New Delhi: Pulling up the environment ministry for its lack of transparency on trials of genetically modified (GM) crops, the Central Information Commission (CIC) has directed the ministry 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 GM mustard in question—DMH11—has been developed by the Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants of Delhi University. If it gets the go-ahead from the environment ministry’s Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (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.
The CIC decision came on the application of environment activist Kavitha Kuruganti, who sought information regarding field trials of GM mustard. The environment ministry, however, refused to part with the information saying that, if given, it will breach the commercial confidence of the Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants.
CIC, however, dismissed the environment ministry’s contention. “The people should know how and why GM mustard is being permitted or denied because they have to consume that food or feed and face the consequences. It is a policy decision by the public authority which needs to be revealed to the public in general as mandated, because they are going to be affected if GM mustard is marketed," said information commissioner M. Sridhar Acharyulu in his order on 1 April.
He directed the ministry to disclose all information regarding GM mustard’s field trials, recommendations of GEAC and safety reports after separating confidential information before 30 April.
Acharyulu also observed that ministry officials had not been able to substantiate the “confidence" that would be breached.
“The PIO (public information officer) cannot simply say that confidence will be breached without substantiating it. The burden of proof is on the PIO or public authority, which was not discharged. Denial of information on the pretext that it was under process is similarly unreasonable," Acharyulu added.
CIC also dismissed the ministry’s plea that it would give information only when a final decision on commercialization of GM mustard is taken and that a case regarding this is pending in the Supreme Court, stating that the Right To Information Act (RTI Act) has no such provisions.
Instead, the CIC noted that the ministry should understand that the information sought should have been disclosed by it automatically as mandated under the RTI Act, which promotes proactive disclosure of information.
It has been a longstanding complaint of environmentalists that GEAC works in secrecy and doesn’t reveal agenda or minutes of meetings. A total of eight GEAC meetings have taken place since May 2014, when the National Democratic Alliance government came to power, but till a couple of months ago their minutes had not been made public. The minutes were only recently put up on the ministry’s website.
Mint on 31 March reported that GEAC had approved 80% of proposals it received since May 2014 to conduct confined field trials of GM crops and hadn’t rejected any proposal.