Biotechnology Bill

Missing the purpose

Print edition : August 09, 2013

Representatives of farmers' groups and civil society members at the launch of a nationwide campaign against the BRAI Bill and GM crops at Jantar Manter in New Delhi on June 25. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

A farmer from Maharashtra in a corridor of Parliament House, a 2012 photograph. With the various crop insurance schemes not being of much help to the majority of farmers, any prospective losses to them due to the cultivation of transgenic crops will have a crippling effect on their fortunes. Photo: V.V. Krishnan

Critics of the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Bill say that instead of providing a framework for regulation it seems geared to promoting biotechnology.

“IN their tearing hurry to open the economy to private prospectors, the government should not make the same fate befall the agriculture sector as has happened to the communications, pharma, mineral wealth and several other sectors in which the government’s facilitative benevolence preceded the setting up of sufficient checks and balances and regulatory mechanisms, thereby leading to colossal, unfettered loot and plunder of national wealth in some form or the other, incalculable damage to the environment, biodiversity, flora and fauna, and unimaginable suffering to the common man,” says the Departmentally Related Standing Committee on Agriculture in its report on “Cultivation of Genetically Modified Food Crops: Prospects and Effects” tabled in August 2012.

Deposing before the Standing Committee on Agriculture, S. Ramachandran Pillai, president of the All India Kisan Sabha, explained that the government, while devising strategies and policies, should not lose track of the fact that 70 per cent of India’s farmers were small and marginal. Speaking in the context of genetically modified (GM) crops, he said that common peasants did not get any benefit from them as profit was the chief driving force behind the use of GM crops. He also pointed out that the pro-poor features of the use of biotechnology should include solutions to the problems of food security, malnutrition, poverty, unemployment and backwardness.

Notwithstanding the concerns expressed by the Standing Committee and several experts, Jaipal Reddy, Minister for Science and Technology (S&T), introduced the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Bill, 2013, in the Lok Sabha on April 23. Its stated aim is to promote the safe use of modern biotechnology by enhancing the effectiveness and efficiency of regulatory procedures. Critics of the Bill claim, however, that there is an inherent contradiction in the Bill because while the nomenclature purports to provide a framework for regulation of biotechnology, the objectives seem somehow designed to promote it, thereby compromising the regulatory features. Biosafety protection should be its basis, they argue.

They also say that the wrong Ministry tabled the Bill; either the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) or the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare should have tabled it as the Ministry of S&T does not have the mandate to protect health or the environment. There is also a conflict of interest as the Ministry of S&T is a promoter of GM crops. Other problems with the Bill include its expediency clause, which, critics argue, undermines the constitutional authority of State governments. The Coalition for a GM-free India says that the BRAI Bill is a blatant attempt to bulldoze through the public’s concerns about GM crops and makes the regulatory mechanism weaker than that of the MoEF’s Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC).

Sixteen Members of Parliament, cutting across party lines, wrote to Jaipal Reddy on April 25 expressing their disappointment at the manner in which the Bill was introduced on the first day of Parliament after the Budget session; it seemed like an attempt to circumvent opposition to GM crops. They wrote: “The BRAI Bill is a single-window clearance mechanism for genetically modified crops in the country. There is growing scientific evidence on the adverse impact of GM crops on the safety of our food, farming and the environment…. The introduction of the BRAI Bill was unexpected as the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture had recommended that the BRAI Bill was not the way forward to regulate GM crops.” They urged Jaipal Reddy to withdraw the Bill and instead bring a biosafety protection law after effective and thorough pre-legislative consultations. “We need to protect and enhance biosafety and to ensure democratic processes are adhered to when dealing with issues as important as food, farming and the environment in our country,” they wrote. It was learnt that Jaipal Reddy wrote to the Speaker asking that the Bill be sent to a joint committee of both Houses because of the reservations expressed in this letter. But the Bill was instead referred to the Standing Committee on Science and Technology, Environment and Forests.

Critics of the Bill are also surprised at the minimalistic composition of the proposed BRAI, which only has five members, whereas the GEAC is a multi-ministerial, broad-based body. Under Section 26 of the Bill, an environmental appraisal panel has to be constituted, an idea mooted by the then Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh, but this panel is rendered toothless because no norms and procedures have been laid down for the selection of its members. The panel’s opinion has to be sought in the case of organisms and products that will have an environmental impact, but the panel clearly lacks autonomy in function and authority. Additionally, the BRAI Bill does not include within its framework public consultations, a concept enshrined in the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, of which India is a signatory. Nor does it make provision for the prohibition of GM organisms from particular areas or particular kinds of GMOs or even transgenic technology in particular crops.

It was in 2003-04 that the idea of an independent regulatory authority, termed then the National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority, was formally mooted in the report of a task force, set up by the Ministry of Agriculture and headed by the eminent agriculture scientist M.S. Swaminathan. This task force had recommended that the bottom line of any regulatory authority in the country should be ensuring the safety of the environment, the well-being of farming families, the ecological and economic sustainability of farming systems, and the health and nutrition security of consumers and safeguarding domestic and international trade and the biosecurity of the nation. Critics argue that the Bill ignores this aspect completely, reducing regulation to mere technical parameters.

