Legislation

Food security: some food for thought

The right to food and food security have been widely discussed in the media.  The National Food Security Bill, 2011, which makes the right to food a legal right, is currently pending in Parliament.  The Bill seeks to deliver food security by providing specific entitlements to certain groups of individuals through the Targeted Public Distribution System, a large-scale subsidised foodgrain distribution system.  The Standing Committee on Food, Consumer Affairs and Public Distribution presented its report on the Food Security Bill on January 17, 2013.  It made recommendations on key issues such as the categorisation of beneficiaries, cash transfers and cost sharing between the centre and states. A comparison of the Bill and Committee’s recommendations are given below.

Issue

Food Security Bill

Standing Committee’s Recommendations

Who will get food security?  75% of the rural and 50% of the urban population (to be divided into priority and general categories). Of these, at least 46% of the rural and 28% of urban populations will be priority (the rest will be general). Uniform category: Priority, general and other categories shall be collapsed into ‘included’ and ‘excluded’ categories.Included category shall extend to 75% of the rural and 50% of the urban population.
How will they be identified? The centre shall prescribe guidelines for identifying households; states shall identify the specific households. The centre should clearly define criteria for exclusion and consult with states to create inclusion criteria.
What will they get?  Priority:7 kg foodgrains/person/month (at Rs 3/kg for wheat, Rs 2/kg for rice, Rs 1/kg for coarse grains).General: 3 kg foodgrains/person/ month (at 50% of MSP). Included: 5 kg foodgrains/person/month (at subsidised prices).  Pulses, sugar, etc., should be provided in addition to foodgrains.
Reforms to TPDS Doorstep delivery of foodgrains to ration shops, use of information technology, etc. Implement specific IT reforms, for e.g. CCTV cameras in godowns, use of internet, and GPS tracking of vehicles carrying foodgrains.  Evaluate implementation of TPDS every 5 yrs.
Cost-sharing between centre and states Costs will be shared between centre and states. Mechanism for cost-sharing will be determined by the centre. Finance Commission and states should be consulted regarding additional expenditure to be borne by states to implement the Bill.
Cash Transfers Schemes such as cash transfer and food coupons shall be introduced in lieu of foodgrains. Cash transfers should not be introduced at this time. Adequate banking infrastructure needs to be set up before introduction.
Time limit for implementation The Act shall come into force on a date specified by the centre. States to be provided reasonable time limit i.e., 1 year, after which Act will come into force.

To access the Bill, a detailed comparison of the Standing Committee recommendations and the Bill, and other relevant reports relevant, see here.

Shortage of doctors may hit rural healthcare delivery

Recently, the Standing Committee on Health and Family Welfare submitted its report to the Parliament on the National Commission for Human Resource for Health Bill, 2011.  The objective of the Bill is to “ensure adequate availability of human resources in the health sector in all states”.  It seeks to set up the National Commission for Human Resources for Health (NCHRH), National Board for Health Education (NBHE), and the National Evaluation and Assessment Council (NEAC) in order to determine and regulate standards of health education in the country.  It separates regulation of the education sector from that of professions such as law, medicine and nursing, and establishes professional councils at the national and state levels to regulate the professions. See here for PRS Bill Summary. The Standing Committee recommended that this Bill be withdrawn and a revised Bill be introduced in Parliament after consulting stakeholders.  It felt that concerns of the professional councils such as the Medical Council of India and the Dental Council of India were not adequately addressed.  Also, it noted that the powers and functions of the NCHRH and the National Commission on Higher Education and Research (to be established under the Higher Education and Research Bill, 2011 to regulate the higher education sector in the country) were overlapping in many areas.  Finally, it also expressed concern over the acute shortage of qualified health workers in the country as well as variations among states and rural and urban areas.  As per the 2001 Census, the estimated density of all health workers (qualified and unqualified) is about 20% less than the World Health Organisation’s norm of 2.5 health workers per 1000 population. See here for PRS Standing Committee Summary. Shortfall of health workers in rural areas Public health care in rural areas is provided through a multi-tier network.  At the lowest level, there are sub health-centres for every population of 5,000 in the plains and 3,000 in hilly areas.  The next level consists of Primary Health Centres (PHCs) for every population of 30,000 in the plains and 20,000 in the hills.  Generally, each PHC caters to a cluster of Gram Panchayats.  PHCs are required to have one medical officer and 14 other staff, including one Auxiliary Nurse Midwife (ANM).  There are Community Health Centres (CHCs) for every population of 1,20,000 in the plains and 80,000 in hilly areas.  These sub health centres, PHCs and CHCs are linked to district hospitals.  As on March 2011, there are 14,8124 sub health centres, 23,887 PHCs and 4809 CHCs in the country.[i]  Sub-Health Centres and Primary Health Centres

