'Building and retaining capacity is the toughest challenge'

Balakrishna Pisupati is in the hot seat as chairperson of the National Biodiversity Authority (NBA), where he has to deal with regulatory and conservation issues against the backdrop of a precipitous loss of biodiversity and increasing cases of biopiracy. He comes well equipped for that task, being among a handful of people in the country with two decades of experience in dealing with issues of conservation and formulating policy at the local, national, regional and global levels. He has had stints at United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), UN University’s Institute of Advanced Studies based in Yokohama, Japan, and with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.   Before taking over as NBA chairperson, Pisupati was directing UNEP’s project on biodiversity, land law and governance programme from Nairobi where he served as the focal point for UNEP multilateral environmental agreements. In an interview to Latha Jishnu, he explains the various challenges he is tackling.

By Latha Jishnu
Published: Monday 01 October 2012

Balakrishna PisupatiThere is the feeling that CBD and NBA are focused more on access than conservation.  

The basis for this question is the context within which the CBD and NBA have been founded and are operational. Conservation and sustainable use action have been pursued by a range of local, national, regional and global initiatives, institutions and programmes whereas the issue of access and benefit sharing (ABS) is a relatively new concept and there is a need to tease out the operational elements of an ABS system that responds to the ethics and equity questions on the ground in addition to others. In the absence of specific and policy-oriented focus on ABS, it is but natural that more efforts are being focused to understand and implement the ABS provisions both under the CBD and the Biological Diversity Act (2002) of India.

In addition, there is the conservationist argument that we are biodiversity-rich, that biodiversity needs to be protected, preserved for posterity for the future generations.  There is also an economist’s argument that biodiversity and eco-system goods and services are worth trillions of dollars and such potential needs to be realized (58 billion is the global fish catch, 8 billion for pollination services by the bees).

If one extrapolates these two arguments, the question that would be asked is: if biodiversity is worth so many trillions of dollars why are people still poor in mega-biodiverse countries? There is a complete disconnect. The challenge for conservationists, economists and development practitioners is to find ways of translating the ‘potential’ of biodiversity into ‘real’. You get estimates of mangroves are worth $9,000/hectare/year for the goods and services it provides. But look at the communities living in and around the mangroves. Forget about $9,000, can we even talk of securing $900 for them?

The challenge for us many times is not so much the knowledge about the subject but translating that knowledge into action. That’s where we are completely challenged. You cannot regulate something that you cannot manage and you cannot manage something that you do not even know. We need to know what we have, devise ways of managing the diversity and put in place systems to regulate sustainable use of the resources in a fair and equitable way.

BDA is a very progressive piece of legislation in this regard. For the first time it talks of a decentralized way of managing and regulating India’s biodiversity. The roles and obligations of different stakeholder groups, including that of state and Central governments, are spelt out in the Act. It provides for three different mandates for NBA namely facilitation, regulatory and advisory.

So would you say it is unique?

BDA is unique.  I have worked at the global level and in several countries around the regions and I can say the elements of the Act are very progressive for the time it was negotiated in India and legislated. No one country anywhere in the world can claim that it has a perfect piece of legislation. It will always be work in progress because pieces of legislation are written up with the purpose of dealing specific issues. And these issues keep changing as and when the societal needs also changes.

Experience of implementation is the one that guides you and tells you how much of the provisions of the legislation can stand the needs of the society and time.  If you are going to sit in 2012 and question on how some elements or provisions of the Act, drawn up in 2002, are written up, this question is not valid. You have to see the context in which it was conceptualized and the time it is being implemented.

What are the issues in implementing the law?

Awareness and capacity building form the core of implementation of any legislation. In the absence of these two elements, the challenge to implement the provisions will be daunting. As for NBA, the same two issues confront us too. Awareness about the Act and the Rules is still very weak both within government agencies, outside as well as in the private sector.  The fundamental issue we’re trying to address and people have to understand is this: 1) The Act has been passed so there is no option but to follow it unless or until the Act or rules are amended changed; 2) If we really want to ensure that it is implemented in a decentralized manner, we need to build up that level of awareness and capacity. Capacity building is no longer for village community, researchers, farming community. Capacity has to be built across stakeholder groups: government agencies, private sector, entrepreneurs, local communities. It’s building capacity across a range of institutions the board.

As you know, capacity building is a bottomless pit, globally, not just for us. It will be work in progress for decades to come. But more important than investing in building capacity is to retain that capacity. Today, I train member-secretaries of State Biodiversity Boards (SBBs) on provisions of the Act and two months down the line they are gone. This is a huge challenge that is being faced not only by NBA but a range of other institutions as well. We need the understanding that SBBs are autonomous, statutory bodies that need to operate in this manner in letter and spirit. Same is the case for other stakeholder groups as well.

We need to broaden the base of our capacity building and encourage as many of these stakeholder groups to invest in retaining that capacity. More than the money invested it is the time that it takes to build capacity and we need to retain that. We are putting in place a range of measures to build the capacities of different stakeholders in the country and raise awareness about the provisions of the Act and the Rules.

