No lessons learnt from J&K, Chennai: Draft Wetland Rules 2016 pose serious threat to wetlands

Dhritiman Mukherjee4

To,
The Secretary,
Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.
Indira Paryavaran Bhavan.
Jorbagh Road, New Delhi-110003

Subject: Submission urging the MoEF&CC to Reject Draft Wetland (Conservation and Management) Rules 2016 which pose a serious threat to Wetland Conservation in the country

Respected Sir,

Draft Wetland Rules 2016

Importance of Wetlands
As you are well aware, wetlands are considered among the most productive ecosystems globally. Millennium Ecosystem Assessment estimates that wetlands provide services to the extent of about $15 trillion annually. About 4.7 per cent of India’s land area is covered by wetlands, but the influence of these wetlands goes far beyond their area alone. They store water, recharge groundwater, purify water (East Kolkata Wetlands, also a Ramsar Site, are a remarkable example of sewage treatment by a wetland ecosystem), moderate floods, help fight droughts, are important refuge of biodiversity, and also act as carbon sinks making them irreplaceable and invaluable in the context of climate change. They provide livelihoods to millions of Indians directly, while providing indirect benefits to many more people.
Wetlands sequester Carbon through high rates of organic matter inputs and reduced rates of decompositions (Pant et al., 2003).
India also witnessed devastating impacts of the Chennai Floods in Nov-Dec 2015 and Jammu & Kashmir Floods in Sept 2014 where encroachment and degradation of Wetlands played a major role in amplifying the tragedy. In this context, one was sure that the new Wetland Rules would enable more protection to wetlands: an entity which provides immense ecological goods and services to the society.
The opening line of Draft 2016 Rules seems to raise hopes for the wetlands, “Central Government considers it necessary to supersede the Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2010 for effective conservation and management of the wetlands in the country.”

However, the Draft 2016 Wetland Rules fail in their task of protecting wetlands. They have disregarded the consultative process which started way back in 2008 when the First Draft Regulatory Framework for Wetland Conservation of India was put out by the MoEF, and threaten to jeopardise Wetland Conservation in the country.
Wetland conservation has been diluted over the years, and are reaching a low with the Draft 2016 Rules.
The Regulatory Framework for Wetland Conservation Rules which were put out for comments in 2008 and which saw participation from several organizations and groups across the country aimed at classifying Wetlands in the country in three categories, A, B and C based on their sizes and importantly, uses to local communities.
Management included Prohibiting activities like converting Wetlands to non-wetland uses, reclamation, solid waste dumping, etc., while Regulated activities included change in hydrology, construction in wetlands, dredging, etc.
Institutional structure proposed by the Draft 2008 Framework was very interesting and worked in three tiers: A Central Wetland Authority, a State Wetland Authority and a District Wetland Conservation Committee, which included members from villages and Gram panchayats. Wetlands for notification could be nominated by a number of entities, including community organizations and even industry bodies. It also had a separate Penal Provision Clause.

I would now like to give suggestions and comments on the current 2016 rules with a brief reference to 2008 and 2010 rules.
In the context of the 2008 and 2010 rules, the Draft Wetland Rules (2016) have some serious problems:
The 2016 rules have entirely dismantled the Central Wetland Authority. There is no role for the Center to play in Wetland Conservation or Protection. This is emphasized by a sentence added in the Preamble of the Rules which states: “State Governments need to take into account wetland ecosystem services and biodiversity values within their developmental programming, also taking into cognizance that land and water, two major ecological constituents of wetland ecosystems are enlisted as State subjects within the Constitution”.
It has been argued that one of the main reasons for diluting Wetlands Rules was to give more authority to States as land and water are state subjects. This reason alone is unacceptable for a number of reasons. Firstly, Wetlands are far more than state subjects of “water” and “land”. To see wetlands only limited to land and water indicates little understanding of the fragile environment and ecology of wetlands.

Definition of Wetlands: Under the 2010 Rules, ‘wetlands’ included, besides various types of wetlands, ‘the zone of direct influence on wetlands that is to say the drainage area or catchment regions of the wetlands as determined by the authority.’ This increases, and includes, areas to which the Wetland Rules would be applicable (like the catchment area) besides just the actual water bodies. Whereas in the 2016 draft Rules, ‘wetlands’ includes, besides water bodies, ‘ecosystems located at the interface of land and water and wherein water plays a dominant role in controlling plant and animal life and associated ecosystem processes.’ The problem with the wording of the latter expression is that it is very vague in nature, are ambiguous, prone to differing interpretations, and would be hard to establish/prove as to what extent the water controlled ecosystem prevails so that such areas can be protected besides the actual water bodies. The earlier test of ‘drainage area or catchment region of the wetlands’ under the 2010 Rules was much simpler and it was easier to demarcate the area of influence of wetlands so that they can be protected. So the earlier expression should be included in the definition of wetlands instead of the latter expression used in 2016 Rules.
No time Schedule Laid for Identification/Notification of Wetlands
Nowhere in the Draft Rules there is any mention of any time schedule within which the identification and notification of Wetlands is to be completed. This ambiguity would result in no action being taken at all and thus dilutes the whole purpose of Protection to Wetlands that is envisaged in the Environment (Protection) Act of 1986.
No criteria or even a Guideline for Wetlands which should be notified by the State. No mention of wetlands on the basis of their uses, size, ecological importance, heritage sites, etc. There is also:
• No criteria about the minimum and maximum areas of Wetlands that state has to notify
• No mention of Wetlands of National Importance, while it does include those of international importance.
• No mention of how Ramsar Wetlands would be governed
• No mention of Interstate and Transboundary wetlands and how these would be governed and by whom

