January 16, 2012
By Partho Sarathi Ray
(Translated by Siddhartha Mitra)
The latest addition in the effort of introducing genetically modified food crops in India by the multinational corporations, especially the giant US agribusiness multinational Monsanto, is the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Bill, in short BRAI, which was to be tabled in the latest session of parliament (winter, 2011) by the UPA government. If this bill is passed into law by parliament, then the entire agricultural and food system in India will be affected and there will be far-reaching and dangerous effects on the 1 billion people dependent on that system. This law is not only about a scientific subject or some bureaucratic regulations; the future of agriculture and that of millions of farmers dependent on agriculture is intimately linked to this bill. This bill is also connected to the recent attempts to open the retail sector to foreign direct investment. What the bill is about, and what the real intentions are in trying to pass it into a law, need to be well-understood.
Background history: An attempt to transfer control from GEAC under the Environment and Forests Ministry (MOEF) to the Department of Science and Technology (DST)
The first time talk of passing such an act came up in 2005 when the time came for the renewal of the 2002 contract with Monsanto’s Indian subisidiary Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (MahyCo) for the distribution of genetically modified Bt-cotton seeds. By that time, the negative effects of Bt-Cotton had become evident to many farmers and environmental activists, and many had raised their voices against it. Some effects of the protests were also evident on the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), the highest body under the ministry of environment and forests empowered to provide statutory clearances to all research and commercialization of genetically modified organisms (GMO). Even the task force on agri-biotechnology formed in 2004, headed by the well-known agricultural scientist M.S. Swaminathan, expressed their anxiety about the regulatory mechanism of GMOs in India.
In order to stifle these protests, and to keep the door open for introduction of GM crops in the future, a governmental agency which would be immune to such protests from farmers and activists was conceptualized. Following up on that, the UPA government published a draft of a National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority Act in 2008. In this draft, it was first proposed that the ultimate authority of approving the introduction of biotechnology and genetically modified crops should be transferred from the GEAC under the Environment and Forests Ministry (MOEF) and vested in a special committee under the Department of Science and Technology (DST). The public discussion regarding the bill that ensued was completely one-sided, as it was done by an organization called the Biotechnology Consortium of India, which had been created explicitly for the popularization of biotechnology in India. As a result, the views of different peoples’ organizations, scientists, farmers or consumers were not considered.
Since then, Monsanto has made great progress in the marketing of Bt-Brinjal, which would be their first genetically modified food crop, and the second genetically modified crop, in India. The initial applied research was carried out in the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore, with funding from Monsanto/Mahyco. While this was going on, on 8th February 2009, eighteen reputed scientists from all around the world wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh stating reasons why genetically modified crops and food should not be introduced in India. Many agronomists, environmentalists, scientists from various fields, farmer’s bodies and even some state governments also voiced their opposition to the introduction of Bt-brinjal. But even on the face of this opposition, the GEAC approved the commercialization of Bt-Brinjal on 14th October 2009. This approval was based on the report of an expert committee (Expert Committee2- EC2) established by the GEAC.
As soon as the committee was established, it was noticed that of its 16 members, at least five were directly linked to Monsanto or were conducting research based on grants from Monsanto/Mahyco. At that time, many organizations voiced their protests about this composition of the EC-2. But these protests were ignored, and EC-2 recommended the clearance to Bt-brinjal disregarding the absence of clear data about tests done on it and on its potential effect on human and animal health. The storm of protest that rose around the country as a result of this blatant act forced union environment and forests minister Jairam Ramesh to hold public hearings in eleven cities across the country. Pressured by the opinions expressed in these meetings, and outside, by environmentalists, scientists, farmers and agricultural scientists and a large cross-section of the public, Jairam Ramesh introduced a two-year moratorium on the commercialization of Bt Brinjal.
Soon after that, sections of the central government bureacracy, various chambers of commerce and industry, a section of scientists and the corporate media became vocal against this moratorium. These very same influential groups started to create pressure on the central government to promulgate a law so that the control over commercialization of biotechnology products would be transferred from the MOEF to the DST. The influence of the corporate and technocratic bodies over the DST has always been great and the latter has supported the commercialization of genetically modified food crops from the very beginning. The dream legislation of these corporations is the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Act, which is the new avatar of the original act proposed in 2008 .
