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  • Writer's pictureAbhilash Khandekar

Saving biodiversity to save ourselves!

Updated: Oct 30, 2022

by Abhilash Khandekar

It is exactly 30 years ago that the first global summit on biodiversity protection was held in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. It came to be popularly known as CBD 1992 (Convention on Biological Diversity). The world had just woken up to aseries of threats the planet had started facing and the United Nations had then already organized the first Earth Summit in the same city just a few days ago.

In a way, 1992 was a watershed year for environment and nature across the world. Unfortunately, India required to be reminded by the UN agencies to conserve its centuries-old natural treasure of forests, medicinal plants, rivers, wildlife, birds, bees, butterflies, reptiles, grasslands, marine life and lakes. As a growing economy which was set to take a big leap of physical development in the coming decades, the year 1992 was just the right time to look inwards and start protecting the biological diversity India has been known for. But India took a decade to frame its own legislation and then came a landmark Biological Diversity Act 2002 (which actually commenced in 2003-04). Government constituted a statutory body by the name the National Biodiversity Authority (NBA) at Chennai around the time. Considering the widespread assault on the natural resources spread across the country, it was also imperative to set up state-level agencies which were formed in the shape of State Biodiversity Boards from 2005 onwards. But at the time of writing this piece, I am gripped with a lurking fear that even the provisions of the present Act may get diluted if the Union Government goes ahead with new amendments to water down some of the provisions of the Act. It would be unfortunate if that happens. It would be a great setback as the Parliamentary Committee formed to go into all this has completed a few rounds of discussions as part of its hearing with different stake holders in July 2022. It is being said that Biodiversity Management Committees (BMCs) would be affected adversely in the first step, if amendments go through.

