The Supreme Court on Thursday asked the government whether there is a “compelling reason” for it to press forward with the release of GM mustard, asking if Indian agriculture will be “doomed” if not for GM crops.

“Is there a compelling reason to release this hybrid DMH-11 [Dhara Mustard Hybrid-11] now… Can you not take into account bringing more safeguards, safety measures, experimentation, and consultation and consider releasing it at a later stage after gaining a better understanding of it… Why we are asking you this is it is said the release now would permanently and irreparably affect the environment,” Justice BV Nagarathna asked Attorney General R Venkataramani and Additional Solicitor General Aishwarya Bhati, appearing for the government.

Conflict of interest

The court’s question came a day after petitioners argued that the regulatory system under the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), which cleared the environmental release of DMH-11, a genetically-engineered variant of mustard, was “horrendous” and riddled with conflict of interest. 

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Advocate Prashant Bhushan, for petitioner-activist Aruna Rodrigues, had questioned the need to use GM mustard when India was home to 5,477 varieties of mustard.

Venkataramani dismissed the need to look for a “compelling reason” as an argument based on ideology. He said the government had taken a policy decision. A regulatory process has been put in place. The review of the GM crop had been undertaken minutely over a lengthy period of time. There were no shortcuts taken to nudge an environmental clearance.

“After you cross a certain stage when your anxieties and doubts have been by and large resolved, there is no question of a compelling reason,” Venkataramani submitted.

Indian context

Justice Nagarathna said the court’s questions were based on the Indian context. “Indian farmers are not like western farmers. All said and done, despite the krishi melas and krishi darshans, the literacy and awareness about all these genes and mutations continue to be very low. That is the reality of India… So, that is why we are asking whether, in the Indian conditions, you have no option but to release the GM crop… if you don’t do it, you are doomed,” Justice Nagarathna observed.

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Venkataramani said it would be a “different story if everything is left entirely in the hands of farmers”. He reiterated that the question before the court was not the “compelling reason” behind the GM crop policy but only the process of review and testing involved. “If there is a problem with the process, then the court will address… To say the government is blind to the Indian context is something very far-fetched,” Venkataramani submitted.

At this Justice Dinesh Maheshwari pointed out that the Supreme Court’s own Technical Expert Committee (TEC) had said that GM crops were not meant for agriculture in the Indian context. Justice Maheswari said the Committee had based its reasons on scientific analysis. 

“You (government) are proceeding in divergence with what they have said. The Committee’s focus was on sustainability and likely socio-economic impact on a major section of the rural economy… When you proceed to do something which is definitely not in conformity with the TEC’s recommendation to ban GM mustard, should you not satisfy the court that your divergence is based on rational criteria and scientific methodology?” Justice Maheshwari asked the Attorney General.

The court would resume hearing the case on December 7.