Processing environment concerns in the public space

Public protests, more people’s action and then the public hearings followed by the ‘considered’ and controversial decision of the Union environment and forests minister in February for a moratorium on a particular Bt brinjal variety developed under a public-private partnership as part of the USAID’s Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project II (ABSPII).

But just as one was beginning to digest the implications, came the buzz about a proposed law to  set up a national authority for the regulation of modern biotechnology (including GE crops like Bt Brinjal). There was no official announcement of it. A revamped version of its 2008 avatar, the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Bill (BRAI) 2009, is now doing the rounds.

What has been repeated once again is the pattern of secrecy by which the Indian government moots laws of far-reaching implications. The making of laws such as this continues to be covered under a 1923 legislation called the Official Secrets Act. It is reported that every page of a BRAI-like Bill remains marked as ‘secret’, and discussed only with people or institutions that a relevant government ministry considers fit, before it is introduced in parliament. Very often such draft laws are not even revealed if Right to Information (RTI) applications are filed, as with this Bill too. The department of biotechnology (DBT), which is spearheading this Bill, said in response to an RTI in September 2009 that a Bill of this nature is under interministerial consultations. Once the process is completed it will be uploaded on the ministry website.

Apart for this core concern that straddles through law and policy making processes in India, there exist some alarming points of dissent with regard to a regulatory regime for biotechnology. The BRAI Bill, 2009, is essentially being brought on board to regulate research, manufacture, import of organisms, transfer and so on related to modern biotechnology. It works on the premise that modern biotechnology is the acceptable way forward for the future of farming and other sectors. It stands in stark contrast to the agro-biodiverse farming practices and ecological cropping systems that many farmers have conserved and revived despite not much policy support over the years.

Fears turn into apprehensions and then into sharp criticism when one traces the origins of the Bill. The proposed law emanates from the DBT, ministry of science and technology, which is mandated to promote modern biotechnology. The people of India are yet to fathom the dangers and risks of these new technologies, and there is no consensus and that here lies the future of India’s agriculture. But the DBT presupposes it when it presents this model for regulation.

Regulation

Past legislative and implementation experience has shown that ‘regulation’ does not mean restriction. It often lays down a set of rules laying down the procedure by which a clearance can be sought. And in this one we will have the DBT playing a double role as proponent of the law and one that will in future be seeking approvals under it.

What is also alarming is that despite the government talking about public disclosure, transparency and scrutiny of approval processes, the BRAI Bill and the process it prescribes, present no scope for it. The Bt brinjal public consultations brought to light that even the smallest space for public debates can change the face of how social, political and scientific thinking can be attempted to be the basis of decision making. No laboratory research or closed door decisions can replace this process. Social, ethical and environmental concerns can only be processed in a public space and not behind closed doors, and modern biotechnology has all these concerns surround it.

The DBT could at least take a cue from the public hearings that the MOEF organised. But the BRAI Bill seems to be stuck in the conservative thinking that only few experts can best determine what is good or bad for a vast country like India. What farmers, ordinary people or consumers feel doesn’t seem to matter in this process.

One of the most shocking clauses in the Bill is one which states that if anyone without any evidence of scientific record ‘misleads’ the public about the safety of organisms specified in the Schedule of the proposed law, they can be imprisoned, fined or punished with both. This attempt takes the punch out of all the public awareness, mobilising and activism that went behind the Bt brinjal like campaigns. A few in the scientific community felt that the civil society groups were misleading the public. Yet such a provision even discourages those within the academe and scientific community to raise a voice about biosafety. This time they went ahead sans persecution, but next time if the drafters of the Bill have their way many would have been gagged.

For a country so rich in agriculture, indigenous seeds and farmers’ science, it is ironic that the government machinery is attempting to find answers in untested and risk-ridden technologies. The Bill is attempting to engineer a consensus on contested grounds and opinions.

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