1.BRAI sparks outcry
2.Former Supreme Court judges oppose Bill on Biotechnology
3.Biotech firms alarmed by State government objections to GM field trials
1.BRAI sparks cry
Gokul Chandrasekar, Sruthisagar Yamunan
The New Indian Express, November 21 2011

With the winter session of Parliament beginning on Tuesday, you can expect plenty of drama. But there is one bit of action environmentalists, farmers, activists and experts are particularly wary of the possible tabling of the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Bill-2011 in Lok Sabha. They believe it is a tool to smother all objections against genetically modified crops.

Experts claim the draft Bill has certain draconian provisions that nullify the major legal frameworks available to the stakeholder public and civil society to ensure transparent conduct of business. Here’s a look at the gray areas:

State Govt Gagged

The draft Bill violates the constitutional authority of the State government over agriculture through an expediency clause, say experts. Remember Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, during the budget session in the State Assembly, announced that the government will not “promote” GM crops and walked the talk by withdrawing their budgetary provision? In a written speech circulated during a recent National Development Council meeting in New Delhi, she also reminded the Union government that agriculture was a State subject and the Centre must not infringe into its powers. But the draft Bill does exactly that, argue activists.

Of course, the Union government’s spin doctors see no devil. M R Madhavan, Head of Research at PRS Legislative Research, feels that there is nothing explicitly mentioned in the Bill that removes the powers of the State from taking a stand on genetically modified organisms (GMOs). “Though the Bill has an expediency clause, bringing the regulation of biotechnology under the powers of the Union, the states will still have the powers to intervene in issues like GM technology as agriculture is something that belongs to the State list,” Madhavan claims.

However, activists argue that the current draft cannot be read in isolation. “The changes brought in with each draft indicate that the Centre wants to vest all powers of regulation and introduction of GMOs with itself,” says Kavitha Kuruganti, noted anti-GM activist.

For example, the National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority (NBRA) draft, which was the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India’s predecessor, did not have the expediency clause. That clause was inserted in the 2010 BRAI draft. Also, according to Kavita, other sections, including 81 and 87, have clauses that give the Union government sweeping powers in any matter that involves biotechnology.

Out of RTI Ambit

This is perhaps the aspect that has invited the most attention and wrath. The draft Bill attempts to bypass the Right to Information Act (RTI) under the garb of being “Confidential Commercial Information”. Activists say that biosafety information cannot be confidential and the Supreme Court has already set a precedent for this in the Bt Brinjal case.

"Refusing transparency shows that BRAI has more to hide than to show," says Ananth Sayanan, of Safe Food Alliance. "Already sufficient information hasn’t been made available by the government. Even the information that is given is not in local language and is not of use to the primary stakeholders like farmers," he adds. "Matters will only become worse if BRAI is kept out of RTI ambit. There will be no way of knowing if there is monitoring and implementation of regulations.”

RTI has time and again helped activists and civil society expose or get information on field trials of GMOs at various areas, which will be impossible if BRAI becomes law.

Conflict of Interest

The ministry of Science and Technology, which is in charge of promoting genetically modified organisms in India like it promotes any other science and technology venture, is the regulating authority as the draft Bill proposes to set up the BRAI under the ministry. Activists view that as a clear case of conflict of interest.

"The Bt Brinjal file sailed through various ministries, including science and technology, without a hitch. It was stalled by the environment ministry alone. Now the government is trying to give a fast track single window clearance for genetically modified organisms through this Bill. This is like a student framing his own question paper and evaluating the answer sheets himself," says Ananth.

Deviation from Task Force Report

The draft Bill, according to experts, does not confirm to the bottom line of the task force report on Agricultural Technology, accepted by the government in 2004. The task force on agricultural biotechnology, headed by M S Swaminathan, laid six cornerstones," says Kavitha. They include well being of farming families, economic and environmental sustainability, bio-security and trade security. None of these has been taken into account while drafting the Bill. "The BRAI Bill has been drafted to make the authority a clearing house for GMOs that are in the pipeline to be launched in the country," says Kavitha. "By not taking the farmer’s or other primary stakeholder’s concerns into account, the draft Bill has clearly not incorporated the recommendations of the task force," she adds.

