The government recently submitted draft legislations to Parliament in order to modify laws regarding biodiversity conservation and wildlife preservation to ease business. This was in response to activists’ concerns that it could weaken environmental safeguards in the country.
The Biological Diversity Act Amendment Bill (Bill, 2021), was introduced in Parliament by Bhupender Yadav on 9 December. It provides exemptions for projects promoting Indian medical systems, also known under the name Ayush. It has been sent to a joint committee of parliament for further scrutiny.
The Wild Life (Protection) Amendment Bill 2021 was tabled by the government on December 17. This bill seeks to rationalise the wildlife protection schedules. It has also been referred by a parliamentary standing commission.
These draft laws are part of a series of reforms that the central government has made to improve processes related to infrastructure and development projects as well as environmental and forest approvals.
The government claims that the proposed modifications will effectively address the country’s current economic and ecological needs. However, legal experts worry that large-scale reforms could cause environmental problems. Activists stated that these modifications are being sought without the need for public comment, which is the norm when amendments to laws are up for consideration.
Minister Yadav stated that the Centre had sought comments on the forest conservation laws and that a consultation paper has been released to the states.
The environment and forest ministry published a consultation paper in October on amending the forest conservation laws to significantly improve forest governance in India. This included facilitating private plantations and drilling holes outside of forest areas for oil and natural gas exploration. The consultation paper suggested that forest land should not be used for national security and strategic projects.
To implement the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, the Wildlife Protection Act 1972 needs to be amended. Yadav stated that India is a party to CITES, and that we have international obligations. The amendments to the Bill on Biodiversity were referred by four government-constituted committees.
However, researchers and lawyers warned that some provisions in the draft laws made by Parliament could lead to weakening of environmental regulations.
The state board for wildlife’s standing committee is a derogatory step. It will be identical to the National Board for Wildlife’s Standing Committee. This has resulted in a situation where the national body rarely meets. All decisions are made only by a few members of the standing board, who are chosen by Ritwick Dutta, noted environmental lawyer. The purpose of the state board’s standing committee is to exclude vocal conservationists. The state minister in charge for forest and wildlife will now have all the power.
Dutta is also concerned by the proposed changes to the biodiversity law. One of the most significant changes in the proposed law is the ability for registered Ayush practitioners to access any biological resource and associated knowledge for commercial use, without having to give prior notification to the state biodiversity board.
Dutta recently wrote that the amendment was made with the sole purpose of providing benefits to the Ayush industry. The bill’s main purpose is to facilitate trade in biodiversity, not conservation, protection and knowledge of local communities. These amendments are totally contrary to the Biological Diversity Act 2002.
Kanchi Kohli, a legal researcher at Centre for Policy Research, a think-tank, stated that the amendment bills should be considered part of a larger scheme to redesign environmental regulation. This year, the environment ministry released several new policies to facilitate mining expansion and defense and security infrastructure.
The environment ministry will be required to do two things in 2021. Kohli stated that the ministry should first align its regulation with economic reforms initiated by the central government. Second, it must ensure compliance with international agreements, including those related to climate change or access to biological resources. To unlock natural resources, the government is redesigning environmental laws. This will allow for fewer ecological questions to be asked and reduce public involvement in decision-making.