiquing what he refers to as an instance of the MOEF giving undue importance to the opinion of experts opposed to Bt brinjal, Rao (2010: 2) writes,

The most conspicuous among them is Professor Gilles-Eric Seralini from Paris, who was commissioned by Green Peace to evaluate the Indian Bt brinjal dossier and Seralini's comments are being widely used by the activists.

He (2010: 3) further writes,

The MOEF has not for a moment thought of the underlying forces behind the opposition to Bt brinjal such as the pesticide and organic lobbies and scientifically baseless arguments.

Thus, while representative politics may well be guilty of “politicising” science to justify and legitimate its own agenda, it is also useful to consider to what extent scientific knowledge is value-neutral and unbiased. Related to this is the question of how far the association of experts with private interests makes the objectivity of their judgment suspect.

At a public consultation meeting, Ramesh once reminded scientists to “speak as scientists and not as NGOs” (goi 2010: 2). This is an expression of the commonly held view that scientific knowledge is disinterested and unbiased towards ideologies, values and market interests, and that its production is an exercise devoid of context. Held up to scrutiny, however, this belief holds little ground. Among the various reservations expressed against the GEAC process was that the committee’s recommendation was supported by biosafety tests performed solely on the basis of data from field trials conducted by Mahyco itself (Purkayastha and Rath 2010: 46).

Again, instances of deep divisions within the GEAC cast doubts both on the vera city of experts and on the ability of scientific knowledge to provide concrete answers for the purposes of public policy. As the Supreme Court’s nominee on the committee, P M Bhargava raised a number of concerns about the integrity of the GEAC process. In a detailed critique of the report submitted by the EC-II, Bhargava pointed out that eight essential tests had not been conducted by Mahyco (MOEF 2010: 8). Furthermore, the EC-I in 2006 had asked for several additional biosafety tests to be


conducted. However, even though EC-II comprised one-third the members of the EC-I, the new expert committee chose to disregard the need for these tests while conducting its evaluation of Bt brinjal. In addition to these criticisms of the EC-II report, statisticians also raised doubts about the tests from a statistical point of view (MOEF 2010: 8-9).

Concerns such as these led the MOEF (ibid: 9-10) to conclude,

...arguments that have been made on the limitations of the GEAC cannot be ignored...It does appear that the current standards by which the GEAC has formulated the decision to approve Bt brinjal do not match these global regulatory norms to which India is a signatory.

Therefore, as Purkayastha and Rath (2010: 47) argue, the MOEF’s rejection of the GEAC’s recommendation was not based on non-technical grounds such as the ownership of technology and export market considerations but the accuracy of the technical judgment of the expert committee. This evident lack of trust in the judgment of a statutory expert committee carries serious implications. Most significantly, it calls into question the very purpose of its existence (ibid: 47). The MOEF’s expressed intent, therefore, to modify the role of the GEAC from an approval committee to an appraisal committee is quite in order (MOEF 2010: 18).

Citizens and Expert Knowledge

As we see in the discussions above, public opinion is frequently invoked, to be either celebrated or denounced. It is usually described in sharp contrast to expert advice. In some cases, it is described as unruly and ill-informed. In others, sensitivity to public opinion is seen as the touchstone of responsible representative governance. It will be worth our while, therefore, to examine public participation in the Bt brinjal debate in some detail.

Maasen and Weingart (2005: 4) refer to public participation in technical decisionmaking as the “democratisation of expertise”. Discussing some of the benefits and problems that have emerged from public participation in deliberations over the introduction of new technology in society, they point out that it allows societies to address the lack of public trust and the empowerment of citizens (ibid: 10).

However, there are several shortcomings to public participation. Technical matters are often not easily understood by laypersons and this makes it extremely difficult to reach an agreement on a critical policy question through public involvement. Reinecke and Deng (cited in Maasen and Weingart 2005: 12) refer to this as the problem of participatory gap. In such a case, the general public is sometimes left out of the deliberations.

However, even when the general public is involved in the deliberations, details of how the participative process should be

o rganised are unclear. How are citizens to learn about complex technological questions? How is their role defined and who sets the agenda for the deliberative process? (ibid: 10-11). Joss’ analysis of the UK GM Nation? initiative reveals its ambiguous position in the formal policymaking process (ibid: 181-82). Similarly, in the case of the Bt brinjal public consultations, we see that although the government invited public opinion, its weight in the formal policy process was undefined and its outcome was non-binding on the policymakers. This limits the notion of accountability, transparency and, indeed, participation.

However, despite its importance, civic participation cannot be an end in itself. For instance, an extensive public participation is sometimes used as an instrument for inaction in decision-making, thereby highlighting “the potential clash between greater inclusion and postponement of decisions, which are urgent and important” (de Marchi 2003: 175). The indefinite moratorium on Bt brinjal until a proper regulatory system is established can also be seen in this light.

This model of a participative policy process emphasising the precautionary principle brings to light the contrast with the broader trend towards a technocratic model of governance in the United States (Jasonoff 2003: 158). According to Jasonoff (2003: 158), an increasing emphasis on “risk assessment”, “sound science”, “evidence-based decisionmaking” in the official discourse is indicative of the “retreat from precautionary approaches to regulation”.

Why Experts Disagree

While we have established that scientific knowledge is not always value-neutral, it

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would be naïve to regard experts as only representing specific interests, personal or otherwise. To believe that experts are neither fair nor objective does not aid our understanding of the complex nature of expert advice in democratic policymaking. The larger problem, in fact, is the perception of scientific knowledge as complete and certain, which it is rather not. This results in the inability of science to provide reassuring “Yes” or “No” answers to policy questions.

