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Yamuna Floodplains: A Damp Squib?

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The Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules 2016 seeks to shift the burden of protecting them from the center to the states and can lead to quite a messy affair

By Dinesh C Sharma


After remaining a mute spectator to the destruction of one of Delhi’s most important wetlands—the Yamuna floodplains—the Ministry of Environment and Forests seems to have set the stage for similar degradation of wetlands all over the country.

A new regulation Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules 2016 notified under the provisions of the Environment Protection Act, 1986–is ostensibly meant to conserve wetlands across the country, but an analysis of the fine print shows that the result could be the opposite. The 2016 rules will supersede the Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules of 2010, and will take effect after a period 60 days during which objections and suggestions can be sent.

ECOLOGICAL FUNCTIONS

Wetlands–natural or man-made lakes, ponds, lagoons, swamps, floodplains, mangroves, creeks, estuaries, reservoirs, marshy lands–are ecosystems located at the interface of land and water and host plant and animal biodiversity. Conservation of wetlands is critical as they perform several important ecological and economic functions–they support livelihoods, are highly productive, help in the hydrological cycle, ground water recharge, sewage treatment, flood mitigation and microclimate regulation, besides being hubs of biodiversity.

land of bountY The pristine Wular Lake in J&K
LAND OF BOUNTY- The pristine Wular Lake in J&K

Wetlands like lakes have traditionally been an integral part of urban ecology.

According to the National Wetland Atlas, India has over 2,00,000 wetlands greater than 2.5 hectares and 5,50,000 wetlands less than 2.5 hectares. The total wetlands area in India is over 15 million hectares, accounting for about 4.7 percent of the total geographic area of the country.

An international agreement, Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, is in force to conserve some of the great wetland sites. India has 26 Ramsar sites. Yet, we find that wetlands are fast disappearing in India. They are being encroached upon by construction, houses and roads.

The result of such destruction has been devastating as seen in the floods in Chennai and Srinagar in recent years. The Wular Lake in Kashmir—which could have acted as a sponge to prevent the flooding of Kashmir, is now just 2,500 hectares compared to its original size of over 20,000 hectares. Bengaluru and Hyderabad too are witnessing fast depletion in the number of lakes and water bodies. The East Kolkata Wetlands system is under attack from real estate developers.

OVER TO STATES

ROWING TO SAFETY-Destruction caused by the floods in Chennai in December 2015
ROWING TO SAFETY-Destruction caused by the floods in Chennai in December 2015

Therefore, the objective of any regulation should be to conserve and protect wetlands. Under the Wetlands Rules of 2010, the primary responsibility of wetland conservation rested with the Central Wetlands Regulatory Authority chaired by the environment secretary. Among other duties, the authority was supposed to grant clearances for “regulated activities” in wetlands and issue directions to state governments for their “conservation, preservation and wise use”. The 2016 rules do away with the Central Regulatory Authority altogether. Instead, every state will have a state-level “Wetlands Authority” (the word “regulation” has been removed) headed by the respective chief minister or state environment minister with half-a-dozen secretaries as members.

This means that wetlands will now be fully controlled by state governments. This is going to be detrimental for wetland conservation, given the past record of states. “If the objective is devolution of power to states or decentralization, then we need to take it down to the communities who need to be legally empowered to protect wetlands. The current draft rules are a sure way to ensure destruction of all wetlands. It will mean that the central government will not even have powers to notify any wetland as an important one,” said Himanshu Thakkar of South Asia Network of Dams, Rivers and People. “The situation arising out of the 2016 Rules is not legally tenable since environment is a concurrent subject. Moreover, as a signatory to Ramsar Convention, it is the obligation of the government of India to protect and regulate Ramsar wetland sites in the country.”

fragile ecology There’s an urgent need to protect the Sundarbans delta in West Bengal
FRAGILE ECOLOGY- There’s an urgent need to protect the Sundarbans delta in West Bengal

REGULATION VACUUM

Manoj Mishra of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan said that the 2010 rules empowered the central government to protect notified wetlands in collaboration with states. “The 2016 document seeks to shift the entire burden of wetlands protection from the center to states with no responsibility of oversight whatsoever of the central government. In case a state government does not form state-level Wetlands Authority, the GOI has kept no handle with it to ensure implementation of the Environment Protection Act, 1986 under which these rules have been made,” he said. In any case, management and ownership of wetlands in states is messy with the subject falling under the jurisdiction of several departments and agencies—revenue, irrigation, forest, wildlife, fisheries, tourism, zilla parishad, municipal corporations, lake development agencies and so on.

watery mess A Srinagar locality during the floods in 2015
WATERY MESS- A Srinagar locality during the floods in 2015

In fact, the 2010 regulation too has remained on paper and the country has no functional regulatory mechanism for wetlands. Under the Wetland Rules notified in December 2010, there should have been a National Wetlands Authority as well as restriction and regulation of activities in notified wetlands. In addition, states were supposed to recommend wetlands for notification as well. “None of this has happened. Today there is no National Wetlands Regulatory Authority. The one formed post-2010 rules did not meet till April 2012. After its term expired, no new authority was constituted. So, in effect, there has been a regulation vacuum for wetlands. Now there will be no central authority at all, as per the 2016 rules,” said Thakkar.

The government explanation is that the regulatory body had become superfluous following the merger of the National Lake Conservation Plan and the National Wet-lands Conservation Programme into a National Plan for Conservation of Aquatic Ecosystems (NPCA) in 2013.

Considering the ongoing drought and water scarcity in many parts of the country and the importance of wetlands in groundwater recharge and ensuring water security, India needs a strong regulation to prevent destruction, reclamation and encroachment of wetlands. Wetlands play a key role not only in drought mitigation, but in food security, biodiversity conservation, livelihood security and flood moderation. Instead of a strong set of rules, the government is relaxing the existing framework.

CRY ME A RIVER- Hindon river has been reduced to a sewer by the dense settlement on its banks
CRY ME A RIVER- Hindon river has been reduced to a sewer by the dense
settlement on its banks

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