Draft wetlands rules 2016 are so diluted that there is no scope for modification; discarded them

wetlands2While the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change never implemented Wetland (Conservation and Management) Rules 2010, it has now brought out a new and seriously watered down Draft Wetland Rules 2016. In response to its plea for comments on the new draft rules (invited on emails b.sikka@gov.in, ram.jindal@nic.in,  c.singh@nic.in), which are supposed to be submitted by June 6, the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People* (SANDRP)  has made the following submission to the Secretary, Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, New Delhi:

In December 2010, after many rounds of deliberations, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change Finally Notified Wetland (Conservation and Management) Rules 2010, under the Environment (Protection) Act 1986. Unfortunately, due to a number of deliberate acts of omission and commission, the Rules remained mostly unused for most of the 6 years after their notification.. The Central Wetland Authority constituted under the Act met only once, the members which included some eminent names in conservation like Dr. Asad Rehmani were not even informed about the status of the committee.

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% of India’s land area is covered by wetlands, but the influence of these wetlands go 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. For example, about 2 lakh farmers depend on Vembnad Kol Wetland in Kerala for irrigation, while about 6 lakh people depend on Bhopal Lakes for water supply. Loktak Lake in Manipur provides livelihoods to more than 1 lakh fisherfolk, while Chilika Lake in Odisha provides livelihoods to more than 2 lakh fisherfolk. Wetlands, such as mangroves and floodplains, play a critical role in the physical buffering of climate change impacts.

A study on the Bhitarkanika mangrove ecosystem in Orissa (second largest mangrove forest of India mainland), estimated that cyclone damage avoided was highest in the village that was protected by mangrove forests. The loss incurred per household was greatest  in the village that was not sheltered by mangroves and lowest in the village that was protected by mangrove forests. Wetlands sequester Carbon through high rates of organic matter inputs and reduced rates of decompositions. Wetland soils may contain as much as 200 times more C than its vegetation!

And yet, dominant perception about wetlands among the decision makers seems to be that wetlands are akin to wastelands or water filled bogs, worthy only of the land they occupy.

2010 Rules somewhat useful, but unimplemented Wetlands in the country remained ungoverned for most of six years even after the passage of Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules 2010 and whenever we discussed this with MoEF&CC, we were told that this is happening due to integration of National Wetland Conservation Program(NWCP) and National Lake Conservation Program (NLCP) into one integrated Program called National Program for Conservation of Aquatic Ecosystems (NPCA). NWCP included wetlands under Ramsar Convention. We were told that this process needed a complete overhaul of Wetland (Conservation and Management) Rules 2010.

Now however, before guidelines of the NPCA are put in open domain or circulated for comments, Draft Wetland Rules (2016) have been put out by the Ministry for comments.

Among other questions, it raises the question as to what happened to the NLCP & NPCA?

In the meantime, the country 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 many-folds. In this context, one was sure that the new Wetland Rules would be sharper and enable more protection to wetlands: an entity which provides astonishing 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” .

But any concern for wetlands ends with these empty words, Sir. To say that the Draft 2016 Wetland Rules make a shocking reading will be an understatement.

The Draft 2016 Wetland Rules have disregarded an entire 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 have severely jeopardized Wetland Conservation in the country.

The Draft 2016 Rules are so diluted that there is no scope for modification. We urge you to discard 2016 Rules in entirety and  constitute new Rules through a consultative and participatory process, till then the 2010 Rules need to be immediately implemented.

We present a brief snapshot of how Wetland conservation has been diluted over the years, to reach a phenomenal low with the Draft 2016 Rules.

As you would know, 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.

The Framework also included wetlands smaller than 25 hectares and stressed onprotecting wetlands which supplied drinking water to cities as well as settlements of 100 houses or above. 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.

Several organizations held multiple workshops and consultations on this draft, and comments were sent to the MoEF&CC. However, the actual Rules which were Notified in December 2010 were radically different than this circulated 2008 Draft! The entire participatory nature of 2008 Framework was replaced by just two authorities: A State Wetland Authority and Central Wetland Authority, with participation restricted mainly to government officials. State Wetland Authority was to nominate wetlands for notification and Central Authority was to process this, with a recommendation to the government. Within a year of notification of Wetland Rules 2010, States were supposed to identify and classify all wetlands in their jurisdiction in a Brief Document.

However, the nuanced classification of Wetlands according to their uses, water supply capacities, distance from Heritage sites, etc. was taken out. Criteria in the 2010 Rules which qualified a Wetland for notification were: Ecologically important and sensitive wetlands, High altitude wetlands greater than 5 hectares in size in elevations higher than 2500 meters, wetlands above 500 hectares below 2500 meters and wetlands nominated by State Authorities. Community participation and wetlands important for water supply were taken out.

Prohibited activities in 2010 Rules included reclamation, setting up new industries, manufacture, handling and discharging hazardous wastes, solid waste dumping, discharge of untreated waste water and effluents, permanent construction.

