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[NEW DELHI] India's central and state governments are increasingly at odds over technical clearance for conducting trials on genetically modified (GM) crops, indicating anomalies in procedures for trials and field studies in the country's federal structure. 

This month (March), the chief minister of the northern state of Bihar objected to field trials of GM maize, developed by the Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company, in which the biotech major Monsanto has a 26 per cent stake. The trials have since been suspended, and MAHYCO officially declined to comment.

India's minister for environment and forests, Jairam Ramesh, said his ministry would investigate how the trials were held without keeping the states in the picture, indicating there was a disconnect.

The spat follows a similar one in January between Ramesh's ministry and the southern state of Kerala that objected to field trials for GM rubber.

According to GEAC officials, a rule under the Environment Protection Act pertaining to permitting trials of GM seeds has laid down procedures and assigned the task of coordination between states and centre to specific committees. They declined to comment on what went wrong in the two cases.

Suman Sahai, convenor of the Delhi-based non-governmental organisation Gene Campaign, said the Cartagena Protocol on biosafety, which India has ratified, clearly says that communities and states should be consulted.  

"However the country's biotechnology policy lays emphasis only on promoting GM seeds without talking of assessing the need for the technology from farmers themselves," Sahai said.

Also, while committees under India's department of biotechnology (DBT) give technical clearance for trials, the DBT, as well as India's agriculture and environment ministries, are involved in consultations with the states as it is a "political issue" too, she said. 

Bhaskar Goswami, agriculture and trade policy analyst with the non-governmental organisation Forum for Biotechnology and Food Security, says that in India's federal structure the states "have a right to refuse permission as land and agriculture are both state subjects".   

Ramesh's ministry has demanded an explanation from the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) on how technical clearances were given for the GM maize trials.

Pushpa Bhargava, a top molecular biologist appointed as an independent external observer by India’s Supreme Court to the GEAC, told SciDev.Net that existing rules are "silent on taking the permission of the states and merely give the states the onus of monitoring the trials. How can states monitor trials they have not permitted?"  

Bhargava said the rules need to be amended so as to include provisions for taking the approval of states before trials begin.