The "fishing cat" is a lesser-known, small wild cat. As its name suggests, it feeds on fish - primarily found in water bodies like wetlands, swamps, rivers etc. Already classified as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the fishing cat - and several other species - could be severely imperiled if the proposed Draft Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2016, replacing the previous Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2010, is implemented by the Ministry of Environment , Forests and Climate Change.
"The way we treat our wetlands shows how civilised a society we are; and the way we treat our planet, especially water, says a lot about the way we are as humans," says Shomita Mukherjee, a scientist with the Salim Ali Center for Ornithology (SACON), who has worked on fishing cats.
The ministry's deadline for comments on the Draft Wetlands Rules, 2016, closed on 6 June. However, the changes proposed in this draft have ecologists, wildlife scientists, environmental activists and legal experts very concerned. Further, these experts believe that the DWR needs to be looked at in the larger context of what the current government has been doing in terms of environmental legislation.
Parineeta Dandekar, ?the associate coordinator for South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People says, "There is complete reluctance to protect wetlands, and some of the gaps in the proposed rules are absolutely shocking. For instance, how are Ramsar wetlands (wetlands notified as per the Ramsar Convention, 1971) going to be managed, how are transboundary wetlands going to be managed, who exactly is going to manage them? The forest department? It raises too many questions. The Draft is a half-hearted attempt to replace the previous one from 2010, it needs to be redone completely."
Environmentalists claim there are multiple issues with the DWR. The main bone of contention is the doing away of the Central Wetlands Regulatory Authority, which notifies and regulates wetlands. Although the CWRA's term ended on 31 March 2015, it wasn't reconstituted. Instead a new National Plan for Conservation of Aquatic Ecosystems (NPCA) was formed, integrating two previous programmes to avoid duplication of responsibilities.
On the occasion of the World Wetland Day on 2 February, Prakash Javdekar, the central environment minister said the NPCA would provide the policy framework and support to the States. However, the NPCA guidelines are yet to be formulated.
The new proposed rules mean wetlands can now come under the purview of state governments. Ironically, only a handful of states even have a functioning State Level Wetland Authority and no new wetlands have been notified since the previous rules came into inception. Activists believe this doesn't augur well for the wetlands as giving the state governments the authority to regulate wetlands will make them only more susceptible to developmental pressures.
The concerns seem justified when you note that according to studies by SACON, India has lost 38 percent of its wetlands from 1991 to 2001 alone. The main threats to their survival are hydro power projects, reclamation and encroachment by the construction lobby, habitat loss and pollution, mainly in urban areas.
The other main issue the DWR has left out, is the participation of local people, living around the water bodies. Good examples of wetland preservation - like the Chilika lake in Orissa and Vembanad Kol lake in Kerala - have been successful due to the empowerment of people dependent on the lakes.
The Draft Regulatory Framework, 2008 was considered a very nuanced document at it classified wetlands in different categories and it included people right down to the zilla parishad level. The DWR, however, has the chief minister(s) of the states heading the State Level Wetland Authority, which will includes 12 other bureaucratic civil servants - leaving out experts from various fields like hydrology, ecology, etc. It is an unnecessary additional responsibility on an already overburdened state machinery which will surely be found wanting in executing guidelines for protection of wetlands.
The present proposed rules have also poorly defined what constitutes a wetland. Agricultural fields, river catchments, and even man-made structures are left out from the definition of wetlands. This can have severe repercussions for animals, birds and the communities directly dependent on such resources.
"The role of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) has been removed, this gives the Draft a very weak legal standing," says Sampurna Behura of Reach Law.
According to R Shreedhar, Environics Trust, such a move is a disguise to push the ease-of-doing-business agenda of the current government. This can have not only serious implications on conservation of a resource as common as wetlands but also take the bite out of deterrents aimed at vested interests that might abuse these water bodies. Blatant construction on wetlands across cities like Mumbai, Bengaluru, Kolkata has adversely impacted their hydrology, causing grave man-made floods and water crisis for their populations. Behura cautions that with no appellate body and right to grievance, the penalty for abuse of wetlands will be akin to meagre pollution penalties.
"Wetlands are like sponges, they give life to everybody. Life evolved out of water, if we neglect water, what will be left of us?" says Goldin Quadros, a wetland scientist with SACON.
In an urbanised world, wetlands are the most productive ecological system. About 6 lakh people depend on Bhopal lakes for water supply. Laktak in Manipur provides livelihoods to more than one lakh fisherfolk while Chilika does to two lakh. The same amount depend on the Vembanad Kol for irrigation. Wetlands' soils may contain as much as 200 times more carbon than the vegetation it supports, thus sequestering large amounts of carbon and regulating microclimate of their areas.
Wetlands such as the mangroves and floodplains also form an important physical barrier against natural disasters like cyclones. Many villages around the Bhitarkanika in Orissa that had intact mangrove forests are considerably less impacted by the effects of periodic cyclones. Many such highly useful benefits of wetlands render them an indispensible part of any ecosystem.
Sangai, an endangered endemic deer species found only in Manipur live in the marshy wetlands of the southern part of the Loktak lake. It is almost entirely dependent on the lake for its survival, just like the fishing cat. Sarus cranes, black necked cranes, Gangetic river dolphins, the Indian mud turtle and numerous threatened species of birds and fauna, feed (off) and live in and around wetlands. It is the only resource apart from rivers that is found across India - from the high altitudes of trans-Himalayas, to the forests of the North-East, the deserts of Kutch and the coasts of peninsular India.
Though the opening lines of the DWR 2016 begins promisingly for the wetlands: "Central Government considers it necessary to supersede the Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2010 for effective conservation and management of the wetlands in the country" - it might perhaps be best to do away with it completely in its present form, and develop instead, a progressive set of rules involving various stakeholders and experts. This of course, is if it wants to practice what it preaches - not only for the benefit of the communities but also animals dependent on these natural kidneys of our planet.