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Citizens Could Save India’s Environment, If A 15-Year-Old Law Is Used Well

Manu Moudgil,
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A view of the forest in Pondi village, Madhya Pradesh, that locals revived by studying the status of various plant species and extraction practices. India’s attempt to preserve its biodiversity through the 15-year-old Biological Diversity Act–which aims to preserve the environment through the participation of the local population–is yet to yield results.

 

Baiga Chak (Dindori district), Madhya Pradesh: As time progressed, Baiga Chak–the officially recognised traditional habitat of the Baiga tribe known for its myriad species and their inclusion in the local diet, lifestyle and healthcare–started losing its biodiversity. A nonprofit, the National Institute of Women, Child, and Youth Development (NIWCYD), established “forest study groups” in various villages in 2005. The approach was unique: Instead of getting experts to research on the changing ecosystem, villagers were trained not only to analyse the situation but also to suggest conservation plans.

 

In short, they were to become citizen scientists.

 

Study group members spoke to village elders, made a list of the biodiversity of the area, and noted practices that were burdening the environment. “We were able to convince people that saving the forest is in our interest as it will stop providing us food, wood and medicines, if we don’t change our practices,” Ram Prasad, 25, a farmer and member of the forest study group, told IndiaSpend. “The study also informed us that over-exploitation and faulty extraction was leading to this drop in forest quality,” said 29-year-old Kisan Lal Pasgaiyan, a member of the forest study group in Pondi village.

 

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Ram Prasad, a member of a study group that recorded the bio wealth of the forest, digging out a tuber in the forest of Pondi village, Madhya Pradesh. “We were able to convince people that saving the forest is in our interest as it will stop providing us food, wood and medicines, if we don’t change our practices,” said Ram Prasad.

 

The study groups presented their finding to the gram sabhas (village committees) and what followed was a plan to stop cutting of trees and burning of the forest floor. Patrols were set up and fines imposed on violators. The forest department faced resistance when it cut trees and now consults villagers before felling them.

 

If implemented well, the 2002 Biological Diversity Act–which aims to preserve the environment through the participation of the local population–could help protect India’s environment. But, 15 years after the law was enacted, it is yet to yield results, with only 2.2% of local government bodies documenting their biodiversity, according to data from the National Biodiversity Authority.

 

India has 7-8% of the world’s known plant and animal species, living together with 18% of the world’s human population. Not only is biodiversity important to sustain life, in India, millions are directly involved in ecosystem-based occupations such as farming, fishing, horticulture and forest-based industries.

 

Dramatic changes in habitats and lifestyle challenge this coexistence, with 1,065 species under threat in India, according to the 2017 “Red List” of threatened species published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. This is an increase of 7.8% from 2014, when the number of threatened species was 988.

 

The Biological Diversity Act calls for biological management committees (BMCs) as part of all local bodies, including municipalities and panchayats, and the preparation of people’s biodiversity registers (PBRs) involving the local population. These registers should have information on local biological resources, their uses, including medicinal, and any other associated traditional knowledge.

 

The idea behind this exercise is that knowledge of the biodiversity of a region would lead to its conservation and the sustainable use of natural resources. PBRs can also be a good means to preserve traditional knowledge, ensure revenue generation at the local level, and conserve ecosystem-dependent occupations.

 

In Baiga Chak, for instance, the study groups found that Bamboo, Amla (gooseberry), Char (Buchanania Cochinchinensis), Tendu (Diospyros melanoxylon), Mehul (Bauhinia vahlii), and many more useful species were declining. Many villagers would cut down the whole tree instead of just taking the fruits or flowers. They would also light a fire to get rid of bushes which would make certain areas inaccessible, the group found.

 

“In addition, the forest department preferred Sal over other species for its timber,” said Pasgaiyan, the study group member. “Routine axing of trees by the department to encourage regrowth would also kill vines spread over them and falling trees crushed seedlings.”

