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The brinjal battles

It’s an unlikely candidate for controversy, but the lowly brinjal is at the heart of a battle. The issues at stake: whether agricultural and pharmaceutical companies should share classified data (read: trade secrets) with the government and independent watchdogs. The two sides in this joust: the Indian partner of a US-based biotech firm that’s trying to ease in a new version of a genetically modified (GM) brinjal, on the one side, and the environmental group Greenpeace and, indirectly, the Central Information Commission (CIC), on the other.

Last month, the Maharashtra-based Mahyco, the Indian partner of US agro-biotech firm Monsanto, moved the Delhi High Court against a CIC order seeking details of the safety test data generated during clinical trials of its GM brinjal — the first GM edible crop that is to be introduced in India.

Greenpeace had first filed the suit against Mahyco two years ago, invoking the Right to Information (RTI) Act, asking for details about its safety. But the case, Greenpeace claims, has shown the other side of the RTI, which has been hailed as a revolutionary initiative in contemporary India.

“The RTI may have been one of the most people-empowering ideas in the country,” says Divya Raghunandan of Greenpeace who filed the first suit against Mahyco in February 2006, “but it has attributes which makes it prone to manipulation and obfuscation, especially by companies. Our legal experience with Mahyco attests to that.”

The suit begs several questions of the RTI. Is it too open-ended? Are its clauses stacked in favour of companies? Does its functioning need to be addressed? Mahyco, on its part, has declined to share its views on the issue. “We cannot comment on this issue,” said a senior Mahyco official.

At the heart of this matter is the public’s right to access information regarding what food will be on its plate in the future. Mahyco has plans to first bring in the GM brinjal, followed by genetically modified varieties of mustard and rice. Greenpeace and others involved in the case argue that the fact that Mahyco has dilly dallied about revealing data makes the matter suspicious.

To be sure, such battles are not new in the West. Monsanto’s reputation took a hit when a variety of its GM corn seeds was slapped with a ban in Germany last May. The German federal ministry had then stated that Monsanto’s MON 810 corn seeds posed a danger to the environment and that the company hadn’t given the agriculture ministry a detailed crop monitoring plan. Mahyco, Greenpeace contends, seems to be treading the same path.

But Mahyco has regularly invoked Section 8.1d of the RTI Act, which gives companies the right to withhold information which may let out a trade secret or infringe intellectual property rights unless it’s proved that the disclosure of such information is essential to the interests of the public at large.

What is more, Rajya Sabha MP and agricultural leader Sharad Joshi is sceptical about the environmentalists’ efforts, stressing that such cases hamper development. “GM seeds may or may not be as productive as other seeds. But they are not designed to be harmful in the way they are understood to be,” says the founder of the peasant organisation, Shetkari Sanghatana, “Throughout history organisations and individual groups have opposed modernity. When factories came, they opposed them, saying these would kill agriculture. When trains came they opposed them, saying that they would harm the environment. When computers came they said they would take away all the jobs. But look at what happened — India progressed. These are regressive forces.”

Others demur. “Of course such disclosure is essential. It’s about food, about public health. There can be no compromise on that,” says activist Nikhil Dey of the National Campaign for Right to Information (NCPRI). “When you’re confident about the nature of your product, you won’t hesitate revealing what it’s like or what it’s made of. If you’re iffy about it, people raise eyebrows... This is the profit motive talking.” NCPRI is a movement of committed individuals working towards making the Indian government and society more transparent and accountable. It had a big hand in pushing for RTI and consists of noted activists like Aruna Roy, Shekhar Singh and Dey.

As for the question of protecting intellectual property rights, Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan, who is the lawyer for Greenpeace, is quick to point out that “there are no patent rights for GM products in India as of now. So that argument is not tenable”. R. Jai Krishna, a Greenpeace campaigner for sustainable agriculture, stresses that data obtained from the field tests conducted by Mahyco can be copyrighted, not patented. Information can be copyrighted, products are patented. In any case, Indian law doesn’t have any provision for patenting GM products as yet. The larger point that emerges is how the case appears to have allowed Mahyco to use different provisions within the RTI to shift positions and give summaries of field reports, not hard data.

Yet Greenpeace and other activists are not pushing for changes to the RTI. “I wouldn’t recommend touching the broad framework,” says Dey, “but I’d like to see more specific expert input in the legal system. The inherent bias towards company rights needs checks, and should have riders added whenever required.”

Jai Krishna suggests that an interesting way to work around this is to keep a watch on related monitoring bodies as well. “The issue is the functioning of the RTI and the agents that make this happen, not the RTI per se,” he emphasises.

For example, in the current case the data given out by Mahyco whenever instructed to do so — which Greenpeace anyway feels isn’t entirely relevant to the safety aspect —were studied by a review committee appointed by the department for biotechnology (DBT) under the order of the CIC. But “a government-appointed review committee must have people who are asking the right questions, analysing the right data and doing the right tests”, he says.

“In May 2007, the DBT provided only the result summaries of the data that are derived from the data for genetically engineered brinjal. Also, it directed the appellant to go to the ministry of environment and forests and take down the thousands of pages of data under the supervision of an officer. No data were given on the other three crops — rice, okra and mustard,” he says.

But K.K. Tripathi of the review committee on genetic manipulation (RCGM) of the DBT, and part of the review committee on the case, is unaffected by any finger pointing. He’s also very noncommittal. “We are doing what is asked of us by the CIC. There’s a process in place and we adhere to it. The results of the tests and data analyses are routinely put out. The high court will decide what is to be done,” he says.

But one thing is for sure. Little did we know a brinjal could have the potential to stir up the Indian legal system. Call it vegetable power?

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