Category Archives: Wild

Semal in the city: A month of Semal!

For the month of March 2018, I photographed and observed a Semal (Silk Cotton tree). What a looker this tree is. It had bright red flowers, lots of birds, and plenty of little dramas. All down here!

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Only once a year, a tall tree with thorny bark bursts dramatically into blossom. In red, orange and yellow variants, the flowers seem to be on a cheerful rebellion against Air Quality Indexes above 200, apathy and road-widening stresses. The Silk cotton or Semal tree defies the expectations you would normally have of a tree in the city. Not only is this native tree doing wellin struggling, dry Delhi, it heralds spring – through the annual phenology of its blossoms – bringing scores of birds out and about.

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Tailorbird on Semal: tinier than the flowers!

Once the tree is done with flowering, it breaks out into cotton pods, which waft magically in the clogged air. If a large flowering tree is a keystone in the ecosystem, equally it can be a harbinger of a sense of place.

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Grey Hornbill on Semal.
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A flock of riotous Rose-ringed Parakeets!

I took pictures of a semal tree in Vasant Kunj for over fifteen days at the same time each day –between 6:30 to 9:30 AM. The tree I chose was a representative of Delhi – growing upright in a human-dominated, nutrient-poor environment. The findings confirm what I thought as a child – the semal has an effervescent quality of attracting not just human admirers but also several birds and insects. Observing the semal is also understanding ecology and inter-relationships – I spotted more than ten bird species, but I also saw interactions between different bird species.

The collective noun for crows is murder. Murders of crows were regularly spotted, but despite their snarky reputations, the crows did not harangue other birds – like various kinds of mynas, pigeons and barbets. There were several types of starlings or mynas on the semal – common mynas (with a bandit like yellow band on their eyes), brahminy mynas (named after the ‘choti’ or tuft of hair they have, similar to the one some male brahmins keep), pied mynas (black and white with orange bills) and rosy starlings (rosy pink, white and black), who migrate to India from Europe. There were two types of barbets – the brown-headed barbet and the coppersmith barbet, and two types of pigeon – the yellow-footed green pigeon (a tree-loving bird) and the blue rock pigeon (which nests closer to people, and usually on buildings). Grey hornbills, rose-ringed parakeets, oriental magpie-robins, paradise flycatchers and rufous treepies also visited. The size range of birds the semal supports is wide – from the tiny purple sunbird and oriental white-eye (8 centimetres long) to the huge peafowl. While several birds fed on the semal flowers, others used the crown of the tree as cover, while negotiating their way through the built landscape.

For me, the semal is a sense of place, which is otherwise marred by a shifting baseline. While certain remnants of ecological heritage and knowledge remain in Delhi – such as people selling coconut cream and water and cooling ‘chiks’ on the side of the road – most other ‘natural’ recollections are now just memories. Growing up in Delhi, I saw vultures which have now completely disappeared, and sparrows that have sharply reduced in numbers. Studies have confirmed the worst suspicions – we are witnessing several local extinctions and plummeting populations of species. In the houses I grew up in, wasps made white nests in plug points, crickets and termites flew giddily inside our rooms after monsoons. I don’t see crickets, blister beetles, and the wasp and ant diversity that I saw as a child. One thing that has remained though, is the semal.

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The iridiscent Purple Sunbird on Semal.

Grey hornbills dart in and out of the semal in the ancient Humayun’s tomb complex. In central verges and road dividers exhibiting Delhi’s plummeting Air Quality Index and Respirable Particulate Matter, the semal manages to grow – and thrive. In places where trees branches have been carelessly lopped off – to make way for signboards, lampposts or red lights – it survives. It may not outlive all of Delhi’s infrastructure plans though. Close on the heels of a contested proposal for ‘redeveloping’ Pragati Maidan, which will involve cutting hundreds of trees, more road-development projects are being executed. Citizens have fought to save old trees on Aurobindo Marg which the government wants to cut for road-widening, a proposal which may still come through. Another plan is in the offing is to cut over 2,000 trees – including the cheerful semal – between Dhaula Kuan and the international airport. Still, as planners hasten to widen roads, the semal shelters an arboreal arena of life.

