Raghuvansh Prasad Singh: BRAI Bill – Bulldozing public opinion

The government has finalised the draft of the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Bill. A close reading of the draft shows that, on the one hand, this Bill intends to provide single-window clearance to genetically-modified (GM) crops promoted by multinational seed companies; on the other, it ignores the possible risks and threats to our agriculture, health and environment from this controversial technology.

The nation saw a widespread debate on Bt brinjal, the first GM food crop to have been considered for commercial cultivation in the country. Public consultations organised during that debate clearly highlighted the objections and concerns of all sections of society, including scientists, on GM foods in general and Bt brinjal in particular.

Despite the moratorium, there have been many efforts in the past several months to overlook the legitimate concerns over GM crops and this proposed regulatory system called BRAI is one such significant effort.Twelve state governments, including the largest brinjal-cultivating states – West Bengal, Bihar and Odisha – expressed their concerns with regard to this novel and unnatural GM food crop. The government responded rightly to the diverse voices all around and placed a moratorium on the commercial release of Bt brinjal on February 9, 2010.

A hasty move in the wrong direction

The fact that the draft of the Bill was not put in the public domain and the haste with which the Bill was listed for tabling – it was given to the MPs just a few hours before its scheduled introduction in the Lok Sabha on August 17 – makes it clear that the government is in no mood for an informed debate either inside or outside Parliament on BRAI. It was thanks to the raging anti-corruption debates in the Lok Sabha that the Bill could not be introduced by the ministry of science and technology.

The problems with the current proposal of the regulatory system starts with the conflicting interest in which ministry is tabling the Bill, the ministry of science and technology that also has the mandate to promote GM crops in the country. The Bill also proposes to have an appellate tribunal that is the sole forum for redressal. This is a scary situation in which the promoter himself becomes the regulator, prosecutor and the judge. This is the recipe for a corrupt autocratic system.

One of the biggest issues with the current regulatory system, with the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) as the nodal agency, was that it overrules the constitutional role of state governments in policy decisions regarding agriculture and health. After almost 13 years of existence and resistance to it, the GEAC recently amended its rules to give state governments the decision-making power on the approval of field trials, which is the first level of open release of GM crops. The proposed BRAI seeks to reverse this and take control of decisions related to any open releases of GM crops, be it for experiments or for commercialisation. This is clearly an unconstitutional move since agriculture and health, two sectors that would be impacted by GM crops, are under the state list of the Indian Constitution and states should have a role in deciding anything that has an impact on these sectors.

Adding to the unconstitutionality is the powers that have been given to the five-member Biotechnology Regulatory Authority to override the provisions in the Right to Information Act, 2005.

The provisions laid out in Section 2, Section 28, Section 70 and Section 77 of this Bill undermine the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression, and the right to life, by violating the provisions and protection of the RTI Act. And by preventing civil courts to have jurisdiction on any matter under the Act.

Anti-farmer and anti-people

This draft Bill clearly intends to circumvent opposition to GM and to facilitate the monopolisation of our seed sector by multinational seed giants like Monsanto. Besides having the wrong mandate, the proposals are completely sidestepping the precautionary approach and not addressing all the serious shortcomings of the existing regulatory regime. The BRAI proposal does not talk about the mandate of protecting India’s environment and health from the risks of modern biotechnology, which should be the primary mandate for any regulatory regime.

Given the growing concern in the country about the impact of GM crops to our health, our farmers livelihoods and food and seed sovereignty, it is high time that the government recognises it. Instead of coming up with such cantankerous legislations as the BRAI Bill to promote risky technologies like genetic modification, it should go after real solutions that are economically, socially and environmentally sustainable.

In the light of public concern on GM crops and such blatant violations of constitutional rights in the current BRAI Bill version, the prime minister should not let his science and technology minister introduce the BRAI Bill in Parliament without widespread public consultations.

The author represents the Vaishali constituency of Bihar in the Lok Sabha and is a member of the Rashtriya Janata Dal. He was Union cabinet minister for rural development in the first United Progressive Alliance Cabinet

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