Towards wetland conservation

In India, the national celebration of World Wetland Day had been organized by the Ministry of Environment and Forests at the 5000-year old Chilika lake in Orissa on February 2nd this year. The Chilika lake, the largest brackish water lake in Asia, was declared a Ramsar site in 1981. The lake, which is the survival base for lakhs of fishermen, has been a fiercely contested zone between the traditional fisherfolk and various other vested interests such as ranging from mechanized fishermen and others. The lake, which in the early nineties was 914 sq km in area, is today only 800 sq km. Its degradation was so severe that the Chilika Development Authority was formed to restore and conserve the lake.

Although India is party to the Ramsar Convention, it does not have strong national laws to prevent the misuse of the wetlands. A study published by the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON), Coimbatore, says that between 1991-2001, India lost more than 40% of its wetlands, with some districts recording losses of over 88%. SACON has documented some 700 wetlands in the country, not including the smaller ones, and recommended the inclusion of about 200 of these wetlands in the Ramsar Convention. Sadly, India has only 25 listed wetlands as part of the Ramsar convention, and even these are under rapid decay. The National Wetlands Conservation programme, started in 1987, restricts itself solely to these 25 wetlands. The protection of wetlands is under different protection acts (like Wild life protection act, 1972, Environmental Protection Act, 1986, Indian Forest Act, 1927, Indian Fisheries Act 1897), yet none of them recognize wetlands as separate ecosystem.

India’s wetlands are extraordinarily diverse – ranging from lakes and ponds to marshes, mangroves, backwaters and lagoons – and play a vital role in maintaining water balance, flood prevention, biodiversity and support food security and livelihoods. Yet they are classed as “wastelands” by the government. Wetlands are systematically converted into “real estate” by vested interests or simply used as a dumping ground for sewage and garbage and are receptacles for toxic waste. While community court actions are in process across the country, the lack of a legally enforceable national regulation has hampered any real progress in many of these cases.

Giving in to the clamor for a national regulation, the Ministry of Environment and Forests issued a draft notification on a regulatory framework for conservation of wetlands in July 2008, under the provisions of the Environment (Protection) Act (EPA), 1986, called the Wetlands (Management and Conservation) Rules, 2008.

How powerful is EPA?

Dahanu Taluka Environmental Welfare Association filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) against the Union of India in the Supreme Court (SC) of India in order to save this wetland from unplanned aquaculture. The SC gave a landmark decision to conserve the biodiversity rich network of wetlands.  The Court directed the Ministry of Environment and Forests under the EPA to designate and notify Dahanu as ‘ecologically sensitive' area permitting only certain types of industries in this area.

The EPA cannot always protect the wetlands successfully. The absence of a specific rule has allowed an international airport in the catchment of the Himayat Sagar in Hyderabad. In 2003, Forum For A Better Hyderabad filed a writ petition against the Union of State. Following the counter affidavit of the state pollution control board, the court acknowledged that the airport was not a polluting industry and dismissed the case. The respondents appeared strong as most of such projects have to comply with the requirements of the EIA law (the EIA Notification issued in 1994); but the EIAs maybe misleading and or may be a subject of manipulation. 
Ramsar Convention

The Ramsar Convention is an international treaty signed in Ramsar, Iran for conservation and wise use of wetlands. The agreement was signed on February 2, 1971 and came into force from December 21, 1975. It is one of the oldest specific conventions that deal not only with the conservation of the wetlands but also its wise use. There are at present 158 contracting parties for this convention. About 1831 wetlands of international importance have been listed as Ramsar sites. To undertake immediate remedial measures against pollution or ecological degradation, wetlands are included under Montraux Record. In India, the convention on wetlands came into force on February 1st 1982. Initially three lakes namely Chilika (Orissa), Loktak (Manipur) and Keoladeo lakes (Rajasthan) were included in the Montreux Record for remedial measures and monitoring. Later on Chilika was removed, as the Government had claimed an improvement in the ecology.


In 2006, the National Environmental Policy (NEP) first recognized the need of legal regulatory mechanism for protection of the wetlands from degradation and conserve their ecosystem. After several meetings by an expert group from multi disciplinary backgrounds, the draft was prepared. The rule will be called the Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2008.

The Central, State or District authorities will assess the conservation procedure of the wetlands and monitor and review the implementation of the regulations by setting up committees such as Central Wetland Conservation Committee (CWCC), State Wetland Conservation Committee (SWCC) and District Wetland Conservation Committee (DWCC) depending on the category of the wetland. The committees consist of members who are expert in wetland related disciplines. The committee will get constituted in every three years.

