With the winter session of Parliament beginning on Tuesday, you can expect plenty of drama. But there is one bit of action environmentalists, farmers, activists and experts are particularly wary of — the possible tabling of the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Bill-2011 in Lok Sabha. They believe it is a tool to smother all objections against genetically modified crops.
Experts claim the draft Bill has certain draconian provisions that nullify the major legal frameworks available to the stakeholder public and civil society to ensure transparent conduct of business. Here’s a look at the gray areas:
State Govt Gagged
The draft Bill violates the constitutional authority of the State government over agriculture through an expediency clause, say experts. Remember Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, during the budget session in the State Assembly, announced that the government will not “promote” GM crops and walked the talk by withdrawing their budgetary provision? In a written speech circulated during a recent National Development Council meeting in New Delhi, she also reminded the Union government that agriculture was a State subject and the Centre must not infringe into its powers. But the draft Bill does exactly that, argue activists.
Of course, the Union government’s spin doctors see no devil. M R Madhavan, Head of Research at PRS Legislative Research, feels that there is nothing explicitly mentioned in the Bill that removes the powers of the State from taking a stand on genetically modified organisms (GMOs). “Though the Bill has an expediency clause, bringing the regulation of biotechnology under the powers of the Union, the states will still have the powers to intervene in issues like GM technology as agriculture is something that belongs to the State list,” Madhavan claims.
However, activists argue that the current draft cannot be read in isolation. “The changes brought in with each draft indicate that the Centre wants to vest all powers of regulation and introduction of GMOs with itself,” says Kavitha Kuruganti, noted anti-GM activist.
For example, the National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority (NBRA) draft, which was the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India’s predecessor, did not have the expediency clause. That clause was inserted in the 2010 BRAI draft. Also, according to Kavita, other sections, including 81 and 87, have clauses that give the Union government sweeping powers in any matter that involves biotechnology.
Out of RTI Ambit
This is perhaps the aspect that has invited the most attention and wrath. The draft Bill attempts to bypass the Right to Information Act (RTI) under the garb of being “Confidential Commercial Information”. Activists say that biosafety information cannot be confidential and the Supreme Court has already set a precedent for this in the Bt Brinjal case.
“Refusing transparency shows that BRAI has more to hide than to show,” says Ananth Sayanan, of Safe Food Alliance. “Already sufficient information hasn’t been made available by the government. Even the information that is given is not in local language and is not of use to the primary stakeholders like farmers,” he adds. “Matters will only become worse if BRAI is kept out of RTI ambit. There will be no way of knowing if there is monitoring and implementation of regulations.”
RTI has time and again helped activists and civil society expose or get information on field trials of GMOs at various areas, which will be impossible if BRAI becomes law.
Conflict of Interest
The ministry of Science and Technology, which is in charge of promoting genetically modified organisms in India like it promotes any other science and technology venture, is the regulating authority as the draft Bill proposes to set up the BRAI under the ministry. Activists view that as a clear case of conflict of interest.
“The Bt Brinjal file sailed through various ministries, including science and technology, without a hitch. It was stalled by the environment ministry alone. Now the government is trying to give a fast track single window clearance for genetically modified organisms through this Bill. This is like a student framing his own question paper and evaluating the answer sheets himself,” says Ananth.
Deviation from Task Force Report
The draft Bill, according to experts, does not confirm to the bottomline of the task force report on Agricultural Technology, accepted by the government in 2004. “The task force on agricultural biotechnology, headed by M S Swaminathan, laid six cornerstones,” says Kavitha. They include well being of farming families, economic and environmental sustainability, bio-security and trade security. None of these has been taken into account while drafting the Bill. “The BRAI Bill has been drafted to make the authority a clearing house for GMOs that are in the pipeline to be launched in the country,” says Kavitha. “By not taking the farmer’s or other primary stakeholder’s concerns into account, the draft Bill has clearly not incorporated the recommendations of the task force,” she adds.
To put it otherwise, a regulatory authority consisting of three full-time members and two part-time members will take the final call on what the farmers will grow and what will land on your dinner table. With farmers reporting increasing losses with Bt Cotton, and with inconclusive science on the health impacts of GM food crops, there are no conclusive answers on why the government wants to fast track their entry into the country. “Maybe the government has taken the biotechnology industry’s demand to hasten the pace of implementation of the Bill a tad too seriously,” quips Kavitha.