Regulated activities included Hydrological modifications and water withdrawal, diversion or interruption from the wetland or its catchment, harvesting resources, treated effluent discharges, dredging, construction of boat jetties, aquaculture, agriculture, repair of existing buildings, etc. For this prior permission had to be obtained from the State government, only after conducting a proper EIA.

The Central Wetland Authority was supposed to decide Wetlands for notification in consultation with the State Wetland Authority after analysis of the Brief Document sent by the States.

wetlands1Unfortunately, due to utter lack of monitoring and will from the Center, nearly no Brief Documents reached the MoEF for consideration, even after 6 years of promulgation of the Rules! This also indicates the total lack of enthusiasm on the parts of states to protect or notify or regulate their wetlands. With this knowledge, making any effort to give powers solely to states to manage their Wetalnds akin to committing Harakiri.

In the context of all this, the Draft Wetland Rules (2016) have some serious problems:

1. 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 shows environmental bankruptcy, since wetlands are much more than that, a fact that Environment Minister at least should appreciate. In any case, the Wetland Rules themselves do not even deal with issues related to Land and Water, so why this supposed attempt of fake decentralisation?

Secondly, six years after the Wetland Rules of 2010 were notified, the states have shown no initiative or will to even prepare a Brief Document for protecting wetlands in their territories. Where is the precedent? This is precisely the quagmire where Center needs to firmly guide the states towards taking sustainable steps in protecting natural resources. But the Center seems to have abdicated its responsibility.

Thirdly, wetlands are an important ecological entity giving multiple services to the society and their protection lies firmly in the realm of Environment, which is under the concurrent purview as per Indian Constitution. 

Ironically, there is no decentralization here either. There is no role for the local community to play, unlike the Framework Rules. So it is still as centralized as ever.

2. No role for local communities or non-governmental members in the State Wetland AuthoritiesThe State Wetland Authority consists of 15 members, Chaired by the Chief Minister with Secretaries of various departments as members. It includes only 4 expert members, which can be from the government. There is no space for community participation, NGO participation or independent experts in this Authority. The same Authority is entrusted with taking highly technical decisions about the Ecological Character and Ecosystem Goods and Services of Wetlands, when there is no such expertise on board.

3. No criteria or even a Guideline for Wetlands which should be notified by the State.It’s all upto the State’s inclination! No mention of wetlands on the basis of there uses, size, ecological importance, heritage sites, etc.

4. No criteria about the minimum and maximum areas of Wetlands that state has to notify

5. No mention even of Wetlands of National Importance

6. No mention of how Ramsar Wetlands would be governed

7. No mention of Interstate and Transboundary wetlands and how these would be governed and by whom

8. 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. On the other hand, it talks about “Lists of uses permitted within the wetlands”! No guidelines or specifications about Regulated Activities.

9. The State Wetland Authority does not have Powers to Prohibit any activity in the Wetlands, only regulate them!

10. State Wetland Authority does not have any authority to take Penal Action against parties who violate the Rules.

11. 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.

12. The provision of Appeal Against Decision of Authority in NGT, namely the Section 9 of Wetland Rules 2010 is missing in Draft Rules 2016.

13. The State Wetland Authority is now asked to demarcate Wetlands, when this exercise has already been mostly completed for the entire country by ISRO through its National Wetland Atlas!

14. The Chief Executive of the state, the Chief Minister, is also head of the state Wetlands Authority, there is clearly a conflict of interest.

15. Wetland Rules 2010 had timelines from notification to other stages, the Draft Rules 2016 has no timeline, no process.

The only clause which talks about Restriction of Activities in Wetlands is so broad-based and nonspecific, that it is nearly unimplementable:  “Restrictions of activities in wetlands.—(I) The wetlands shall be conserved and managed in accordance with principle of ‘wise use’ for maintaining their ecological integrity.”

Now, the principles of Wise Use, Ecosystem Approach and Ecologic Integrity etc., though used rampantly in Ramsar parlance, are slippery terms which have no specific application. Use of such words ensures that the Act lacks any specificity and teeth.

There is a case before the National Green Tribunal[xviii] challenging the tardy implementation of the 2010 rules. On 22 April, weeks after the draft rules were published, the Tribunal asked a status report from the Center on declaration of wetlands, and the states to submit the list of wetlands in their territory. It also asked states of give list of notified wetlands in at least 5 districts in smaller states and at least 10 districts in larger states.

To conclude, we reiterate that the Draft Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules (2016) need to be rejected in entirety. There are too many issues to be addressed there.

We 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). We also request a wide public consultation phase in which these Rules are discussed also by the stakeholders like fisherfolk, farmers, boatsman, urban planners, etc. We would be willing to make this submission in person, while reserving the right to make additional submissions.

*Signed by Parineeta Dandekar (parineeta.dandekar@gmail.com) and Himanshu Thakkar (ht.sandrp@gmail.com)

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