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Don’t rush into GM crops’ field trials: panel

Set up to review 6 green laws, it wants environmental map to determine project clearances

Written by Jay Mazoomdaar | New Delhi |
December 1, 2014 12:16:00 am

The government should exercise caution and seek “greater assurance” given the “potential for medium/long-term adverse affects through unprepared introduction of Genetically Modified (GM) food crops”, a high-level committee (HLC) chaired by T S R Subramanian has warned.

“I am not against GM crops but we need to take appropriate caution. All I am saying is that don’t take chances that you cannot undo,” Subramanian told The Indian Express. “Keep your eyes open and check carefully the possible consequences (of field trials) on our biodiversity. European countries are not allowing field trials and they are not idiots.”

Set up to review six green laws, the committee, in its 106-page report submitted to the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) earlier this month, recommended the use of latest technologies to prepare an environmental map of the country that will help assess project proposals objectively and quickly and effectively monitor compliance with conditions imposed for clearances.

But, on page 93, the report cautions that “while utilising science and technology, their limitations as well as the need for appropriate human intervention should not be lost sight of”.

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It goes on to say: “The potential consequences of mindless use of science and technology could possibly be illustrated by referring to the potential for medium/long-term adverse affects through unprepared introduction of Genetically Modified (GM) food crops. While other Ministries naturally would aggressively push for early field trials and induction, the role of the MoEF & CC may have to be one of being a Devil’s Advocate to advise due caution.”

Pointing out that Europe does not permit field trials, the report warns that “the average Indian farm is of very small size (which could lead to severe adverse impact on biodiversity through gene-flow)” and that “there are no independent expert agencies in the country”.

Subramanian claimed that his panel sought to improve rather than merely maintain the environmental standards and biological assets of the country. The HLC report envisages a National Environmental Monitoring Authority (NEMA), a statutory body that will prepare an environmental map of the country incorporating details of forest cover, pollution, hydrology, wildlife protected areas, human settlement, eco-sensitive zones, pristine and fragile zones, etc. This, it says, will help lay down a unified, transparent and single-window process for project approvals.

“The mapping may take up to three years but will go a long way in effective environment management. The ground status has to be in the public domain to ensure transparency. Till then, the NEMA will evaluate project proposals case by case and we have recommended geo-referenced maps in 1/50,000 scale available with the Forest Survey of India for the purpose,” said Subramanian.

The committee also proposed the enactment of a new umbrella law — the Environment Law (Management) Act (ELMA) — under which a new appellate board under a retired high court judge will hear appeals related to project clearances. While decisions of this board can be challenged at the National Green Tribunal, the latter will not be able to examine the technical aspects of any project clearance.

“Once something reaches court, it often takes up to five years to get any decision. What we have proposed is based on transparency and the principal of utmost good faith. For any violation, there will be heavy penalties under the ELMA. These cases will be heard at Special Environmental Courts to be set up in every district. Anyone is free to challenge the decisions of these courts in high courts and subsequently in the SC,” said Subramanian.

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