Introduction to Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Bill: The proposed Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India is a result of the 2004 Task Force Report on Agricultural Biotechnology which was accepted by the Union Government in 2005. The task Force was headed by M.S Swaminathan. According to him “The bottom line of our national agricultural biotechnology policy should be the economic well-being of farm families, food security of the nation, health security of the consumer, protection of the environment and the security of our national and international trade in farm commodities.” The task force had recommended a statutory and autonomous National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority (NBRA). It was proposed to have two wings: One for agricultural and food biotechnology and the other for medical and pharmaceutical biotechnology.
But the NBRA was delayed and later converted into BRAI. It is speculated that the reason for delay was the turf war. Since GEAC was a body under Minister of Environment and Forest but the BRAI has been formulated by the Department of Biotechnology which is under the ministry of science and technology. The BRAI will replace the General Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) as the apex body for vetting of Genetically Modified Organisms.
Why BRAI should be opposed?
There has been a huge hue and cry over this proposed bill and many farmers, Greenpeace, other NGOs and agencies are protesting against it. There are various provisions in the bill which affect the farmers adversely. The Biotechnology Bill has been assessed and criticized on certain points which are discussed as follows.
- Representation from States.
Agriculture and health are state subjects in spite of which states have no representation in the authority. They only have an advisory role in the State Biotechnology Regulatory Advisory Committee. This entails that the freedom which the ministers of various states have exercised in banning GM from their states will be taken away and their decisions nullified. According to Section 81 of the Bill, the Act will have an over-riding effect (over other State-level acts). This suppresses the traditional rights that farmers have over their lands.
- Public participation.
The earlier draft of the Bill a punishment of 6 months to 1 year or a fine up to 2 lakh rupees can be imposed on whosoever misleads public on the safety of the GM and on the hand another provision makes it punishable to conduct independent trials. It seems that this provision has been incorporated to silence the civil society and any intelligent opposition to the gm policy of the government. According to Dr Bhargava “There is no penalty if someone promotes GMOs without safety tests, but there is a penalty if someone wishes to inform the public about the hazards of GMOs”.
Under section 28 of the Bill as regards risk assessment and authorization of manufacture and use of gmo when commercial confidential information is required to be disclosed it shall be retained notwithstanding any provision of Right to Information Act. Though it is the decision of the Central Vigilance Commission to assess which piece of information can or cannot be disclosed and even its decision can be challenged in the court.
- Public Consultation
India is signatory to Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety which mandates public participation but this bill gives no space for the public to voice their concerns about the safety of GM crops. Under the earlier law the GEAC was required to consult the public through an expert committee before giving approval to the crop. It was public participation which led to a moratorium on Bt Brinjal.
- Jurisdiction of Courts
Section 70 of the bill clearly states that no court can take cognizance of any offence committed under this Act unless the complaint comes from the Authority or an official acting on behalf of the Authority. Citizen Suit Provisions which have been provided in other environmental legislations like Air and Water Act do not find a mention in this Bill. Thus even if there are violations in any aspect of the GM crop or for example sake the Bt cotton fiasco repeats itself the citizens will be rendered helpless as they are not allowed under the law to prevent it. Section 77 bars civil court to determine any matter which the appellate tribunal is empowered to determine under this Act. It also cannot grant injunction against any action taken in pursuance of the provisions of this Bill. No stone has been left unturned to bring Genetically Modified Crops to India.
- General Constitution of the Body
The Central Government decides the selecting committee which further selects the members to various authorities being established under the Bill. The central government has been given the authority to give directions. The centre government can also supersede the authority when it is unable to discharge its functions, unable to comply with the directions issued by central government or it is necessary to do so for public interest. It is blatant that the Authority and its members, to retain their positions will comply with the wishes of the central government. This is similar to the emergency provision under constitution which has already proved to wreck havoc in our country through its misuse. The authority will just be a puppet in the hands of the government which will be motivated by its political agenda in the garb of economic agenda. When the authority will be reconstituted there will be fresh appointments.
- Overriding Effect
Except Drugs and Cosmetic Act, 1940 and Food and Safety Assessment Act, 2006, by virtue of Section 80 and section 81 it overrides all other laws including the Environment Protection Act. This means that action cannot be taken as genetic modification will not be considered as a hazardous substance or pollutant under and law pertaining to environment.
- Conflict of Interest
There exists a conflict of interest in the very inception of this body. This bill has been drafted by the Department of Biotechnology which itself is involved in propagating the use of gm. This will mean that BRAI will facilitate investment in GM crops instead of evolving and implementing strict safety standards for their operation. Erstwhile Environment Minister described the provisions of the proposed bill as ‘unacceptable’. He also claimed that Ministry of Environment or Ministry of Health is better suited to be the nodal department for the autonomous authority.
- No liability
The concept of fixing liability is absent. There is no provision for legal action against Union Government, BRAI or other bodies or officials working under it. Section 79 disguises the no liability clause in the doctrine of good faith. It provides that no suit, prosecution or other legal proceedings can lie against the Central Government, the Authority and any other bodies constituted under this Act or any other officer of the Central Government, any member, Chief Regulatory Officers and other offices or other employees, or other bodies, or other officers acting under this Act for anything done or intended to be done in good faith.
- Risk Management
There is no procedure of recall of crops once released in the environment. There is also no provision for revocation of approval to prevent harm to public or environment. Post marketing surveillances and monitoring is absent as well. Section 24 and 26 relate to the procedure for risk assessment for the research, transport, import, organism and product and the procedure for grant of authorization for manufacture or use of organism and products, respectively. It is also not clear whether the Product Rulings Committee will be the final arbiter of risk assessment or whether its reports will form the basis for such evaluation by the risk assessment unit. There are no provisions which deal with redressal or compensation and measures to be taken in case of an ecological disaster.
As we can see that the proposed BRAI Bill is against the interest of our country which has a large population earning their living by farming. It seems to defy the principles laid by the constitution. It must be opposed. Lets raise our voices and say out loud – STOP THE BRAI BILL!!
The BRAI Bill is available at http://www.prsindia.org/billtrack/the-biotech-regulatory-authority-bill-2011-1905/
Current laws on genetically modified crops are available at the site of Environment Ministry – http://moef.nic.in/, Department of Biotechnology – http://dbtindia.nic.in/index.asp and http://www.igmoris.nic.in/
 Section 64 deals with unapproved gm trials.
Picture Courtesy- Greenpeace.in