  • § Among the states, Chhattisgarh has the highest vacancy of doctors at 71%, followed byWest Bengal(44%),Maharashtra(37%), and Uttar Pradesh (36%). On the other hand, Rajasthan (0.4%), Andhra Pradesh (3%) and Kerala (7%) have the lowest vacancies in PHCs.
  • § Nine states do not have any doctor vacancies at all at the PHC level. These states includeBihar, Jharkhand andPunjab.
  • § Ten states have vacancy in case of ANMs.  These are: Manipur, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh,Gujarat,Goa, Himachal Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Haryana, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh.
  • § The overall vacancy for ANMs in the country is 5% while for doctors it is 24%.
Table 1: State-wise comparison of vacancy in PHCs
 

Doctors at PHCs

ANM at PHCs and Sub-Centres

State Sanctioned post Vacancy % of vacancy Sanctioned post Vacancy % of vacancy
 Chhattisgarh 1482 1058 71 6394 964 15
 West Bengal 1807 801 44 10,356 NA 0
 Maharashtra 3618 1326 37 21,122 0 0
 Uttar Pradesh 4509 1648 36 25,190 2726 11
 Mizoram 57 20 35 388 0 0
 Madhya Pradesh 1238 424 34 11,904 0 0
 Gujarat 1123 345 31 7248 817 11
 Andaman & Nicobar Isld 40 12 30 214 0 0
 Odisha 725 200 28 7442 0 0
 Tamil Nadu 2326 622 27 9910 136 1
 Himachal Pradesh 582 131 22 2213 528 24
 Uttarakhand 299 65 22 2077 0 0
 Manipur 240 48 20 984 323 33
 Haryana 651 121 19 5420 386 7
 Sikkim 48 9 19 219 0 0
 Meghalaya 127 23 18 667 0 0
 Delhi 22 3 14 43 0 0
 Goa 46 5 11 260 20 8
 Karnataka 2310 221 10 11,180 0 0
 Kerala 1204 82 7 4232 59 1
 Andhra Pradesh 2424 76 3 24,523 2876 12
 Rajasthan 1478 6 0.4 14,348 0 0
 Arunachal Pradesh  NA  NA NA NA NA 0
 Assam  NA  NA NA NA NA 0
 Bihar 2078  0 NA NA NA 0
 Chandigarh 0 0 NA 17 0 0
 Dadra & Nagar Haveli 6 0 NA 40 0 0
 Daman & Diu 3  0 NA 26 0 0
 Jammu & Kashmir 750  0 NA 2282 0 0
 Jharkhand 330  0 NA 4288 0 0
 Lakshadweep 4  0 NA NA NA 0
 Nagaland  NA  NA NA NA NA 0
 Puducherry 37 0 NA 72 0 0
 Punjab 487 0 NA 4044 0 0
 Tripura  NA  NA NA NA NA 0
 India 30,051 7,246 24 1,77,103 8,835 5
Sources: National Rural Health Mission (available here), PRS.Note: The data for all states is as of March 2011 except for some states where data is as of 2010.  For doctors, these states are Bihar, UP, Mizoram and Delhi.  For ANMs, these states are Odisha and Uttar Pradesh.
 
