In March this year, the central government set the ball rolling on a new set of rules intended to protect wetlands. The Draft Wetland (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2016, which seek to replace the older Wetland (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2010, are open for public comments until today, May 31.
The new Rules have been proposed at a time when several petitions on the implementation of the 2010 Rules are pending at the National Green Tribunal (NGT). After it emerged that states were yet to notify wetlands under the 2010 Rules, the NGT directed them to do so in at least 5-10 districts in a time-bound fashion.
One of the reasons cited for bringing in the new Rules has been ineffective implementation of the 2010 Rules. The draft 2016 Rules seek to decentralise wetlands management to states, with the Centre having a say only in “exceptional cases” — a provision that could potentially weaken conservation efforts in these eco-sensitive zones.
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Several organisations and legal experts have submitted their objections to the new Rules, which they say have the potential to significantly dilute the protective framework for wetlands. Organisations such as the Bombay Natural History Society, WWF India, Legal Initiative for Forests and Environment, International Rivers, INTACH, Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan and South Asian Network on Dams Rivers and People have sent representations to the Environment Ministry. Ritwick Dutta, an environmental lawyer and member of the Legal Initiative for Forests and Environment, said, “It makes very little sense to grant states, which have so far not been adhering to the Rules that are already in place, all the power to notify wetlands.”
Here is how the 2016 draft is different from the 2010 Rules.
2010 Rules: The Centre created the Central Wetland Regulatory Authority (CWRA), headed by the Secretary, Ministry of Environment, and consisting of bureaucrats and experts.
Draft Rules: Propose the removal of this body entirely, and its replacement by a State Level Wetland Authority in each state. According to the draft Rules, the power to identify and notify wetlands would be vested in the Chief Minister, who as chief executive of the state government as well as of the state wetland authority, will propose and notify wetlands after accepting or rejecting recommendations. While transferring powers from the central to the state authority, the draft has left out powers such as the one to periodically review the list of wetlands and the activities prohibited in them, and the power to issue “whatever directions (are) necessary for conservation, preservation and wise use of wetlands”. The Rules simply ask the state authorities to take “necessary directions for conservation and sustainable management of wetlands”.
2010 Rules: Wetlands have to be notified within a year of the Rules coming into force, and there are deadlines for each process along the way: 6 months for identification and classification, 30 days to send it to a research institute for reference and opinion, 90 days for the research institute to submit its opinion. The rest of the time is available for fulfilling notification formalities, which pass through the central authority.
Draft Rules: Do away with the time-bound process for notification.
2010 Rules: Activities prohibited in wetlands include reclamation, constructing permanent structures within 50 m, setting up or expanding industries, throwing waste, etc.
Draft Rules: The entire list, apart from reclamation, has been deleted. Activities that make “wise use” of wetlands have been permitted. The state authority is to decide what does, and doesn’t, amount to “wise use”.
2010 Rules: 12 activities including fishing, boating, dredging, etc. are restricted without prior permission from the state government.
Draft Rules: Do not address the issue of prior permission for any activity.
2010 Rules: State that the Rules apply also to “areas rich in genetic diversity” and “areas of outstanding natural beauty”, besides protected areas.
Draft Rules: Have removed those words.
2010 Rules: Include “wetland complexes”, which are a set of wetlands dependent on each other.
Draft Rules: Have removed the provision for wetland complexes.
2010 Rules: An Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) is compulsory before undertaking any activity in a wetland area.
Draft Rules: Make no mention of the need to conduct an EIA.
2010 Rules: Cover all wetlands and wetland complexes larger than a specified area — 5 hectares for high-altitude regions, 500 hectares elsewhere.
Draft Rules: Only those wetlands notified by the state government; no size specified.
2010 Rules: Allow a challenge to a decision taken by the CWRA before the NGT.
Draft Rules: CWRA is gone; there is no mention of a person’s ability to challenge the state authority’s decision.
Wetland encompass a broad range of ecosystems characterised by bodies of water like lakes, ponds, rivers or marshes, and their surrounding bio-networks. They are breeding grounds for fish and fowl, they store and recharge groundwater, and act as buffers against storms and floods. Wetlands are nature’s measures against both droughts and floods, of which India has repeatedly been a victim.
Despite their vital importance to humans, across India, wetlands are seriously threatened by reclamation and degradation through processes of drainage, landfilling, discharge of domestic and industrial effluents, disposal of solid waste, and overexploitation of the natural resources that they offer. In its effort to save and protect wetlands, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change has invoked Article 51A of the Constitution, which makes it a Fundamental Duty of every citizen “to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife”.
India is one of the 169 signatories to the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, signed in Ramsar, Iran, in 1971, an intergovernmental treaty that provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources. There are 2,241 Ramsar sites across the world, including 26 spread across India from Wular Lake in Jammu and Kashmir to Ashtamudi Wetland in Kerala, and from Deepor Beel in Assam to Nal Sarovar in Gujarat.