Will the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Bill override the RTI Act?
The Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Bill (BRAI) is likely to come up before Parliament during the budget session in the coming months. It was due to be tabled in the Monsoon Session of Parliament last year but could not be tabled. During the last few months, there has been an opposition from the anti GM (genetically modified) food activists who have been against the plans to commercialise the first genetically modified food crop, Bt Brinjal. The then Union Minister for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh had declared an indefinite moratorium on the commercialisation process of Bt Brinjal in 2010.
There has been widespread opposition to the Bill as apprehension has been expressed that the GM food may endanger the health and environment. The reasons for opposition are:
1. The mandate of the Department of Biotechnology under the Union Ministry of Science and Technology includes promotion of biotechnology in the country while that is the agency which has proposed the bill. Hence, there is a conflict of interest. Can the propagator be allowed to become the regulator?
2. It has been claimed the Bill promotes the GM crops instead of taking a precautionary approach whereby onus of proof should be on those who want to change the status quo. Critics have argued against the use and application of an untested technology,
3. The Bill has been claimed to dilute the ‘polluter pays’ principle i.e. the absolute liability of the promoter for the hazardous activities.
4. Some State like Madhya Pradesh, Kerala and Karnataka have formally written to the Union Government opposing the current BRAI proposals as the role of the State Governments is limited to giving recommendation without having any decision-making powers on the release of genetically modified organisms through field trials. It has been claimed that agriculture was a State subject and that the Union Government must not infringe into the powers of the States.
5. The Bill has also been opposed for trying to overshadow the Right to Information Act (2005). No legislation should be allowed to bypass the citizens’ right to access to biosafety information and shun the effective public participation in environmental decision making. BRAI attempts to bypass the Right to Information (RTI) Act under the garb of being “commercial information”. While the information about GM crop trials definitely has a business angle, the larger public interest overrides the commercial concerns. Therefore, under no condition the RTI Act be overridden by the BRAI Act.
While sceptics claim that the biotech companies will monopolise the Indian agriculture market, such claim would be open to counter-claims. Amendments to the current BRAI Bill 2011 need to be made after engaging in a rigorous public debate with all the stakeholders and the RTI Act provides an important forum for the debate to flourish in a healthy manner. Hopefully, it would result into a modified bill which provides space for the long-term bio-safety assessments in a transparent manner taking into consideration the safety of all new technologies and the future requirement of agricultural products by the country.