The NBRAI, the Civil Nuclear Liability Bill, and the Foreign Education Institutions Bill: A Portmanteau Critique of Recent Legislation

March 23, 2010

The National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority Bill 2009
The Civil Nuclear Liability Bill: A message by NAAM
Foreign Education Institutions (Regulation of Entry and Operation) Bill, 2010

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The National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority Bill

After failing to get the Bt brinjal introduced in India, the government, especially the Department of Science and Technology, is pushing for getting a new legislation passed by parliament, which will in future prevent all such “non-scientific interventions” in the path of India’s “development”.

This ominous piece of legislation, called the National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority Bill 2009 will be placed in the ongoing session of parliament. This bill aims to transfer the process of giving approval to GMOs from the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) of the Ministry of Environments and Forests to a committee of three technical experts under the DST. This will bring the approval process under a single technical committee (the so-called “single-window” approach) by removing it from the purview of the existing GEAC which is a more broad-based committee having representatives from the scientific community, agricultural experts and members of civil society. The NBRAI also seeks to protect the corporations by marking lot of information under Confidential Commercial Information. And the most draconian part, Section 63 of the NBRAI Bill proposes 6 months imprisonment and/or fine of Rs 100,000 for anyone who “without evidence or scientific record misleads the public about safety of GM crops”. A manifestation of what could be called intellectual terrorism, this implies that no one who is not a scientist or goes through scientific journals can criticize GM crops.

The Gene Gun At Your Head

By Shoma Chaudhury, Tehelka. March 6 2010.

Imagine the lowly brinjal you have always known turning into a sci-fi gizmo — with an uncharted potency for good and evil. Imagine a food turned into a pesticide — and you will have a measure of the essential uncertainty around Bt brinjal.

When Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh announced his indefinite moratorium on Bt brinjal on February 9, he halted a juggernaut that could have swept India to a point of no return. His decision has earned everyone a precious window of pause — a time to reevaluate, reconsider, retest. Most of all, time first for everyone to familiarise themselves with what is at stake.

Conversations about science and agriculture are usually conducted outside public discourse. Most urban Indians, in fact, consider talk of farmers and vegetables a bore. If someone told you Bt brinjal is an issue of national security, chances are you’d laugh. But it is true. There are also people who speak of desi brinjal as a sort of modern day Mangal Pandey and the struggle to protect it a kind of 21st century Indian War of Independence. While this might seem hyperbole, it helps establish the scale of what is involved in the Bt brinjal debate in India. That debate, in fact, extends into every aspect of our lives: our personal health, our environment, our food prices, our bioheritage, our economic security, our national sovereignty. Our entire future. To not be aware and involved is to sign up as the proverbial lab rat.

The need to expand public involvement in this debate has become more urgent because, though Jairam Ramesh called his moratorium “indefinite”, the window of time he earned might be slammed shut sooner than he or anyone else imagined. Since his announcement, sections of the media and political establishment have been running a dogged campaign to isolate him and whisk the debate away from what they call “public noise” into the inscrutable world of pure science — a euphemism for single-window clearances. When Science and Technology Minister Prithviraj Chavan told the Indian Express, “Slogan shouting and protests should not cloud scientific vision in the country,” he could have been mouthing the thwarted exasperation of the entire pro-Bt lobby.

Just a cursory glance at the monetary stakes involved would explain some of the frustration. As the 8th largest seed market in the world, India has a $ 1 billion per year seed industry, currently occupied by the unorganised and public sector — waiting to be corporatised. According to a Business Standard report, the corporate seed industry is growing at 15 percent annually; and 85 percent of India’s seed market still remains to be penetrated. Just the Bt cotton seed industry accounts for Rs 2,000 crore annually. Bt brinjal was only the outrider. Ranged behind it is an army of Bt crops waiting for the regulatory drawbridge to be lifted: rice, tomato, potato, wheat, okra. The list runs to 41. One billion Indian stomachs to be corporatised and Jairam Ramesh had put a spoke in it. Industry could not have been happy.

In this session of Parliament, the Department of Biotechnology — which comes under the science ministry and whose stated objective is to promote GM crops and so has an inherent conflict of interest — will be putting up an ominous piece of legislation: the National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority Bill 2009 (NBRAI, 2009). This draft Bill, which is still marked “secret”, is full of undemocratic and draconian clauses. First, it proposes to take away power from the current, flawed but broad-based committee under the environment ministry and hand approval of GM crops over to a committee of three technical experts under the science ministry — not only making them vulnerable to manipulation, but turning an ethical, environmental, economic and health issue into a purely technological one.

