Nitin Sethi, Bangalore
The firm genetically modified local varieties of eggplant without approvals
Mahyco, the promoter company for Bt Brinjal could be in for more trouble than just the long-standing moratorium on its product. The case for criminal prosecution of its officials for biopiracy has been revived with the Karnataka High Court dismissing a petition to stay the prosecution on October 11.
The National Biodiversity Board (NBA) and the Karnataka Biodiversity Board (KBB) filed a case for criminal prosecution of 13 individuals, including some top management officials of Mahyco or Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Co. Limited which is partly owned by Monsanto, for biopiracy. The authorities complained in 2012 that the company along with others had genetically modified local varieties of eggplant without the mandatory approvals and then laid illegal proprietary claim to the genetically modified seeds. In other words, they were accused of biopiracy under the Biodiversity Act 2002.
The NBA and the KBB said that Mahyco entered into an agreement with the University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad (UAS) for sub-licensing the Bt gene in local varieties of eggplants and further breeding of these without the mandatory approval of the NBA. It further said that the UAS in collusion with Mahyco and Sathguru Management Consultants Private Limited had carried out breeding to achieve genetic modification of India’s biological resources without permission.
The two government regulatory bodies explained how the alleged illegality had been made evident in the agreements between Mahyco, Sathguru — a consultancy firm and the University of Agricultural Sciences. “Mahyco technology (which is the eggplant containing the Bt gene that will be backcrossed with local varieties provided by the UAS) and Monsanto’s technology (which is the Bt Gene itself) is incorporated into local varieties, these varieties become ‘licensed domestic eggplant products’ and therefore providing Monsanto and Mahyco intellectual property resources that can restrict any making, using or selling of these licensed domestic eggplant products.”
Violation of Biodiversity Act
The agencies went on to say, “This seems to be [an] astonishingly wide intellectual property claim over local varieties provided by the UAS which Mahyco will backcross with their Bt Brinjal possibly violating the Biodiversity Act.”
The complaint listed the vice-chancellor, Registrar and former vice-chancellor of UAS as accused. It listed the managing director, deputy managing director and two directors of the Mahyco as co-accused and named the Founder-director and two directors of Sathguru Management Consultants Private Limited alongside.
The entire story of biopiracy began with a compliant made by Environment Support Group, a Bangalore-based NGO as far back as 2010 when the controversy over commercial release of Bt Brinjal was hitting headlines. But, the authorities dithered for two years even after investigating and concluding that there was a clear case of biopiracy involved. It was only when Environment Support Group, seeing inaction by the government, filed a PIL in the Karnataka High Court in 2012 that the authorities finally filed charges against the accused in November 2012.
The Chief Judicial Magistrate of Dharwad issued summons against the accused but the summons could only be served on the university officials with the police claiming it could not ascertain the addresses of the private entities. Before the summons could again be re-served on the representatives of the two private entities, an ex-parte stay was granted against the criminal proceedings by the Dharwad Bench of Karnataka High Court on January 3, 2013. The stay was contested by the two government bodies — the NBA and the KBB — and the case was finally dismissed on October 11, 2013. This has now reinstituted the original case of NBA and KBB against the accused.
A source at KBB, Bengaluru speaking to The Hindu said, “We are aware of the dismissal of the petition by some accused but we are yet to receive the orders officially. Once we do get them we shall move on the case.”
Another senior official in the Union Environment and Forests Ministry told The Hindu that the case was being now monitored at the highest levels in the Ministry and instructions were likely to be soon sent to the NBA on it.