The Indian Environment Minister , Sri Jairam Ramesh deserves congratulations for the efforts he is making to hear the public’s views on Bt brinjal. If nothing else, the range of public concerns relating to Bt brinjal will come to the fore and help form the Minister’s opinion about GM crops in general. However the fact of the matter is, that despite his good intentions, the Minister is not in a position to take any action in the matter of Bt brinjal. If he were to decide on the strength of evidence presented to him, that Bt brinjal were indeed undesirable, he would not have the power to act to stop its release. The reason is that in this case, the Minister of Environment and Forests has no locus standii. The statutory authority to take decisions on the release of GMOs, rests with the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) which is India’s apex decision making body.
In India, GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) are regulated under the Environment Protection Act 1986 . In addition the Indian biosafety regulatory framework comprises the 1989 Rules for the Manufacture, Use, Import, Export and Storage of Hazardous Micro organisms, genetically Modified Organisms and Cells" , followed by the 1990 "Recombinant DNA Safety Guidelines" (1990 DBT Guidelines) and the 1994 "Revised Guidelines for Safety in Biotechnology" (1994 DBT Guidelines) and the 1998 "Revised Guidelines for Research in Transgenic Plants and Guidelines for Toxicity and Allergenicity Evaluation of Transgenic Seeds, Plants and Plant Parts" (1998 DBT Guidelines). According to this legal framework, the statutory authority vested with the power to take decisions on GMOs, is the GEAC.
The Environment Minister could however make a signal contribution in the matter of GMOs after being informed by the exercise of public consultations. He should take steps to improve the regulatory system on GMOs, plug the loopholes and tighten the system to make it technically competent and transparent. This step alone would sort out half the problems. A stringent, transparent regulatory system would not allow dubious, poorly tested products to be foisted on the public. Because of the weak and ambiguous nature of the Rules of 1989 ( and subsequent amendments) , agencies wanting the release of their products can avail of shortcuts and pliant regulators assist in this indefensible activity.
Gene Campaign had filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court in 2004, asking for a National Biotechnology Policy and a vastly improved regulatory system incorporating among other things, technical competence, transparency and the involvement of the public in decision making. The case is dragging through the Supreme Court in its sixth year with no signs of any resolution. In the meantime GEAC has preempted everything and given permission for the cultivation of Bt brinjal. This has happened despite the fact that there is neither a labeling system in place, nor a law on liability in this country. If some harm were to come from the commercialization of Bt brinjal, either to farmers ( poor crops) or to consumers who ate the vegetable, there is no law according to which the Mahyco seed company could be held responsible and made to pay compensation . In the absence of a liability law, the Mahyco company would go scot free even if its product were to inflict damage. In the absence of a labeling law , India’s official position is for mandatory labeling, the consumers would have no way of telling whether they were eating Bt brinjal or not. The freedom of choice guaranteed by the Consumer Protection Act of India has been taken away by the GEAC with its decision to allow Bt brinjal to be commercialized before a system of labeling has been put in place.
The GEAC permission for the commercialization of Bt brinjal is highly questionable on these grounds alone.
By getting involved, Mr Jairam Ramesh has taken the initiative and given himself the opportunity to do something worthwhile. He could take the bull by the horns and do a great public service by forcing an overhaul of the legal framework governing GMOs in India. It is high time this was done. The regulatory framework stands on wobbly legal legs. An evaluation done by the Law Ministry a couple of years ago had suggested that the system would not stand scrutiny in a court of law. It is ad hoc and arbitrary and full of opportunities for misuse. Mr Ramesh could certainly get that sorted out.