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[NEW DELHI] The Indian Parliament has approved a biodiversity law that seeks to make it more difficult for foreign companies to exploit its biological resources.

The government argues that the bill, which promotes conservation and protects traditional knowledge through a three-level regulatory structure, provides important safeguards against misuse of India’s biological resources by multinational corporations.

But many environmentalists are unconvinced about how effective the legislation will be. They complain that the bill is too weak, and argue that it will serve simply to increase bureaucracy.

The new law will create a National Biodiversity Authority in Chennai, as well as state biodiversity boards and local biodiversity management committees.

It also imposes a prison sentence of up to five years, or a fine of US$20,000, for those who export biological resources for research or commercial use, who seek patents abroad on inventions based on Indian biological resources, or who transfer the results of Indian research on biological resources abroad without approval.

Indian environment minister T R Baalu says the legislation will provide an acceptable form of access to genetic resources and associated knowledge by foreign companies and institutes. It also paves the way for equitable sharing of benefits from these resources by local communities, he says. India has been the focus of some contentious patents in the past, for example on turmeric and basmati rice.

“It is a step in the right direction," says Ashish Kothari, head of the technical committee for the National Biodiversity Strategy Action Plan, which is to be announced shortly. "The bill gives the framework to strictly regulate the transfer of Indian resources and knowledge and to reduce biopiracy. It's now up to the government and citizens to use it proactively.“

But critics say that the three-tier management structure is confusing, and will increase the amount of bureaucracy. "By adding committee upon committee and board upon board, it has simply added more bureaucracy to the process and [will] alienate local people," says Vandana Shiva, director of the Uttar Predesh-based Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology.

Suman Sahai, head of Gene Campaign, a research and advocacy organisation in New Delhi, argues that the bill will only create more confusion by either duplicating or contradicting existing laws such as the Forest Conservation Act and the Environment Protection Act. She says, for example, that it is unclear how the proposed biodiversity heritage sites will be demarcated or financed, or how they relate to existing protected areas and national parks.

Sahai says the bill is also inadequate in terms of intellectual property rights, as it does not take a clear stand on the kinds of patents that should be allowed on biological materials.

The bill's major weakness, its critics argue, concerns access to and use of indigenous resources and knowledge by foreign companies and institutes. The bill stipulates that the National Biodiversity Authority will deal with access by foreigners. But a clause that access restrictions for foreign institutes will not apply to research collaborations approved by the federal government may turn into a loophole, cautions Shiva.

Both Baalu and Kothari, however, are optimistic that stringent rules will ensure that such loopholes do not occur. Also, they say, subsidiary rules and guidelines could be written to ensure transparency and public involvement in the screening of biodiversity project proposals, and to ensure that the rights are indigenous communities are respected.

India covers only 2.4 per cent of the world’s land area, but accounts for 7.3 per cent of the global fauna. It is considered the origin of 30,000 to 50,000 varieties of crops and is home to two "hotspots" — the Western Ghats and eastern Himalayas. It has five world heritage sites, 12 biosphere reserves and six wetlands.