In an article in the latest issue of Current Science (25 January), published by the Indian Academy of Sciences, the scientists say India's 'draconian' rules on free exchange of biological samples could 'totally isolate Indian biodiversity researchers and is akin to a self-imposed siege on scientists in the country'.
India's biodiversity rules, established in 2002, do not permit Indian scientists to deposit their specimens in international museums and stipulate that specimens must be kept in selected national repositories.
The scientists, including K. D. Prathapan from Kerala Agriculture University and Priyadarsanan Dharma Rajan from the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment, Bangalore, say that while preventing biopiracy and commercial exploitation of biological resources is a legitimate concern, it is equally important to protect the interests of scientists engaged in fundamental research.
They add that fears that India's intellectual property rights might be compromised if the samples are used commercially are 'baseless and irrational'.
Quality research involves extensive collaboration among specialists and institutions across continents, argue Prathapan and colleagues. And in taxonomy, which involves classifying samples, accurate identification of a plant or animal often requires comparison with closely related specimens that may be present in different countries.
They further argue that depositing specimens in different international institutions would act as 'an insurance against loss of specimens in India'.
But M. Sanjappa, director of the Botanical Survey of India in Kolkata, told SciDev.Net that stringency is required to fight biopiracy in the country.
'The law itself need not be changed [for research]. Instead one can enter into memoranda of understanding with individual countries of scientific groups,' Sanjappa says.
He says several Indian institutes are already engaged in the exchange of plant specimens with the international network of herbaria developed by the Vienna-based International Association of Plant Taxonomy.
The scientists hope the Indian government will follow the example of Brazil, which repealed its initially tough rules for biological specimens after protests by scientists