To put it otherwise, a regulatory authority consisting of three full-time members and two part-time members will take the final call on what the farmers will grow and what will land on your dinner table. With farmers reporting increasing losses with Bt Cotton, and with inconclusive science on the health impacts of GM food crops, there are no conclusive answers on why the government wants to fast track their entry into the country. “Maybe the government has taken the biotechnology industry’s demand to hasten the pace of implementation of the Bill a tad too seriously,” quips Kavitha.
2.Former SC judges oppose Bill on Biotechnology
Chetan Chauhan
Hindustan Times, November 20 2011

New Delhi – Before the start of Parliament's winter session, former judges of Supreme Court has questioned the efficacy of three government bills on new regulatory authority for bio-technology, unfair practices in higher education and constitution of education tribunals.

The winter session has hectic agenda for MPs as there are over 30 bill lists for introduction or consideration including six education bills and the Bio-technology Regulatory Authority Bill.

The former judges of Supreme Court S P Jeevan Reddy, Kuldeep Singh and M H Kania in a similar statement have expressed serious concern saying the ministry mandated to promote bio-technology was introducing the bill. They also said that the regulatory framework should have experts from other related ministries such as environment, agriculture, health and rural development.    

“The primary mandate of any biotechnology bill must be to ensure safety to consumers, farmers and the environment and not to facilitate quick clearances,” the judges said.

They also found the bill lacking in ensuring that citizens have a right to reject a Genetically Modified food, gram sabha refusal to all sowing of GM food crops and ensure that there is no contamination of environment because of GM crops.

“The penalties for transgressing of the rights of consumers or farmers to be GM free and for any environmental damage must be of a deterrent nature and quickly enforceable,” they said. 

In another set of view, former chief justices of India, A S Anand, Madan Mohan Punchhi and K N Singh had claimed that the government does not have legal competence to set regulatory mechanisms for universities as it was a domain of the state legislative bodies.

Their view was sought by Association of Self Financing Universities on HRD ministry’s Education Tribunal Bill and Prohibition of Unfair Practices in Technical, Medical and Universities Bill. These bills aim at setting up regulatory mechanisms at centre and state levels to address issues of concern in higher education including capitation fee, inadequate teaching facility and problem related to teachers.

The views of the former chief justices are based on entries in the Constitution related to matters on incorporation, regulation and winding up of the universities.

They said it was exclusively a state subject. The government, however, differ saying that there already is the University Grants Commission set up under a Central Law to regulate universities.

In addition to contrary legal views, Members of Parliament cutting across party lines have also opposed the proposed laws on different grounds.
3.State NOC requirement halts Bt crop field trials
Manasi Vaidya
BioSpectrum [biotech industry publication], November 14 2011

The recent resolution by the GEAC to seek state government's no objection to allow biotech firms to conduct field trials for Bt crops has affected around 100 field trials

The genetic engineering approval committee (GEAC), which is the apex body in the country to approve field trials for all genetically modified varieties of crops, introduced a new rule that bioagri companies must obtain a no objection certificate (NOC) from the respective state governments before acquiring approval from the GEAC for conducting field trials.

One of the triggers for this decision can be traced back to when Bihar Chief Minister Mr Nitish Kumar raised an objection to the GM crop field trials being carried out without the state's permission. The then environment minister, Mr Jairam Ramesh, had helped in the withdrawal of the permission granted by the GEAC to Monsanto India for conducting BRL-II trials for transgenic maize in Bihar on the basis of a request received from the chief minister of Bihar.