Community Health Centres
  • § A CHC is required to be manned by four medical specialists (surgeon, physician, gynaecologist and paediatrician) and 21 paramedical and other staff.
  • § As of March 2011, overall there is a 39% vacancy of medical specialists in CHCs.  Out of the sanctioned posts, 56% of surgeons, 47% of gynaecologists, 59% of physicians and 49% of paediatricians were vacant.
  • States such as Chhattisgarh, Manipur and Haryana have a high rate of vacancies at the CHC level.
Table 2: Vacancies in CHCs of medical specialists
  Surgeons Gynaecologists Physicians Paediatricians
State

% of vacancy

 Andaman & NicobarIsland 100 100 100 100
 Andhra Pradesh 74 0 45 3
 Arunachal Pradesh NA NA NA NA
 Assam NA NA NA NA
 Bihar 41 44 60 38
 Chandigarh 50 40 50 100
 Chhattisgarh 85 85 90 84
 Dadra & Nagar Haveli 0 0 0 0
 Daman & Diu 0 100 0 100
 Delhi 0 0 0 0
 Goa 20 20 67 66
 Gujarat 77 73 0 91
 Haryana 71 80 94 85
 Himachal Pradesh NA NA NA NA
 Jammu & Kashmir 34 34 53 63
 Jharkhand 45 0 81 61
 Karnataka 33 NA NA NA
 Kerala NA NA NA NA
 Lakshadweep 0 0 100 0
 Madhya Pradesh 78 69 76 58
 Maharashtra 21 0 34 0
 Manipur 100 94 94 87
 Meghalaya 50 NA 100 50
 Mizoram NA NA NA NA
 Nagaland NA NA NA NA
 Odisha 44 45 62 41
 Puducherry 0 0 100 NA
 Punjab 16 36 40 48
 Rajasthan 57% 46 49 24
 Sikkim NA NA NA NA
 Tamil Nadu 0 0 0 0
 Tripura NA NA NA NA
 Uttar Pradesh NA NA NA NA
 Uttarakhand 69 63 74 40
 West Bengal 0 57 0 78
 India 56 47 59 49
Sources: National Rural Health Mission (available here), PRS.

[i].  “Rural Healthcare System in India”, National Rural Health Mission (available here).  

Some Important Anti-Corruption Bills in Parliament

Listed below are some key Bills pending in Parliament that are expected to address various aspects of corruption in India. These Bills need to be scrutinized carefully by both lawmakers and citizens alike, so as the strengthen them. Citizen groups can engage in a variety of ways to get their views heard, which have been described in the primer on Engaging with Policy Makers. Some of these anti-corruption Bills are listed in the current Winter Session for consideration and passing. These are marked in red below. (The full list of all Bills being considered in the Winter Session can be accessed here.) Each Bill below has been hyperlinked to a page which has the text of the Bill, the report of the Standing Committee, PRS analysis, and other relevant documents, all in one place. Spreading this message to a number of interested people will be a very useful contribution by all those interested in building greater engagement of people with what happens in Parliament.  