Control over Research Infrastructure and the KIA (US-India Knowledge Initiative) Agreement
Just as the greatest support for BRAI comes from corporations and a section technocrats and agricultural scientists, US imperialism also has a direct role in the matter. One of the major goals of US imperialistic interests is to fundamentally change the nature of Indian agriculture, and make it subservient to the interests of multinational corporations, especially US multinational corporations. The inception of this process was on the 18th of July 2005, when Manmohan Singh and the then US president George Bush signed the “US-India Knowledge Initiative on Agricultural Education, Teaching, Research, Services and Commercial linkages” or the KIA agreement. As a result of this treaty, the control of the US based multi-nationals was consolidated on all areas of agriculture in India, from agricultural research to the marketing and retail sale of agricultural products. As a part of this treaty, a board was established whose main objective was to implement the different aims of the agreement, and thereby usher in the “second green revolution”.
The greatest emphasis in KIA was laid upon the massive application of biotechnology in Indian agriculture. Of the amount of money spent by the Indian government for implementing this treaty till now, around 70% has been spent for the expansion of biotechnology. And it is not at all surprising that this board consists of members from giant US based multi-nationals like Monsanto, Archers Daniels Midlands, and Walmart, besides containing bureaucrats and technocrats from both countries’ governments. Needless to mention, these multi-nationals hold a near monopoly over the GM seeds and agricultural produce business in the world.
Under the KIA, one of the approaches that these multi-nationals would be taking to establish their hold over Indian agriculture is to take control of the huge agricultural research system in India and use it for research and commercialization of biotechnology products. Their main target is the huge research infrastructure of the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) consisting of 59 institutes, 17 national labs and 78 research projects spread all over the country. Besides this, there are also grants for several hundred research projects in the 50 agricultural universities across India. In all, a huge infrastructure to be potentially used for agri-biotechnology.
The KIA effectively ensures the control of the US based multi-nationals over this infrastructure. But even then, the issue of government regulations on the commercialization and marketing of GM-crops remained. And because of this, in order to fully implement the Indo-US agricultural knowledge treaty, it became necessary to establish the BRAI, which will make the commercialization process of GM crops simple and amenable to the interests of multinational corporations. It is worth noting that at the time when the new BRAI draft act was published in 2009, unknown to the Parliament, an US-India memorandum-of-understanding (MOU) related to “cooperation in agriculture and food security” was signed during the visit of the US foreign secretary Hillary Clinton to India. The objective of the MOU was to increase US investment in the Indian food and agriculture sector. Under the guise of “cooperation in agriculture”, this MOU opened the door for privatization of the agricultural research system and flooding the Indian food market with GM food crops under “food security”.
It should be noted that during this same time the US government has pressurized multiple African countries suffering from famine such as Lesotho, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe to accept GM food crops as food aid, which many of these countries rejected. It is easily understandable that the passing of the BRAI bill is intimately linked with the interests of US imperialism in India and with the interests of the multinational corporations, whose interests are served by US imperialism.
Why the BRAI Act should be opposed
Now the question is: what is the there in this proposed act that will have such an impact in the field of Indian food and agriculture?
From diverse GEAC to three-membered BRAI
In simple terms, the law will result in the creation of a committee which will have the sole control over the research, production and application of biotechnology products and genetically modified organisms in India. The power that was till now in the hands of the MOEF will now go into the hands of this committee. The committee will have three members, of whom one will be the chairperson and the other two members. All three members would be biologists with experience in working in high positions in some government scientific institution in India. These people would be selected by a nomination committee appointed by the central government, whose members would include the secretaries of different ministries, and two biotechnologists.
