Devinder Sharma pieces:
1. What About Biological Weapons, Mr Bush?
2. Paradox of Plenty: NO EFFORT TO BRIDGE THE HUNGER DIVIDE
1. What About Biological Weapons, Mr Bush?
By Devinder Sharma
On a clear, calm night, a light plane flying over New York, equipped with a crop sprayer and carrying a small cargo of 200 kilograms of anthrax spores, could deliver a fatal dose to millions of inhabitants of the Big Apple. And by the time the rest of the world wakes up to the horror of the new terror from the sky, there would be no defensive measures to protect the people from the epidemic spread of new and uncontrollable diseases.
The entire city can be wiped out in one aerial strike. Anthrax is actually a bacterial disease of cattle and sheep, but its pneumonic form can kill humans. Properly "weaponisedÃ to the precise particle size, the spores pass through the lungs to other tissues releasing toxins in the process. In a matter of few days, the victims collapse from respiratory failure, hemorrhage and toxic shock, turning the bustling city into a city of death and destruction.
This is no science fiction. It is, in fact, a chilling sequence based on the 1993 report of the United States Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) on weapons of mass destruction. Ironically, as the world is being told that Osman Bin Laden is scouting for biological weapons to fight the American onslaught after the barbaric demolition of the twin towers at the World Trade Centre in New York, it is the United States that leads in developing biological weapons and that too in the name of ëa broader research effort to improve US defenses against biological agentsÃ.
The New York Times reported on September 4 that the Pentagon had secretly built a germ factory in the Nevada desert capable of producing enough deadly bacteria to kill millions of people. It also divulged that the Nevada project is one among the number of covert biological initiatives pursued by the US over recent years. This has angered the Russians, and to some extent the Europeans, who have voiced concern over American plans to develop a potentially more lethal version of the bacterium that causes deadly anthrax.
Accordingly, American scientists have constructed at Camp 12 of the Nellis Air Force Range in Nevada a 50-litre cylinder capable of cultivating germs out of materials bought commercially from hardware stores. While the aim was to demonstrate how easy it is for a terrorist group to construct one of its own without being detected, the fact remains that the simple procedures to amass biological weapons was already known and well established. In another experiment, the Pentagon is planning to engineer a more potent version of the bacterium that causes anthrax.
It is primarily for this reason that George Bush had recently refused to sign the draft agreement aimed at further strengthening the 1972 Convention on Biological Weapons, which prohibits nations from developing or acquiring weapons that spread disease, but allows work on vaccines and other protective measures. Being a signatory would have made the US disclose the biological germ research even if it is for defensive purposes. The ‘high-handedness’ of the American government, when it comes to going by the international norms and protocols, has earlier been exposed with the US President refusing to sign the Kyoto protocol on climate change and by threatening to dismantle the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty because it ‘affected’ American interests!
Sadly, Mr Bush’s flawed policy initiatives are a complete turnaround from what his predecessor, Richard Nixon, had unilaterally followed by renouncing biological weapons in 1969, stating: "mankind already carries in its hands too many of the seeds of its own destruction." Perhaps, the American President is looking for another dominant industry (in biological weapons) to sustain the US economy. Already, America has sold arms worth US dollar 152 billion ever since the end of the cold war. And as the Center for International Policy in the US estimates, nearly 80 per cent of these arms exports to the developing world go to non-democratic regimes. And not surprisingly, while the stocks tumbled after the New York blasts, that for arms and ammunition have shown a remarkable increase.
How serious is the threat can be gauged from what the OTA report states. ItÃs list of probable weapons of mass destruction includes plague; small pox; tularemia, a plague-like disease; and botulism, caused by a toxin from the common food-poisoning bacteria Clostridium botulinum. Such biological weapons have long been the stuff of nightmares, but recent developments have turned this into a grim reality as we entered the new millennium. The threat becomes more serious with more and more biotechnology companies emerging on the horizon and given the fact that the technology does not require much sophistication and investment.