In the absence of certainty, then, a more reasonable approach to the problem posed by new technology is to evaluate the risk and to judge whether it is outweighed by the potential gains (Purkayastha and Rath 2010: 43). However, risk assessment is no longer seen as an objective exercise: individual subjectivity involved in the analysis of risk makes it a volatile issue. While some claim that the scientific analysis of risk solves the problem of uncertainty and refutes the “irrational fears” of lay persons, others argue that scientific r esearch cannot completely solve the problem of uncertainty and ignorance (de Marchi 2003: 171-76). The subjectivity associated with risk assessment is also due to our understanding of risk, as the “probability” of the occurrence of hazardous events and the “impact” of the same (Purkayastha and Rath 2010: 43). The problem arises in the evaluation of these two measures, as it is not possible to accurately quantify them in the analysis of new technologies (ibid: 43).

Democratisation of Expertise

It is important to recognise the diversity of agricultural practices and requirements in the country (ibid: 45). Given this diversity, GM technology cannot be expected to offer a complete solution to issues of food security; it can nonetheless play an important role towards that end. According to Purkayastha and Rath (p 45), the green revolution, despite worsening the condition of marginal farmers who could illafford the energy and water-intensive mode of agriculture it demanded, also increased productivity. Similarly, GM technology comes with both benefits and disadvantages. Therefore, a straightforward pro-GM or anti-GM approach does not address the question of agricultural growth and food security.

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However, a decision on the commercialisation of Bt brinjal calls for certain policy measures. M S Swaminathan’s emphasis on independent and credible tests underlines issues of knowledge, public trust and legitimacy (MOEF 2010: 14-15). This implies that tests cannot be based entirely on data provided by the developers of the crop. In addition to this, he also stresses the need for an independent regulatory system, which can study all aspects of GM technology in agriculture. This furthers the argument of the accountability of experts and the responsibility of decisionmakers towards those whose lives their decisions affect. Introducing the notion of delegation, Jasonoff (2003: 158-62) argues experts should be seen as acting on behalf of and with the authorisation of the people, their deliberative processes subject to norms of transparency essential to democratic governance. Thus, coordination between public participatory processes and regulatory institutions, both legislative and judicial, is crucial.

Moreover, as Jasonoff (2003: 162) argues, “Non-representative expert groups, no less than non-representative governments, can scarcely claim to speak with authority for the complex territories they seek to manage”. Thus, expert bodies d erive their legitimacy from the representation of the complete range of concerned disciplines and judgments, including those that question the very assumptions that frame and define the policy problem.


As seen from the above discussion, the n ature of the encounter between citizens and their representatives, on the one hand, and technical knowledge, on the other, has important implications for a participatory policy process. We are faced with the question of how, in a representative democracy, one may ensure that citizens are able to make informed decisions about matters that require specialised technical knowledge.

If we were to imagine a situation wherein an educated, intelligent and involved citizen was able to successfully weigh the evidence and form the correct judgment, should their opinion carry more weight than that of the less informed? Furthermore, if this citizen as a graduate of one of the

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best-ranked schools of public policy claimed expertise in policymaking, would they then be qualified to adjudicate on what comprises “public interest”? In other words, would their position as a policy expert legitimate their dismissal of the constraints of popular opinion and technological know ledge alike to truly decide and implement decisions that are in the “public interest”? And if such a thing were to be, what institution or regulatory body could be entrusted with the task of ensuring that they remain unbiased and incorruptible?

The case of Bt brinjal reveals the inability of scientific expertise to provide unambiguous and complete answers to policy questions. Concerns regarding public interest, trust and legitimacy emerge as expert advice appears increasingly biased and/or incompetent. And yet, at the same time, we also see an ever-increasing role of experts in democratic politics, their specialised judgment forming the basis of policy decisions. Jasonoff (2003: 158) points out three questions concerning accountability that arise in such a situation: how are citizens to authorise experts to make judgments and how free should this authority be from government constraints, so as to ensure that expert knowledge remains unpoliticised? Furthermore, how are citizens to hold experts accountable to norms and standards of democratic representation?

Finally, in order to be able to hold ex

pert bodies accountable, how are citizens

to fulfil their supervisory role?

In the deliberations on Bt brinjal, we see experts on science and technology, a griculture, environment, ethics, intellectual property rights law and public health disagree or collaborate with each other. We also see the public consultations providing a forum to the public to voice their opinions. More significantly, we see the role of the Ministry of Environment and Forests in defining and framing the policy problem, fixing the boundaries of the concerned stake holders and reserving the right to make the final decision on the matter. We also see the judiciary’s role as a parallel regulatory authority. However, the question of the judiciary’s ability to adjudicate on matters requiring technological expertise remains.

As evident from the above discussions, then, the critical issue facing questions of

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representative governance, legitimacy and accountability is not the risk associated with Bt brinjal but whether democracy’s participatory mechanisms and regulatory institutions are sufficiently robust for correctly assessing these risks and holding expert committees accountable to their public constituency. We see, therefore, that the introduction of Bt brinjal and, by extension, any new technology in a s ociety is not simply a matter of science but is also rooted in its social, political and economic contexts.


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    available at

    S Thanu Pillai

    T.C.28/481, Kaithamukku Thiruvananthapuram 24 Kerala Ph: 2471943

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