How is NBA dealing with biopiracy? Is our regime adequate to deal with this issue?

The provisions of the Act are very clear. Whenever there is commercial utilisation of bio-resources,  permission from NBA is needed. Due to the nature of institutions established under the Act and their respective roles, we have to work closely with SBBs and Biodiversity Management Committees (BMCs). Every application we receive for ABS is checked with SBB. An expert committee on ABS provides expert advice and guidance to us on a case by case basis. We don’t take decisions unilaterally. The Act has enough safeguards. It clearly has dos and don’ts for nationals and non-nationals. Even Indians need to take permission from NBA if there is commercial utilization with some exemptions. The law also has provisions to stop or challenge wrongful patents. Certainly, the BDA has enough safeguards to deal with misappropriation. The law, however, can be effective only if people are involved and are aware about the compliance provisions.

Has NBA ever penalized any individual/company for misappropriation?

We have some of the information. For example, two people from the Czech Republic were caught. One was actually convicted and the other was fined and released. The forest department in Andhra Pradesh has invoked the provisions under the Act to book offences in the case of Red Sanders.

What were they doing?

They were collecting and smuggling material out of India for commercial utilisation. 

Any cases involving companies?

The filing of complaint on the alleged misappropriation of Indian germplasm in the development of Bt Brinjal case against Mahyco is in advanced stage. There is no case law under the BDA to refer to. Therefore, we are proceeding carefully and ensuring our actions are appropriate.

Weren’t universities also part of the project? 

 Universities, too, had a role to play and they would be investigated. This is a criminal complaint and we have to be as careful as possible and the case has to be water-tight. It’s not an open and shut case because of various reasons. Quite a few players are involved. So you have to do your homework as thoroughly as possible and that takes time.

Section 7 of the Act says: No person who is citizen of India, or a body corporate or association which is registered in India, shall obtain any biological source for commercial utilization or bio-survey and bio-utilisation for commercial utilization except after giving prior intimation to the state biodiversitry board concerned.

And this was not done?


India says it has signed over 100 ABS agreements. Should we be flaunting these?

India is the only country in the world that has completed over 100.  The next is Brazil which has done 10 agreements. To answer your question, what is our mandate? It’s to have these agreements in place, so that over a period of time if benefits accrue these are shared. If nobody is using biodiversity it’s great because our work gets simpler. Why have an Act, why establish a system, why create SBBs, why worry about BMCs. What is the point of all this? It’s all created so that people are encouraged to use it and once they use it they get some benefits and eventually share these benefits. Benefits won’t accrue tomorrow, they take time. Someone has to invest in it, do R&D and go through many processes before developing products and sharing benefits.

People in the countryside question the point of BMCs and the people’s biodiversity registers (PBRs) they have to prepare. They say they have to make a living and are not interested in something that gives them no benefits.

PBRs are the documents that are critical for the implementation of ABS and conservation elements under the Act. Preparation of PBRs is important not only to know the biodiversity we have and the associated traditional knowledge, if relevant. PBRs are also important to realise the ABS mechanism elaborated under the Act. As we commented during the national consultation on PBR experiences recently, we do not want PBRs to fulfil the role of being mere registers. They need to also contribute to livelihoods.

For CoP-11 we are working on a range of case studies on links between biodiversity and livelihood security to demonstrate the potential of biodiversity.

Discussing ABS or livelihoods, I am not talking only of a multimillion dollar drug or a wonder product but ways and means of managing steady incomes for the communities who depend on the resources, who have the knowledge associated with the use of resources and have mandates to seek benefits from its use. Bio-resource based enterprise development is important at different levels, at the community level which should develop their own enterprise, by the private sector and by the government agencies. Everyone should use it. Only way we can promote conservation, sustainable use and ABS. The entire principle of access and benefit sharing is based on use of resources. If you don’t use the resource what benefits are you going to get? If you don’t get any benefit what is the point of an elaborate ABS regime?

How does NBA promote conservation?

To us, conservation is a multi-institutional, multi-layered agenda. No one agency or ministry is solely responsible for conservation. The World Business Council on Sustainable Development in a report some years ago has demonstrated how the entire spectrum of industries are so much dependent on biodiversity. But since biodiversity is available for free, it is often mismanaged. People should recognize the value of biodiversity. Conservation should be a multi-stake holder agenda.

Very interestingly the Act provides NBA with different mandates: an enabling and facilitating mandate (working with different stakeholders to support conservation and use), regulatory mandate (stopping misappropriation and facilitating ABS mechanism) and third, advisory. An act or a law in general is just regulatory. That’s another reason why this mandate of NBA is progressive.

Have you sent out an advisory in the year you have headed NBA?

