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Global importance of the wetland sites – laws to protect wetlands in India

October 13, 2021
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Criminal laws for Environment

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This article is written by Pranjali Aggarwal from University Institute of Legal Studies, Punjab University, Chandigarh. This article elucidates the importance of wetlands and various laws that protect the wetlands in India.

Introduction

Many major civilizations in history have been found near the wetlands only. For instance, the Mesopotamian Civilization between Euphrates and Tigris River or the Indus Valley Civilization on the banks of river Indus. This clearly portrays the significance of wetlands. Wetlands are ubiquitous. They are found from the tundra to the tropics and on every continent except Antarctica. The wetlands only cover around 6% area of the Earth but still, almost 40% of the species of plants and animals thrive in wetlands.

Definition of wetlands

Wetlands are the areas where water is the prime factor that determines the environment, types of flora, and fauna of the place. The wetlands are mainly found where the water level is at par with or near the surface of the land or if the land is covered by water. According to the Intergovernmental treaty “The Convention on Wetlands,1971” also known as ‘Ramsar Convention’, the wetlands refer to the “areas of marsh, fen, peatland, or water, which can be either naturally existing or made by humans artificially, either perennial in nature or temporary, water in the area can be static or flowing, the water could be saline, brackish or fresh and includes areas of marine water that are not more than six meters deep at the time of low tide”.

The variation in soil, water chemistry, hydrology, weather conditions, vegetation are a few factors that lead to the formation of different kinds of wetlands.  

India and wetlands

According to the National Wetland Atlas, a project sponsored by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), India’s 4.7% land amounts to wetlands which encompasses almost 15.3 million hectares of area under it. In India, there are around 757.06 thousand wetlands out of which inland wetlands cover 69%, coastal wetlands 27% and other wetlands around 4% of the total area. The wetlands in India consist of the river basins of Ganga and Brahmaputra, the wetlands situated in the Himalayas, saline and temporary wetlands in the arid and semi-arid areas, lagoons, backwaters situated in the coastal region, the coral reefs in the marine wetlands, and others. India is the house of the diversity of wetlands and they play an imperative role in the life of an individual as well as the economy. Despite the fact that wetland is a significant ecosystem, still, they are subjected to several threats because of human activities like urbanization, construction of dams, inducement of chemical fertilizers and other pollutants in the wetlands, etc. These threats have led to a reduction in the area of wetlands in India and therefore they need to be conserved. Even the provisions of the Constitution of India support the conservation of wetlands.

Importance of wetlands

Threats to wetlands

The wetlands are facing several threats due to which the land under wetlands is reducing day by day. The major threats faced by the wetlands include the urbanisation and anthropogenic pressure, dumping of solid waste by industries, exploitation of the land for food, wood and fodder, industrial and agricultural activities near the wetlands, intoxicants and waste from industries and aquaculture etc. 

Constitutional provisions for the wetland protection

Article 21 of the Constitution

As held in the case of Subash Kumar versus the State of Bihar (1991), Article 21 not only guarantees the right to life but also the right to live in a healthy & hygienic environment and the same stand was echoed in Virendra Gaur versus State of Haryana (1994). Thus, every citizen is entitled to the right to a clean environment which also implies the fact that preservation of the environment is necessary. The wetlands are an important ecosystem to maintain balance with other ecosystems and they are considered natural purifiers for the environment. Thus, their protection is crucial to enjoy the right to life as the right to a clean environment is also enveloped around it.

Article 48-A of the Constitution

The Directive Principles of State Policy impose a duty on the state to develop laws and policies related to subjects mentioned under it in the interest of justice. Article 48A is one of the DPSPs that deals with the protection and improvement of the environment and safeguarding of forests and wildlife. 

