Biotech Bill is balanced: C. K. Rao

Chavali Kameswara Rao, Executive Secretary of Bangalore-based Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education, dispels fears over the proposed Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India.

doi:10.1038/nindia.2011.187 Published online 22 December 2011

[A new Bill to be introduced in the Indian Parliament aims at creating the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI), a single window clearance system for genetically modified (GM) crops. It is facing opposition from civil societies, sections of the scientific community, some politicians as well as farmers' organizations. They claim that BRAI will only help multinational seed companies like Monsanto introduce GM crops ignoring safety concerns. This, they say, could pose a threat to people's right to safe food and sustainable livelihoods of small farmers.]

Chavali Kameswara Rao.

Nature India : There is allegedly a conflict of interest as BRAI, which is supposed to regulate GM crops, is proposed to be under the Ministry of Science and Technology, whose mandate is to promote GM crops.

C. K. Rao : Biotechnology and its regulation are both aspects of science and so the Ministry of Science and Technology (MoST) is the right ministry to handle it. But even so the ministry does not control BRAI's functioning. Earlier all scientific regulation was with the Regulatory Committee for Genetic Modification of the Department of Biotechnology that is under MoST. The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) was under the Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF) because the primary function of the GEAC is to ensure environmental safety. Nevertheless, the GEAC overstepped its mandate and interfered with all aspects. GEAC is a statutory body and the Minister has no business to interfere like Jaiaram Ramesh (former minister of environment and forests) did. It is absurd to project MoEF as more honest than MoST. 'Conflict of interest' is a double edged sword and the activists are equally open to a similar charge. If the BRAI was placed under the MoEF they would have said this is not correct.

NI : BRAI will be a centralized, narrow authority (only five members against 30 in GEAC) with no checks on its power, a mechanism for consultation with the public or involvement of multiple stakeholders in decision-making.

CKR : By the time an issue comes for final consideration or clearance of the BRAI, some 200 scientists and other experts, ten public sector and five private sector institutions would have evaluated it. It is utter nonsense to brand all of them corrupt. There are 30 members in GEAC, most of them ex-officio, who rarely attended meetings or have any background to determine the course of decisions.

NI : The Bill lacks any redressal mechanism whereby stakeholders can be compensated for damages or ensured remediation.

CKR : There is an appellate authority to look into grievances against BRAI. In fact, the activists have been fighting against the clause in the Bill that seeks to punish activists or crop developers making false claims.

NI : By placing regulatory control in the hands of the Union Government, the Bill seeks to deny state governments their constitutional authority over Agriculture and Health.

CKR : Agriculture is in the state list. But the states have failed in fulfilling their obligations. Agriculture being in the state list does not mean that the central government has no rights on agricultural policy and research. The country's major investment in agriculture comes from the Union and all the policy of R & D is overseen by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research. The Union, as a major investor in agriculture, has the power to direct and regulate agricultural R&D. In the past, the Union had acted on hundreds of occasions on issues in their list without the states protesting.

NI : The BRAI Bill is inconsistent with legislations like the Biological Diversity Act and plant protection laws.

CKR : Biodiversity Act and the Biodiversity Authority are political instruments rooted in distorted science. For example, the activists use 'biopiracy' as the principle thrust argument against agricultural research. I have extracted written clarifications both from the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Biodiversity Authority of India that the term 'biopiracy' has neither been defined in any document nor has it been a part of the rules. So it has no status. All biodiversity laws are about wild natural vegetation and not man-made crops. The little sense of function and authority the Biodiversity Act and authority have is ruined by overuse of the foreign element by the activists.

NI : The Bill contains no mechanism for transparency — it bypasses citizen's right to information by overriding the Right to Information Act (RTI), 2005.

CKR : Any modern technology involves Intellectual Property Rights (IPR). Patent documents are released after deleting the confidential business information (CBI) after the patent is granted. Except for the CBI, RTI provisions apply to all other aspects of the technology information and its biosecurity evaluation. Biosecurity dossiers containing tests and results are not protected.