Not just this, instead of enhancing transparency and information disclosure, the NBRAI seeks to protect corporates with legal cover for retaining Confidential Commercial Information. (It is revealing that Greenpeace had to fight a 30-month RTI battle with the Department of Biotechnology to release the Bt brinjal bio-safety dossier submitted by Mahyco, the company that has developed the crop in India in conjunction with American seed giant, Monsanto. The department claimed sharing the dossier would compromise Mahyco’s commercial interests! It was finally made public by a Supreme Court order.)

The bill also turns the federal nature of India on its head and proposes to take away the constitutional authority state governments have over agriculture and health and give the technical committee overriding power. (The fact that 10 state governments across political parties refused to allow the entry of Bt brinjal might cast light on this clause.) Apart from many other disturbing provisions ( see box: Wrong Bill for Wrong Reasons), most shockingly, Section 63 of the NBRAI Bill proposes imprisonment and fine for anyone who “without evidence or scientific record misleads the public about safety of GM crops”. That could put all activists and journalists in jail for merely asking questions.

Why this desperation to bulldoze Bt crops onto India? If these crops are for the public good, why this fear of debate? Why this need to muzzle? Why this hesitation to convince? Before one probes these questions about Bt brinjal, at a much more elemental level, if the pro-Bt lobby succeeds in yanking this debate away from the public domain, nothing would be more disastrous for the country. Whether one agrees with him or not, the way in which Jairam Ramesh went about making his decision on Bt brinjal can only be applauded as a high note for Indian democracy. Knowing the many issues riding on it, when the committee currently empowered to approve GM crops — the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) — cleared it for commercial release on October 14, 2009, he uploaded the report on his ministry website and invited independent feedback till December 31, 2009. Following this, in an unprecedented move, he consulted over 8,000 people (scientists, agriculture experts, farmers’ organisations, consumer groups and NGOs) — “public noise” — through seven public consultations across the country. Finally, on February 9, 2010, soon after he announced his moratorium, in a superbly transparent and well-written document, he tabulated all the reasons for his decision and uploaded it on the ministry website, along with all the feedback he had received, for public scrutiny.

But for this transparency, the cloudy story of Bt brinjal would never have come to light. Dr S Parasuraman, director of Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, was part of the original expert committee (EC 1) set up to evaluate Bt brinjal, as well as part of a special Technical Review Committee. When EC 1 was disbanded and EC 2 was set up, he was not invited to be on it. Given his experience with EC 1, he says it was only to be expected.

His account is just the tip. “I was constantly surprised at the way meetings of the Technical Review Committee were conducted,” says he. “Our job was to read all the reports produced by Mahyco and the institutions associated with them. I read through 5,000 pages of documents and produced my own report in response. As far as I know, I was the only one to put my observations down in writing. I was appalled at the lack of scientific rigour in these reports. There was no credible methodology, no objective analysis; 99 percent of the reports produced from various institutes were the result of research programmes funded by Mahyco. There was no independent thought or inquiry informing the research. At every meeting, there was a level of complacency the scientists brought in — almost as if they had not grasped the consequences of the introduction of a Bt food crop. Giving approval was their moot point.”

Parasuraman’s statements as an insider echo the highly disturbing findings of a group of eminent Indians and 18 international scientists. On February 8, they wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress head Sonia Gandhi to draw attention to a letter written by Prithviraj Chavan in July 2009, while he was a Minister of State in the prime minister’s office, in response to a letter from then Health Minister Dr Anbumani Ramadoss, addressed directly to the PM in February 2009.

In his letter to the PM, Ramadoss had raised questions about the potential health impact of GM foods. Chavan’s reply — written almost five months later — assured Ramadoss that “the various issues raised in your letter have been examined carefully and by applying the best scientific evidence available today”. However, in an exposé that has far-reaching implications — and pretty much sums up the problem with the GM food debate — these civil society members and international scientists have now revealed that much of Chavan’s letter was excerpted directly from promotional materials of the agricultural biotechnology industry, in particular the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) — “an organisation that at best can be described as pseudo-scientific, funded primarily by Monsanto and other biotechnology multinational companies and whose purpose is to promote and facilitate the commercial introduction of genetically modified (GM) crops in the developing world.”

These scientists then go on to rebut Chavan’s claims paragraph by paragraph, citing authoritative references, hoping to “bring out the true facts of GM crops” to enable an informed discussion on their “unique risks to food security, farming systems and bio-safety impacts which are ultimately irreversible.” Finally, they urge the prime minister, “for the sake of the safety of the Indian people, and the welfare of Indian farmers, to readdress the official position on GM crops.”