As agencies claim repeatedly that they will plant “ten times” the numbers of trees they cut in Delhi, one wonders whether these forests will just be on paper. Or perhaps, just in memory, like nostalgia-tinted mental postcards of vultures in Central Delhi.

The semal means so much to many species. An important source of food and sustenance as the days get hotter. Yet it may be just another trunk to be cut for road-widening projects or another statistic for ‘compensatory plantation.’ As agencies claim repeatedly that they will plant “ten times” the numbers of trees they cut in Delhi, one wonders whether these forests will just be on paper. Or perhaps, just in memory, like nostalgia-tinted mental postcards of vultures in Central Delhi.

This post first appeared here.

All photos by Neha Sinha. Please do not use without permission.

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The things a Purple Sunbird has to do to get a Lady

I’ve been watching this courting pair of Purple sunbirds over Spring in Delhi. Here’s the male with his bright red and gold shoulder patches, which he eventually dropped.

This image is from March 10. Notice the bright, unmissable embellishments!

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On March 23, the shoulder patches are noticeably less bright:Sunbird Shoulder Patch

Image from earlier today, March 30. The patches seem to be gone.

Sunbird on Semal Mar 30

And that’s because… drumroll.. he’s found his girl! Presenting the female sunbird!

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And here’s one last image of the Sunbird singing his heart out:

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All photos by Neha Sinha. Please do not use without permission. 

It’s World Water Week. Why India’s new Wetland Rules have it all wrong.

The 2017 Wetland Rules limit monitoring and omit important wetland types

Earlier this year, a judgment by the Uttarakhand High Court, stating that Ganga and Yamuna rivers are “living entities”, captured the national imagination. It is worth noting that wetlands, the other major water-based ecosystem apart from rivers, are at a moment of policy transition in the country. This year, a new legal framework for wetlands was passed, the Wetland (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2017, replacing the earlier Rules of 2010. Also this year, the Supreme Court passed an order directing States to identify wetlands in the country within a stipulated timeframe.

Going forward

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Sambar and Chital at a stream in Pench Tiger Reserve.

The 2017 Wetland Rules have been criticised for doing away with strong wetland monitoring systems and omitting important wetland types. At the same time, the Supreme Court order directs States to come forward and notify wetlands. What then could be the way forward?

The 2010 and 2017 Rules for wetlands both emphasise that the ecological character of wetlands ought to be maintained for their conservation. ‘Ecological character’ refers to processes and components which make the wetland a particular, and sometimes unique, ecosystem. For example, as lagoons like Chilika (Odisha) and Pulicat (Tamil Nadu/Andhra Pradesh) are characterised by a mix of saline and fresh water, the flows of each type need to be maintained; river flood plains contain wetlands that require conservation so they can re-fuel the river with fish and other aquatic life during flooding.

In the 2010 Rules, some related criteria were made explicit, such as natural beauty, ecological sensitivity, genetic diversity, historical value, etc. These have been omitted in the 2017 Rules. There are a few reasons why this is problematic. First, there is multiple interest around wetlands. Multiple interests also have governance needs, and this makes it absolutely necessary to identify and map these multiple uses. Leading on from this, and second, it is crucial to identify ecological criteria so that the wetlands’ character can be maintained. The key to wetland conservation is not just understanding regimes of multiple use — but conserving or managing the integrity of the wetland ecosystem. Finally, restriction of activities on wetlands will be done as per the principle of ‘wise use’, determined by the State wetland authority. Whether wise use will include maintaining ecological character remains to be seen. Under the new Rules, no authority to issue directions, which are binding in nature to desist from any activity detrimental to wetland conservation, has been prescribed to State wetland authorities.

Salt pans are an example how one use (of making salt) has trumped the other (of environmental balance). Salt pans as ‘wetlands’ have been omitted from the new Rules. They were identified as wetlands in the 2010 Rules, as they are often important sites of migratory birds and other forms of biodiversity. The omission in the 2017 Rules suggests that while saltpans do exist as wetlands, they do not require any conservation or ecological balance. The inference can also be that it would be acceptable to tip the environmental balance or integrity of such a wetland, which could lead to damage and pollution.

