Infuriated that the government had failed to keep the June-end deadline to frame rules for preservation of the country’s wetlands, the Supreme Court (SC) on Thursday, 13 July, accused the centre of making proceedings in the court “a joke”.
The apex court slapped a Rs 50,000 fine on the government and warned that the Environment Secretary would be jailed if new rules were not notified within a week.
The SC bench, headed by Justice Madan B Lokur, told the centre, “India is supporting Paris Accord – is this how you support it? How do you show your face to the international community? This is the respect you have for international conventions?”
In April, the apex court had directed the government to notify the Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules by the end of June. However, the centre this week sought six more months to implement the law. Irked, the SC bench accused the government of not being serious enough in conserving wetlands, which could result in environmental and ecological chaos and disaster.
A wetland is land that is temporarily or permanently covered by water. Wetlands include marshes, ponds, the edge of lakes, oceans, deltas and low-lying areas that are prone to flooding.
In India, wetlands cover almost 5% of the land area. There are over 2 lakh wetlands in the country, according to ISRO, while important wetlands (or “Ramsar sites”) are 26 in number.
It is knowledge of how these 26 ecologically crucial sites can be preserved that the Supreme Court had sought from the centre, aside from clear and well-defined laws to implement the same. This is in addition to India’s international obligations, being a signatory to the 1971 International Convention on Wetlands and several other environmental treaties.
“You have taken us for a ride,”
The SC bench accused the government of not taking environmental protection seriously, noting that although the government talked about its commitment to the Paris Agreement on climate change, it was not concerned about environment protection in the country.
“You have taken us for a ride and you are making proceedings in the Supreme Court a joke. It seems that the Centre is not bothered about our orders. There is a complete lack of seriousness,” the bench was quoted by The Times of India as saying.
“We are not talking about a small issue but the international convention. How will you face the international community and what will you tell them about its implementation?” the court asked and slapped a fine of Rs 50,000 on the centre.
A burning issue since 2001
The Supreme Court has been examining the need to preserve the country’s wetlands since 2001, passing judgements and pushing the government to take action before it was too late. The country’s wetlands have been endangered by land encroachment and unplanned urbanisation, among other factors, and environmentalists took the issue to the apex court hoping for strict conservation action.
Senior advocate Jayant Bhushan and lawyer Gopal Sankaranarayanan, appearing for the petitioners, said the centre had been consistently flouting various court orders and pleaded that action be taken against officials. They said the government had released more than Rs 900 crore over the years but the expenditure was neither planned nor audited properly.
Meanwhile, Ashok Panda, appearing for the centre, said the SC should seek explanation from states on how they had spent the money. The court, however, found the government’s defence unsatisfactory.
The country’s highest judicial body has now granted one week to the centre to take a clear stand on how it intends to protect India’s wetlands. It said the government’s response was unsatisfactory and no progress was made such it passed the order.