CHENNAI: The Union Environment Ministry tabled the Biological Diversity Amendment Bill, 2021, in the ongoing winter session of the Parliament on Thursday, without seeking public comments. Many fear the bill, if passed, will help companies duck ABS (Access Benefit Sharing) compliance.
TNIE has done a comparative analysis of the amendment bill and the existing BD Act, and found that certain provisions were decriminalised allowing companies, who commercially exploit the bio-resources and violate ABS guidelines, to walk free by paying a fine.
As per Section 58 of the existing BD Act, these offenses are cognizable and non-bailable. In the amendment bill, Section 58 is removed stripping the States of the power to punish the offenders. Maximum the State Biodiversity Board can do is slap Rs 1-5 lakh fine on the erring companies. In case of non-payment of fine or continuation of violation, an additional penalty may be imposed, not exceeding `1 crore. However, such a penalty will be decided by the adjudicating officer appointed by the Central government.
A senior officer in the Department of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change told TNIE State governments were not consulted before proposing such amendments to the BD Act. Official records accessed by TNIE showed over 650 companies/traders were accessing biological resources for commercial gains without paying ABS share to the TN Biodiversity Board, which was contemplating to issue legal notices and slap cases.
Ritwick Dutta, Founder of Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE) and a lawyer in the Supreme Court, told TNIE besides decriminalising crucial provisions, the amendment bill exempts registered AYUSH practitioners from the ambit of the law. “Majority of the AYUSH firms are registered under the name of the practising AYUSH doctors and excluding them could exempt their companies as well. This will leave a wide section outside the purview of the BD Act,” he said.
Union Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav, in the statement of objects and reasons, said the amendment bill was mooted in the backdrop of concerns raised by the stakeholders, representing the Indian system of medicine sector, seed sector, industry sector, and research sector. They urged to simplify, streamline, and reduce the compliance burden. “The principal aim of the amendment bill was to reduce the compliance burden and facilitate investment. Conservation of biological resources is the last priority. The Bill will undo all the efforts made in the last few years to implement the BD Act,” Dutta said.
Tamil Nadu-based environmentalist Dharmesh Shah, who is tracking ABS compliance in southern India, said the amendment bill has deleted bio-utilisation from the existing BD Act. “Bio-utilisation is an important element in the Act. Leaving it out may create the issue of bio-piracy. An array of activities like characterisation, inventorisation and bioassay, which are undertaken with commercial interest, may go undetected. Bio-utilisation refers to the use of biological resources for biotechnology. Deleting the use of biological resources for biotechnology is regressive,” Shah said.
Another contentious exemption was removing cultivated medicinal plants from the purview of the BD Act. From the interaction TNIE has with several Biodiversity Management Committees (BMCs), the major challenge in ensuring ABS compliance was tracking of the source of bio-resource as the sector is highly informal and unorganised. “If the new bill is passed, all AYUSH companies will conveniently claim they access the cultivated medicinal plants and refuse to pay ABS amount. No agency can certify whether the raw material used by companies came from the forest areas or cultivated lands,” a BMC member said.