Wednesday, August 10, 2011
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How our natural common resources are being exploited for commercial gains

August 12, 2011: The National Biodiversity Authority (NBA) decides to take legal action against multinational seed firm Monsanto for accessing local varieties of eggplant and using it to develop genetically modified bt brinjal. Though the action may appear proactive, a news report in Mail Today newspaper detailed how NBA sat on the complaint for over a year and meanwhile processed a fresh application by the same company to 'access' indigenous germlines of onions.

NBA was established in 2003 to ensure that India’s biological resources do not become a casualty to development as forest and farm land are routinely scavenged for research and commercial purposes. However, over the last 8 years, the NBA has done little monitoring and instead legalised the exploration and extraction business with no real benefit to the environment or the community. Whatever little progress has been made by NBA can be attributed to a damaging audit report prepared by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) in March 2009 pointing out discrepancies in its functioning.

Since 2003, the NBA has done little monitoring and instead legalised the exploration and extraction business with no real benefit to the environment or the community.

According to information accessed by GOI Monitor through an RTI application, the promise of effective biodiversity conservation is merely lip service. For, the authority has not even been able to create a database of the country’s biological resources. India has only 2.4% of the global land area but boasts of 8% of the world’s biodiversity. A tenth of these species are already on the brink of extinction. Since 2006, the NBA has approved 91 applications for research and commercial purposes without any knowledge of whether the species being extracted are endangered or not. Thus all the approvals have been granted.

Since 2006, the NBA has approved 91 applications for research and commercial purposes without any knowledge of whether the species being extracted are endangered or not.

And here’s the cherry on the cake: the NBA has not even been able to notify the guidelines for access to biological resources and sharing of benefits with local community. So the approvals granted not only lack research but are also bereft of transparency. 

Who’s regulating?

The Biological Diversity Act envisages involvement of the local community in granting permission for extraction of a natural resource in their areas. For this, biodiversity boards were to be established at the state level and biodiversity management committees (BMCs) at the community level.

Even as 25 states have established these boards, only 13 have actually notified biodiversity rules. Also, in these states only 30,915 biodiversity management committees (BMCs) have either been formed or are in process of formation. The figure is barely around 13% of the over 2.4 lakh local bodies all over India. And if that’s not all, 99.7% of these committees don’t maintain people’s biodiversity registers (PBRs) which are to contain comprehensive information on biological resources and their traditional significance. It is these committees that are required to advise the NBA before granting approvals for commercial utilisation of biological resources. That explains why the NBA has next to no information on rare and endangered species that are being extracted to for commercial and research purposes.

No regulations for approval

The Biodiversity Act was formulated to ensure the judicious use of our biological resources. The right process to access a resource for minimal damage to the environment, third party transfer, transfer of research results, Intellectual Property Rights and sharing of commercial benefits with the local community were to be regulated to ensure equitable and sustainable usage. However, the NBA has not yet been able to notify the guidelines for any of the above mentioned tasks thereby not only putting a big question mark over the 91 approvals it has granted but also depriving the local communities of their legitimate share. Since 2006, the NBA has granted 16 approvals for access to bio resources, 10 for transfer of research results, 49 for intellectual property rights, 16 for third party transfer of the bio resource.

Conservation of biodiversity heritage sites was another task that was to be undertaken by the NBA in consultation with state governments. These sites were to be given special conservation status and protected from overuse and negligence. However, till now only Karnataka has notified 3 such sites. Two others in the state are in the process of being declared heritage sites. The report card of the rest of the 27 states is quite dismal. Only 10, including Uttarakhand, Punjab, Sikkim, Manipur, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand, have identified a total of 95 sites but there has been no further progress on it.

Slack on patents

India has rather been a laggard as regards protecting Intellectual Property Rights. Whether it’s neem, turmeric or basmati rice, authorities tend to wake up long after patents are issued in the name of foreign companies. One of the tasks of the NBA is to contest attempts to patent traditional Indian products by foreign countries. Till recently, the NBA did not seem to be too serious on this issue as well. How else would you explain the establishment of a legal cell to deal with such issues in July 2010, 7 years after the authority was established. As regards the legal cell, it has yet to scrutinise data related to IPRs and has not pursued a single case of illegal grant of IPR of any biological resource or associated knowledge obtained from India in an illegal manner.

Edited by Ruchi Nagar

See the documents accessed through RTI by GOI Monitor 

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