Over biryani, India's biodiversity creates hot debate in Hyderabad

Hyderabad India is a hot spot for biodiversity, being a recognised mega-diverse centre of the world and holding about a tenth of the world's plant and animal species. Today, people's needs and greed both are leading to erosion of this precious gift of evolution.

At the same time, the country is home to 1.2 billion people or about 18 per cent of the world population and growing. Here, as both humans and wildlife jostle to survive in just 2.4 per cent of the globes land area, tensions are bound to happen and the loser is always biodiversity, even though humanity cannot survive without it. Some 12,000 experts from over 190 countries are deliberating in Hyderabad - over copious meals of biryani - how to save the world's gene pool as part of the ongoing Convention on Biological Diversity, hoping against hope to find the $400 billion needed to save the globe's Noah's Ark from sinking.

Pledging an additional $50 million over the next two years for biodiversity conservation in India, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in his inaugural address at Hyderabad said, "There is a realisation that ecosystem services form a much higher percentage of the "GDP of the Poor" than of classical GDP calculations. Biodiversity based livelihood options form the basis of rural survival in many parts of the world. Living at the periphery of subsistence, the poor are the most at risk from biodiversity loss. They should not also be the ones to bear the cost of biodiversity conservation while the benefits are enjoyed by society at large." Though, he lamented, "In recent years, it has become increasingly difficult to find common ground on environmental issues." The economist Prime Minister, in a startling revelation, said, "Over 1000 cases of biopiracy have been identified (in India) and over 105 claims withdrawn or cancelled by patent offices."

The last century has seen at least four animal species go extinct from India: The iconic Indian Cheetah, Lesser Indian Rhino, Pink-headed Duck and the Himalayan Mountain Quail. These were lost to human greed and habitat loss. Today, another 929 species are listed as threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), up from 648 in 2004. India's rank in the global shame list of nations struggling to protect its species diversity is 7, next to China.

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is one of the most widely subscribed United Nations treaties with 193 countries having signed and ratified it. The only hold out is, surprise-surprise, the oldest democracy of the world: United States of America which has not ratified the convention and keeping it good company is the newly formed youngest democratic state of South Sudan which gained independence in 2011. The American Senate has not ratified the CBD since 1994. Some suggest the US does not like the clause on 'fair and equitable sharing of benefits of global biodiversity' - an essential backbone the treaty. With India assuming the presidency of the Convention, New Delhi should make its best effort to bring USA on board. Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan has said, "She will be talking to the US about this."

Till date, according to the government's National Biodiversity Authority (NBA), only about 70 per cent of the country's area has been explored fully from which about 150,000 plants and animal species have been documented by science. The Ministry of Environment and Forests, meanwhile, acknowledges that a 'wide gap' exists in mapping all the species.

Who knows how many species are still to be found and the rate at which we are losing pristine ecosystems, some say the loss is comparable to burning unread books from the library of life. It may come as a surprise to many but as recently as 2005, a new species of monkey - the Arunachal Macaque - was discovered by Indian biologists from Arunachal Pradesh; it was the first new monkey species for the whole world in a century. According the Zoological Survey of India, in 2011, it reported 193 new species of animals from India. Meanwhile, 173 alien species have also insidiously invaded India, with some of them spreading like weeds which includes Lantana, Congress grass and an algae called Kappaphycus spreading rapidly in the pristine Gulf of Mannar, and allegedly imported by the soft drink giant Pepsico.

While India struggles to protect the tiger, lion, elephant and the rhino, outlandish schemes to reintroduce the Indian Cheetah from Africa are being actively hatched. Even as the country is unable to find an alternative home to house the lion, all eggs are vulnerably today held in one basket and Gujarat's 'pride' is coming in the way of establishing another 'pride of lions' at Madhya Pradesh.

It is not that the country is not making efforts to protect the life giving biodiversity. Today, 4.8 per cent of the geographical area falls under protected areas and the only sustainable hope for the survival of wild tigers in the world is in the forests of India, with 1706 adult tigers roaming all over India in 2011 - up from 1411 in 2006. According to the Environment Ministry, the country currently spends about $2 billion on biodiversity. Some results are showing the IUCN has this week removed the Lion Tailed Macaque from its list of 25 most endangered primates as its numbers have improved. Consequently, Ms Natarajan says, "India speaks from a position of strength as we need to balance economic development, poverty alleviation and protection of biodiversity."

Unfortunately, compared to land, coastal areas have not fared well with just 1 per cent of the area being protected by 2012 and as per India's submissions to the Convention on Biological Diversity, the number was to go up to 10 per cent. Some 13,000 species have been recorded as marine biodiversity from India. India coral reefs and fish numbers are highly threatened as many-many developmental projects like ports and power plants are coming up all over the 8,000 kilometre coastline.

India is the centre of origin for many crop plants including rice, a grain that feeds about 3 billion people worldwide or about half the world's population. The country is home to 50,000 different varieties of rice, many now found only in the high security frozen bomb proof vaults of the National Gene Bank in New Delhi. Indian wild lands have, over millennia, nurtured important plants like wild mangoes, tea, sorghum, millets, pulses and animals like buffaloes, donkeys and goats. A 2010 estimate by NBA suggests that the economic potential of exports from the country of Indian biodiversity is about Rs 8850 crore. This does not include the domestic consumption.

India today is typified of a landscape of tiny segregated islands of forests in a vast hinterland of agricultural fields. According to the Ministry of Environment and Forests, about 23.4 per cent of the country is covered by forests today. Unfortunately, a large part of it is vast mono cultures of plantations raised for meeting the never ending hunger for wood. The country had hoped to raise its forest cover to 33 per cent of land area but as Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan recently lamented, "The last forest cover assessment actually showed a decline."

Today, the fringes of forests are slowly being nibbled away as people's needs expand as a consequence India's natural heritage is slowly being bled to death. May be it is time to revive Mahatma Gandhi's philosophy: "There is enough for everyone's need but not for everyone's greed."

Story First Published: October 17, 2012 15:47 IST

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