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Forest wetland in Asola Sanctuary, Delhi.

The case of Deepor Beel

The issue of wetlands being multiple-use areas — and subsequently being abused due to clashes of interest — found centre-stage this year with the observations of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in the case of Deepor Beel.

Deepor Beel is a Ramsar site and a part of it is also wildlife sanctuary in Guwahati, Assam. (‘Ramsar Sites are designated because they meet the criteria for identifying wetlands of international importance.’) This wetland harbours a wide variety of biodiversity, and also suffers from intense man-made pressure — the city’s municipal waste is dumped close to the Beel. Large, meat-eating storks (Greater adjutant storks) are ironically found eating from the mountains of garbage at the site. Potential impacts of contamination or poisoning from the garbage are still unknown. This January, 26 storks died. The fact that Deepor Beel (Beel means water body) exists as a wetland does not prevent garbage dumping; this is a fate faced by many wetlands. The NGT’s observations on Deepor Beel are interesting and symptomatic of what is happening in several wetlands. In an inspection done by the judicial member of the Tribunal, it was noted that waste was being dumped “not beyond the site but within it,” and “demarcations are made by drying out areas or cutting off water sources”. These are classic ways of killing a wetland and turning it from a wet to a dry ecosystem; or from a lake to a garbage dump or cesspool. The Tribunal has now asked for the “traditional” spread of the wetland.

Given all the modern uses of wetlands, or the use of the wetland only for its land, looking at traditional cartography may be one way to understand catchments of wetlands. It may also be a way of restoring some modicum of ecological character, identity or ‘rights’ to wetlands, as the river judgment suggested. There are challenges ahead in identifying wetlands – multiple and competing use is just one of them. Understanding the historic spread and ecological character will be an important bulwark for the way forward. Setting clear governance systems would be the next. Without either, we are looking at a complete dilution of wetlands in the country.

This first appeared here.

Looking for Sparrows on World Sparrow Day (and everyday)

I had just reached home from school, and he was sitting there, eyes glittering, cheeping at me with all the painful anguish of a little one with a little voice.

The sparrow looked suited and booted, like he was wearing a very black tie over a ruddy brown coat. In all my school-child importance, I had imperiously flung my bag aside and was ready to peel off my sweaty nylon socks so I could put my feet up on the sofa. I owned the drawing room: it was my grandparent’s drawing room, but unlike the school, I could do what I wanted here, and for a few hours each day, this was my kingdom. The old ceiling fan, cavernous coir sofas, oil paintings on the wall, a stack of curios on the old bookshelves – this was my empire. But the sparrow kept cheeping. He had an important message for me. The window was not open enough for his mate to come in, especially when she was carrying twigs. They had important business to do: a house to build behind my grandfather’s handmade oil painting. The sparrow wife, her mouth full, stared at me balefully from the branch of a scarlet bougainvillea.

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Each summer, the sparrows made their nesting preferences clear, asking for space. Sometimes, they would nest between the tube-light and wall. Many years, behind paintings. And most annoyingly, on the cup the ceiling fan hung from. Coming back home on hot summer days, I could arrogantly peel my hot socks off, throw away my bag with practised carelessness, but I couldn’t put the fan on, for more than speed “2”. The sparrow couple were always around, feeding their chicks in the ceiling fan. I had my heart in my mouth each time the female sparrow would dodge the whirring fan; I admired her grudgingly even as sweat ran down my face.

Sometimes the sparrows would quarrel. Sometimes they would fly away for longish periods and I could hear the chicks yelling their protest. They seemed to be such noisy children, like me. The drawing room was no longer just mine. The hot summers were a bit hotter. But I had company. And I had surprise, with the sparrows pulling a variety of unpredictable capers all afternoon long.

Today is World Sparrow Day. The most natural reaction would be to assume that the sparrows are still around. But they’re almost not. March 20 is remembered as World Sparrow Day as sparrows – especially house sparrows – are declining everywhere. What happened? When did it happen? How did the charm of cheep-chirp leave our lives?

