“Government sabotaging Public Debate on Genetically Modified (GM) Crops by the introduction of BRAI Bill”:
“No Vision for Sustainable Development, No Transparency, No Public Consultation, No Role for State Governments, No Biosafety Guarantees, No Needs Analysis, No Impact Assessment and No effective Liability and Redressal mechanisms in the BRAI Bill” say Civil Society groups, farmers’ unions and legal experts
New Delhi, 24th August 2011: Civil Society organisations, legal experts and farmer unions came together today to voice their opposition to the proposed Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Bill 2011 which they pointed out is a blatant and unscrupulous attempt by the Central Government to bulldoze the ongoing vibrant public debate in India and the serious concerns regarding human health, environmental safety and seed/food sovereignty issues surrounding the technology of Genetically Modified (GM) crops. The groups released a critique of the BRAI Bill and pointed out that this Bill is an egregious piece of legislation, that has scant regard for the norms of democracy - transparency, need for public consultation, recognition of the constitutional authority of the states over matters of health and agriculture - and the total absence of any substantial measures within the bill to address any aspects related biosafety. They pointed out that the introduction of the Bill by, and housing of the Authority in the Ministry of Science & Technology, whose mandate is to promote the development of GM crops, reeks of conflict of interest and is a sure recipe for corruption and an inherent bias in decision-making.
“In the last two years, since the opening up of the public debate on GM crops in India, and the independent scientific scrutiny of data and studies related to Bt Brinjal, it has been revealed many times over that GM crops could expose public health and environment to hitherto unknown dangers. Findings from recent studies, like the one from Canada that has found Bt toxins in the placenta of women and in the blood should ring alarm bells about this technology. Yet the Ministry of Science and Technology, instead of calling for a moratorium on this technology, till its safety is fully established, is going ahead and opening up the doors to speed up the spread of this technology in the country with this proposed unconstitutional, draconian bill that will establish a single window clearance mechanism for GM crops” said Sridhar R, Convener, Coalition for a GM Free India. “The Bill will sabotage the healthy debate that is happening in India on GM crops, and will be a serious hindrance to all other sustainable options that can ensure safe and healthy ways of ensuring food security” he added.
In the recent past, it has been rightly accepted by the Environment Ministry and institutionalized by the GEAC that in India’s federal structure, the states have a right to determine whether they want to allow open air field trials or not. Many States Governments have already rejected permissions for open air field trials. The proposed bill should have built on the progress made through trial and error and should have improved on the existing regulatory regime; it is instead a retrograde piece of legislation which is based on the reductionist principle of treating the issue of GMOs as a mere technological one, to be decided upon by a small group of technical experts.
“During the short history of GM crops in the country since efforts began to introduce Bt cotton, the only commercially approved GM crop in our country, there has been strong resistance from citizens in the country, reflected in the public debate on Bt brinjal last year. If the government is still going ahead full steam on promotion of transgenics, disregarding such resistance, then there is no doubt about whose side it is on. The BRAI Bill, by its lax procedures and clearing house approach, will surely jeopardize this country’s seed sovereignty and endanger the productive resources of farmers, on which their very livelihoods depend. As can be seen with a decade of Bt cotton, cost of cultivation is increasing, with seed cost increasing exorbitantly; in regions like Vidarbha, farm suicides have actually increased after the entry of Bt cotton even though it was promoted as a silver bullet to the farmers of cotton farmers there”, said Yudhvir Singh, Leader of the Bharatiya Kisan Union and National Coordinator of the Indian Coordination Committee of Farmers' Movements.
“The Biosafety protection regime in the country should naturally follow the Cartagena Protocol under the Convention on Biological Diversity, which lays down progressive principles like precautionary approach, democratic decision-making with public consultations etc. Till date the Environmental Protection Act (EPA1986, Rules 1989) was the legal framework and the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) the apex regulatory body under the Ministry of Environment and Forests. Now the proposed BRAI Bill is an unconstitutional attempt by the government to take this away from the MOEF with the primary mandate of environment protection and vest it into the Science and Technology Ministry whose focus is promotion of biotechnology. This is not just an issue of conflict of interest but a denial of the correct mandate for a regulator – namely biosafety, public health and environmental protection.” said Colin Gonsalves, Senior Advocate of the Supreme Court of India.
“One of the major concerns is the overarching powers that the regulatory authority is granted on withholding essential information like biosafety studies of GM crops. The clause 28 of the proposed BRAI bill asserts that such information can be considered as commercial confidential information and Authority can even override the Right to Information Act, 2005, on public requests for such data. This is completely unacceptable and regressive. If everything is safe with GM crops, why should the Bill even have clauses around withholding information or officials having to take an oath of secrecy? It is apparent from the world over that wherever informed debates have been allowed on the matter of transgenics, citizens have strongly rejected the technology. This is what the government is afraid of and this Bill is an attempt to muzzle such informed debates.Nothing can be more undemocratic than this move by the govt." said Sri Vijay Pratap, Convenor, South Asian Dialogues on Ecological Democracy (SADED).
Speakers in the press conference demanded that the Government desist from introducing this seriously flawed, narrow, technocratic BRAI Bill, and formulate a holistic and effective Biosafety Protection legislation under the aegis Ministry of Environment and Forests or Ministry of Health & Family Welfare or both, with an independent and credible inter-ministerial regulatory framework. It should be as articulated by the 2004 Task Force Report on Agricultural Biotechnology where the bottom line for the regulatory policy would be “the safety of the environment, the well being of farming families, the ecological and economic sustainability of farming systems, the health and nutrition security of consumers, safeguarding of home and external trade and the biosecurity of the nation”. They also demanded that neither the introduction of GM crops nor a regulatory bill to bulldoze its introduction be brought in until the debate on GM crops is resolved and the safety is fully established, under scientific and public scrutiny.
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