 

Once conservation methods were implemented,  several floral varieties flourished, and the basket of forest produce expanded. “Many people earn extra income by selling produce like mushrooms, Mehul and Tendu leaves which have spread to larger area, all thanks to the study and subsequent actions taken by the villagers,” said Balwant Rahangdale of NIWCYD.

 

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Mehul, the largest creeper of India, had become scarce in the forest of Pondi village, Madhya Pradesh. It is now abundantly available thanks to efforts of villagers who studied the bio wealth of their area and implemented conservation practices.

 

The PBRs could also help achieve one of India’s national biodiversity targets for the year 2020–to make a significant proportion of the country’s population, especially the youth, aware of the value of biodiversity, use resources sustainably and conserve the environment.

 

How a biodiversity register could help conservation

 

A high rate of population growth and increased pace of industrialisation and urbanisation have led to the over-extraction of natural resources, disruption of wild habitats, concretisation of the landscape and contamination of natural resources. We consume 2.75 times the natural resources than India’s bio-capacity or, the ability to generate renewable resources and absorb waste, according to the 2017 report by the Global Footprint Network, a US and Switzerland-based independent think tank that develops and promotes tools for sustainability. Indians will consume more and more resources as wealth grows and consumption rises.

 

“Knowing their ecosystem will be the real empowerment of the people at the grassroots,” according to Madhav Gadgil, an environmentalist and emeritus scientist at the National Centre for Cell Science, Savitribai Phule Pune University.

 

The Biological Diversity Act puts the baton of conservation in the hands of people at the grassroots through BMCs and biodiversity registers. Though people have been preserving this knowledge in written, oral and other folk forms for centuries, PBRs come with legal and scientific backing. For instance, “a biodiversity register can be used to challenge shoddy studies done by industries to get environmental clearances for their projects”, said Gadgil who was part of the committee that drafted the Act and prepared the manual for PBRs.

 

The register can also help people earn money as BMCs can levy a fee on anyone collecting a biological resource, like medicinal herbs, for commercial purposes. Local people are also entitled to get a share of the profit companies make through the use of a biological resource or local knowledge.

 

Source: National Biodiversity Authority

 

Slow implementation of the law puts the environment at risk

 

Till July 2017, only 62,502 or 26% of the 240,000 local bodies in India had BMCs. And only 5,466 or 2.27% of these BMCs had prepared biodiversity registers.

 

At many places, state boards prepared the biodiversity registers without the participation of local BMCs, by involving college students, university teachers and non-governmental organisations, said a 2012 study of three states by Kalpavriksh, a non-profit working on environmental and social issues, and the Foundation for Ecological Security, a non-profit working on nature conservation.

 

“In most states, preparation of biodiversity registers has become a target-driven exercise,” Kanchi Kohli, who works with Kalpavriksh, and was one of the researchers of the study, told IndiaSpend. “Involving NGOs and students can be a good awareness exercise, but should not come at the cost of local participation because that impacts the veracity of the document and its functionality.”

 

Involvement of locals is also essential for continuous monitoring and evaluation of the ecosystem. “A technical expert leaves after preparing the PBR but it’s the locals who will use and manage the resources,” said Balakrishna Pisupati, former chairman of the National Biodiversity Authority. “The main aim of the Act is to equip them with enough knowledge so they can routinely review the bio wealth. But several state biodiversity boards are treating PBRs like project reports which need to be finished and stacked in the office.”

 

“Different states have used different approaches and hence quality of PBRs also differ. Capacity building at the grassroots has been a big challenge,” said a senior official of the National Biodiversity Authority, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Still there are many instances where PBRs have led to conservation of traditional cattle breeds and crop varieties among others.”

 

Source: National Biodiversity Authority

 

In Madhya Pradesh, which has the maximum BMCs (23,406) among all states, only 890 biodiversity registers have been prepared, and most are yet to be used. “We are still at a nascent stage,” R Sreenivasa Murthy, member secretary of the Madhya Pradesh State Biodiversity Board told IndiaSpend. “Though we have got biodiversity registers in certain BMCs, the management and conservation aspects based on the findings are lagging.”

