Tamil Nadu

Saving wetlands in Tamil Nadu from extinction

It has been 43 years since the Ramsar Convention on conservation of wetlands came into force, and 36 years since India signed it. It has also been 17 years since the Supreme Court began hearing a related case, yet things continue to move at a snail’s pace in the State.

Not pleased with the State’s action, the Madras High Court has now stepped in to save from extinction hundreds of wetlands, considered a vital part of the hydrological cycle and highly productive ecosystems that support rich biodiversity.

Apart from storing and purifying water, mitigating floods, controlling erosion, recharging aquifers and regulating microclimate, wetlands also play a significant role in aesthetic enhancement of landscapes.

 

Despite such benefits, the lands remain threatened due to a variety of reasons including reclamation, degradation through drainage, landfills, discharge of industrial effluents, disposal of solid wastes and encroachments.

It was to address these issues at a global level that the United Nations member nations adopted an intergovernmental treaty at the Iranian city of Ramsar in 1971 for conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources.

India is a signatory to the convention which came into force in the country in 1982. In 2001, advocate M.K. Balakrishnan filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court against the Centre and all State governments in the country for having failed to conserve wetlands.

After repeated adjournments granted for filing of counter affidavits by the State governments, the case took a completely different turn in 2009 when a Bench led by Justice Markandey Katju expanded its scope. The Bench directed the Union Ministry of Science and Technology to constitute a body of eminent scientists to solve the general problem of water scarcity in the country. The direction gave birth to the Technology Mission: WAR for Water.

 

Chaired by the Secretary to the Ministry, the committee named Technology Mission: Winning, Augmentation and Renovation (WAR) for Water did extensive research on augmenting water sources and submitted several reports to the court.

However, after Justice Katju retired from service in 2011, the focus of the case was shifted exclusively towards preservation of wetlands with the Supreme Court on April 3, 2017 requesting the High Courts of various States to step into the issue.

The High Courts were asked to take up suo motu public interest litigation petitions to ensure that Ramsar Convention sites within their jurisdiction were maintained properly. It was suggested that amicus curiae could also be appointed if necessary.

Saving wetlands in Tamil Nadu from extinction
 

Answers sought

Accordingly, the Madras High Court took up a suo motu PIL petition and it recently appointed senior counsel P.S. Raman as amicus curiae after the State government filed a detailed status report on steps taken to preserve wetlands.

It was submitted to the court that at present the Point Calimere Wildlife Sanctuary at Kodiakarai in Nagapattinam is the only wetland in the State to have been included under the Ramsar Convention.

 

Yet, surprisingly, the government told the court that absolutely no expenditure was incurred on the protected wetland during the financial years 2015-16 and 2016-17, though about Rs.56 lakh was spent on its upkeep in 2017-18.

Another surprise revelation made by the State was that steps were underway to include the Pallikaranai marshland in Kancheepuram district, Kaluveli swamp in Villupuram and the Gulf of Mannar wetland complex under the Convention.

The court was informed that district-level wetland management committees had already been formed to study wetlands that fall outside forest areas and were under the control of either the Public Works Department or the local bodies. These committees had so far completed ground verification reports with respect to 81 wetlands taken up under phase-I of the project. Ground verification of about 61 wetlands across the State was under progress in phase-II of the project.

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Closer home

 

In so far as the wetlands protected and conserved by the forest department were concerned, the government said that about 24 such lands spread over 1.40 lakh hectares were being taken care of under the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972.

Wetlands protected by the forest department included Muthupet mangroves spread across Nagapattinam, Tiruvarur and Thanjavur districts, Pichavaram mangroves, Ramnad mangroves and coral reefs in the Gulf of Mannar.

Bird sanctuaries at Vedanthangal and Karikili in Kancheepuram district, Pulicat in Tiruvallur, Vettangudi in Sivaganga, Kanjirankulam and Chitrangudi in Ramanathapuram and Udayamarthandapuram and Vaduvoor in Tiruvarur were also under the forest department.

Inconsistent spending

The status report filed by the Tamil Nadu State Wetland Authority, on behalf of the State government, showed that there was no consistency in the expenditure incurred towards upkeep of the 24 protected wetlands.

Though the Centre sanctioned ₹1.63 crore for their upkeep in 2015-16 and released only ₹65.94 lakh out of the sanctioned amount, the expenditure incurred during that year was nil.

Saving wetlands in Tamil Nadu from extinction
 

In contrast, the government had spent ₹4.43 crore on the protected wetlands in 2017-18 though the Centre had released only ₹4.37 crore as against the sanctioned amount of Rs.4.88 crore for that financial year.

After perusing the report, a Division Bench of Justices S. Manikumar and Subramonium Prasad felt the issue was of public importance and therefore a designated senior counsel should be appointed to assist the court.

They persuaded Mr. Raman to take up the cause in pro bono publico (professional work undertaken without any payment) and help the court monitor the activities of the State towards conservation of wetlands.

They also issued a direction to the government officials concerned to provide full cooperation to the senior counsel in taking stock of the situation and submitting periodical reports to the court on the progress made by the State along with his suggestions on the issue.

The court-monitored conservation measures have now raised hopes of some concrete on-the-ground action.

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Printable version | Feb 25, 2021 9:59:05 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/saving-wetlands-from-extinction-tamil-nadu/article25415036.ece

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