Mumbai In a first for the state, the forest department has identified 320 wetlands in forest areas across 25 districts and developed brief documents detailing the demarcation, protection of wetlands through satellite imagery and submitted them in the court.
The report identified the maximum wetlands in Vidarbha district with 83 in Bhandara, 40 in Gondia, 35 in Chandrapur, 32 in Nagpur, 23 in Ghadchiroli and 20 in Yavatmal. While Ratnagiri has 27 wetlands, Mumbai suburban, Pune and Thane have two, six and nine wetlands, respectively.
The department produced the document by complying with orders passed by the Bombay high court (HC) in 2014 under a petition filed by NGO Vanashakti for the protection of wetlands. Mahrashtra is the second such state to come out with such a document after Odisha. Additionally, under Wetland Rules, the state machinery is required to submit a ‘brief document’ for wetlands in forest areas, recorded by forest department and those outside forests, recorded by the state environment department through district collectors.
Wetlands are ecologically important as they stabilise the coastline, control erosion and provide a habitat conducive for plant and animal species; they prevent floods and filter groundwater. However, due to a number of development activities across the state, these areas are under constant threat.
A ‘brief document’ for wetlands is based on provisions under the Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2010 and it is done through rapid field surveys and consultation of forest department under the following guidelines – geographical delineation, approximate coverage area, brief on the areas biodiversity, pre-exiting rights of the site, ecological health, apparent pollution and trophic status of the wetland.
A total of 464 wetland sites were identified through satellite maps by the Maharashtra Remote Sensing Application Centre (MRSAC) and submitted to the state mangrove cell in early 2016. From July to August 2016, the cell asked researchers from the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON), Coimbatore, which carried out two separate surveys and identified the 320 wetlands within forest areas, 135 outside forest areas and nine sites that did not fall under definition of wetlands under the brief document.
“This is a first documentation of its kind for Maharashtra where wetlands have been identified within forest areas. So far we did not have such a database for wetlands and now we have a preliminary idea about the location and importance, which will help in further conservation,” said N Vasudevan, chief conservator of forest, state mangrove cell and member secretary of the wetland committee constituted by the Bombay HC.
He added that since these areas fell under protected forests, they were already being protected under the Indian Forest Act, 1927, Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 and Forest Conservation Act, 1980 but now a better focus on specific areas can be given to them. “We can initiate protection measures within the department by identifying more vulnerable areas within these wetland sites and implement schemes for their benefit,” said Vasudevan.
Environmentalists welcomed the efforts by the forest department but said that a similar report from private areas needs to be produced by the government. “We are thankful to the forest department for releasing such a list. However, unabated destruction of wetlands on private land continues with no convictions. These lands are under the jurisdiction of revenue department, collectors (private land) and needs to be identified immediately,” said Stalin Dayanand, director, NGO Vanashakti.
An official from the state environment department said the brief documents for private lands is also being collated and will be submitted in court soon. “Brief documents for wetlands with size more than 500 hectares are being prepared for areas outside forests by our department. Collectors have already begun submitting their findings and the environment department is collating the data. These larger wetlands once notified will get legal protection under wetland rules,” said the official.