Huge Assembly of Citizens Demand that GMOs and Monsanto Quit India, and BRAI Bill be Withdrawn: PM Manmohan Singh gifted with a “non-Monsanto” Indian flag

Press Release of Coalition for a GM-Free India

Huge Assembly of Citizens Demand that GMOs and Monsanto Quit India, and

BRAI Bill be Withdrawn:

PM Manmohan Singh gifted with a “non-Monsanto” Indian flag

New Delhi, August 8, 2013: Thousands of citizens from 20 states of India came together at Jantar Mantar today for a day-long sit-in and marched towards the Parliament to demand that GMOs and Monsanto should Quit India and also demand in unequivocal terms that the government withdraw the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Bill, 2013. An Indian flag made out of organic fabric, which does not have Monsanto’s cotton seed used in its production was the centre of focus of this event; this flag was gifted by the congregation to the Prime Minister of India, urging him to unfurl this non-Monsanto, non-Bt cotton flag this year on August 15th.

The participant groups proudly waved the non-BT cotton Indian flags and Pankaj Bhushan, Co-Convenor of Coalition for a GM-Free India said, “It is a shame that cotton and khadi, the symbols of our fight for independence, are today controlled by an American MNC due to our indifference and inaction. 93% of Indian cotton seed has the proprietary technology of Monsanto. On this Independence Day we will hoist non-Bt organic cotton national flags in all the 20 states from where people have joined this dharna; this is a symbolic beginning to regaining our seed sovereignty. We also request the Prime Minister to hoist this flag from the ramparts of the Red Fort this year.”

Addressing the gathering which also included farmers from all across the country, Saroj Mohanty of Paschim Odisha Krushak Samanvay Samiti said “On the eve of the 71st anniversary of the Quit India Day, we have come together from all over the country as GM technology and companies like Monsanto are threatening our seed sovereignty and livelihoods. He further opined that “Back then, it was the East India Company and now we have “Eat India Companies”! We demand that these companies quit India and strongly urge the Government of India to withdraw the BRAI Bill which has been brought in to facilitate the entry of GM crops, and stop the promotion of flawed and dangerous technologies like GMOs”.

The protest at Parliament Street comes at a time when the Union government has introduced the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Bill, 2013 in Parliament in the last (budget) session. This Bill has been facing strong opposition inside and outside the parliament as it would facilitate the fast track entry of GMOs into our agriculture and environment. The Bill proposes to set up a centralised single window clearance system which is designed to lower the bar for GM crop approvals with no independent long-term safety assessments or need assessment of a particular GM product. Besides this, it takes away the decision-making power of state governments on open field trials in their respective states. The Bill has also faced flak from Right To Information (RTI) groups as it proposes to override the RTI Act. The Bill is now under review of the Parliamentary Standing committee on Science and Technology, Environment and Forest.

Pointing to the increasing evidence on the adverse impacts of GM crops, Kavitha Kuruganti of ASHA (Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture) said “The latest among the growing scientific  reports which have detailed the problems with environmental release of GMOs is the final report of the Technical Expert Committee (TEC) of Supreme Court (in the PIL on GMOs). The TEC has clearly stated that open air field trials of GM crops have to be stopped and effort to introduce Bt in food crops is not advisable. In addition the TEC has also said that herbicide tolerant (HT) GM crops, many of which are in the regulatory pipeline, are not suitable for India. Last year the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture emphasised that protection of biosafety is of paramount importance. PSC had asked for the creation of a comprehensive biosafety protection authority instead of the current BRAI. Why is the government ignoring these highly credible reports and promoting GMOs and pushing the flawed BRAI Bill?”

Rajesh Krishnan, Co-Convenor of the Coalition said, “At this critical juncture in Indian agriculture, clearing the BRAI Bill to ensure speedy clearance for GMOs would be detrimental to the interests of our citizens. Indian cotton farmers have already experienced the devastating consequences of the takeover of their seeds and fields by Monsanto through its proprietary  Bt cotton. We can’t surrender our food and farming to the onslaught of GMOs and multinational seed companies like Monsanto. Seed is a matter of sovereignty and this is our struggle to ensure that others don’t take control over our seed and food”.

Making a strong case for Multinational Seed corporations to quit India Sridhar Radhakrishnan of Thanal said, “Monsanto has voluntarily withdrawn its transgenic product applications in Europe recently, citing public rejection there; we are here to show Monsanto and such corporations that Indian citizens too do not want or need their products. It is time they withdrew from here”.

