Muzzling Free Speech, Without Emergency.

Indian Express seems so fond of Bt Brinjal that it should be assured of uninterrupted supply of ‘Bt Brinjal Bharta (BBB)’ for as long as the paper lasts. But those who were scared by the tardy & faulty approval granted by GEAC (Genetic Engineering Approval Committee) to its commercialization and had just let off a sigh of relief by the temporary reprieve granted to them by Jairam Ramesh have a new worry to gag over. Prithviraj Chauhan was the last King professing Hindu faith to rule Delhi. Will Prithviraj Chavan be the first Indian Minister to prohibit Free Speech through Bt legislation? He has the independent charge as Minister of State for Ministry of Science & Technology (MoST) under whose jurisdiction the Department of Bio-Technology (DoBT) comes. Chavan informed Lok Sabha on 3rd March 2010, “….The department of biotechnology has prepared a draft Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Bill (BRAI 2009) through a consultative process involving interdisciplinary and inter-ministerial experts, state governments and stakeholders….” He added, “The government will set up a Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI), which will be autonomous and statutory agency to regulate the research, transport, import, manufacture and use of organisms and products of modern biotechnology”. Genetically Modified (GM) Foods are the gifts (?) of bio-technology. Undoubtedly, attempts are on to entrust BRAI with all issues governing GM foods. This would make GEAC embedded in the Ministry of Environment & Forest (MoEF) defunct. Since this concerns turf wars between ministries, it is of little interest except for the predilections of the ministers at their helms. What is more worrying are the provisions in the draft legislation itself. Government has been due to concerted civic action putting draft bills lately on the ministries’ websites for wider consultations. Not so, thinks DoBT. If one checks on its website about acts & legislation, one is greeted with a terse one liner.
However, in its Citizens charter it assures the reader of full transparency in all its dealings.
The New Indian Express (not to be confused with Shekhar Gupta’s) reported on 26th February about the draconian measures proposed in the BRAI bill under the headline, “Criticising GM crops may land you in jail ”. (1) “….Chapter 13 section 63 of the draft bill says, “Whoever, without any evidence or scientific record misleads the public about the safety of the organisms and products…shall be punished with imprisonment for a term that 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”. (2) “….Article 27-1 of the bill seeks to keep the information related to the research, approval and science of the GM Products out of the purview of the Right to Information (RTI) Act”. (3) “….the three member experts of the Department of Biotechnology will override any existing legislation about GM technology in the states”. (4) “….The draft bill also states that the BRAI will set up its own appellate tribunal which will have the jurisdiction to hear arguments on the issues concerning biotechnology. In case of any disputes, petitioners can only approach the Supreme Court of India”. Whatever information has trickled out till now is very disconcerting.
One wonders, why does the bill permit at all the petitioners to approach Supreme Court? The answer to that one is simple. If such a provision hadn’t been inserted, however unlikeable it may be to the executive, then the whole bill would have been thrown out in the first instance as Ultra vires of Constitution. If one reads the third point above carefully, Center would be seen as encroaching on the powers of the States by allowing its experts to roughshod any legislation passed in the wisdom of State Legislatures. Such provision would arise from a mentality that holds DoBT/ MoST as the sole repositories of all the wisdom and therefore should have an unfettered mandate to do what they wish.
The provisions referred to in the first 2 points are of course the most perfidious to democratic polity. If the information regarding the approval process, and the research & science scrutinized during such approvals is kept outside the public domain; then how exactly a critique of it based on science can be developed? This is a classic Catch 22 situation. One cannot talk without evidence or scientific record, but that very evidence or scientific record is out of bounds. Lastly, article 19(1)(a) of Constitution grants freedom of speech to every Indian citizen. Article 19(2) allows the State to place “Reasonable restrictions on this right” for certain reasons enumerated therein. None of the reasons cited therein would condone the unreasonable restrictions the BRAI Bill seeks to impose on anybody who wishes to talk about GM foods. A tenuous fig leaf though may be conjured, if by some jugglery of words “friendly relations with Monsanto of some vested interests in India” can be equated with “friendly relations with USA of India”. Else, the whole ‘gag order’ sought by DoBT violates the Free Speech guaranteed by the constitution.

The most accommodative allies of DoBT (MoST) will find it difficult to justify these provisions in the proposed bill. What could be the purpose behind their introduction? Extreme charitable explanation would put it that the Minister and the DoBT(MoST) are in a hurry to bring an era of plenty to the multitudes who go hungry in this nation. But would that satisfy even a dotard amongst us?

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