Owing seeds of discontent: on BRAI bill

http://www.hindustantimes.com/editorial-views-on/Edits/Owing-seeds-of-discontent/Article1-919795.aspx

The UPA government has confirmed its disdain for agriculture by insisting on introducing the Bio-technology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Bill, 2012. The Bill has faced opposition in every session since the monsoon session of 2011 when it was first scheduled for introduction since it plans to provide a single-window clearance to Genetically Modified (GM) crops.

Despite the moratorium on Bt Brinjal, there have been many attempts to cast aside concerns on GM crops and it is clear that the regulatory system proposed within the Bill is one such effort. An analysis of the Bill reveals its real intent to blatantly defend the interests of agri-businesses by promoting this technology with very limited checks.

The Bill also sidesteps the precautionary approach laid down by the Cartagena Protocol on bio-safety for national laws to regulate GMOs. While the preamble of the Bill claims that it adheres to the principles of bio-safety, an in-depth reading proves that it does not follow the protocol in letter and spirit. There is a clear conflict of interest in the Bill: it is championed by the ministry of science and technology, which is at the forefront of promoting GM crops and has also made significant investments to do the same.

One of the main reasons why Jairam Ramesh, the former minister for environment and forests, put a moratorium on Bt Brinjal was the lack of long-term bio-safety assessment studies. But the BRAI proposals have no provision for independent long-term bio-safety assessments, making this proposed regulatory system no better than the existing Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) mechanism. The BRAI Bill also has no provision for the people to raise their concerns at different points of decision-making, which makes it undemocratic. Worse, the Bill goes a step further to override the Right to Information Act by making the BRAI the final authority to decide whether any information, including bio-safety studies, need to be made public.

Given the nature of damage that can be caused by GMOs, the liability should be high enough to act as a deterrent. The Bill states that the penalty for an unauthorised field trial will be imprisonment of not less than six months and a fine of R2 lakh. This is negligible considering the potential harm field trials could cause. The standard of liability laid down by this Bill is also not in conformity with the law laid down by the Supreme Court on the issue of absolute liability for hazardous activity. Furthermore, the Bill does not conform to the polluter pays principle laid down by the Supreme Court.

The BRAI proposal takes away the power of states to decide on open releases of GM crops in the name of experiments. Given that agriculture and public health are subjects under the state list and since the open release of GM crops poses a threat to both, taking away the powers of the states on this is in breach of the Constitution’s federal structure.

It is high time that the government listened to the legitimate concerns being raised on GM crops and the BRAI Bill, and ensured that such anti-people laws are not brought to Parliament. The BRAI proposal should undergo a pre-legislative consultation to suitably amend the provisions of the Bill.

Bhupender Yadav is a Rajya Sabha MP and a lawyer. The views expressed by the author are personal.

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