Validation difficult than Discovery
For the past 3 years, Praveen Rahi has dedicated himself to identifying and describing a new species in the mountains of northern India which is nitrogen-fixing bacteria he discovered on peas cultivated there. Praveen Rahi is a microbial ecologist at India’s National Centre for Cell Science (NCCS), and it can take him years to get the new microbial species validated and officially named if he doesn’t screws up somehow.
A similar problem is been faced by Syed Dastager, a microbiologist at the country’s National Chemical Laboratory. According to him over the past several years he has discovered 30 new microbial species but the sad part is that all these are unknown to the world and sit in his laboratory freezer because he can’t publish about them.
Clash b/w Indian and International Laws
The problems of the scientists being that the authority which validates newly discovered microbes has a strange bureaucratic limbo between India’s stringent biodiversity protection laws and the rules of the International Committee on Systematics of Prokaryotes (ICSP). Yogesh Shouche, a microbial taxonomist at NCCS, wrote in an editorial in Current Science last month that as a country, researchers now face the prospect of losing the claim to document bacterial diversity from India that called attention to the problem.
Newly discovered bacterial species or any other microbial taxon according to the ICSP code should be deposited in two culture collections in two countries where the collections are available freely accessible to other researchers. Indian law passed in 2002 under the International Convention on Biological Diversity are somehow in contradictions to the requirements. For the non-Indian researchers who want to access cultures originating from India the Biological Diversity Act requires obtaining permission from the country’s National Biodiversity Authority (NBA) and even for those stored abroad.
NBA is Non-Responsive
Culture collections around the world have increasingly stopped accepting new cultures from Indian researchers and cause lengthy delays if collected. In the email from the Korean Collection for Type Cultures sent to a researcher in Shouche’s lab read that several emails have been sent to [NBA] asking about the access availability of Indian resources but no such replies were sent. And from now onwards, they have made their mind not to take Indian resources/strains from now on.
This two culture collection is pretty difficult for Indian researchers and Shouche says that this is where they are stuck right now as they miss out on publication in the International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology.
Discovery has decreased
Between 2008 and 2019 there has been a discovery of a total of 378 new microbial species in India in places spreading from pristine glaciers to grimy mobile phone screens. And now the situation for the researchers is such that only 10 new species reported so far this year because then the consequences of the 2002 act began to a hinge-back, and the number began to decline rapidly after a peak of more than 50 species in 2016. Shouche states that now everyone is aware and the full implications are coming into the picture.
Other topics have become the new field of research for some Indian researchers as they have given up. Rahi says that by this time if the laws would have been easier he would describe 10 or 12 species by now, but he only has five. The process of permissions is so annoying that they many times leave the idea entirely. Dastager has shifted his research focus to small molecules and metabolites from microbial taxonomy because of the simple reason that what is the point if after putting years of work behind it, you are not able to publish it.
What can be a Solution?
Shouche says that amending the biodiversity act is the best solution as it will allow the deposition and use of cultures for research purposes without approval from the NBA. To prevent bio-piracy most culture collections have a certain mechanism, but it could take years to change laws.
A Stopgap solution was proposed by Shouche and other researchers that according to the biodiversity law, NBA is granted the right to delegate some of its responsibilities. So the responsibilities could be assigned to designated culture collections in India that are managed by scientists, not government officials. Although interest in dealing with the NBA has reduced among ICSP and culture collections abroad, although they are willing to work with Indian repositories which could make the work of researchers much comfortable and the problem is solved.
Is the correct for Conservation?
The red tape associated with the Convention on Biological Diversity has led to issuing a warning to researchers which could lead to unintended consequences as they were designed to protect countries from losing control of their biodiversity. But the situation is different in India as per Shouche as he states that the country’s microbial riches are not documented. And India claiming on the wealth it possesses in Biodiversity is meaningless if it cannot be documented.