Despite violating the Biodiversity Act, American seed major escapes legal action, reports Imran Khan
AFTER GUNNING for American seed major Monsanto and its Indian subsidiary Mahyco for violating the Biological Diversity Act in the Bt Brinjal case, the Karnataka State Bio-diversity Board has decided not to prosecute the violators.
The decision was taken on 20 January while reviewing the complaint of Bengaluru based Environment Support Group (ESG) against Monsanto, Mahyco and the University of Agricultural Sciences (UAS), Dharwad, accusing them of violating norms by illegally accessing six varieties of brinjal endemic to India and genetically modifying it, resulting in Bt Brinjal.
In a letter dated 15 February 2010 addressed to the KSBB and the National Biodiversity Authority (NBA), ESG had alleged that Monsanto, Mahyco and UAS used six local varieties of brinjal for developing Bt Brinjal without the approval of the board or the local biodiversity committees as required by law.
ESG said that the development of Bt Brinjal was undertaken on the basis of an MOU signed between Mahyco along with Sathguru (a front company of USAID and Cornell University) and UAS based on their deal of 2 April 2005. A similar deal was signed with Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore, and Indian Institute of Vegetable Research, Lucknow.
The KSBB wrote a letter to the NBA on 10 March 2010 seeking its legal opinion. On 11 August 2011, the NBA acknowledged that the complaint merits a legal case.
On 28 September, Minister of State for Environment and Forests Jayanthi Natarajan said in the Lok Sabha: “The NBA has recommended legal action against the alleged violators for accessing and using local brinjal varieties without prior approval of the competent authority.”
However, in a U-turn, the KSBB resolved: “It is for the NBA to take necessary action against the institutions/companies regarding alleged violations of provisions under the Biodiversity Act.”
The resolution made Leo Saldanha of ESG furious. “There is little doubt that this controversial resolution was passed to unhook Monsanto and its collaborators from biopiracy charges,” says Saldanha. “It is tenable to draw such a conclusion as the current action agitates against the consistent position held by the KSBB that our complaint has merit and action must be initiated.”
In a U-turn, the KSBB resolved that it is for the NBA to take action against Monsanto
Saldanha claims that former state environment minister and KSBB chairman Krishna Palemar had earlier demonstrated his intent to prosecute the violators. However, in the 20 January meeting of the KSBB, he became party to passing a resolution that amounts to abdicating his responsibility. Interestingly, Palemar was one of the three ministers caught in the infamous porngate scandal.
But KSBB officials had a different story to tell. “We lack the staff and technical expertise to pursue the case,” says KSBB Member Secretary KS Sugara. “The Act is new and our officers are not well versed with it. We don’t have the powers to prosecute anybody, it can be done only through the wildlife wing.”
Meanwhile, Additional Chief Secretary Kaushik Mukherjee was more forthcoming in his support for Monsanto. “It has not violated any laws and there is no need to seek permission from the board, since it’s an issue concerning the Indian Council of Agricultural Research. It’s just a hue and cry raised by NGOs. While they are eager to point out genetic modification in food crops, they don’t utter a word when it comes to drugs that have GM molecules,” he says
NBA Chairman Balakrishna Pisupati refused to comment on this issue. So was the case with Monsanto. A letter addressed to Mahyco Chief Technological Officer Usha Barwale Zehr seeking her company’s comment went unanswered.
“This is an astonishing act of abandoning the KSBB’s obligatory functions of taking appropriate legal action against Monsanto and Mahyco and their collaborators for committing criminal acts of biopiracy,” says Saldanha.
Imran Khan is a Senior Correspondent with Tehelka.