Mission impossible?

Mission impossible?  after three years the draft National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (nbsap) is finally up for discussion. But its real worth, feel experts, will only be known when the plan actually becomes a reality.

A Union ministry of environment and forests (mef) project, the nbsap began as an ambitious process in 1999. The programme was coordinated by Pune-based non-governmental organisation (ngo) Kalpavriksh and administered by Biotech Consortium India Limited (bcil). The Global Environment Facility funded the us $993,000 plan through the United Nations Development Programme.
The collation The wider purpose of the nbsap is "to produce an action plan that would ensure conservation of India's biodiversity, sustainable use of its biological resources and equity, and democracy in decisions regarding access to such resources and the benefits accruing from them'. A tall order for any programme in a country that is as diverse in its natural resources as in stakeholders involved in their upkeep and degradation.

The plan was meant to provide concrete ideas to deal with natural ecosystems, wild species and varieties of plants, animals and microorganisms. It was also supposed to look into agricultural ecosystems and domesticated species and varieties. The nbsap had to decide what direction to take on the following issues regarding this biodiversity: conservation, sustainable use, matters of equity (social, economic and political), and other ethical, cultural, scientific and economic dimensions.

To get the process underway, Kalpavriksh took on the gargantuan task of holding meetings at various levels with more than 50,000 people. Several scientists, activists, government officials, academics, representatives of ngos and other consultants participated. The exercise, which was originally proposed to be conducted for two years, had to be extended to three. The process led to the collating of 70 comprehensive state, sub-state and ecoregional plans. At the end of it, a draft national plan running into hundreds of pages has emerged.
Net result So what has the draft national plan come up with? Plenty. In fact, too much for some critics' liking.

The document contains eight chapters of detailed and painstaking collation. The last two chapters, being the operative part, are the most crucial. The seventh chapter presents strategies recommended and the actions suggested supporting these.

It suggests numerous actions to help conserve biodiversity: building a biodiversity atlas; monitoring the status of ecosystems throughout the country; integrating locally available foods into mid-day meals and other such government programmes; conserving threatened domesticated pet breeds; and declaring and protecting domesticated landscapes and agrobiodiversity hotspots ("Agro-Protected Areas').

The list, to say the least, is exhaustive. "From the pertinent to the inane, all ideas find space in the document. Unfortunately, some of them have been repeated so often that they have lost their meaning,' says a representative of an ngo. "These plans will work only if they are followed by action on the ground,' says P S Ramakrishnan, professor in the School of Environmental Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. "Any such exercise is welcome. But nbsap lacks the scientific rigour required to make it effective,' he adds (see box: Sizing it up ).

But those who have prepared the plan believe such criticism is misplaced. Kanchi Kohli of Kalpavriksh counters, "The scientific community was central to the process. Several of our coordinators were from various scientific institutions.'

Some experts involved in the project, however, concede off the record that hard science has been a casualty of the large participatory process. Ramakrishnan cites the case of how the plan approaches the problem of invasive plant and animal species: "It suggests the use of regular mechanisms. It proposes conversion of alien species into tools of economic value. All these are ideas that have been tested unsuccessfully. The plan wants to control alien species. One instead needs to manage them, regenerate the biomass of an invaded ecoregion to people's benefit.'

Legal framework
Some observers also point out that the nbsap will be undermined by the passing of the Biodiversity Act 2002 and the proposed amendment to the Wildlife (protection) Act, 1972. A senior bureaucrat in the mef says, "It takes great political will to transcend the system; these recently passed acts and proposed amendments only strengthen officialdom. The nbsap may be an honest venture but it's nearly impossible to convince a bovine ministry to overhaul itself, and that's exactly what this plan asks it to do.' Kohli agrees but says, "One needs to continually pursue and try for such a change.'

Ritwick Dutta, lawyer with Delhi-based ngo Environmental Justice Initiative, points out: "The amendment to the wildlife act quashes the efforts we made in reviewing the existing legal framework.' But Ashish Kothari, founder member of Kalpavriksh, exudes confidence: "The plan will ensure that changes in policies and acts in the future are more in line with biodiversity and livelihood concerns.'

But as Afifullah Khan, faculty member at the wildlife sciences department of Aligarh Muslim University points out: "The real worth of this document will only be realised when and if it is implemented. Till then it shall remain an example of thorough documentation and a storehouse of information and ideas.' As experts gather to give the finishing touches to the draft national plan between December 20 and 23 in Delhi, one can only hope that they chart out a realistic plan for implementation. Even if it works for only a handful of the proposed actions, the system may be shaken out of its ennui.

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