In other words the control that GEAC had over biotechnology related research and product development would be handed over to this three-membered committee whose members would all be either scientists or technocrats having connections with government scientific organizations. The GEAC is a diverse body having representatives from scientists, agronomists, environmentalists, physicians, and representatives of different ministries as well as from civil society, whereas this proposed body will be a completely technocratic. As a result, the whole process of decision making in the very critical field of biotechnology with immense impact over agriculture and the lives of our farmers will become highly undemocratic and bureacratic. The scope to express different opinions on this matter on socioeconomic or ethical grounds will get severely curtailed.
Relegating GEAC decision makers to advisory roles
Actually the government is trying to create a system that will prevent the repetition of what happened regarding Bt-brinjal and resulted in the moratorium on its commercialization. To aid the three-membered BRAI, an inter-ministerial advisory committee would be constituted under this act, whose task would be to coordinate the functions of different ministries connected with biotechnology. This means the representatives of the seven ministries who were in the GEAC, and who were participants in the decision making process, will now be relegated to advisory roles, with no involvement in actual decision making. Apart from this, a biotechnology advisory board would be created, whose task would be to provide advice on various innovations of modern biotechnology and their potential applications in the Indian context. Out of the 12 members of this advisory board, four may be from the private sector. They would be plant, animal, environmental or industrial, and medical scientists. This indicates that the path towards private sector intervention in the BRAI is being facilitated.
It is also noteworthy that if BRAI is implemented, then the state governments will have no role in authorizing the commercialization of biotechnology products although under the current law this power lies with the state governments. The role of the state governments would be restricted to State Biotechnology Regulatory Advisory Committees, and this body will have no power to change the BRAI’s decision regarding open field trials or final clearance of GM crops. This means that although agriculture is a subject in the concurrent list (dual responsibility of the central and state governments), the decision making power regarding the application of biotechnology to agriculture would be completely centralized.
Regulation and risk-assessment: Not by interest-free bodies
What would be the process of approving a new GM crop through BRAI? BRAI would have three regulatory divisions; one for biotechnology application in the field of agriculture; another one for health and medical sector and the third for industry and the environment. Each division would be under the control of a chief regulatory officer, who would also be a scientist. Any application on for clearance in any of these three fields would be accepted by these departments. Such applications would be sent by the relevant department to a Risk Assessment Unit, whose task would be to “scientifically” assess the risk associated with the research, import, production or usage of any GMO. If, at an advanced stage of reserach, an application comes for the production or commercialization of any GM crop, then the risk assessment unit will send it to a product ruling committee, which would give their advice on the commercial production or application of the GMO.
Here it should be understood that the long-standing demand from the scientific community and environmentalists for the establishment of an independent entity, which will independently conduct research on a GMO proposed for commercialization and give its opinion on its potential risks and benefits, is not being respected. Instead, the risk assessment unit or the product ruling committee will take decisions based on data supplied by the same companies which have made the request for the approval. In both the cases of Bt-cotton and Bt-brinjal it has been noted that the corporations do not conduct adequate tests, or the veracity of the data supplied by them cannot be establsihed, and the GEAC gave its approval even when adequate information about the safety of the products was not available.
One can imagine that under BRAI, the situation will become a lot worse, as the main decision making power would lie only with the three member committee. And where earlier decisions were made under the auspices of the MOEF, now it would go under the control of the DST, which has always played a major role in the introduction and expansion of GM crops in India. As both the introduction and regulation of GM crops would go under the same ministry, whatever little neutrality was there in the approval process previously would now be absent.
BRAI: Authority to curtail public debate
After the protests surrounding BT-brinjal, the government has most probably realized that introduction of GM crops in India will not be easy. Therefore provisions have been included in the new bill so that any opposition to such moves can be stifled. Even getting information about this issue has been made very difficult. In section 27 (1) of the draft legislation, it has been stated that if anyone requests “commercial” facts about biotechnology-related products under the RTI Act, the BRAI will have the power to reject such an application. Now, it has not been clarified what would be considered as “commercial” information. For example, someone asking for information about the yield of a GM crop under development could be considered “commercial”, and could be refused. This would potentially close the door for ordinary citizens to get information about the yields, benefits or ill-effects of an experimental GM crop. Moreover, under sub-clause 2 of the same section, the decision making power about whether to give information on this issue, would be transferred from the Central Information Commission or the Delhi high court to the BRAI, the same authority which holds the power to give approval. This would permanently close the doors on any informed debate or discussion on the approval of GM crops in India.
