Press Release: COALITION FOR A GM-FREE INDIA
BRAI BILL 2011 IS NO BETTER THAN ANTI-PEOPLE, ANTI-NATURE BRAI 2009: IT IS A BLATANT ATTEMPT TO BULLDOZE STATE GOVTS’ & CITIZENS’ RESISTANCE AGAINST AND CONCERNS ABOUT GM CROPS:
“WRONG BILL BY WRONG PEOPLE FOR WRONG REASONS: ALL PROGRESSIVE PARTIES AND THEIR MPs SHOULD REJECT THE VERY INTRODUCTION OF THE BILL”
New Delhi, August 16th 2011: The BRAI Bill is a blatant attempt to bulldoze through the public resistance and genuine concerns about Genetically Modified crops, and to deny state governments their Constitutional authority over Agriculture and Health, said the Coalition for a GM-Free India in its reaction to the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India 2011 Bill to be introduced in the Parliament tomorrow. The Coalition urged Parliamentarians to object to the very introduction of the Bill in the Parliament tomorrow, stating that ‘it is a wrong bill by the wrong people for the wrong reasons’. The scam-ridden UPA government will only take a further beating in the eyes of the public if it tries to introduce and pass this Bill, warned the Coalition.
“This BRAI mechanism makes the regulatory system even weaker than the existing GEAC mechanism. As the nation remembers, the Bt Brinjal public hearings process saw state governments, farmer organizations, scientists, environmentalists, health experts and rest of civil society come out with huge concerns about GM crops, and the Government through its moratorium decision admitted the failure of GEAC regulatory mechanism and promised to strengthen the regulatory system. How can the same Government bring in a regulatory mechanism which is actually much weaker than GEAC and which overrides the state governments, local governments and public inputs?” demanded the Coalition.
“As we have said all along, regulation of modern biotechnology is not like regulation as in other sectors like telecom, where corrupt politicians and bureaucrats can hope to make money. The fundamental basis of regulation lies in the risks associated with modern biotechnology, and the requirement is for a prudent and responsible regulation based on precautionary principles. Therefore, there should only be one primary mandate or objective to this statute: to prevent risks to the health and safety of people of India, its environment and its biological diversity in particular, from the development, handling, transport, use, transfer and release of any living modified organisms. Given such a mandate, this Bill should be introduced not by the Ministry of Science and Technology whose very mandate is to advance biotechnology, but by the Ministry of Health or Ministry of Environment & Forests. The current Bill is objectionable on such fundamental grounds apart from its other failings,” said the Coalition in a press release.
The following are the main objections listed out by the Coalition in response to this Bill: (available at http://www.prsindia.org/uploads/media/Biotech/Biotech%20Regulatory%20Auhority%20Bill,%202011.pdf )
1. Wrong Ministry introducing it with wrong objectives: As mentioned above, there should be only one reason why this Bill should be enacted and that should be to uphold the biosafety of the people of India and its environment from the risks of modern biotechnology. If a technology is inherently unsafe, no amount of regulation can make it safer as is the case with the use of Genetic Engineering in our food and farming systems. Given that this statute is trying to replace the current regulatory regime as governed by the EPA’s 1989 Rules which have been expressly formulated to protect health, Nature and environment from the risks of modern biotechnology, there should be a strong, rational reason why the same will not be the objective for BRAI. What new scientific evidence or other evidence has emerged since then that this objective is being changed to also introduce fast-track clearance systems in the name of ‘effective and efficient’ regulatory procedures?
2. Over-riding state governments’ authority over their agriculture and health: This Bill has a clause in the very first chapter (Section (2)) which seeks to keep the regulatory control in the hands of Union Government, in the name of “public interest”. This is unconstitutional and retrogressive, especially given the recent change in regulatory norms in India, rightfully so for the first time, allowing state governments to have a greater say in the deployment of modern biotechnology especially in the context of field trials/environmental release of GMOs.
3. Bypassing the citizens’ Right to Information: This Bill, through Section 28, expressly seeks to classify some information as Confidential Commercial Information and leaves it to the discretion of officials of the Authority to share or not share this information. This once again is regressive, given that the Bt brinjal controversy saw express Supreme Court orders to the regulators asking them to put out all the biosafety data in the public domain. What is the point in incorporating a component of obtaining public feedback through Section 27 (5) if the biosafety data is not put out in the public domain? This is completely objectionable and no political party should support clauses like this.
