Maharashtra&’s agriculture minister Mr Ramakrishna Vikhe-Patil was recently quoted by DNA as saying that introducing Bt cotton was a mistake. One look at the spate of farmer suicides in the Bt cotton belt of Vidarbha will make the reason for his statement apparent; following the introduction of Bt cotton in the state eight years ago, over 10,000 farmers have killed themselves ~ the number increasing substantially since the crop was introduced.
It is against this backdrop that one needs to examine the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Bill 2013. The Bill seeks to facilitate a single-window clearance system for genetically-modified (GM) products of biotechnology giants like Monsanto and Syngenta. Bt cotton is the only GM crop that is commercially cultivated in India, and India&’s experience with the crop has been deeply devastating.
Although initial reports on Bt cotton cultivation pointed at bumper increase in yields, the journey has been downhill since. While Monsanto, the biotech giant which controls 93 per cent of the Bt cotton market in the country, has gone to town claiming increase in acreage under Bt cotton year-on-year, the yield from the same has fallen drastically, while input costs have increased exponentially.
The BRAI Bill, and the intended large-scale commercial cultivation of GM crops is part of the corporate-control-of-agriculture story. Although GM crops ride on the crest of the ‘promise of food security through higher production’, no studies show that increased yields sustain over time.
The BRAI Bill was introduced in Lok Sabha in April 2013, and is right now before the Standing Committee on Science and Technology, Environment and Forests; the committee called for public comments on the Bill within a month from 11 June ~ departure from the norm, since a Bills are usually kept open for feedback for a period of 60 to 90 days. Although questions abound about the need for modern biotechnology in agriculture in the first place, the Bill does not say anything about exploring alternative routes to reach a desired target (say food security).
Instead, it indulges in lip service; it notes that India is a ‘party to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity…and Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the Convention’ which demand that the country take all measures to address biosafety. There is, however, nothing in the Bill that seeks to control or mitigate risks associated with biotechnology.
Part of the problem is with the source of the Bill: it has been floated by the Ministry of Science and Technology (S & T), which is tasked with promoting biotechnology. In the BRAI Bill, then, we have the promoter as the regulator! On the face of it, the Bill provides for a multitude of bodies functioning around the ambit of BRAI. Yet, a closer look at each of these reveals that power is highly narrowed and centralised in the Ministry of S & T.
Independent testing is another sore point. The Bill requires all companies desirous of conducting open-air trials of their products to submit data and documents on those products. In the event of data being supplied by biotech companies, there is every possibility that certain problematic aspects may be underreported.
This apart, the BRAI Bill violates the federal structure, in providing for an overriding Central authority, though agriculture is a state subject. It also seeks to bypass the Right to Information Act under the garb of ‘Confidential Commercial Information’.
The back-story of the BRAI Bill lies in the National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority (NBRA) Bill, floated by the Ministry of S & T in 2008. The NBRA, which was mooted in the report of a task force constituted by the Ministry of Agriculture in 2003-04, woefully lacked in addressing bio-security. It came in for sharp criticism, only to be quietly buried.
The prospect of a biotech authority reared its head a year later, in 2009, in the form of the BRAI Bill 2009. This Bill, meant to be a ‘secret document’, sought to bulldoze those opposing the introduction of GM crops in the country by mooting their imprisonment, among other things.
The BRAI Bill 2013 is the latest avatar of an authority along the above lines, and the urgency in pushing through the legislation becomes apparent when one follows the twists in the tale. On 23 April 2013, 16 MPs wrote to the S & T Minister Mr Jaipal Reddy, asking him to ‘withdraw the Bill for thorough pre-pegislative concerns’.
Sources say the Minister in question, Mr Jaipal Reddy, was under great pressure to table it. On 7 May, he wrote to the Speaker of Rajya Sabha, mentioning that the Bill be referred to a Joint Committee of both Houses, and not to the Standing Committee on S & T. However, Rajya Sabha Speaker decided to refer the Bill to the latter.
In another curious twist, Ms Supriya Sule, daughter of agriculture Minister Mr Sharad Pawar — a known backer of biotechnology and corporate control over agriculture — made an entry into the Standing Committee on S&T in the first week of May, a few days before the Bill was referred to the committee.
As it stands now, a body like BRAI would be mere eyewash; it would provide an impression that the sector is being regulated, while in actual practice, the authority may function merely as a rubber stamp for large biotech giants.
The writer is a Phd candidate at the centre for studies in social sciences, calcutta. He can be contacted at [email protected]