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- Editorial, Indian Express Feb 11, 2010
You say approval, I say appraisal, let’s call the whole thing off. Approval and appraisal might sound similar, but the difference in their meaning is vast, if the context is changing the name of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee to the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee. That was how Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh signed off his busy day on Monday; that was the final part of the monumental effort at subverting budding, independent institutions that has been his populist, attention-seeking “consultation” over Bt brinjal.

It started when the minister announced that, unlike earlier (for example, with Bt cotton), approval by the experts on the GEAC was not enough: since it was “his ministry” where the GEAC was administratively located, it would be his call. That over-ruling of an institutional process at little more than one individual’s discretion was what was finalised in the approval-appraisal switch.

The environment ministry has, in the past, developed a reputation for needless obstructionism. When he was handed the portfolio, it was expected that Ramesh would dial down the politicisation of essentially procedural or scientific decisions. Environmental impacts should eventually be assessed without direct ministry input, for example. What he has chosen to do with Bt brinjal, and with the process of testing GM variants more generally, is a direct violation of that mandate.

He has put populism, last-man-standing vetoes, and crowd-pleasing politics back in. He has chosen to rant against private sector input into research — when, across the world, it is the private sector that drives biotech, and India’s private sector cannot afford to be left behind.

He has implied that conflicts of interest are endemic, subverting confidence in any future process, appeasing the worst kind of anti-capitalist conspiracy theorist. In a remarkable feat of political coalition-building, he has chosen to make common cause with the RSS and the Swadeshi Jagran Manch.

The GEAC has an enormous number of experienced bureaucrats from the concerned ministries; it has expert scientists nominated by such bodies as the Indian Council for Agricultural Research and the Council for Science and Industrial Research. Certainly, they should be open to questions. But Ramesh has chosen to overrule them for nebulous reasons, citing the need for “more research” of greater “independence”. But that objection can always be voiced — we weren’t told why this research was not enough, or why the government-appointed committee was insufficiently independent.

Taken all together, this appears little more than an attempt to stifle the growth of a new independent institution. The GEAC is to be reconstituted: “more”, “independent” research apparently means just more people answering to an empire-building environment minister — and another chance lost at developing a useful institution.