On Wednesday, the Supreme Court expressed grave concern over the disappearance of the country’s wetlands: “If there are no wetlands left, it will affect agriculture and several other things. It is a very, very important issue,” the Bench headed by Justice Madan B Lokur said.
The court had earlier observed that even after Rs 900 crore was spent on works related to wetlands, the activities shown were extremely general in nature. It asked the Centre to provide a status report on funds disbursed to states, and the manner of their utilisation.
The government informed the court that the Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2017, had been notified to replace the earlier set of guidelines that came into effect in 2010. Counsel for the petitioner objected to some of the provisions in the 2017 Rules, and was asked by the Bench to file an application.
The court said that 2,01,503 wetlands in the country would continue to be protected by the government. These wetlands had been identified using ISRO’s satellite imagery, after which the apex court had asked the Centre to inventorise, protect and notify them in consultation with state governments.
In February 2017, the Supreme Court had directed the amendments to the 2010 Rules to be notified by June 30, a deadline that it subsequently extended to September 30. The Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change notified the Rules on September 26.
Under the new Rules, wetlands are defined as “an area of marsh, fen, peatland or water; whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish or salt, including areas of marine water the depth of which at low tide does not exceed six metres, but does not include river channels, paddy fields, human-made water bodies/tanks specifically constructed for drinking water purposes and structures specifically constructed for aquaculture, salt production, recreation and irrigation purposes”.
The 2010 Rules specifically included in the definition of wetlands “all inland waters such as lakes, reservoir, tanks, backwaters, lagoon, creeks, estuaries and man-made wetland and the zone of direct influence on wetlands”. These have not been spelt out in the 2017 Rules.
Also, in the 2010 Rules, the list of exclusions from the definition stopped at “main river channels, paddy fields and the coastal wetland”.
The new Rules farm out wetland management to states and union territories. Environmentalists say this is odd, as states and UTs have never acted on wetlands protection and notification in spite of the pressure exerted by the central government — using the Central Wetlands Regulatory Authority (CWRA) — under the 2010 Rules. The 2017 Rules have done away with the CWRA entirely.
CWRA’s place has been taken by the National Wetland Committee, which has a merely advisory role — for instance, to advise the central government on proposals received from states/UTs for “omission of the prohibited activities”, to evolve “norms and guidelines” for integrated management of wetlands based on wise-use principle; recommend trans-boundary wetlands for notification, and review progress of integrated management of Ramsar Convention sites (of which the country has 26).
Under the new Rules, the State or UT Wetlands Authority will “prepare a list of all wetlands… within three months, and a list of wetlands to be notified within six months, from the date of publication of these Rules; taking into cognizance any existing list of wetlands prepared/notified under other relevant state Acts”.
A comprehensive digital inventory of all wetlands is to be prepared within a year; however, it is up to the states to decide which wetlands are to be notified.
The differences between the old and new Rules are also apparent in their applicability. The 2010 Rules listed six points describing protected wetlands; the new Rules have done away with them, and instead state that wetlands are limited to and do not include wetlands under forest and coastal regulation zones. They apply to (a) wetlands categorised as “wetlands of international importance” under the Ramsar Convention and (b) wetlands as notified by the central government, state government and UT administration.
Under ‘Restrictions of activities in wetlands’, the new Rules say conservation and management would be “in accordance with the principle of ‘wise use’ as determined by the Wetlands Authority”. Environmentalists had criticised this principle when the draft Rules were circulated for comments and suggestions — ‘wise use’, the draft Rules said, was “maintenance of ecological character, achieved through implementation of ecosystem approaches, within the context of sustainable development”.
Environmentalist Pushp Jain, who had approached the National Green Tribunal against inadequate implementation of the 2010 Rules, said: “How do you define wise use? It’s a very subjective thing. This is how they are going about diluting the whole thing, leaving many things to the imagination.
“If you think about it sensibly, wise use would mean not dumping waste into wetlands, or not filling them up with building materials. But for over six years, the Rules have just not been implemented, so the new Rules provide leeway to do anything with wetlands at a later stage,” Jain said.
Restriction on activities in wetlands now no longer includes reclamation. The Rules provide no timelines for phasing out solid waste and untreated waste from being dumped into wetlands. The restrictions on “any other activity likely to have an adverse impact on the ecosystem of the wetland”, are not specified in the Rules.
The Rules do, however, restrict any kind of encroachment, poaching, or permanent construction, except for boat jetties within 50 metres of the mean high flood level observed in the past 10 years.
The 2010 Rules said “Any person aggrieved by the decision of the Authority (CWRA) may prefer an appeal to the National Green Tribunal within a period of sixty days from the date of such decision.” This provision does not exist in the 2017 Rules.