Bill

Date of introduction

Status

Brief description

The Lokpal and Lokayuktas Bill, 2011 (Listed for passing) December 22, 2011 Passed by Lok Sabha on 27 Dec 2011. Report of Rajya Sabha Select Committee submitted on November 23, 2012. It seeks to establish the office of the Lok Pal at the centre and Lokayuktas in states for inquiring into complaints against certain public servants.The Bill once passed shall be applicable to states if they give their consent to its application.
The Whistle Blowers Protection Bill, 2011 (Listed for passing) August 26, 2010 Passed by Lok Sabha on December 27, 2011. Pending in Rajya Sabha It seeks to protect whistleblowers (person making a disclosure related to acts of corruption, misuse of power or criminal offence).Under the Bill any person including a public servant may make such a disclosure to the Central or State Vigilance Commission.The identity of the complainant shall not be disclosed.
The Benami Transactions (Prohibition) Bill, 2011 August 18, 2011 Standing Committee submitted its Report on June 26, 2012 The Bill prohibits all persons from entering into benami transactions (property transactions in the name of another person).Any benami property shall be confiscated by the central government.It seeks to replace the existing Benami Transactions (Prohibition) Act, 1988.
The Prevention of Bribery of Foreign Public Officials and Officials of Public International Organisations Bill, 2011 (Listed for passing) March 25, 2011 Standing Committee  submitted its Report on March 29, 2012 Indiais a signatory to the UN Convention against corruption. The Bill is necessary for India to ratify the Convention.The Bill makes it an offence to accept or offer a bribe to foreign public officials and officials of public international organizations in order to obtain or retain international business
The Right of Citizens for Time Bound Delivery of Goods and Services and Redressal of their Grievances Bill, 2011 December 20, 2011 Standing Committee submitted its Report on August 28, 2012 It requires every public authority to publish a citizen charter within six months of commencement of the Act.The charter should detail the goods and services to be provided and the timeline for their delivery.
The Electronic Delivery of Services Bill, 2011 December 27, 2011 Standing Committee submitted its Report on August 30, 2012 The Bill requires all public authorities to deliver all public services electronically within a maximum period of eight years.There are two exceptions to this requirement: (a) service which cannot be delivered electronically; and (b) services that the public authorities in consultation with the respective Central and State EDS Commissions decide not to deliver electronically.
The Prevention of Money-Laundering (Amendment) Bill, 2011 (Listed for passing) December 27, 2011 Standing Committee submitted its Report on May 9, 2012 The Bill Amends the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, 2002.This Bill widens the definition of offences under money laundering to include activities like concealment, acquisition, possession and use of proceeds of crime.It provides for the provisional attachment and confiscation of property (for a maximum period of 180 days).
The National Identification Authority of India Bill, 2010 December 3, 2010 Standing Committee  submitted its Report on December 13,  2011 The Bill seeks to establish the National Identification Authority of India to issue unique identification numbers (called ‘Aadhaar’) to residents ofIndia.Every person residing inIndia(regardless of citizenship) is entitled to obtain an Aadhaar number after furnishing the required information.The number shall serve as an identity proof.  But not as a citizenship proof.
The Judicial Standards and Accountability Bill, 2010 December 1, 2010 Passed by Lok Sabha on March 29, 2012; Pending in Rajya Sabha It replaces the Judges (Inquiry) Act, 1968.  It provides for enforceable standards for the conduct of High Court and Supreme Court judges.The Bill requires judges and their spouses and children to declare their assets and liabilities.  It also establishes a process for the removal of judges of Supreme Court and High Court
The Public Procurement Bill, 2012 May 14, 2012 Standing Committee Report pending The Bill seeks to regulate and ensure transparency in the procurement process.  It applies to procurement processes above Rs 50 lakh.The procuring entity shall adhere to certain standards such as (a) ensuring efficiency and economy; and (b) provide fair and equitable treatment to bidders.

Sources: Respective Bills, PRS Legislative Research    

Are there enough regulatory safeguards against nuclear power?

The protests against the nuclear power plant at Kudankulam have intensified over the recent weeks.  The Kudankulam plant is expected to provide 2 GW of electricity annually.  However, activists concerned about the risks of nuclear energy are demanding that the plant be shut down.  The safety of nuclear power plants is a technical matter.  In this blog post we discuss the present mechanism to regulate nuclear energy and the legislative proposals to amend this mechanism. Atomic materials and atomic energy are governed by the Atomic Energy Act, 1962.  The Act empowers the central government to produce, develop and use atomic energy.  At present, nuclear safety is regulated by the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB).  Some of the drawbacks of the present mechanism are discussed below. Key issues under the present nuclear safety regulatory mechanism The AERB is not empowered to operate as an independent operator.  The AERB was established by the government through a notification and not through an Act of Parliament.  Its powers and functions are therefore amendable by the Department of Atomic Energy through executive orders.  The parliamentary oversight exercised upon such executive action is lower than the parliamentary oversight over statutes. [1. The executive action or the Rules are in force from the date of their notification.  They are to be tabled before Parliament mandatorily.  However, an executive action is discussed and put to vote in Parliament only if an objection is raised by a Member of Parliament.  The executive orders may be reviewed by the committee on sub-ordinate legislation.  However, this committee has to oversee a large volume of rules and regulations.  For instance, there were 1264 statutory notifications that were tabled before the Rajya Sabha in 2011-12.] Furthermore, the Atomic Energy Commission that sets out the atomic energy policy, and oversees the functioning of the AERB, is headed by the Secretary, Department of Atomic Energy.  This raises a conflict of interest, as the Department exercises administrative control over NPCIL that operates nuclear power plants. It is pertinent to note that various committee reports, including a CAG Report in 2011, had highlighted the drawbacks in the present regulatory mechanisms and recommended the establishment of a statutory regulator.  A summary of the Report may be accessed here. Proposed mechanism Following the Fukushima nuclear incident in 2011, the Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority Bill, 2011 was introduced in Parliament to replace the AERB. The Bill establishes the Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority (NSRA) to regulate nuclear safety, and a Nuclear Safety Council to oversee nuclear safety policies that the NSRA issues.  Under the Bill, all activities related to nuclear power and nuclear materials may only be carried out under a licence issued by the NSRA. Extent of powers and independence of the NSRA The Bill establishes the NSRA as a statutory authority that is empowered to issue nuclear safety policies and regulations.  The Nuclear Safety Council established under the Bill to oversee these policies includes the Secretary, Department of Atomic Energy.  The conflict of interest that exists under the present mechanism may thus continue under the proposed regulatory system. The Bill provides that members of the NSRA can be removed by an order of the central government without a judicial inquiry.  This may affect the independence of the members of the NSRA.  This process is at variance with enactments that establish other regulatory authorities such as TRAI and the Competition Commission of India.  These enactments require a judicial inquiry prior to the removal of a member if it is alleged that he has acquired interest that is prejudicial to the functions of the authority. The proposed legislation also empowers the government to exclude strategic facilities from the ambit of the NSRA.  The government can decide whether these facilities should be brought under the jurisdiction of another regulatory authority. These and other issues arising from the Bill are discussed here.