For identification of the wetland a proposal should be placed in front of the committee—depending whether the water body belongs to A, B or C category. The proponent initializing the identification of the wetland must be a Central/State or Local Public Organization, or a recognized University/Research Institution or a recognized Community Based Organization (CBO) or a registered Industrial Association. Once the proposal is received the committee shall review the proposal within a period of forty-five days from the date of receipt of the proposal. The committee has the right to accept or reject the proposal. In the case of its finding merit in the proposal, the committee will prepare the draft notification. The committee may request for preparation of a Draft Comprehensive Document (DCD) by a professional body in the light of the detailed Terms of Reference (TOR) prescribed by the committee. Based on the DCD, an initial public consultation shall be held by the State Pollution Control Board. The professional body will prepare the revised second DCD in the light of the outcomes of the initial public consultation. The revised DCD will be reviewed by the committee and approve the same as Management Action Plan (MAP) for the wetland.

The draft framework enlists all the activities to be regulated or prohibited in the wetlands. A particular department will control a certain regulated activity. If there is overlapping of the legal provisions in case of a particular wetland then only one agency will regulate the water body. Whoever fails to comply with or contravenes any of the provisions of these Rules or order issued there under, shall be liable for action under the provisions of the EPA.

Categories A, B and C

Category ‘A’

a) Wetlands listed under the Ramsar Convention
b) Wetlands recognized as or lying within a world heritage site or a national heritage site
c) Transboundary wetlands
d) Inter-state wetlands which do not fall under category B or C;
e) Wetlands with an area equivalent to or more than 1000 ha in arid regions, 5000 ha in semi-arid regions, 10,000 ha in sub-humid and 1,00,000 ha in humid tropic regions; and
f) Wetland which is a major source of drinking water for ‘Class A’ cities.

Category ‘B’

a) Wetlands recognized as, or lying within, a state heritage site;
b) Wetlands with an area of 25 ha but below 1000 ha in arid regions, 100 ha but below 5000 ha in semi-arid regions, 500 ha but below 10,000 ha in sub-humid; and 2,500 ha but below 1, 00,000 in humid tropic regions;
c) High altitude wetland at 2,500 metres or more above mean sea level; and
d) Wetland which is a major source of drinking water for ‘Class B’ towns.

Category ‘C’

a) Wetlands other than those covered under category A and B;
b) Wetland with an area less than 25 ha in arid regions, less than 100 ha in semi-arid region, less than 500 ha in sub-humid and less than 2,500 ha in humid tropic regions;
c) Wetland which is a major source of drinking water for local communities involving at least 100 households; and
d) Wetland which is socially and/or culturally important to the local communities

Points not covered:

The present draft notification has excluded main river channels, paddy fields and coastal wetlands, which occupy about 53 % of the total area occupied by the wetlands. The ministry explicated that the coastal wetlands are covered under the CRZ (Coastal Regulation Zone) notification of 1991. It is important to mention here that the CRZ has already been replaced by the new CMZ (Coastal Management Zone) notification and does not guard the interests of the livelihood connected to the coastal regions. The CMZ has completely ignored the land use pattern of the surroundings also.

The threat on biodiversity has been completely ignored in the draft. In some wetlands major threat comes due to the diminishing factor of fauna species. The maintenance of the stormwater drains polluting the water bodies is not covered in the policy. There is no grant of incentive for the restoration of wetlands in private lands. USA has recognized the importance of the role of private owners in restoration process. There has been a very little involvement of the common man in the management process. The United States Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) announced the incentives in October last year for wetlands restorations under the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).

Confusing points:

There is confusion in the definition of wetlands categorized under Group A. According the draft, Group A includes all the wetlands declared as Ramsar sites. Later on in the section 2 b, it has been explained that the coastal wetlands have been excluded. Then what about the coastal wetlands declared as Ramsar site? The wetland of category C, is a major source of drinking water for local communities involving at least 100 households. But unfortunately in India we do not find a proper digitization of the existing water bodies in the district level. There is a definite chance that the ponds (eg. Pukurs of West Bengal), which form a very important part of socio-economic status of villagers, can be ignored. 

