New Delhi: The Central Information Commission (CIC) has directed the environment ministry to reveal safety data regarding trials of genetically modified (GM) mustard without further delay, noting that “any attempt to postpone or delay the disclosure will block the public discussion” on the controversial issue.
In April, the information panel had pulled up the Union ministry of environment, forest and climate change (MoEFCC) over its lack of transparency on trials of GM crops and directed it to make public all information, including bio-safety data, related to the field trials of the GM mustard crop before 30 April.
The CIC also directed the ministry to put in the public domain bio-safety data pertaining to all other GMOs (genetically modified organisms) in the pipeline.
The CIC’s directions came on an application by environment activist Kavitha Kuruganti, who sought information regarding field trials of GM mustard from the MoEFCC, but was denied.
“Instead of furnishing information as ordered by 30 April 2016, the public authority requested for two more months. The public authority did not honour its own commitment to furnish in that time and on 28 June they sought another extension, this time for 90 days. To furnish a copy of a report or to place the agenda and minutes of the GEAC (Genetic Engineering Approval Committee) meeting, they need no time at all. They are just asking for time though they do not require it,” information commissioner M. Sridhar Acharyulu noted in his order.
He also held that there appears “to be no seriousness in seeking extension” and the environment ministry is “routinely asking for extension without specifying the period”.
The CIC said that it finds no sufficient reason to extend the time for another 90 days to give information which the MoEFCC was supposed to disclose on its own under proactive disclosure provisions of the Right to Information Act, 2005.
The GM mustard in question—DMH-11—has been developed by the Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants of Delhi University. If it gets the green light from the environment ministry’s GEAC, it will be the first GM food crop to be commercially cultivated in India. Right now, only GM cotton is allowed. GEAC is the environment ministry’s regulator for GMOs and transgenic products.
In his order, Acharyulu said that the information sought is of “high public importance, concerning public health, and it should have been in (the) public domain”.
“Public authority is attempting to keep vital information out of public discussion. It amounts to prevention of constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech and expression of the appellant, who are interested in discussing the pros and cons of GMO-related issues of GM mustard, which if permitted would cause serious impact on the public health of consumers on a large scale,” he said.
As per a report in Hindu Business Line, the CIC also issued a show-cause notice to two officials of the environment ministry, asking why maximum penalty should not be imposed on them under the Right to Information Act. Acharyulu also held the two officials responsible for not facilitating the disclosure as directed by him.
The information commissioner severely criticized the environment ministry for the delay in revealing the information regarding GM mustard trials.
“They were asking for two or three, four months. The commission views that such tactics are only to delay... By this, they will only harm the public interest and facilitate promotion of some interest, not desirable,” he said.
The issue of field trials of GM crops and their commercialization has been a contentious one in India. A final decision on the case is expected to be taken in the next few months.
In July, a group of agriculture scientists, ecologists, farmers and consumer rights activists made detailed presentations before the GEAC to present evidence on the suspected hazards posed by GM mustard and vowed to step up opposition to any possible approval to the variety.