New Delhi: India’s coastal wetlands that include mangroves and coral reefs could be potential sites for development projects if the government’s proposal to leave them out of the purview of its first-ever guidelines to conserve and preserve the country’s wetlands is carried through.
While the draft of the proposal—open for public comments for 60 days that began on 9 July—endorses the government’s pro-development credentials, it has risked a strong rebuke from environmental groups, who argue this is likely to threaten a key ecological asset.
Currently, wetlands—which maintain ecological balance by recharging groundwater, preventing floods and being a repository to biodiversity—are not legally classified or recognized in India. Several other countries, such as the US, have Central and state legislation that regulate and protect wetlands.
Disaster in the making? Environmental groups say exclusion of coastal wetlands from the first-ever guidelines to conserve the country’s wetlands is likely to threaten a key ecological asset. (Photo: Bloomberg)
Coastal wetlands account for more than half of wetland area in the country. India has about 7.6 million ha of wetlands, excluding paddy fields, rivers and canals, out of which 3.6 million ha is inland and 4 million ha coastal, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, an international non-profit organization. There are 2,175 natural wetlands over 1.46 million ha and 65,254 man-made lakes covering 2.85 million ha in the country.
Government estimates of wetland area, however, vary, with the ministry of environment and forests estimating they cover an area of about 5.5 million ha, of which 50% is coastal wetlands.
For coastal wetlands, the draft says these are excluded as they are covered under the Environment Protection Act (EPA) of 1986. Under EPA rules, there is no restriction on land use, unlike the draft wetland rules.
EPA mandates that a coastal wetland can be reclaimed and developed. In the case of the wetlands covered under the new guidelines, the governing body—which can be a district, state or Central, depending on the type of wetland—will have to issue a notification altering the land use.
“Many irrigation projects effectively kill wetlands by diverting water, or by excessive inundation near the storage areas. Thus, environmental impact of land use and land cover changes due to infrastructure development on wetlands is effectively ignored and no management or mitigation strategy is proposed,” said a wetland and biodiversity scientist associated with the developments, who declined to be identified.
The draft asks for state- and district-level committees to be set up, which will individually identify each wetland, which will then be regulated under the rules.
Akin to the environmental impact assessment rules, this draft also divides wetlands into categories on the basis of their relevance and regulation required. Of the three categories, the most critical, category A, will be approved and controlled by the Central committee, category B by state committees and category C by district committees.
Considering India’s often contiguous network of wetlands, scientists doubt whether a site-by-site identification, approval and regulation isfeasible.
“The provisions of this draft force management to be site-by-site, which is not very ecologically sound, especially for flood plain wetlands,” K.S. Gopi Sundar, research associate with the International Crane Foundation, a non-profit, said while citing the example of wetland areas in Uttar Pradesh that are made up of many small wetlands.
“A landscape approach is far more efficient and ecologically sustainable, and explicitly included individual wetlands, while also recognizing their combined worth,” he said.
Gopi Sundar added that it is “sad” that the importance of wetlands to biodiversity conservation and as a source of attracting migrating birds has been ignored in the draft.
“One of the dangers is that only wetlands recognized and officially recorded will be protected under this scheme,” he said. “It appears that a considerable amount of time will pass before one is officially recognized.”
“In India, most wetlands are not documented except on toposheets (physical maps),” Gopi Sundar pointed out.