Though DPSPs are not legally enforceable, but if we read both Article 21 and Article 48A together, then it could be inferred that it is the legal duty of the state to develop laws for the conservation of the environment, forests, and wildlife. In the landmark judgment of the Honorable Supreme Court in M.C.Mehta versus Union of India (2002), it was held that the protection and improvement of the environment is the duty of the state. The wetlands support bountiful species of forests and wildlife and are an integral part of the environment. Thus, as per provisions of Article 48A, the state needs to introduce policies and statutes to protect the wetlands.

Article 51(A)(g) of the Constitution

Article 51(A)(g) is the fundamental duty envisaged under Part IV-A of the Constitution. This Article was incorporated in the Constitution of India through the 42nd Constitutional Amendment, 1976  to comply with Article 29(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This Article imposes the duty over citizens to conserve and improve the environment and follow a benevolent approach towards all the living creatures. This duty thus implies the safeguarding of wetlands.

Article 31-A 

Article 31A was integrated into the Constitution of India through the Constitutional First Amendment Act,1951. Clauses (a) and (b) of the Article empowers the state to acquire any estate or property so that it can be properly managed or such acquisition is for the welfare of the public at large. Thus, according to this provision, the government can acquire wetlands for its management and protection.

Laws for conservation of wetlands in India

Ramsar Convention

The intergovernmental treaty to conserve and wisely use the wetlands was signed in 1971 in the city of Ramsar in Iran. Since its inception, it has been called the Ramsar Convention. The Convention recognizes and designates different wetlands from the world as Ramsar sites. The chosen wetlands are incorporated in the Convention’s List of Wetlands of International Importance. Presently, 170 countries have become a signatory of the Convention, and around 2300 sites throughout the world have been earmarked as Ramsar sites.

The countries signing the Convention have to oblige to the three pillars that are:-

India and Ramsar Convention

India became the contracting party of the Ramsar Convention on 1st February 1982. There are 42 wetlands of India that are declared as Wetlands of International Importance. Since the ratification of the Convention, India has been administering steps to conserve wetlands. The signing of the Convention only imposes the duty to wisely use the wetlands and to conserve them. There are no set of rules that are to be adhered to, only the guiding framework in form of the three pillars of the Convention has been enunciated. The Ramsar Convention helps in the protection of wetlands in the following ways:-

Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2017

The Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2010 were the first-ever specific guidelines related to wetlands in India formed as per the provisions of the Environment Protection Act, 1986. These rules were drafted by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC). Despite these guidelines, the wetlands were degrading, thus these were not able to fulfil the purpose for which they were enacted.

Thus to overcome the inadequacies in the previous guidelines, the Draft Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2016 was developed by the Central government. After reviewing all the comments and suggestions from the public, the Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2017 were enforced on 29 September 2017. The 2017 guidelines replaced the guidelines of 2010.

The key features of the Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2017 are as follows:

Establishment of State Wetland Authority

The rules direct the establishment of State Wetland Authority or Union Territories Wetland Authority in each State or Union Territory according to Rule 5(1) and Rule 5(2) respectively. The Authority will be headed by the Environment Minister of the state and other government officials will be its members. The members will also encompass at least one expert belonging to each field of wetland ecology, hydrology, fisheries, landscape ecology, and socioeconomics. The experts shall be nominated by the respective state governments.

Functions of the State Wetland Authority have been as follows-

National Wetlands Committee

The National Wetlands Committee shall be set up according to the Rules of 2017(Rule 6(1)). This committee is to be headed by the Secretary of MoEF&CC. 

The functions of the National Wetlands Committee are as follows:-

Prohibition of activities

Performance of certain activities was explicitly banned by the guidelines on the notified wetlands that are as follows:-

Penalties

If an act of any individual or organization violates the rules set by the Authority, then the action against such a party can be taken as per the Environment (Protection) Act,1986.

National Plan on Aquatic Ecosystems (NPAC)

The National Plan for Conservation of Aquatic Ecosystems was enacted in the year 2015 after the amalgamation of the National Lake Conservation Plan and the National Wetlands Conservation Programme. This plan works for the protection of both wetlands and lakes. The Act is administered by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests. 

