Significance: The Supreme Court on Wednesday expressed concern over the disappearance of wetlands in the country and told the government that this was an important issue which deserved very serious attention. The government informed the top court that the Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2017 have been notified and it would replace the earlier set of guidelines which came into effect in 2010.
State of Wetlands in India: Wetland encompass a broad range of ecosystems characterized 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.
Despite their vital importance to humans, across India, wetlands are seriously threatened by reclamation and degradation through processes of drainage, land filling, 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.
Comparison of 2010 and 2017 rules:
- Regulatory Body : In case of 2010 rules, Centre created the Central Wetland Regulatory Authority headed by the Secretary, Ministry of Environment, and consisting of bureaucrats and experts. In 2017 rules, it proposes the removal of such a body entirely and its replacement by a State Level Wetland Authority in each state. The power to identify and notify wetlands would be vested in the Chief Minister who will act as chief executive of the state government as well as of the state wetland authority and will propose and notify wetlands after accepting or rejecting recommendations.
- Time bound process: In case of 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. While in 2017 rules, there are no provisions for time-bound process for notification.
- Activities permitted: As per 2010 rules, activities prohibited in wetlands include reclamation, constructing permanent structures within 50 m, setting up or expanding industries, throwing waste, etc. but in 2017 rules the entire list except reclamation has been deleted.
- Restricted Activities: According to 2010 rules include 12 activities including fishing, boating, dredging, etc. without prior permission from the state government. But in 2017 rules there is no need of prior permission for any activity.
- Environmental Impact: In case of 2010 rules, an Environment Impact Assessment is compulsory before undertaking any activity in a wetland area where as 2017 rules do not make any mention of the need to conduct an EIA.
- Size Specifications: The 2010 Rules used to cover all wetlands and wetland complexes larger than a specified area — 5 hectares for high-altitude regions, 500 hectares elsewhere but the latest rules cover only those wetlands notified by the state government and no size for wetland demarcation is specified.
- Citizens’ Check: As per 2010 rules, citizen audit was allowed as evident from the challenges taken by the CWRA before the NGT but in 2017 rules CWRA is abolished, so there is no mention of a person’s ability to challenge the state authority’s decision.
Suggestions to improve the wetland rules,2017:
- Identification parameters for wetlands: Geohydrological, area, size-circumference and volume specific data, location and nature have to be included while demarcating a particular wetland to have better conservation and management technique.
- Public Data Management: is vital for wetland protection. Hence public, civil society and scientific institutions should be involved in the mapping process. Also, an open-to-public data bank should be created at the state level.
- Ban Leasing to Private entities: Wetlands should not be leased to private companies. The conservation of wetlands should be incentive-based. These measures can include tax benefits, rights to local communities, giving back reclaimed wetland back to the public and other measures.
- Penal Offences: should be compounded on the basis of damage to the wetland. The punishment should be upto three years and fine upto Rs 100,000. The draft adds that the offences should cognisable and non-bailable.