Regulation of traditional rights may lead to poverty drive in the country. Another important regulatory action mentioned in the draft is ‘dredging’. Dredging is done not only for improved navigation but also for economic purpose (soil quarring-Deepor Lake, fossil extraction in Vembanad-Kol). There has been mention in the policy in the section 7 that the notified wetland should be free from ‘conflict of interest’. There has been encroachment on the catchment of lake beds by both government and private agencies. There has been always a conflict of interest of the common people with the builders and the industrialists over the lakebeds.

The wetlands are public property and the Government lease out the property on Public-Private Partnership. If there is any violation of the law in this privatization, the draft does not clearly mention about the punishment of the Government Department for this offence. The draft has generalized the offence and punishment saying that the penalty will be following the EPA. Sometimes multi crore irrigation projects stops the water from entering the water bodies in the down stream.

It is also not clear from the draft what will be the status of the wetlands falling on the private property. The other points, which are to be clear, are the land use pattern of the approach areas of the inland wetlands and site-by-site treatment of the wetlands. The latter point will cause confusion for fluvial wetlands where there is a clustering of smaller wetlands.

What we suggest:

The identification of the wetlands should be on the basis of its ecological importance rather than a long process of MAP. Legislation has to be implemented to provide environmental grants for any initiative by a person or groups of person working in this field. The stormwater drains should be maintained well and biodiversity part is to be included. 

Dr. Asad Rahmani, Director BNHS (Bombay Natural History Society) on Wetlands (Management and Conservation) Rules, 2008. Government of India should enact the law, Wetland (Conservation) Act, on the pattern of Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980.
Dr. Asad Rahmani who is also a member of Wetland Committee of MOEF completely agrees that the framework should include biodiversity values of wetlands. Dr. Rahmani suggests, “Actually, I have been emphasizing that the Government of India should enact the law, Wetland (Conservation) Act, on the pattern (but much improved and taking people into consideration) of Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980. The FCA has certainly decreased deforestation to a large extent. Presently, million of village, semi-urban and urban wetlands are under control of gram panchayats or city administrators - although villagers have interest to protect them, the administrator have practically no interest and succumb to land sharks easily. Many times, these wetlands are 'inspected' during peak summer, when there is no water, and allocated to land sharks as wastelands. Only a strong Wetland (Conservation) Act can save them from misguided authorities.”

All significant decisions pertaining to the conservation and welfare of any wetland should be initiated and promoted by the end-users of that wetland says Dr. Tej Razdan of Jheel Sanrakshan Samiti
“Today, most of the wetlands in India are under the control of the government (both central and state), and the involvement of society in the welfare of these wetlands, is almost minimal. The British government initiated this kind of water resource management for our wetlands, in order to gain a more vice-like grip on Indians. But our nave adherence to the aforesaid system today also, is proving to be detrimental for our wetlands. What is required today is that the government ought to become a ‚facilitator‚ (instead of controller) and also an owner in wetland management, while the society comes forward as a ‚caretaker‚ of these wetlands. To attain this goal, the involvement of public is very essential.

All significant decisions pertaining to the conservation and welfare of any wetland should be initiated and promoted by the end-users of that wetland-----and these suggestions (which ought to be strictly within technically sound parameters) should provide the guidelines for the decision-makers at the higher levels in the government. Unfortunately, just the reverse is happening at present. This rule provides for identification of such wetlands that are socially and culturally important to the local communities. It is my opinion that wetlands should also be identified on the basis of their ecological importance to the local communities.”

EPA is a very weak law so far as penalty is concerned
--Ritwik Dutta, environmental lawyer.

I agree on the need to have the livelihood aspect spelt out clearly in the Rules.

So far as the penalty provisions of the EPA is concerned please look at section 24 of the EPA which states that if an offence is committed under the EPA and some other law, the offender shall be punished under the other law and not under the EPA. Thus EPA is a very weak law so far as penalty is concerned.  Also we need to find out whether there is an absolute need to create these regulatory authorities…more so when most of such authorities have never functioned. Maybe the existing biodiversity/ wildlife boards can be entrusted with this task by suitable modification.

The multiple authorities at State, District and National Levels rarely work as in the case of Biodiversity as well as CRZ. The classification of wetlands into different categories is unnecessary and lead to confusion. May be use some terms which are explanatory i.e ecologically sensitive areas, socially important or such so that the word explains its importance as well as gets local support.

So far as the stakeholder’s issues are concerned, there is an urgent need to clarify issues. It gives powers to regulate activities however there is an urgent need to prohibit certain activities such as filling up of lakes for brick kilns or airports and other such activities. Regulation is a too permissive term.
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