Public consultation, the right way

The Bt-brinjal consultation process has been unprecedented in several respects. Often we find politician’s referring to the metaphorical device of a “public debate” without following up on it. However, Minister of State for Environment and Forests, Mr. Jairam Ramesh followed through on his promises. What we saw were 7 public consultations, in which 8000 people participated. Views of expert scientists, farmers, chief ministers, non-governmental organisations were also solicited and considered.

Through these consultations, the Minister of State for Environment and Forests released a decision on laying a moratorium on the commercial implementation of Bt-brinjal. I have yet to come across such a well written government decision. The recording of reasons reflects the sharp divergence of opinion which the public consultation evoked. The decision itself notes that,

“Strong views have been expressed on the Bt-binjal issue, both for and against. My objective is to arrive at a careful, considered decision in the public and national interest”

The opinion clearly identifies the relevant issues, as, (1) preserve the genetic diversity (2) effects on human consumption. It then proceeds to record the insufficient data and studies conducted independently to demonstrate the safety of Bt-brinjal in this respect. The Minister, using the precautionary principle imposes a moratorium on the commercial use of Bt-brinjal (citing the Supreme Court decision in A.P. Pollution Board v. M.V. Nayudu 1999 (2) SCC 718). The operative part of the decision is quoted below :

“based on all the information presented in the preceding paragraphs and when there is no clear consensus within the scientific community itself… it is my duty to adopt a cautious precautionary principle based approach and impose a moratorium on the release of Bt-brinjal till such time independent scientific studies establish to the both the public and professionals the safety of the product…”

Above this, what I find laudable in the decision is the attempt to limit the decision and the process to Bt-brinjal only, away from the larger issue of genetically modified crops. There is an acute awareness which is shown that any wide or overly broad indictment of GM Crops will have a harmful affect on private investment in agriculture as well the development of new crops to lower the dependence on cancer causing pesticides. Towards this the use of scientific uncertainty as a concept to the limited case of Bt-brinjal seems correct and pragmatic. What remains now is a moratorium and there is need to avoid the issue being decided by political considerations rather than scientific ones. Here the steps being taken to set up a National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority and its workings will be of immense importance.

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