Madhya Pradesh is celebrating its three new Ramsar sites that were designated in 2022, but the journey for the rest of the state’s wetlands, to be eligible for a Ramsar designation, is a long one. While wetlands in the state have been identified for conservation to make them Ramsar contenders for the future, except for one, no wetland has officially been notified – an administrative process by the state government that gives them legal status that aids in conservation, which eventually can make them fit for Ramsar consideration. Ramsar sites are wetlands of international importance designated for having representative, rare or unique wetland types or for their importance in conserving biological diversity.

The State Wetland Authority had sent a proposal to the state government for notification of six lakes under Wetland Rules 2017 about a year ago. The intention was to notify these lakes which would facilitate conservation and their names could be suggested for Ramsar sites designation in the next nomination round. The lakes include Jadhav Sagar and Madhav Sagar lakes in Shivpuri district, Sagar Lake in Sagar district, Sindh Sagar in Isagarh in Ashoknagar district, Amrit Sagar in Ratlam and Sita Sagar in Datia district.

A lot of money has already been invested in these wetlands for their conservation and rejuvenation. These wetlands were part of the Government of India’s National Plan for Conservation of Aquatic Ecosystems project, said Lokendra Thakkar, Office in-charge of the State Wetland Authority. In terms of money, Rs 111.5 crore have been invested so far on Jadhav Sagar and Madhav Sagar lakes in Shivpuri, under which various conservation activities were conducted. Similarly, Rs 21.3 crore were invested in Sagar Lake in Sagar, Rs 10.7 crore in Sindh Sagar in Ashoknagar, Rs 21 crore in Amrit Sagar in Ratlam, and Rs 13.8 crore in Sita Sagar in Datia district.

Additionally, the state has sent a list of as many as 120 wetlands in Madhya Pradesh to the union government to be included in the rejuvenation programme for conservation under National Plan for Conservation of Aquatic Ecosystems.

Madhya Pradesh now has a total of four Ramsar sites. The Upper Lake, now rechristened as Bhoj wetland and popularly known as Bada Talab, was the first Ramsar Site of Madhya Pradesh declared in 2002. In 2022, two water bodies from Indore, Yashwant Sagar lake and Sirpur lake, were declared Ramsar sites. Later in the year, Shivpuri’s Sakhya Sagar Lake was also declared a Ramsar site.

While notification is an independent process from the Ramsar designation, it is an important step for the continued conservation of designated Ramsar sites.

“Government’s effort needs to move in the right direction with the right motives. The state government hasn’t notified a single wetland under State Wetland (Preservation and Management) Rules 2017. It claims to have notified only one Ramsar site, Upper Lake (Bhoj Wetland), but that too has been challenged in the court,” said environment activist Subhash Pandey, who has filed the petition challenging the notification of Upper Lake in the Jabalpur High Court. The Wetland Rules related to notification clearly states that a public hearing is a must before notification, but the government intentionally surpassed the process to benefit some people, alleged Pandey.

Notification is important

Notification of wetlands, by the state government, is the most critical move towards conservation as it draws a map demarcating the boundaries of the wetlands besides identifying its ‘zone of influence,’ which is mandatory under Wetland Rules 2017. The map is required to decide on restricted, regulated, and permitted activities in the zone of influence, said Pandey. The zone of influence of a wetland is an area where developmental activities are likely to induce adverse changes in wetland ecosystem structure and ecological functioning. While defining the boundary of the zone of influence, experts consider local hydrology and the nature of land use.

At Ramsar sites, based on the zone of influence, the government authorities decide on activities that can be carried out at these wetlands.

Sirpur wetland of Indore is full of weeds and lying in a neglected state. Credit: Bhalu Mondhe

“The restricted, regulated, and permitted activities are well defined in the Wetland Rules. The confrontation between the government and residents starts when local authorities draw the map and mark zone of influence without taking the residents into confidence,” said environmentalist Subhash Pandey.

“The zone of influence could range from 50 metres to 500 metres from the wetland boundary. It also includes the water source (like the river that feeds the wetlands). The flexibility in definition leads to local officials’ manipulation of the ‘zone of influence’ boundary,” said a retired forest officer (Indian Forest Service) and wetland expert Sudesh Waghamare.