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There are so many reasons: with insecticides being used everywhere, soft-bodied insects, the young sparrow’s food, have disappeared. In our extreme manicuring tendencies for perfect, manufactured order, grass – which supports nesting material as well as insects – is being mowed too short in lawns.

In residential facades, ledges, of no use to anyone but a little bird, have gone out of fashion and are being replaced by sleek modern buildings. Inside our houses, windows have been shut and ACs have been switched on. The oil paintings still hang, but there are no sparrows to flit behind the paintings.

All over the world, there are assorted movements to bring house sparrows back. In some places, architects are leaving bricks missing, so sparrows can have a nesting place. In others, parts of gardens are being left wild, for grass, insects, and sparrows. In India, a massive movement to give sparrows a space in gardens, homes, and hearts, is ongoing.

Today, sadness washes over me for the sparrows. I hope they will come back. Once, they took over my kingdom – and our collective afternoons, so many vestiges of domestic existences. Today, we ask them, beg them, cajole them, to return. So many sparrows have been lost in the humdrum and banality of urban life. But what we have lost, in the companionship of a little, stubborn, brave bird, the “nanhi gorayya”, is incalculable and perhaps much worse.

This piece first appeared here.

Why Spring is the Birding Season!

Tuk, tuk.

The sound is insistent and almost metallic.

You can hear it in most Indian cities. Under trees, next to your office window, while out on a walk, from your balcony.

The sound comes from a bird with whiskers — a bird coloured green, red, yellow and black. The small, energetic Coppersmith Barbet, bashing on with the cheer of a tuk-tuk on a colourful street; its call heralding the coming of summer.

For summer is almost here, and spring is ongoing. The fingers of heat will run through your face, bringing memories of heat exhaustion, but it is not unbearable yet. And this is the best time to get out there and go birding.

Let’s start with the coast. Coasts are not for everyone. In high summer, the sunlight prances on the water, and the whole world seems like a prism of blinding, broken glass. Early mornings at this time of the year are just right. You can take a boat and go into the sea, or you could hide out on the beach. There will be Brown-headed gulls, flying and hunting together, having come from Central Asia and Mongolia.

gullsforaging-copy_022418014501.jpgGulls foraging for food. [Photo courtesy: Neha Sinha]

They are bold birds, fine-feathered, looking impossibly smooth for all their watery pursuits. And if you look really hard, you can find Little Stint and Temminck’s Stint on beaches and on coastal wetlands. These tiny birds have feathers that look like fine, mottled mud — like the colours on ancient, well-worn pottery. The Little Stint is tiny, and that tiny bird makes a long migration to come to India — the ones we get here come from arctic reaches of Eurasia.

Go to the desert, and there too you will be delighted. This is the time of the year to see thousands upon thousands of Demoiselle Cranes that come to Rajasthan. They congregate chiefly at Khichan village, where villagers proudly feed these stunning, stately birds.

parrot-copy_022418011237.jpgRose-ringed Parakeet at a nesting site. [Photo courtesy: Neha Sinha]

Over the years, man and Crane have grown together. The cranes have learnt that they can to go to Khichan , generation after generation, for both refuge and food in winter. And it is a date that they keep regularly, the magic of migration combined with peer-learning in the flock, remembering routes in the sky over the desert.

Part of the desert is in Delhi too. The Aravalli ranges start from Rajasthan and come to Delhi. The Aravallis are not moist and evergreen. Rather, like the capital, they are tough, thorny and spindly. A remarkable natural feature that requires much more love. Asola sanctuary in Delhi is full of birds. The area takes getting used to.

asola-copy_022418010744.jpgIndian Scops Owl. [Photo courtesy: Neha Sinha]

Many native species of shrub and tree in the Aravallis dry forests have thorns almost an inch long. The grass is brown rather than green, and old rocks are worn with time. Thorny plants, well-adapted to Delhi’s heat and dryness, grasp on to it little pinches of dust between the rocky crags. You have to walk carefully, avoiding thorns.

