Ramsar is not a strong, strict and rigid convention

India has listed 16 wetlands under the Ramsar sites, but with no policies, knowledge or interest shown by the authorities, proper management is impossible? Brij Gopal speaks to Lian Chawii on this issue. Gopal is a member of several international organisations related to wetlands, he is currently professor of environmental sciences at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

Published: Wednesday 31 May 2000

Is there a comprehensive wetland management policy in India?
There is neither a policy nor a plan for wetland management in India. Ad-hocism prevails without understanding the science or the system. There have been plans to make a draft policy and submit it to the government for consideration, but I do not know what the government has done. There is no policy; even the Ramsar sites do not require specific laws.

What are the lacunae in the Ramsar convention?
It is not a strong, strict and rigid convention with built-in science. Even if you list an ocean as a Ramsar site, they will just accept it. Ramsar is a 'paper tiger'; it leaves everything to the government. It enjoins upon the government to take care of wetlands that are important and does not question the government's decision once the country decides that an area is of international importance. It assumes that the government adheres to the listed criteria. Earlier, they did not ask for a map. Even the area, the latitude and longitude of the wetland is not verified. It is left entirely up to the government to provide the information, then the Ramsar accepts whatever it is handed. It is the government's duty to protect it and ensures that there is proper policing.

What are the reasons for the degradation of wetlands?
The increasing human demand on water and the resulting rise in wastewater are decimating wetlands. If this loss continues the wetland fauna may disappear, biodiversity will decline and so also the quality of water.

Did the ban on grazing in Bharatpur National Park lead to the decline of Siberian cranes?
Yes, even before the ban on grazing was imposed, I insisted that they do not go ahead with it. But, Dr Salim Ali who wanted the ban was more influential, so they carried on with the ban. Now look at the results, after ten years, they say that grazing is good. I don't say that the ban on grazing is the only reason for the decline in the number of cranes, but it is a contributing factor. If the cranes find that the conditions are not suitable, they return to where they came from.

How can we involve the local communities in the management of wetlands?
Practically everywhere wetlands have been extensively used and managed by the local communities. The so called "managers" threw them away and now we talk of involving them. Kolleru and Bharatpur (wetlands) are glaring examples. The crux of the problem lies in the population explosion and increased demand on resources. Often we try to raise the living standards of the local communities and try to bring them into the mainstream by weaning them away from their natural systems for various reasons. Once exposed to modern life, will they return to old management practices?

Can we also adopt the same policy in Delhi?
If we have the land and can store our sewage, then we can theoretically think of it, but it may not be the right way of doing things. There are better and more constructive ways of using sewage like growing vegetation in this water, purifying the water in the process.

What can we learn from the US system of wetland maintenance?
They follow the policy of no-net loss in America. This means that no piece of wetland, even if it is a small one, should be lost: it has to be compensated elsewhere. Every plant identified with America's wetlands is listed and depending upon this, the boundaries of wetlands are identified. The lists are readily available and they have a legal definition for wetlands. Many legal disputes have ensured this. So the wetlands are listed, identified and protected. They do not create boundaries like India where personal interests prevail.

What are your suggestions on the improvement and the maintenance of wetlands in India?
We have to first identify the wetlands and map them properly, then decide their functions and, lastly, the reason for the need to protect them. So far, there is no mapping of the entire area. Even the remote sensing system is not able to make out a wetland clearly because it fluctuates from wet to flooded at intervals. One has to clearly distinguish the basis of classification of wetlands and the reason for the classification has to be mentioned. An integrated water and wetland policy is needed to find out what can be done. This will decide where to set up wetlands. Other countries are breaching embankments, destroying the banks and letting the river flow again. India also needs to take such initiatives.

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