Even though the term participatory planning is deeply rooted in development jargon, it is not all the time that one finds it being operationalised to its potential. Therefore, when it is sincerely taken up, it energises and encourages a number of citizens to immerse themselves in the details of government. The preparation of India's National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP) has over the last four years made one sincere attempt at participatory planning. Thousands of people were directly involved in the planning exercise at various stages and different levels, and it would be impossible to additionally count those who were indirect actors. Yet, today the NBSAP document confronts the prospect of never seeing itself in print!

A good beginning

The preparation of the NBSAP is a mandatory requirement under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, of which India is a signatory. Following the receipt of approximately 1 million US dollars from the Global Environment Facility and the United Nations Development Program in 1999, the process of preparing the plan formally took off in January 2000. At that time the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) took the progressive decision to hand over the technical coordination to a national NGO, Kalpavriksh, along with a 15-member Technical and Policy Core Group (TPCG),. The TPCG members included activists, professionals as well as representatives from the government.

Picture: Cultural festival as part of the Rathong Chu substate site process.

Thereafter began a process, which envisaged the preparation of 74 independent and implementable Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plans (BSAPs) at state (33), sub state (18), thematic (13) and ecoregional (10) levels. Apart from this there were 34 subthematic reviews commissioned on topics such as the relationship of biodiversity to thermal power, natural dyes, etc. The preparation of these plans followed a variety of methodologies including public hearings, yatras, festivals, structured meetings and workshops. Committees and/or advisory groups representing various streams of thought were brought together by the coordinating agency or individuals in order to build in a variety and range of perspectives into the plans. Though there was national level coordination of the process and guidelines were issued time-to-time, the BSAPs were prepared in a highly decentralized manner.

At the national level too there were was a call for widespread participation made using the media, festivals, existing meeting forums, advertisements and so on. Around 30,000 copies of a brochure in 18 languages were circulated all over the country and several persons responded. In some cases they also actively participated in the formulation of BSAPs. There were many other attempts made towards seeking participation in the process, including using websites, a newsletter and through personal contacts.

The preparation of the national plan began in December 2002 after the bulk of the first drafts of state plans had been received. This was critical, as these plans along with other national documents and the work of the TPCG were to form the basis of the India's NBSAP document. It took about 11 months for the first draft to be prepared. Thereafter the plan went through a series of review processes and was revised four times. The various drafts were circulated to the members of the National Steering Committee (comprising of 8 ministries and 4 non-government representatives), all the NBSAP executing agencies and various experts in the field and many other ministries and departments of the government of India as well as state governments. Copies of the executive summary were circulated to all the persons who had responded to the call for participation during the process. It was uploaded on the MoEF's website and elsewhere.

The availability of the first draft was also announced in the national media, soliciting feedback from all those interested. About 200 sets of comments were received by the core drafting group and incorporated into the document. The MoEF also set up a peer review group, and critical comments from this group were built into the process.

Picture: Mobile biodiversity festival in Deccan Andhra.

All of this happened by May 2003. To understand what followed, it is important to remember that until the end of 2003, MoEF consistently stated that once it had gone through a full range of public comments and inputs from all other ministries of Government of India, the final draft would be published as the National Action Plan. All this time, the manuscript was in fact called the draft National Action Plan. During this time it was also sent to an external editor and sanctions for a designer were sought.

An unexpected turn

In January 2004, there was a sudden turn of events. After a new Secretary of the ministry took charge, it was communicated to the core drafting group coordinated by Kalpavriksh that the final draft of the National Action Plan could not be considered as an action plan, but only as a technical report. The justification given for this was that the NBSAP should wait till the National Environment Policy is framed (even though that process started four years after work began on the NBSAP), as also that a national plan could not be finalised until there is Cabinet approval for it. This, despite the fact that previous action plans of the MoEF such as the National Wildlife Action Plan and the National Forest Action Plan have not gone through Cabinet approval. This was an unpleasant surprise; more so because MoEF officials had previously assured coordinators that Cabinet approval was not needed for this ministry-level effort.

Notwithstanding this setback, MoEF clearly indicated that the draft could be printed and circulated widely as the final technical report of NBSAP; and meanwhile MoEF would formulate a version for Cabinet approval. This decision was agreed to at the final Steering Committee meeting of the NBSAP, held in January 2004. Those centrally involved in the process agreed to this as a compromise; this way, the plan would at least be circulated and the valuable information would be in public domain, even if only as a technical report. Months were then spent on the final design and editing.

Very recently, it was further communicated that the permission for printing the draft even as a technical report could not be given until the National Environment Policy and Cabinet approval of the NBSAP draft were both completed. A few could be photocopied however.

These twists are completely in contrast to the way the process was carried out for years. For those centrally involved in the process, it is the realization of their worst apprehensions. There is no giving up though. Efforts of all kinds are being made in sincere hope that MoEF returns to a process which it once considered the jewel in its crown of operations. There is also the critical question of faith in participatory planning. Perhaps no other document in MoEF's history has gone through so much consultation and public input, with so many stakeholders given a chance to be part of it. The Ministry's challenge, now, is to demonstrate that the elaborate planning during the past few years was not merely for show, and that there is still a meaningful process for public participation in the making of policy.