The National Mission on Biodiversity and Human Well-Being is an ambitious initiative that aims to bring biodiversity and conservation to the forefront of Indian science, policy, and society’s attention. The Mission has been visualized to be as inclusive as possible, with components that involve scientific institutions, government agencies, and non-government organizations at the national, state, and local levels. The people who will power the Mission will include scientists, farmers, industrialists, students, policy makers, and citizens from all walks of life.
With a human population of more than 1 billion and nearly 8% of the world’s biodiversity scrunched into an area only 2.3% of the Earth’s land mass, India is incredibly rich in life.
This may, however, not last.
Global studies currently indicate that India has one of the largest ecological footprints in the world, and unprecedented changes in social, economic, and environmental systems in India are threatening its biodiversity. Without intervention at this stage, India could stand to lose a chunk of its biodiversity.
India’s people benefit from its biodiversity in so many ways – it affects the food they eat and their health and provides protection from natural disasters – and this is exemplified in how biodiversity is interwoven in many of our land’s cultural practices. From an economic standpoint, the natural services associated with biodiversity provided by India’s forests alone, are valued at a whopping ₹128 trillion/year. Yet, biodiversity science and its links to human well-being in India largely remain unexplored and neglected. Only a small part of India’s immense human population knows about the role and importance of biodiversity in its lives.
To address this lacuna, a group of scientists from several institutions have created a framework for an ambitious national initiative – the National Mission on Biodiversity and Human Well-Being. In October 2018, an outline of the Mission and its objectives were presented to the Prime Minister’s Science, Technology, and Innovation Advisory Council (PM-STIAC), and the Mission was approved in principle.
The Mission proposes a national effort that aims to transform biodiversity science by linking it to the peoples’ economic prosperity. It further aims to help India realize the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals by using India’s rich biodiversity to create solutions for challenges in agriculture, health, and climate change. Under this Mission, research institutions, government, and non-government organizations will work together to catalogue, map, assess, monitor, and use our vast but declining natural assets sustainably. The Mission will also help create a cadre of biodiversity science professionals to sustain and secure Indian biodiversity. Finally, the Mission hopes to initiate a mass movement to engage India’s massive population to feel pride in our natural heritage, and help in restoring and conserving nature.
“India has a unique biodiversity profile, and a unique set of interactions between its people and its biodiversity. India is also fairly strong in science. This mix has tremendous potential and we need to realize this potential. It is time that science and biodiversity meet and come to the forefront – they must attract the attention of society, the economy, the policy makers, and the people of this country,” says eminent conservation and evolutionary biologist Kamaljit Bawa, who is the leading force behind the Mission.
“The Mission is to enhance biodiversity science, which is currently very neglected and fragmented in India. Indians are still very land and biomass-based in our livelihood, and biodiversity plays a large role in our everyday lives. For example, even in large cities, you have wildlife. But what we do not have a clear idea of, is how are our human actions influencing biodiversity, and how is biodiversity adapting to this? How in turn, does this change in biodiversity affect our lives, both positively and negatively?” says Ravi Chellam, Director of the Mission Secretariat.
“The future of the Indian people hinges on biodiversity. Without understanding it and harnessing it, we just cannot survive,” adds Uma Ramakrishnan from NCBS, who is one of the many scientists involved with the Mission.
The National Biodiversity Mission proposes a two-component programme to bring biodiversity science to the forefront of scientific and public engagement. The first component, titled the ‘Cataloguing and Mapping Life of India’ programme will focus on building an inventory of India’s biodiversity, and will use digital tools to map this biodiversity with people, cultures, and management regimes. This component aims to build databases that can assess and monitor changes in biodiversity and ecosystem services, and link biodiversity knowledge with societal benefits. The component will also engage citizens in collecting biodiversity data to build awareness of the rich natural heritage of India and the need for conservation.
The second component is divided into six programmes, which will focus on biodiversity with regard to ecosystem services; climate change and disaster risk reduction; agriculture; health; bio-economy; and capacity building and outreach.
The Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services programme will focus on identifying, quantifying and mapping key ecosystem services such as pollination, food production, water availability, soil fertility, and others in different habitats such as forests, grasslands, rivers, etc. The programme will also document threats to biodiversity due to changes in factors like land-use and non-native invasive organisms, in addition to developing conservation actions that can protect biodiversity while maximising benefits to local people.
“When it comes to making policies and decisions about issues such as land use, oftentimes, the scientific data to do so are unavailable. The Mission is geared towards strengthening the quality of biodiversity science in India and making data on ecosystem services available to decision makers and policy makers,” says Mahesh Sankaran of NCBS.
