On 15 April 2004, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) notified the Biological Diversity Rules under the Biological Diversity Act, 2002. For those who had already been raising concerns about the Act, the rules just added on to the apprehensions. Others, who had hoped that the rules would help plug the gaps, were sorely disappointed. Prior to 2002, there was no legal protection for biodiversity in India, and the Act was intended to provide some space for biodiversity conservation. Today, there is a strong opinion that the little space the Act provided has been completely diluted with the new set of Rules meant to operationalise the Act.
Before getting into the critical issues with the Biological Diversity Rules, it is important to recall how the Biological Diversity Act came into being in the first place. Was it only out of the growing concern to conserve India's rich biodiversity? The process started only after India becoming a signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity in 1992. Even then it took a good 10 years for the Act to be notified. There is no denying that the efforts of government officials, NGOs and academicians have also contributed to highlighting and pressing for the need for the conservation of biodiversity. However, the gaps in the Act and subsequently (now) in the Rules indicate that the real push was an international treaty obligation.
A look at some of the significant gaps in the 2004 Rules helps understand this.
The Act mandates the establishmen of a National Biodiversity Authority (NBA), State Biodiversity Boards (SBB) and at local levels the Biodiversity Management Committees (BMC). The setting up of the BMCs could have enabled local communities to have some voice in the conservation, sustainable use, and equitable benefit-sharing of biological resources. But as per the Rules the role of the BMCs is merely limited to preparing Peoples Biodiversity Registers (PBRs) that document local knowledge and bioresources. This immensely undermines the rights of local communities who are the most important stakeholders when it comes to conservation of biological resources. Documentation, without any legal protection is also an invitation to exploitation. The BMCs would be preparing the PBRs, but where is the power to ensure that they will not be openly accessible for theft or piracy.
There is an apparent lack of faith in the competence of local groups in taking decisions, as well as an attempt to centralize natural resource management all over again. Hence the concessionary inclusion to locals, without actually vesting any power in them. Such a step, even after the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution of India have upheld the need for decision making at the village level, seems completely retrograde.
Forests in Ukhrul, Manipur. Pic : Kanchi Kohli.
The Act lays down some procedures for seeking clearances for the access and use of the nation's biodiversity. But the NBA, which is empowered to grant such clearances, is itself controversial. The constitution of the NBA has left many people feeling extremely cheated. The present NBA has no representatives from tribal or other communities, and from independent NGOs. This, despite the Act clearly requiring "five non official members to be appointed from amongst specialists and scientists having special knowledge of, or experience in, matters relating to conservation of biological diversity, sustainable use of biological resources and equitable sharing of benefits arising out of the use of biological resources, representatives of industry, conservers, creators and know ledge holders of biological resources."
Perhaps it should not have been left for the rules to interpret and include those to whom biodiversity matters and affects the most. One can't help but question why the real 'conservers' and 'creators' have not found their representative places in the corridors of decision-making!
Official Members 1. Shri Vishwanath Anand, Chair Person, National Biodiversity Authority,
2. S. Chatterjee, Joint Secretary, Ministry of Tribal Affairs,
3. The Additional Director General (Forests), Ministry of Environment and Forests,
4. D.D.Verma, Joint Secretary, (CS), Ministry of Environment and Forests,
5. Shashi Mishra, Additional Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture,
6. Shri U.N. Behara, Joint Secretary, Department of Biotechnology
7. Dr. S.P. Seth, Joint Secretary, Department of Ocean Technology,
8. Shri Satish Chandra, Joint Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture,
9. Shri Tara Dutt, Joint Secretary, Dept. of Indian Systems of Medicine and Homeopathy,
10. Hari Gopal, Joint, Dept. of Science and Technology
11. Shri Sudhir Kumar, Joint Secretary Ministry of Science and Technology, Non-Official Members 12. Prof. Raghvender Gadekar, Center for Biological Science
13. Prof. Anil Gupta, Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad
14. Dr. P. Pushpangadan, Director, National Botanical Research Institute
15. Prof. L. Kannan, Director Research, Centre for Advanced Study in Marine Biology
16. Dr A. K. Ghosh, Director, Centre for Environment and Development
The concerns are not new. The draft rules had been uploaded on the ministry's website and comments had been invited. At that time, however, there was no list of proposed NBA members! Instead, there were other details about its role, that of the SBBs, BMCs and so on. Critical responses on these were sent to the MoEF. But little seem to have been incorporated and the concerns remain as they were.
There is action everywhere. Efforts are being made to bring together gram sabhas and other local bodies to pass resolutions against these rules. Letters have been written to the MoEF, the media has been alerted in some parts. But, is this all enough? Specifically, will the ministry's response be sufficient only to revise the Rules, or address core issues with the Act itself? Several NGOs and civil society representatives actually argue that the Biological Diversity Act, 2002 endorses intellectual property rights on the biological resources and knowledge of India by allowing for screening of patent applications on the same. In providing for a regulatory system for access, the law also facilitates biotrade and the increasing privatisation of biological resources and traditional knowledge.
So, while the Biological Diversity Rules, 2004 need immediate reorientation, the composition of National Biodiversity Authority needs serious reconsideration as well. The focus will remain, for the time being, on the issues that are yet to be resolved with the fundamental basis of the legislation. Until this happens, addressing biodiversity conservation in its true sense can be ruled out.