Wetlands To Choke By Rule?

Dankuni wetland – typical of the Damodar-Hugli riverine interfluve could choke if the Draft Wetland Rules 2016 becomes law

Dankuni wetland – typical of the Damodar-Hugli riverine interfluve could choke if the Draft Wetland Rules 2016 becomes law

BY Tiyasa Adhya

Tiasa works with an endangered, medium-sized felid found in South Asia, called the fishing cat (Prionailurus viverrinus). Daughter of an avid nature lover, 25 year old Tiasa Adhya grew up reading books by E.P. Gee, Corbett and Kenneth Anderson and enjoyed documentary films aired on Animal Planet and Nat Geo too. 'Conservation is important because without it endangered species cannot be saved from the clutches of a drive for industrialization and resource exploitation,' she says

Mighty rivers like Ganga distribute fresh water and sediments via a network of river channels.  River courses shift and these become paleo-channels rich in marshy vegetation (e.g. Typha, Phragmites) interspersed with shallow water bodies. Rich in nutrients, these harbour residential birds like Bronze-Winged Jackana, Pheasant Tailed Jackana, Common Indian Moorhen and attract migratory birds like Red Crested Pochard, Ferruginous Pochard, Lesser Whistling Teal in the winter. It also has heavy deposition of alluvium and is used intensively for agriculture by converting wetlands. Industries often take up agricultural lands. Thus, the Dankuni wetlands of the Damodar-Hugli riverine interfluves, face the additional threats of industrialization and agricultural intensification.

Due to the conversion of such wetlands, there are fewer sponges left locally to soak the characteristic seasonal floods. Floods mixed with sewage due to poor drainage. Hence Tapan Dutta, a popular local, who was an active member of the then opposition party, refused to let the wetlands be filled up. Let alone the waning government at-that-time, Tapan Dutta got no political support from any party. He had lodged police complaints, met policy makers to gather documents to file a petition against private companies who were filling up the wetlands without prior permission from the government. But, he was murdered, shot several times by local mafia, in 2009. Big industries like Priya Biscuit, Ultra-Tech Cement, Lux Cozi had invested too much on labour and materials already. He left enough documents though which would help others in the future.

In 2011, some bird hobbyists, wildlife enthusiasts, conservation practitioners from West Bengal, initiated the process of filing a legal notification in the Calcutta High Court, against the mass conversion of marshlands in Dankuni. They contacted organizations like DISHA and FHLER who had also worked with Tapan Dutta to petition to the court. Dr Tapan Chakraborty, a geologist with the Geological Studies Unit, ISI, Kolkata, mentioned in a report also annexed with the petition, that the soil at Dankuni and the adjoining wetland complex retains water and is hydrophytic. A river called Saraswati had left tracts rich in marshy vegetation when it receded. Dr. Subir Ghosh, a wetland vegetation expert, his name synonymous withthe East Kolkata Wetlands, says “these wetlands harbor hydrophytic vegetation which helps in water recharge and heavy metal absorption.” A publication in the Journal of Threatened Taxa by scientists from SACON, Coimbatore and NCBS, Bangalore, also states that Fishing Cat, the only wetland adapted cat in India of all 15 species, is found in Dankuni wetlands. Uncommon birds like Bristled Grassbird and Blythe’s Warbler were also recorded from here. Dankuni enthusiasts approached prominent non-government organizations in Kolkata for support to the petition but were discouraged.

PUBLIC, a Kolkata based organization, specialized in taking legal actions against environment destruction, agreed to be the main petitioner. They petitioned against state bodies which were defunct in preventing wetland destruction in Dankuni. WWF Kolkata also consented but withdrew in spirit and body from the battle after the petition was filed. In 2013, a landmark judgment in High Court was given. The court ruling ordered all conversions and filling-up to stop. The companies were further instructed to commence restoration work http://www.downtoearth.org.in/blog/martyr-and-a-court-ruling-41796

The Central Wetland Rules, 2010, helped pass this judgment as wetlands could include “drainage areas” or “catchment regions” under it. Wetlands were further categorized in the Rules that included “marshlands”. These were very important. One of the original Dankuni enthusiasts explained why. “It is much easier to convert an agricultural land for industrialization than to convert wetlands. You could check land records and inevitably many marshlands would be demarcated as “shali” lands. This judgment helped us set an instance of how other marshlands in the state can be given legal protection against conversion”. The name could not be given to avoid complexities.

