Features

doi:10.1038/nindia.2014.89 Published online 30 June 2014

India’s biosecurity regulations face criticism

Manupriya

India’s biosecurity regulations have come in for sharp criticism for being archaic. Experts say the country’s legal framework to protect her agricultural products and animals from deadly diseases has become ill-equipped to tackle modern challenges of biosecurity.

Faster travel and easy access to every part of the world has resulted in booming trade of agricultural products, cattle, poultry, fishes and humans.  However, unwanted disease causing organisms piggyback with the trade goods transporting diseases and their causative organisms hitherto unheard of in India. 

India’s Agriculture Biosecurity Bill1 tabled in the lower house of Parliament last year (2013) is still pending. The Bill hopes to establish an Agricultural Biosecurity Authority of India with headquarters in the national capital region and regional centres all over the country. The authority is expected to be responsible for regulation of the import and export of plants, animals and related products; prevention of entry of quarantine pests; and implementation of post-entry quarantine measures2.

The bill is expected to replace the century-old Destructive Insects and Pests Act (DIPA) and the Livestock Importation Act. A Plant Quarantine Order was passed in 1962 under the DIPA to attain better proficiency in quarantining the inflow of harmful insects and plants1, 4

The National Farmers Commission headed by eminent agriculture scientist M S Swaminanathan had submitted a report in 2004 urging the government to take stock of its present infrastructure and institutional framework in the area of biosecurity and get its act together. The commission subsequently made recommendations for setting up a centralised National Agricultural Biosecurity System which can take care of safety of crops, farm animals, fishes and forest trees through surveillance and control mechanisms. It was also to be responsible for increasing local level awareness in matters of biosecurity and organising a coordinated National Agricultural Biosecurity programme3

Criticism

There’s a question mark over whether or not all concerns of biosecurity have been addressed in the Agriculture Biosecurity Bill. 

One of the biggest criticisms about the Bill is that it does not include epizootics/zoonoses, disease causing organisms that can hop from one vertebrate to another.  Famous examples of such diseases are SARS, Avian flu and Mad Cow disease which can be easily transferred from their primary hosts to humans. While mad cow has not been a cause of concern yet for India, both SARS and avian flu have caused havoc.

India’s ministry of Health and Family Welfare has not made any input to the Bill saying it is the prerogative of the Food safety and Standards authority of India Act4. However, international guidelines on biosecurity laid out by FAO clearly say that human health is a key factor that should be considered in every country's biosecurity framework5.

Another criticism for the Bill has been in the area of domestic quarantine. While the bill, does forbid individuals to “possess, move, grow, raise, culture, breed or produce any plant, animal and plant product”, it does not clarify how states should act to contain the spread of disease. India’s past record in imposing domestic quarantine has not been worth mention.  Numerous diseases that made a localized appearance earlier have now spread all over the country.

Shashi Sharma, Chair in biosecurity and food security at Murdoch University, Australia says, “There is a need to consider and establish proper agreements between the Central and State Governments to ensure commitment in implementation of quarantine measures that are compliant with the Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Agreement”. The agreement recognises that risk may not be evenly distributed across a country and that, where practicable, different risk reduction measures can be imposed within a country. This provides opportunity for claiming regional freedoms from pests and diseases on a scientific basis provided the measures are consistent with the obligations of the SPS Agreement. The proposed agreement would enable proper implementation of quarantine measures which could inhibit or allow trade into India.

Sharma, former Head and professor at the nematology division of Indian Agriculture Research Institute, says the State and Central governments must have clear arrangements and agreements regarding roles and responsibilities and actions to be taken in case of suspect detection of a biosecurity threat. Contingency plans for key high priority exotic biosecurity threats must be prepared in advance so that they can be implemented when such threats are detected. 

How the Bill proposes to deal with biosecurity emergencies remains a matter of concern for many. The Bill has a section that talks about dealing with emergencies. “The centre may give directions to the Authority for managing or eradicating the organism due to which the emergency has been declared. The Authority may notify a scheme for the management or eradication of such an organism, with the prior approval of the central government,” it reads. Ravi Khetrapal, Director of the inter-governmental agriculture and environment organization CABI, India says that the emergency action plan is not clearly laid out. Khetrapal suggests that apart from professors and researchers, experts from the ministry of Home and Defence should also be roped in to draw a clear action plan. He also insists on raising public awareness on the subject and help farmers understand what they can do at their level.

The international scene

Countries across the globe have either already taken or are in the process of implementing stringent biosecurity measures. USA and Australia are the pioneers in the field with very stringent norms. It took 22 years of negotiations with USA before Indian mango was cleared for imports to that country4. “It was allowed only after they set up big ionizing centres capable of deactivating insect pests. Only consignments with certification from these centres are allowed to be imported”, Khetrapal says.

The recent EU ban on import of mangoes and vegetables like brinjal, bittergourd and colocasia from India is another example of the seriousness of other countries. The ban was put into effect because shipments were found to be infested with fruitflies, which means that international phytosanitary standards could not be met with. In the last couple of years, India has topped the list of countries from where intercepted fruit and vegetable export consignments were found contaminated with pests that could pose a threat to glasshouse production in the U.K. and across the E.U5.

The FAO offers clear guidelines for countries aiming to revamp their biosecurity structure in the form of a biosecurity toolkit6. Before the Agriculture Biosecurity Bill is passed, India would do well to borrow a leaf or two from such internationally accepted guidelines and make sure that all relevant aspects are covered adequately under the bill.