The Central Information Commission, which was set up under the Right to Information Act in 2005, did not mince words on Tuesday when it directed the ministry of environment, forest and climate change to reveal safety data regarding trials of genetically modified (GM) mustard without further delay, noting that “any attempt to postpone or delay the disclosure will block the public discussion” on the controversial issue.
In his order, information commissioner M Sridhar Acharyulu said that the information sought is of “high public importance, concerning public health, and it should have been in (the) public domain”.
“Public authority is attempting to keep vital information out of public discussion. It amounts to prevention of constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech and expression of the appellant, who are interested in discussing the pros and cons of GMO-related issues of GM mustard, which if permitted would cause serious impact on the public health of consumers on a large scale,” Acharyulu added.
The is not the first time that the unwilling ministry has been pulled up: In April, the panel pulled up the ministry over its lack of transparency on trials of GM crops and directed it to make public all information, including bio-safety data, related to the field trials of the GM mustard crop before April 30. The CIC also directed the ministry to put in the public domain bio-safety data pertaining to all other GMOs (genetically modified organisms) in the pipeline.
Earlier, in February, activists protesting against the “secretive manner” in which the country’s GM regulator within the environment ministry is trying to approve GM Mustard, 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 then environment minister for met with the delegation and assured them that no GM mustard approval without due processes will be done.
“Despite their promise and an earlier CIC directive, the ministry is still holding on to GM safety data on GM mustard,” environment activist Kavitha Kuruganti, who sought information regarding field trials of GM mustard from the MoEFCC, but was denied, told HT on Wednesday.
“The GEAC does not have expertise to do biosafety assessment and the body is full of ministerial representatives. This has been also been raised by Supreme Court’s expert panels and parliamentary panels. Even crop developers, who have vested interests, sit on the panel… there is immense secrecy,” alleged Kuruganti.
“In fact in the case of BT Brinjal also the CIC in 2007 ordered the data to be put out and asked the ministry not to misuse exemption clauses. The order was challenged by Mahyco Limited but in 2009 again the CIC reiterated its order.”
The issue of GM crops has been controversy-ridden for a long time, and it will continue to be so. Recently, 109 Nobel laureates, mostly scientists, signed a letter urging the Greenpeace to end its opposition to the genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and calling upon governments around the world to reject the NGO’s campaigns that opposed biotechnological innovations in agriculture. The anti-GM groups also have some strong voices.
“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?” asks Umendra Dutt of Sarson Satyagraha.
Considering the critical nature of the issues and the impact it will have on our lives, the government should not hide critical data and deny all parties a chance to vet its findings. This is also unfair because all new policies of the government are usually put up on their websites for public feedback.
So why this duplicitous behaviour when it comes to GM crops?