Monday, March 22, 2010

Flaw in the law

The Biotech Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) or, National Biotech Regulatory Authority, which is awaiting the nod from the cabinet and the house, go against the spirit of freedom and right of expression/ speech. The bill, which is likely to be approved by the cabinet and house shortly and tabled for passage this ongoing budget session only, and will bring about wide ranging changes in the process of regulating the research, transport, import, manufacture and use of GM products in the country.
Several clauses of the 2009 drafted bill is found to be contentious, particularly the two specific clauses. Articles 63 and 81 of the bill are the most controversial ones and despite this the law has been pushed directly by the PM’s office (PMO). According to Section 81 of the Bill, the Act will have an over-riding effect over the other State-level acts. It has callously ignored the role of state governments in all the applications of biotechnology. The bill serves to override State-specific concerns by making the proposed authority solely responsible for releasing and controlling GM crops throughout the country and envisages only an advisory role for States. Under our constitution, health and agriculture are state subjects and in case of Bt Brinjal too, there were 13 states who opposed Bt Brinjal cultivation after the public consultations. Article 63 talks about quelling the GM free movement.
The most contentious aspect of the bill states “whoever, without any evidence or scientific record misleads the public about the safety of organisms and 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”
On the questions of tackling the hunger and food security, the concerns of safety can not be ignored. This bill has no provision for public participation, which is a violation of article 23.2 of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, to which India is a signatory. Even the conduct of trials on Biotech products is prohibited by any independent body/ organization, and which may invite a jail term of 5-10 years with a fine of Rs 10 lakhs or, even both.
The bill says not only can we not make choices about our food but we can’t even speak about the safety aspect. We can be jailed and fined, which can not be considered as a healthy sign of a democracy. Thus Biotech bill is rightly termed as against the constitution by experts, legal eyes and activists. The bill is opposed by Shri Jairam Ramesh to go with the establishment the authority in the present form of the bill, which is anti-democratic and deeply flawed.
The bill is extremely retrogressive and poses serious questions on the very intentions behind the drafting of such a bill, which is flawed in many fundamental ways. Here the regulator was instead being viewed as an agency to stimulate public and private investment in Biotechnology since promotion can not be combined with regulation.
The proposal that the BRAI, where decision making will be vested in the hands of just three individuals (technical experts) was highly doubted. BRAI bill also trespass the RTI act, the over-riding effect of this legislation on state governments and existing legislations like the Biological Diversity Act and the Environment Protection Act; as well as attempts stifle the freedom of speech and expression by sections which seek to imprison and penalise critics and others.
The draft of the bill, proposed by Dept. for Science and Technology, seeks to make a national biotech regulator the ultimate authority on approvals and clearances, instead of the existing committees under the Ministry of Environment & Forests. It might be the internal tussle between the Ministries (S&T vs. E&F) but the common man’s interest should not be sidelined/ kept on the altar. The proposed autonomous regulatory authority should not be housed under the Ministry of Science & Technology or more specifically within the Department of Biotechnology, which is the sole promoter of GMOs in India. This will be a major conflict of interest in itself.
The bill has already drawn severe criticism for failing to be transparent and addressing the cause of all the stakeholders. Simply for promoting the investments for the biotech sector and inviting the FDI flow, we can not bear with any such authority/ legislation, wherein no provisions for voicing the sentiments/ doubts/ dilemmas are raised. In case of Bt brinjal moratorium too, it was the people of India who had the final say and not Jairam Ramesh or, even the PM, as the public consultations was aptly reflected in Mr Ramesh’s decision.
It has ignored many stakeholders, who are directly going to get affected by biotechnology products or processes farmers, NGOs, consumers of the biotechnology products, etc. All this reduces the transparency of the proposed Bill.
Steps should be taken to ensure that farmers are properly educated on the biotechnology products and products, and to ensure that the pest resistance properties of GM crops do not break down, what happened in case of Bollgard II and admitted by Monsanto recently. Instead of the proposed bill, an act/ authority most appropriately addressing the biosafety issue has to be taken up and for promoting genetic and biotechnology literacy, it should be given a place in elementary education system and local governing bodies i.e., panchayat can be involved.
The notion that GM crops are a panacea for India’s hunger problem is mere hype and without a sustainable production system, which confines the confidence of stakeholders, till then the food security prove as a mere distant dream. In a flourishing democracy like, India we can not even imagine the enforcement of such draconic legislation, that too without the knowledge and consultation with the stakeholders and the masses. It is the gross violation of human rights and hijacking of the freedom of speech from the hands of common man.

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