 

Will the changes to the Contract Labour Act benefit workers?

A change in the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970 may be in the pipeline.  According to news reports, the government may amend the 1970 Act to safeguard the interest of contract workers.  The proposal is to bring parity between permanent and contractual workers in wages and other benefits. The Contract Labour Act, 1970 regulates the employment of contract labour in establishments which employ 20 or more workmen.  It excludes any establishment whose work is intermittent or casual in nature.  The appropriate government may require establishments to provide canteens, rest rooms and first aid facilities to contract labourers.  The contractor shall be responsible for payment of wages to each worker employed by him.  There are penalties listed for contravening the Act. According to the Report of the National Commission on Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector (NCEUS), more than 90% of the workforce is part of the unorganised sector.  Contract labour is found in certain activities in the unorganized sector such as in stone quarrying, beedi rolling, rice shelling and brick kiln.  The Commission recommended some measures to protect the workers in the unorganized sector such as ensuring minimum conditions of work, minimum level of social security and improved credit flow to the non-agricultural sector. The Report of the Working Group on “Labour Laws and other Regulations” for the 12th Five Year Plan, also proposed that the 1970 Act should be amended.  The amendment should ensure that in case of contract labour performing work similar to that performed by permanent workers, they should be entitled to the same wage rates, holidays, hours of work and social security provisions.  Furthermore, whenever a contract worker is engaged through a contractor, the contract agreement between the employer and the contractor should clearly indicate the wages and other benefits to be paid by the contractor. However, other experts such as Bibek Debroy, Kaushik Basu and Rajeev Dehejia have recommended broad reforms in India’s labour laws to allow for more flexibility in the labour market.  According to them, these laws protect only a small portion of workers in the organized sector.

Are we closer to a law on privacy?

On October 16, the Group of Experts on Privacy, Chaired by Mr. A. P. Shah, submitted its Report to the Planning Commission.  The Expert Group was appointed to set out the principles that Indian privacy law should abide by.   Even though privacy has been held to be a fundamental right as long back as in 1962, India does not have a law that specifies safeguards to privacy.  Moreover, recent government initiatives, such as the UID, involve collection of personal information and storage in electronic form.  The absence of a law on privacy increases the risk to infringement of the fundamental right.

In this blog we list the recommendations made by the expert group, discuss the status of the right to privacy in India, and why there is a need for an enactment.

