Eggplant On His Face

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Jairam Ramesh should stand up for the farmers and not the MNCs

By Suman Sahai

Illustration: Anand Naorem

INDIA’S ENVIRONMENT Minister Jairam Ramesh crisscrossed the country to hear the public’s views on the contentious Bt Brinjal issue. I am glad that the concerns expressed by the diverse stakeholders informed the minister’s decision on GM crops. Let us hope it influences his view on the regulatory system too.

The statutory authority in India for taking decisions on the release of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) is the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC). But in the case of Bt Brinjal, the GEAC has taken the unorthodox step of referring the matter to the government for a final decision.

After declaring itself satisfied with the bio safety data on Bt Brinjal, the GEAC passed the ball to the government’s court. That’s clearly because the GEAC recognised the tremendous opposition that exists in India against GM crops; as well as that of the trenchant criticism of the GEAC and the rest of the regulatory system. There is a total lack of transparency on a host of issues, the bulk of them stemming from GEAC’s refusal to engage with the public’s concerns.

For the record, Gene Campaign had filed a PIL in the Supreme Court in 2004, seeking an improved regulatory system incorporating, among other things, technical competence, transparency and lack of involvement of the public in decision- making. It’s frustrating to see the case being dragged into its sixth year with no sign of a resolution. In the meantime, the GEAC pre-emptively cleared the cultivation of Bt Brinjal, despite the fact that there is neither a labelling system in place, nor a law on liability in this country. In the absence of a labelling system, consumers would have no way of telling whether they were eating Bt Brinjal or not. Thus, the freedom of choice guaranteed by the Consumer Protection Act of India was ignored by the GEAC, by its decision to allow Bt Brinjal to be commercialised before a system of labelling was in place.

Worse, if some harm were to come from the cultivation of Bt Brinjal, either to farmers (poor crops, or contamination of traditional crops), or to consumers who ate the vegetable, there is no law to hold the Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (Mahyco, subsidiary of biotech giant Monsanto and manufacturer of Bt Brinjal) responsible. Neither could they be forced to pay compensation or made to recall the offending product from the fields, wholesale marts, retail shops and vendors.

By deciding in favour of Mahyco, and then passing the buck to the government to face the public’s opprobrium, the GEAC reeks of cowardice. A statutory body like GEAC cannot shirk its responsibility and pass the ball to avoid being branded as the bad guy, and yet step in aggressively to take decisions whenever it can get away with them. For this reason alone, the GEAC should be disbanded, and another structure set up, reflecting new scientific developments as well as principles of good governance.

A statutory body cannot shirk its responsibility, and yet take decisions it can get away with

By getting involved, Ramesh has done something useful and important. He would do even better if he forced an overhaul of the legal framework governing GMOs in India, by setting up a committee that includes scientists from different disciplines, legal and technical experts, and public interest groups. It can be anchored in the Law Ministry, given that they had reported earlier that the current rules cannot withstand a legal challenge.

The mandate of the review committee should be to improve the regulatory system on GMOs, modernise it according to latest knowledge, plug the loopholes and tighten the system to make it inclusive, technically competent and transparent. This would enable the development of safe and relevant technologies serving public interest. As of now, because of the weak and ambiguous rules governing GMOs, agencies wanting to market their products avail of shortcuts, and pliant regulators keep assisting this indefensible activity.

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