On the seventy-third Republic Day, the Coalition for Environmental Justice in India (CEJI) rejected the Biological Diversity Act (BDA) Amendment Bill, 2021, alleging it violates people’s interests and futures.
Environmental, social justice and democratic organisations released the joint statement on January 26, 2022 for the withdrawal of the amendment Bill proposed by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC). Members said the law allows for corporate loot of natural resources.
“The Bill is a retrograde move, a brazen attempt to centralise control of India’s biodiversity conservation system and will turn biodiversity and bioresources into a lucrative field for profit maximisation by corporate and financial interests. This we are neither able to tolerate nor accept,” said members.
The MoEFCC proposed changes to the Biological Diversity Act 2002 on December 16, 2021. It then referred the Bill to a Joint Parliamentary Secretary (JPC) to review the suggestions. However, the JPC on January 16, 2022, invited comments/objections to the Bill only by the end of the month.
Instead of a short-notice call for comments, the CEJI urged the JPC to initiate nationwide consultation processes to improve BDA and its implementation, enabling participation of primary stakeholders of biodiversity and associated traditional knowledge in a manner accessible to them and in their language.
“In conducting such a deeply democratic consultation, the JPC could call upon state governments, local governments, NGOs and civil society to assist. This process will take time, but it is necessary that this time is invested now to safeguard India’s biodiversity,” the CEJI said.
Highlighting the importance of the 2002 Act, it pointed out that the BDA gives due significance to the Doctrine of Public Trust – enunciated as a law of the land by the Supreme Court – for declaring natural resources as possessions of India’s citizens that is only managed by the state as a trustee. It considers the Doctrine central to the successful implementation of the law.
Moreover, the Bill calls for further centralisation of powers, whereas the existing law called upon state and local governments for biodiversity conservation, protection and its sustainable use. IT also contradicts the Constitutional 73rd Amendment (Panchayat Raj) Act, 1992, the Constitutional 74th Amendment (Nagarpalika) Act, 1992, the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 and the Forest Rights Act 2006, said the CEJI. Accordingly, it also opposes many basic safeguards like the Principle of Intergenerational Equity, Precautionary Principle, Polluter Pays Principle.
“The proposed changes to the Act constitute a clear attempt to destroy sovereign rights and control that citizens have over their biodiversity, bio-resources and associated traditional knowledge. This right is particularly crucial for Adivasis, Dalits, farmers, fishers, vaids, hakims, nomadic and denotified tribes and other natural resource dependent peoples,” said the CEJI.
A deeply concerning aspect of the proposal is that it wants to take the BDA out of the prevailing environmental jurisprudence governed under the umbrella legislation Environment Protection Act, 1986. This means that all offences against the environment and associated rights that are considered criminal offences nowadays will be reduced to civil offenses.Similarly, it calls for dilution of the Biodiversity Management Committees mechanisms and suggests subordinating them to centrally controlled groups. This compromises their oversight to and access over bioresources. The CEJI alleged all this that only private corporations, MNCs and especially those companies involved in AYUSH industries will benefit from this.Moreover, the Bill erodes the prevailing autonomy of the National Biodiversity Authority by promoting the MoEFCC-appointed Member Secretary’s powers to be equal to the autonomous Chairperson. This would turn the autonomous institution into an executive appendage of the Ministry.
Environmentalists also asked the government to look at the issue in conjunction with regulations proposed under the Food Safety Standards Act, 2006 (FSSA) that also disregards India’s federal governance system.The FSSAI proposals allow for the free passage of genetically modified foods into India, despite a ministerial moratorium against such food trials and cultivation since 2010. Extending direct access to such imported food across India homogenises the diverse food cultures of the country.
“In this context we record our gravest concerns that the changes proposed in regulations under FSSA are in concert with essential abrogation of the BDA and the GMO RULES of 1989,” said experts.
Abuse of environmental laws and rights
The Act was enacted in response to India becoming a signatory to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity 1992 (CBD) as it “reaffirms the sovereign rights of the States over their biological resources.” This must be seen in the context of Article 39(b), part of the Directive Principles of State Policy, which clearly acknowledges “ownership and control of the material resources” is “of the community… so distributed as to best subserve the common good.” As per the Article 48(A), it is the government’s responsibility to “endeavour to protect and improve the environment and to safeguard the forests and wildlife of the country.”
Environmentalists condemned the central government’s decision to propose the Bill without consulting state governments, local governments or the wider public. It has also not been translated into any of the Scheduled languages of India.
This is a recurrent move that was previously employed when introducing changes to the Forest Conservation Act and the Draft Environment Impact Assessment Notification 2020. Both these documents were translated after nationwide public outcry and (in the latter’s case) the direction of the Delhi High Court.
The CEJI claimed that is done because such Bills propose significant and highly regressive changes which the government may not want the people to know of. Such amendments, especially in the case of the BDA, extend legitimacy to several cases of biopiracy actively under consideration of the judiciary. Such dilutions will make it near impossible to hold any individual or private corporation accountable for biopiracy or bio-loot in future.
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