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India should protect wetlands before its late, having lost an alarming 38% in a single decade (1991-2001). Image courtesy: SANDRP

"It shall be the duty of every citizen… to protect the forests and improve the natural environment, forests, lakes, rivers and wild life and to have compassion for living creatures."

- Article 51A, Indian Constitution

All significant decisions pertaining to the conservation and welfare of any wetland should be initiated and promoted by the end-users of that wetland and these suggestions (which ought to be strictly within technically sound parameters) should provide the guidelines for the decision-makers at the higher levels in the govt. Unfortunately, just the reverse is happening at present.”

- Dr. Asad Rahmani, former Director, Bombay Natural History Society, and Expert Member, Ornithology, Wetland Regulatory Authority, 2010.

India’s draft Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2016, which replace the existing Wetland (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2010, were up for public comments and suggestions till 31 May 2016, after which they are due to come into force. The government claims the new rules follow the “wise use” philosophy of the Ramsar Convention and lay emphasis on maintaining ecological character and integrity of the country’s wetlands in their conservation and use.

While wetlands nationwide are threatened by encroachment and development, the draft rules 2016 show no indications of acknowledging this threat, the country’s environmentalists pointed out, and said this only reinforced the stereotype that governments see wetlands as wastelands.

The essence of the new rules is to decentralise wetlands management to states. The Centre will have a say only in ‘exceptional cases’. While the 2010 rules gave some role to states, the draft rules gives them all powers. But in the process, the whole conservation process has been weakened.

Several organisations, including BHNS, WWF, LIFE, International Rivers, INTACH, YJA and SANDRP have sent representations to the environment ministry. Among their primary concerns was that the 2010 rules itself were barely getting implemented; no state has identified a wetland yet, and few have made state-level nodal agencies mandated by the 2010 rules.

In an ongoing case before the National Green Tribunal (NGT), it emerged that states had not notified wetlands under the 2010 regulations. This forced the tribunal to demand that states begin to do so in at least 5-10 districts in a time-bound fashion. The Union government meanwhile went ahead to substantially change the existing regulations.

The new regulations do away with the elaborate list of activities that are prohibited or restricted. It prohibits reclamation of wetlands, conversion to non-wetlands, diversion or impediment of inflows and outflows from the wetland and ‘any activity having or likely to have adverse impact on the ecological character of the wetland’. The need for the environmental impact assessment before permitting such activities is to be done away with.

The earlier regulations allowed appeals against the decisions of the central wetlands authority with the NGT. This, too, is to be done away with, though aggrieved entities could continue to file cases against violations of these rules. These concerns were raised during a discussion organized on the draft rules 2016 in Jodhpur on May 23 by three NGOs, EIA Resource and Response Centre, Libra India and LIFE.

India has a total land area of 329 million hectares, which is a mosaic of climatic and soil conditions and a variety of habitats from the snow covered Leh to the tropical Kanyakumari, from deserts of Rajasthan to the wet evergreen forests of North-East. The country has a coastline of 7,516-km and two island systems, with rivers flowing over contrasting land forms like mountain ranges, plateaus and wetlands. The immense diversity of the Indian environment poses a great challenge to the task of environment management in the country, especially of wetland ecosystems.

The recent Chennai flood disaster of December 2015 and the Jammu and Kashmir Flood disaster of September 2014 have underlined that Wetlands are important not only for biodiversity & livelihoods of millions, but they are an integral mechanism for flood control and regulation in rural and urban India.

A 1992-1993 study by the Space Application Centre said India had nearly 3.5 million hectares under wetlands. But it was also losing them at an alarming rate, as much as 38% in a decade (1991-2001). Still, for the past four years, there had been a complete regulatory vacuum around the country’s wetlands.

India has a wealth of wetland ecosystems directly or indirectly linked with the river systems like the Ganga, Brahmaputra, Narmada, etc. The wetlands exhibit great ecological diversity and are of great economic, aesthetic and scientific importance. They support fishes, birds and other wild life. They also play an important role in treatment of waste-water, reduction of sediment loads and pollution treatment.

Mangroves are salt tolerant forest ecosystems, which stabilize the shoreline and act as bulwark against sea erosion. Mangroves occur all along the Indian coastline, which is nearly seven per cent of the world's mangrove areas. Sunderbans in West Bengal is the world's largest mangrove.The occurrence of super cyclone in Orissa in October 1999 re-emphasised the need to conserve and protect mangroves ecosystems. The five coastal states of West Bengal, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat have been identified as cyclone prone states and mangrove conservation programmes are being strengthened in these states.

India has four Coral Reef areas located in Gulf of Mannar, Gulf of Kutch, Lakshadweep and Andaman and Nicobar Islands. A conservation and management action plan for these reefs has been approved and financial assistance is extended to the concerned States/UTs for its implementation.

