Exercise in non performance

  • 30/12/1995

Union minister of commerce P Chidambaram's statement Raiva Sabha, that a multi- disciplinary committee has been up'by the government to prepare a regulatory framework implementing the biodiversity convention in India, had like a glimmer of light at the end of a dark tunnel.

The need for such a body can hardly be overstressed. The ention, which seeks to protect the world's genetic rux.,Ln:es of plants and animals, upholds the sovereign rights Va nation over its natural resources. In other words, the rul government has full authority to set up structured nLsms to negotiate trading of its plants and germplasms. i-ne honourable minister's announcement raised hopes titans who walk the corridors of power have at last to the fact that something needs to be done to stop, illu-pt control, the indiscriminate culling of our biological meowurr-trove by foreigners - be it scientists from prestigious institutions or agents of multinational companies.

Butthe euphoria was shortlived. Chidambaram's state- setmed to have thrown his ministry in a state of com Sm-ilderment. Any attempt made to secure more infor on this much-awaited committee was equivalent to one.s head against the wall. None of the senior offi am- c prepared to comment on it.

Wor4m er, while pursuing the issue, the represenhe Centre for Science and Environment on to an astounding fact. She was that the committee has been in operation iw rwo years, and that it consists of a panel comprising scientists, environmentalists, and economists. But the exact details :V Provided immediately as they had to be form files.

hr :: " :omforting to know that a team of kwwt @ccn keeping a vigil on the outflow of M re-A)-urces, it is rather disconcerting to a dkv functions have, quite inexplicably, pv=m&v wraps. Why was not the public kept dibow dw regulatory programmes that this pm9wwd to undertake, or perhaps has JApe*W_ Surely, they had a right to know! b6fiow. and the indigenous communities gwwvsrr4 improved and developed the resources for mmad on whose behalf the government is supposed 1 p6mw# m the first place. Ow we grasp the significance of such committees. ft *t 0obal context, they have a tremendously a wit to pL&,6- Importantiy so in the case of the lndk South- The world's biodiversity exists mainly in L&Kht'd awal- in its tropical forests, wildlands and bw *t era. it has been appopriated by the Northern agricultural systems and later, by the multinational biotech industries. And it has been acquired free of cost.

It is only as late as in the '70s that the developing countries began to realise the mindboggling scale of such biological appropriation. And they began to assert their claim, their right to exploit and benefit from the resources they have so painstakingly conserved. The world community was also sensitised to the extent of deprivation suffered by the indigenous communities, the farmers and the tribals. The corporate giants, who do not just collect plants but also pinch traditional knowledge from the local people, patent the bio-materials and reap enormous profits from it, while the farmer's non-patentable contributions in identifying and cultivating plant varieties remain largely ignored.

Now, however, their contribution has been formally recognised in international fora. The governments of the concerned nations now shoulder the responsibility of playing the role of a watchdog, to ensure that the indigenous communities are no longer taken for a ride.

Therefore, government-sponsored committees such as the one under discussion are supposed to be acting as negotiators on behalf of the people. Their activities should be made as transparent as possible, so that the people too get to participate in the process of negotiation. And if the committee has really been functioning for the last two years, it appears to have achieved precious little during the period. We can take the neern plant as a test case to prove this point. Within the span of three to four years, a deluge of patents have been issued on the extracts of neem, and 90 per cent of the patent holders are multinational companies. The companies have been making a neat packet by developing on the traditional knowledge of our farmers, but no visible initiative has been taken by our government to ensure that there is at least some reverse flow of profits.

The importance of appointing an expert team for monitoring the trade of genetic resources is further enhanced by the fact that our legal system hardly provides any protection on this front. And the miserably inadequate Indian patent law is hamstrung, goes back and forth in Parliament, while the so-called representatives of the people still fail to agree on a common format.

So, it is high time that our ministers took a more in-depth view of the issue, followed by decisive action. Or else, as Darrell Posey, the eminent ethnobiologist puts it, "mining of the riches of indigenous knowledge will become the latest and ultimate neo-colonial form of exploitation of indigenous peoples."

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