At a time when the Science and Technology (S&T) and Environment Ministries are differing over Bt brinjal, another tussle is brewing between them over who a new biotechnology regulator will report to.

In the wake of the Bt brinjal moratorium, the government is fast-tracking a Bill to create a Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India. According to the current draft, the nodal agency for the autonomous regulator will be the Department of Biotechnology (DBT), which comes under the S&T Ministry. However, Union Minister of State for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh feels his ministry would be a more appropriate choice.

“If it is supposed to be about regulation, not promotion, we should look at whether Environment should perhaps be the nodal ministry,” Mr. Ramesh told The  Hindu.

The DBT says that its role would not be to control the regulator but merely facilitate it. “It will be an autonomous body. Because [biotechnology] is a multidisciplinary issue, it was decided that it should be facilitated by a ministry with multidisciplinary expertise,” said a senior DBT official, adding that it was the Prime Minister’s Office which made the decision. “It is to facilitate the development of the regulator, not as ownership.”

‘Draft inadequate’

Mr. Ramesh also wondered if the proposed Bill would make redundant the Genetic Engineering Approvals Committee (GEAC), which currently reports to his Ministry. While the revised draft of the Bill refers to amendments to the Drugs and Cosmetics Act, 1940, and the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006, it does not seem to include amendments to supersede the relevant portions of the Environment Protection Act, 1986, under which the GEAC was constituted.

“It requires careful study from a GM food and biosafety point of view. We should not rush into it. The present draft is woefully inadequate,” Mr. Ramesh added.

According to civil society activists and environmentalists, this tug-of-war between the Ministries should be viewed as more than mere power struggles.

“There has to be an understanding that every legislation also derives its mandate from the particular Ministry,” said Kavitha Kuruganti of the Kheti Virasat Mission which promotes sustainable agriculture. “If the Bill seeks to remove conflict of interest, how can it come under the DBT which is a promoter of GM crops? The mandate of the regulator should be to protect people and the environment from risks, not sit as a clearinghouse for industry applications and approvals,” she said.

Well-known environmentalist and opponent of GM foods Vandana Shiva said the potential conflict of interest would be a disaster. “The aim of this draft Bill is to deregulate, hijack regulation from the Environment Ministry, which is independent of biotech industry interests, and give it to the DBT, which is completely driven by biotech industry interests,” she said.

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