Flawed laws

A specific wetlands policy needs to be in place

Published: Friday 15 July 2005

Flawed laws

-- Despite a plethora of laws governing conservation, there is no specific law addressing the use, conservation and maintenance of the storehouses of biological diversity -- our threatened wetlands. While wetlands come under the ambit of the Environment (Protection) Act 1986, Indian laws do not recognise wetlands as distinct ecosystems, despite international obligation to do so. Since 1971, India has been a signatory to the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, which goes beyond strict conservation to emphasise the wise use of wetlands. It also enjoins its members to plan and implement the conservation of listed wetlands.

However, institutional aspects of wetland management have received little attention in India -- leave alone enough resources for wetland conservation. Despite several laws indirectly having a bearing on wetlands, there is a lack of accurate scientific information on the subject. Despite the challenges in drafting legislation, some attempt must be made to draft a comprehensive national wetland policy. Broad guidelines for this have been articulated by voluntary organisations, experts and individuals concerned with wetland conservation.

The wetlands crisis is part of the general environment malaise. Growing population pressure on natural resources, aggravated by migration, creates urban land shortage and therefore a reclamation of wetlands. Although environmentalists in Mumbai successfully thwarted construction plans in Mahim creek (an important wetland area with waterfowl), the threat persists as others, like nearby Dahanu, are under industrial stress. New projects -- ports, harbours, thermal power plants and industries -- have come up in fragile coastal wetlands. These projects require an Environmental Impact Assessment (eia) under the notification issued in 1994, but eia s are often manipulated for speedy clearance. The absence of a coherent wetland policy and systematic violations of existing ecosystem laws go hand in hand -- obvious in the functioning of the Coastal Regulation Zone.

Another problem area is that multiple agencies prescribe the use of India's wetlands and cause jurisdiction overlaps in matters like wetland reclamation. The Union ministry of environment and forests manages wetlands, but other agencies -- fisheries, ocean development, agriculture, water resources, power and tourism -- also pitch in.

The unprotected species? Under the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972 and other central laws like the Indian Forest Act 1927, wetlands are occasionally included within protected areas -- then also only as habitats to endangered wildlife. Unlike sanctuaries though, wetlands need human impact to maintain ecological integrity. They even flourish with grazing, while national wildlife laws ban grazing within all national parks. Amending these laws could be a way to enforce the prioritisation of wetland conservation programmes and protect species like the swamp deer that occupy these habitats.

Having said that, it must be added that merely assigning a protected area status to a wetland site will not automatically ensure the wise use of wetlands. Keoladeo National Park, in Bharatpur, Rajasthan, is a case in point. An artificial wetland area, a designated Ramsar site and a duly notified national park, Keoladeo is a wetland where wise use by human beings is essential. But it is also a national park where restrictions on human activities are imposed. This area has had a history of conflict between the park management and local villagers after grazing and fuel wood collection (wise uses) were stopped after the designation of the area as a national park in 1981. However, Bombay Natural History Society scientists, who had carried out a ten-year study of the park, were emphatic that grazing in a regulated way was needed to control aquatic macrophytes that were colonising the wetland and altering its ecology.

Bearing the brunt Wetlands are not only home to certain species, but play an important ecological function in maintaining the groundwater table and preventing excessive soil erosion. The Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972 should be amended to include ecologically fragile wetlands, which should also be notified under the Environment (Protection) Act 1986 and site-specific wetland management plans drawn up to ecological parameters of the area. Otherwise wetlands will be lost forever and, with them, critically endangered species of fauna and flora that survive only in this specific habitat.

Devaki Panini is a senior environmental lawyer in New Delhi

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