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[NEW DELHI] Scientists and environmentalists are furious at a clause in India's draft bill to form a new biotechnology regulatory authority that they say stifles opposition to genetically modified (GM) products.

The bill seeks to establish a Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) to replace the environment ministry's Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC).

The BRAI will "regulate the research, transport, import, manufacture and use of organisms and products of modern biotechnology" to promote its safe use.

The draft bill is awaiting introduction into parliament and may be discussed in the parliamentary session that began this week. 

The Department of Biotechnology (DBT) had thrown open initial drafts for a series of public consultations since 2008.

But the latest version, which was produced last year and not introduced into the public domain, contains a clause to the effect that people who criticise a GM product without sufficient scientific proof could face penalties including a fine and jail.

According to article 63 of the proposed law, "whoever, without any evidence or scientific record, misleads the public about the safety of the organisms and products ... shall be punished with imprisonment for a term … and with a fine … or with both".

"Never in India's history has such a draconian provision been mooted," Pushpa Mohan Bhargava, founder and former director of the Hyderabad-based Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, told SciDev.Net. "Who is to decide what evidence is scientific or not? It will gag any opposition or criticism."

Another controversial new article, 81, indicates that decisions made down at the state level can be overridden.

Environmentalist Vandana Shiva, a staunch critic of genetic engineering technology, hit out publicly at articles 63 and 81 yesterday (23 February), describing them as unconstitutional.

Shiva said that the constitution guarantees freedom of speech and lists agriculture as a "state" subject, meaning that each state has the right to decide on its agricultural policy.  

Another clause causing concern, article 27, suggests that the BRAI could override India's Right to Information Act, which mandates citizens' right to obtain information from the government.

It says that confidential commercial information "notwithstanding anything contained in the Right to Information Act, 2005, can be retained as confidential by the Authority and not be disclosed to any other party".

The problem, said Suman Sahai, convenor of the nongovernmental organisation Gene Campaign, is that the draft bill does not clearly define "confidential commercial information". Only the innovation component of GM research should remain confidential, she said, not information related to health or environmental safety.

The controversy has erupted soon after India's decision to halt the cultivation of GM eggplant (brinjal) despite clearance by GEAC (see India says no — for now — to first GM vegetable).