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World Wetlands Day | Hope Budget delivers on promise to protect India’s Ramsar sites

It is hoped that the government will at the least assign budgets for demarcating wetland, and prohibit further encroachments
Last Updated : 02 February 2023, 09:05 IST
Last Updated : 02 February 2023, 09:05 IST

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Today (February 2) is World Wetlands Day. In a belated but welcome move, on February 1 Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced a special scheme called ‘Amrit Dharohar’ for protecting India’s wetlands in the Union Budget 2023. A separate scheme for mangrove conservation, ‘Mangrove Initiative for Shoreline Habitats & Tangible Incomes’, (MISHTI) was also announced as part of the green growth priority of the Budget.

A broad definition of wetlands includes both freshwater and marine and coastal ecosystems such as lakes and rivers, swamps and marshes, wet grasslands, peatlands, estuaries, tidal flats, mangroves, coral reefs, and all human-made sites such as fishponds, rice paddies, reservoirs, and saltpans. Wetlands absorb carbon dioxide and help slow global warming and reduce pollution, hence, they have often been referred to as the ‘Kidneys of the Earth’. Wetlands also provide a buffer against the impacts of floods, droughts, hurricanes, and tsunamis, and build resilience to Climate Change.

According to the Finance Minister, the Amrit Dharhohar scheme aims to achieve sustainable ecosystem development with the help of local communities and their unique conservation values, which will be implemented over the next three years to encourage optimal use of wetlands, enhance biodiversity, carbon stock, ecotourism opportunities, and income generation for local communities. The MISHTI scheme will be taken up for mangrove plantation along the coastline and on saltpan lands, wherever feasible, through convergence between MGNREGS, CAMPA Fund, and other sources. Incidentally, in 2023, India declared 75 Ramsar sites to mark its 75th year of Independence. Wetlands that are globally recognised as important for biodiversity are called Ramsar sites.

‘Revive and restore degraded wetlands’ is the theme for this World Wetlands Day and the announcement of Amrit Dharohar and MISHTI could not have been timed better. However, the success of the schemes depends on the budget assigned and buy-in from the state governments. At this stage, it is unclear how, and how much budget will be assigned to these two schemes.

Although the 2023-24 Budget has allocated Rs 3,079.4 crore to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), which is a 24 percent increase from last year’s Rs 2,478 crore, budgets for key schemes such as the Green India Mission-National Afforestation Programme (GIM-NAP) and the Forest Fire Prevention Management, have been slashed from Rs. 361.69 crore to Rs. 220 crore. The funds for the GIM-NAP will now be met from Sovereign Green Fund. The integrated development of wildlife habitat (IDWH) budget is down to Rs. 491.8 crore from Rs. 510 crore, and the conservation of natural resources is down to Rs. 47 crore from Rs.58.5 crore, while the National Biodiversity Authority budget has been reduced to Rs 16.40 crore.

The MoEFCC secretariat budget has almost doubled from Rs 168.74 crore to Rs 355.44 crore, because four central sector schemes — namely the National Adaptation Fund, the National Mission on Himalayan Studies, the Hazardous Substances Management, and the Climate Change Action Plan — are transferred to non-scheme, are now under the secretariat budget head. The central sector component of the IDWH-Project Tiger & Elephant has been moved under secretariat. As per the norm, both Amrit Dharohar and MISHTI schemes would come under MRNREGS work programme, but the budget for MGNREGS has seen drastic cuts as well.

Protecting wetlands and mangroves is a matter of urgency. Wetlands are disappearing three times faster than forests and are Earth’s most threatened ecosystem. In just 50 years, since 1970, 35 percent of the world’s wetlands have been lost. Nearly 30 percent of the natural wetlands in India have been lost in the last three decades, mainly to illegal construction, unsustainable urbanisation, agricultural expansion, and pollution. Chennai lost 90 percent of its wetlands to unplanned urbanisation, leaving the city to grapple with issues of water security and a degraded environment. Hyderabad lost 55 percent of its wetlands to inefficient waste management, rising pollution and unchecked urban development. Mumbai lost 71 percent, and the Delhi-National Capital Region lost 38 percent of wetlands mainly to construction and eutrophication from pollution.

The loss of wetlands is the result of mistakenly seeing wetlands as wastelands rather than sources of jobs, incomes, essential ecosystem services, and a shield to the vagaries of Climate Change. Rampant and unplanned developmental activities including drainage and infilling for agriculture and construction, pollution, overfishing, and invasive species have been the bane of the wetlands and mangroves.

Despite deep scepticism, and given the failure or abandonment of similar grandiose schemes in the past, conservationists and environmentalists are hoping that the government will at the least assign budgets for demarcating and delineating wetland and mangroves areas, and prohibit any further encroachments and destruction.

Shailendra Yashwant is a senior adviser to Climate Action Network South Asia (CANSA). (Twitter: @shaibaba.)

(The views expressed are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.)

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Published 02 February 2023, 09:05 IST

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