The Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules 2010 had clearly prohibited activities like reclamation of wetlands, setting up of new industries and expansion of existing industries, solid waste dumping, manufacturing or handling or storage or disposal of hazardous substances, discharge of untreated waste and effluents from industries, cities, towns and other human settlements, any construction of permanent nature and any other activity that is likely to have an adverse impact on the ecosystem of wetlands.
However, the Draft Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules 2016 released last week prohibit only reclamation of wetlands and conversion for non-wetland uses, any diversion or impediment to natural water inflows and outflows of the wetland and any activity having or likely to have an adverse impact on the ecological character of the wetlands. The Union environment ministry has invited comments from all stakeholders and experts by 6 June.
Wetlands mean an area of marsh, peatland or water, natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish or salt and all inland and coastal waters such as lakes, reservoirs, tanks, backwaters, lagoons, creeks, estuaries and man-made wetlands. But it does not include river channels and paddy fields.
While the 2010 version emphasized on the creation of a Central Wetlands Regulatory Authority (CWRA), the new draft rules state that “all state governments shall set up a state-level wetlands authority entrusted with affairs related to wetland conservation, regulation and management".
The state wetland authorities will include the chief minister or minister in charge of environment department, chief secretary and secretaries of top departments like forests, water resources, fisheries, irrigation, tourism, urban development, rural development, revenue and experts from the fields of wetland ecology, hydrology, fisheries and socioeconomics. The state-level authorities will not only prepare an inventory of wetlands in their territory but would also identify wetlands to be regulated under these rules.
According to a senior environment ministry official, who did not wish to be identified, the move is part of the ministry’s efforts to decentralize decision-making to states. “The step would give more powers to states to protect and regulate wetlands," said the official.
Environmentalists, however, disagree. “This is not decentralizing. It is nothing but outsourcing the job to the state government. The ministry can’t wash off its hands like this. The ministry will have to come up with some mechanism to ensure who is going to decide what will be the activity that would impact wetlands and is in spirit of wetland protection," said Kanchi Kohli, legal research director at the Namati Environmental Justice Program of the Centre for Policy Research (CPR). CPR is a Delhi-based non-governmental organization working on a range of policies, including environmental issues.
“Basically, wetlands are coming in the way of a lot of development proposals. They are located in places—urban or local—where industries are seeking expansion. The draft rules are basically leaving it subject to interpretation. In the current scheme of things where there is no level of trust, it is questionable that judgement (by those making decisions) will be taken in favour of wetlands," Kohli added.
A case regarding proper implementation of the 2010 rules is currently under way at the National Green Tribunal (NGT). Lawyer Rahul Choudhary, who is fighting the case at NGT, said, “The draft rules are a clear attempt of diluting environment rules. The present government has not shown any action to protect the environment."
Since 2010, there have been only three meetings of the CWRA, with the last one in April 2012. The tenure of the CWRA ended in March 2015 and since then, it has been awaiting reconstitution.
The environment ministry itself says that wetlands are the lifelines of society due given the services they provide—water supply and purification; waste assimilation; buffer against extreme events as floods, droughts, storms and cyclones; groundwater recharge; erosion control—and the fact that they also support recreational, social and cultural activities, as well as harbouring a range of floral and faunal diversity.
They can also help in mitigating and adapting to changing climate through their ability to act as carbon sinks, regulate water regimes, prevent erosion and provide a habitat to biodiversity under stress.
Wetlands are seriously threatened by reclamation and degradation as a result of drainage and landfills, pollution (domestic and industrial effluents, disposal of solid waste) resulting in loss of biodiversity and disruption of the wetland systems.