Glimpses from the Bio-economy programme of the proposed National Mission on Biodiversity and Human Well-being [1]

Nandan Nawn
10 min readJan 22, 2022

[1] This is to thank Ravi Chellam and Kamal Bawa, my colleagues at BC, Akshay M and Shreya Bedia, my ‘associates’ and Rukmini Sen, my partner, for their comments that improved the quality in multiple ways.

0. Blurb: Even with a clear scientific base, able and committed scientists, and assured State support, it may take several decades to marshal the gigantic effort — in the nature of a ‘social movement’ — to restore and sustain Nature for augmenting and sustaining human well-being in India.

1. Agenda setting

Nature supports all economic activities. It does not matter if it’s a good or a service, produced in the formal or the non-formal parts of the economic system, embodying only use-value or also an exchange value, or whether consumed by the producer herself or by an ‘alien’ in a distant place. The extent and scale of support by Nature to specific economic agents are mediated by the rules, customs and norms, at both local (say, local common grazing ground) and global (ozone layer) scales. The support is manifested as ‘sink’ (say, ability to absorb the GHGs by natural carbon sinks) and ‘source’ (say, fodder).[1]

The ‘allocations’ of such support among economic agents — be it within or across generations — are arrived at a (albeit higher) social plane dictated by political priorities. Markets can hardly ‘allocate’ such supports provided by Nature to the economic (and other) activities (that are supported by Nature). Thus the interventions by the State is necessary to ensure a steady (if not augmented) flow of such supports across agents.

Biodiversity represents the richness of Nature. A set of one or two attributes like temperature and rainfall — as used in the ‘climate change’ discourse — can hardly capture such richness. Above anything else, such ‘analytical simplification’ can hardly address the root cause of the problem faced by all humans today, namely disruptions in and destruction of Nature.

In fact, it’s not just a scale question alone, but involves serious trade-offs, among and within source and sink types of support. For example, carbon sequestration through fresh planting of non-indigenous species may facilitate one particular sink type of support, but in the process distorts several source types. Only a ‘system-based approach’ involving (natural and social) scientists can address trade-offs.

India hosts nearly 8 per cent of global biodiversity even though covering only about 2 per cent of global land area (Bawa et al. 2020). Sustained disruption of Nature in India (and many other parts of the global South that hosts most of the global biodiversity hotspots) is an irrefutable fact. Such disruptions have implications for sustainability of livelihoods of billions of people and consequently on India’s GDP. Several commitments made by India in the international fora on Nature are unlikely to be fulfilled in case business as usual continues.

Fortunately, a new biodiversity science is emerging across the globe. It focuses on the many ways in which society is both shaping and responding to changes in biodiversity. It enables one to gain a much better understanding of ecosystem functioning — this in turn can help prudent management of India’s diverse ecosystems to ensure the sustained flow of ecosystem services for a secure future (Bawa, Nawn, et al. 2020; Bawa, Sengupta, et al. 2021).

In short, this calls for conservation (as in sustainable livelihood based on bio-assets, sustainable agricultural practices) and not preservation (as in archives, monuments) of Nature. The proposed National Mission on Biodiversity and Human Well-being (NMBHWB) is a step towards this direction.

2. A brief early history of the NMBHWB

The origin of the NMBHWB can be traced to a meeting of a group of scientists in Bengaluru on 9th July 2018 called by Kamaljit S Bawa, who prepared a concept note based on the ideas presented at this meeting and subsequent discussions,. The note was later presented by Bawa and Uma Ramakrishnan at the inaugural meeting of the PM-STIAC on 9th October 2018. It was approved later (PIB 2019).

More scientists joined this group over time and Biodiversity Collaborative (BC) was formed as “a group of institutions and individuals who are committed to furthering biodiversity science and advocating its use in the crafting of development, environment and conservation policies and plans” (BC 2021).

Subsequently, BC received a preparatory project grant from the Office of the Principal Scientific Adviser. This enabled many consultations with scientists from a range of national institutions with expertise in biodiversity science (such as BSI, ZSI, WII, and NRSC). In total, more than 225 scientists from more than 100 institutions including State Forest Departments and State Biodiversity Boards have participated in consultations facilitated by the Chairperson of NBA, Vinod B Mathur.

