I won't and you can't

The bureaucracy does nothing to conserve India's invaluable animals and plants. But it knows how to cry wolf when private agencies want to use these

 
Published: Sunday 15 November 1998

IF ONLY governance was all about crying over spilt milk. India's administrators have more tears than all the proverbial waters of Neptune. And spilt milk it is when one of the country's most priceless animals, the Vechur cow, is at the sacrificial altar of bureaucratic impotence.

An application for a patent on certain genes of the Vechur cow, native to Kerala, has been filed by the Roselin Institute of Scotland and PPL Therapeutics, a US-based pharmaceutical company. The institute is not as well-known as its creation Dolly the sheep, the first cloned animal.

Why did the institute go for the Vechur cow? Because the animal gives high-fat milk yields on low food requirements. It is a boon for companies engaged in animal 'pharming', in which animals can produce desired pharmaceuticals like hormones in the cow's milk. These products find use in the treatment of diseases. Administrators across the world are becoming aware of this wealth in biodiversity. But not India's very own babu sahibs.

The angry outburst of Arnavaz Damania, a genetic resource scientist, is only logical. He wonders why the Indian government expresses outrage when its natural resources are patented elsewhere, as it fails to even appreciate the myriad uses of plants and animals, let aside actually using them. If the government, the self-appointed custodian of India's biological resources, does not appreciate nature's gifts, why stop someone else from utilising it? If the peacocks of our scientists cannot look beyond their stuck-up noses and have scant regard for resources that are Indian, why kick up a fuss when foreigners stake claim to what they appreciate and want.

India is rich in domestic animal resources. Each breed of each animal has adapted to the respective conditions. Indian cattle breeds may not be as productive as some exotic foreign breeds but are resistant to local diseases. They are not fussy about food. While Sikkim's small, short-legged Siri cow can manoeuvre easily along the hill slopes, the Tharparkar of Rajasthan's Thar desert survives hostile desert conditions with ease. These animals are more important to India's national health than the bickering scientific community.

The cow in question, native to Vechur in Kottayam, Kerala, is one of these. Almost the size of a goat, the animal is hardy. With low fodder requirements, it withstands the humidity and heat of Kerala. Yet the petite cow obliges with 2.5 litres of high-fat milk each day. Perhaps this was the reason behind the tradition of gifting the cow to a newly-wed daughter, spreading the breed. The animal also has a sturdy immune system, and can even resist the foot-and-mouth disease. Our bureaucrats, on the other hand, fait to resist the foot-in-the-mouth disease.

The crossbreeding whip of the 1950s banned the keeping of local Vechur bulls. In the 1960s the cow was extensively inseminated with exotic bulls. The population of the cow declined. In 1989, when the animal was almost extinct, an attempt was made to conserve the Vechur cow by a veterinary scientist of the Kerala Agricultural University.

Characteristically, squabbling scientists at the university sabotaged the project. Though the cows under the project calved, they started dying mysteriously in 1993. The sceptics claimed that the cows were not hard-core Vechur. The scientist in charge of the project argued that the cows were poisoned. So much for bovine scientists.

The crossbreeding fiasco shows a disdain for all resources Indian. The effort to improve superior indigenous breeds like the Sahiwal and Mariana have already backfired. The milk-yield has declined. Diseases imported with the foreign breeds have a separate toll. Foot-and-mouth disease alone costs the exchequer Rs 2,000 crore annually.

While native breeds are disappearing in India, they are easy to find if you are in Latin America, Australia and southern us, where 'local breeds' have been cross-bred with Indian breeds. The Ongole cattle, native to Andhra Pradesh. has found its way to Australia, Brazil, Mexico and the US. Brazil now even sells embryos of Ongole. And no prizes for guessing who imports these. India, of course.

And if you thought it was only animals and known plants. like turmeric and basmati rice, read on. The story of arogyapacha, the wonder herb, and Kanis, the wonder tribe of Kerala, will bury any hopes of competence from those who claim to govern this country.

A research institute in Kerala prepared a tonic formulation based on the wonder herb preserved by Kanis and sold it to a private pharmacy. They promised to share the benefits from the deal with the tribals. Leftist parties cried foul, claiming that the tribe was being duped. Another institute working closely with Kanis was severely critical of the deal. It is keeping secret all the tribal knowledge it has documented.

The state forest department has also played its hand, preventing the tribals from selling the herb. Who suffers? Not the scientists, bureaucrats or political parties. It is the vast resource of India's tribal knowledge which will gather dust in government files. There might be a herbal cure for cancer hidden in this treasure chest. But cancer patients will have to wait for India's administrators to find the appropriate method and time to come out with the cure. Pity cancer is not as slow a killer as the Indian bureaucracy.

For once, they do not serve who only stand and wait.

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