Who is Responsible for Wetlands in India? Many and No One

While several civic bodies are responsible, wetlands have been largely ignored despite their ecological importance.

Migratory birds at a restored wetland in Yamuna Biodiversity Park, Delhi. Credit: Neha Sinha

Migratory birds at a restored wetland in Yamuna Biodiversity Park, Delhi. Credit: Neha Sinha

This August, the Central Wetland Regulatory Authority (CWRA), tasked with identifying and protecting wetlands, met after a gap of two years. This was after an order by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in May asking states to identify wetlands and a subsequent order in July asking the CWRA to meet every month.

Water and air are two essential elements that allow all life on Earth to thrive. The air is everywhere but water is not and history tells us that human habitations developed in the vicinity of water bodies. In the same vein, wild animals thrive only where water is available nearby.

The environment ministry decided to bring in the Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules 2010 under the umbrella of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986.

According to the country’s Wetland Rules, a ‘wetland’ means an area or of marsh, fen, peat-land or water; natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish or salty, including areas of marine water, the depth of which at low tide does not exceed six meters and includes all inland waters such as lakes, reservoir, tanks, backwaters, lagoon, creeks, estuaries and manmade 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. It clarifies that wetland does not include main river channels, paddy fields and the coastal wetland.

The Rules besides providing legal protection, also prohibit several damaging activities like reclamation, industrial development, hazardous substances, solid waste dumping, sewage dumping, permanent construction or any other ecosystem damaging activity in and around a notified wetland. Indeed, this has been the need of the hour as wetlands in the country are infested with all these problems. The Rules were framed with the objective of providing legal protection to important wetlands of the country. But here are the facts: not even one wetland has been notified under the Wetlands Rules in six years since they came into force.

In an answer to a question raised in Rajya Sabha on conservation of wetlands on 25 July 2016, the government repied: “As per National Wetland Atlas published by the Space Applications Centre (SAC), Ahmedabad in 2011, there are a total of 7,57,060 wetlands in the country occupying 15.26 million hectare area (around 4.63% of the geographic area of the country). These include lakes/ponds, ox-bow lakes, high altitude & riverine wetlands, waterlogged areas, rivers/streams, tanks, reservoirs, lagoons, creeks, sand beaches, corals, mangroves, mud flats, salt pans, aquaculture ponds, etc. Out of the total 757,060 wetlands, 555,557 wetlands have an area less than 2.25 hectare”. 

Throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

There is also a question of who owns wetlands. In Delhi, it is the Delhi Development Authority, the Delhi Jal Board, the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board, Public Works Department, Archaeological Survey of India, Forest Department, the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation, the Block Development Officer and the Wakf Board. That is ten agencies in all, with different stakes and which don’t always include wetland protection.

In another instance, the EIA Response Centre (ERC) was trying to find the status of a nodal agency/wetland authority in Goa (disclosure: the author is director of the ERC). ERC spoke to several government departments, if it concerned them, but all declined. Thus, an RTI was filed with the Chief Secretary of Goa. The RTI was tossed around from one department to other – transferred to the Forest Department, Water Resources Department, Directorate of Agriculture, Department of Science and Technology and Goa State Council of Science and Technology but none replied back. The fact of the matter is that there is sheer indifference and shrugging of responsibility as far as wetlands are concerned.

A report on the water bodies of the National Capital Territory of Delhi has been prepared by Delhi Parks & Gardens Society, Department of Environment. It recorded 1,012 water bodies for Delhi, of which 107 were not even traceable, 82 are fully encroached, 70 are partially encroached and 39 have been illegally build while 78 have been legally build. In a nutshell, 306 water bodies are completely lost i.e. 30% while 7% are partially lost. This is not the complete picture. These are physical losses, while the remaining water-bodies are either sewage dumps, solid waste dumps or filled with industrial effluents. In simple words, these wetlands are abused, highly polluted and poor people are forced to use them in the absence of an alternative.

These Rules are a positive step only if they are sincerely implemented, which has not happened. I filed a petition, Pushp Jain vs UoI & others (Original Application 560 of 2015) in the Principle Bench of the NGT in Delhi in order to ensure implementation of the wetland rules and consequent protection of wetlands of the country. There is another similar case, Anand Arya vs. Union of India & others (Original Application 501 of 2015). These two cases have been clubbed and are generally being heard together.

There are thirty eight respondents in the first case – the environment ministry, all states and union territories. The impact of the case on the environment ministry has been negative. Instead of taking care of ailing the baby, it wants to throw away the baby. It has drafted a much diluted version of the Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules 2010. On the other hand, 15 States and UTs, who have responded in the case so far, have shown positive reactions by way of creating or activating the nodal agencies for wetlands, constituted or activated committees for identification and notification of wetlands and some have provided the list of wetlands they had proposed to be notified, but the documents were returned by the Central Authority, and/ or are willing to notify some important wetlands.

The NGT first issued notices to all respondents, gave them time to respond; secondly, it asked them to prove their bona-fide; identify and notify wetlands in at least five to 10 districts in each state/union territory. Smaller states could go for less number of districts i.e. five, while bigger states like Uttar Pradesh needed to go for larger number of districts i.e. 10. Recently, on 22 July 2016, it directed the CWRA to meet every month and submit the minutes of the meetings along with the action taken for identification and notification of wetlands.  

Wetland governance

The crux of the matter is the physical and ecological protection of wetlands. Mapping and notification is one basic aspect that needs to be done for all important wetlands. The SAC, Ahmedabad has basic information (database) on all the wetlands of the country. This can be built upon. A 24×7 satellite watch system can be developed. Urbanisation has led to disassociation of people from wetlands. People get water from taps at home and mineral water bottles on the road. They should know the importance of wetlands.

Sewage and solid waste management and treatment is a universal problem in the country and needs to be addressed for cleaning and preserving the wetlands as well. Private specialised agencies can be hired for the job. Here, the pertinent question is 100% solution – if we stop even 90% dumping of sewage, solid waste or effluent in a water body, the remaining 10 would keep it polluted anyway. There should be six monthly test reports of each wetland and information is made available in public domain. Concerned agency, authority, official should be penalised in case of any encroachment or deterioration of a wetland.

If we look at the governance of natural resources in India, for example forests – these have been solely managed by one government agency, the Forest Department. Briefly, the result is encroachment and degradation of forests. The concept of Joint Forest Management has been experimented with since late 1990s, to protect and rejuvenate forests, where government and community work together in forest management. The results are still not better since the virtual authority is the Forest Department with no accountability and the community with no real authority but all  accountability! It is now pertinent that action planning and management of a wetland should be the charge of concerned the gram sabha in case of a village wetland, a resident welfare agencies where existing or community and/or a reputed civil society organisation in case of an urban wetland.

This is not talking in isolation. There are examples of success of community and civil society organisations like Tarun Bharat Sangh along with local community helped build and rejuvenate thousands of ponds and other water conservation structures in Rajasthan. In case of very large wetlands, there can be stand alone authority with an important role for people and local organisations.

All this needs to be built into the Rules to be legally binding. In case of a wetland of biodiversity significance, community reserve or conservation reserve provision of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 can be used. In forest areas, the community forest resource provision of the Forest Rights Act, 2006 can be used. The focus has to be not only the physical protection of a wetland but also its catchment and the flood-plain. Let us get going, it is already late.

Pushp Jain is the director of EIA Response Centre, Delhi, and a petitioner before the National Green Tribunal on the comprehensive protection of wetlands.

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