On May 22, Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his message on radio sounded his concerns about the acute drought and water scarcity problems the nation is facing this year. He rightly urged the people to save every drop of rain water this monsoon.
More than common people, politicians and officials managing the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) need to take Modi’s message seriously.
The ministry is all set to dilute the existing Wetland Conservation Rules and replace that with an ambiguous toothless one.
If not opposed, the draft rules – Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2016 – under the Environment Protection Act of 1986, may come into force anytime after June 6 and would virtually lead to destruction of India’s already threatened wetlands and their ecosystems.
The Prime Minister considers monsoon drops as God’s ‘Prasad’ (benediction), but the MoEFCC’s draft rules, that’s now in public domain for comments, seems to be considering wetlands as mere ‘wastelands’ as one could understand from the spirit of these rules.
So, even if we get bumper monsoons, we may not really have the capacity to harvest all those heavenly drops.
Importance of wetlands understated, meanings diluted
Wetlands of different sizes and importance cover about 5 percent of India’s land area.
There are millions of them starting from small ponds we find in almost each habitation to large lagoons such as the Chilika near the Bay of Bengal.
Wetlands bring many benefits to the geography they are in and the people who depend on them. They have many direct and indirect benefits that go beyond their actual physical spread.
Many lakes in India are still providing drinking water to the cities and villages, helping millions of people including fishermen eke a living and serving in numerous other ways; they harvest rain water and help us fight drought and water scarcity, and at the same time provide the much needed flood cushioning during heavy rainfall.
The recharge ground water for us, give shelter to local biodiversity, aid the microclimate of the region, provide carbon sink and help reduce the impacts of cyclones and storms.
The draft rules consider some of this importance but dilute many of them.
There also seems to be a deliberate attempt to delink the catchment areas of the wetlands whose protection are much vital for keeping these ecosystems alive, but which are most encroached upon.
The Chennai floods and many other such recent extreme events, aided by climate change, have shown us how encroached catchments of wetlands have ravaged the area and people.
The 2010 Rules had a detailed list of about seven kind of wetlands that need protection, but the 2016 draft rules limit them to three ‘broad lines’ leaving thereby a lot of ambiguity which gives the authorities to interpret whichever way they want.
Most importantly, the draft rules talks more about ‘restrictions of use’ rather than protection or conservation. That is dangerous.
States and their Chief Ministers are the new masters of wetlands
Unlike the 2010 Rules, in which a Central Wetlands Regulatory Authority was created with officials and experts as members, the 2016 draft rules propose state regulatory authorities to be headed by the chief ministers with chief secretaries and government officials and government experts as members.
These authorities will virtually be the master of the wetlands as they will be responsible for defining, demarcating, regulating and managing these ecosystems.
These authorities will take approval from their respective state governments and the central government will only be informed. The Ramsar sites will be the only exception, where the protection will continue as they are being done now.
Now, the state governments of current decades are known to be competing with each other for attracting as much investment as they can for so called ‘development’ that has necessarily destroyed ecology including the wetlands.
It is easy to guess that the same chief minister who is negotiating with investors for projects that destroy ecological systems would be ineffective in protecting the resources.
This has been proven time and again as state governments have diluted existing laws and rules to divert wetlands for other purposes without considering any cumulative ecological and economic analysis.
The 2016 draft rules call for a very vague ‘wise use’ principle that has no definition under any law. That will just make our wetlands more vulnerable to encroachments and destruction.
Ecological Impacts not considered
As per the previous Rules, any permission for activities in and around the wetlands needed to be permitted only after an environmental impact assessment was done under the EPA.
However, the current Rules do away with that making the decay much faster.
Then, unlike the previous Rules, these set of rules don’t mention a role of the National Green Tribunal where one could go and challenge any wrongdoing by the authorities.
The 2010 Rules had many loopholes but was still much better, and it could never be implemented.
The Central Regulatory Authority supposedly met only once and was never functional.
Within a year of notification of Wetland Rules 2010, states were supposed to identify and classify all wetlands in their jurisdiction in a brief document.
Not a single state did that. It only shows the importance given by states to protect our wetlands.
The 2016 draft rules not only put the onus on state governments but also specify no timelines for any of the activities envisaged.
If implemented, these rules are going to throw our already dying wetlands on a fast path of destruction.
The government must scrap these rules and bring in a new set of powerful ones with ample consultation and greater involvement of public and independent experts besides the government machinery.
One might argue that giving power to the states in this regard aids decentralization.
However, in the case of wetlands – many of whom cross state boundaries – there needs to be an independent mechanism at the centre along with state mechanisms.
Our fight against drought and floods will fail unless we protect our wetlands.
Ranjan Panda is a researcher, environmentalist and activist. He is known as the Waterman of Odisha.