Conserving the Urban Biodiversity: A daunting task! Instead of going in the background of the Act, it's tardy implementation etc I would like to focus on the conservation of urban biodiversity which I feel is a much more neglected area in our country by and large. Who is to blame? The authors of the Act or the implementation agencies or both? It is because no one is heard talking of protecting the urban biodiversity anywhere! My experience of conserving an unbanned wetland and its biodiversity has taught me a lot over the past 25 years. Unfortunately, as urbanisation is picking up at a frightening speed in our country, I see cities turning brown and desertification is increasing on the fringes which needs to be addressed quickly by all concerned. According to State of the World's Trees report (Sept 2021) by Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI), there are 17, 510 tree species threatened, of the total 58,497 known species in the world. A dangerous trend in times of climate crisis, that is here to stay. And what is the status in India? Here, the report quotes, a total of 413 tree species are facing extinction, of the 2608 varieties found in India (Indo-Malaya and Palearctic region.) There is no need, I suppose to explain the importance of trees here or the role they play in absorbing carbon emissions. In addition, or as a corollary, traditional and modern water sources have begun to dry up fast. Aquatic diversity is also facing problems. All these are intrinsically linked to each other and cannot be separated. And that is precisely impacting the biodiversity in our ever-expanding cities directly. But no one seems bothered! Cities are burning beyond expectation and still they are turning more and more barren over the years. I would like to state here that MP CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan, is the only politician with some stature who is planting a tree-a-day and has tried to make it a popular movement in the State for people to come forward and plant trees on their own. But then such examples are very few and far between. Before conceiving the idea of an urban biodiversity conference, I spoke to at least 10 present and past municipal commissioners and almost all of them agreed that it was something that they could never look into during their tenures despite their good intentions. Although the Act mandates maintaining Peoples’ Biodiversity Registers (PBR) by local self-governments at all tiers--three or four, it has not been done in most states. I checked in Madhya Pradesh, where the scenario is not very satisfactory but in Gujarat some work has been done. It was thanks to the petition in the National Green Tribunal(NGT) by one Chandra Bal Singh which helped activate the MoEFCC and others in 2016 as the performance and implementation of the BDA (Biodiversity Act)were very dismal then. We can take the example of Chennai or Bengaluru lakes or the once-beautiful gardens and hillocks of Pune city or talk of any city in Uttar Pradesh and we have the answers. Everywhere we see a depressing situation with mounting population numbers and unchecked encroachments. Why can't municipal officials act on illegal encroachments that shrink a wetland area or why development authority officials do not use their authority to save old trees in the cities? Is there anyone who is actively involved in protecting birds or butterflies in our big cities in the official set-up? I would like the newly elected Mayors of MP to commit themselves to the cause of urban biodiversity conservation. The Biodiversity Act was brought in some 20 years ago only to save all this and many other natural resources mentioned above. It is our duty to mount pressure on the authorities to save the precious biodiversity. The root cause lies in the system of city governance. The Smart Cities, started with much fanfare, have actually proved to be counter-productive because in many cities they were found cutting trees ruthlessly in the name of retrofitting etc. The Municipal Corporations, the development authorities and other agencies are only involved in firefighting or listening to the political masters in their efforts of governing cities. Urban biodiversity conservation is not at all their priority. A former forest officer who was a Member Secretary (executive head) of the State Biodiversity Board conceded that nothing much (encouraging) was happening in the board and it was just a decorative piece in government's monolithic system. I am, however, told that in Kochi or in Hyderabad, Delhi-based organisation ICLEI-South Asia is working on drawing up a City Biodiversity Index, the way Singapore had done some two decades ago. If that works well, perhaps some indicators would be available about loss of biodiversity in our cities and how to check them. National Institute of Urban Affairs (NIUA), of late, is preparing to train municipal officials and has made training manuals and WWF has worked in Nagpur and other cities. Such development holdshope for the future. The State Biodiversity Boards were to formulate State Action Plans and help local bodies maintain biodiversity registers, form committees and undertake training on how to conserve traditional knowledge strewn all over. Not much has been happening on that front, barring in few states where exemplary work has taken place. Like protecting forests, protection of biodiversity can't be left to Biodiversity Boards alone. Other agencies and people must also come forward. Why are the municipal corporations not responsible for conserving urban lakes, large parks, trees, birds and shrubs in the city? Do they have the professional competence? Do the urban agencies' officers and heads sympathise with trees and wetlands beyond their call of duty? Do local governments have funds enough to undertake massive biodiversity protection drives with a clear focus? Or they are only meant for constructing and constructing unendingly and making cities unliveable and barren? Do urban planners think of green causes and keep certain grounds/fields open for decades in their planning process like the no-go areas? Are open lands, grass lands, small ponds, wild growth pockets in cities an eyesore for our private developers? We hope to find answers to all, or some of them, in this conference. I also feel, district collectors can do a lot. If they wish, they can turn around cities, they have the power. What is missing, perhaps is the willingness and capacity-building of the concerned officials. We were always taught to appreciate and preserve beautiful trees, fragrant flowers, chirping birds and large parks which have tremendous aesthetic value and cultural importance in this country a few years ago. Today there are no takers for trees, much less for birds, bees and butterflies in urban areas. The Biological Diversity Rules 2004 stipulate that every local body shall constitute a Biodiversity Management Committee (BMC) within its jurisdiction (Under Section 22). But have they been formed all over the country? Especially in urban areas? My inquiries reveal that urban biodiversity actually has no takers and therefore shoddy implementation of the Act's provisions. The CBD had categorically stated in 1992 that conservation of biological diversity, sustainable use of the components of the biodiversity and fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising out of the genetic resources were the objectives of CBD. It had also hoped that "conservation of biodiversity would be a common concern of the population". In fact,2011-20 was celebrated as the Decade of Biodiversity by UN When we look back, nothing of that has been achieved in these years and resultantly urban biodiversity is under severe threat. Some senior officials in the government tell me that engineers, contractors and various construction agencies’ heads just don’t understand the importance of urban biodiversity, and they have been almost fully unaware of the Central Act. In this background, TNV organised on 5th and 6th August 2022 the 1st National Conference of Urban Biodiversity Conservation (NCUBC) at Indore, the commercial capital of Madhya Pradesh. Many experts deliberated on this serious issue and saw if our cities could have their own 'green future'. An 'Indore Declaration' was also released on 6th August, thus rolling out an important debate on issues on which Government and people have to act fast and meaningfully in a given time frame. Hope they do! ----- The Author is the Vice President of TNV, a founder member. A senior journalist and Director of NCUBC-2022 at Indore.

He can be contacted at: & @Abhikhandekar1

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