Six years in waiting: NGT orders government to notify wetlands
The National Green Tribunal (NGT) today gave a big push to saving India's wetlands. It directed the Central Wetlands Regulatory Authority (CWRA) to meet once every month and begin notifying wetland areas in the country - a job that the central and state governments have been avoiding since 2010.
Wetlands are areas like lakes, ponds, marshlands, mudflats, etc. and these play an important role in supporting many livelihoods and varieties of birds and fish.
Most of the winter migratory birds that India hosts, fly here for the wetlands.
The Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2010, sought to identify all wetlands in the country and notify them.
Why is this important?
This was important because wetlands, especially in cities, have been encroached by real estate developers and roads. Notification is an important legal step without which wetlands can neither be conserved nor managed.
Watch: Catch News uses satellite images to show Bangalore wetlands being encroached through the years
The Wetlands Rule also created an authority, which can examine wetland areas that are proposed by the states, and eventually notify them and enforce the rules.
But none of this had happened yet.
States haven't even performed the first step of identifying wetlands. The CWRA has barely met.
Last year, Pushp Jain, director of the Delhi-based EIA Resource and Response Centre, petitioned the NGT, seeking its intervention.
In its order on Friday, the NGT has asked the states to provide a list of wetlands and asked the authority to meet each month.
The minutes of the meeting are to be submitted to the NGT along with action taken regarding reports on identification and notification processes.
Too little too late?
This comes at a time when the central government is planning to dilute the 2010 Rules itself. On 31 March, the environment ministry put out a draft notification to replace the 2010 rules with a significantly diluted version.
The new proposed rules lack many of the safeguards enshrined in the 2010 rules, including the Central Wetlands Authority itself, which the 2016 draft proposes to dissolve.
The 2016 draft instead seeks to decentralise the entire process to the states. It makes the chief minister responsible for proposing wetlands, vetting them, and enforcing the rules.
Critics are sceptical about expecting states' to enforce their conservation when they have shown no interest in even identifying them yet.
In fact, the states have not even followed a 22 April directive by the NGT in the same case to submit a list of all wetlands in their jurisdiction. Friday's order repeats this direction.
"The states are buying time so that in the meanwhile Wetlands Rules, 2010 are diluted and protection of wetlands takes a back seat. The Central Wetlands Regulatory Authority has become non-functional and exists only on paper," said Ritwick Dutta, counsel for the petitioner, in a note.
The NGT order possibly puts into question the government's plan to dilute the Wetland Rules. The 2016 draft wants to away with the Central Wetlands Regulatory Authority itself. But if this is brought into force, it will violate the NGT's order, which wants the CWRA to meet each month.
India is a signatory to the Ramsar Convention on the protection of wetlands. Under this Convention, 26 wetlands in India are designated as wetlands of international importance. These include Chilika Lake in Odisha and Loktak Lake in Manipur.