Ministries in race to set up a new GMO regulator

Written by ASHOK B SHARMA | New Delhi | Updated: Sep 20 2009, 22:21pm hrs
There seems to be a competition among ministries in India about setting up of an autonomous regulator for genetically modified (GM) products replacing the existing Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) which is presently functioning under the Union ministry for environment and forests.

The stated design of the proposals of these ministries is to ensure safety of GM products. But unfortunately this serious issue is turning out to be like -- much ado about nothing.

The department of biotechnology under the Union ministry for science and technology is eager to set up a National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority on basis of the recommendations of the MS Swaminathan Committee (set up by the Union Agriculture Ministry) and RA Mashelkar Committee.

A bill piloted by the Union ministry for food processing industry in the Parliament resulted in setting up of the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) which is now anchored by the Union ministry for health and family welfare. The FSSAI has the mandate to regulate GM food.

Recently the Union ministry for environment and forests has circulated a draft proposal for setting up of an autonomous National Environment Protection Authority (NEPA) which will also regulate GM products. Regarding chemical and biosafety, the draft proposal says This function would include prevention and management of chemical accidents and related information systems and would also encompass the work related to approvals presently being given by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC).

In this context, it is mentionable that proposal for setting up a National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority, which will subsume the GEAC is under separate consideration of the Government of India.

As one of the key principles for setting up of the NEPA, the draft says that its working will subscribe to the polluter-pays principle and the precautionary principle which flows from the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety.

The new minister for environment and forests, Jairam Ramesh had recently went on record expressing apprehensions on the hazards of GM crops and has vowed to follow stringent measures before any final approval of any GM crop. Noted scientist, Dr Pushpa M Bhargava, who was appointed as a special invitee to GEAC meeting as per the directions of the Supreme Court, has also been critical of the existing biosafety protocols and measures and procedures currently followed for approval of GM crops

Despite apprehensions expressed, it seems there is no sincere effort on the part of the government to ensure adequate safety of GM crops and food. Some years back the Union ministry for commerce and industry in an annual amendment to Indias Foreign Trade Policy had suggested that no unlabelled GM product should enter the country. Following this the Union ministry for health and family welfare set up an expert panel of stakeholders to suggest measures for labeling of GM food. The expert panel suggested mandatory labeling of GM food irrespective of any threshold limit.

The Union ministry for health and family welfare did not implement this proposal and kept it pending for a long time. After the FSSAI was set up it washed off its hands and shifted the onus to FSSAI. The FSSAI is yet to set up its full infrastructure and begin dealing with GM food.

Justifying the proposal for setting up of the NEPA, the draft admits the tardy pace in implementation of environment norms by different existing government agencies. The enactment of the Environment Protection Act 1986, various rules and notifications. The National Environment Policy 2006 helped in the creation of a credible legislative and policy base. But there are gaps in the institutional mechanism, it says.

The fact that the matter of the disposal of toxic waste in Bhopals erstwhile UCIL plant has not been resolved even 25 years after the Gas tragedy illustrates the point. This underscores the need to have a suitably empowered apex level authority to deal with environmental issues, the draft says.

The draft also mentions several reports that called for an institutional redesign like the Report of the Steering Committee on the Environment and Forest Sector for the 11th Five Year Plan (2007), the 192nd Report of the Departmental Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science and Technology and Environment and Forests (2008), a study done the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment on Indias environment regulators (2009) and study done by Kalpavriksh Environment Action Group. The Madras High Court in the case of Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board vrs The State Human Rights Commission in November 4, 2004 highlighted the lacuna in terms of an appropriate regulatory framework. The Indian Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh in August 18, 2009 suggested setting up of the NEPA supported by regional environment protection authorities.

As per the draft the basic structure of the proposed effective environmental governance structure around three dimensions ---- the Union ministry for environment and forests would responsible for mooting legislations and policy making, coordination with state governments and with various environmental bodies, international negotiations and implementation of schemes, the proposed NEPA would be responsible for regulation, monitoring and enforcement, the proposed National Green Tribunal (NGT) would be responsible for adjudication. A Bill for setting up of the NGT has recently been introduced in the Parliament. The NGT would support the constitutional jurisdiction of the higher courts.

The state pollution control boards (SPCBs) will continue to play their respective roles in environmental management In the case of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), some functional adjustments may be required taking into account the role of the NEPA. The NEPA would be a statutory autonomous body equipped with substantial budget and with powers to chart its own procedures. It would be professionally managed drawing upon best-in-class expertise from all relevant professional fields including science, economics, law, engineering, public health, environmental planning and management. Its Board members and CEO would be appointed for a fixed tenure. It would have original powers conferred upon it under the Environment Protect Act 1986.

The NEPA may have regional EPAs for decentralized functioning The portfolio of functions flowing out from section 3 (2) of the EPA Act 1986 to be discharged by the NEPA includes environment impact assessment, enforcement and compliance, environmental planning and sustainability studies, environmental health and eco-system protection, sustainable production and waste management, chemical safety and biosafety.

Apart from a full-fledged NEPA that subsumes the CPCB, the draft, however, mentions three alternative options like CPBC continuing to report to the Union environment ministry despite the creation of NEPA, CPCB reporting to NEPA and setting up of National Environment Monitoring Authority (NEMA) for ensuring effective compliance and enforcement and the CPBC to discharge other functions.