Passing the Buck to States :: The New Paradigm of Governance at Ministry of Environment to protect Wetlands

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Empowering the States with more Central share of taxes was a good idea towards cooperative federalism, but passing the entire buck of regulating the sensitive area as that of wetlands seem to be a casual passing off. It’s certainly surprising to note that even after armed with handsome funds, personnel and technological aides, Ministry of Environment doesn’t even have a national atlas of wetlands.

The 2010 regulations under the Environmental Protection Act (EPA) created a central authority of government officers and experts to oversee the protection of wetlands. It gave a fixed time for states to identify and demarcate wetlands and the Centre again a fixed time period to notify and protect these, as is now done for environmental and forest clearances. The process of identifying and demarcating the wetlands included recommendations and advice of scientific experts at state levels. Some wetlands falling in high altitudes and ecologically sensitive areas, beside the 26 Ramsar Convention sites, were to be automatically given protection.

In an ongoing case before the National Green Tribunal (NGT), it emerged that states had not notified wetlands under the 2010 regulations. This forced the tribunal to demand that states begin to do so in at least 5-10 districts in a time-bound fashion. The Union meanwhile has proposed to substantially change the existing regulations. The Union environment Ministry has now proposed to overhaul the regulations which identify and protect wetlands under the Environment Protection Act (EPA). It has suggested the time-bound process set under the regulations of 2010 be done away with, along with the existing central authority, leaving it almost entirely in the hands of state governments.

A a state-level authority headed by the chief minister, including the chief secretary and other state officials, with four experts on board, who can also be from the government, identify the wetlands has now been envisaged. The recommendations of this CM-headed authority are to be then sent to the state government for approval or rejection. The Centre will only be informed of the decision by the state. Only the 26 Ramsar wetland sites will get automatic protection.

Under the proposed new regulations, the Environment Ministry has let the loose lid around wetlands by putting up an abstract set of statements such as ‘wise use for maintaining ecological character, achieved through implementation of eco-system approaches, within the context of sustainable development’.  These lofty terms have not been strictly defined in law and are only conceptually explained in the regulations. Ecological character is defined as “the combination of eco-system components, processes and services that characterize a wetland, and provide necessary conditions for delivering eco-system services and maintenance of biodiversity”. The term ‘eco-system approach’ is defined as “the strategy for integrated management of land, water and living resources that promotes conservation and sustainable use in an equitable way”.

The 2010 regulations prohibited seven types of activities in wetlands, such as

  1. setting up of new or expansion of existing industries.
  2. reclamation of wetlands,
  3. conversion to non-wetlands,
  4. diversion or impediment of inflows and outflows from the wetland and
  5. ‘any activity having or likely to have adverse impact on ecological character of the wetland’.

It required prior state government permission be sought for an array of other activities impacting wetlands. And, that the permission be given following an environmental impact assessment as required under the EPA. The central government held the power of permitting any activity on the recommendation of the central wetlands authority, which had four independent experts on board.

The new regulations shall do away with the elaborate list of activities that are prohibited or restricted. The rules then give the Centre powers to allow these activities as well. The need for the environmental impact assessment before permitting such activities is to be done away with. The earlier regulations allowed appeals against the decisions of the central wetlands authority with the NGT. This, too, is to be done away with, though aggrieved entities could continue to file cases against violations of these rules.

ReTHINK INDIA VIEW

Interestingly, a matter of such technically intense nature has now been handed over to an extremely politically empowered committee, which just couldn’t be questioned in future at any forum per se. Wetlands are geographical features which are easily identifiable on satellite imagery. At a time when the country is celebrating the accomplishments of ISRO, would it have been really difficult for the NRSA to identify India’s potential wetlands on geo-coordinates and send them for administrative notifications. Is it more an outcome of unimaginative governance at Ministry of Environment or is it a sheer pressure for expanding enterprise at the cost of environment, would need to be investigated.

Enabling the Ease of Doing Business by enforcing a careless regulatory regime of environmental regulation would not be a great idea considering the irreversible nature of such ecologically sensitive habitations. The government was rightful in restraining environmental activism inspired from vested interests from alien shores. But the well meaning environmental concerns just should not be set aside in an outcry for economic easing out.

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