The draft biotechnology regulatory authority of India (Brai) Bill has been stuck for four years. The watchdog proposed under the legislation will regulate modern biotechnology products ranging from genetically modified crops to living organisms that may be used in the drugs of tomorrow. While Parliament is yet to debate the Bill, thanks to its many disruptions, the legislation is a critical one and a decision is needed sooner rather than later.
The process of drafting the Bill has been extremely contentious, with several environmentalist organizations protesting against its formation on the grounds that it paves the way for large-scale adoption of genetically modified (GM) food crops by Indian farms. Currently, GM cotton is the only such crop that can be legally cultivated in India. Attempts to cultivate GM brinjal failed after environmentalist campaigns and a veto by some state governments. Much isn’t clear about several provisions in the Bill and, at various stages, the evolving draft even sought to “punish those who disseminate misleading information on GM crops”. These have been expunged in the Bill’s modified form.
The wellspring of the ire that the Bill invites is a principled opposition to genetic-engineering technology in seeds. It doesn’t help that multinational seed companies currently own most of such technology and there is an apprehension that foreign companies will, thus, “monopolize” Indian agriculture. This fear is similar to what rallies opposition to FDI in retail. However, while retail concerns the supply and distribution of farm produce, Brai has critical implications for India’s farm productivity. Whether GM improves yields across crops and geographic zones is debatable, but what is incontrovertible is the ever-decreasing land available for agriculture as well a rising number of villagers eschewing the agrarian economy for other occupations in cities. Agriculture in India must become more productive and less dependent on human labour for it to be a viable livelihood. Brai, at the very least, encourages access to better seed technology and that itself merits an informed debate in India’s Parliament rather than long-drawn debates between activist organizations and seed technology companies that are currently taking up the “cause” of India’s farmers.
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