“While there is a lot of apprehension about the safety of the technology, what is more worrying is the absence of any liability clause or mechanism in the system that could compensate farmers and consumers in the eventuality of crop loss and harm to biodiversity, health, environment, etc. With the various crop insurance schemes also not being of much help to the majority of farmers, any prospective losses to them due to cultivation of transgenic agricultural crops will have a crippling effect on their fortunes, reeling as they already have been under a severe agrarian crisis for years now,” observed Basudev Acharia, the MP who headed the Standing Committee on Agriculture. The committee further observed that the Bill did not give the GEAC any role in policy matters relating to the research and development of GM crops, food security, pricing of GM seeds, commercialisation of GM crops and labelling for consumer awareness. In fact, the committee’s report, running into more than 500 pages, noted that 93 per cent of cultivated land the world over supported conventional cropping, and only a few countries carried out concentrated cultivation of GM crops. It also observed that neither costs nor benefits were currently perceived to be equally shared by all stakeholders, with the poor tending to bear more of the costs and receive fewer of the benefits. In the absence of any regulation, these concerns may well be valid and extend to contract farming practices as well.

Making a broad point on privatisation, the committee, quoting from a 2009 report of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, observed that “as privatisation fuels a transfer of knowledge away from the commons, there is a contraction both in crop diversity and numbers of local breeding specialists. In many parts of the world, women play this role and thus a risk exists that privatisation may lead to women losing economic resources and social standing as their plant breeding knowledge gets appropriated. At the same time, entire communities run the risk of losing control of their food security.”

The government has allowed the public to send in its feedback and comments on the Bill by August 25 to the Departmentally Related Standing Committee on Science and Technology, Environment and Forest. The earlier deadline for receiving comments was July 11. Individuals and organisations such as the Coalition for a GM-free India made representations to T. Subbarami Reddy, the Chairperson of the committee, to extend the deadline on the grounds that the National Advisory Council had stipulated that a time period of 90 days should be provided for public feedback and pre-legislative consultations.

Regulation in agriculture

Regulation of what happens in the name of agriculture has been a matter of contention for some time. Whether it was the introduction of Bt brinjal in 2010, the continued cultivation of Bt cotton in spite of widespread national and international opinion against it, or contract farming for profits, the latest trend in farming, issues of regulation have never been of great importance for policymakers.

Vijoo Krishnan, joint secretary of the Kisan Sabha, told Frontline: “The new seemingly lucrative move [contract farming] is an act of deception aimed at granting vast areas of fertile land on a platter to agribusinesses that have stakes in all stages from inputs to processing to retailing. The unbridled flexibility they have can threaten biodiversity, promote monoculture and cause a shift away from food crops and, in the context of the BRAI Bill, promote harmful and unwanted biotechnologies. Farmers would eventually be dispossessed of their land, tenants won’t have any rights and millions will be pushed into unemployment. It is a reversal of whatever limited land reforms have taken place and the subversion of land ceiling laws. Instead of promoting farmers’ cooperatives and subsidising farmers, the government is diverting RKVY [Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana, a Central assistance scheme for the agricultural sector] funds to aid corporate profiteering. Like PPP [public-private partnership] in infrastructure and roads, it will emerge as a huge scam. It is the latest in the package of concerted moves to corporatise agriculture.”

Kavitha Kuriganti of the Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture added: “There is a concerted effort to shape Indian agriculture on the American model, without appreciating the fact that American farming is inefficient and needs massive support to prop it up in various ways and without appreciating the inherent strengths of Indian agriculture. In India, studies have shown that it is indeed an unequal relationship between producers and corporate entities that get into contract farming. Margins accruing to farmers are no better than from regular markets. The overall atmosphere of corporatisation at all ends—including on inputs into farming, on resources that are needed for food production, on the output—presents a scary picture of control over our food and farming being handed over on a platter to corporations, whose bottom line is only profit.”

Therefore, whether it is Bt brinjal or any other GM food crop, the government’s approval and regulatory mechanisms seem highly problematic. And, generally, legislation brought in to regulate agricultural practices and biosafety issues has been far from adequate. The BRAI Bill is the latest example of this.

Bt brinjal

In 2010, following widespread protests, including by political parties such as those from the Left, Jairam Ramesh issued a moratorium on Bt brinjal. One of the grounds for the moratorium was that there was “no overriding urgency to introduce Bt brinjal here, the very first GM vegetable in the world”, as the Minister’s note said.

The BRAI Bill seeks to undo all that has been done. The Standing Committee on Agriculture maintained that the country did not need a BRAI Bill but a biosafety protection authority on the lines of the supervisory authority set up under Norway’s Gene Technology Act. Existing legislation in India seems hardly adequate to address the challenges posed by the opening up of agriculture and technology, and emerging forms of agriculture are quite outside the domain of any regulation.