Most importantly, the Rules provided provisions for safeguarding of wetlands that were outside those designated as “Ramsar Site” and “Wetlands of International Importance”. The Central Wetland Rules, 2010, declared wetlands as. In the new Draft Wetland Rules, 2016, Rule 3 states that all wetlands which are notified by the State Wetland Authority or the Central government based on recommendations from the union territories, shall be governed by these Rules, besides Wetlands of International Importance.

The problem lies in the Central Government not possessing an exhaustive inventory of wetlands. The West Bengal Wetlands and Waterbodies Policy, drafted in 2012,called for such an inventory of wetlands in the state. But the draft has remained unimplemented in the absence of an Act. The present Draft Wetlands Rules, 2016, includes besides water bodies, ‘‘ecosystems located at the interface of land and water and wherein water plays a dominant role in controlling plant and animal life and associated ecosystem processes”. “We do not have an inventory as yet despite numerous wetland specialists in the country. Now we want to understand ecosystem processes. Why not form an Ecological Body for doing research on wetlands first?” asks Maitreyee Chatterjee, a wetland activist who was inspired by Tapan Dutta.

Maitreyee’s irritability becomes prominent when we delve into parts of the struggle. “The Calcutta High Court had appointed a High Power Committee to make an inventory of wetlands present in the area in the 2013 ruling. Barring exceptional visits, where was the expertise to study wetlands? Their eyes are not trained to understand marshlands as wetlands. To them wetlands are dobas (local ponds). Their approach was lethargic. They cite how marshlands in the vicinity have been converted. What are we to achieve by protecting the remaining ones? They fail to look at the brighter side”. “The definition of ‘wetlands’ given under the Draft Rules is very generic. It would create confusion in the absence of guidelines and criteria for identification of wetlands,” says PUBLIC members. The organization has written to the MoEF, expressing its concern with the loopholes. With a court ruling based on the Rules, 2010, activists are constantly working with Police Department and Administrative Department, often filing petitions against inaction, to prevent further destruction of the wetlands. Will the State Wetland Regulatory Authority be a defunct authority in the absence of binding commitments as some fear it would? Clearly, there is a lacuna in consulting with ecologists and conservation practitioners.

According to the Draft Wetland Rules, 2016, apart from prohibiting reclamation of wetlands and diversion or impediment to water drainage, any activity likely to have an adverse impact on the ecosystem of the wetland can be prohibited. A group of lawyers based in Kolkata has expressed their concern to the MoEF with the last category. It will lead to uncertainty, they say. Activities with the intent of using this loophole could be initiated and there will be no statutory power to stop them, unless how the wetland character is affected is shown. It will take time to show the effect of dumping wastes but that cannot stop initiation of dumping. They feel that The State Wetland Authority should contain a member of the judiciary, preferably a High Court Judge or a senior advocate nominated by the Chief Justice.

Environmental Impact Assessments will not be necessary according to the Draft. There is no penalty provision for indulging in prohibited activity like the Polluter Pay Principle. The Rule prohibiting certain activities could become just a dead letter of law. Some like Maitreyee Chatterjee fears that authorities might overlook or deliberately neglect inclusion of wetlands but there are no provisions for citizens to challenge such action. Neither is there a provision for appeal to a higher judicial forum like NGT or High Court. She thinks that the Draft Rules, as it stands now, will make the killing of wetlands like Dankuni, legally permissible.

Posted Date: 09 Jun 2016 | Views (601)