I am not sure whether you would believe your ears. You can't probably imagine that any sensible government (except for USA, of course) can try to gag your voice. If you thought that your fundamental right to speech and freedom is guaranteed under the Constitution, you need to think again. The proposed National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority (NBRA) bill is actually trying not only to silence the opposition to GM foods, but also has provisions that can put you in jail for a minimum of six months.
Look at the power of the GM companies, the ghost of the Emergency era is back. During the Emergency, all those who opposed Mrs Indira Gandhi were jailed. But the proposed NBRA goes still further. In addition to putting you in jail, it also imposes a fine of Rs 2 lakh. And if you hold a demonstration against a university or try to 'obstruct' research, you face imprisonment for three months and/or a fine of Rs 5 lakh.
This is the power and reach of the GM companies. The US is already contemplating legal provisions which will outlaw organic farming. In India, the Department of Biotechnology, which has possibly framed this legislation, is aiming at turning Indian science into a ghetto.
If the bill was already in force, you and me (those who opposed the introduction of Bt brinjal) would have been in jail by now. Dr M S Swaminathan and Dr Pushpa Bhargava too would have been in jail. Interestingly, and as I told Mail Today: "Environment minister Jairam Ramesh, who has questioned the safety of GM crops, would have been behind bars because he would have violated it.”
Here is the report from the front page of Mail Today:
GOVT MOOTS JAIL FOR GM FOOD CRITICS
By Dinesh C Sharma in New Delhi
Draconian clause in biotech regulatory Bill aims at muzzling debate on safety of GM products
IF THE ministry of science and technology has its way, criticising genetically- modified ( GM) products could land you in jail.
An Indian citizen who questions the safety of any GM food or medicine could be put behind bars for a minimum period of six months under a new law proposed by the ministry.
The clause to silence critics of GM food is contained in the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India ( BRAI) Bill,2009 prepared by the Department of Biotechnology, which is a wing of the ministry of science and technology headed by Prithviraj Chavan.
'Misleading public about organism and products’ is one of the crimes for which punishment has been prescribed in Section 63, Chapter 13 of the Bill which deals with various “ offences and penalties”. The clause specifically deals with critics of biotech products including GM food crops.
It reads, “ Whoever, without any evidence or scientific record misleads the public about the safety of the organisms and products specified in Part I or Part II or Part III of the Schedule I, 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.”
GM products covered under the Schedule I include genetically engineered plants and organisms, DNA vaccines, cellular products, gene therapy products, stem cell products and other such genetically engineered or transgenic products.
The list also includes vaccines for use in humans or animals that contain living genetically engineered organisms, cellular products including products composed of human, bacterial or animal cells as well as genetically engineered micro- organisms that may have application in agriculture, fisheries, forestry or food production.
Curiously, while every little term in the proposed law such as a “ company” or a “ director” has been defined, no explanation or definition has been given for terms used in section 63 such as “ evidence”, “ scientific record” and “ misleading”. If the Bill becomes a law and comes into force, anyone questioning the safety of Bt brinjal or stem cell therapy “ without evidence or scientific record” can be put behind bars. This is a scary scenario because many of the technologies mentioned in the Bill are still in the realm of research and have not been proven safe for humans.
Not just this, the Bill has another provision to punish anyone who “ without reasonable excuse, resists, obstructs, or attempts to obstruct, impersonate, threaten, intimidate or assault an officer of the Authority or any person assigned to discharge any function under this Act, or in exercising his functions under this Act” with a jail term of three months and a fine of up to Rs 5 lakh. In short, this clause seeks to punish anyone holding a demonstration or rally near the BRAI or where any official of the authority is visiting.
"This is a gag order, absolutely draconian and violative of Article ( 19) ( 1) ( a) of the Indian constitution which guarantees the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression,” said Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan. “ It is definitely meant to scare people so that they don’t say anything against GM technology. Even journalists writing critical articles can be punished.”
The Bill has been criticised by several civil society activists. “If this law was in force today, environment minister Jairam Ramesh, who has questioned the safety of GM crops, would have been behind bars because he would have violated it,” said Devinder Sharma of the Forum for Biotechnology and Food Security. “ It is a dirty attempt to turn science into a ghetto, where all of us will be subjected to unhealthy GM products pushed down our throats by a willing government.” Kavitha Kuruganti of Kheti Virasat Mission said the Bill was meant to harass civil society’ groups concerned about the application of hazardous technologies.
"Who will decide what is ‘ misleading’, and on what basis? How about the ones who are making misleading claims about safety even when there is no conclusive proof of safety?” asked Kuruganti.
Aruna Rodrigues, whose public interest writ against GM crops is in the Supreme Court, said the Bill failed to recognise the basic scientific fact that all GM organisms are inherently hazardous.
She also questioned the ministry of science and technology hosting the BRAI when the subject actually was related to food safety, health and environment.
The proposal to set up an independent authority for biotechnology regulation has been in the pipeline for more than five years now, but the process of setting this up is being hastened after the recent moratorium imposed on Bt brinjal by environment minister Jairam Ramesh.
The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee ( GEAC) – which is currently the apex regulatory body for biotechnology – is housed in the environment ministry.
Ramesh had asserted that the approval to Bt brinjal granted by GEAC was not final. He also plans to convert it into an ‘ appraisal’ committee. Piqued by this move, the department of biotechnology has speeded up the process of setting up BRAI, which will be housed within the department.
The proposed legislation has no clauses on public participation in the process of approval.
The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety ( under the Convention on Biological Diversity) which has been invoked in the preamble of the Bill, clearly states that signatory countries should “ consult the public in decision- making process regarding living modified organisms”. The liability clauses in this legislation are also very weak, experts pointed out. It has no explicit clauses on redressal, compensation, remediation or cleaning up in case of damage due to genetically modified organisms.