ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Biotechnology: Case for Caution

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Haste appears to be the defining characteristic in the development of biotechnology in India. It is interesting that the Maharashtra government should be announcing a new biotech policy at a time when the Bt cotton issue in Gujarat and elsewhere has opened up a can of worms. No substantial enquiry has yet begun on the matter, which is also prompting worries on the potential spread of the designer cottonseed. It is almost as if by the flurry of activity and pronouncements the critical issue of the government's irresponsibility in failing to institute adequate monitoring is being sought to be sidelined. Curiously, the Maharashtra policy offers a slew of attractive concessions for promoters of biotech: provision of adequate infrastructure; 'simplified' labour laws and procedures applicable for the sector; quick permission to own and acquire agricultural lands in excess of current ceilings, if used for field trials and experimentation; assured cooperation of the public health ministry in sharing its data with biotech companies and collaboration in clinical research; power at agricultural rates and exemption from power cuts. However, issues such as regulation and monitoring mechanisms for trials and experimentation remain unspelt out. The central department of biotechnology had some time back announced a single window regulatory set-up on the lines recommended by the Confederation of Indian Industries. While there is some sense in this suggestion given that biotechnology would touch many departments and agencies, the time frames suggested 60 days for a scientific evaluation report on a new application sent by the single window to the relevant review and approval committees appear to be unrealistically determined giving rise to a suspicion that little thought has been given to examining the safety aspect of such endeavours.

Nowhere in the state or central departments' various pronouncements is there an appreciation of the need for caution which is in such contrast to how other countries are going about encouraging biotechnology. In UK, for instance, the 20-member agriculture and environment biotechnology commission comprising industrialists, ecologists and other academics was set up by the government to closely examine the 240-odd farm-scale trials of genetically modified crops. It has recently published its report which has found that trials have been hastily designed and in a 'secretive' way and has recommended that there should be far more public consultation.

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