The Biodiversity, Climate Change, and Disaster Risk Reduction programme will map and quantify the role of India’s forests in regulating monsoonal rains and mitigating climate change. This programme will provide data for constructing policies on managing and reducing the occurrence and impacts of climate change-induced natural disasters such as heat waves, droughts, floods, and landslides.
“Very often, there is nothing natural about ‘natural disasters’ – climate change-induced extreme weather events are not natural – you can say they’re ‘natural’ because they’re out of our control, but actually, they are not,” says Chellam. “Through this Mission, we can ensure that India-based research for such issues are supported; we will not have to rely on models and research coming from elsewhere,” he adds.
The Biodiversity and Agriculture programme aims to measure the economic value of India’s biodiversity in agro-ecosystems to ensure the country’s food security. It will focus on how biodiversity can enhance agricultural productivity and rural incomes by sustainable use of local ecosystems.
The Biodiversity and Health programme will look into two aspects of how biodiversity can improve healthcare – one will create an interactive citizen’s portal on medicinal plants of India to provide reliable information for managing human, livestock, and crop health. The second aspect will investigate the relationships between biodiversity loss and patterns of infectious diseases that spread to humans from animals (such as SARS, Nipah, and swine flu).
The Biodiversity and Bio-economy programme will explore ways to reduce ecosystem stress caused by economic drivers. This programme will look for ways to reduce carbon emissions, and the effective use of bio-resources for renewable and sustainable livelihoods for people.
The Biodiversity Capacity building and Outreach programme will work to develop educational and training programmes for biodiversity professionals, support existing and develop new citizen science initiatives, and bring biodiversity into the public consciousness.
“This component is all about people. It’s about how we can engage with those already involved with biodiversity in whatever capacity; and reach out to new audiences as well,” says Suhel Quader of NCF (Nature Conservation Foundation).
One of the key aspects of the Mission is its inclusivity – the Mission will involve scientific institutions, several ministries, government agencies, and non-government organisations. The people who will power the Mission will be the citizens of India.
“Everyone, from a child to an industry giant must be involved – we need to get them to understand what biodiversity is, what it means and why it is important,” says Shannon Olsson of NCBS. “It’s also not just about scientists teaching people, it’s also about scientists listening to people – the Mission needs bidirectional communication. It’s about communicating with farmers, and doctors and industry leaders about what they need, and how biodiversity can impact their lives,” she adds.
“Being involved in the Mission is a chance for NCBS to participate in something of national interest,” says Ramakrishnan. “Although we are a fundamental research organization, it’s important to participate in what’s happening in the country. This Mission is not about my research or your research; it’s about capacity building, networking, and consolidating information, and using it for the better good of the country,” she adds.
Catalysed and supported by the Office of the Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India, the National Mission on Biodiversity and Human Well-Being will be hosted by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change with the National Biodiversity Authority being the nodal agency. The Mission has been conceived by a Biodiversity Science Consortium consisting of institutions including ATREE (Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment), NCBS-TIFR (National Centre for Biological Sciences-Tata Institute of Fundamental Research), IISc (Indian Institute of Science), UAS (University of Agricultural Sciences – Bengaluru), TDU (The University of Trans-Disciplinary Health Sciences and Technology), NCF (Nature Conservation Foundation), TERI School of Advanced Studies and Metastring Foundation.
Furthermore, the Mission will also be linked to other national missions and initiatives such as the Green India Mission, National Mission for Clean Ganga, Swachh Bharat Mission, National Policy on AYUSH, National Wildlife Action Plan, the National Mission for Sustaining the Himalayan Ecosystem, National Mission on Himalayan Studies, to name a few.
Apart from addressing many critical national needs, this Mission will assist India in fulfilling its commitments and/or otherwise contribute to international treaties and agreements such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), Convention on Migratory Species (CMS), and the World Heritage Convention (WHC). Proposed work on environmental DNA and bar coding will facilitate India’s participation in the Earth Biogenome Project. Ultimately at least one hundred institutions will be involved in the initial five-year period of this effort.
Lastly, the proposed work for the Mission will cut across several ministries and government agencies: Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change; Ministry of Science and Technology; Ministry of Earth Sciences; Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation; Ministry of Health and Family Welfare; Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare; Department of Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy (AYUSH); Department of Space and Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region, among others, and will foster collaboration among several institutions: Agharkar Research Institute, Pune; Botanical Survey of India, Kolkata; Zoological Survey of India; Kolkata.