The gathering urged farmers in the country to follow the path of agro-ecological farming with due recognition for women farmers and in consonance with nature.

The assembly also demanded that the government stop promoting GMOs and invest urgently in sustainable agricultural solutions to ensure food and livelihood security. “Public sector agricultural R&D system should be made both responsive to the real needs of small farmers and responsible to the people”.

They urged the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science and Technology, Environment and Forests, reviewing the BRAI Bill to recommend to the government that it withdraw the Bill.

They also demanded that all the political parties should pay heed to the democratic voices that are opposing GMOs in our food and farming and declare their commitment to ecological farming, and take a firm stand against GMOs in our food, farming and environment. “It is time that all political parties told the nation whether they stand on the side of sustainable agricultural development based on farmer-controlled, safe, affordable, agro-ecological approaches, or not”.

The gathering saw senior leaders from various political parties including Bharatiya Janata Party, Congress, Communist Party of India (Marxist), Communist Party of India, Janata Dal (United), Bahujan Samaj Party, Biju Janata Dal, Telugu Desam Party, DMK etc address the gathering and pledge support on this people’s struggle to keep their food and farming  free from GM crops, and multinational seed corporations and promised to oppose the BRAI Bill in the Parliament (1).

Farmer leaders from various states and other social movements like the Right to food campaign, Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghatan, National Federation of Indian Women, Greenpeace India etc also addressed the gathering.

The colourful and vibrant events of the day while showcasing the diversity of the country also highlighted this common struggle for food, farming and freedom.The farmers from Gujarat performed a rousing play, while students of Delhi, through street theatre and voluntary work for the event showed that the youth of India reject transgenics; youth from Kerala sang songs about ecological farming for sustainability of farming and food security. Many groups like Desi seed savers’ groups of Karnataka, Beej Bachao Andolan and Vrihi displayed the rich wealth of seed diversity in India, showcasing the splendour of natural wealth that would die or be contaminated if gates are opened for GMOs.

Notes to the Editor

1. Attached are the quotes from senior political leaders who addressed the gathering.

For more information contact:

Rajesh Krishnan: 09845650032,

Kavitha Kuruganti: 09393001550,  

Pankaj Bhushan: 09472999999,






A delegation met with Ms Sushma Swaraj, Opposition Leader in Lok Sabha and presented her with a non-Monsanto Indian flag . She assured the delegation that she expressed her solidarity with the cause. She also said that she supports the cause of ecological farming.


2 BJP MPs also joined the dharna on Parliament Street. This includes the Party General Secretary, Mr Dharmendar Pradhan (who is a RS member and also a part of Agriculture Standing Committee) and senior leader Dr Murali Manohar Joshi.


5 DMK MPs, including Mr TKS Ilangovan, Mr Selvaganapathi, KP Ramalingam, AKS Vijayan and A Thangavelu expressed their demand that the BRAI Bill be withdrawn and a Biosafety Protection Bill be tabled. MDMK’s Ganesha Murthi said that his party supports all such causes that are in the interest of farmers.


From CPI (M), Mr Basudeb Acharia explained how the Standing Committee on Agriculture had studied the issue of GM crops and BRAI Bill in depth and found it so flawed that it recommended that BRAI Bill never be tabled in the Parliament. Mr M B Rajesh, LS member of the same party said that their party extends full support to the main demand of this one-day protest.


From CPI, Mr Raja challenged the Congress party to ask Monsanto to Quit India, if they respect Gandhi at all.


Three MPs from JD (U) expressed their opposition to GMOs and BRAI Bill. This included Mr Shivanand Tiwari, Mr Kaushalendra Kumar and Mr Anil Sahni. Ms Putul Kumari, an independent MP from Bihar exhorted women farmers to take charge of seed once again, in Indian agriculture. 


From Congress Party also, two parliamentarians joined the assembly and appreciated the fact that citizens are concerned about seed and food sovereignty issues. This included Mr Hussain Dalwayi and Mr Bhakta Charan Das.


BJD’s Mr Rabi Narayan Mohapatra who could not make it to the event extended his support through a letter of solidarity.


