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How the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Bill will affect your dinner?

A graduate from Calcutta University who is scheduled to start her L.L.M (International Law) in Queen Mary University in London in 2014-2015 Session

There is an old saying that goes like this –  “you are what you eat”. Today we definitely do not want to be what we eat, as “healthy” and “wholesome” are two adjectives that are slowly moving away from the word “food”. Many people believe that this new “organic revolution” worldwide is a fad, but the truth is, the food that is being produced is fast becoming more and more “in-organic”. It is not just pesticides and insecticides that are harming our health, there seems to be another new villain in the block, called GMO’s or genetically modified organisms.

A few years ago, if you might remember, there was a nation-wide protest for banning the introduction of “Bt[1] brinjal.”  Luckily for us the Bt brinjal is yet to see the light of the day; but what was all the fuss about? Monsanto-the American pioneer in genetically modified crops and Mahyco – India’s prime seed company, collaborated to create a genetically modified strain of brinjal. This brinjal promised to increase yields, but the flip side was its alleged effects on animal and human health not to forget environmental hazards. In the past a similar Bt strain of cotton had done more harm than good, with farmers committing suicides and the extinction of indigenous varieties of cotton[2]. (You can follow this link for further reading).

What is this BRAI Bill all about? And how does it affect us, is what I intend to bring to light through this article.

The Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Bill was passed in 2013.The object of this Bill being “to promote safe use of biotechnology”, and it was proposed by the, then Ministry of Science and Technology. The Bill was drafted in furtherance of India’s obligation to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety 2000[3], to ensure safe and responsible use of biotechnology. A few key features of this Bill are explained below which may make you ponder whether if at all India needs this Bill.

The object of the Bill is to “promote safe use of biotechnology”, but if we look closer it seems as if the Bill is an open door for corporations that produce genetically modified organisms (GMO’s). It empowers a panel of about five scientists to work on the inspection and clearance of these technologies patented by these corporations. In short, these five scientists have the responsibility to decide what the whole of India should be eating.

The Bill also curbs the role of the individual state governments to merely advisory, in the form of the State Advisory Biotechnology Regulatory Committee, setup under Clause (35) of the Bill. The states do not even possess the authority of rejecting the introduction of GMO crops in their territory. It takes away the authority of the states to make choices about what crops should be grown. This seems to be against the powers granted to the states by the Indian Constitution[4]. The objection to Bt brinjal by states like Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and West Bengal, is a proof that not all state governments are happy with the introduction of these modified crops.

The provisions that the Bill has for liabilities and penalties seems insufficient. As per the Bill, imprisonment of up to three months and a fine of up to rupees five lakhs is the penalty for providing false information, conducting unapproved field trials and obstructing an officer of the BRAI. One of the problems that arise with respect to the liabilities is that there is no express provision dealing with liabilities in case of any negative impact of these modified organisms. There should be provisions for absolute liability or no fault liability to ensure that the interests of the people are not at stake. Instead, this Bill leaves the subject of liability on the courts to see on a case by case basis. India despite being a signatory of the Nagoya Protocol,[5] which states that the countries should have a mechanism of dealing with liabilities either by the civil law of the land or a specific law dealing with biotechnology, has failed to make such provisions in the Bill.

As for dispute redressal the BRAI proposes to setup an independent Appellate Tribunal hence taking away the authority from the civil courts. Section 56 states “the Appellate Tribunal shall have the jurisdiction over all civil cases where a substantial question relating to modern biotechnology is involved”. A specific Tribunal just to deal with these provisions seems like an unwanted waste of time and money, and it looks like an attempt to corner poor farmers who would not stand a chance in front of the multinationals and biotechnology goliaths.[6] Would this mean that the BRAI is trying its best to protect and uphold the interests of these corporations over the health of Indian citizens?

This article might seem like a critique of this Bill. To be fair I would like to say that yes, the Bill is an attempt to solve the problem of growling bellies of the teaming millions and to make food security a reality. Yes! The production of food may increase and bring about a huge boost to the economy, and the introduction of foreign biotechnological giants may be a blessing in disguise. But the cons out-weigh the pros. When countries are waking up to the disaster called “GMO” crops India must be cautious enough to look at its long-term effects on the present and future populations. One can only hope that the price we pay for cheaper food does not cost us dearly in the future.

[1] bacillus thuringiensis,




[5] Nagoya – Kuala Lumpur Supplementary Protocol on Liability and Redress to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, United Nations, adopted October 15, 2010, India is a signatory to the Protocol; it is yet to come into force