The same is true to the Oath of Secrecy that the Authority Chair and Members are expected to take in addition to other officials. Why is modern biotechnology and its deployment a secret affair, unless there is something to hide from the public? How can this Authority be trusted to act in the best interest of Indians with such clauses built in?
4. 3-member Authority to decide for all of us?: The Bill essentially proposes that a 3-member Authority, with support from 2 other part-time members will take decisions, even though certain new mechanisms like the Environment Appraisal Panel have been introduced, compared to the last version of the Bill seen in 2010. However, this Authority has been vested with all powers to decide and while it appears that the authority will take recommendations of Risk Assessment Unit and Products Ruling Committee, the entire authority of decision-making rests with this small group of scientists! There are even clauses which prevent invalidation of the proceedings of the Authority by mere vacancies (sic) etc., in this Bill. When an inter-ministerial body 30-member body like the GEAC, which was also taking biosafety recommendations from a group of scientists called the RCGM and acting accordingly, could be found lacking rigour or independence so often in the past, how can this Biotech Regulatory Authority with its 3 full-time and 2 part-time members be trusted and how can Indians place their faith on them? Further, biotech regulation is not just about biosafety for decisions to be taken based on someone declaring something to be ‘safe’. There are issues related to farmers’ rights, consumers’ rights, trade security, sustainable development etc., all linked to modern biotechnology and its applications.
5. Conflict of Interest issues: The clauses meant to prevent conflict of interest are quite weak and only involve restrictions on future employment for one year after cessation of office. Therefore nothing prevents some appointee getting a hefty sum before joining the authority and then clearing applications in the corruption-laden systems all around us. There are not even such restrictions for the officials in the Biosafety Assessment Units or Product Rulings Committee etc., even though they would be doing the recommendations that would form the basis of decision-making later on! As we know, conflict of interest has emerged as a major concern in the current regulatory system.
6. No Needs Evaluation: One of the fundamental recommendations of the Task Force on Agricultural Biotechnology led by Dr.Swaminathan was that “transgenics should be resorted to when other options to achieve the desired objectives are either not available or not feasible.” The BRAI doesn’t talk about any needs evaluation and assessment of alternatives, which was also stressed by the Government in its Bt brinjal moratorium decision – and assumes that all biotechnology and GM crops are a fait accompli.
7. There are no proposals at all for independent testing which is a great problem witnessed time and again in the current regulatory regime too. Worse, there are proposals of notifying labs under this Act that have not even been accredited!
8. There are no improvements being made in terms of open air trials not happening before biosafety is thoroughly, independently and democratically assessed. Using quaint terms like ‘environmental release’ for actual commercial cultivation and using other terms like field trials for open air releases even though they are environmental releases too, the proposed Bill has no improvements to suggest to address the serious lacunae with field trials which are making state government after state government reject the possibility of any open air trials taking place in their state.
9. The Bill has very weak penal clauses (Chapter XII on Offences and Penalties) and in fact does not address liability issues at all: without a liability regime in place, no regulatory regime is complete on this issue. Liability should put the onus of violations on the crop developer primarily and not the users. Further, liability should cover criminal and civil liability as well as redressal/compensation to affected parties like farmers in addition to remediation for damage caused.
10. It is unacceptable that the Bill has a clause (70) which says that no court shall take cognizance of any offence punishable under this Act save on a complaint made by the Authority or any officer or person authorized by it! What is the rationale for this other than to protect offenders? Equally objectionable is Section 77 which prevents civil courts to have jurisdiction on any matter which the Appellate Tribunal under the Act is empowered to determine, wherein there is a bar on any injunction to be granted by any court in respect of any action taken by the Authority.
11. It is also objectionable that this Act will have an over-riding effect over other laws in force since this Bill is indeed inconsistent with legislations like the Biological Diversity Act.
The above few points are only some of the main objections. There are several other problems with the Bill in terms of the Appellate Authority proposed, in its Inter-Ministerial Governing Board and its role and constitution etc. etc.