A top government body authorised to regulate the use of genetically modified crops or organisms in India has been actively denying data sought under the Right To Information Act in violation of several Supreme Court and Central Information Commission orders, which underlined the need for transparent decision-making with regard to GMOs. The secrecy the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee has adopted regarding approvals for the commercial cultivation of GM mustard in the country has raised questions around what the regulator – which falls under the Union environment ministry – seeks to hide, and whose interests it is seeking to protect.

The sharing of biosafety data in the public domain is essential for three reasons. The first two are that the country’s regulatory regime does not insist on independent testing of a given GMO, and the regulatory bodies are ridden by conflict of interest. The third, therefore, is so that public-spirited scientists and others can take up independent scrutiny of data before regulatory bodies take a final call on an application asking for field trials or commercialisation of these genetically modified organisms. This is the key principle that got established through orders of the Supreme Court and the Central Information Commission in 2008 and 2009, which also established the significance of biosafety data for rational and scientific decision-making in the regulation of GMOs.

In the past, due to a vigilant civil society, the regulators were not only forced to share complete data on official websites but also to undertake processes that allowed the public to participate in the regulatory analysis of data submitted. This, then, is the settled position on the matter since 2008. Data was forced out of the regulators in the case of Bt brinjal in late 2008, followed by a public debate that assisted the regulatory processes and, in 2010, despite a regulatory green signal to Bt brinjal, it was placed under an indefinite moratorium by the Government of India. Central to these developments was public scientific scrutiny of biosafety data.

Stealth and GM crops

But last year, the regulator repeatedly stalled attempts by this author for a copy of the biosafety dossier related to a GM mustard hybrid. News reports indicate that the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee had set up a sub-committee that looked into biosafety data submitted by Delhi University scientists who sought permission to commercialise a GM mustard hybrid. The DU applicants had answered the sub-committee’s queries and they were requested to submit a revised Risk Assessment and Risk Management dossier. If approved for commercial cultivation, this would be the first transgenic food crop to be allowed in India. The significance of mustard and its many uses for people all across India cannot be stressed enough in this context.

An RTI application filed by this author for a copy of the biosafety dossier was made on April 18, 2015, and declined on 15 May 2015 on the grounds that “the aforesaid matter is under process and the information cannot be provided at this stage”. An appeal was filed on June 18, 2015, which argued that whatever data exists with the regulators should have been shared and also pro-actively put out on the website, as per Supreme Court orders. But the First Appellate Authority in the environment ministry declined the information on July 29, 2015, saying that it will be shared only after a final report was received from the crop developers, and after it was reviewed by regulatory authorities. This Authority also argued that data being requested pertained to a third party (the crop developer).

The RTI applicant appealed to the Central Information Commissioner and provided it with evidence that the biosafety dossier was indeed lying with the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee that in a meeting on July 18, 2015, recorded its appreciation of the manner in which the full biosafety dossier was submitted by the transgenic crop developer. She further argued that a decision to allow penultimate stage trials before commercialisation would have involved complete appraisal of biosafety data in any case.

CIC orders transparency, again

On April 1, CIC Sridhar Acharyulu ordered the regulator to verify and provide the biosafety dossier of GM mustard as submitted by the crop developer in 2014 and in 2015, and any other material submitted by them which was under review, after separating confidential information, if any. The CIC also directed that all biosafety data pertaining to all other GMOs in the pipeline also be put out before April 30, as this is part of voluntary disclosure under Section 4 of the RTI Act. The CIC stated that the pretexts given for denial of information were unreasonable.

While this was a welcome decision, it is unacceptable that the ministry of environment and forests and its regulators continue to work in an opaque and secretive manner despite previous Supreme Court and Central Information Commission orders to ensure transparency.

The secrecy in regulation of GMOs is a matter of great concern, and is a dent to the credibility and trustworthiness of its regulators. The importance of the complete biosafety data being in the public domain cannot be overstated. After all, this is about the safety of food that we all eat to survive. In the past, the assessment procedures of the regulators have been proven to be shoddy and unscientific. For instance, what the regulators cleared as safe in the case of Bt brinjal ultimately went into an indefinite freeze. Biosafety data cleared as safe by the regulators at that time was also reassessed by independent scientists of the Supreme Court Technical Expert Committee, which expressed surprise after re-assessing the data that the regulatory body has cleared some products as safe in the first instance. The fact that Bt brinjal could not come back before the regulators with additional tests performed to prove its safety vindicates the precautionary stand that the government took at that time.

This is why the need for public scrutiny of data, that too before regulators take a final view, is real. The regulators should now simply comply with the Supreme Court and CIC orders in this regard, and the concerned ministry should see to it that they do.

Kavitha Kuruganti works on issues pertaining to sustainable farm livelihoods.