Conservation of Wetlands Rules 2017

Conservation of Wetlands Rules 2017 have been proposed under Union Government’s new notification of the Wetland (Conservation and Management) Rules 2017 shows how the environment continues to be a dispensable commodity.

Highlights of New Conservation of Wetlands Rules 2017 –

  • The new rules, notified by the environment ministry, decentralise wetlands management by giving states powers to not only identify and notify wetlands within their jurisdictions but also keep a watch on prohibited activities.
  • It also indirectly widens the ambit of permitted activities by inserting the ‘wise use’ principle, giving powers to state-level wetland authorities to decide what can be allowed in larger interest. The notification says, “The wetlands shall be conserved and managed in accordance with the principle of ‘wise use’ as determined by the Wetlands Authority.”
  • The Centre’s role under the Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2017, will be restricted to monitoring its implementation by states/UTs, recommending trans-boundary wetlands for notification and reviewing integrated management of selected wetlands under the Ramsar Convention — an international arrangement to preserve identified wetlands.

Importance of wetlands –

  • The wetlands have been viewed as a reservoir of ecosystem services.
  • If wetlands perform important functions, like carbon sequestration and disaster modulation, then these cannot be regarded as dispensable services, especially when we are on the brink of impending ecological disasters. The Conservation of Wetlands Rules 2017 will help tackle these challenges.

Analysis –

  • The moment we attach the incentive of ‘services’ to the environment — as most experts contesting the new rules do — we take the first step towards commodifying the environment.
  • Environmental protection has become a byproduct of incentives, ‘succeeding’ where incentives profit us (like renewable energy) and failing where they do not (like wetland protection).
  • In India, the tendency to regard wetlands as wastelands (leading to land encroachment, squatting and waste dumping) led to the Chennai floods of 2015 and the Kashmir floods of 2014, both States lost more than 50 per cent of their wetlands within just two to three decades.
  • These disasters will only increase in the times to come, especially so in India, which is projected to be amongst the countries which are most vulnerable to climate change.

Past trends and new changes –

  • The half-hearted management of wetlands initiated by a set of rules in 2010 was a failure in the past. Even though these rules placed the wetlands under central control, due to the propensity of the States to mismanage them, implementation was a failure. In fact, it was a non-starter.
  • The Central Wetland Regulatory Authority (CWRA), whose dismantling in the 2017 rules is being decried, hardly ever convened, let alone take decisions since the last six years.
  • The CWRA’s dismantling and giving way to State-level authorities for managing the wetlands in each State at least makes the States accountable in some way. And even though no legal penalty is specified, the Union Government is definitely involved in an advisory and monitoring role.
  • Logically, to not devolve powers to States in managing wetlands would have led to poor results, as the experience from 2010 onwards shows.
  • So, the 2017 rules are not at all wrong in devolving powers to the States, which had to be a natural step in a democratic polity where States exercise lot of heft; they lag behind in not backing up the rules with legal penalties and not specifying what they mean by ‘wise use’ of wetlands, which can allow considerable leeway for commercial activities.
  • Exempting the wetlands under forests and coastal zones from rules and focusing only on internationally recognised wetlands would leave out more than half of the country’s nearly lakh plus wetlands. This would ensure that future ‘development’ becomes a garb for justifying commercial extraction at the cost, in this case, of wetlands.

Conclusion –

Unless we change our lens of viewing environment as a commodity, no Conservation of Wetlands Rules 2017 can do us good — for instance, wetlands as service repositories — any number of new rules would keep running into roadblocks. The wetlands have been viewed as a reservoir of ecosystem services. At the very outset, placing them within the ‘ecosystem services’ framework gives credence to the trade-off mentality — and such an attitude can be a cause of concern for us.

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