By Kavitha Kuruganti*
The growing outrage across the country against the secretive manner in which the country’s GM regulator within the Environment Ministry is trying to approve GM Mustard reached a new height with a rainbow group of citizens, under the banner of Sarson Satyagraha held a symbolic protest outside the Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change in New Delhi on February 5. They reached the Ministry at a time when the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) was holding its meeting to consider the ‘environmental release’ application of GM Mustard, which if approved will be the first GM food crop to be commercially cultivated in India. The Chairperson of GEAC, and later, the Minister for Environment, Forests & Climate Change met with a delegation of the Satyagrahis.
The Minister assured the delegation that without due processes, GM mustard will not be approved. The delegation pressed home the point that GMO regulation has to begin with a needs assessment, and whether alternatives are available or not, and applications should not be processed routinely without policy directives put into place. Delegation also pointed out that no health ministry person is participating in the regulatory body, that unacceptable conflict of interest continues in the regulatory body, and that despite court orders, data is not being shared.
His attention was also drawn to the fact that even agenda and minutes of meetings are not put into the public domain from the time this government took over. The Minister assured the delegation that all these issues will be looked into, that he will organize a separate meeting soon and hear out all the issues, and then sit with GEAC also to resolve. He also accepted the bundle of petitions from more than 41000 citizens on change.org from the delegation.
In another development, GEAC invited members of the Coalition for GM-Free India into their meeting today late last night, and the Coalition had to decline the invitation, pointing out that a meaningful dialogue is possible only after all data is put out in the public domain, and if the regulators are ready to engage with more fundamental issues related to GM regulation in India, going beyond one GMO in question. The correspondence is present on this link.
The Satyagrahis represented farmers’ groups, other civil society organisations, activists, students, researchers and others from different states. They were in turn representing tens of thousands of citizens who have been writing to the Environment Minister for the past few weeks, asking him not to proceed with the processing of the ‘environmental release’ application of a genetically modified food crop – GM mustard. They sought to hand over signatures of more than 41000 citizens on a Change.org petition to Prakash Javadekar asking him to stop the invasion of GM mustard.
Kavitha Kuruganti of Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture (ASHA) said, “It is indeed unacceptable that despite so much objection from citizens and even state governments, the GEAC is going ahead with its secretive processes in a business as usual manner. This is all the more surprising given that the government talks about transparency, accountability, good governance and federal polity constantly. Our point is this: this technology is a risky, irreversible, living technology.
“On top of that, our regulators have proven themselves to be untrustworthy of protecting citizens from the risks of modern biotechnology. Given a combination of both, should we not have a policy directive on the subject that ensures that we don’t adopt such risky technologies when we have other alternatives? We repeat that our government should not be imposing on its citizens unneeded, unwanted and unsafe GMOs. GM mustard is certainly one such GMO with serious adverse implications for various stakeholders”,
Umendra Dutt of Sarson Satyagraha added, “The experience of Bt cotton, where the unfounded myths of this technology got squarely busted, should have made the government more cautionary than ever about GMOs. However, this has not happened. This push from the government, overruling even BJP-ruled states’ stand on GM crops, reeks of strong vested interests at play, not true science. True science would have welcomed a proper public scrutiny and debate on the whole subject, and not hidden it in ‘confidentiality’ clauses.
“What is top secret about the safety of your food and mine, unless there is something to be hidden? In the case of Bt brinjal, the then Minister for Environment and Forests had to place it under indefinite moratorium, ‘being responsible to science and responsive to society’ as he stated. We want all governments to be responsible to science and responsive to society. We cannot remain silent spectators to what is being unleashed on us in a secretive, hurried, unconsultative manner. We have come here to show our valid dissent”.
GM mustard, which would be the first food crop to be approved for commercialization in India, if it gets the regulators’ green signal, has ostensibly been created for coming up with a yield-increasing hybrid variety of mustard and has male sterility and herbicide tolerance induced through the use of transgenic technology. Critics have been pointing out that productivity increases can be achieved through many other feasible alternatives, and that the use of bacterial genes in mustard for inducing male sterility and herbicide tolerance will result in adverse impacts on our health and environment.
Sarson Satyagraha was launched in July 2015 as a broad umbrella of organisations that seek to keep India GM Mustard-free. The protest saw many citizens’ groups join hands. Bhartiya Kisan Union, Kheti Virasat Mission, Beej Bachao Andolan, Vividhaara, KHANA, Kudrati Kheti Abhiyan, PAGMF, Greenpeace India, NHCPM, Kisan Sewa Samiti, INSAF, Delhi Organic Farmers Market, Sansad, Campaign for Conservation & Community Control over Biodiversity, and others were represented in the protest.
Meanwhile, citizens also took to other means to express their resistance including a twitter action and a fax action against GEAC and the Ministry.
The protesters pledged to fight any such efforts by vested interests to compromise with the interests of people of this country and push through GMOs into our food, farming and environment.
*Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture (ASHA), New Delhi