The surcharged debate over GM (genetically modified) crops and food has blundered into ominous terrain. Do civil society and scientists have the right to question government decisions on deployment of GM crops and foods? If a new draft bill for setting up a national biotechnology regulatory body goes through Parliament in its present form, exercising this right could be at the protesters’ peril. In plainspeak, that’s imprisonment for a minimum of six months and a fine to boot.
That’s what Section 63 of the third revised draft of the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Bill proposes for those questioning the safety of GM crops without scientific evidence or record. “It is clearly meant to harass civil society groups concerned about the application of this hazardous technology,” says Kavitha Kuruganti of Kheti Virasat Mission. Her concern: the bill proposes a regime that rests on narrow risk assessment procedures and that too without any independent testing mechanism.
Even environment minister Jairam Ramesh is unhappy. “There is a fundamental flaw in the bill...it overrides the Environment Protection Act, 1986. The way it is presently crafted is unacceptable,” says Jairam. Actually, there’s not much time to sort things out. After vetting, and incorporating changes suggested by the law ministry, the draft bill was sent this month to the cabinet secretary, who referred it to a committee of secretaries. The ministries have time till the end of February for their feedback. “By early March the draft bill would have taken a final shape for seeking cabinet approval,” Dr M.K. Bhan, secretary, Department of Biotechnology (dbt)—which is framing the draft—told Outlook.
Charges that the draft bill is draconian are unpalatable to Bhan, who stresses, “Nobody is trying to keep civil society out of the system.” Law minister Veerappa Moily assures, “There will be no adverse impact on the scientific community. If they have concerns, they will be heard.” He further clarified that “we are just administrators. We will see to the execution while they (the scientific community) will help formulate the policy”.
However, despite being part of the initial consultation process, many scientific, legal and environmental experts are questioning aspects of the draft bill. Some say many of the clauses are detrimental to the public and environment.
Strongly opposing the idea of “gagging scientists and whistle-blowers” instead of providing them protection, agricultural scientist M.S. Swaminathan feels that apart from the proposed regulatory body there should be multiple layers of scrutiny as in the US. Besides the US Environment Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Agriculture Plant Health Inspection Service, strict liability laws act as deterrents for erring companies in the US.
The first breakthrough in GM technology was achieved in 1953 but the scientific community imposed a voluntary moratorium for two decades. Though restrictions have been eased as regulatory frameworks evolved, many countries remain cautious—Australia and China among others have lately imposed some curbs. The UK, the first to pass GM laws, is among nations that have ensured public interest representation in the process. In the case of companies seeking to keep some information confidential, they have to give proper justification.
How will this all pan out? Swaminathan—who headed the taskforce that in 2004 recommended setting up a regulatory authority—remains hopeful that greater climate change literacy and GM awareness due to incidents over the past three months will get reflected in the regulatory body. “I hope all these churning of views will help us set up a regulatory body that will ensure bio-safety, health, crop safety, security of farmers’ income and trade security (like with basmati),” says the agriculture scientist.
That’s important, because debates on climate change and GM crops have eroded public faith in scientists and in science. Bhan, a paediatrician before taking charge of dbt, rues the fact that scientists, including himself, are seen as being on the other side and not part of society. He contends, “Policy should be decided as a society but products can only be assessed through a competent, science-based, transparent regulatory system.”
All this does serve up an aura of disquiet, but it’s not surprising that things have come to such a pass. Like the Bt brinjal moratorium—when public and scientific communities’ voices found space—it is crucial that health and bio-safety concerns are addressed before the bill becomes law. But science or no science, the “draconian” parts of the bill highlights a greater need for debate and thought. Let’s not rush this through.
By Lola Nayar and Chandrani Banerjee
Is the UPA’s GM bill (A Law Unto Itself, Mar 8) aimed at ensuring mnc hegemony forever, making only GM foods available to us? Such environmentally/ sociologically dangerous moves could make even ‘couch intellectuals’ like me think differently of Naxalism.
Thank you to all those who have taken the trouble to read the article and share their thoughts. Out of the arguments made here, there are two that perhaps need answering. So here they go.
1. The first part of the article compares outcomes (relative percentages of population of the religions concerned) irrespective of the process that led to those outcomes - whether immigration, relatively faster population growth or conversions. This was for two reasons. One, to put the figure of 2.3 per cent in "numerical perspective", as the article itself explained. The second reason was that outcomes are ultimately what the crux of debate is about. The rest of the article in any case dealt with process - or conversions in this case, from both a contemporary and historical perspective.
2. Some commenters have tried to cast doubts on the reliability of Census 2001. Those who do this should bear in mind that Census 2001 was conducted by a BJP government. Considering the extreme importance that BJP gives to this issue, it would be reasonable to expect that IF it had perceived a problem with the methodology that was distorting the numbers, it would have fixed it. As the article mentioned, BJP or BJP-supported governments have been in power for 10 of the last 40 years, or about a quarter of the time, and the only reasonable conclusion one can arrive at is that any misreporting of numbers, real or perceived, would be marginal and hence, not of importance.
To all other arguments made, my answer is the following: Please read the article again, with particular focus on the quotations of Vivekananda and Monier Williams, and the history of the missionary efforts in Bengal and their outcome.
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