The GEAC at its 110th meeting, held on July 6, 2011, issued a resolution which states, “In order to take the views of the state government on board and to promote their involvement in activities pertaining to GM crop field trials specially in its effective monitoring, it was decided that in respect of all GM crop field trials, the GEAC and the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (RCGM) would issue an approval letter only on the receipt of an NOC from the respective state government.”

Mr Kapil Mishra, sustainable agriculture campaigner with Greenpeace defends the decision by saying, “According to our constitution, agriculture is a state subject and the state governments have a the right to choose what can and cannot be grown in their states.”

The impact of this rule has been felt by the bioagri companies, that were looking to carry out field trials of GM crops during this kharif season. Due to this development, over 100 proposals for field trials are pending with the GEAC for approval as they have not been issued NOCs by the state governments.

Mr Ram Kaundinya, CEO and managing director, Advanta Seeds and chairman of ABLE-AG, said, “This rule will cause a delay in bringing GM technology to the masses. The second layer of regulation seems to be more of a bureaucratic step.”

Sharing his thoughts, Mr M Prabhakar Rao, chairman, Nuziveedu Seeds, a leading bioagri company in India said, “The regulatory system should be such that it facilitates the easy introduction of new products in different states of our country. We are prepared to follow any of the regulations imposed by the government but ask for uniformity across the different states.”

India has been using Bt technology since 2002 when three Bt-cotton hybrids were approved for commercial cultivation. Indian farmers have since then taken to Bt technology in a big way with the total land area under Bt cotton in 2010-11 being 9.46 million hectare, which is over 85 percent of the total land under cotton cultivation in the country. A total of 780 Bt cotton introductions (779 hybrids and one variety) were approved for planting in 2010. The private sector is developing eight biotech crops, which include brinjal, cabbage, cauliflower, cotton, maize, okra, rice and tomato. Gujarat, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh are the leading producers of Bt cotton in India.

There is a fear among bio-agri companies that the result of leaving such a decision to the state governments would become more of a political issue than a scientific one, as different political parties have different outlooks towards GM crops. Bihar, Karnataka and Chhattisgarh have stated that they will not allow any field trials of GM crops. States such as Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat are said to have taken a positive stand and have constituted a committee to oversee this matter.

Providing more information, Dr N Seetharama, who has recently joined as the director of ABLE-AG, says, “States that have issued NOCs for field trials include Haryana (for GM cotton and GM corn), Gujarat (GM cotton and GM corn), Andhra Pradesh (GM cotton and is contemplating GM rice) and Rajasthan (GM mustard).”

This uncertainty has bred a lot of confusion among seed companies about the future of GM crops in India and has affected the bioagri companies. Reacting to this, Mr KK Narayanan, managing director, Metahelix, says,” This seems like an abdication of responsibility from the GEAC. We had applied for field trials in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Maharashtra, and could not carry them out because of the resulting confusion and can now do so only next year. The spirit in which this rule has been enforced, for creating stricter regulations for field trials, is right but the manner is not right. The confusion regarding the final authority still prevails.”

Another issue that is yet to be addressed in light of the decentralization of the approval system is that this rule may actually prevent the use of GM seeds in states that have not allowed trials to take place. Once the approval for GM crops has taken place it might be difficult to stop the influx of these seeds into states that previously denied permission for field trials. The unregulated use of GM seeds could lead to resistance by pests as it has in the case of Bollgard I in Gujarat and other states.

The way forward
The seed manufacturers have, as an organized body, decided to approach the government in order to address their concerns. Mr MG Shembekar, MD, Ankur Seeds, explains,” The special interest group of the National Seed Association are going to put forth a proposal to the state government in November 2011 to reconsider the rule and enforce it from the next year when clearer guidelines are in place.”

In light of the reports of major concerns over the safety of GM crops and the continuing protests against the introduction of Bt brinjal, it remains to be seen how well GM crops are received by the people. For now, the private sector has called for a regulatory system that is free of any political pressure and is uniform throughout the country. The real question that remains is whether specific uniform guidelines for all states will be prepared to issue NOCs in time for the rabi season, which starts in the month of November.