Masterly inactivity – Scientific policy in the time of Vandana Shiva

ShreedharSasikumarTo be a government regulator is to  be a killjoy. One day you are cutting out all mentions of ‘virgin’ in a film and the next day you are designing Form 3A to allow appeal of Circular I-58 to be filed in Window 3-G. And it is a thankless job. Cutting out that flash of side-boob means dashing the hopes of ‘adolescent’ men everywhere. Leaving it in means a hundred angry letters from parents fearing the corruption of their children.

The thanklessness is all the starker in an increasingly shrill and polarised political environment where the potential impact of any decision is harangued on Twitter and second-guessed on twenty-four-hour news channels. One is reminded of Humphrey Appleby’s advice to Hacker on the secret of successful governments in a democracy – ‘masterly inactivity’, that is, appearing concerned by everything, while doing nothing at all. Governments and bureaucracies as a result, often tend towards the ‘precautionary’ principle’, that is, an action or policy is best not undertaken unless it can be proven that the policy is not harmful. Since one can never prove a negative, however, this can often be a recipe for ‘analysis paralysis’.

WorkSafeAntiSexualHarassmentWhile masterly inactivity might be a path to reelection, it can seem an unconscionable course in the face of burning need for social improvements. Each day the new miracle drug goes unapproved is a day of despair for uncounted patients. Each regulatory hoop is an opportunity and resource wasted for a fledgling business. And how can we feed the growing populations of the world without technological innovations like genetically modified seeds, an issue discussed at some length in Seeds of Doubt, the New Yorker article on GMO foods and one of their principal critics, Dr. Vanadana Shiva.

Going by newspaper discussion, an official evaluating the approval of a genetically altered seed is faced with one of two roles. Either play the part of an unconcerned ‘Nero fiddling in the face of starving millions’ or adopt the role of a pillager and rapist of the earth and nature. But this is an obviously false dichotomy, a simplification similar to Bush-II’s ‘You are either with us or against us’.

For starters the hysteria of political discourse means we are constantly making mountains out of mole-hills. Actionable questions on GMO policy are rarely a choice between starvation and pillage and more commonly along the lines of whether the testing period for moleclule xyz should be six months or nine months. When we approach narrow specific questions on actions we can take (or not), it might be feasible to construct reasonable experiments to empirically evaluate costs against benefits. On the other hand, if we see ‘slippery slopes’ everywhere, the argument quickly evolves to untestable beliefs. We can reasonably design a laboratory or field experiment to test if Bt Cotton is resistant to certain pests. It is near impossible to prove one way or the other if this is an attempt by man to play God or to investigate a vast conspiracy to enslave the developing world.

Hysteria also breeds polarisation and dishonesty which makes an accurate cost-benefit evaluation near impossible since ‘facts’ are twisted by both sides of the debate. Monsanto’s scientists might publish reports that show how laboratory enhanced seeds can increase production. But that report must be placed in the context of an India, where forty years after the Green Revolution, per-capita food intake in calories has actually decreased. GMO seeds might be helping the U.S. produce more grain than any other country, but its effect on world hunger is indirect at best  when over half the grain production is used as animal feed. The now famous images of rotting food grains in PDS godowns stand as a stark illustration that our problems have more to do with allocation than production. Human hunger is unlikely to be solved in a lab and companies and researchers hurt their credibility by ‘cherry-picking’ favorable results or outright paying for studies. Monsanto’s ‘Who We Are’ page proclaims a commitment to farmers and sustainable agriculture but little about the primary commitment of any for-profit company, that is, the incomes of its shareholders and employees. Overly grandiose promises and the suppressing of any discussion of the valid long-term costs only creates an atmosphere of distrust and engenders the type of virulent opposition that activists like Ms. Shiva have inspired across the globe.

Vandana Shiva at the Save The World Awards show 2009
Image above is from Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0.

But Ms. Shiva sounds naive with statements like “We would have no hunger in the world if the seed was in the hands of farmers” and luddite when arguing for a total reset of industrial agriculture. We probably have to go back to the mythical days of ‘Rama’ to find a world without hunger. As with every human activity, agriculture has evolved over time and hitting a historical reset button will probably require the invention of time-travel. It is difficult  for any activist to be heard in the midst of the white noise generated by corporate marketing machines. But characterising any opposition as paid mouthpieces of Monsanto and citing spurious correlations between GMO foods and diseases suggests a dogmatic evangelist more than compassionate scientist. Likening GMO farmers to rapists only serves to drown out her valid concerns on the externalities of GMO foods like cross-pollination and the evolution of pests and bacteria with resistances, and alienates the reasonable people who want to listen.

