India should stop paying lip service to protecting the environment. In his May 21 Mann Ki Baat programme, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said saving our environment is the need of the hour. Who can argue with this but is this what the PM and his government really want? We are raising this question (once again) because his government seems to be on the path to destroying rather than conserving the environment. Take for example, the Draft Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules (2016) that is up on the ministry of environment and forests website for comments till June 6, a day after the World Environment Day, which India will once again mark with fulsome promises.
The rules have created a kerfuffle among environmentalists since they avoid mentioning of a national regulator and do not list specific activities prohibited in these sensitive areas. The Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules of 2010 had prohibited reclamation of wetlands, setting up of new industries and expansion of existing ones, solid waste dumping, manufacturing, handling, storage or disposal of hazardous substances, discharge of untreated waste and effluents from industries, cities and towns , any construction of permanent nature and any other activity that is likely to have an adverse impact on the ecosystem of wetlands. However, the 2016 Rules, MINT reported, 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.
In a letter to the ministry, SANDRP, an informal network of organisations and individuals working on the water sector, have said that the new rules have disregarded an entire consultative process that was started in 2008 when the First Draft Regulatory Framework for Wetland Conservation of India was put out by the MoEF. It has pointed out the key problems in the new rules: Dismantling of the Central Wetland Authority, no role for local communities or NGOs in the state wetland authorities, which have all the decision-making power and no guidelines about activities that should be prohibited or even regulated in the wetlands by states.
Wetlands are some of the most valuable ecosystems that we have: They help in flood mitigation, erosion control, ground water recharge, micro-climate regulation and aesthetic enhancement of the landscape. It is estimated that freshwater wetlands alone support 20% of the known range of biodiversity in India. But unfortunately, they are losing to the demands of real estate. In fact, despite their ecological importance, no wetlands have been identified in India in the past five years. Let’s not celebrate environment day with any fanfare unless it is accompanied by a real effort to save the enviroment.