Solutions for a large country...

Mention the word local community and bureaucrats in India wince. So what's new? It seems the bureaucrats have realised that little moves without the participation of the local community in this country. When it comes to implementing decisions taken by the government to benefit the environment, it is local communities who do better that any institution the government can set up.

But even though bureaucrats have learnt this lesson they never hesitate to use bureaucratic options whenever they get the chance. As a result they follow the adage, those who forget history are condemned to repeat it. It happens all too often. A rare herb finds a market abroad. Suddenly there is a rush to harvest it. Unfortunately, reports of overextraction and depleting resources begin to appear in the media, leading to an uproar. The government machinery is forced to wake up and it reacts with a bureaucratic solution. It imposes a ban, which stays in place till the industry begins to cry foul.

This is exactly what is happening today. The task force on medicinal plants formed by the Government of India now plans to review a ban imposed on 29 endangered plant species three years ago. The review has neither been inspired by any sudden increase in the availability of herbs nor the fact that these species are now being cultivated on a large scale. On the other hand it is traders who have lobbied and put pressure on the system to lift the ban.

Bureaucrats do not realise that by imposing a ban they merely drive the trade underground and create a black market for the product. Smuggling becomes an avenue of employment for people who are familiar with the product, but it is usually the local community that gets a bad name. This results in a general feeling that there is a need to police the herbs and distance the local community from it. If the bureaucracy were proactive it would encourage local communities to cultivate rare herbs which could help the country earn valuable foreign exchange. A change in legislation is, therefore, both the need of the country as well as the hour. The time to alienate local communities and destroy natural resources is over. The need now, is to involve local communities in conserving natural resources.