 

Another senior official of the board said funding was a major issue. “It is not easy to build people’s interest in biodiversity management. Sustained awareness programmes are needed for which the National Biodiversity Authority should allocate more funds,” the official said on condition of anonymity.

 

Gadgil disagreed, explaining that fund shortages are just excuses for not implementing the law. “If people are made aware about provisions of collection fee and benefit sharing, they will happily get involved,” he said. “Conservation can’t be a standalone activity. It should make commercial sense to the locals.”

 

The NBA’s guidelines for operationalisation of BMCs suggests a maximum expenditure of Rs 115,000 for a village-level BMC, Rs 150,000 for block-level and Rs 230,000 for a district-level BMC to prepare PBRs. The authority also suggests state boards access funds from state governments and central government schemes related to local governance.

 

Of all states, Kerala has been the most successful in getting funds. “While all states look up to (the) NBA for funds, we were able to get Rs 13.97 crore from panchayats, municipalities and corporations,” Oommen V Oommen, former chairman of the Kerala Biodiversity Board, told IndiaSpend. “This was because people and officials understood the value of biodiversity. It also helped generate a feeling of ownership at the grassroots.” Kerala has 1,200 civic bodies of which 1,034 have BMCs. Of these, 854 (82%) have biodiversity registers.

 

Source: Annual Reports of National Biodiversity Authority
Note: The figure for 2009-10 is not available

 

How biodiversity management committees can work better

 

The Biological Diversity Act emphasises the involvement of local people through the preparation of PBRs. Already prevalent local beliefs and customs related to the environment should be promoted to emphasise the value of biodiversity in food security, health and livelihood, said Balwant Rahangdale of NIWCYD.

 

BMCs should not be the exclusive domain of six-seven members, and need to involve as many local people in the consultation and decision-making process, suggested Mohan Hirabai Hiralal of Vrikshamitr, a non-profit. The draft of people’s biodiversity register should be presented during gram sabhas (village committees) to ensure that the information collected is comprehensive, he added.

 

Most importantly, the exercise should not end with only the documentation of biodiversity; it must lead to conservation and management plans, made possible through the involvement of locals, said Kanchi Kohli.

 

One example of how citizen participation can conserve the environment comes from the village of Mendha Lekha in Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra, which recorded and tracked its biological wealth in 2004. One of the major outcomes of the exercise was the realisation that the number of fish species in Kathani river, that passed through the village, had declined.

 

“Villagers had started using poison for fishing that had adversely affected the fish population. When the findings were presented before the gram sabha (village committee), the village unanimously decided to go back to the traditional way to catch fish,” said Hiralal of Vrikshamitr, which guided the villagers. The knowledge was shared with the ilakha, an area council of 32 surrounding villages, which also banned the poisons used to kill fish, resulting in revival of 59 of 64 fish species.

 

Further, BMCs should be encouraged to generate their own funds by levying a fee on the collection of bio resources, said Madhav Gadgil. State boards should be able to access funds meant for panchayats and municipal bodies, either through consultations at the level of government departments, or by encouraging people to demand that the government allocate money to state boards, said Oommen V Oommen.

 

The state biodiversity boards need to be helmed by subject matter experts, said Pisupati. In a few states, chief ministers or ministers are appointed as chairpersons of the biodiversity boards, even though the Act says the chairperson should have relevant experience in the field of conservation, sustainable use of biological diversity and in matters relating to the equitable sharing of benefits. In other states, Indian Administrative Service or Indian Forest Service officers occupy key positions.

 

“Past experience has shown that when subject matter specialists with independent charge are appointed as chairpersons, like in Kerala and Maharashtra, the functioning of boards is more effective. Such provisions are envisioned in the Act,” Pisupati said. Currently, only West Bengal Biodiversity Board has a subject matter specialist as chairperson, according to this National Biodiversity Authority list.

 

(Moudgil is an independent journalist. This story is published with support from the Trans Disciplinary University (TDU)-Nature India Media Fellowship. Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily represent views of TDU or Nature India.)

 

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