Biodiversity policy too restrictive, say scientists

A group of Indian scientists have published a scathing critique of the laws controlling biodiversity research in the country, saying it is too restrictive. They moot for improved standards as well as room for greater exchange with the international scientific community.

TV Padma at SciDev.Net, an excellent resource for discussions on science-related policy developments around the world, reports on an article in the latest edition of Bangalore-based Current Science by a group of scientists. She reports:

[The scientists say] India’s “draconian” rules on free exchange of biological samples could “totally isolate Indian biodiversity researchers and is akin to a self-imposed siege on scientists in the country”. India’s biodiversity rules, established in 2002, do not permit Indian scientists to deposit their specimens in international museums and stipulate that specimens must be kept in selected national repositories.

The original Current Science article, available here as a download, also highlights the miserable curatorial state of affairs in India. They urgently ask for a state-of-the-art institution at home, or at the very least allow for depositing resources in foreign repositories.

They acknowledge that the stringent regulations in place are essentially a defensive measure to prevent biopiracy and unauthorized access to biological material of Indian material, but dismiss these concerns as “baseless and irrational”, particularly in the case of exchanging specimens for taxonomy research. They say:

None of the natural history museums in the world is involved in patenting or profit-making ventures. Patenting is relevant only when the biological material has a commercial value and is readily available in large quantities for industrial use as in the case of neem, turmeric or basmati rice, whereas classical taxonomists use only dead specimens of no commercial value and that too in limited numbers.

The SciDev.Net report puts things in perspective:

M. Sanjappa, director of the Botanical Survey of India in Kolkata, told SciDev.Net that stringency is required to fight biopiracy in the country. “The law itself need not be changed [for research]. Instead one can enter into memoranda of understanding with individual countries of scientific groups,” Sanjappa says. He says several Indian institutes are already engaged in the exchange of plant specimens with the international network of herbaria developed by the Vienna-based International Association of Plant Taxonomy.

Now, I’m no scientist, but the scientists do seem to have a case of sorts. At least, I agree with them when they speak of the abysmal state of curatorial skills in India, particularly in re natural history. The problem with entering into MoUs is the long-drawn out bureaucratic details one has to survive, and I know of some scientists who have collapsed half-way through out of exhaustion! Surely, there has to be another option? The scientists draw attention to Brazil’s policy turnaround on biodiversity issues after its scientific community similarly protested. Do we see the potential for something similar here?


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