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GM Mustard | Will Insert Additional Safeguards If Existing Conditions Are Found Insufficient: Supreme Court

Awstika Das
25 Jan 2023 2:51 AM GMT
GM Mustard | Will Insert Additional Safeguards If Existing Conditions Are Found Insufficient: Supreme Court
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Additional conditions will be added to the regulatory framework governing the environmental release of genetically modified crops if the existing conditions fail to broadly account for all shortcomings or dangers associated with the exercise, the Supreme Court orally said on Tuesday.

A Bench comprising Justices Dinesh Maheshwari and B.V. Nagarathna was hearing a batch of petitions seeking a ban on the commercial cultivation of indigenously developed genetically modified mustard, christened “HT Mustard DMH-11”, which in October, received the imprimatur of the Environment Ministry. This is the first time a transgenic food crop is planned to be commercially cultivated in India.

Adverting to the rigours of the regulatory framework, Justice Maheshwari said, “We understand that according to the government, these consciously inserted conditions themselves demonstrate that the question has been examined from all relevant angles and a considered decision has been taken. And that these conditions are sufficient safeguards. But we might insert additional conditions, this being in the nature of a public interest litigation, if we feel the need. If these conditions broadly take care of the possible shortcomings or dangers, as has been projected, then we will not add anything. Only if we find that there is any area that ought to receive more attention, we will provide additional conditions.”

Attorney-General for India, R. Venkataramani, resumed his submissions on Tuesday by taking the court through a dossier of minutes of meetings of the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee, reports of various committees and sub-committees, and other relevant documents to illustrate the stages in which the approval for the environmental release of the genetically modified mustard was granted.

He narrated, “A series of meetings have been held over a long period of time from 2010 – field trials, biosafety research trials I, biosafety research trials II, and so on. Only after this exhaustive process was completed in 2014, that the application for environmental release began to be considered. Since 2015, several meetings were held in which it was assessed whether the applicant had complied with the various requirements laid down under the law. In 2016, another important milestone, in the form of public consultation, was reached when comments were sought from stakeholders by the ministry. Since 2018, at the behest of the appraisal committee, field demonstrations and studies on the impact of transgenic mustard on honeybees have been conducted. Finally, in October 2022, after numerous presentations and a lot of back-and-forths, the appraisal committee recommended the environmental release of genetically modified mustard subject to several conditions.”

The main thrust of the government’s argument was that the question of releasing the transgenic food crop was minutely examined, the opinions of experts from reputed institutions considered, and numerous experiments, trials, and studies conducted in the span of more than a decade.

“When this crop has been approved for environmental release only after a series of meetings, trials, experiments, and other procedures between 2010 and 2022, what is the yardstick or criteria on the basis of which the court can be called upon to scrutinise these deliberations and even annul them?”, AG asked.

In the absence of any law, regulatory instrument, or authority governing the exercise, the question would have been different, he said. “But where there is a law, regulatory instrument, and regulatory authority, then we cross the stage of anxieties and concerns over the uncertainties of the science, and only ask the question whether the regulations have been complied with and the regulatory authority has functioned within the parameters of the law,” Venkataramani insisted, drawing from the principles of administrative law. The limited question beyond which the apex court could not venture, the Attorney-General strenuously argued, was whether the process envisioned under the law had been followed by the competent authorities. “The Court cannot go into the question of which science is good and which science is bad,” he said. He further submitted, “One could understand if the petitioners sought to challenge the adequacy, efficiency, or availability of the regulatory framework or authority. But there was no such challenge.”

Earlier, in December of last year, the centre, on being asked to state the reason that compelled them to release the genetically modified crop immediately, instead of waiting till they developed a more robust understanding of its impacts, said that the entire protocol envisioned under the law was complied with.

“We have crossed the stage where all the anxieties and concerns regarding this issue have been addressed, and by and large, resolved. The environmental release of the genetically modified mustard was the next logical step,” the Attorney-General told the Bench.

Last month, the court also heard the submissions of the petitioners, represented by Advocate Prashant Bhushan and Senior Advocate Sanjay Parikh. The counsel informed the Bench that the process of the environmental release of genetically modified mustard was already underway, and the crop had been planted in open fields in certain locations. Invoking the precautionary principle, the counsel had requested the apex court to put an immediate end to this operation. This was met with strong resistance from the Attorney-General, who argued that the environmental release of the genetically modified crop marked the culmination of a decade of deliberations and scientific research and could not be undone on the basis of other scientists taking what he described as an ‘ideological’ stand.

On November 3, a Division Bench comprising Justices Dinesh Maheshwari and Sudhanshu Dhulia, had orally asked the Union Government to maintain the status quo on the commercial cultivation of genetically modified mustard and to refrain from taking any precipitate action with respect to its release.

The Attorney-General is expected to conclude his submissions next week when the matter is listed again. The court will also hear the submissions made on behalf of a Maharashtra-based farmers union, Shetkari Sanghatana, who has, citing Bt Cotton's success, filed an application opposing the public interest litigation.

Case Title

1. Gene Campaign & Anr. v. Union of India & Ors. [WP (C) No. 115/2004]

2. Aruna Rodrigues & Ors. v. Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change & Ors. [WP (C) No. 260/2015]

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