All major farmer unions were part of the protest – this includes Congress Kisan Cell, BJP Kisan Morcha, Bhartiya Kisan Union, Tamizhaga Vivasayigal Sangam, Bhartiya Kisan Sangh. All India Agragamee Kisan Sabha, Kisan Seva Samithi of Rajasthan, Kerala Jaiva Krushak Samithi, Tamil Nadu Organic Farmers’ Federation, Organic Farming Association of India etc.


All political party representatives were presented with a non-Monsanto (seed that is not from Monsanto) Indian national flag, which is also organic.


 memorandum prime minister final

political parties memorandum



The fight for your plate

Smruti Koppikar, Hindustan Times  Mumbai, July 29, 2013

Imagine you have a choice of bananas – one that you have always preferred from the 200 varieties India has to offer and another engineered to give you extra iron but whose impact on your physiology is uncertain. Imagine a similar choice with your staple rice; regular rice or fortified with beta-carotene whose long-term impacts are not fully studied. Or mustard.

Conventional wisdom would have you pick the first item in every category. That’s if you knew which banana, rice and mustard in the market was the natural organism and which genetically modified. The idea of choice works when there’s information to make it.

The pitched debate around genetically modified (GM) crops, including food crops, revolves around two important themes: ambiguity about long-term health and safety impacts and inadequate labelling that hinders choice. The genetically modified organism (GMO) industry – international and Indian companies – believes GM food could deliver food security to India, a line parroted by Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar. The broad-based anti-GM coalition believes existing data is inadequate to embrace GM food and evidence of its adverse impacts is rising.

The battle is likely to get sharper, perhaps ugly, in the months ahead. There’s a clear division in Dr Manmohan Singh’s cabinet itself. “We have two senior cabinet ministers ranged on either side,” said a Congress party source, referring to environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan and Pawar, “It’s not right to link GM foods to food security.”

“Let’s be honest. Farmers don’t fund elections; rich and big companies do. Besides, we know the PM’s stand on the issue,” says Devinder Sharma, food policy analyst and anti-GM campaigner. Sharma and others like him say “a false crisis about food security is being created; the real agenda is to create a market” in India for GM foods.

The Technical Expert Committee (TEC) of the Supreme Court, recommended last Monday an indefinite moratorium on all field trials till a proper regulatory authority was put in place. Natarajan had announced in April that 20 food crops has been approved for field trials and trials had been initiated in cotton, corn and mustard.

While the Coalition for GM-free India urged the government to accept “the recommendations based on sound science, justice and principle of sustainability”, Monsanto spokesperson stated, “The TEC report sought to go beyond the Terms of Reference and recommendations made are discouraging of science and agriculture.”

In the high-stakes battle, the role of an independent regulatory authority – to   safeguard people’s health and protect the country’s bio-diversity – becomes crucial. The dispute over GM crops these days often segues into a debate over the proposed Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI). “There’s the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee. The new regulatory authority will be under the science and technology ministry which is responsible for promoting GM technology. What’s this if not conflict of interest,” asked Sharma. However, the industry believes India’s regulatory framework is good. “India has a robust science-based regulation and regulatory process in place which is comparable to global standards,” stated the Monsanto spokesperson.

This divergence of perspectives is forcing people to take sides. Politicians seem to have chosen theirs. For people to weigh in, “more honestly scientific information” about GM food impacts has to be in the public domain, said Sharma. This includes letting people know what they are consuming by adequate labelling. Cotton seed oil derived from Bt Cotton could already be in your kitchen. “Cotton seed oil contributes to domestic edible oil needs, it’s the number 1 choice in Gujarat,” admitted Monsanto spokesperson. What exactly it does to your gut is still in the realm of research. What a GM-rich diet does to health is left to your imagination.

BRAI: A rubber stamp for biotech giants


  • title=

Aritra Bhattacharya

Maharashtra’s agriculture minister Mr Ramakrishna Vikhe-Patil was recently quoted by DNA as saying that introducing Bt cotton was a mistake. One look at the spate of farmer suicides in the Bt cotton belt of Vidarbha will make the reason for his statement apparent; following the introduction of Bt cotton in the state eight years ago, over 10,000 farmers have killed themselves ~ the number increasing substantially since the crop was introduced.

It is against this backdrop that one needs to examine the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Bill 2013. The Bill seeks to facilitate a single-window clearance system for genetically-modified (GM) products of biotechnology giants like Monsanto and Syngenta. Bt cotton is the only GM crop that is commercially cultivated in India, and India’s experience with the crop has been deeply devastating.

