After vocal protests over the commercial introduction of BT-Brinjal in the country over the last few months, activists fighting against Genetically Modified foods in Madhya Pradesh have now called the proposed Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) bill an effort to stifle anti-GM voices in the country.

The bill, which is likely to be approved by the cabinet next month and tabled for passage in the budget session, will bring about wide ranging changes in the process of regulating the research, transport, import, manufacture and use of GM products in the country.

According to activists, the bill serves to override State-specific concerns by making the proposed authority solely responsible for releasing and controlling GMOs throughout the country and envisages only an advisory role for States.

According to Section 81 of the Bill, the Act will have an over-riding effect (over other State-level acts). Activists allege that this ignores the constitutional powers that State governments have over their Agriculture & Health.

“The State agriculture Minister Dr. Ramakrishna Kusumariya has assured us that the State will speak up against the bill,” said Nilesh Desai of Sampark, an organisation devoted to the promotion of organic agriculture in the State.

Further, the groups have questioned the notion that GMOs are a panacea for India’s hunger problem.

“When one talks of tackling the problem of hunger and the right to food, the concerns of safety should be automatically included in that debate,” said Sachin Jain, State advisor for the Supreme Court Commissioners for Madhya Pradesh.

“Besides, hunger issues pertain not just to the distribution of food but also the control of the community over it. This bill has no provision for public participation, which is a violation of article 23.2 of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, to which India is a signatory,” he said.

The protestors, including several anti-GM groups in Madhya Pradesh led by Sampark, have objected to one particular aspect of the bill which states “whoever, without any evidence or scientific record misleads the public about the safety of organisms and products…shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than six months but which may extend to one year and with fine which may extend to two lakh rupees or with both”.

“The Bill seems to have draconian clauses to stifle anti-GM voices in the country and is designed to be a Clearing House for GMO applications rather than to protect the health and environment of people in the country,” Dr P.M. Bhargava, Founder-Director of the Hyderabad based Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology and a vocal critic of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) told The Hindu over phone.

Another controversial aspect of the Bill, opposed by anti-GM groups, pertains to clinical trials of GMOs and is therefore related to providing the public with “false” or misleading information.

Chapter XIIII of the Bill states that “whoever, himself or by any other person on his behalf, conducts clinical trials with organisms or products…shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than five years but which may extend to ten years and with fine which may extend to ten lakh rupees or with both”.

“This is meant to harass civil society groups and scientists who are voicing their concern on this technology,” said Dr. Bhargava. “There is no penalty if someone promotes GMOs without safety tests, but there is a penalty if someone wishes to inform the public about the hazards of GMOs. Besides, who is to decide on “misleading” and on what basis?” he asked.

Activists also argue that in its present form, the Bill pre-supposes a clearing house/facilitator/approver role to applications pertaining to GMOs and have called for a National Biosafety Authority under either the Ministry of Environment and Forests or the Ministry of Health.

According to Kavitha Kuruganti of the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (Hyderabad), “the proposed autonomous regulatory authority should NOT be housed under the Ministry of Science & Technology or more specifically within the Department of Biotechnology, which is the promoter of GMOs in India. This will be a major conflict of interest in itself”.