Yes, for instance, we are helping MoEF set national biodiversity targets. Over a period of time I’ve been directly involved in setting NBAPs, revising national targets and policies in many countries. As per the CBD COP 10 Decision, we have agreed to set national targets in line with the 2011-2020 Aichi Global Targets on Biodiversity. Under a similar decision, India is currently initiating work to revise NBAP. When we started this work one of the main challenges was to deal with mainstreaming biodiversity. Why should the Ministry of Commerce, Dept of Ayush or Land Resources deal with biodiversity? Why they should actually protect biodiversity?

To answer these questions, we took an approach where we did not go around telling people how important biodiversity is. Instead, we developed a one-page fact sheet on what each ministry/department is already doing to use and promote biodiversity. We analysed each ministry’s programmes and culled out what they had agreed to do in the 12th Plan and highlighted its link to biodiversity. That caught the attention of many. I never needed to convince departments about the importance of biodiversity or why they should be on board. I didn’t say you should listen to NBA or why. I made them feel they are an important stakeholder group.  I want everyone to feel they are part of the game.

MoEF says it is preparing a report on how much the country is spending on biodiversity conservation through various programmes. Do you have a figure for this? 

The nature, diversity and density of bio-resources in India are important for NBA. But many times we hear the comment that conservation action in India can be better placed if we have the baselines and such baselines are not available.  We have baseline data but it is largely scattered and people have limited or no access to it. On any one given issue there are so many programmes and schemes which are being facilitated only to generate that kind of information. Our challenge is we are not able to connect all the data. In all we have dozens of data bases on biodiversity –species, eco-systems, etc. But each one of them independent and each stores so much wonderful data but are unconnected. Therefore we are unable to use it.

If I have in one place all my field data however small it is, along with remote sensing data for example and the rest, think of what impact it will have on policymaking. NBA is facilitating that collective effort. We are preparing a National Biodiversity Information Outlook report to be launched at CoP-11 that will address the challenges related to biodiversity information and data and ways and means to tackle the challenge. This project is coordinated by WII and supported by NBA and MoEF. NBA is also working on the possibility of a network of information and connecting it through a grid system.  With the investments being made into developing, maintaining and updating the datasets, India will certainly be leading the world in biodiversity information networking if we can establish a National Biodiversity Grid that will focus on bringing the information and data onto a common platform. At NBA, we are working on such a mechanism now. 

Which are the state boards you see as good?

A few SBBs are certainly doing progressive work, such as Kerala, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat and a few others. My interest is to ensure we bring the other SBBs also onto the same level. We are providing technical, legal, financial and human resource based support to all the SBBs and are encouraging them to also get involved in peer-to-peer learning. So if one SBB has certain capacity on a specific issue we encourage that others make use of the same. Like the WBSBB is interested in economics of biodiversity, ABS, value sharing etc. So we are encouraging them to develop that expertise and act as resource group for other SBBs. Karnataka is a pioneer in establishing biodiversity heritage sites, so we tell others to use their expertise. Kerala has established well-functioning BMCs and their experience is being shared with other SBBs.

Madhya Pradesh has 27,000 BMCs.  Are they not just committees on paper?

We get caught in a numbers game here. On the one hand we say there is not the requisite number of BMCs formed and if one state posts huge numbers we question the figures. This is unfair. We are criticised for not meeting targets and yet when a state sets up so many BMCs they are dismissed as just paper organisations. I am not interested in the numbers.

My interest is: Are we making a difference where these institutions are established and functional? How efficient they are, and are they able to deliver the mandate? Even in protected areas, it’s the same criticism that they are all paper parks. It is the relevance of these agencies that is more important that the numbers. Given the complexities in India, establishing BMCs and making these institutions deliver on their roles and obligations will be critically important. 

Is the shortage of taxonomists in the country hampering work on biodiversity?

Yes, the numbers we have are limited. Interest in taxonomy is dwindling; it’s about limited career and job opportunities and   employment. The problem has to be addressed at different levels. Universities, UGC need to revamp the course for study of taxonomy which means we need to bring in changes in the job market. It’s all linked. What we have done is to launch a searchable database on taxonomists from May this year with inputs from the Botanical Survey of India, Zoological Survey of India and individual experts.

What are the other such handicaps?

We have a shortage of legal experts. We have lawyers but only a small number of them study and pursue environmental law as a core study area. Environmental law is many times taught as a module for three months. We are trying to work with law schools to introduce the specialisation on biodiversity and related laws. Legal systems and interpretations are very critical for the implementation of the Act in many ways. But we face a huge shortage of legal experts who have a thorough understanding of laws related to biodiversity. Today we have to take into account the complementary and conflicting provisions, if any of the Wildlife Protection Act, Environment (Protection) Act, Forest Rights Act and Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmer’s Rights Act and others while looking at implementation provisions for the Biological Diversity Act.

How are we doing on the whole?

With all the challenges in India, the demographic pressures, the anthropogenic pressures, the development pressures and all the investment that is coming in, we have done reasonably well with regard to the biodiversity we still have.

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