Tall claims

Although initial reports on Bt cotton cultivation pointed at bumper increase in yields, the journey has been downhill since. While Monsanto, the biotech giant which controls 93 per cent of the Bt cotton market in the country, has gone to town claiming increase in acreage under Bt cotton year-on-year, the yield from the same has fallen drastically, while input costs have increased exponentially.

The BRAI Bill, and the intended large-scale commercial cultivation of GM crops is part of the corporate-control-of-agriculture story. Although GM crops ride on the crest of the ‘promise of food security through higher production’, no studies show that increased yields sustain over time.

Lip service

The BRAI Bill was introduced in Lok Sabha in April 2013, and is right now before the Standing Committee on Science and Technology, Environment and Forests; the committee called for public comments on the Bill within a month from 11 June ~ departure from the norm, since a Bills are usually kept open for feedback for a period of 60 to 90 days. Although questions abound about the need for modern biotechnology in agriculture in the first place, the Bill does not say anything about exploring alternative routes to reach a desired target (say food security).

Instead, it indulges in lip service; it notes that India is a ‘party to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity…and Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the Convention’ which demand that the country take all measures to address biosafety. There is, however, nothing in the Bill that seeks to control or mitigate risks associated with biotechnology.
Part of the problem is with the source of the Bill: it has been floated by the Ministry of Science and Technology (S & T), which is tasked with promoting biotechnology. In the BRAI Bill, then, we have the promoter as the regulator! On the face of it, the Bill provides for a multitude of bodies functioning around the ambit of BRAI. Yet, a closer look at each of these reveals that power is highly narrowed and centralised in the Ministry of S & T.

Independent testing is another sore point. The Bill requires all companies desirous of conducting open-air trials of their products to submit data and documents on those products. In the event of data being supplied by biotech companies, there is every possibility that certain problematic aspects may be underreported.

This apart, the BRAI Bill violates the federal structure, in providing for an overriding Central authority, though agriculture is a state subject. It also seeks to bypass the Right to Information Act under the garb of ‘Confidential Commercial Information’.

Urgent measures

The back-story of the BRAI Bill lies in the National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority (NBRA) Bill, floated by the Ministry of S & T in 2008. The NBRA, which was mooted in the report of a task force constituted by the Ministry of Agriculture in 2003-04, woefully lacked in addressing bio-security. It came in for sharp criticism, only to be quietly buried.

The prospect of a biotech authority reared its head a year later, in 2009, in the form of the BRAI Bill 2009. This Bill, meant to be a ‘secret document’, sought to bulldoze those opposing the introduction of GM crops in the country by mooting their imprisonment, among other things.

The BRAI Bill 2013 is the latest avatar of an authority along the above lines, and the urgency in pushing through the legislation becomes apparent when one follows the twists in the tale. On 23 April 2013, 16 MPs wrote to the S & T Minister Mr Jaipal Reddy, asking him to ‘withdraw the Bill for thorough pre-pegislative concerns’.

Sources say the Minister in question, Mr Jaipal Reddy, was under great pressure to table it. On 7 May, he wrote to the Speaker of Rajya Sabha, mentioning that the Bill be referred to a Joint Committee of both Houses, and not to the Standing Committee on S & T. However, Rajya Sabha Speaker decided to refer the Bill to the latter.

In another curious twist, Ms Supriya Sule, daughter of agriculture Minister Mr Sharad Pawar — a known backer of biotechnology and corporate control over agriculture — made an entry into the Standing Committee on S&T in the first week of May, a few days before the Bill was referred to the committee.

As it stands now, a body like BRAI would be mere eyewash; it would provide an impression that the sector is being regulated, while in actual practice, the authority may function merely as a rubber stamp for large biotech giants.


The writer is a Phd candidate at the centre for studies in social sciences, calcutta. He can be contacted


National Seminar on GM Crops and Food Security asks for a Biosafety Law to be enacted

 New Delhi / Ahmedabad, February 15, 2013: The 2-day national seminar on “GM Crops and Food Security” jointly organized by Jatan Trust, Gujarat Vidyapith and Bharatiya Kisan Sangh concluded in Ahmedabad today by calling for a Biosafety Law to be enacted in the country. Speakers emphasized on Biodiversity and Biosafety being key to food security of the country, whereas the current aggressive promotion of transgenic crops is jeopardizing this.