BRAI: Authority to criminalize protests on GM crops
Perhaps the most naked attempt to stifle protests against the introduction of GM crops in India can be seen in Section 63 of this act. This clause states that if anyone tries to “misinform” the public about genetically modified organisms or products without “scientific evidence”, then he/she is liable to be sentenced to prison for a minimum period of six months or pay a fine of upto Rs 200,000. It has not been clarified what constitutes “scientific evidence”, or what is meant by “misinform”. Which means that if a farmer understands some ill effects of any GM crop from her own experience, and tries to inform her fellow-farmers about it, she is liable to be imprisoned or fined for spreading “misinformation” without “scientific evidence”. Getting scientific evidence about GM crops is difficult and prohibitively expensive, involving advanced scientific techniques such as reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR), which is completely out of reach of the common farmer. Constitutional experts from many countries have expressed their amazement, and disquiet, that such a clause can be part of legislation in a democratic country. The reality is that the government is ready to promulgate such draconian laws today to open the floodgates of neo-liberal looting of agriculture in India.
There are other provisions in the proposed legislation which are cause for concern. For example, there is provision for establishing a tribunal to try cases related to biotechnology. This means that any legal case pertaining to biotechnology will not be under the purview of the judiciary of the land, instead it will come under the purview of this specially constituted tribunal which is unlikely to dispense these cases with fairness. On the other hand, the law does not lay down any norms for the proper labeling of GM crops or food products derived from them. This regulation is essential because there is no other way to distinguish between GM and unmodified food crops. This regulation is strictly followed in all European countries, and if such a regulation is not followed in India all exports of food products, vegetables, flowers etc. to the European Union from India will be stopped. Similarly, there is no provision in the proposed legislation to cancel the approval for a GM crop or to compensate farmers if they face financial losses due to growing GM crops. There is no mention of any compensation also if any natural plant variety is contaminated with GM plants, as has been found often in countries with extensive GM agriculture. These clearly indicate that the government is leaving the farmers helpless in the hands of the agribusiness corporations so that these companies can go on a profiteering spree and the farmers have no way to escape from their clutches.
The Underlying Roadmap: The Second Green Revolution
The union cabinet gave their go ahead to the bill in August 2010, but it has not been tabled in Parliament yet because of disruptions in parliamentary functions during the last few sessions. It was not tabled in the just concluded session too because of the furore on the FDI in retail decision and the Lokpal bill. It is now scheduled to be tabled in the next session of Parliament. The debates on the success or failure of GM crops or biotechnology are going to continue but by trying to pass this legislation the government is trying to send the message that no hindrance would be brooked in India on the path of widespread introduction of GM crops in India by the multinational corporations.
What is acting behind this is the enormous plan to fundamentally change the agricultural system in India, which is being called as the “second green revolution”. This is envisaged to corporatize India agriculture and bring in large scale, biotechnology-driven agriculture under corporate control. The experience from various countries is that biotechnology-driven agriculture is so capital intensive that small farmers are not able to sustain it, and are driven off from their lands and livelihoods. The same is going to happen in our country and will free these lands for large scale corporate agriculture. And the government is aiming to give this system a permanent basis by bringing in legislation which will facilitate this process. The recent attempt to open up the retail sector to foreign direct investment is also closely tied to this process, as large multinational retail corporations will either tie up with agribusiness corporations, or go into agribusiness themselves as has been the case, to flood the market with GM foods. This has been succinctly described in the US-India agricultural knowledge initiative as the “lab bench to store shelf” model, where the entire gamut of Indian agriculture, from research to retail will be under the control of globalized capital.
This is a part of the larger neo-liberal attack on the Indian economy, where various legislations such as the Seed act, the Mines and Minerals act, the changes in the Coastal Zone Regulations etc. are designed to facilitate the corporate aggression on India’s natural resources.