In the recent past, the aftermath of the Gulf War brought into focus the horrors of germ-warfare that lie in store. Microbiologist Raymond Zilinskas of the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute in the US, who participated in the UNÃs hunt for IraqÃs biological weapons after the Gulf War, told the journal New Scientist, " The Iraqis, as far as we know, never mastered the art of weaponising their bacterial agents, which included anthrax. Most of what the UN investigators found were crude preparations mounted on conventional bombs and missiles, which might not have dispersed very well." But he notes that less ambitious attacks also pose a threat. For example, a crude slurry of anthrax spores left in the tunnels of an underground railway system, where wind created by passing trains would dry and blow them around, could claim thousands of lives.
Iraq is not the only country to have gone into the production of biological weapons. Ken Alibek, a former deputy director of a top branch of the then Soviet UnionÃs germ-warfare programme who defected to the United States in 1993, has in an explosive book , "Biohazard", revealed two of the worldÃs biggest biological weapon programmes. Accordingly, China had suffered a serious accident at one of its secret plants for developing biological weapons. Soviet spy satellites had found a large biological-weapons laboratory and plant near a remote site for testing nuclear warheads. Intelligence agencies corroborated the fact with reports of two epidemics of hemorrhagic fewer that swept the region in the late 1980s. "Our analysts concluded that they were caused by an accident in a lab where Chinese scientists were weaponising viral diseases", he writes, adding that viral scourges that caused intense bleeding included Marburg fever and the dreaded Ebola virus, both endemic to Africa.
Alibek had helped run about a dozen of the 40 institutes that were part of Biopreparat, the civilian cover group, used "exclusively" for offensive agents and weapons for the Soviet military. Significantly, it was after his defection that the American Administration had accused China of indulging in a biological weapon programme. The Chinese had denied the allegations. "Biohazard" also talks of the Soviet programmes that included tinkering with the genetic make-up of anthrax disease so as to make it resistant to five kinds of antibiotics. He blames the Soviets for clandestinely obtaining a sample of the AIDS virus from the US in 1985 and efforts to turn it into a weapon.
And as Alibek warns, the biological weapon programme is not only confined to one or two countries. After he fled and took up residence in the US, he has been approached by several countries and ostensibly for his deadly expertise in the art of germ-warfare. Included among these are South Korea, France and Israel.
Much of the problem is because the international community has given a free hand to the unstinted growth of the biotechnology industry. The genetic engineering industry, entirely in private hands, is outside the purview of any regulation and control of the society or the democratic systems at large. In fact, it is the political leadership, whether in the US, Britain, Japan, Australia or in developing countries like India and China, that provides support and promotes the horizontal spread of the genetic engineering industry merely to seek more finances for electioneering and party funds. Perhaps the global community is awaiting another dastardly disaster from offensive genetic engineering before it decides to ëretaliateÃ. It will then be too late. #
(Devinder Sharma is a biotechnology policy researcher and analyst)
2. Paradox of Plenty
NO EFFORT TO BRIDGE THE HUNGER DIVIDE
By Devinder Sharma
From: The Times of India, New Delhi/Mumbai; Sept 11, 2001
India, the world's biggest democracy, with a robustly 'free' press, remains indebted to Nobel laureate Amartya Sen. While his economic prescriptions have belatedly been honoured with a Bharat Ratna, it is his assertion that serious hunger and famines do not occur in independent, democratic countries with a free press that the Indian leadership and the elite remain eternally grateful to. After all, it is Sen's hypothesis, whether flawed or invalid is debatable, that the successive governments as well as the country's national press have effectively used to seek refuge for their criminal apathy towards the poor and hungry.
Inaugurating a national consultation recently on "Towards a Hunger Free India", Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had rightly remarked: "Democracy and hunger cannot go together. A hungry stomach questions and censures the system's failure to meet what is a basic biological need of every human being. There can be no place for hunger and poverty in a modern world in which science and technology have created conditions for abundance and equitable development."
