Union Minister for Environment, Forests, and Climate Change (MoEFCC) Bhupender Yadav announced on August 13 that 11 sites in the country had recently achieved the Ramsar recognition, which is a designation for wetlands of international importance.

"PM Shri Narendra Modi ji's love and care for environment is helping India scale new heights in conservation," he tweeted. "Elated to inform that 11 more Indian wetlands have got Ramsar recognition. This takes our tally to 75 sites."

The newly added sites are located in Odisha (3), Madhya Pradesh (1), Tamil Nadu (4), Maharashtra (1) and Jammu and Kashmir (2). The number of Ramsar sites in India has seen a 34% jump since last year as 19 have already been recognised in 2022 from the previous tally of 56.

While Ramsar Sites are supposed to be "wetlands of international importance", the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) has found several cases of mismanagement of these sites, ranging from illegal construction to lack of transparency in records.

What are Ramsar Sites?

The Ramsar Convention, an international treaty from 1971, provides a framework for conservation and use of wetlands and its resources for sustainable development. It is the only treaty that focuses on one single ecosystem and India became a party to it in 1982.

Under the Convention, each 'Contracting Party' or nation undertakes to designate at least one wetland site for inclusion in the List of Wetlands of International Importance. There are over 2,000 Ramsar Sites across the world. The United Kingdom with 175 sites tops the list, followed by Mexico with 142. Bolivia has the largest area of land under protection of the Convention — 1.48 crore hectares.

What Qualifies for Ramsar Recognition?

The Convention's definition of wetlands includes "all lakes and rivers, underground aquifers, swamps and marshes, wet grasslands, peatlands, oases, estuaries, deltas and tidal flats, mangroves and other coastal areas, coral reefs, and all human-made sites such as fish ponds, rice paddies, reservoirs and salt pans".

In India, The Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2017 notified by the MoEFCC exclude "river channels, paddy fields, human-made water bodies or tanks specifically constructed for drinking water purposes, and structures specifically constructed for aquaculture, salt production, recreation and irrigation purposes" from the ambit of wetlands.

Any wetland which meets "at least one" of the nine following 'Criteria for Identifying Wetlands of International Importance' can be designated by the appropriate national authority to be added to the Ramsar list. These criteria are based on wetlands being home to different species, ecological communities, waterbirds or fish. A wetland can qualify to be a Ramsar Site if it:

1. Contains a representative, rare, or unique example of a natural or near-natural wetland type found within the appropriate biogeographic region.

2. Supports vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered species or threatened ecological communities.

3. Supports populations of plant and/or animal species important for maintaining the biological diversity of a particular biogeographic region.

4. Supports plant and/or animal species at a critical stage in their life cycles, or provides refuge during adverse conditions.

5. Regularly supports 20,000 or more waterbirds.

6. Regularly supports 1% of the individuals in a population of one species or subspecies of waterbird.

7. Supports a significant proportion of indigenous fish subspecies, species or families, life-history stages, species interactions and/or populations that are representative of wetland benefits and/or values and thereby contributes to global biological diversity.

8. Acts as an important source of food for fishes, spawning ground, nursery and/or migration path on which fish stocks, either within the wetland or elsewhere, depend.

9. Supports 1% of the individuals in a population of one species or subspecies of wetland-dependent non-avian animal species.

The most number of Ramsar sites (21.5%) in India fulfil the criterion of supporting vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered species or threatened ecological communities. Here is a criteria-wise breakdown of Ramsar sites in India.

How are Ramsar Sites Designated?

There are three steps that lead to a wetland being named a Ramsar Site — identification, assessment and designation. To determine if the site meets the criteria, appropriate data needs to be collected and analysed over a number of years or at repeated intervals. Assessment of the wetland can be done through desk studies, group meetings, and field surveys.

If any of the criteria is met, the designation has to gain support by local stakeholders through community consultations, then the National Ramsar Authority can begin the official designation process. The locals should ideally be involved in assessing the services provided by the site. But that step is often missed, Paras Tyagi, co-founder of Centre for Youth, Culture, Law, and Environment in New Delhi, and wetland expert, told FactChecker. "Local communities are not made part of the public policy discussion around wetlands. Their aspirations are overlooked by the government as well as academia. Let the native wetland community take centre stage and engage with them," said Tyagi.

Once recognised, a Ramsar Site has to be properly managed by establishing a cross-sectoral site management committee and drawing out a long-term financing mechanism for the wetlands. Periodic assessments of the value of the site and potential ecological threats must be carried out too.

CAG Report Flags Mismanagement

The CAG brought out two performance audit reports on 'Conservation of Coastal Ecosystems', one tabled in Parliament last week and one tabled in the West Bengal State Assembly earlier this year. These flagged several concerns over the mismanagement and flouting of environmental guidelines at Ramsar Sites in India. Illegal construction processes at Sunderbans in West Bengal, and Vembanad Lake in Kerala were highlighted.

The CAG report mentioned that the Vembanad ecosystem, second-largest Ramsar Site in India, "is under developmental pressures from irregular reclamation and construction in and around the lake area". One major violator that's highlighted is construction of a resort in the No Development Zone.

At Sunderbans, there exist multiple unauthorised godowns, car and bike showrooms, multi-storey buildings, plastic industries, among others, found CAG.

"Encroachment due to real estate development, combined with lack of transparency of official wetland area records, is a big problem for wetlands," said Tyagi. He explained how these sites are susceptible to shrinkage by builders in collaboration with corrupt bureaucrats– as they fill up the wetland ecosystem with mud to develop buildings and residential areas.