Letter of independent scientists to the Prime Minister

Continue reading article on Tehelka »

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The Civil Nuclear Liability Bill: A message by NAAM

National Alliance of Anti-nuclear Movements

Press Release. February 24, 2010

NAAM Opposes the Civil Nuclear Liability Bill

Kuppan commits the crime but Suppan gets the punishment! This is exactly how the infamous Civil Nuclear Liability Bill of the UPA government works.

According to this legislation, if there was an accident in a nuclear power facility, the onus for paying the damages will be on the operator of the facility and not on the supplier of the equipment or the builder of the facility.

Consider one of the famous liability litigations. Some 18 years ago, on February 27, 1992 (to be exact), a 79-year-old American woman called Stella Liebeck from Albuquerque, New Mexico ordered a cup of coffee from a local McDonald’s restaurant. She had placed the coffee cup between her knees
and pulled the lid to add cream and sugar and in the process spilled the entire cup of coffee on her lap. Liebeck suffered third-degree burns and had to be hospitalized for eight days while she underwent skin grafting. When McDonald’s turned down Liebeck’s claim of her medical costs, she sued the company for “gross negligence.” The trial took place in August 1994 and the jury concluded that McDonald’s was 80% responsible for the incident and awarded Liebeck US$200,000 in compensatory damages and $2.7 million in punitive damages. The judge reduced these amounts a bit and both parties settled out of court for an undisclosed amount less than $600,000.

If this case was conducted along the lines of the Indian Civil Nuclear Liability Bill, the local franchisee or the server who served the hot coffee would pay the damages to Liebeck and McDonald’s itself would go scot free.

A nuclear accident is much more serious and deadly than spilling a cup of coffee. Not just one individual but an entire locality could be wiped out in a nuclear catastrophe. Nevertheless, the Civil Nuclear Liability Bill provides for a cap of Rs 2,400 crores by way of damages in case of a nuclear accident and the Indian government will facilitate compensation through the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd. (NPCIL), the operator of the nuclear facilities in the country.

The Indian government’s passing the Civil Nuclear Liability Bill is an important precondition that allows US companies such as General Electric and Westinghouse to seek insurance cover at home. Without our liability law, US firms will not get insurance cover for their projects in India. Other foreign companies such as Areva (France) and Rosatom Corp (Russia) have also been lobbying in New Delhi for this kind of liability bill. Indian companies like Reliance, Tata Power and GMR are also keen on this operator-based liability arrangement.

The Indian government fixes the civil liability at approximately Rs 2,400 crores because the manufacturers insist that liability cannot be impractically high. But the anti-nuclear activists, citing the tragic Bhopal experiences, point out the lack of criminal liability in the Bill and argue that the liability clause is not stringent enough.

While the foreign and Indian companies will make profits from their nuclear commerce, the NPCIL, a state-run and public-funded agency will become the guarantor of compensation in case of liabilities. In other words, the affected parties (the Indian public in this case) will pay compensation to themselves with their own monies and the profiteering capitalists will go scot free with their interests intact. What an ingenious plan!?

This legislation on liability will facilitate foreign nuclear companies’ investment in India, and will also necessitate suitable amendment to the Atomic Energy Act 1962 that will allow private entry into nuclear business. This civil nuclear liability regime would pave the way for India joining the international convention, and the amended Atomic Energy Act would facilitate Indian companies’ entry into nuclear commerce.

The dangerous combination of secretive state, profiteering companies and careerist nuclear scientists will not be in the best interests of the Indian public. Like the Bhopal victims who are running from pillar to post even after 25 years of the worst industrial disaster, we will be out on the street with radiation illnesses and without any kind of help from the authorities. The UPA government that gave a nod to the Civil Nuclear Liability Bill back in November 2009 is planning to push the Bill during the ongoing Winter Session of the Parliament. The Prime Minister has even sought the backing of the opposition BJP as his ruling combine does not have the sufficient votes in the Rajya Sabha.

The National Alliance of Anti-nuclear Movements (NAAM) as well as its constituent organizations opposes the Civil Nuclear Liability Bill that seeks to protect the interests of the rich and powerful while leaving the Indian citizens high and dry on the nuclear highway. NAAM exhorts the people of India to ask their Members of Parliament to vote against this anti-people legislation.

For Immediate Release
42/27 Esankai Mani
Veethy
Parakkai Road Junction
Nagercoil 629 002
Tamil Nadu, India
Phone: 09865683735

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Foreign universities bill is a bill to sell education out by degrees

By Anil Sadgopal (Source : DNA). March 22 2010.

On receiving a green signal from the Union Cabinet for the Foreign Education Institutions (Regulation of Entry and Operation) Bill, 2010, the Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal announced: “This is a milestone which will enhance choices, increase competition and benchmark quality.” This raises four questions.

