The Union environment ministry has been working for the past four years to create a regulatory framework to protect the country’s wetlands. In June 2008, it framed rules to protect wetlands. The draft was criticised by lawyers, environmentalists, activists and people dependent on wetlands. In December 2010, the ministry revised the rules under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, and called them Wetlands (Management and Conservation) Rules, 2010. Down To Earth sought comments on the rules from people involved in conserving wetlands
Towards wetland conservation
The Government of India should enact a wetland conservation act, on the lines of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980. But it should also consider the views of people dependent on wetlands. Millions of acres of village, semi-urban and urban wetlands are controlled by gram panchayats or city administrators. Most often administrators have no interest in protecting them and succumb to land sharks easily. Many times, wetlands are “inspected” during peak summer, when they have no water, and allocated to land sharks as wastelands.
India is a signatory to the Ramsar Convention which slots irrigated agricultural lands, and canals under wetlands. But the wetlands conservation rules, 2010, does not have river canals paddy fields and the coastal wetlands in their ambit. Paddy fields are under water for more than six months and in certain areas like Kerala they are under water throughout the year. So paddy fields should not be excluded from wetland conservation. Not conserving these fields will seriously affect food security and groundwater sources. Tamil Nadu, for example, has lost about 600,000 hectare of paddy fields after Independence.
The framers of the rules have no idea of small ponds in the country, both in urban and rural areas. The draft rules do not have the term “pond” , though they do use a roughly similar term, “tank”. They are not sensitive to the way ponds and tanks are managed. For example, the rules do not permit “construction except boat jetties within 50 metres from mean high flood level of water bodies”. But thousands of small ponds have bathing stairs(ghats) and bathing facilities within this restricted area. Area surrounding ponds are also places for recreation. Will such recreation be banned? There are heritage structures like temples, mosques near ponds which require maintenance and development. If the draft rules become an act, these activities will be illegal.
The rules mandate “prior approval from state for aquaculture and horticulture”. Most ponds and tanks are used for aquaculture and the earnings from these activities are the only source of financing maintenance.
The forest conservation law recognises only certain categories of forests as worthy of conservation. If a stakeholder or an environmentalist wants legal protection for a forest not in the list, then he or she has to file a public interest litigation in courts. We might face similar situation with respect to wetlands, if the draft rules become an act. People might have to take help of the court if they need legal protection to save wetlands not listed.
Today, the government controls all wetlands in the country. The involvement of society is almost minimal. The government ought to become a facilitator‚ while society should become caretaker of wetlands. Significant decisions pertaining to the conservation and welfare of wetlands should be initiated by the end-users of water bodies. Their suggestions should provide guidelines for decision-makers in higher levels of government. I fear the wetlands rules are a subterfuge to regularise encroachments on shrunken wetlands. The rules do consider “overall well being of the people”. But I believe this should be rephrased to “overall improvement of ecosystem” to preclude encroachments and construction activities on wetlands. For the same reason, the section “expedient in the public interest” should be rephrased with “expedient in the environmental interest”.
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