Bill for a biotech authority: It’s draconian and full of scientific absurdities

| July 26, 2015 | 0 Comments

Bill for a biotech authority: It’s draconian and full of scientific absurdities P.M. Bhargava. The Tribune 2nd May 2010.

When Mr Jairam Ramesh, Union Minister for Environment and Forests, put an indefinite moratorium on the release of genetically modified Bt brinjal on February 9, he actually made a far more important statement that India is not tied down to the apron strings of any multinational corporation or country, specifically, the United States.

This came as a surprise to the rich and the powerful, the politicians and the bureaucrats (exceptions granted), who benefit by India’s being an appendage of MNCs and the US. A lot of what has happened in the country in the last few years had made the above clan fully complacent about Mr Ramesh’s decision — that irrespective of the enormity of the evidence and public opinion against Bt brinjal, he would permit its commercialisation and thus open irreversibly the floodgates for US control of Indian agriculture, of our food security and sovereignty, farmers’ security and the security of the rural sector.

And whosoever controls Indian agriculture, de facto controls India. The unpleasant fact is that the above clan, comprising a miniscule proportion of Indians, believes it stands to gain enormously by such a sell out. However, Mr Ramesh disappointed them. We congratulated him for his bold decision but also realised that we have only won the battle and not the war. So, Nina Federoff of the US who was here when Mr Ramesh announced his decision, almost certainly to influence his decision in favour of Bt brinjal, did not return to the US empty-handed.

Nina was probably told by Mr Ramesh’s opponents in the government, “Don’t worry. We have ways and means of legally reversing Mr Ramesh’s decision. We will pass a Bill to set up a National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority (NBRA) under the Department of Biotechnology which will take away the power of decision-making in regard to GMOs from the Ministry of Environment. We would thus be able to do what you want us to do”.

It has not been their concern as to what happens to 99 per cent of the “less fortunate” Indians. The Bill must be the most draconian Bill. Consider some of its provisions.

*Section 63 says, “Whoever, without any evidence or scientific record misleads the public about the safety of the organisms (GMOs) and (their) products, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than six months but which may extend to one year and with fine which may extend to two lakh rupees or with both”. And who will decide whether there is “evidence or scientific record”?

A three-member authority which will be chosen (probably in consultation with Monsanto and its supporters in India) by a selection committee that would be easy to influence, as it would have no nominees of the civil society that will bear the brunt of the failure of a GM crop or the harm caused by it.

No matter how strong the evidence is or how good the scientific record is and no matter how flawless the reputation of the person criticising the release of a GMO is, the regulatory authority can brush all that aside and put the person in jail.

This writer wonders what it will do to foreign critics with an impeccable scientific record and reputation. Ask for their extradition?

lThe National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority (NBRA) will work under the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) in the setting up of which this writer had a significant role and which this writer has known reasonably well as a member of its first Scientific Advisory Committee.

The Department of Biotechnology (DBT) is today the most ardent vendor of GMOs in the country. Thus, the vendor will be the regulator which would be against the principle of natural justice. The Appellate Tribunal proposed in the Bill is an eye-wash as it will also work under the DBT. Strangely, it shall not be bound by rules of evidence contained in our Evidence Act.

lAgriculture is a State subject and well over 10 states, cutting across political affiliations had, de facto or de jure, expressed opposition to Bt brinjal. The Bill (Section 34) now envisages only an advisory role for the state government in regard to release of GMOs. They cannot oppose it, even though agriculture is a State subject.

lThe Bill is full of scientific absurdities. Thus, it calls “transformation, polyploidy induction and mutation breeding” as “natural processes”. They are all human-controlled processes to bring about genetic changes.

lThe Bill’s definition of “modern biotechnology” is ridiculous and highly restrictive. It is like saying that by “modern science” we mean “modern biology”.

lThe Bill does not encourage a totally independent laboratory to do all the required tests, to be controlled jointly by all the stakeholders as stated in the proposal for such a laboratory that this writer had submitted to the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) at their request, which proposal Mr Ramesh has supported in principle.

lNo reasons are given as to why a new authority. It is not stated as to what is wrong with the present system.

lThe Bill is against any kind of transparency (Section 27.1). Given the situation in the country in respect of, for example, corruption and unqualified commitment of the government to MNCs and the US, it is most likely that GMOs will be released without any test whatsoever or just face-saving tests done superficially.

If the Bill is passed, there will be only two alternatives for our countrymen: to make sure that the Bill is not notified or is repealed in a reasonable time; or to begin the Third War of Independence!

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