Speaking on democratizing the debate and decision-making around GM crops, Kartikeya Sarabhai of CEE (Centre for Environment Education) pointed out that debate on GM crops cannot be just about production and yields, and that the discourse around food security as well as GM crops has moved on. “The debate on GM crops is around sustainability of farm livelihoods, sustainable use of environmental resources, control over critical resources like seed resting with community, farmers and consumers having a choice, socio-cultural and ethical issues to be addressed and so on. Talking about GM crops only in the context of improving yields is inadequate and inappropriate”. He stressed upon the need for an informed debate in which all citizens should be able to engage, since this is a matter pertaining to something as fundamental as Food. He pointed out that creating a debate is not about being “anti-science”, but asking for holistic science. A multi-disciplinary approach, which includes social sciences, is needed, since this is about livelihoods and development, he stressed. He called for independent studies and said that research approvals should be conditional on making the findings public.

Earlier inaugurating the seminar, Sri Mohini Mohan Mishra, National Secretary of the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, said that in all his travels across the country and meeting farmers, he has realised that they aspire for their control over the very basic resources of farming – soil, water and seed. “In BKS, we believe that India does not need GM crops. Unfortunately, farmers have become victim of glorified propaganda of the Biotech industry. It is a pity that today non-Bt Seeds of Cotton are not available in the market”, he said.

Dr M H Mehta, former VC of Gujarath Agriculture University (GAU) and Chair of Science Ashram, speaking at the seminar, stressed on the need for focusing on economical and environmental friendly model of agriculture to feed the hungry. This will need an agro-ecological approach and not a GM crop based model. He pointed out that while science and technology need to be encouraged, any technology needs to be holistically viewed and the overall consideration of public good and wisdom must prevail.

Explaining how woefully inadequate the GM crop risk assessment is in India, Dr Suman Sahai of Gene Campaign pointed out that our testing systems are simply not stringent enough and even the prescribed procedures are not followed by the companies or universities. Many scientific studies, including the ones conducted by the biotech companies themselves have shown adverse impacts on health and environment. In India, when the biosafety data of Bt brinjal was brought into the public domain, the inadequacy of the tests and the carelessness of the scientists doing the research, and the regulators reviewing biosafety came to the fore. This is not the way to do science, she stated.

Dr Sudarshan Iyengar, Vice Chancellor of Gujarat Vidyapith, presenting a fact sheet on issues related to Food Security in India, emphasized that there is enough evidence to say confidently that if land use planning is rationalized, land ownership issues are resolved, appropriate agronomical practices are introduced, nature’s own resources are used as farm inputs, the world can produce enough for the growing population.

Speaking on “Science & Technology for Food Security”, Dr Rajeswari Raina of NISTADS (National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies, which is a science policy institute of CSIR) pointed out that what we need is “good science”. She explained that ‘good science’ is one that works towards economic, ecological and social progress, something that can tell us whether the existing evidence is enough or not, in terms of risk and impact assessment related to technologies like GM, in addition to giving due recognition and space to other knowledge domains and cultural values that ‘formal science’ has not studied thus far.

Sridhar Radhakrishnan, Convenor of the Coalition for a GM-Free India, said, “Transgenic technology is an unnecessary risk and costly distraction, while solutions for issues in our farming lie elsewhere. In the name of public sector research, resources are being mis-utilised, while something inherently unsafe will remain unsafe, whether it is from the private sector or the public sector”.

Dr Minoo Parabia, renowned botanist, biodiversity expert and Member of State Biodiveristy Board made a presentation on the rich biodiversity of Gujarat, including agro-diversity and expressed caution against transgenics. Dr Atul Mehta, senior rice breeder pointed out that while GM crops are being aggressively pushed, need assessment is sadly lacking, by presenting data of past 50 years to show that pest incidence (stemborer) on rice was low even though corporations are trying to push Bt rice as a solution for a problem that does not exist.

Speaking on the faulty framework of the proposed Biosafety Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Bill, Kavitha Kuruganti of ASHA showcased how improvements in the regulatory regime over the years will be lost if BRAI Bill is allowed to be enacted. “Sustained civil society action, including judicial activism, in addition to the Bt brinjal public debate led by Mr Jairam Ramesh, the then MoEF, brought in some improvements; through the BRAI Bill, the Government of India is trying to lower the regulatory bar which is objectionable and unacceptable”, she said.