This was followed by several more stakeholder consultations including inter-ministerial ones facilitated by the MoEFCC. All these enabled the BC with the guidance of Mathur to submit the final version of the Detailed Project Report, a necessary requirement for launch of any new ‘scheme’. The remaining processes to ‘launch’ the Mission are expected to be completed soon.

The overarching objective of the proposed NBMHWB is to restore and enhance biodiversity and strengthen its sustainable use in India. The goal is to embed biodiversity as a key consideration in all development programmes, particularly in sectors such as agriculture, water resources, climate change mitigation, public health and bio-economy. It is expected that priority shall be given to the Aspirational Districts as they offer an excellent opportunity to mainstream biodiversity into development processes. The theories, concepts, methods, and tools offered by the new biodiversity science shall be employed.

The proposed Mission is expected to:

1. Transform biodiversity science in India by linking scientific research with mitigation of problems such as pandemics, climate change, economic insecurities, and realization of the UN SDGs and the UN Strategy for Living in Harmony with Nature, 2. Improve the prospects of meeting challenges in climate change, agriculture, and animal and public health using biodiversity and ecosystem services, 3. Strengthen public research institutions, academia and non-government organizations by adopting modern concepts and tools to explore, document, assess, monitor, and sustainably use India’s vast but declining natural assets, 4. Create a cadre of hundreds of professionals trained in the new interdisciplinary science to protect, restore, sustainably use and secure India’s biodiversity, 5. Place in public domain high quality and rigorously generated spatially explicit data and information on biodiversity and ecosystem services to enable management of environmental impact assessments and of development projects, 6. Initiate a mass movement to help every citizen feel pride in India’s natural heritage, and to engage millions of people in appreciating, documenting, protecting and restoring life on earth.

(Bawa, Sengupta et al. 2021, 3)

3. Broad framework of NBMHWB

Centrality of biodiversity-human well-being connection is obvious in the conceptual framework of the proposed NMBHWB. The specific modes and ‘impacts’ (figure 1A) provides some ideas on the dimensions of human well-being that are expected to be augmented by NMBHWB, in case it is implemented in the most ideal manner (as in case of any theoretical approach).

NMHWB is comprised of two major programmes, NISARG Bharat that shall act as the ‘central spine’ connecting all the other six programmes, including bio-economy. We turn next to the challenges that are expected to be faced in the ‘roadmap’, or the pathways for implementation, of the bio-economy programme, given the schematic framework (figure 1B).

4. Challenges to implement the Roadmap of Bio-economy programme

Given that biodiversity can augment human well-being (HWB), sustained biodiversity can lead to sustained HWB. This warrants ‘taking care’ of investments or making the investment secure — to augment biodiversity. It is possible if and only if secured and sustained benefits reach those (or incentivised otherwise) who can offer ‘security’ to such investments. The benefits can at times be only in use-value terms, and may not always yield exchange value.

Economic principles on investment decisions are quite clear: if the rate of return on an investment is expected to fall short of the rate used to discount future benefits and costs, the investment would not be undertaken (Dasgupta 2021, 346). The principle is same for both natural and physical assets, but ‘security’ differs for obvious reasons: the property regime (see, Vatn 2005) in the latter is mostly private while it is common or even public — if not de jure, but certainly de facto — in the former (at least in India).

Some more concerns arise if one dives a little deeper vis-a-vis the rate of return (present discounted value or PDV of Benefits/PDV of Costs) of investments to augment biodiversity. First, like any other climate change thwarting investment (see, Neumayer 2013), here too the stream of benefits will appear only later (say at time later than 5th year), while most large investments are to be made immediately (may be at time till 3rd year) and only some a little later.

Second, there are many competing investments with similar temporal spread of benefits and investment (such as education, health and most other public goods) that are seeking State funding. Third, as it is well known, design of investment vehicles (given location, and specific quantum of investment) will determine the extent and spread of benefits (both spatial and temporal) — there is no guarantee that it will reach those who can offer ‘security’ to the investment.

This will require, among others, for those who are making the investment, to trust those who can take care of it. India has a chequered history on this matter, as experience of joint forest management (JFM) shows (see, Lele and Menon for an excellent overview).

In short, the following necessary conditions emerge to justify investments toward augmenting biodiversity: (a) Realisation of benefits by those who can secure the investment; (b) Necessary permission to access the space to make the investments; (c) Budgeting for opportunity costs for use of the space to make the investments (for the de facto user rights).

