In today’s Finshots, we give you a primer on the Biodiversity Amendment Bill.
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In 1992, the United Nations encouraged its member countries to sign an agreement to protect the world’s biodiversity. It realised that biodiversity was an important global asset. Diminishing food production, loss of tropical cover and soil productivity, threats to flora and fauna aren’t just problems that are relevant today. The world’s resources have been exploited and depleted ever since humanity existed. But it’s human nature to act only once the damage is done.
So the UN thought of getting its members on board something called the Convention on Biological Diversity. It aimed at addressing the reasons for biodiversity loss, how to promote sustainable use and protect ecosystems.
And every country that accepted the CBD had to make sure that they did what they could to protect biodiversity within their jurisdiction. Now, since India was also a part of this convention the government passed a Biological Diversity Act in 2002 to mirror the CBD’s provisions in its legal system. Basically, everything that the Convention implied was implemented at the national level. That way we’d be able to assure the UN that we’re doing our part.
But over the years this Act started becoming a pain point for researchers and companies. Why’s that, you ask?
You see, the Biological Diversity Act was mostly about compliance. It wanted to keep a check on pharmaceutical companies, researchers and medical practitioners who’d use protected natural resources for their own benefit. Think red sandalwood, biological neem or even certain kinds of bacteria that promote crop production. All of these aren’t available in abundance. So, in order to avoid their exploitation, the Act wanted to make sure that anyone dealing with them had the necessary permissions.
It set up two Boards, one each at the national and state levels. Companies had to seek their approval before using biological resources for commercial purposes. If you deviated from the protocol you had to pay penalties. Just a couple of months ago, the National Biodiversity Board (NBB) fined Dabur for accessing nearly 125 species of herbs without prior approvals.
Now imagine Dabur’s plight. Taking approvals for 125 different herbs at different points in time would mean spending money on the relevant applications and then waiting 90 days for each application to be approved or rejected. Because that’s the maximum time the Board takes to analyse an application.
And while we’ve taken Dabur as an example here, there could be so many more companies suffering the same plight. Increased compliance would only mean that their research efforts would move at a snail’s pace, delaying potential revenue as well.
So the government gave it a thought and decided to fix it. In 2021, it proposed to make a few changes to the compliance heavy Act. Mostly they went with removing all kinds of compliance requirements that hurt the corporates. And last week, the Biodiversity Amendment Bill was passed in the Lok Sabha amid conspicuous protests and criticisms. Apparently, several central ministries, state governments, researchers and stakeholders are concerned about the changes.
But if they wanted the Act to keep up with the times, then why aren’t they happy about easier norms?
Well, the new amendments may have gone too easy on the norms, so much so that it could defeat the purpose of the Act itself.
To begin with, the bill promotes the AYUSH (Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy) industry. Apart from not having to seek permission from State Biodiversity Boards any longer, they’ve also been exempted from something called the Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS) mechanism.
You see, the Indian biodiversity has many indigenous folks who protect it. 80% of biodiversity is found in forests. And Tribes or Adivasis make up nearly 7% of the population. So living in forests, technically means that they’re the ones guarding our biodiversity. So the Biodiversity Act of 2002 thought it fair that companies pay them for their efforts. They could be rewarded for sharing knowledge or helping cultivate certain kinds of medicinal plants.
That’s what ABS means ― both companies and protectors of biodiversity equitably share benefits. However, the new amendment exempts AYUSH practitioners from this compulsion. That means they get to keep 100% of whatever monetary benefits they derive. And that may open the floodgates to bio piracy or corporate exploitation of indigenous resources.
The government has seen massive growth in the AYUSH industry and is worth ₹1.5 lakh crores today. Giving it an immunity pin from the Biodiversity Act could obviously encourage more folks to explore and set up AYUSH companies. While this is a clever push, it could be based on a weak ecological versus commercial cost-benefit analysis.
There’s also the part where the amendment keeps the leash loose for foreign companies registered in India. Earlier, any entities with a foreign shareholding needed NBB approvals before accessing India’s biological resources. But this has been changed to just foreign controlled entities now. This means that if a foreign company registers itself in India, then it may no longer need approvals. Another open door to bio piracy you could say.
The amendment also offers simpler punishments for using resources without prior approvals. Imprisonment and fines have been replaced by just significant fines. And it won’t be hard for big companies to shell out that kind of money, especially if they have the potential to make boatloads in profits. So habitual offenders may not come as a surprise in future.
All of these controversial changes might have got you thinking “But what of the UN Convention on Biodiversity that India agreed to in 1992? Wasn’t the Biodiversity Act of 2002 a reflection of its laws?” So, technically the UN could do something about it right?
The 1992 Convention was only a kind of framework to guide countries on what they could do to prevent further loss of biodiversity and allow fair ABS. It wasn’t the kind of law that could force countries to implement these ideas strictly. A country’s government decides how its biological resources are used. So India may never be questioned by the UN after all.
It’s quite an easy loophole to bypass.
The only point where this amendment could be reviewed for scrutiny could be at the Upper House of the Parliament before it becomes an Act. But again, what are the odds that this controversial amendment doesn’t replace the Act of 2002?
We’ll have to just wait and see. Until then…