Earlier, latest scientific evidence related to adverse impacts of GM crops were shared by Rajesh Krishnan of Greenpeace India. The Seminar also had presentations from the Biotech seed industry representatives, who presented on Bt Cotton in India and GM crop adoption in other countries. Participants of the seminar also included senior scientists from agriculture universities of the state, civil society members, seed and food industry representatives, members of various farmers’ unions and government officials, in addition to Members of the State Biodiversity Board.

For more information, contact:

Kapil Shah: 094-270-54132

Sridhar Radhakrishnan: 099-953-58205

Kavitha Kuruganti: 09393001550

Owing seeds of discontent: on BRAI bill

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.

Bt crops are everyone’s concern: Justice Sujata Manohar

Justice Sujata Manohar on how the Biotechnology Bill is fundamentally flawed

Illustration: Sanjoy Naorem

IN THE last few years, regulatory systems across the board have been undergoing an overhaul to fit the needs of a new era. Likewise, new laws are being chalked out to meet new needs, and several are receiving flak owing to the loopholes and regressive grounds on which these have been drafted. The relatively more recent one to regulate modern biotechnology is one such case.

This year marks 10 years of commercialisation of Bt cotton, the only commercially cultivated genetically modified (GM) crop in India. Yet there is no effective regulatory mechanism in place to assess their necessity or the long term safety of GM crops, especially food crops, their impact on health, nor a balance sheet being drawn up of benefits versus detriment.

Earlier in June 2004, the Task Force on Application of Biotechnology in Agriculture, led by MS Swaminathan, recommended the setting up of an ‘autonomous, statutory and professionally-led National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority’ (NBRA) that would have ‘two separate wings — one dealing with food and agricultural biotechnology, and the other with medical and pharmaceutical biotechnology.’ The previous drafts of a biotechnology legislation have fallen short of its intended outcomes more than once, and following several rounds back and forth, it has been renamed as the BRAI (Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India) and is being brought back to Parliament, once again in a far from satisfactory state.

Proposed by the Ministry of Science and Technology, the draft BRAI Bill, 2011 does not justify a new legislation, when effective changes in the existing framework — the 1989 Rules issued by the Ministry of Environment and Forests — could well be made. In fact, its handling by the Ministry of Science and Technology alone without the association of other ministries dealing with food, agriculture or health is itself a cause for concern.

An assessment titled ‘BRAI Bill: A Threat to Our Food And Farming’ by Supreme Court lawyer Ritwick Dutta ,brought out recently by Greenpeace, underscores that given the serious and possibly irreversible risks genetically modified organisms are associated with, the overall focus of a regulatory regime of this nature should be based on a precautionary approach/principle. In the current draft, however, the approach is adaptive, going on the assumption that modern biotechnology is to be considered necessary and a fait accompli. India is a signatory to the Cartagena Protocol, which means we are under the obligation to ensure that our domestic laws are in compliance with the provisions of the Protocol. While the preamble of the Bill mentions this obligation, it fails to reflect it in letter and spirit.

This piece of legislation also circumvents the RTI Act, 2005 curtailing bio-safety information to the public, and safeguarding the interest of commercial entities over larger public interest. Given that the RTI already has provisions for safeguarding information pertaining to ‘commercial confidence, trade secrets or intellectual property’, this clause is not only unnecessary but one which completely disregards larger public interest. Likewise, public participation in decision making has been restricted to only once at the time of the final decision. Since the effects of biotechnology are far reaching, and there is little public confidence in GMOs owing to growing concerns from across the world, public participation in decision making should be made mandatory.

As regards food safety, doctors have sounded warnings and aware consumers across the world are rejecting GM foods. Down to Earth magazine says that genetically modified food is even banned at a canteen of the biggest GM seed producer, Monsanto. The Granada Group, which runs the canteen, says, ‘We have taken the above steps to ensure that you, the customer, can feel confidence in the food we serve.’ A Monsanto spokesperson said that this was done because the firm believes in choice. For the consumers in India to have the choice, it is necessary that all products using GM crops should mandatorily state on the package that GM crops are a part of the ingredients. This entails compulsory packaging and proper monitoring. This is not feasible in a country where most food is sold unpackaged.