Learning to embrace this tough, old place is rich in its rewards. In between the grass and rocks, you can find the stunning, quaint-as-a-button Painted Sandgrouse which is regularly seen in Asola. And you have the sedate looking, long-legged Indian stone-curlew which is a resident there. In the wetlands of Asola, you will find migratory birds hunting for food and fish — Bar-headed Geese, Mallard ducks and Northern Shovelers.

indian-hoopoe-copy_022418010924.jpgHoopoe on a tree. [Photo courtesy: Neha Sinha]

And apart from the birds, this is also the time to watch flowers. The Flame of the Forest is beginning to bloom all over central India. In the Himalayas, the blood-red rhododendron, which may be impacted by global warming, has begun blooming early, in winter and spring.

The impacts of climate change are evident in many phenologies — that is early or late blooming of flowers, changes in when insects or bird eggs hatch, among others. But spring is a time of celebration that is hard to ignore. It’s a time to get out there and look at the sky and the sea, the bough and the boulder. You’ll never be able to predict what you find.

All photos by me.

This piece first appeared here.

Why are elephants at the centre of conflict in India?

Chased by people when trapped in fields, run over by trains, or hemmed in by walls – elephants are at the centre of a growing human footprint. Some elephant calves are like children born in conflict zones — insecure, aggressive, and unpredictable.

How elephants became refugees on the outskirts of Bhubhaneswar city

What is happening in Athgarh is happening in many parts of India — creating a situation which is dangerous for both man and animal.

In India, there are elephants we worship. There are elephants we beat for work. There are elephants we ignore. In India, we now also have elephants that are refugees. The calves of these elephants are growing up like children in conflict — confused, unpredictable and scared.

On the outskirts of Bhubhaneswar city, a herd of elephants has become refugees. They left the intensely disturbed Chandaka sanctuary, and tried to move towards other forest patches. However, human activity has now surrounded the elephants. Videos show how people chase the hapless animals, who seem to be only wanting to cross roads and fields.

In a first for Odisha, a campaign, Giant Refugees, has been started to protect the elephants and grant them safe passage. Video documentation shows that in Khuntuni range of Athgarh forest division, people are harassing the herd of elephants for no good reason other than “evening entertainment”, say activists.

Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik’s office has said that the CM cares for elephants, but it remains to be seen what action will be taken.

elebd_030117024532.jpgSurrounded by an ever-expanding human footprint, large animals like elephants are becoming refugees in a land that they once freely occupied.

Meanwhile, two trends are emerging.

Surrounded by an ever-expanding human footprint, large animals like elephants are becoming refugees in a land that they once freely occupied. Estimated to have 2,000 wild elephants, Odisha has a robust pachyderm population. But all of that is under threat.

Apart from poaching and disturbance in sanctuaries, elephants are also getting killed by trains. For instance in 2012, six elephants — almost an entire herd — were mowed down by the Coromandel Express.

While a large population of the national heritage animal still remains in this biodiverse state, one of the biggest ironies is this: elephants are accorded the highest protection for wild animals under the law. While they have some measure of protection in sanctuaries, the same animals are barely protected as they step foot outside these parks. With time, parks are changing — and so are the landscapes around them.

Many herds have already left Chandaka sanctuary, as it has become surrounded on three sides by people and habitation. In the 1960s, tigers went extinct here, followed by the extinction of leopards.

Second, in this setting, non-traditional patterns are emerging. Across India, not only are elephants and other animals becoming refugees, they are also coming together in confusion. Usually, elephants stick to their natal herds. Now, new herds are forming with straggler elephants coming together, with the glue of confusion and bewilderment. In Alur in Karnataka, a major human-elephant conflict hotspot, a similar trend is seen — non-related males and females have come together to form “herds”.

Elephants have complex sociologies and are deeply affected by the fate of their herd members. Usually, herds only have females and young ones. In Jalpaiguri, West Bengal, where several elephants have been repeatedly killed by trains, they have also died in trying to protect their calves from the incoming train carriages, earning the area the dubious distinction of being a “rail graveyard” for elephants. In Africa, studies show that elephants from herds which have witnessed trophy shooting become distraught and unpredictable.

elebd1_030117024655.jpgSeveral elephants have been repeatedly killed by trains.

