Biological Diversity (Amendment) Bill, 2021 – Monetising that which sustains life

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The first step in reviewing any new legislation or amendment to an existing legislation, is to understand the intent and purpose of what is proposed. In reviewing the Biological Diversity (Amendment) Bill, 2021 as introduced in the Lok Sabha on December 9th, 2021, the intent and purpose are evident through the reading of the following:

(i) Section 4 of the Bill which asks for “In Chapter II of the principal Act, in the Chapter heading, for the word “DIVERSITY”, the word “RESOURCES” shall be substituted.”

(ii) Item 5 in the Statement of Objects and Reasons provided in the document as introduced in the Lok Sabha: “In this background, concerns were raised by the stakeholders representing Indian system of medicine sector, seed sector, industry sector and research sector urging to simplify, streamline and reduce compliance burden in order to encourage conducive environment for collaborative research and investments, simplify patent application process, widen the scope of levying access and benefit sharing with local communities and for further conservation of biological resources.” and

(iii) Item 6 (v) bring more foreign investments in the chain of biological resources, including research, patent and commercial utilisation, without compromising the national interest.

Before we look at each of these individually, and try and comprehend their profound socio-ecological implications for India’s biodiversity and resilience of ecosystems, a few words by way of context for this response.

The Biodiversity Act, 2002 and the proposed amendments, need to be reviewed critically in light of:

(i) our understanding and incontrovertible scientific evidence of the need to take a systems view of life

(ii) the documented high vulnerability to climate change of various parts of India, whether it is the biodiversity hotspots in the Western and Eastern Ghats, the open natural ecosystems, coastal ecosystems or the fragile mountain ecosystems

(iii)  recognising that knowledge is constructed through multiple ways and in the context of biodiversity, lived experience is one defining way to know systemic interconnections and interdependencies. Here lived experience needs to be differentiated from ‘traditional knowledge’ which can also come only through reading of texts and other material that is restricted in its access by class, caste and ethnicity and

(iv) most importantly direct evidence of the impact of changing climate and how diversity (ecosystem, genetic, knowledge, governance) has provided resilience where it has not been eroded.

Rather than re-examining the principal Act (The Biological Diversity Act, 2002) and re-working it with provisions to build and enhance the resilience of socio-ecological systems and processes, a draft Bill with amendments has been introduced that is one more step in the process of monetising and placing in the marketplace everything that sustains life. This will further deepen the vulnerability of our socio-ecological systems.

Any proposed amendments on any of our environmental legislation including this one, must strongly consider moving away from using phrases such as “biological resources” and “genetic resources” –  these are biological systems and genetic systems. Only when we see our environment and biodiversity by taking a systems view of life, will we see the relationships and interdependencies embedded in biodiversity: including that of food and health (of all living organisms) and livelihoods rather than as a commercial resource to “bring in more foreign investments in the chain of biological resources”.

There needs to be a strong and concerted pushback on the premise on which the amendments are being proposed, specifically Items 5 and 6 in the Statement of Objects and Reasons. Recognising the centrality of biodiversity in building, repairing, maintaining the integrity of earth processes and enabling socio-ecological resilience in the face of the planetary challenges must form the basis of any proposed amendment to the Biodiversity Act, 2002.

This is not an exhaustive clause-by-clause response to the proposed Amendment Bill, but here are some comments on select proposed amendments in light of what has been stated above.

Replacing the word “Diversity” with “Resources” in the title to Chapter II (from Regulation of Access to Biological Diversity to Regulation of Access to Biological Resources) clearly reinforces and emphasizes an economic, anthropocentric and extractive relationship with the environment. This proposed amendment seeks to provide a statutory instrument (together with several others proposed over the last 2 years) to systematically erode further, a socio-ecological, emotional, and reciprocal relationship with the environment. The rest of the amendments that stem from such a perspective will be aimed at enabling extractive processes, assertion of capital and see biodiversity as ‘natural capital’ rather than as an imperative to resilience of socio-ecological systems. How will the associated provisions that stem from such a perspective, serve to conserve and regenerate the environment to sustain future generations?

Amendment 17: In section 19 of the principal Act –  “(1) Any person referred to in sub-section (2) of section 3 who intends to access biological resource or associated traditional knowledge thereto for commercial utilisation, shall make an application to the National Biodiversity Authority, in such form and on payment of such fee, as may be prescribed.

What is the justification for dropping the following text (particularly the bolded) from the principal Act that includes “for research or for commercial utilisation or for bio-survey and bio-utilisation or transfer the results of any research relating to biological resources occurring in, or obtained from, India,” In reading this together with Items 5 and 6 from the Statement of Objects and Reasons provided in the Bill as introduced in the Lok Sabha it appears that the intent is to open up the country’s biodiversity to extractive and exploitative commercial processes in complete contravention of the stated objectives of the principal Act – conservation of biological diversity, sustainable use of its components and fair and equitable sharing of the benefits

Both in this proposed Amendment and in Amendment 30 in Section 41 of the principal Act the term ‘knowledge’ is proposed to be substituted with traditional knowledge. What is the rationale for this? Why use a limited definition of knowledge when, as discussed earlier, knowledge can be constructed from multiple sources and ways including lived experience?

Since monetising the life sustaining systems is the premise on which these amendments are constructed, it is not surprising that they demonstrate an emphasis on a centralised rather than a federated, decentralised approach in developing plans and strategies for biodiversity conservation and regeneration. With this approach how will the stated objectives of the Act “conservation of biological diversity, sustainable use of its components and fair and equitable sharing of the benefits(emphasis added) be achieved? How will fair and equitable sharing of benefits (a phrase that the draft Bill has proposed as amendments to be included at several points in the principal Act) be achieved without clear and explicit provisions to enable a community-led process, embedded in local contexts?

Radha Gopalan, Environmental Scientist & Educator

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