Biodiversity is for the people. Protect it

Feb 17, 2022 06:43 PM IST

The revisions in the biodiversity Act are anti-people and anti-science. To preserve biodiversity, the government must engage grassroots conservationists

The government recently came out with a revised biodiversity act — the Biological Diversity (Amendment) Bill, 2021 — and called for public responses. The revised version perpetuates the current regime of implementation of the act and disempowerment of people. This goes against the spirit of the Constitution that declares people to be sovereign rulers of the country and against the provisions of the Convention on Biological Diversity and also the original Biological Diversity Act, 2002. It is, therefore, time for citizens to respond and press for people’s democratic rights.

The rules formulated in 2004 nullified the role of biodiversity management committees (BMCs) and violated intellectual property rights. Consequently, BMCs were either never constituted or remained meaningless. (HT Photo) PREMIUM
The rules formulated in 2004 nullified the role of biodiversity management committees (BMCs) and violated intellectual property rights. Consequently, BMCs were either never constituted or remained meaningless. (HT Photo)

In the foyer of Parliament is inscribed: Vasudhaiva kutumbakam, the world is one family. This was a universal perspective of humans that originated as group hunters on the African savannas. Humans lived in cooperative groups, cemented by the bonds of mutual aid. They viewed their prey animals, the trees, and the streams as part of their community that aided them and deserved to be treated with respect.

This ancient heritage of cooperation and community management of natural resources persists in most of the world. Switzerland’s extensive forest cover is nurtured by local cantons. Britain stood alone in rejecting community management, beginning with the enclosure of the commons by aristocrats in the 11th century. The results of the alienation of the people were tragic, and Britain lost its forests and larger wildlife by the 14th century.

Britain led the world in the progress of science, enabling them to build a worldwide empire. In North America, they destroyed the forest, massacred wildlife, and drove indigenous people into a corner. They developed prosperous plantations, exploiting the cheap labour of Black slaves. These strategies could not be followed in Asia. The British arrived in an India that was an ocean of trees teeming with wildlife.

This wealth of natural resources had been guarded by our village communities, acting in unison, despite being plagued by inequities. The British were hungry to drain India’s natural resources and impoverish the people to serve as cheap labour. Claiming falsely that Indians had been destroying their forests, they established the forest department (FD) to take over the country’s tree resources. Honest British officials opined that this was “not conservation but confiscation”. British planters asked for shifting cultivation to be forcibly stopped to compel the impoverished people to serve as dirt-cheap labour for their estates.

Overall, British economic interests lay in rendering people resourceless, and dedicating forest tracts to grow timber for their military and construction needs. FD claimed to be implementing sustainable management on a scientific basis. In fact, forest resources were depleted in manifold ways, but the depletion was never brought out in the open by shutting out public scrutiny. All along, foresters were misusing their regulatory policing powers with impunity to harass the forest and forest fringe dwellers, and extort bribes.

At the same time, they were favouring the rich and powerful. For instance, bamboo was supplied to paper mills at 1.50 per tonne when the market rate was 1,500 per tonne. They wantonly permitted the mills to flout regulations and destroy large tracts of rich bamboo forests.

Yet, urban conservationists insist that it is FD that will save forests and prevent their destruction by the people of the country, thereby strengthening the hands of this anti-people, anti-science agency. How wrong this is was brought by the great naturalist Salim Ali’s misjudgment in the case of Bharatpur wetland. He worked for years at Bharatpur, banding thousands of migratory birds, and knew that it was here that Lord Linlithgow had shot 4,273 birds on a single day in 1938. But ignorant of the functioning of the Bharatpur ecosystem, he recommended in 1982 that it be declared a national park leading to a ban on centuries-old buffalo grazing. This led to an unexpected adverse outcome with a water-loving grass choking the wetland and rendering it a far worse habitat for waterfowl.

FD continues to dominate even after the Rio Earth Summit’s Convention on Biological Diversity broadened the perspective of nature conservation from just wildlife to all of biodiversity. A follow-up was the passage of the Biological Diversity Act, 2002, with its provision that every local body would constitute a biodiversity management committee (BMC) within its area to promote conservation, sustainable use and documentation of biological diversity, including preservation of habitats and preparation of people’s biodiversity registers (PBR).

However, the rules formulated in 2004 nullified the role of the BMCs in management and violated people’s intellectual property rights. Consequently, the BMCs were either never constituted or remained meaningless if constituted.

Around 2016, a Public Interest Litigation was filed before the National Green Tribunal (NGT) for this to be remedied. The NGT then ordered that BMCs should be set up and prepare PBRs. FD responded by continuing to keep people aside and organised the preparation of PBRs largely by experts adept at providing bogus environmental impact assessments. These spurious registers have been put on record and accepted by NGT.

The revised version of the Biodiversity Act continues to assign a dominant role to FD and retains the defective rules. I would like to appeal to the readers to help build public pressure for scrapping the rules and FD’s role in implementing the act while establishing an alternative democratic setup, involving members of BMCs voluntarily chosen by people at the ground level.

Madhav Gadgil is one of India’s most widely-regarded ecologists. He is a former professor of the Indian Institute of Science, where he founded the Centre for Ecological Sciences 

The views expressed are personal

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