Strategy and inaction

Print edition : February 10, 2006

An aerial view of eastern Meghalaya showing mass destruction of forests. India has lost over half of its forest cover in the last two centuries. - RITU RAJ KONWAR

Environmentalists accuse the Ministry of Environment and Forests of gross mishandling of a report an action group prepared for the Ministry on biodiversity and related matters.

THE question is straightforward. Why is India's most comprehensive report on biodiversity and related matters suddenly a problem for the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) despite being commissioned by the Ministry itself?

The answer is far from simple and is mired in misconceptions and misrepresentations.

The report, titled Securing India's Future: The Final Technical Report of the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan, was completed two years ago. Four years of intensive field research went into compiling the final 800-page report. It is a unique effort not just in its comprehensiveness and size; the MoEF took the unusual move of giving the entire technical coordination of the report to a non-governmental organisation (NGO). Kalpavriksh, the 20-year-old environment action group handled the coordination along with a 15-member technical and policy core group. Funding for the project came from the Global Environment Facility through the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP) is an outcome of the Convention on Biological Diversity in which almost all countries agreed to have a national biodiversity strategy and action plan.

This highly participatory report, which involved over 50,000 people in various capacities, hammers home the point that biodiversity is the backbone of ecological and human security. Referring to India's biodiversity as mega diverse, the report says that India, with only 2.4 per cent of the world's landmass, is home to over 8 per cent of the world's biological diversity - it harbours over 137,000 species of plants and animals. The diversity of crops, livestock and pets is also one of the world's greatest. The maturity of the report lies in the fact that it establishes the connection between conserving biodiversity for its own sake and the fact that it sustains the lives and livelihoods of over 70 per cent of India's population.

The compelling need to implement the report is brought out by the following staggering facts:

In the last two centuries India has lost over half its forests, 40 per cent of its mangroves and a significant part of its wetlands. At least 40 species of plants and animals have become extinct, including the cheetah and the pink-headed duck, with several hundred more under the same threat. Crop and livestock breeds are not exempt either; all 18 indigenous breeds of poultry face the possibility of extinction.

The report is wide-ranging in its recommendations, which stem from an understanding that the greatest threats come from a destructive process of development. It weaves together the effects that everything, from traditional water harvesting to globalisation to a centralised political system, ultimately has on the biodiversity of the country.

At a mangrove on the outskirts of Mumbai. India is home to 8 per cent of the world's biological species. It harbours over 137,000 species of plants and animals.-PAUL NORONHA

Though the facts emphasise the urgent need for action on the report, it has gathered dust in the MoEF ever since it was submitted towards the end of 2003. The Ministry neither refuted nor approved the report. Exasperated by this, Kalpavriksh finally decided to make it public. A day after the report was made public the MoEF issued a press release rejecting the report. It said that a group of scientists appointed by it had called the report "scientifically invalid", thereby forcing it to start the entire process afresh.

The fact of the matter is that prior to its publication the report had been reviewed by a peer group whose suggestions had been incorporated in the final version. More important, an MoEF official had sat with the team for over two days going over the pre-final draft. Moreover, all earlier drafts had been publicly circulated by the MoEF itself with the Ministry's official name on the copies. In fact, those copies were referred to as the "Draft NBSAP".

There is undeniable confusion in the MoEF's mishandling of the report. When a question was raised in Parliament in November about developing the national biodiversity action plan, the Minister of State for Environment and Forests, Namo Narian Meena, said: "The first draft... has been discussed in the Ministry and the final draft has to be prepared, harmonising it with the provisions of the draft Environment Policy." The Minister's comment about the NBSAP working in conjunction with the National Environment Policy highlights the confused state of the MoEF. Kanchi Kohli, a member of the coordination team, explains why the Minister's statement is an impossibility: "That the NBSAP needs to be in line with the National Environment Policy was formally conveyed only at the Steering Committee meeting in January 2004 [after the report had been submitted]. The process of drafting of the Environment Policy was initiated much after the NBSAP process, which had started in 2000."

Soon after rejecting the report the MoEF reversed its actions and went ahead and submitted a slightly diluted version to the UNDP. Kalpavriksh's Ashish Kothari told Frontline: "I find it ironic that after giving those four or five examples of the problems with our report, the version given by the MoEF to the UNDP seems to retain at least three of them. I wonder how the MoEF suddenly does not find these statements to be embarrassing."

One possible explanation for the MoEF's flip-flop is that the Ministry is facing a deadline. All countries are expected to have an NBSAP in place by 2006. The next conference of parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity is this year. Ironically it was India that had suggested a 2006 deadline for having an NBSAP in place for all countries. Perhaps the Government of India has suddenly awakened to this reality.

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