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Why is the Biological Diversity Amendment Bill 2021 causing disquiet among legal experts?

The Biological Diversity Amendment Bill 2021, which was submitted in the Lok Sabha on Thursday, exempts Ayush practitioners from the Biological Diversity Act, 2002, and allows the Indian traditional medicine sector easier access to biological resources and traditional knowledge. Legal experts, however, have expressed reservations that the Biological Diversity Amendment Bill 2021’s proposed relaxation of Ayush sector regulations could be harmful to the environment and go against the notion of sharing commercial benefits with indigenous populations.

The Biological Diversity Act of 2002 was enacted to promote biological diversity protection and a fair and equitable distribution of monetary advantages derived from the commercial utilisation of biological resources and traditional knowledge. Now, the Biological Diversity (Amendment) Bill, 2021, seeks to reduce pressure on wild medicinal plants by encouraging medicinal plant cultivation; exempts Ayush practitioners from notifying biodiversity boards for accessing biological resources or knowledge; facilitates fast-tracking of research, simplifies the patent application process, and decriminalises certain offences; and attract more foreign investments in biological research.

Concerns from the Ayush medicine, seed, industrial, and research sectors were expressed in the bill, with the government being urged to simplify, streamline, and decrease the compliance burden in order to create a suitable environment for joint research and investments. They also wanted to make the patent application process easier, expand access, and share benefits with local communities. In most of the cases, this is a certain percentage of the sale price.

Legal experts have criticised this bill as, according to them, it was proposed without a public consultation period, as required under the pre-legislative consultation policy. However, a senior official of the ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change has said that the bill has only been introduced and the environment ministry will publish the bill for public comments and a month’s time will be given to respond.

Ritwick Dutta, an environmental lawyer, says that the bill also exempts cultivated medical plants from the Act’s reach, but it is practically impossible to determine which species are produced and which are wild. Under the Act’s access and benefit-sharing provisions, this clause could allow huge corporations to avoid the need for prior approval or to share the benefit with local communities.

Jairam Ramesh, a Rajya Sabha member and former environment minister, wrote to the Lok Sabha speaker on December 17 denouncing the Bill's referral to a ‘select committee’ rather than the usual standing committee under the environment ministry.

- Nashrah Fatma

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