It is an irony that the lake which has shrunk to two-thirds of its 41 sqkm area during the last 13 years has been chosen as the venue for celebrating the World Wetlands Day on February 2.
A horde of bureaucrats and environmentalists will be at Harike Lake, a wetland formed downstream of the confluence of the Beas and Sutlej rivers in Punjab, to lament the decline of the water body that was recognised as a Ramsar Site in 1990.
What is more shocking is the fact that all 26 sites designated as wetlands of international importance, since India became signatory to the international treaty on conservation of wetlands, the Ramsar Convention, in 1982, have been plagued by uncontrolled development and illegal encroachments.
These include well-known lakes — Loktak in Manipur, Chilika in Odisha and Wular in Kashmir. Recent studies suggest that one-third of country’s wetlands have already been wiped out or severely degraded.
Worse still, a Central Wetlands Regulatory Authority armed with the Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, under the Environment Protection Act of 1986, has been in existence since 2010 to undo the damage.
While the three-year-old authority has been ineffective in even seeking lists of wetlands from the states for notification, the two-decade-old National Wetlands Conservation Programme has nothing much to show for the funds it has spent for the protection of 115 wetlands in the protected areas.
The plight of unprotected wetlands is much worse, not a single wetland has been spared. For instance, of Bangalore’s 262 lakes only 10 hold water now; 65 of Ahmedabad’s 137 lakes have already been built up; and, most of Delhi’s 625 identified water bodies exist on paper only.
The tragedy is that since its creation in February 2013, the National Plan for Conservation of Aquatic Eco-Systems, created by merging National Wetlands Conservation Programme and National Lake Conservation Plan, has yet to make an impact.
While the Union government is charged for being less assertive, the states have remained non-committal in protecting the wetlands. With a boom in real estate and with skyrocketing land prices, regulations coming in way of encroachment of the wetlands have been flouted.
That the wetlands perform ecological functions of recycling nutrients, recharging groundwater, purifying drinking water, reducing flooding, and providing a habitat for birds and animals remain of academic interest only.
Since wetlands are a common property, communities must be engaged in designing plans for wetlands protection with adequate provision of incentives at all levels. Else, the degradation of wetlands will plunge the country further into water and food insecurity.
Little is realised that 60% reduction in water holding capacity on account of encroachments at Harike Lake is a cause for serious concern for those dependent on irrigation waters of the Indira Gandhi Canal in Rajasthan, as the lake is the source of the canal.
Sudhirendar Sharma is an environmentalist
The views expressed by the author are personal