Recommendations of the Expert Group on Privacy

  • The Expert Group recommended that the new legislation on privacy should ensure that safeguards are technology neutral.  This means that the enactment should provide protections that are applicable to information, regardless of the manner in which it is stored: digital or physical form.
  • The new legislation should protect all types of privacy, such as bodily privacy (DNA and physical privacy); privacy against surveillance (unauthorised interception, audio and video surveillance); and data protection.
  • The safeguards under the Bill should apply to both government and private sector entities.
  • There should be an office of a ‘Privacy Commissioner’ at both the central and regional level.
  • There should be Self-Regulating Organisations set up by the industry.  These organisations would develop a baseline legal framework that protects and enforces an individual’s right to privacy.  The standards developed by the organisations would have to be approved by the Commissioner.
  • The legislation should ensure that entities that collect and process data would be accountable for these processes and the use to which the data is put.  This, according to the Group, would ensure that the privacy of the data subject is guaranteed.

Present status of the Right to Privacy

While the Supreme Court has held privacy to be a fundamental right, it is restricted to certain aspects of a person’s life.  These aspects include the privacy of one’s home, family, marriage, motherhood, procreation and child-rearing.  Therefore, to claim privacy in any other aspect, individuals have to substantiate these are ‘private’ and should not be subjected to state or private interference.  For instance, in 1996 petitioners had to argue before the Court that the right to speak privately over the telephone was a fundamental right.

Risks to privacy

Government departments collect data under various legislations.  For instance, under the Passport Act, 1967 and the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988 persons have to give details of their address, date of birth etc.  These enactments do not provide safeguards against access and use of the information by third parties.  Similarly, information regarding ownership of property and taxes paid are publicly available on the MCD website.

Furthermore, recent government initiatives may increase the risk to infringement of privacy as personal information, previously only available in physical form, will now be available electronically.  Initiatives such as the National e-Governance Plan, introduced in 2006 and Aadhaar would require maintenance of information in electronic form.  The Aadhaar initiative aims at setting up a system for identifying beneficiaries of government sponsored schemes.  Under the initiative, biometric details of the beneficiaries, such as retina scan and fingerprints, are collected and stored by the government.  The government has also introduced a Bill in Parliament creating a right to electronic service delivery.  As per news reports, a draft DNA Profiling Bill is also in the pipeline.

 

N(I)AB-ing that environmental clearance

There has been much discussion about bringing the GDP growth on track and the need for expediting infrastructure projects in this regard. At the Planning Commission Meeting to approve the Twelfth Five Year Plan, last month, there were concerns about the  implementation of such  projects because of the delay in the grant of environment and forest clearances. In this context, there has been talk of setting up a singular body that will grant approvals for large infrastructure projects. News reports suggest that the government is considering forming a National Investment Approval Board (NIAB). The NIAB will be responsible for expediting the clearances for mega project proposals above a certain financial threshold. The Board would be headed by the Prime Minister and will have the authority to provide the ‘final decision’ on investment projects. According to news reports, the NIAB will be the final decision making body. The Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF) has raised concerns that this would create ambiguity in the current process of granting clearance for projects. While the formation of the NIAB is still being deliberated and discussed, it would be relevant to understand the process that the MoEF follows before granting clearance to a project and look at data on number of clearances granted and pending. The MoEF has developed certain processes to examine the potential environmental impact of new projects or expansion of existing projects. These are contained in the Environment Impact Assessment Notification, 2006. This notification empowers the Expert Appraisal Committees (EAC) to review the environmental impact of projects. The EAC carries out a combination of these steps depending on the classification of the project:

  • Screening: To determine whether the project requires further study for preparing the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).
  • Scoping: Setting clear guidelines that state the environmental concerns identified in the project.
  • Public Consultation: To ascertain the concerns of the local persons affected by the environmental impacts of the project.
  • Appraisal: The EAC studies the application, final EIA report, and outcome of the public consultations and makes its recommendations to the MoEF.

The MoEF considers the grant of environmental clearance to development projects in terms of the provisions of EIA Notification, 2006. From July 13, 2011 to July 12, 2012 the MoEF has given environmental clearances to 209 development projects. For a sector wise break up see Table 1. Table 1: Number of Environment Clearances Accorded

Sector No.  of  projects accorded EC
Industry (Steel & Cement)

88

Thermal Power

29

River Valley and Hydro-electric

6

Coal Mining

29

Non-Coal Mining

25

National Highways

32

Total

209

Source: “Environmental Clearance accorded from 13.07.2011 to 12.07.2012”, MoEF A total of 593 proposals are pending for environmental clearance as on August 13, 2012.[i] It remains to be seen how the process of granting clearances as established by the MoEF will be reconciled with the expedited process of the NIAB.