A formal institutional framework is required to operationalise the first of these conditions — it will require a significant structural shift as every scholar of political economy of Nature in India knows. The second is administrative in nature, and involves substantial transaction costs. The third is of financial nature and can be subjected to serious questions (rightly) by the auditors.

Without these, the investments to sustained augmentation of biodiversity will not take place, and may remain only in paper as shown meticulously by Kukreti (2021) for ‘compensatory afforestation’ where “Central government spent around Rs 59,000 crore between 2009 and 2020” yielding ‘ghost plantations’.

5. Concluding remarks

There are many real challenges. Sustained political will is necessary to address them. The roadmap prepared for the bio-economy programme of this proposed mission acknowledges these constraints.

Once the necessary approvals are in place, this programme can start with collection of information from selected People’s Biodiversity Registers (PBR) in association with NISARG Bharat programme and other secondary datasets to evaluate the bio-economy potential of spaces under the jurisdiction of Biodiversity Management Committees (BMCs). The next task will be to locate pathways — through action-research mode — to ensure augmented benefits reaching those who are producing ecologically benign products using appropriate processes, sourced from the jurisdiction of BMCs, and accordingly certified by them. Lessons from a few pilots will enable exploring replication possibilities and its execution at the progressively higher scales.

Everyone connected with the preparatory process agrees that if Nature is to be restored, it will require a ‘social movement’:

“Initiate a mass movement to help every citizen feel pride in India’s natural heritage, and to engage millions of people in appreciating, documenting, protecting and restoring life on earth”

is what the Mission is expected to achieve, among others (Bawa, Sengupta, et al. 2021, 3). The challenges are many as is well known to those who have initiated, participated in and sustained such movements.

A necessary condition towards this ‘social movement’ is involvement of all those who cares for Nature. Many such engagements, associations and collaborations have been imagined in the roadmap. Stay tuned for updates.


Bawa, K, A Sengupta, V Chavan, R Chellam, R. Ganesan, J Krishnaswamy, V B Mathur, N Nawn, S B Olsson, N Pandit, S Quader, P Rajagopal, U Ramakrishnan, G Ravikanth, M Sankaran, D Shankar, R Seidler, R U Shaanker, A T Vanak. 2021. ‘Securing biodiversity, securing our future: A national Mission on biodiversity and human well-being for IndiaBiological Conservation 253: 108867. ISSN: 0006–3207.

Bawa, K, N Nawn, R Chellam, J Krishnaswamy, V Mathur, S B Olsson, N Pandit, P Rajagopal, M Sankaran, R U Shaanker, D Shankar, U Ramakrishnan, A T Vanak, and S Quader. 2020. ‘Envisioning a biodiversity science for sustaining human well-being’ Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of United States of America 117 (42): 25951–25955. ISSN: 1091–6490.

BC. 2021. “About the Biodiversity Collaborative”. Accessed at

Daly, Herman and Joshua Farley. 2011. Ecological Economics: principles and applications, Second Edition. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Dasgupta, Partha. 2021. The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review. London: HM Treasury.

Kukreti, Ishan. 2021. “India’s ghost plantations in which millions of rupees have been sunk”.

Lele, Sharachchandra and Ajit Menon, eds. 2014. Democratizing Forest Governance in India, New Delhi: OUP.

Neumayer, Eric. 2013. ‘Chapter 2: Sustainable Development: conceptual, ethical and paradigmatic issues’ in Weak and Strong Sustainability: exploring the limits of two opposing paradigms, Fourth Edition, pp. 8–48, Chetelham: Edward Elgar.

PIB. 2019. “Nine science and technology missions with focus on science for people and people for science”. Press Information Bureau, Government of India, New Delhi: PIB.

Vatn, Arild. 2005. “Chapter 10: Resource Regimes” in Institutions and the Environment, 252–298. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar

[1] “A source is the part of the environment that supplies usable raw materials that constitute the throughput by which the economy produces and that ultimately returns as waste to environmental sinks. A sink is the part of the environment that receives the waste flow of the throughput and may, if not overwhelmed, be able to regenerate the waste through biogeochemical cycles back to usable sources”. (Daly and Farley 2003, 422)



Nandan Nawn

An economist by training, and reasonably familiar with political, social, regulatory, institutional, social and ecological dimensions of Nature.