BRAI Bill will override State regulations, leaving States with an advisory role

The Madhya Pradesh government has reacted strongly to the setting up of the proposed Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI), accusing the Centre of attempting to impinge upon the autonomy of the State.

The BRAI Bill was approved by the Union Cabinet on Tuesday under the chairmanship of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and is expected to be tabled in the current session of Parliament.

Orissa, Kerala, Assam and several other States have also been opposing the Bill.

The proposed Bill will set up the BRAI, having the role of a clearing house/facilitator/approver for applications pertaining to Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO). It is also expected to take over the functions of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee, which will assume the role of “appraiser” instead of “approver.”

State Agriculture Minister Ramakrishna Kusumaria told The Hindu that Madhya Pradesh would strongly oppose the Bill.

“It will have disastrous consequences for Indian Agriculture, which still relies heavily on traditional technologies. It will take the control of food from the farmer and give it to multinational corporations, who will enslave our agriculture,” he said.

According to Section 81 of the Bill, the Act will have an overriding effect over State-level acts and regulations since it makes the proposed authority solely responsible for releasing and controlling GMOs throughout the country and envisages only an advisory role for States.

Dr. Kusumaria said this ignored the constitutional powers that State governments had over their Agriculture and Health, and went against the federal structure of the republic.

Chief Minister Shivraj Singh has reiterated several times the State government's commitment to promoting organic agriculture, which was expected to be further marginalised once the BRAI became effective.

Activists from all over the country have been opposing the Bill in its current form, particularly raising objections over one of its provisions, which states: “Whoever, without any evidence or scientific records, 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 Rs. 2 lakh, or with both.”

Besides, several critics of the Bill have expressed concern over the BRAI's implementing agency — the Department of Biotechnology, under the Ministry of Science and Technology.

According to critics, placing the BRAI under the Department of Biotechnology will result in a direct conflict of interest since the department is the promoter of GMOs in India. Activists have instead called for a National Biosafety Authority under either the Ministry of Environment and Forests or the Ministry of Health, since environment and health are expected to be directly affected by GMOs.