The main objectives of this plan are:-

Thus, this plan ensures the conservation of wetlands.

Other laws that indirectly help in the conservation of wetlands

Some laws are not directly enacted for the conservation of the wetlands but cover its protection within its ambit because the wetlands coincide with the subject matter of that laws. Some of them are as follows:-

National Environment Policy, 2006

The National Environment Policy, 2006 was incorporated in the Indian legal regime because of the rising importance of the environment in one’s life. The wide interpretation was given to Article 21 and the right to a clean environment was also added within the ambit of the right to life in the case of Subhash Kumar v. State of Bihar (1991). Even Articles 48A and 51A support this right. 

This strategy includes several measures for the conservation of wetland that are as follows:-

Wildlife (Protection) Act,1972

The Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 came into force on 9th September 1972. This Act majorly deals with the protection of wild animals, birds, and plants. It has provisions for the prohibition of hunting and regulates all the national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, zoos, etc. in order to conserve the flora and fauna. This statute does not explicitly cover wetlands but the wetlands that coincide with the national parks or wildlife sanctuaries are under the ambit of the Act.

Forest Laws

The laws formulated for the conservation of forests like the Indian Forest Act,1927, the Forest (Conservation) Act,1980, and State Forests Acts. These laws are enacted to conserve forest cover and wildlife. The wetlands that fall under the ambit of these laws are governed as per the provisions of forest laws only. They do not fall under the Wetlands (Conservation and Management) guidelines.

Indian Fisheries Act,1857

The Indian Fisheries Act,1857 protects fish but as wetlands are storehouses of a wide variety of species, thus this Act ensures the protection of wetlands also. The provisions for the protection of wetlands are as follows:-

Other laws like Territorial Water, Continental Shelf, Exclusive Economic and other Marine Zones Act,1976, Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act,1977, Coastal Zone Regulation Notification,1991, etc also cover provisions to conserve wetlands.

State laws regarding conservation of the wetlands

The Kerala Conservation of Paddy Land and Wetland Act, 2008

This Act was implemented by the Kerala government in the year 2008. The main purpose behind this Act is to prevent the conversion of wetlands and paddy land for other purposes. The Act ensures the sustainability of these ecosystems.

The main provisions of the Act are as follows:-

Andhra Pradesh Water, Land, and Trees Act, 2002

The Andhra Pradesh Act, 2002 came into force on 1 July 2002. This Act primarily deals with the conservation of water, expansion of tree cover, and the replenishment of groundwater. The wetlands though not directly covered under the Act, but are incidentally protected under it because wetlands naturally help in the conservation of water and flourishment of the tree cover. The major steps employed under the Act are as follows:-

East Kolkata Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Act, 2006

The East Kolkata Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Act, 2006 came into force on 11th October 2006. It is applicable to the Ramsar site of East Kolkata. It is formulated to conserve wetlands by the adoption of the following measures –

The West Bengal Wetlands and Water Bodies Conservation Policy (2012) is a draft policy formulated to conserve the wetland areas by the four-member expert committee that suggests some measures for the conservation of the wetlands in Kolkata. It is also developed by adhering to the basic outline of the Ramsar Convention.

Conclusion

The wetlands have acquired critical importance due to their role in water security, support to plants and animals, role in mitigating pollution and occurrence of other natural phenomenons like floods, erosion, etc. Despite their immense value, wetlands are subject to anthropogenic and non-anthropogenic pressures. This results in the degradation of wetlands through shrinkage, drainage, reclamation, pollution, and habitat destruction.

There are several laws that remark conservation of wetlands but they are not yielding desired results. The strategies and measures built on the lines of holistic and multidisciplinary approaches are needed in order to conserve and manage wetlands. They should be based on scientific knowledge. All the key stakeholders from diverse strata should come forward in the conservation of wetlands.

References


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