“I have been observing elephants wandering in Odisha, having left the disturbed Chandaka sanctuary since the early 2000s. Entire herds of elephants have died in the press against people, mining, railways and habitat fragmentation. People say these are “nuisance animals” and “marauding jumbos” but the fact is that most of these elephants just want to have safe passage,” says wildlife conservationist Aditya Panda.

It’s not just elephants. If a refugee is someone who is evicted from its land, and thrown into conflict, it would not be an exaggeration to say that many species are being made refugees: captured and thrown out of habitat owing to poor decision-making and confused ecological initiatives.

Two “conflict” leopards were recently caught and castrated (though castration has no impact on aggression) in Sariska recently. Another leopard, which had no negative encounters with people, was picked up from Yamuna Biodiversity Park in Delhi and sent to an undisclosed location. This leads many to believe that an animal, which is protected by law, and even if passive, is being treated like a thief, a criminal or a terrorist, and also subject to encounter killings.

The solutions are relatively simple, but need political will. And in areas outside protected sanctuaries, the solutions need more than the forest department’s involvement, as animals are being harassed, with objects or torches flung at them, opening the gates to potential fatalities on both sides.

“The state needs to send in policemen to stop crowds from harassing the elephants. As a long-term measure, better connectivity has to be provided between Chandaka and Kapilas sanctuaries and the Satkosia landscape. Prompt compensation needs to be given for crop damage,” says Panda.

The fact is, what is happening in Athgarh is happening in many parts of India — creating a situation which is dangerous for both man and animal. This conflict needs to be addressed on a war footing before more lives are lost. It is estimated that more than 200 people have been injured all over Odisha in conflict with elephants in recent times.

The problem cannot be solved only by chasing elephants away, or provoking them from the apparent safety of a group of people. To give the animals passage, forest corridors, that CM Patnaik said he has identified, need to be notified and conserved.

What Patnaik and the state decides to do now, as the problem escalates sharply each day, will determine the fate of the wild and human citizens of Odisha.

This piece first appeared here

Wet/land II: Why the new Wetland Draft Rules are a disaster

The government is trying to refine its wetland rules. It’s a case of throwing out the baby with the waters.

Wetlands need to be reinforced as more than just open sources of water. How they are identified and conserved requires a rethink

The government is all set to change the rules on wetlands. The Draft Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2016, which will replace the Wetland (Conservation and Management) Rules of 2010, seek to give power to the States to decide what they must do with their wetlands. This includes deciding which wetlands should be protected and what activities should be allowed or regulated, while making affable calls for ‘sustainability’ and ‘ecosystem services’.

On the face of it, this appears to favour decentralisation and federalism. But the peculiar reality of wetlands shows that local pulls and pressures are not the best determinants for their protection. Both water in liquid form and wetlands in the form of ‘land’ are hotly contested, making wetlands the most imperilled natural ecosystem worldwide. It is imperative that the Draft Wetlands Rules, 2016 (comments for which close today) be looked at with a hard, if not cynical, eye. Three issues are of immediate concern. First, the draft does away with the Central Wetlands Regulatory Authority, which hadsuo moto cognisance of wetlands and their protection. Second, the draft rules contain no ecological criteria for recognising wetlands, such as biodiversity, reefs, mangroves, and wetland complexes. And finally it has deleted sections on the protection of wetlands, and interpretation of harmful activities which require regulation, which found reference in the 2010 rules.

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Experiments with water systems

One of the biggest ironies around water is that it comes from rivers and wetlands, yet it is seen as divorced from them. While water is used as a resource or good, public policy does not always grasp that it is part of a natural ecosystem. Efforts at engineering water systems are thus efforts at augmenting water supply rather than strengthening the capacities of ecological systems. There have been many recent attempts at this sort of engineering — Karnataka had dredged its rivers, for instance; other States may follow suit. The Ken and Betwa rivers in Madhya Pradesh are to be interlinked, and we have a history of building dams and barrages to store water. Parliament has already passed a Waterways Act, which will make navigation channels of 111 rivers, by straightening, dredging, and creating barrages.

