On biosafety bandwagon

Tuesday 15 October 2002

India's decision to ratify Cartagena Protocol evokes mixed response

the Indian government recently decided to ratify the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (cpb). But, the Union cabinet's much-delayed move has been dubbed by environmentalists as a mere "technical formality". Critics feel that the protocol would do little to break the grip of powerful international trade regimes that are overriding environmental concerns today.

India will become the 36th country to ratify the protocol which aims to provide a safe mechanism for the transfer, handling and use of living modified organisms (lmos). The pact will come into effect only after 50 countries have ratified it. Negotiated under the aegis of the Convention on Biological Diversity (cbd), it was adopted in 2000 after five years of talks and two aborted attempts.

Experts say that the weak link is that the protocol does not override provisions of other international agreements such as the World Trade Organisation (wto) treaty. The main flaw in the pact pertains to implementation of the 'precautionary principle'. Though according to the rule a country can ban genetically modified (gm) products even in the absence of scientific data about their harmful effects, wto regulations mandate that an import can be barred only on the basis of scientific evidence.

According to Suman Sahai, convenor of Gene Campaign, a Delhi-based non-governmental organisation (ngo), the protocol would be ineffective for India as the country lacks scientific know-how at the local level.

Further, while the wto has a strong dispute settlement system that has presided over several environment-related disputes, the cbd (under which the cpb operates) does not have one. Experts feel that this could make the provisions of cpb toothless. Devendra Sharma, a Delhi-based trade policy expert cites the instance of Sri Lanka. The island nation was dragged into settling the dispute through the wto clause when it banned the import of gm foods. "How are we going to deal with such potential conflicts?" points out Sharma.

However proponents of the pact argue that as India would be playing a major role in biotechnology-based trade in the future, the decision to ratify will prove beneficial. "India can lead developing countries in the biotechnology sector," says P K Ghosh, ex-advisor to department of biotechnology and member of the Indian delegation at the time of protocol negotiations.

As for the threat of the protocol getting subverted by the wto regime, ministry officials say that it is too early to arrive at any conclusion. " wto is a decade-old international body. cpb would also mature and define its own dispute settlement system," says D D Verma, joint secretary, Union ministry of environment and forests, and member of the genetic engineering approval committee (geac) -- the nodal agency in the country to clear gm products.

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