Three hundred and forty seven. That’s the final tally of deaths following flooding that engulfed Chennai at the end of 2015. Thousands more were evacuated.
As water levels rose, experts looked for answers. Chennai was experiencing record-breaking rains, but that wasn’t enough to explain the extent of the flooding. The main problem, they found, was rooted in rapid, haphazard human development.
Over the years, Chennai’s growth had encroached on surrounding wetlands, gradually replacing the sponge-like ecosystems with concrete. With no soils to drain into or rivers to flow out, the rain had nowhere to go. Poor urban planning had doomed the city to flooding.
Now, a new draft of wetland protection regulations could make it easier for state governments across the country to repeat the same mistakes. If passed, the rules, proposed by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, will place fewer restrictions on activities in wetlands, environmental lawyers and activists say.
Wetlands encompass a broad range of ecosystems. They are characterised by bodies of water, like lakes, ponds, rivers or marshes, and their surrounding ecosystems.
Roughly five percent of India’s land is made up of wetlands, but their ecological services span far beyond their geographical area. These ecosystems store and filter water, an important function at a time when India is experiencing one of its worst droughts in decades. They also buffer strong storms, lessening the damage to cities and homes.
Wetlands continue, in the popular mind, to be regarded as a wasteland because they don’t produce revenue.Ritwick Dutta, Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment
The new regulations would facilitate development on wetlands by doing away with prohibited activities listed in the existing rules, developed in 2010.
Currently, the setting up or expansion of industries onto wetlands is prohibited, as is the disposal of hazardous materials and solid waste. No permanent construction is permitted on a wetland.
The new regulations don’t ban any of these activities explicitly. A Central Wetland Regulatory Authority has been done away with. Instead, the Central Government would have power to overrule the few prohibited activities that remain in the new draft, including land reclamation and activities that could damage the wetland ecosystem.
State and Central governments can allow for activities that make “wise use,” of wetlands, though “wise” is not defined in the document. No environmental impact assessments would be required for these activities.
The 2010 rules may not have been perfect, but they were reasonably good and we could have protection. Unremarkable wetlands are falling off the map. Remarkable wetlands are hanging in there.Anand Arya, Environmental Activist
Wetlands protected under the regulations have also changed. In the 2010 rule, wetlands in high altitudes were automatically protected, as were wetlands in ecologically sensitive areas such as national parks. The new regulations would only protect “wetlands of international importance,” of which there are 26, and wetlands notified by State Governments and the Central Government.
But states would not be pressured to make note of wetlands in the new document. While the existing regulations required governments to identify and prepare a brief of their wetlands within a year, the 2016 document has no such timeline.
A recent case at the National Green Tribunal revealed that no state has notified their wetlands, though the 2010 regulation required them to do so within a year of the regulations being passed.
Vague restrictions and language in the new document are what make the 2016 draft so dangerous, environmentalists say.
The issue is: how do we ensure the law is not diluted? I just don’t understand it. This cannot sustain itself. Where is the responsibility?Ritwick Dutta, Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment
Environmental organisations like WWF India, the Bombay Natural History Society, Legal Initiative for Forests and Environment, Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan and South Asian Network on Dams Rivers and People plan to submit comments to the government regarding the regulation.
The public has until 31 May to comment on the draft.