Agri-biotechnology

Bt Brinjal: Can Farmers Break the Law to Compel The Govt to Respect Lawful Procedure?

Farmers in Maharashtra Planting Bt brinjal on 17 February. Photo courtesy Shetkari Sanghatana

If the government does not respect a procedure established by law, can people compel it to abide by that procedure by themselves breaking the law? Is a government within its rights to squat on an approval for 12 years without valid scientific reason? Is such a stance compatible with the rule of law?

On Wednesday, 17 February Anil Jaysing Ghanwat, President of Swatantra Bharat Party lead a group of about 500 farmers in planting unapproved genetically modified (GM) fruit-and-shoot borer resistant Bt brinjal on a little less than a tenth of an acre at his farm in Ahmednagar district’s Shrigonda tehsil. He had begun about a month ago and raised about 400 seedlings in a nursery. Packets containing about 200 Bt brinjal seeds each were also distributed to farmers from about 25 districts of Maharashtra. They were supposed to make seedlings and distribute them.

Swatantra Bharat calls itself India’s only liberal party. It is the political wing of the Shetkari Sanghatana which Sharad Joshi, who died in December 2015, founded. Ghanwat was until last year the President of the Sanghatana. He resigned when a Supreme Court bench headed by Chief Justice of India Sharad Bobde made him a member of the court’s committee on farm laws to find a way out of the impasse caused by the stiff stance of protesting farmers and the government on three farm laws enacted in September 2020.

The Shetkari Sanghatana believes in free markets – in farm land, crop inputs and produce – and free access to agricultural technology. In June 2019, about 2,000 farmers planted illegal herbicide tolerant and bollworm resistant, HTBt cotton on the farm of Lalit Patil Bahale at Akot tehsil of Akola district. The civil disobedience movement, as Ghanwat calls it, spread and farmers were seen planting HTBt cotton in their fields after inviting news TV crews to record and broadcast the event. Their slogan was “Chor Bt nahin, imandaar Bt.” (A not-too-literal translation would be “Bt by right not by stealth.”

The Maharashtra police booked Bahale, who is now the president of the Sanghatana, and 15 other farmers for offences under the Environment Protection Act, the Seed Act and the Indian Penal Code. The seeds they planted were proved to be HTBt. A chargesheet was filed but the cases have dragged. The courts have said no coercive action should be taken against them. Bahale says when Bt brinjal was planted on Wednesday, the government ignored them. No policeman or official was present to warn them.

Genetically modified crops have to go through a rigorous process of safety assessment to ensure that they pose no risk to human or animal health or a threat to the environment. The planting of illegal GM crops is fraught with danger. Borers can develop resistance to the Bt gene if seeds do not adequately express the protein which is toxic to them. If HT cotton is not of sufficient potency, weeds might become resistant to known herbicides.

But when the regulatory mechanism fails and the government deprives farmers, consumers and the nation of a useful technology out of political expediency or ideological aversion, what recourse do they have. (Brinjal is highly susceptible to borers so farmers spray pesticides about 25 to 30 times. But these are ineffective once the borers lodge in the fruit. Bt brinjal is toxic to them. The Bt gene however does not harm humans or animals).

Who will compensate the organisation that invested time, effort and money on research and in seeking approvals, trusting the procedure approved by Parliament?

The apex regulator for GM crops approved Bt brinjal for cultivation after determining that it posed no safety issues in October 2009. All 16 members except two gave the green signal. A committee that went into the objections of the other two, over-ruled them. But the then environment minister banned its cultivation in February 2010. He invented a procedure not prescribed by law ─ public hearings in various cities where shrill activists opposed to GM technology fanned fears about Bt brinjal, providing the minister with an excuse to act in the “public interest.”  To enable him to impose the ban, he changed the mandate of the apex regulator from giving approvals to one of making appraisals.

In October 2013, Bangladesh allowed the cultivation of Bt brinjal after doing agronomic studies based on India’s bio-safety data. It has been growing Bt brinjal since then.

In September 2018, the apex regulator took up the re-activated application of the company whose Bt brinjal was banned for cultivation. It was its technology that Bangladesh had approved. The regulator told the Indian Institute of Horticultural Research, Bengaluru, to study the post-release impact of Bt brinjal in Bangladesh and report the findings. Nothing has come out of that.

In early 2019, anti-GM activists raised a storm after they found a farmer in Haryana growing Bt brinjal illegally. The farmer said he had bought the seedlings from a wayside seller and did not know they were GM. They tested positive and the administration destroyed the farmer’s crop.

Ghanwat did not disclose where he obtained the seeds from. He said he had not obtained them from Bangladesh (though, that does not rule out their Bangladeshi origin). He suspects Bt brinjal is grown widely in India. This is the case also with HTBt cotton. A committee appointed by the Prime Minister’s office reported in 2018 that HTBt cotton was planted extensively in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Maharashtra, and Gujarat. It estimated that about a fifth of the cotton area in these states was under the crop. Investigations into Bt brinjal cultivation may spring a similar surprise.

The government’s attitude is barely rational. Those who follow lawful procedures are held to a high standard. Even after meeting the bar, they are denied commercial application of their innovations. It is not just GM cotton or brinjal. The apex regulator approved GM mustard for commercial release in May 2017. But the government has not acted on the advice. (We have not qualms about importing GM canola oil or GM soybean oil, though. Last year, imports of GM soymeal were allowed to quell high poultry feed prices).

But the government does nothing when farmers break the law. This is how Bt cotton – India’s only GM crop approved for commercial cultivation – was cultivated in Gujarat 2001 when the PM was the CM. Only when farmers grew it illegally with support from the Shetkari Sanghatana, was the GM hybrid approved for large-scale cultivation in 2002. HTBt cotton cultivation is proliferating with the government’s knowledge.

If the government does not care for the law, can farmers be blamed for taking it into their hands?

(Another layer of complication has been added by the government’s disregard for intellectual property rights. This government has been arbitrarily fixing fees for GM traits (like insect resistance and herbicide tolerance) payable by farmers to innovators. For Bt cotton, no trait fees are payable. No company would want to sell their patented GM seeds in India, even if approved, if they cannot profit from their innovations).

(Top photo: Farmers planting Bt brinjal on 17 February, 2022 at the farm of Anil Ghanwat, in Ahmednagar district, Maharashtra. Courtesy: Sudhir S. Bindu, Shetkari Sanghatana).

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