jairam ramesh

Legislative debate: Influencing amendments to the Green Tribunal Bill, 2010

One of the main tasks of the Parliament is to frame laws through debate and discussion on the floor of the House.  However, there have been repeated instances where Bills introduced by the government have been passed without substantive discussion (For news reports, click here and here).  Even where Bills are debated extensively, occasions where the government introduces changes in the Bill directly as a response to Parliamentary debate are hard to find. One recent exception is the list of amendments introduced to the National Green Tribunal Bill, 2010 by the Minister for Environment and Forests directly in response to issues raised on the floor of the House. The Bill The National Green Tribunal Bill, 2009 aims to set up specialised environmental courts in the country.  It will hear initial complaints as well as appeals from decisions of authorities under various environmental laws.  The Tribunal shall consist of both judicial and expert members.  Expert members have to possess technical qualifications and expertise, and also practical experience. The Tribunal shall hear only ‘substantial question relating to the environment’.  Substantial questions are those which (a) affect the community at large, and not just individuals or groups of individuals, or (b) cause significant damage to the environment and property, or (c) cause harm to public health which is broadly measurable. PRS in its analysis of the original (unamended) Bill, had raised the following issues (for detailed analysis, click here) :

  • The criteria to determine what a ‘substantial question related to the environment’ are open to interpretation.
  • The Bill may reduce access to justice in environmental matters by taking away the jurisdiction of civil courts.  All cases under laws mentioned in the Bill will now be handled by the Tribunal which will initially have benches at only five locations.
  • The Bill does not give the Tribunal jurisdiction over some laws related to the environment.
  • The qualifications of judicial members of the Tribunal are similar to that of the existing National Environment Appellate Authority (NEAA).  The government has been unable to find qualified members for the NEAA for the past three years.  The Green Tribunal Bill gives an explicit option to the government to appoint members with administrative experience as expert members.
  • The Bill does not specify the minimum number of members the Tribunal and also does not mention of the composition of the Selection Committee for selecting members.

The Debate In the debate on the Bill in the Lok Sabha on April 21, 2010 a number of MPs raised substantive issues with respect to the Bill.  Some of the issues raised were (From the news article quoted above): 1. The Bill fell short on parameters of “scope, efficiency, and access to justice”. 2. Setting up five benches while barring the jurisdiction of courts will "create huge distance for the poor community members and tribals to seek justice". 3. Offenses under the Wildlife Protection Act and the Wildlife Protection Act will not be heard by the Tribunal. 4. “Section 15 puts an embargo against [persons] other than retired Judge of Supreme Court or Chief Justices of High Court. The other clause puts 15 years of administrative experience, which would open the path for packing the Tribunal with bureaucrats of the kind who did not enforce the environment related laws in their time in service.” The Minister acknowledged the contribution of the members by stating that: “The members have made important suggestions. Even though their exact demands may not be part of the official amendments moved by the government... but I am open to their suggestions...I will remove all objectionable clauses or sections in the proposed law and keep the window of discussion open.” The Minister's response In response to these issues, the Minister Mr. Jairam Ramesh introduced 10 amendments to the Bill on April 30, 2010.  Though not all the issues raised were addressed, a number of changes were made.  In addition, the Minister also assured the House that issues regarding access would be addressed by the government by following a "circuit" approach for the benches of the Tribunal i.e. the benches would travel around the area within their jurisdiction to hear complaints. (To read the response, click here, page 15250) Some of the main amendments are: 1.  Now any aggrieved person can can approach the Tribunal.  Earlier limited access was provided. 2. The whole Act will be operational by notification at the same time.  Different provisions will not be enforced separately at different points of time. 3. There is a procedure for direct appeal to the Supreme Court from the judgement of the Tribunal. 4. The number of expert and judicial members is clearly specified. In addition, the Minister also assured that the Selection Committee for picking the members of the Tribunal will be transparent and will ensure that members are not "a parking place for retired civil servants".

To eat or not to eat: Bt Brinjal

The row over Bt Brinjal, a genetically modified version of the plant, provoked the government into imposing a moratorium on the commercial cultivation of the plant in India.  The debate has revolved around issues of economic efficacy, human health, consumer choice and farmers’ rights. Jairam Ramesh, the Minister of State for Environment and Forests, made public his views on the subject, a gist of which is given below:

  • The Genetic Engineering Approvals Committee (GEAC) report recommended commercial cultivation of Bt Brinjal but qualified it by stating that since the issue has important policy implications at the national level, the government should take a final view on the matter.
  • Most of the state governments have expressed concern and have sought to ban the use of Bt Brinjal, or all GM crops.
  • Pesticides have harmful effect on human health and Bt technology is one way of reducing pesticide use.  However, other routes such as non-pesticide pest management can be explored.  For example, about 6 lakh farmers in Andhra Pradesh practice non-pesticide pest management over an area of about 20 lakh acres.
  • Safety is a concern since the kind of tests that have been done is not specific or stringent enough to detect toxins.  Also, tests have only been carried out by the developers of the product, Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company Ltd. (Mahyco).  (The results of the biosafety tests are available on the GEAC website).
  • There is no large-scale public funded biotechnology effort toward agriculture, which could compete with Mahyco.  Monsanto is the main producer of Bt Brinjal, and Mahyco is owned to the extent of 26% by Monsanto.
  • While two government owned agricultural universities -- University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad and Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (TNAU), Coimbatore – have produced Bt Brinjal along with Mahyco, doubts have been raised about how Bt related research in these universities have been funded.
  • There are apprehensions that there will be diversity loss in the variety of Brinjal if Bt Brinjal is introduced, and this fear cannot be glossed over.
  • While Bt Cotton and Bt Brinjal are not comparable, the introduction of Bt Cotton in India has made India the second largest grower of cotton in the world.  Over 90% of cotton farmers in India cultivate Bt Cotton.  Many farmers support Bt Cotton on economic grounds but some did express doubts.
  • The Central Institute of Cotton Research, Nagpur has developed a Bt cotton variety (Bikaneri Nerma) whose seeds can be kept by farmers for planting during the next season.  The Director of the Institute while expressing support for Bt Brinjal has mentioned that resistance development is a serious issue.  Therefore, more tests that are well-designed, widely-accepted and independently conducted are necessary.
  • The GEAC process has been questioned by  Dr P.M. Bhargava, the Supreme Court nominee on GEAC.  He opposed the recommendation on the ground that all necessary tests had not been carried out before coming to a decision.  The 2006 committee of the GEAC had asked for several tests to be conducted which were not taken into account by the second expert committee.  All GEAC reports (including additional tests) of tests conducted with regard to Bt Brinjal are in the public domain.
  • There is some evidence that the GEAC not followed global regulatory norms of which India is a party.  For example, the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, Rio Declaration on Environment and Development etc.
  • Some international scientists have raised doubts about Bt Brinjal and the way the tests were conducted.
  • Many Indian scientists have supported commercialization of Bt Brinjal such as Dr G. Padmanabhan of the Indian Institute of Science; Dr Deepak Pental, Vice Chancellor of Delhi University; and Dr Raj Bhatnagar of the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, New Delhi.  However, even they have mentioned the need for a statutory body with regulatory powers and R&D capabilities to govern all aspects of GM crops.
  • The Indian Council of Agricultural research and a number of farmer’s groups have come out in support of the move to introduce Bt Brinjal.

In order to understand the process followed by GEAC before giving the green signal to Bt Brinjal, we have made a timeline in which the plant was approved and the bodies involved in the process.

2000-2005 Scientific tests carried out by Mahyco on Bt Brinjal
2006 Mahyco submits bio-safety data to GEAC (regulatory body under the Ministry of Environment and Forests). Seeks permission for large scale trials.
  Supreme Court stops ongoing field trials of GM crops due to a PIL filed by civil society representatives.
2007 The expert committee 1 set up by GEAC, submits its report.  Recommends seven more studies on bio-safety be repeated for reconfirmation of data generated during confined multi-location trials but approves large scale trials.
  Supreme Court lifts ban on GM crop field trials subject to conditions such as isolation distance etc.
  As per GEAC direction, Indian Institute of Vegetable Research (IIVR) takes up the responsibility of large scale trails of Mahyco's Bt Brinjal trials at 10 research institutions across the country in 2007 and 11 in 2008.
2009 Jan: IIVR submits the results of the large scale trails. Due to concerns raised by several stakeholders, GEAC constitutes another expert committee to look into adequacy of biosafety data generated as well as the concerns raised by all stakeholders.
  Oct 8: Expert-committee 2 submits its report. States benefits of Bt Brinjal far outweigh the perceived and projected risks.
  Oct 14: GEAC approves the environmental release of Bt Brinjal containing the event EE1 (with one dissent note from P.M. Bhargava).
  Oct 15: Jairam Ramesh announces a nationwide consultation in January and February of 2010 pending a final decision on this issue.
2010 Jan 13 to Feb 6: Public meetings were organized on the Bt Brinjal issue. The summary of the consultations is available on the Ministry’s website.
  Many states announce ban on commercial cultivation of Bt Brinjal including Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka.
  Feb 9: Jairam Ramesh decides to halt the commercialization of Bt Brinjal.