First, is this Bill really a milestone? The nation was looking forward to the declaration of an agenda for the improvement in the higher education system comprising almost 18,000 colleges and more than 500 universities. On the contrary, the recent Union Budget reveals, taking into account the inflationary cost, a downward trend in allocations for Higher and Technical Education.

Out of an outlay of Rs46,500 crore in the XI Plan for Higher Education, only Rs8,300 crore have been released so far, though three years of the Plan are over. This deliberate under-funding of higher education, along with that of school education, is part of the World Bank diktats being pursued for the past 20 years when the educational expenditure fell from 4 per cent of GDP in 1990 to 3.5 per cent of GDP in recent years despite the levying of 3 per cent educational cess. This has led to a widening cumulative gap of a few hundred thousand crores of rupees in public investment in education — a sure prescription for all-pervading
commercialisation of education. Had Sibal declared a time-bound multi-dimensional agenda for reversing this anti-education stance, he might have reasons to acclaim it as a milestone.

Will our kids benefit?

Second question. Whose choices will this Bill enhance? Only about 20 per cent of the relevant age group children are able to go beyond Class XII, the vast majority of them coming from sub-standard schools. The farcical Right to Education Act, 2009 is designed to legitimise inequality in the school system and deny access to a vast majority to even secondary education. To be sure, only the affluent would be able to afford the exorbitant fee structures of the profit-making foreign universities. Yet Wall Street is upbeat about the market prospects. Obviously, the market pundits are not counting on this affluent minority alone. They have Public-Private Partnership (PPP) in mind. What does that imply? From NDA to the UPA governments, the policy of shifting public funds to the corporate capital has been promoted under the banner of PPP. Apart from extending both direct and hidden subsidies, including free or subsidised lands, the government is offering generous
tax exemptions to private institutions and even tax incentives to the parents who send their children to high fee-charging institutions. Misusing the rhetoric of inclusive education, corporate leaders are exhorting the State to increase ‘scholarships’ and ‘cheap loans’ to the weaker sections so that they can avail of the expensive foreign universities. Somebody needs to ask the government: if it is willing to suffer such massive revenue losses and incur public expenditure to promote commoditisation of education, why not then directly support and expand higher and technical education in the public sector itself?

But then the objective of under-funding public institutions followed by PPP is precisely to enhance the choices of global capital, not the people. Hence the rejoicing on Wall Street!

A question of quality

Third question. Will the Bill improve quality through competition? As per market thumb rule, competition is a meaningful tool for quality improvement only if there is a level playing field. We have seen how the state policies have been designed to demolish both school and higher education in the public sector, except for a handful of elite institutions. Sam Pitroda, Chairperson of the Knowledge Commission, recently told a conference that “At least 90 per cent of Indian universities are providing below-par education” but he went on to laud the government for “opening 14 universities of innovation and 400 new colleges”! It is in this enigmatic ruling class framework that opening up of the Indian market for a handful of profit-making foreign universities is seen as providing competition for quality improvement.

In the wake of independence, India built up a range of high quality higher education and research institutions in the public sector. Apart from the IITs and IIMs, these included AIIMS, Regional Engineering Colleges, JNU, Delhi University, Indian Institute of Science, TIFR, BARC, ISRO, Centre of Cellular & Molecular Biology and IUCAA — just to name a few. Did these develop out of a spirit of competition, or from the Constitutional commitment to build a public-funded education system? Even in the US, the vast system of high quality state-funded universities (University of California being an outstanding example) continue to tell us that the public sector in education does not require competition as a tool of quality improvement. The motivation has invariably been social and national development. Even the icons of private institutions in the US like Harvard, Princeton, Caltech and MIT were motivated primarily by philanthropy, rather than profit.

This brings us to the most crucial question. What kind of quality will the foreign universities benchmark for India? Even The Economic Times in its editorial (17 March) was constrained to acknowledge, “The reality is that ‘for-profit’ describes hardly any of the world’s best institutions of higher learning… Only second-rate outfits not allergic to some accounting innovation that allows them to circumvent this ban [on repatriating profits] are likely to invest in Indian campuses.”

When would we have the moral courage to question the socio-political character of knowledge in the universities of North America and Europe? If everything was hunky-dory with that system, why did it face economic recession twice in less than a century? Isn’t the phenomenon represented by the Union Carbide-led Bhopal disaster, Monsanto’s GM crops and commoditisation of natural resources, culture and even our emotions also an outcome of the same neo-liberal economy of which education is a sub-set? It is time that the Indian Parliament stops examining the Foreign Universities Bill through the global market spectacles and returns to the socio-political vision as enshrined in the Constitution.

(Anil Sadgopal is former member, Central Advisory Board of Education)