By Bharat Lal Seth:
With an enduring drought ravaging many parts of the country, last month the Prime Minister waxed eloquent on the need to safeguard water during his monthly radio monologue. He raised some valid points on cropping patterns, frugal water use, collection and storage traditions etc., but he was conspicuously silent on the need to protect wetlands.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence then that the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change recently published a draft Wetland Rules, 2016. The new rules, to put it bluntly, will give land sharks further occasion to confine, constrain and encroach upon these critical ecosystems. The draft dilutes critical provisions and seeks to supersede the Wetland Rules of 2010, which first attempted to curb the unchecked land grab of our wetlands.
More than 5o million hectares in India are covered by wetlands by some estimates. These areas are incredibly important to the water cycle and mitigate the intensity of both floods and droughts. During dry periods, they retain water and recharge the aquifers. In the wet season, wetlands act like a sponge, absorbing excess water and reducing the volume of floods. Concretising and change of land use has and will continue to diminish the ability to endure a drought. On the flip side, recent floods in Srinagar and Chennai were exacerbated given the unchecked urban encroachment of wetlands.
The 2010 rules, even with their limitations, were the first legally enforceable rules for protecting wetlands in India. The rules tasked state governments with preparing a document that identifies and classifies wetlands within their jurisdiction within one year. To this day, not a single state government has done so. While activists have taken the fight to the National Green Tribunal, the new draft is contented to leave it to the state government to notify wetlands, but now without any stipulated timeframe. Rather than strengthening and enforcing the targets, the Environment Ministry has sought to abdicate its responsibility. It is most peculiar that neither any explanation for revising the Rules is given, nor any mention of the process.
The 2010 rules, while not perfect, were strong: They prohibited specific activities such as reclamation of land, setting up of industry, solid waste dumping, and discharge of untreated waste. They stipulated that water withdrawals, fishing, grazing, dredging and other such activities could only be undertaken after prior approval from the state government. These provisions have been done away with.
Instead, the restricted activities have been vaguely clubbed so as to only allow “wise use of wetland” in order to maintain “ecological character”, by taking an “ecosystem approach”. The new draft is cleverly imprecise in its wording, employing vaguely enforceable yet seemingly well-meaning jargon. One can’t help but conclude that it has been drafted with the intention of escaping penal action.
The draft rules also dissolve the Central Wetland Authority, and instead delegates the responsibility to the formation of state authorities, chaired by the respective Chief Minister. This Authority will in turn report to the State Government, also headed by the Chief Minister. A report to be prepared and assessed by the same people isn’t good practice.
Academics, NGOs, and civil society representatives were given until June 5 to register their objections or suggestions to the draft. Several meetings were held across the country, online petitions signed, and numerous notes and comments submitted to the Ministry. A group of activists has also made a submission to work with the government to draw up a plan to implement and strengthen the Wetland (Conservation and Management) Rules 2010. They have rejected, in its entirety, the new draft.
The expanse of a wetland is often identified where the water table is at or near the surface, or the land is covered by shallow water. Given these characteristics, wetlands are easily encroached and reclaimed. Because they are not easily demarcated, it’s essential that we establish a consultative and multi-disciplinary approach within a stipulated timeline to identify and notify wetlands across the country. Their importance cannot be overstated, given the climate variability and growing intensity of both heat and rainfall, and consequently India’s susceptibility to flood and drought.
The Prime Minister must intervene. The ball is in the Ministry’s court.