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Ashish Kothari & Kanchi Kohli: A plan missing in action

Ashish Kothari & Kanchi Kohli  |  New Delhi 

The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) recently released India’s National Biodiversity Action Plan (NBAP). India is one of the world’s mega-diverse countries, containing an immense range of ecosystems and species, which form the basis of our very survival. However, nearly 10 per cent of our wild plant and animal diversity is sliding towards extinction, and a substantial portion of our original forests, wetlands, coastal and grassland habitat has already gone or is under severe pressure. With that, the livelihood of tens of millions of people too is threatened.

Any planning exercise relating to biodiversity, needs to assess its current status, the threats it faces, the actions already being taken, and what more needs to be done. Based on such an understanding, it must provide a comprehensive set of strategies, actions, along with steps, timelines and responsibilities. Does MoEF’s NBAP do this?

It certainly started off with this intention. From 2000 to 2003, the MoEF commissioned a Technical and Policy Group (TPCG) consisting of civil society and government experts, to prepare the action plan. A million-dollar grant was obtained by the MoEF for this purpose, from the Global Environment Facility (GEF), through the UNDP. The TPCG carried out one of India’s most widespread planning exercises, involving tens of thousands of people. The outcome was a draft action plan [called the Final Technical Report (FTR)] and over 70 state, local, eco-regional, and thematic plans. These outputs, however, fell prey to the government’s larger design of unbridled economic growth. Its recommendations for re-orienting the economy, and the governance of natural resources, were too radical for the powers that be. The FTR, meant to be the basis of India’s biodiversity strategy and action plan, was shelved, and hardly figures in the final NBAP.

The NBAP is based on the principles laid out in the country’s National Environment Policy (NEP), 2006. A highly-contested document, the NEP accords privilege to ‘development’ over conservation.

The NBAP contains 140 ‘actions’ for: Conservation of biodiversity in the wild, on farms and off-site, augmentation and sustainable use of bio-resources, managing alien species, dealing with climate change, integrating biodiversity into development, tackling pollution and toxics, building up databases, taking policy and legal measures, developing capacity and using appropriate technologies. Seen in itself, the NBAP could be taken as being a useful statement of intent.

But most of the NBAP’s ‘actions’ are only broad strategies at a level of generality that makes them impossible to implement. Shockingly, 40 per cent of these are picked up verbatim from a Macro-Level Strategy on Biodiversity that the MoEF published in 1999. It is, as if nothing was learnt in the interim 10 years for a number of key sectors. For instance, the NBAP makes a crucial recommendation to “integrate biodiversity concerns across development sectors (such as industry, infrastructure, power, mining, etc)”, but there is no elaboration of how integration can be achieved in each of these sectors. This is what the million-dollar GEF/UNDP grant was for…not to reproduce something already said years back. This is what the FTR did, outlining over 100 strategies and 300 speciic actions…but the NBAP largely ignores these.

Some of the new strategies added are highly questionable. For instance: “Ensure that survey and bioprospecting of native economically important biological resources is undertaken on a priority basis.” This is alarming in a situation where Indian biodiversity is already subject to heavy piracy, as witnessed in the turmeric, basmati, and neem-related patents by American entities. This is coupled with an unquestioning acceptance of modern biotechnology. The FTR had recommended a long-term, publicly transparent processes of determining whether we should go in for such technologies; this is ignored in the NBAP.

The NBAP is now India’s official stand, to be placed in the international arena. But it is a document designed to remain a non-starter, given its lack of specificity and the absence of public participation in its formulation. Most seriously, it ignores many innovative actions recommended in the FTR, such as eco-regional land-use planning and governance, ways to make economic sectors ecologically more sensitive, promoting agricultural biodiversity and food security through locally-managed foodgrain distribution systems, and others, that could have opened a path towards a more ecologically sustainable and equitable future.

The authors are members, Kalpavriksh Environmental Action Group

First Published: Fri, March 13 2009. 00:05 IST