Last week, during the hearing of the case against Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living (AoL) Foundation at the National Green Tribunal (NGT), counsel for AoL brought up the concept of wetlands in India.
“The report repeatedly uses the expression ‘wetlands’,” he said to a Bench headed by NGT Chairperson Justice Swatanter Kumar. “In fact, there are no wetlands. The Ramsar Convention does not enlist this (the Yamuna floodplains) as a wetland and it cannot be termed as such under law.”
AoL faces accusations of ravaging the Yamuna floodplains in Delhi, where it organised a World Culture Festival over three days in March 2016. In a 31-page report submitted in April 2017, a seven-member panel of experts appointed by the NGT to assess the damage referred, on at least 10 separate occasions, to the “wetlands” on the floodplains.
AoL’s argument is not isolated. The NGT is currently hearing 18 other cases in which “wetlands” are the centre of contention.
Wetlands are nature’s “kidneys” that “purify the system”, said Rahul Kaul, Chief Ecologist with the Noida-based nature conservation non-profit Wildlife Trust of India. “Certain wetlands, like the ones in Kashmir, have a regulatory role — they control floods. They absorb water when the levels are high, release it in times of drought,” Kaul said.
In 1982, India became a signatory to the Ramsar Convention, 1971, an intergovernmental treaty aimed at the “conservation and wise use of wetlands”, thus committing itself to protecting wetlands in a “wide variety of habitats, such as rivers and lakes, coastal lagoons, mangroves, coral reefs, and numerous man-made wetlands”.
In 2010, the central government notified The Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules (amended in 2016), which noted that as “vital parts of the hydrological cycle, (wetlands) are highly productive, support exceptionally large biological diversity and provide a wide range of ecosystem services, such as waste assimilation, water purification, flood mitigation, erosion control, groundwater recharge, micro climate regulation…”
According to The Convention on Wetlands signed in Ramsar, Iran, wetlands “include a wide variety of habitats such as marshes, peatlands, floodplains, rivers and lakes, and coastal areas such as salt marshes, mangroves, and seagrass beds, but also coral reefs and other marine areas no deeper than six metres at low tide, as well as human-made wetlands such as waste-water treatment ponds and reservoirs”.
The 2010 Rules laid down an equally comprehensive definition: “an area or of marsh, fen, peatland or water; 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 and includes all inland waters such as lakes, reservoir, tanks, backwaters, lagoon, creeks, estuaries and man-made wetland and the zone of direct influence on wetlands, that is to say the drainage area or catchment region of the wetlands as determined by the authority, but does not include main river channels, paddy fields and the coastal wetland…”
Environmentalist Anand Arya, a petitioner in a Supreme Court case on wetlands, said: “There is no doubt about how to define a wetland. If anyone says they don’t know the definition, they are pulling a fast one.”
But AoL is making a technical argument. “Wetlands needs to be preserved everywhere in India, whether coastal, riverine or inland,” said a spokesperson. However, wetlands are only “whatever is notified by the authority under the wetland rules, and if it’s not notified it can never be called a wetland”, the spokesperson said.
At the heart of AoL’s argument in the NGT is this crucial catch: not a single wetland in India has been notified by the government as yet. This is in spite of the existence of specific Rules, since 2010, on how to identify wetlands and how to prepare “Brief Documents”.
“Currently, there are 7,57,000 wetlands in India,” Arya said. “The Supreme Court has extended protection to 2,01,503 of these, which occupy 95% of the wetland area.” Each of these wetlands is spread over more than 2.25 hectares. The 2,01,503 wetlands were listed in the National Wetland Inventory & Assessment prepared by ISRO’s Space Applications Centre for the Environment Ministry in 2011, when Jairam Ramesh was Minister.
“As a first step, the ‘Brief Documents’ with regard to these wetlands should be obtained by the Union of India from the respective State Governments in terms of Rule 6 of the Wetland Rules, 2010,” the Supreme Court said in its February 2017 order.
The ‘brief documents’ include, according to guidelines issued by the Ministry in 2010, “broad geographical delineation of the wetland; its zone of influence along with a map; the size of the wetland; account of pre-existing rights and privileges, consistent or not consistent with the ecological health of the wetland”.
Yet, the Supreme Court noted, “many of these proposals/brief documents” received from the states “contain deficiencies”. In the case of Uttar Pradesh, for instance, which sent 542 brief documents for review, the Centre said maps were “not legible, accurate or, to scale”, delineation of boundary and its zone of influence and GPS coordinates were not given, and the proposal was not in conformity with the 2010 Rules. Identical problems were noted for the five proposals that Delhi sent.
“At the Eastern Zonal Bench of the NGT in Kolkata, counsel representing a state said that he was waiting for the water to drain before measuring the wetland,” advocate in the NGT, Ritwick Dutta, said. “He completely missed the point of a wetland.”
As part of its February 2017 order, the Supreme Court directed that the amendment to the 2010 Rules — the Wetland (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2016 — be notified on or before June 30. This deadline was missed — and on Wednesday, when the matter came up in the Supreme Court, the court gave the government time until September 30 to notify the Rules, and asked it to make an inventory of wetlands that have already vanished from among the 2,01,503 identified in the 2011 Inventory.
Environmentalists, however, say the 2016 Rules have diluted the spirit of the 2010 original. For instance, the national-level Central Wetlands Regulatory Authority (CWRA) has been done away with entirely.
“Ideally, there should be a CWRA to guide the process. There is need to develop a standard list of activities not be taken up at wetlands in general, besides restricting or banning site-specific activities,” said an environmentalist who did not wish to be named. The mechanism to “push and prod” state governments to complete the process in a “time-bound manner” has been done away with, complained activists.
Environmentalist Pushp Jain, who has gone to the Green Tribunal against inadequate implementation of the 2010 Rules, said despite the Supreme Court’s order, “nobody has bothered” to begin the process of identifying wetlands, since “nobody realises the implication”.
It is now up to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change to “write to all states and Union Territories as per the SC’s order and ensure that the Wetland Rules are implemented”, Jain said.
“We have a little more than 5% of (India’s total) geographical area occupied by wetlands,” said Arya. “And as India grows, we need fresh water.”