Wetlands mismanagement exposes deeper crisis

| | in Oped

In the entire hullabaloo over some experts' disgruntlement with the new wetland rules, what has been conveniently ignored is our collective failure to protect the wetlands which, unfortunately, are treated as nothing more than wastelands

The Union Government’s new notification of the Wetland (Conservation and Management) Rules 2017 shows how the environment continues to be a dispensable commodity. The Government alone must not be blamed for this. We reap what we sow, and the Government’s policies — technocratic and disinterested — reflect our flawed thinking on the environment.

It is absolutely fine to suggest that environment is critical to human survival and, therefore, needs to be protected, but 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.

After all, if we, which includes ‘communities’ and ‘experts’, can place a utilitarian value on the environment, there is no defensible ethical ground to prevent businesses and the Government from doing the same from time-to-time.

And the wetlands, unfortunately, have for decades 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 work both ways.

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.

So, in the entire hullabaloo over the experts’ disgruntlement with the new rules, nobody is willing to recognise this root cause of our collective failure.

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.

Even now, major metropolitan cities are fast eroding their wetlands and are failing to realise the ominous implications, despite being at the receiving end of regular flooding over the last two years.

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.

The bleak picture shows that not only a collective moral change is required immediately, at the very least, but also that failed policy paths already trod not be taken again, to begin with.

One such failed policy path was the half-hearted management of wetlands initiated by a set of rules in 2010. 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. How can you not give a key role to State authorities under whose jurisdiction the wetlands are located?

And since wetlands are associated with a range of ‘functions’ related to water, livelihoods etc, how can the State not be involved in the management of its own key subjects, despite the bindings of local politics?

The last six years of wetlands management reflect exactly this kind of apathy. Even in other cases, sub-national action to manage environment (like the US and other global cities taking voluntary initiatives) has proven to be better than the Union Government trying to do everything at once.

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.

Also, 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. Having recognised this, debating the revival of defunct institutions like the CWRA becomes a moot point. Policy would be ineffective and good only on paper in most such cases.

Unless we change our lens of viewing environment as a commodity — for instance, wetlands as service repositories — any number of new rules would keep running into roadblocks.

(The writer is with the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies and writes for the Resurgent India Trust)

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