Biodiversity law: Amend with caution

The Biological Diversity (Amendment) Bill, 2021, which was introduced in parliament last year and is being studied by a joint parliamentary committee now, has raised concerns among parliamentarians, experts and organisations that work for the protection and promotion of biodiversity. Some of them have expressed these concerns. A member of the parliamentary committee, Jairam Ramesh, has expressed his concerns in public so that there will be an open debate on the issues involved. Others have also pointed out deficiencies in the bill and made suggestions to improve its provisions. The bill seeks to amend the Biodiversity Act, 2002, which was legislated to give effect to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, 1992. The substantial aim of the law was to ensure sustainable, fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising out of the utilisation of biological resources and the traditional knowledge associated with it. The amendment bill is in the final stage of consultations now. 

One important point of criticism about the bill is that the exemption that it gives to AYUSH (Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy) practitioners from the provisions of the bill would make it liable to misuse. The bill provides for exemption for registered AYUSH practitioners and people accessing codified traditional knowledge from giving prior intimation to state biodiversity boards for accessing biological resources for certain purposes. Though a distinction is sought to be made between individual practitioners and companies, it is likely that companies will take advantage of this provision by using the practitioners as fronts. Such links already exist and therefore there will be exemptions on a large scale. The bill says its aim is to “simplify, streamline and reduce compliance burden” of the existing law, as several medical practitioners and others have complained that it is difficult to carry out research, investment and patent activities under the present law. 

Critics have illustrated the scope for misuse with an example. A company owned by Baba Ramdev was reportedly found to be in violation of the Biodiversity Act and was told to pay access and benefit-sharing fee for use of the biological resources from Uttarakhand for its ayurvedic formulations. The amendment would make it easy for companies to freely use such resources. There is criticism that the bill has decriminalised violations like bio-piracy and made them civil offences, adversely affecting its deterrent powers. While it is agreed that the biodiversity law needs review, the critics’ demand is that the changes should aim at sustainable use and conservation of biodiversity and not at meeting the needs of the industry. The parliamentary panel should take into consideration the criticisms and suggestions within it and those that come up in the wider debate outside. 

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