Anna Hazare’s fight for the Jan Lokpal bill was supported by the entire country. Even then, the government took four days to concede to his demands. Thanks to the movement we know what the Jan Lokpal bill is and what it could have been if it had gone the government’s way. There are many such bills which are kept away from greater public knowledge as they serve some vested interests.  Therefore, we need  to question the intention behind pushing biased and anti-people legislation which poses a threat to our sovereignty.

The proposed Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) bill is an example of this kind of legislation. This bill intends to circumvent opposition to genetic modification and create a single window clearance system for genetically modified (GM) crops in our country. The bill ignores popular opinion and is against the interest of our farmers and consumers.The government wants to get this bill cleared at all costs.

Why are the intentions wrong?

The whole process of drafting of BRAI is being kept a secret. The government is not willing to listen to the opinion of even well known activists like Arvind Kejriwal, Prashant Bhushan, and Medha Patkar. This shows that there is something wrong with the intentions behind this bill. It looks like the government is busy addressing certain vested interests.  

More importantly, last year, a (leaked) version of the BRAI bill created a lot of controversy. It exposed the undemocratic position of those drafting the bill. Besides having the wrong mandate, the proposals in BRAI completely sidestep the precautionary approach needed while addressing GM crops. In fact, the bill does not even look at the serious shortcomings of the existing regulatory regime.

The government needs to work on a system which protects the citizens and the environment from the risks of misuse of modern biotechnology.

The existing regime which looks at GM crops clearance is already riddled with several problems. It has an unscientific, biased, opaque, undemocratic and narrow assessment of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in our food and farming.

The body also lacks a labeling and liability mechanism. But the BRAI proposals are worse. In fact, the primary mandate of protecting India’s environment and health from the risks of modern biotechnology is totally missing in the proposed bill.

Ironically, several policy-makers equate BRAI with the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), which has become a fabulous example of corrupt governance in the country. If we follow this comparison, then BRAI could just be another 2G scam in the offing.  

The government needs to work on a system which protects the citizens and the environment from the risks of misuse of modern biotechnology. The BRAI bill proposes just the opposite. It will be a regulatory framework for modern biotechnology and its applications/products that overlooks bio-safety and threatens our socio-economic and cultural fabric.

Key farmers’ unions, consumer groups, environmental organizations and groups campaigning on people’s right to information along with eminent citizens of India have written an open letter to the Prime Minister asking him not to table the BRAI bill. They have urged him to create a statutory mechanism to protect the sustainability and safety of food and farming in India.

What we need is a bill that looks at feasibility and bio-safety of GM crops, not a body that approves all of it. The Jan Lokpal bill has set the precedence of public participation in law making. It is time the government adopts this approach for other bills like BRAI which affect people.

A new bio-safety bill prepared by a joint committee of farmers, consumers groups, civil society experts, scientists and government officials needs to replace the BRAI. The new draft bill should have a clear mandate of creating a statutory mechanism to protect the sustainability, safety of food and farming in India.    

It’s time the government started taking public opinion and  views of experts a bit more seriously. Especially while drafting a bill like BRAI which will have a huge long term impact on our health, environment and social structure.