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Contempt of SC order? Rajasthan Congress govt 'allows' GM mustard cultivation

By Rosamma Thomas* 

In November this year, as part of the rabi cycle, India's first GM food crop that has been approved for environmental release/commercial cultivation, Dhara Mustard Hybrid (DMH-11) seeds were planted at the regional station of the Rajasthan Agricultural University in Sriganganagar and the Directorate of Rapeseed-Mustard Research (DRMR) at Bharatpur, besides other locations in Uttar Pradesh, Delhi and Punjab.
This was done before the ruling of the Supreme Court on November 3, 2022, staying the decision of the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee which approved genetically modified mustard for commercial cultivation.
The SC asked the government to ensure that “no precipitative action is taken”. GM mustard is controversial not just because of the transgenic technology deployed in creating these seeds, but the herbicide tolerance (HT) trait introduced into the mustard plant, which will lead to higher usage of deadly weed-killers in farming.
An interlocutory application was filed in the Supreme Court in September 2016 in the GM mustard matter, and the Union government submitted in court that “all the representations of the Stakeholders shall be considered before taking a final decision.” The SC has not allowed the Union of India to approve transgenic mustard without the court’s permission, so cultivation of this crop is in contempt of the Supreme Court.
Rajasthan agriculture minister Lalchand Kataria could not be contacted on phone. Murari Lal Meena, minister of state (agriculture marketing), told this reporter that he was firmly against GM mustard and would do all in his power to prevent its cultivation.
Rajasthan produces nearly half the total mustard grown in India. The Central Organization for Oil Industry and Trade (COOIT) at its 42nd annual conference in Bharatpur, Rajasthan, in March this year noted that the mustard seed production in the country was set to rise 29%, to nearly 110 lakh tonnes in the rabi season this year.
Rajasthan alone would produce about 50 lakh tonnes of mustard seed. More farmers were cultivating mustard, which is grown on about eight million hectares in the country. When things are going so well and Rajasthan is referred to as India’s “mustard state”, it is unclear what need there is for a genetically modified crop.
The case in the SC was part-heard by a Supreme Court Bench with subsequent hearings not having happened on the 7th and 12th of December, and the court will soon go on vacation. Meanwhile, GM mustard seeds already planted in UP, Punjab and Rajasthan are close to flowering.
Dr Dhiraj Singh, who retired after four decades of service and held the position of Director of the Directorate of Rapeseed Mustard Research, says GM mustard plants must be “uprooted and burnt”.
With the court on vacation, the crop will grow and likely contaminate the mustard grown in other fields too in the states where the GM variety has been planted. Rajasthan had earlier taken a firm stand against GM mustard. Agriculture minister Prabhulal Saini in the Vasundhara Raje-led BJP government in 2017 had said that even if the Centre approved GM mustard, Rajasthan would have nothing to do with it; field trials would not be conducted in the state, and commercial production will not be allowed, he said, adding that the state would resist any such moves by the Centre.
BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh and Haryana have refused to be part of the GM mustard project
The then Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje herself is quoted to have been against GM crops in the state. In 2012, when field trials were conducted in the state of GM mustard, the crop was later burnt for fear of contamination as pollination could happen with non-GM crop through air, water or animals, upsetting the balance in nature. It is worth noting that this happened under the Congress rule in the state then, under CM Ashok Gehlot.
What is puzzling is that the Congress government in Rajasthan should now allow the cultivation of GM mustard, when neighbouring BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh and Haryana have refused to be part of the GM mustard project. The Congress Party had also vehemently opposed genetic modification of plants and GM mustard in particular in Twitter posts.
Agriculture is a state subject under the Constitution, so there is no reason for the Rajasthan government to not take an independent stance. GM mustard is a herbicide (glufosinate) tolerant crop, and the government has argued that glufosinate will not be used except in seed production – there will be legislation preventing its use for weed control by farmers. This is an attempt to criminalize farmers, while the government takes irresponsible regulatory decisions, allege farm activists.
Illegal planting and spraying on a HT crop, however, happens routinely in the case of the only other genetically modified crop in India, cotton. Regulatory tests also do not account for the impact the herbicide will have on human health and the soil. Once cultivated, the crop is likely to contaminate the soil and other indigenous varieties of mustard.
Fears about the spreading of the sterility trait of GM mustard are also being expressed leading to losses for farmers, while beekeepers worry that their livelihoods will be affected with the advent of GM HT mustard.
---
*Freelance journalist

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