[i] MoEF, Lok Sabha, Unstarred Question no. 637, August 13, 2012,

Are genetically modified crops safe enough?

A recent news report stated that the Planning Commission has advocated putting in place a “proper regulatory mechanism” before permitting the use of genetic modification in Indian crops.  A recent Standing Committee report on genetically modified (GM) crops found shortcomings in the regulatory framework for such crops.  The current framework is regulated primarily by two bodies: the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) and the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (RCGM).  Given the inadequacy of the regulatory framework, the Standing Committee recommended that all research and development activities on transgenic crops be carried out only in containment (in laboratories) and that ongoing field trials in all states be discontinued.  The blog provides a brief background on GM crops, their regulation in India and the key recommendations of the Standing Committee. What is GM technology? GM crops are usually developed through the insertion or deletion of genes from plant cells.  Bt technology is a type of genetic modification in crops.  It was introduced in India with Bt cotton.  The debate around GM crops has revolved around issues of economic efficacy, human health, consumer choice and farmers’ rights.  Some advantages of Bt technology are that it increases crop yield, decreases the use of pesticides, and improves quality of crops.  However, the technology has also been known to cause crop loss due to resistance developed by pests and destruction of local crop varieties, impacting biodiversity. Approval process for commercial release of GM crops

  1. Initially, the company developing the GM crop undertakes several biosafety assessments including, environmental, food, and feed safety assessments in containment.
  2. This is followed by Bio-safety Research Trials which require prior approval of the regulators, the GEAC and the RCGM.
  3. Approval for environmental release is accorded by the GEAC after considering the findings of bio-safety studies.
  4. Finally, commercial release is permitted only for those GM crops found to be safe for humans and the environment.

Committee’s recommendations for strengthening the regulatory process The Standing Committee report found several shortcomings in the regulatory framework, some of which are as follows:

  • State governments are not mandatorily consulted for conducting open field trials on GM crops.  Several states such as Kerala and Bihar have opposed field trials for GM crops.  The Committee recommended that mandatory consultation with state governments be built into the regulatory process.
  • The key regulators, the GEAC and the RCGM, suffer from poor organisational set-up and infrastructure.  The Committee recommended that the regulatory framework be given statutory backing so that there is no scope for ambiguity or complacency on the part of the authorities responsible for the oversight of GM organisms.  It urged the government to introduce the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority Bill.
  • There is evidence that the GEAC has not complied with international treaties.  These include the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety and the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development.  It recommended that legislation relating to liability and redress for damage arising from living modified organisms be enacted.
  • Some international scientists have raised doubts about the safety of Bt Brinjal and the way tests were conducted.  To remedy this situation, the Committee recognised the need for an overarching legislation on biosafety to ensure that biotechnology is introduced without compromising the safety of biodiversity, human and livestock health, and environmental protection.

Note that over the last few sessions of Parliament, the government has listed the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority Bill for introduction; however the Bill has not been introduced yet.  The Bill sets up an independent authority for the regulation of GM crops. For a PRS summary of the report and access to the full report, see here and here.

Bill to amend regulation of chemical weapons passed by Parliament

The Chemical Weapons Convention (Amendment) Bill, 2010 (the Bill) was recently passed by the Lok Sabha without any amendment.  The Chemical Weapons Convention Act, 2000 (the Act) was enacted to give effect to the United Nations Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction (the CWC).  The CWC aims to eliminate chemical weapons by prohibiting their development, acquisition, stockpiling, transfer or use by State Parties. The 188 State Parties of the CWC are required to take the steps necessary to prohibit these activities within their jurisdiction. India signed the Convention on January 14, 1993. The Bill was introduced in the Rajya Sabha on April 16, 2010 by the Minister of State in the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilizers, Mr. Srikant Kumar Jena.  The Standing Committee submitted its report on August 3, 2010. This Bill was passed by the Rajya Sabha on May 3, 2012 with some amendments based on the recommendations of the Standing Committee.  The recommendations of the standing committee and the subsequent amendments made by the Rajya Sabha are as follows:

  • The Act disallows any person from transferring or receiving specified toxic chemicals from a citizen of a non-State Party.  The Bill changes this position by prohibiting transfer or receipt of the specified toxic chemicals from a non-State Party to the Convention.  The Committee recommended that the provision should clearly prohibit transfer or receipt from both non-State Parties and citizens of non-State Parties.  The Rajya Sabha has made the corresponding amendment to the Bill.
  • The Act mandates the registration of persons engaged in the production, transfer, or use of any toxic chemical.  The Bill makes registration mandatory, subject to certain threshold limits that are prescribed, for manufacturers of specified chemicals.  The Committee observed that this would make registration mandatory only for those manufacturers who cross the specified limit.  Thus, the Committee asked the government to consider a two-step process of compulsory registration of all manufacturers, followed by a declaration of those crossing the threshold limits.  This recommendation has not been accepted by the Rajya Sabha.  Hence, only those persons whose production of toxic chemicals exceeds the threshold would be required to register.
  •  The Act established a National Authority to implement the provisions of the Convention.  It empowers the central government to appoint officers of the National Authority as enforcement officers. The Bill broadens the central government’s power by allowing it to appoint any of its officers as enforcement officers.  The Committee recommended that eligibility criteria, such as technical qualifications and expertise, for these officers should be set under the rules.  The Committee also recommended that officers should be given suitable training before their appointment.  The Rajya Sabha has incorporated the suggestion of prescribing eligibility criteria under the Bill.

The Lok Sabha passed the Bill on August 30, 2012 without any amendments.  The standing committee report and its summary may be accessed here and here.

Implementation hiccups in the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006

The implementation of the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006 has run into rough weather.  The Act consolidates eight laws[1] governing the food sector and establishes the Food Safety and Standards Authority (FSSA) as the regulator.  It requires all food business operators (including small businesses and street vendors) to obtain a licence or registration.  The Regulations under FSSA related to procedure for obtaining a licence or registration was notified on August 1, 2011.  According to the Regulations, all food business operators had to get a licence or registration within one year of the notification.  Due to opposition from several food business operators (see here and here), the FSSA has now extended the deadline for getting a licence or registration by another six months (till February 2013).  However, some of the key concerns regarding the law have not yet been addressed.

Key issues related to the Bill raised by PRS (for more details see Legislative Brief)

  • The organised as well as the unorganised food sectors are required to follow the same food law.  The unorganised sector, such as street vendors, might have difficulty in adhering to the law, for example, with regard to specifications on ingredients, traceability and recall procedures.
  • The Bill does not require any specific standards for potable water (which is usually provided by local authorities).  It is the responsibility of the person preparing or manufacturing food to ensure that he uses water of requisite quality even when tap water does not meet the required safety standards.
  • The Bill excludes plants prior to harvesting and animal feed from its purview.  Thus, it does not control the entry of pesticides and antibiotics into the food at its source.
  • The power to suspend the license of any food operator is given to a local level officer.  This offers scope for harassment and corruption.

Other issues referred to in the media

  • The Act requires a food business operator to get different licenses if articles of food are manufactured or sold at different premises.  Newspapers reported that this provision was challenged in the Madras High Court but a stay order on the Act and its Rules was refused.
  • According to media reports, two hotel associations in Karnataka had challenged certain sections of the Act and Rules in the Karnataka High Court related to requirement of technical person for supervision of production process and requirement of a laboratory on the premises of food operators.  The court stayed these provisions for three months (till October 2012).
  • News papers reported that the Supreme Court is examining the question whether liquor is a food.

[1].  (a) The Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, 1954.  (b) The Fruit Products Order, 1955.  (c) The Meat Food Products Order, 1973. (d)  The Vegetable Oil Products (Control) Order, 1947.  (e) The Edible Oils Packaging (Regulation) Order, 1998. (f) The Solvent Extracted Oil, De oiled Meal, and Edible Flour (Control) Order, 1967. (g) The Milk and Milk Products Order, 1992. (h) Any other order issued under the Essential Commodities Act, 1955, relating to food.