In a perfect and rational world, decisions on scientific policy would simply be a matter of adding up the benefits and subtracting the costs. A comprehensive and transparent accounting of costs and benefits allows us to make rational decisions as opposed to having to default to principles of precaution for the fear of negative consequences. Since societies cannot be recreated for laboratory experiments however, we are limited to broad estimates of the potential costs and benefits. And as with the legal system, perhaps the ‘truth’ is best arrived through the rivalrous process of two sides advocating passionately for their view.

Extending this courtroom analogy to scientific policy decisions, the role of any government or regulator would be to perform the function of the ‘impartial judge’ between the two sides, but without the advantage of a mutually agreed upon set of laws to make the judgment. Without them, the best role of a government might be to ensure full disclosure of known facts by creating forums for the publication and peer review of all claims and by stringently punishing willful misinformation. Just as important is the willingness to reverse a decision in the face of the new information. Flexibility is the best tool against uncertainty. Governments the world over also need to do a better job holding private companies to account for the negative externalities of their actions such as the degradation of surrounding lands, so that the cost of innovation is borne by those who profit from the same. And perhaps the most essential ingredient for encouraging innovation are governments willing to be unpopular. Masterful inactivity might be a road to consensus, but in today’s polarised world, unpopularity and Twitter tantrums seem as inevitable as death and taxes. So if you are going to be unpopular, you might as well get something done in the mean time. And every once in a blue moon, the electorate might actually reward you for it.

Shree is a wandering economist who has changed his address fourteen times in the last fourteen years. He has few ideas except those opposite to who he is talking to.


Sharaab or Kebab: A Tastefully Legal Take on Tunday Kebabs and Champagne.

“Remember, gentlemen, it’s not just France we are fighting for, it’s

Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of Great Britain, (1874 – 1965).

Given that food is an unendingly fascinating subject in my life, it follows that some of the most animated and involved conversations I’ve had revolve around it. So, when Haji Murad Ali’s Tunday Kebab opened in Bangalore, it was not-quite-incidental that a discussion would arise around the taste and its authenticity.

Galouti Kebab from Tunday Kebabi

Tunday Kebabi’s famous Galouti Kebab

“It doesn’t taste quite like Lucknow.”

“It’s Tunday Kebab, but not exactly.”

“Tunday Kebab sirf Lucknow main khane chahiye, nahi toh swaad nahi aata.” (Tunday Kebab should only be eaten in Lucknow; it doesn’t taste the same anywhere else.)

Which made me think about the tastes that we associate with particular places. I mean, think about it – if you’ve had pachranga achar from Panipat, no one could fool you with garden-variety, store-bought stuff from anywhere else in the country, could they?

This idea of food being specific to a place got more intriguing, the more I thought about it!

We all know Champagne’s story. If it hadn’t been for the French being, well, French, about their bubbly, sparkling white wine produced anywhere in the country would be sold at champagne rates. In fact, did you know that when the French authorities tried to redraw the boundaries of the region of Champagne for economic and revenue purposes early in the 20th century, it sparked the Champagne Riots of 1908 and 1911? Potent stuff, that bubby is!


Image above and on article thumbnail originally published on MCU035’s photostream on FlickrImage published under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.

Champagne is not champagne unless it is produced in the Champagne region of north-east France. White wine, with sparkling bubbles, produced anywhere else in the world is just sparkling wine. To be champagne, it must be produced in Champagne.

And so champagne gave the world the first laws on geographical indications.

Geographical indications – that is, information highlighting the exact area of origin of a produce – started soon after the monk Dom Perignon discovered stars in his wine. Almost as early as the latter half of the 18th century, it became increasingly necessary to protect champagne from “impostors” – white wine with some fizziness, but of far inferior quality, being sold as “champagne from Champagne”. By then, pretty much anyone with gold to spare and a taste for the good life had encountered champagne and was increasingly wary of cheap reproductions. The logical step was to regulate the production of bubbly and so emerged the concept of geography-specific protection of products.


Image above and on article thumbnail originally published on facelikebambi’s photostream on FlickrImage published under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.

Towards the beginning of the 20th century, appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC – translated as “controlled destination of origin”), the first of the regulatory frameworks granting recognition to region-specific products, came into existence. Since then, France has closely protected many agricultural products, especially food items such as cheeses, by providing recognition of standards and quality associated with a product that originates in a particular region.

Needless to say, the world figured how economically viable this is.

