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Thou shalt not question GM food!
By Devinder Sharma

The proposed National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority Bill threatens the very essence of democratic values and freedom.


If Indian govt has its way, such agitations against GM
food will land people in jail

The ghost of Emergency is back. In fact, it is going to be much worse than the Emergency period. During the infamous Emergency era, anyone could be arrested for questioning the powers that be. If the Ministry for Science & Technology has its ways, you can be arrested for simply questioning the safety of your own food, if it is genetically modified.

As massive police action against Maoists, called Operation Green Hunt, is underway in the tribal regions of India, the government is now getting ready with yet another policing campaign to silence people's voices demanding safe food. Armed with the proposed NBRA, the government will now unleash a war against its own citizens. Their crime: they demand to know whether what they are being forced to eat is safe or not.

The unprecedented muzzle on the right to freedom of speech of every citizen forms part of the proposed Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) bill that is likely to be introduced in the Budget session in Parliament. Denials notwithstanding, Chapter 13 section 63 of the draft bill says, "Whoever, without any evidence or scientific record misleads the public about the safety of the organisms and products…shall be punished with imprisonment for a term that shall not be less than six months but which may extend to one year and with fine which may extend to two lakh rupees or with both."

During Emergency, you faced jail for your political differences. But if the proposed BRAI bill becomes legislation, you will have to in addition pay a fine.

"Whoever, without any evidence or scientific record misleads the public about the safety of the organisms and products…shall be punished with imprisonment for a term that shall not be less than six months but which may extend to one year and with fine which may extend to two lakh rupees or with both."

Even critical journalist writings can land the writer in jail. And those who dare to protest or cause obstruction to experiments too can be hauled up with imprisonment and/or fine or both. People's right to know more about the experiments conducted to determine environment and health safety too have been taken away. Article 27 (1) of the bill seeks to keep the information related to research, approval and science of the GM products out of the purview of the Right to Information ( RTI) Act.

The National Campaign for People's Right to Information finds the definition of "confidential commercial information" under section 2(h) limiting and restricting in the sense that any and all documents submitted to the Authority for research, transport or import of organisms and products will not be available for public scrutiny. Further, Section 81 overrides the RTI Act 2005 when it says: "the provisions of this Act shall have effect, notwithstanding anything inconsistent therewith contained in any other law for the time being in force or in any instrument having effect by virtue of any law other than this Act to have overriding effect."

That something as simple as food should invite such coercive measures to stifle critical voices is clearly a pointer at the desperation to push the seemingly unhealthy GM foods down our throat. Otherwise there seems to be no justification for even drafting such a law that gags public opinion. GM crops are known to be devastating to the environment and ecology, and the push for its acceptance undermines the task of biodiversity conservation. This goes against the recommendations of the Swaminathan Task Force Report, which said: "the bottom line for any biotechnology regulatory policy should be the safety of the environment and the economical and ecological sustainability of farming systems."

No wonder, the draft bill also says that the BRAI will set up its own appellate tribunal, which will have the jurisdiction to hear arguments on the issues concerning biotechnology. In case of any disputes, petitioners can only approach the Supreme Court of India.

Article 27 (1) of the bill seeks to keep the information related to research, approval and science of the GM products out of the purview of the RTI Act.

Any regulatory mechanism should inspire public confidence, and not take away the right to question the science and the process. Already the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), which is the apex body for environmental clearance for the GM crops, has come under a lot of flak for being a rubber stamp for the biotechnology industry. The moratorium on Bt brinjal announced by the Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh has clearly brought the need for a more open, transparent and accountable regulatory mechanism.

Still worse, I don't understand the urgent need that is being shown to set up a fast-track single window clearance for the controversial GM crops. Even in the USA, the Mecca for GM crops, the clearance system comprises three windows -- the US Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environment Protection Agency (EPA). Even then, the US regulatory process has been questioned time and again, and has been found to be faulty.

In India, the decision to approve GM crops, would essentially wrest with three member expert committee of the Department of Biotechnology. This has been given a go-bye. Moreover, the fact that the bill has been listed for introduction in Parliament with no space for discussion of its contents shows what is in store ahead.

The views expressed above are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of d-sector editorial team.

Devinder Sharma  |  hunger55@gmail.com

Devinder Sharma is an award-winning journalist, writer, and researcher globally recognised for his analysis on food, agriculture and trade policy. 

Write to the Author  |  Write to d-sector  |  Editor's Note

 Other Articles by Devinder Sharma in
Human Development  > Food > GM Food and Concerns

Bad science joins paid science
Monday, September 27, 2010

Entire India, more so its young scientists and students, is left embarrassed and ashamed after expose of ‘copy and paste’ job done by the heads of India’s top science academies to push GM food into India. While these academy heads continue to cling to their posts despite being exposed of disgraceful deeds, the incident only confirms the widespread corruption and incompetence in India’s academic and research institutions.

Why we should oppose Bt brinjal?
Thursday, February 11, 2010

Though the government of India has cancelled the GEAC approval for commercial cultivation of Bt brinjal, majority of people remain unaware of the facts related to the controversy. Here are FAQs to help the readers:

Turning People into lab rats
Sunday, July 19, 2009

Government is in a tearing hurry to allow production and sale of GM food in the country but who will take the responsibility in case its consumption turns out to be harmful for health.
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Corruption Watch

The bad news is that corruption has not only sustained but has grown in size and stature in the country. With scams being a regular feature, seventy per cent respondents in a survey have rightfully opined that corruption has continued to increase in India. One in every two interviewed admit having paid a bribe for availing public services during last one year. Transparency International's latest survey reveals that the political parties top the chart for the most corrupt public institutions, followed by police force and legislatures. No wonder, India continues to make new records on the global corruption arena!

The shocking revelation is that the health and education sectors haven't remained untouched by this phenomenon. With 5th and 6th positions respectively for these sectors on the public perception chart on corruption, corruption has crept insidiously into these sectors of hope for the masses. With bureaucracy being fourth in the list of corrupt institutions in the country, corruption seems to have been non-formally institutionalized with little hope if public services would ever be effective in the country. With economic growth having literally institutionalized corruption, are we now expecting corrupt to be socially responsible - a different CSR.

Poor. Who?

Not giving 'aid' to India is one thing but calling it 'rich' is quite another. If one in three of the world's malnourished children live in India, what does average daily income of $3 indicate? It perhaps means that there is a relative decline in poverty - people are 'less poor' than what they used to be in the past. But having crossed the World Bank arbitrary threshold of $2 a day does not absolve the 'developed' countries of their obligation to part with 0.7 per cent of their Gross National Income in development aid. Should this three-decade old figure not be revised?  

An interesting debate in UK's House of Commons delved on future of development assistance by the British Government. While prioritizing limited resources has been a concern, there has been no denying the fact that development aid must be guided towards tangible gains over a short period of time to start with. There are difficult choices for elected governments to make - should they invest in long-term primary education or in short-term university scholarships? Which of these will bring gains and trigger long-term transformation in the society. As politicians continue to be divided on the matter, poverty persists!!   

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