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C.R. Bhatia, former DBT secretary who paved way for research on GM crops in India, passes away

Colleagues remember Chittranjan Bhatia, 86, as a father figure and avowed geneticist who placed special emphasis on how science could translate into more income for farmers.

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New Delhi: A father figure, a hardcore geneticist, and the person who approved the first import of genetically modified (GM) cotton seeds for scientific research into the country. That’s how the scientific community remembers Chittranjan Bhatia, a scientist and former secretary of the Department of Biotechnology (DBT).

Bhatia, who died in Maharashtra at 86 Monday night, was instrumental in bringing the first batch of genetically modified cotton to India while he was DBT secretary between 1993 and 1995, when the world was still trying to understand GM crops. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines a genetically modified organism (GMO) as organisms — animals, plants or microorganisms — whose genetic material is altered in a way that it doesn’t occur naturally, through mating and/or natural recombination.

Bhatia is credited with not only allowing the first genetically modified seeds to be imported in India but also for supporting and developing policies to evaluate the safety profile of the seeds, his former colleagues say. 

Bt Cotton — an insect-resistant variety of the crop that’s genetically modified by the insertion of one or more genes from bacillus thuringiensis, a common soil bacterium — is the only commercially available GM crop in India.

P.K. Ghosh, a biochemical engineer at DBT who worked with him for several years, told ThePrint that Bhatia gave him permission to import Bt Cotton in 1994.

“I was the first to get permission from him to import Bt cotton seeds into the country [in 1994]. At that time, even the Ministry of Agriculture didn’t agree to the request of ‘ [American agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology company Monsanto] to take it up,” Ghosh, who retired from the department in 2002, said.

GM crops have been controversial in India almost since the very beginning. Proponents of the technology wax eloquent about its benefits — less pesticide, lower water requirement, higher productivity — but critics dismiss it as a failed experiment with no known advantage, also alleging potential toxicity.

After it got permission from the Government of India, Monsanto introduced its first-generation Bt Cotton seeds in India in 2002.  

Renu Swarup, who was secretary of the DBT from 2018 to 2021, said Bhatia continued to advise the department even after he retired in 1995.

“This is a very sad loss, he contributed immensely to the field of plant genetics. I worked with him as a young scientist and he would give us a lot of guidance,” Swarup added.

Also Read: I am launching a civil disobedience movement against moratorium on GM crops. Here’s why

‘Radiation breeder’

Born in Bulandshahr in 1936, Bhatia got his Master’s degree from Meerut College in 1955. He completed his PhD in 1961 under the supervision of M.S. Swaminathan — the agronomist and agricultural scientist who is known as the Father of the Green Revolution in India — at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, New Delhi.

Bhatia’s PhD involved using radiation to introduce genetic mutations in wheat crops for rust resistance, improved plant traits and productivity. His subsequent research included the study of maize, sorghum and millet biodiversity in the northeast and Kashmir.

Bhatia joined the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) in 1966, where he continued exploring induced and natural genetic variation in crop plants for morphological and biochemical traits, disease resistance and productivity traits

Rajesh Tuli, former director of the Lucknow-based CSIR-National Botanical Research Institute (CSIR–NBRI), said he worked with Bhatia when he began his career at BARC.

“He was always very keen on connecting science with community, and society,” Tuli told ThePrint.

At BARC, Bhatia worked on improving the nutritional quality of oilseeds, the protein content, and the application of radiation for the improvement of crops, Tuli said.

“At the time, he was among what we called the radiation breeders (scientists who used radiation to introduce gene mutations that improved plant traits),” he said. “The use of atomic energy in agriculture was not known and not accepted. Bhatia found a way to combine traditional breeding with modern genetic engineering to develop improved crops.”

After Bhatia joined the DBT in 1993 and Tuli moved to CSIR–NBRI, their association continued, the latter said.

Bhatia played a very important role in fundamental botany and its application. His focus, Tuli said, was application of science.

“[He] used to chair our (NBRI and National Agri-Food Biotechnology Institute, Mohali) committees as a research adviser,” he added. “He used to get into the basic aspects of science and had the additional inclination towards motivating colleagues for application of science.” 

GM cotton

Being an agricultural scientist, Bhatia understood the importance of the Bt Cotton technology — even when it had no other takers in the country — Ghosh said.  

“This is one outstanding stand that the DBT took. Because of [this], we were in the position to bring the technology to the country and then do experiments 1996 onwards. In 2002, we finally approved the Bt Cotton technology,” he said.

Tuli said Bhatia would often wish that they had greater support from not just politicians but the general public.

“He used to say if [only] we had a system by which we could communicate with communities better, these programmes would have progressed much faster,” he said.  

Bhatia took special interest in making sure that technology was of use to farmers — both for their economic well-being as well as for their safety, he added.  

Tuli reiterated this. “He put special emphasis on economic evaluation of science and technology (that is, how science and technology can translate into more income for farmers). As the secretary of DBT, he would make good funding allocations to make sure that GM crops are taken to the community and [also for] evaluating the biosafety.” 

Bhatia helped develop policies to evaluate the biosafety and economic benefits of GM crops, Tuli said.

He took a keen interest in grooming and encouraging young scientists to work towards GM crops and often said that science, especially agricultural science, must be taken to the communities, Tuli added. 

“I remember him like a father figure who was very keen on taking science to the community,” he added.  

Sanjay Kumar, director of Palampur-based CSIR-Institute of Himalayan Bioresource Technology (IHBT), recalled working with Bhatia when the latter was the chairman of the research council at the institute.

“He was a hardcore geneticist-turned-molecular biologist,” Kumar told ThePrint. “The mandate of our institute was mostly on medicinal plants, aromatic plants and floriculture crops, [and] he would give us some new ideas on how we can improve the medicinal properties of the plants or how modern technologies can be used for the improvement of plants or to understand them better.”

Bhatia would always lay emphasis on understanding the basic functioning of some of the species and how they could be utilised, Kumar said. 

“He was a balancing sort of person who would lay equal emphasis both on fundamental research as well as on the application of the research,” he said.That laid the whole foundation of our institute in a very positive manner, so that we could excel both in fundamental research (studying and understanding basic sciences) as well as translational research (converting basic scientific knowledge into practical applications) that we do quite a lot these days.”

(Edited by Uttara Ramaswamy)

Also Read: Modi govt’s ‘indecisiveness’ on GM crops slowed down research advancement, US agri dept criticises



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