One step forward, two steps back

New rules dilute the biodiversity act
One step forward, two steps back
-- The Biological Diversity Act (bda) 2002 promised to help arrest the destruction and piracy of India's biological resources and traditional knowledge. This hope was dealt a body blow by its creator, the Union ministry of environment and forests (moef), when on April 15 2004 it notified a thoroughly uninspiring and possibly retrogressive set of rules under the act.

bda is supposed to achieve conservation and sustainable use of the country's biological sources. It is also designed to promote equity in benefit-sharing from their use. The act does have numerous loopholes. Nevertheless, it could have helped check the illegal outflow of genetic material from India, given some protection (and benefits) to local communities for their immense knowledge and put some check on the unbridled exploitation of bio-resources by industries and urban consumers. Many of us expected that subsequent rules and guidelines would help elaborate bda's provisions, and plug some of its weaknesses. But the Biological Diversity Rules 2004 have disappointed us thoroughly.
Some critical problems The new rules hardly empower local communities; indeed, they specify that the "main function" of the Biodiversity Management Committees (bmc) set up by communities is to prepare People's Biodiversity Registers (pbrs)! It seems that moef does not trust communities with anything else -- a clear contravention of the government's own direction towards decentralisation and panchayati raj. The rules are also silent on how pbrs would be protected against theft and misuse, which means that suddenly we may have hundreds of documents of traditional knowledge being prepared, without any means to protect them!

Secondly, by leaving many crucial terms (like "local body", "equitable" and "endangered") undefined or inappropriately defined, the rules allow serious misuse or varying interpretations. This could undermine the act's intent and spirit. For instance, non-governmental organisations (ngos) have suggested that the term "local body" should imply gram sabhas or full village/tribal councils. If this is not done, many bmcs are likely to be manipulated by powerful sarpanches, landlords and the like.

Moreover, there are even points where basic science has been ignored. For instance, the rules prohibit access to "endangered" species, but leave out of their purview a range of "threatened" species that are not endangered. Also, the application forms for gaining access to biological resources or related knowledge, ask only for species name, and not variety or breed names. It is therefore technically possible for someone to take away basmati variety by simply declaring that s/he is taking Oryza sativa, the species name for rice. This is an amazing loophole, given that many of the infamous biopiracy cases the world over relate to particular crop varieties or livestock breeds.

There are no provisions in the rules for making decisions of the National Biodiversity Authority (nba) or of other bodies constituted under bda, open to public scrutiny. This is a mockery of the government's oft-repeated promise to be more transparent.

What is astounding is that all these and many other deficiencies were pointed out by a number of people who had sent comments to moef when the draft rules were opened up for public inputs, in 2003. Not a single substantial comment has been incorporated in the final rules. To make matters worse, the nba's composition hardly inspires confidence. It contains no representative of tribal or other local communities, though bda specifically requires inclusion of "creators" and "conservers" of biodiversity. The five non-governmental experts on it are academics or scientists -- three of them formerly or currently in government! I have nothing against them; indeed I respect the contribution of some of them. But surely the nba should contain people who deal with biodiversity? Once again, local communities find their future in hands of government officials and urban institutions.
What can be done? moef can still make amends. The new minister for environment should realise that he needs to undo his predecessor's mistakes. Another hope is that the rules have to be placed in Parliament, where they can be changed. The newly elected Members of Parliament should deliver on their electoral promises, by challenging legislative measures that do not empower people to safeguard India's ecological and livelihood security.

Ashish Kothari is a founder-member of Kalpavriksh, an Environment Action Group
Down To Earth