While these projects require serious ecological consideration, they are usually informed only by the need to ‘use’ water. For instance, river dredging may increase the capacity of a river channel, but can also interfere with underground reservoirs. Over-dredging can destroy these reservoirs. River interlinking changes hydrology and can benefit certain areas from a purely anthropocentric perspective, but does nothing to augment water supply to other non-target districts. Constructions of barrages have impacts on ecosystems and economies: the commercially important hilsa fish are no longer found in the Padma river after the construction of the Farraka barrage across the Ganges.

In the case of wetlands like ponds, lakes and lagoons, the contestations are more fierce. Who owns the wetland is a common quandary — and what happens to the wetland also depends on this. Asia’s largest freshwater oxbow lake, the Kanwar lake in Bihar, has shrunk to one-third of its size due to encroachment, much like Jammu and Kashmir’s Dal lake. Water sources like streams, which go into lakes, also get cut off, as is the case of lakes in Bengaluru and streams in the Delhi Ridge. The political pressure to usurp water and wetlands as land is high — and for this reason, States have failed to secure perimeters and catchment areas or notify wetlands.

Why then do the Draft Wetland Rules award full authority to the States? The particularly complex case of wetlands warrants more checks and balances. In the proposed scenario, with an absence of scientific criteria for identifying wetlands, it is imperative to have a second independent functioning authority.

What comprises a wetland is an important question that the Draft Rules leave unanswered. Historically, as wetlands did not earn revenue, they were marked as ‘wastelands’. While the Wetland Atlas of India says the country has 1,88,470 inland wetlands, the actual number may be much more: U.P. itself has more than one lakh wetlands, mostly unidentified by the government.

Significantly, the 2010 rules outline criteria for wetland identification including genetic diversity, outstanding natural beauty, wildlife habitats, corals, coral reefs, mangroves, heritage areas, and so on. These criteria would refer to wetlands like Pulicat in Andhra Pradesh which have nearly 200 varieties of fish.

The Ramsar Convention rules are the loftiest form of wetland identification that the world follows. Ramsar has specific criteria for choosing a wetland as a Ramsar site, which distinguishes it as possessing ‘international importance’. An important distinguishing marker is that Ramsar wetlands should support significant populations of birds, fish, or other non-avian animals. This means that it is ecological functioning which distinguishes a wetland from, say, a tank, which is just a source of water. However, man-made tanks or sources of water can also evolve into wetlands. For instance, Kaliveli tank in Tamil Nadu, an important bird area, is fed by a system of tanks and man-made channels forming a large and vibrant landscape. A wetland is more than a source of water, or a means for water storage, though it is often reduced to only that. By removing ecological and other criteria for wetland identification and protection, and the examples of activities that could hamper this physical functioning, the new draft underlines the same malaise which misses the wetlands for the water.

Use and non-use

While the new draft calls for sustainability, this is a difficult concept to enforce, particularly with regard to water. Regulation of activities on a wetland and their “thresholds” are to be left entirely to local or State functionaries. There are insufficient safeguards for the same, with the lack of any law-based scientific criteria or guidance. For instance, it is telling that regulation of activities in the draft rules do not make any obvious connection with existing groundwater legislations because these two aspects are still seen as separate.

The 2016 Draft Wetland Rules also call for wise use of wetlands. ‘Wise use’ is a concept used by the Ramsar Convention, and is open to interpretation. It could mean optimum use of resources for human purpose. It could mean not using a wetland so that we eventually strengthen future water security. It could also mean just leaving the wetland and its catchment area as is for flood control, carbon sequestration, and water recharge functions.

Finally, in a country which is both water-starved as well as seasonally water-rich, it is not just politics and use that should dictate how wetlands are treated. Sustainability cannot be reached without ecology. Towards this end, our wetland rules need to reinforce wetlands as more than open sources of water, and we need to revise how wetlands should be identified and conserved.

This first appeared in The Hindu op-ed