The essential role of the state governments in such vital decision making is now proposed to be reduced to a recommendatory capacity, as specified under Clause 35 of the Bill, despite the fact that agriculture is a state issue. One of the key roles of BRAI is to consider applications for initiating research, transport, import and use or manufacture of GMOs. Moreover, a significant number of these applications would be forwarded by the Department of Biotechnology housed under the Ministry of Science and Technology. When the promoter is also the regulator, there is potential for an inherent conflict of interest.

ONE OF the key parameters based on which Bt brinjal was put on a moratorium in 2010, was the absence of independent, long-term tests. This has been completely overlooked in the BRAI. Given the inherent, irreversible and potentially adverse effects of GMOs, these criteria should be made a requisite before taking a decision to introduce GM crops. Jairam Ramesh had wisely stated that India should adopt such technologies as genetic engineering only where alternatives do not exist.

Finally, whether a GMO should be considered for environmental release or not should be based on the Polluter Pays Principle ensuring absolute liability for harm to the environment. The manufacturer and the promoter should compensate victims of pollution as well as pay up for restoring the environment in case of damage. The resistance that GM crops have faced in other countries from consumers and farmers, environmentalists, human rights activists and even from governments, makes India’s enormous seed market of prime interest to GM seed corporates. The contention that high costs of patented Bt cotton seeds and false representations regarding their performance have contributed to increasing debts and despair of farmers needs to be investigated, and severe penalties affixed. Similarly the health and environmental impacts need to be studied. There is no necessity to rush through a Bill that has the potential to empower a small group of persons to clear genetically modified crops which could irreversibly impact consumer health, the economics of small farmers and the environment.

There is little doubt that the Bill needs to be redrafted before being considered for tabling in the Parliament, and for which widespread consultations with all the relevant stakeholders by a broad-based committee should be done as a priority.

Justice Sujata Manohar is a former Supreme Court judge. The views expressed here are personal.

No GM crops in West Bengal: Mamata

Kolkata, Mar 12: On a day when the Budget session of the Indian parliament opened, West Bengal Mamata Banerjee told a group of youths, representing various colleges in the city, that she will never allow Genetically Modified (GM) crops in the state.

he youths who called on her at her residence on Monday reminded the Chief Minister about the impending danger that the food, farming and environment of the state faces from the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India bill, 2011 which is expected to be tabled in the current parliament session.

The youths presented Banerjee with a bouquet of vegetables and urged her to write to the Central government to stop the BRAI bill from being tabled in the current form.

The BRAI Bill, 2011 was listed for introduction both during the monsoon and winter session of last year but had to be stopped because of the opposition inside and outside the parliament.

The bill is expected to create a single window clearance system that will lower the bar for the approval of genetically modified crops which are in a controversy around the world owing to the potential dangers they pose to human health, environment and livelihoods dependent on farming.

Congratulating the CM on her government’s decision to ban GM seeds in West Bengal, the youths highlighted the fact that current BRAI Bill proposes to override the state governmen’s decision making power on matters related to GM crops.

We believe that our Chief Minister will stand on the side of the people of the state and formally write to the central govt to scrap BRAI said Natasha Upadhyay, a student of Jadavpur University and a member of the youth team who met the CM at her residence on Monday.

The youths also carried banners which said ‘Didi mein hein dum karein BRAI khatam’.

The state governments of Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala have already written to the Central government for the withdrawal of the BRAI bill in its current form given its inadequacies and demanded consultations with all stakeholders before any such proposals are formulated.

The Bill has been widely criticized for its undemocratic nature and promotional approach it has towards GM crops instead of taking a precautionary one.

A legal assessment of the report released by environmental organization Greenpeace last month highlighted the fundamental flaws in BRAI Bill as its provisions do not conform with several principles which form the core of Indian and international environmental jurisprudence like absolute liability for hazardous and dangerous activities, polluter pays principle, precautionary principle, onus of proof on those who want to change the status quo, effective public participation in environmental decision making and access to biosafety information.

BRAI bill is nothing but an effort by the Central govt to circumvent the massive opposition that GM crops are facing in our country from all section of the society and also from state governments said Rajesh Krishnan, Sustainable Agriculture Campaigner, Greenpeace India.

He said: It is a pity that instead of focusing on promoting socially and ecologically sustainable farming our union government is gambling with the food safety and food security through such risky technologies like GM crops.(IBNS)