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Biotechnology Regulatory Authority: The Bill that will decide what you eat

In 2010, then Environment and Forests minister Jairam Ramesh imposed an indefinite moratorium on Bt Brinjal, the first genetically engineered food crop cleared by a government panel in India. It was an unexpected setback for the biotech industry after the UPA floated two draft legislation — National Biotechnology Regulatory bill (2008) which was renamed as Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India bill (2009) — to bulldoze dissent.

In 2011, when the Jan Lokpal movement led by Anna Hazare rocked Parliament, the Prime Minister’s Office again tried unsuccessfully to push the BRAI bill in a bid to replace the Genetic Engineering Approvals Committee (GEAC), the 31-member apex regulatory body with representation from several ministries, with a three-member regulator offering all GM products single-window clearance.

While seeking to override even the state’s authority, the bill completely ignores grassroots democracy and the statutory rights of gram sabhas over natural resources. Reuters

While seeking to override even the state’s authority, the bill completely ignores grassroots democracy and the statutory rights of gram sabhas over natural resources. Reuters

The next jolt was the August 2012 report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture that consulted all stakeholders and examined the BRAI Bill against the standard regulatory frameworks elsewhere in the world. It observed that "regulating biotechnology is too small a focus in the vast canvas of biodiversity, environment, human and livestock health, etc and a multitude of other such related issues".

The panel recommended "setting up of an all-encompassing Bio-safety Authority through an Act of Parliament, which is extensively discussed and debated amongst all stakeholders, before acquiring shape of the law", adding that "unless and until such an authority is in place, any further movement in regard to transgenics in agriculture crops will obviously be fraught with unknown consequences".

The GM industry and its promoters in the government were already grappling with the refusal of seven states –Kerala, Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Bihar and West Bengal – to allow open field trails. As the media was preoccupied with a series of scams tumbling out of the UPA cabinet, the government introduced the BRAI bill 2013 in the House this April.

It is an amazing document on many counts. The so-called regulatory bill comes from the ministry of Science and Technology which is entrusted with the job of promoting biotechnology. Now, promoters cannot be regulators. The conflict of interest is apparent in the very opening of the draft which states that the bill’s objective is “to promote safe use of modern biotechnology". Curiously, the ministries of Environment and Forests or Health have been kept away from this regulatory attempt which is supposed safeguard against, well, environmental and health hazards.

Far back in 2004, when Bt Cotton was being introduced in India, a Task Force on Agricultural Biotechnology headed by Dr M S Swaminathan pointed out the importance of information transparency. “Farmers should have complete information on the benefits and risks associated with GM crops. The procedure of transparent evaluation should apply equally to both private and public sector varieties,” it recommended. Instead, the BRAI bill 2013 seeks to override even the Right to Information and conceal biosafety data in the name of protecting "Confidential Commercial Information".

It is worthwhile to recall that Greenpeace fought a 30-month RTI battle with the Department of Biotechnology and finally it took a Supreme Court order to get the government release the Bt brinjal bio-safety dossier submitted by Mahyco, the company that developed the crop in India with Monsanto.

To overcome resistance from state governments, the BRAI bill says “it is expedient in the public interest that the Union should take under its control the regulations of organisms, products and processes of modern biotechnology industry". In one stroke, this seeks to take away the state’s right to have a regulatory role in the domains of agriculture, environmental and health. Simply put, the BRAI will let the Centre push any GMO in any form anywhere it wants.

It is no secret that many of the 31 members of the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee were influenced in 2009 to ensure a clearance for Bt brinjal. The proposed new authority will have only three permanent members and the BRAI bill says “no proceeding shall be invalidated merely by reason of any vacancy in the Authority”. In effect, two individuals handpicked by the government will have the power to decide what our farmers sow and what we eat.

Of course, the BRAI bill has the provision to set up an Environment Appraisal Panel – slipped in perhaps so that the Environment ministry did not feel totally left out — that will offer "opinions" to the BRAI on organisms and products having environmental impact. But, in case of difference of opinion, the BRAI will prevail and merely pass an order giving its reasons in this regard.

There are a host of other issues with the BRAI bill. It has nothing on independent long-term trials or mandatory public consultation though it is India’s commitment to the Cartagena Biosafety Protocol which came into force in 2003. There is no framework of any risk management regime or provision for deterrent penal clauses. While seeking to override even the state’s authority, the bill completely ignores grassroots democracy and the statutory rights of gram sabhas over natural resources.

Any new technology that tinkers with the fundamentals of life demands independent scrutiny and demystification before it is offered for mass acceptance. The 2004 Swaminathan Task Force said that “the safety of the environment, the well-being of farming families, the ecological and economic sustainability of farming systems, the health and nutrition security of consumers, safeguarding of home and external trade and the biosecurity of the nation" should be the obligation of any biotechnology regulatory policy.

Instead, the government is in a hurry to thrust GMO on its people. Worse, in the chaos of IPL, betting and churnings within political parties, few have even noticed the move in the last eight weeks.