Draconian bill

The Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Bill, which the government proposes to introduce in the current session of parliament, contains many undemocratic and unconstitutional provisions which will not only stifle scientific growth but go against the spirit of enquiry and freedom of expression.

The purported aim of the bill is to improve the regulatory processes with respect to research, import, manufacture and use of genetically modified (GM) products in the country. The recent controversy over the introduction of Bt brinjal probably hastened the government’s thinking but it seems to have learnt the wrong lessons from the experience. If the government had to backtrack in the face of public criticism in the case of Bt brinjal, it wants to pre-empt such criticism in future.

Section 63 of the draft bill prescribes a jail term of up to one year and a fine of Rs 2 lakh for anyone who “without evidence or scientific record misleads the public about the safety of the organisms and products.” Such blanket outlawing of criticism is unacceptable. It is difficult to imagine that the government can think of introducing such provisions in a bill. Who is to decide what is meant by ‘misleading?’

In fact freedom means the freedom to hold a wrong belief also without the fear of fine or jail. Another clause seeks to keep information about GM products out of the purview of the Right to Information Act. This is too draconian and is designed to prevent probing and enquiry. Yet another clause, Section 81, makes the proposed National Biotechnology Authority solely responsible for releasing and controlling genetically modified organisms. Agriculture and health are state subjects but the bill does not envisage any significant role, other than advisory, for states in this vital area.

Research and business relating to GM products are caught in controversy. There is need for informed debate and transparency in the government’s approach to the issues involved and in its actions. But the disputed provisions of the bill give the impression that the government wants to shut out criticism. Legislation is needed as there is a legal void in the emerging area of genetic research and its applications. But in the present form, the bill is not likely to stand judicial scrutiny. It will be a setback to the general aims of the bill if it is held up in courts for its anti-democratic and unconstitutional provisions. The government should drop these provisions in public interest.

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