Laudable words indeed. And if wishes were horses, Prime Minister Vajpayee would certainly provide an easy ride to the hungry and starving millions. Like his predecessors, Mr Vajpayee too finds it easy to express his concern in public. He claims to be guided by the commandment of the Hindu scriptures, the Upanishads: Annam Bahu Kurvita, literally meaning "multiply food production many fold. Ensure an abundance of food all around," And yet, the shocking paradox of increasing number of starvation deaths amidst overflowing foodgrain godowns has failed to move the powers that be. Leader of Opposition, Mrs Sonia GandhiÃs spirited reaction in the last session of Parliament too failed to move the inert government into action.
Supreme Court’s directive to the government to "devise a scheme where no person goes hungry when the granaries are full and lots being wasted due to non-availability of storage space," speaks volumes for the government's apathy towards the poor, hungry and the malnourished. For over 320-million hungry people, who do not manage two-square meals a day, the Supreme Court's directive did provides hope. After all, with more than 60 million tonnes of foodgrains stocked with the Food Corporation of India (FCI), much of it rotting, it certainly is "a situation of plenty wherein the officialdom in the country created the scarcity of food." But nothing has moved. Once again, the BJP-led coalition has passed on the buck to the State governmentÃs reluctance to lift food stocks.
As if this is not enough, the Prime Minister finds it easy to blame the previous governments for food mismanagement. "We are faced with the paradoxical problem of surplus food stocks. There is also the related problem of substantial quantities of food being wasted. This has happened because of inadequate attention in the past to its storage, preservation, processing and proper distribution." That too despite the government's claim that it has doubled the allocation of food to 'all poor families' under the PDS, launched a new Antyodaya Anna Yojana for the poorest ten million families. The Prime Minister claimed that to a great extent, these interventions have addressed the problem of access to food, both physical and economic, and have provided a basic safety net to our people."
In reality, while the poor and hungry continue to wait endlessly for a morsel of food, the entire effort of the NDA government has been to somehow reduce the prices to such a low level that it becomes cheaper for exporters to find a market outside the country. This, in fact, allowed export companies to lift the stocks at prices, which were meant for 'below the poverty line' population. In other words, the subsidy that was meant for the poor and hungry has been very conveniently diverted to the grain merchants.
And how does the government intend to feed its burgeoning population of hungry and malnourished? An American company has been allowed to set up a food manufacturing plant in India to convert rice bran into nutritious human food (still an untested patented technology). After all, with the largest number of malnourished in the world, India is the right destination for such miracle foods. Interestingly, what is not known is that rice bran is traditionally used for cattle feed. While the government is keen to convert cattle feed into human nutritious food, it is trying desperately to find a market for its mounting foodgrain stocks. And when India exports foodgrains to the west, it is actually meant for cattle consumption. Isn't it an irony and shame that we allow our human food to be exported for the cattle of the west and in turn convert our cattle feed into so-called human nutritious food?
Such a glaring flawed policy approach would have brought down any democratically elected government in the developed world. But not in South Asia, where poverty and hunger does not figure at all in the political agenda. First Palamau in Bihar, then Kalahandi in Orissa, Bundelkhand in Uttar Pradesh, and now Kashipur in Orissa, hunger and starvation seem to have spread its tentacles far and wide. In fact, a country burdened with the guilt of one Kalahandi does not want to see and talk about hundreds of similar KalahandiÃs tucked away in almost every State. That such a disquieting state prevails in a country which is overflowing with foodgrains, and is in fact refusing to buy the grain harvests flowing into the mandis in Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh, is difficult to fathom.
In another month or so, an additional 19 million tonnes of rice is likely to flow into the central kitty raising the total quantity of stocked foodgrains to 80 million tonnes. And still, the number of hungry and living in abject poverty will remain deprived of food. No amount of rice swap for mango kernels, as suggested by the Orissa government, is likely to make a dent in out effort to feed the hungry. It is in fact a clear manifestation of the great hunger divide that splits the country into two clear halves ? the well fed and the hungry. Those who have the money and resources do not want to talk about the need to feed their hungry brethren. Moreover, the burgeoning middle class somehow believes that the poor and hungry are paying a price for the sins committed in their previous birth. Apparently, hunger has political, economic, social as well as religious sanction. #