Wetlands to be protected – Under section 3 (ii) – (v) of the 2010 Rules, various types of wetlands are mentioned, differentiated by their character, which shall be regulated under the said Rules. These included wetlands lying in ecologically sensitive areas, within a UNESCO world heritage site, high altitude wetlands above a certain altitude, low lying wetlands of a certain minimum area, etc. These wetlands were besides the ones’ under the Ramsar Convention (thereby of international importance) or the wetlands to be notified by the Central government under sub clause (i) and (vi) of Rule 3. This ensured that these were certain parameters laid down in the rules to identify the wetlands which shall be protected, because not every water body can be classified as a ‘wetland’ in need of protection under the Rules. Whereas under the Draft Rules of 2016, Rule 3 states that all wetlands which are notified by the State wetland Authority or the Central government based on recommendation from the union territories, shall be governed by these Rules, besides the wetlands of international importance. The Rules do not lay down any criterion for identification of wetlands which need genuine protection and thus should be notified. The definition of ‘wetlands’ given under the Rules is very generic and would not be of any help in identifying the wetlands to be included in the inventory and notified for protection. This would create confusion because every State would have numerous water bodies of various sizes and it will not be possible for the State wetland authority to inventorize every single one of them – some would be too small in area, some may be temporary formed due to rains etc. This will give rise to Authorities choosing wetlands at random and inventorising them without applying any standard parameters for their classification. This would result in arbitrary ‘pick and choose’ policy. Therefore the Rule 3(ii) – (v) of 2010 Rules should be retained in the new Draft Rules.
The Draft Rules are ambiguous as to what activities would be permitted and what would not be permitted with in the Wetland area. Ambiguity has been introduced, looks quite deliberately, by using vague expressions such as 1. ‘Principle of wise use’ 2. ‘With in the context of sustainable development’ 3. ‘Ecological Character’ 4. ‘Ecosystem Approach’ etc and so on each of which is open to interpretation.
Prohibited activities within a wetland No guidelines about activities that should be Prohibited or even Regulated in the Wetlands by States. Section 6: Process of Notification of Wetlands does not even mention the word prohibition.
Under the 2010 Rules, Rule 4(1)(i) – (vii) gave an exhaustive list of activities which were prohibited within a wetland area. These included reclamation of wetlands, setting up of new industries, storing or dumping of hazardous wastes, solid wastes, untreated water or industrial effluents, any construction of permanent nature or any other activity likely to have an adverse impact on the ecosystem of the wetland. This covered all the major hazardous activities which will have an adverse impact on the wetlands. However in the Draft Rules, 2016, Rule 4(2) provides only three types of prohibited activities – reclamation of wetlands, any diversion or impediment to natural water inflows or outflows of the wetland, any activity likely to have an adverse impact on the ecological character of the wetlands—which is not clearly defined. This third category is a very generic and vague entry and will lead to uncertainty and chaos. This is because unless the prohibited activities are specifically mentioned, any activity can be undertaken within the wetlands with no statutory power to stop it unless it is shown that such activity may cause adverse impact to wetland character. This is a fairly high standard to prove in order to stop such activities. Therefore even activities like dumping of hazardous wastes, solid wastes, industrial effluents etc can be undertaken with no authority under these Rules to prevent them since it would take considerable time to establish that dumping of such wastes will adversely impact the ecological character of wetlands.
Regulated activities within a wetland: Under the 2010 Rules, Rule 4(2) enumerated certain regulated activities within the wetlands which cannot take place without the prior approval of the central government. This ensured that the State governments were aware of the list of activities which could be undertaken in any wetland throughout India, but after prior approval. Now under the 2016 Draft Rules, no such list of regulated activities is provided. On the other hand, it talks about “Lists of uses permitted within the wetlands. There are no guidelines or specifications about Regulated Activities.
State Wetland Authority does not have any authority to take Penal Action against parties who violate the Rules.
It is not clear which department will be coordinating these activities. In 2010 Rules, it was made clear that Forest Department would be entrusted with this responsibility.

To conclude, I reiterate that the Draft Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules (2016) need to be rejected in entirety—for reasons elucidated above, and others. Wetland conservation is of great importance not just ecological, and the many ecosystem services they province, but also for sustaining growth. Ii calls for greater debate, introspection and understanding of wetlands and their significance.
I humbly request the MoEF&CC to take back the 2016 Rules and initiate the process afresh, building on past Draft Framework for Wetland Management (2008) and Wetland Rules (2010). There is a need for a wide public consultation process in which these Rules are discussed also by the stakeholders like fisherfolk, farmers, boatsman, urban planners, experts, conservationists, etc’.

Thanking you,

Yours Sincerely,

Prerna Singh Bindra
Former member, Standing Committee, National Board for Wildlife

31st May, 2016

PHOTOGRAPH CREDIT: DHRITIMAN MUKHERJEE

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