Stormy day in India's Supreme Court (13/2/2008)

1.Judge smells 'pressure' PILs

2.'Rope in scientists to advise on GM trials'

3.SC removes curbs on trial of GM crops

NOTE: The contempt petition still has to be heard but in the meantime the Chief Justice appears to be acting in an increasingly partisan manner. The idea that the pesticide industry is behind Aruna Dodrigues and her co-petitioners, or Gene Campaign, is truly farcical (see item 1), particularly on a day when yet more evidence emerged that GM crops are good for pesticide sales. He also apparently made a long speech about how wonderful Bt cotton is. Perhaps he might like to meet with the widows and families of the thousands of Indian Bt cotton growers who've committed suicide to see what their take on it is.

The idea of including scientists like Pushpa Bhargava and Swaminathan in regulatory decisions (item 2) is an interesting one. Bhargava has previously raised serious concerns about some of the GM trials proposed, and it will be interesting to see whether Swaminathan will actually stand by his own recommendations in his task force report questioning the need or desirability of herbicide tolerant crops in India and championing the need to protect biodiversity and crops for which India is the centre of origin/diversity.


1.Judge smells 'pressure' PILs
The Telegraph, Feb 13 2008

New Delhi, Feb. 13: Chief Justice of India K.G. Balakrishnan today lost his cool over 'interested' and 'pressure' groups using the Supreme Court to settle scores.

'Courts are being used by pressure groups through PILs,' Balakrishnan said. 'These petitions are being instigated by economic groups to settle rivalries.'

He cited the Rs 4,500-crore insecticide industry that had been hit by the introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The court was hearing a PIL challenging the permission for open-field trials of GMOs.

The CJI's comment prompted the petitioners' counsel, Prashant Bhushan, to stomp off. He asked the judges to pass an 'ex-parte' order without hearing his arguments.

The court clarified that it was generally expressing concern over a recent trend and had not spoken about the GMO case in particular.

Bhushan resumed his arguments challenging the decision of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee to give the green signal to several GMO field trials.

Balancing the two 'conflicting' interests - of paying attention to bio-safety and encouraging research the court directed the government to clear applications for approval of field trials in a 'transparent' manner.


2.'Rope in scientists to advise on GM trials'
Prabhakar Rao Voruganti
Express Network, February 14 2008

NEW DELHI: The Supreme Court on Wednesday requested the Ministry of Environment to invite eminent agricultural scientist M S Swaminathan and Dr P M Bhargav, the founder president of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, to help the GEAC (Genetically Engineered Approval Committee) frame guidelines for granting approval to applicants for field trials on genetically modified varieties.

A Bench comprising Chief Justice K G Balakrishnan, Justice R V Raveendran and Justice J M Panchal also said that the GEAC should examine all aspects like bio-safety and the effect on ecology before granting the approval.

In a day-long argument Prashant Bhushan, appearing for the petitioner Aruna Rodrigues, strongly opposed the very idea of genetically modified varieties saying they would be disastrous for mankind.

France banned trials after discovering that rats exposed to genetically modified seeds suffered kidney and liver damage. Russia banned imports of American rice after finding that genetically engineered rice had certain defects.

In Indonesia the private company pioneering this work bribed 93 government officials to get favourable reports on the research carried out by them. When this came out the Indonesian Government imposed a fine of millions of dollars on the company, the counsel said.

In Germany the court ordered the release of research results by Monsanto when it was found that it was giving misleading and false reports, the counsel added.

The adverse effects of GM products are being felt by country after country. The matter is going to affect the future of humanity and ecology. The consequences will be irreversible, he stated.

The Bench said that with 29 members on the GEAC, 14 of them technical, it should not be a problem to screen applications and grant approvals.

Bhushan replied that the chairman, an Additional Secretary of the Government of India, was not a technical person; only the co-chairman was technically competent.

Since we do not know on what basis GEAC grants approvals a committee should be appointed to examine the issue. Based on its report the court may pass appropriate orders, the counsel said.

At one stage, the Bench said that the government was the regulatory body and it would not like to lay down any rules. Counsel for the private companies sought vacation of the stay imposed earlier by the apex court on conducting trials.


3.SC removes curbs on trial of GM crops
Times of India, 14 Feb 2008

NEW DELHI: Refusing to restrict research in genetically modified food crops, the Supreme Court on Wednesday opened up the field by permitting firms to seek permission from the regulatory body - Genetic Engineering Advisory Committee (GEAC) - for fresh trials, including open field trials.

The court said that the fear of the unknown - that GM food crops could spell hazard for the bio-safety and environment - could not be a ground to restrict the research in a country like India, which has millions to feed.

PIL petitioners Aruna Rodrigues and 'Gene Campaign' vehemently opposed any relaxation of the earlier court orders allowing research in 24 varieties of GM crops and that too within the safety parameters spelled out by it.

A Bench comprising Chief Justice K G Balakrishnan and Justices R V Raveendran and J M Panchal said it was very difficult for the court to entertain PILs in high-stake technical issues as it had no expertise in the field, more so because the government had put in place an expert body like GEAC.

While permitting filing of pleas before GEAC to seek permission for research in new varieties of GM crops, the Bench acceded to petitioner's request to make two renowned agricultural scientists - Prof M S Swaminathan and Dr P M Bhargava - participate as invitees in the GEAC deliberations on these applications before grant of permission for trials.

On the request of Gene Campaign counsel Sanjay Parikh, the Bench asked GEAC to keep all aspects of the fallout of the field trials in mind before granting permission for further research. Rodrigues' counsel Prashant Bhushan questioned the credentials of GEAC and accused the co-chairman of serving on the board of a US firm having interest in GM foodgrains.

When government counsel pointed out that GEAC had more than 10 experts, SC said: 'These are eminent scientists and we can't say they were unconscious of the interest of the nation.' Bhushan then cited the Russian government's query about the GM contamination of foodgrains imported from India to buttress his argument that the hazardous effect of the GM crops were a global concern and could hit India's exports.


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