Biotechnology has made tremendous strides during the last two decades, the impact being greatest in pharmaceutical industry. Of course in the area of food also, Biotechnological approach has given rise to genetically modified products which are under consideration for adoption in many countries including India. How ever some countries like the US have gone ahead with massive adoption of all types of GM foods without adequately assessing the adverse impact associated with genetic manipulation of natural foods on long term food safety, environmental hazards and farm economy.
The recent Bt Brinjal debate in India was able to focus the attention of people on the consequences of GM foods under the Indian environment and against substantial opposition from scientific, farming and consumer communities government retreated in grace abandoning, for the time being, the earlier plans for introduction of Bt Brinjal, developed by the global GM seed giant, Monsanto, for commercial cultivation. The much discredited Genetic Engineering Clearance Committee (GEAC) under the Ministry of Environment, chaired by a bureaucrat with no knowledge about Biotechnology, and staffed by some "yes" scientists, whose credentials were questioned even by the Supreme Court in the country, gave its "approval" for regular cultivation
of Bt Brinjal. It is another story that the Environment Minister had the good sense to overturn the irresponsible action of GEAC. With such a background, what will be the future of GM crops in India, is a relevant question.
With two powerful Ministers in the Union Cabinet unabashedly canvassing for GM foods, Prime Minister also seems to be sympathetic to the GM lobby for reasons not yet clear, all under the pretext or illusion that GM technology only can "augment" food supply in future and prevent large scale starvation!. Even the perpetrators of GM food myth do not claim any genuine increase in crop yield but assert that loss due to pests could be less thereby increasing the harvest volume. Now that the much ridiculed GEAC is discredited, GOI seems to be in a hurry to replace it with an "Authority" under the statute for which necessary legislation is being drafted. Probably with the majority UPA has in the Parliament, the proposed "Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India" (BRAI) may become a reality soon, if good sense does not prevail on the MPs during discussion of the legislation. Why the opposition for the proposed BRAI?
If one goes by the experience during the setting up of "Food Standards and Safety Authority of India" earlier, BRAI is also not going to be different. There will be intense lobbying amongst retired bureaucrats with practically no exposure to Biotechnology or related areas of science, to occupy the "Chair" and the country will have to witness this "game of musical chairs" pretty soon. BRAI is a bureaucrat's dream because of the draconian power sought to be vested with it and a cursory look at some of the provisions in the draft bill will convince any one that a police bureaucrat may be more suitable to "administer" the Authority. Most disgusting provision in the bill is to provide for jail term up to one year and a fine of Rs 2 lakh for any one who without evidence or scientific record misleads public about the safety of the products and the organisms used. Adding insult to injury the information about GM products has been kept out of the purview of RTI Act, clearly showing the intention of GOI to push the GM products down the throat of the people with great secrecy. Further the sole responsibility for clearing all GM crops has been given to BRAI with no role for other ministries like those for food, agriculture, environment, health, consumer welfare etc. Is this compatible with democratic credentials of this country?
India seems to be aping the US, at least in promotion of GM crops and BRAI is a pre-requisite for repeating the US experience where GM crops are cleared with executive authority rather than through scientific and democratic route. Unless major changes are made in the proposed Bill, Parliament should not accord approval to this devious strategy of GOI.