Political influence

Waghamare said that the governments do not take an active interest in the notification of the wetlands as they open a Pandora’s box of controversies. “Notification leads to the demarcation of the boundaries of the wetlands besides regulating the activities in and around the wetlands. People linked with wetlands for their livelihoods, including farmers and fishermen, are affected. They are vote banks of politicians; therefore, political leaders create hurdles in demarcating the boundary or regulating the activities around wetlands,” said Waghamare.

Big chunks of land near the Bhoj wetland area have been sold to influential people or those in power. Had the notification been done and the zone of influence demarcated, these deals would have been impossible, alleged Waghmare.

“Government acquired 16 acres of agricultural land for Bhojpal wetland (around two decades ago). The government provided us compensation, but the officials said that we could cultivate our land when the water level is low, but now we are not allowed to. Farmers were beaten by the police when they tried to do so,” said a farmer from Eitkhedi village (located on the boundary of Bhoj wetland), Veer Singh Thakur.

Another farmer from Khajuri village (located on the banks of the Bhoj wetland), Dashrath Singh Thakur, raised an objection on how full tank level pillars were placed. “Anyone can inspect the way administrative authorities have placed the pillars identifying full tank level. The lands of influential people have been spared, while the poor’s lands have been included in the submergence area. How is it possible that my land is placed under the submerged category while the adjacent land is not submerged and declared out of the full tank level?” asked Thakur. “Government officials have discriminated against in putting up pillars of the full tank level. We support the petition filed in the High Court against the Bhoj wetland demarcation process. We have also raised an objection with our MLA, and he has assured us of all help,” he added.

Sirpur wetland in 2019 without weeds. Credit: Bhalu Mondhe

Wise use approach

Conservation and management of notified wetlands are recommended to be based on a ‘wise use’ approach. Human beings and their use of resources form an essential component of wetland ecosystem dynamics. The ‘wise use’ approach recognises that restricting wetland loss and degradation requires the incorporation of linkages between people and wetlands. The ‘wise use’ principle emphasises that humans use these ecosystems sustainably and is compatible with conservation.

Ramsar convention defines the ‘wise use’ of wetlands as “the maintenance of their ecological character, achieved through the implementation of ecosystem approaches, within the context of sustainable development”. The ecosystem approach requires considering the complex relationship between various ecosystem elements and the promotion of integrated land, water, and living resources management. Wise use, through an emphasis on sustainable development, calls for resource use patterns that can ensure that human dependence on wetlands can be maintained not only in the present but also in the future. Seen in totality, ‘wise use’ is about maintaining and enhancing wetland values and functions to ensure the maintenance of the flow of benefits from wetlands (their ecosystem services) from an inter-generational equity point of view.

Padamshri Bhalu Mondhe and member of the Indore District Wetland Conservation Committee formed by the State Wetland Authority said that notification of the wetland by the state government helps save it as it gives power to the local administration to regulate the activities in and around the lake. “I fail to understand the government’s hesitancy in notifying these wetlands. The officials of Indore Municipal Corporation do not take an interest in promoting conservation activities. They do not even attend to our phone calls,” said Mondhe.

Sirpur Lake and Yashwant Sagar lakes in Indore were awarded Ramsar Site in 2022.

Madhu Verma, chief economist with the World Resource Institute, New Delhi and who had worked extensively on Bhoj wetland in Bhopal during her tenure as professor of environmental sciences at the Indian Institute of Forest Management, Bhopal, said that there are several stakeholders in the conservation of the wetlands including the municipal body, forest officials, public health engineering, pollution control board etc. besides the locals residing around the water body.

“Several agencies work for it, but no one takes responsibility for conserving the wetland. Demarcating the boundaries of wetlands is a major issue. Representatives of all agencies should be briefed about the importance of the wetlands. Then only things could improve,” said Verma.

However, state environment minister Hardeep Singh Dang has a different view. “State government is taking all steps for conservation of wetlands. The process for demarcation of wetlands is on and will be completed soon,” said Madhya Pradesh’s environment minister Hardeep Singh Dang replying to Mongabay India.

However, he avoided the question raised by Mongabay India related to the delay in notifying wetlands.

A farmer Veer Singh Thakur standing on his land near the Bhoj wetland boundary. Credit: Shahroz Afridi

This article first appeared on Mongabay.