Intellectual-Property-LawAnd now, India is protecting its kebabs, along with the laddoos from Tirupati and its very own Nashik wine! Recently, a Geographical Indicator (GI) recognition application for Lucknow’s kebabs was sent to the office of the Controller of Patents, Designs and Trademarks for registration. If granted this registration, kebabchis in Lucknow can better maintain the standard of the product and ensure protection of the brand. They will also be able to standardise pricing. But most importantly, they will be able to stop export of the product, unless it meets the industry standard as recognised by the registered GI standard.

So no matter where Miyaan Haji Murad Ali’s family makes its kebabs, to be Tunday Kebab, it’ll have to taste just like Lucknow!

(Suhasini Rao Kashyap is part of the faculty at


Bhat ar macher jhol on Old Post Office Street

Calcutta is one of the most colourful mega-cities in India, and has long been a melting pot of cultures. Naturally, this heritage reflects in its legal system and the businesses that serve its lawyers.

Here are some of the sights from the establishments that nourish the Calcutta High Court at 1, Post Office Street, Kolkata.


When it comes to fast food in Kolkata, the popularity of chowmein is second only to rolls.

calchattar1This place in the High Court chattar (locality) is a favourite with anyone interested in a quick, inexpensive lunch. Junior attorneys are often seen carrying packets of food from here for their friends.

calchattar2Located next to Victor Moses, one of Calcutta’s oldest firms, this shop is known for excellent jalebis.

calchattar3Mughal Garden is the new kid on the block, and unlike most others in the vicinity that serve the usual rice and fish combination, this place is famous for its, yes, Mughlai food.


Situated on the ground floor of the High Court Branch of Union Bank of India, one can savour milky tea with locally made biscuits here. Advocates get served in a special cup; lesser mortals make do with kullars.



Lakshmi-Narayan Khabar Ghar is over half a century old, and is situated opposite the offices of Khaitan & Co. This is the place for anybody interested in a homely bhat ar macher jhol (rice and fish).



Sweet Home is almost eighty years old, and is probably the oldest surviving food stall in the area. Rumali roti and chicken kasha are the trademark offerings. Afternoon tea sessions are very popular among regulars.


At this shack near the Town Hall of Kolkata, one can have tea with locally made biscuits and Babuji cake – a perennial favourite with the office goers.

(Sourav Ghosh is a Kolkata-based advocate.)

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Kheema Matar and lassi at Triveni

The kheema matar at the Tea Terrace in the Triveni Kala Sangamam on Tansen Marg has been a good option for a nutritious lunch for Supreme Court advocates. Photo by RovingI.
The kheema matar at the Tea Terrace in the Triveni Kala Sangamam on Tansen Marg has been a good option for a nutritious lunch for Supreme Court advocates. Photo by RovingI.

If an arduous morning in the Supreme Court calls for a more satisfying lunch than the one dished out in the canteen, you have to head to the Tea Terrace at Triveni Kala Sangamam on Tansen Marg. For years, the “Triveni canteen” is the Supreme Court lawyers’ first choice for a quick, tasty and nutritious meal.

Triveni Kala Sangamam is a venerable fixture in the Delhi Cultural Scene. The tasteful campus houses exhibition spaces and training centres reverberate with traditional and classical music from its classrooms and stages. The canteen itself has been operational for some 30 years now.  It used to be a magnet for the Delhi’s cultural crowd though now you are more likely to run into a lawyer or corporate executives than a jhola-wallah though prices still remain reasonable.

The ambience is pleasing and quiet. The snug indoor area has low tables and cushioned stools and seats around 25. What takes the cake, though, is the open-air dining area surrounded by tendrils and overlooking the amphitheatre.

Hot favourite for lunch here is the kheema matar (minced goat with peas). It thankfully lacks the oil bonanza that is a ubiquitous trait of such dishes in Delhi. Rotis come hot and fluffy from the griddle and the shammi kebabs succulent and textured. The judicious use of oil in the freshly cooked dishes lends them that home-cooked feel.

The vegetarian dishes change daily through the week – you can try the vegetable of the day – and includes old favourites like alu jeera and paneer bhurjis. The snacks menu is full of usual suspects like toasts, omelettes and pakoras. You can wash it all down with a glass of lassi or have a cup of espresso afterwards. You can indulge your sweet tooth with gulab jamuns or a slice of carrot walnut cake, again with a discernible home-cooked quality.

The Tea Terrace is open from 10:30 am to 6:00 pm and serves lunch from 12:30 pm to 3:30 pm.  With vegetarian dishes priced in the Rs. 30-35 range and meat preparations at Rs. 65, a lunch here would cost you under Rs. 100. Before heading back to the court, you can also check out some contemporary art at their galleries!

Justin Thomas Panachackel works at Rainmaker.