The need to protect the environment was emphasized way back in the Fourth Five Year Plan (1968-73). The Plan document recognised "the interdependence of living things and their relationship with land, air and water". Since then the environmental dimension has been added to the entire process of national development. The development plans of all sectors are consistent with the concept of "Sustainable Development". The objective of all developmental programs is to achieve environmental harmony, economic efficiency, and equity with social justice, conservation of resources and local self-reliance.

The Indian government has over the years implemented a series of measures to protect the environment. In 1972, a committee on Human Environment was created. The Central Department of Environment was set up in 1980, which was converted into Ministry of Environment and Forests in 1985. The Ministry is the nodal agency, which formulates environmental policies, and legislation's and implements the various programs for environment management.

After Wetlands Rules 2010 were notified under the Environment Protection Act, it was hoped that there will be clarity and direction in Protection of Wetlands in the country. The rules were notified after discussions with hundreds of stakeholders from across the country, and included constituting a National Wetlands Authority, Restricting and Regulating activities in notified Wetlands. States were supposed to recommend wetlands for notification.

Some states have constituted State Wetlands Authorities. However, a member of Maharashtra’s State Wetland Authority told SANDRP that he has no idea about the status of this Authority under the Forest Department, it has never met and there has been no communication from the State Government with the members of the authority about its status.

On the other hand, the National Wetlands Authority has never met since April 2012. The term of the Authority has ended, but the new authority has not been constituted.

When SANDRP discussed this with the MoEF, it was said that this was due to integration of National Lake Conservation Program (NLCP) and National Wetlands Conservation Program (NWCP) into a National Program on Conservation of Aquatic Ecosystems (NPCA). This integration was announced in 2013, and should have been notified promptly thereafter.

Meanwhile, the process of development facilitated by industrialisation and agricultural expansion has led to economic growth but it has also increased the pressure on natural resources and resulted in pollution of air, water and land. Currently, the setting up or expansion of industries onto wetlands is prohibited, as is the disposal of hazardous materials and solid waste. No permanent construction is permitted on a wetland. It may not have stopped the illegal dumping of waste, but the new rules don’t ban any of these activities explicitly.

Even as the importance of wetlands is being highlighted as irreplaceable flood regulators after the Chennai & Kashmir deluge, they remain ungoverned and unprotected. The most beautiful wetlands of India - including J&K’s Wular lake and Mirgund, Mumbai coastal mangroves, and those in East Kolkata and Greater Bengaluru - are dying under real estate pressures and pollution.

India's track record of wetlands protection is dismal; even when the Wetlands rules were in place, there was little effective regulation of wetlands in India. This, in spite of the realisation that in a changing climate, wetlands do play a critical role in achieving better adaptation, besides providing integral goods and services like drinking water supply, flood cushioning, fisheries, carbon sequestering, biodiversity habitat, coastal protection, groundwater recharge, cultural and aesthetic values, etc.

Its time the country and its citizens stand up to protect wetlands.

DEFINITIONS OF WETLANDS

Ramsar Convention, 1971 (Ramsar Convention Secretariat 2013)

“areas of marsh, fen, peatland or water, whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish or salt, including areas of marine water the depth of which at low tide does not exceed six metres”. and “may incorporate riparian and coastal zones adjacent to the wetlands, and islands or bodies of marine water deeper than six metres at low tide lying within the wetlands”.

KINDS OF WETLANDS

Glacial Lakes: A lake formed at the base of a glacier

Peat bogs: A thick mass of partly decomposed or undecomposed remains of plants (mostly Sphagnum mosses in norther latitudes)

Shallow lakes: Natural lakes with an average depth of about 3 meters which allows the abundant growth of macrophytes in its entire area

Deep Lakes: Lakes with water depths that prevent the growth of submerged macrophytes; may have a narrow peripheral littoral zone with macrophytic vegetation

Flood-plains: Areas lying lateral to river channels and periodically flooded when the river flow exceeds the channels’ carrying capacity

Marshes: Habitats with waterlogged or water saturated substrate with herbaceous vegetation; may also have areas with shallow water; natural or incidental to human activity that causes water logging

Swamps: Habitats with predominantly woody vegetation adapted to submerged or waterlogged substrates

Ox-bows: Shallow water bodies created by the separation of meander loops of a river either by sediment deposition; may become periodically connected with the river at high flood time

Lagoons: A coastal water body that is connected to the sea by one or more small openings through which it exchanges water with the sea especially during the tide. The lagoons often receive freshwater runoff from their landward catchments.

Reservoirs: Any large water body created by constructing a dam over a stream or river

Tanks: Water bodies created generally by impounding the surface runoff from seasonal streams; Also those created by dredging

Temple Tanks: Natural or human made water bodies near the temples and used for cultural/religious activities only

Fish ponds: Natural or human made water bodies used mainly for fish culture (aquaculture) Paddy fields: Agricultural fields for growing paddy

Village ponds: Small shallow water bodies in the villages used for multiple purposes

Sources: South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People, PIB, nieindia.org

Comments   

#1 Shrikant 2016-06-07 17:17
We all should live Article 51A of Indian
Constitution
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