The National Green Tribunal (NGT), last week, instructed all states and Union territories (UTs) to follow Haryana’s example and create detailed inventories of water bodies not already protected by any law, review their existing framework for restoration, and submit action plans to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) within three months.

The CPCB itself has been given a month’s time to publish guidelines to restore water bodies—between 0 and 2.5 acres in size—not presently protected by any national legislation, such as the Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2017, which protects water bodies bigger than 2.5 acres in size.

The development comes after the State of Haryana, the Haryana Pond and Waste Water Management Authority (HPWWMA), and the Gurugram Metropolitan Development Authority (GMDA) submitted multiple reports between March 2017 and April 2019, comprehensively mapping all water bodies in the state (over 16,600, with 826 in Gurugram district), verifying them against revenue records, satellite images and through field visits.

The water bodies, which include lakes, village ponds, traditional water-harvesting structures, and low-lying areas prone to waterlogging, have also been assigned unique identification numbers (UIDs). The GMDA’s report also notes the ownership patterns of these water bodies— whether public or private—and the possibility for their revival.

“To give effect to the ‘Precautionary’ principle and the ‘Sustainable Development’ principle (which are required to be enforced by this Tribunal under Section 20 of the NGT Act) we direct all the States and UTs to review the existing framework of restoration of all the water bodies,” states NGT’s May 10 order.

The directive is part of a 2015 petition filed by city-based activist Sarvadaman Oberoi regarding the degradation of the Ghata lake bed in Gurugram. Part of the city’s arterial storm-water drainage network, the lake, in recent years, has been sectioned off for development by the Department of Town and Country Planning (DTCP), with high-rises now taking up the space of the once 350-acre natural water body.

Its significance can be gauged in light of the nation-wide trend of water bodies being usurped for real estate. Experts said this phenomenon is aggravating issues of groundwater loss, urban flooding and soil erosion, among other adverse impacts to environment.

“Haphazard land-use change is the biggest driver of environmental disruption. It is a key feature of the country’s burgeoning urban crisis,” said city-based environmentalist Vaishali Rana Chandra.

Nivedita Sharma, lawyer for the petitioner, said the NGT’s order was a welcome move, even if only on paper. “It upholds that all water bodies are ecologically valuable. India’s wetland laws, for example, do not protect water bodies smaller than 2.5 acres in size. Now, the NGT has upheld that water bodies of any size also deserve protection,” she said, even as she stressed on the ineffectuality of the state reports.

“None of the water bodies have been taken up for restoration as directed by the Court,” she said.

During the course of the case’s hearing, the NGT also set aside what it called was a limiting definition of a water body.

In its submission last year, the state water management authority HPWWMA had defined a water body as “a tank or lake or any other inland water body having an area of 0.5 acres or more, whether it contains water or not”. The tribunal has set aside this definition.

On May 10, the NGT also referred to at least 10 related orders as part of the developments, including matters relating to groundwater preservation, river cleanups, sewage treatment, and others. “The court’s analysis presents a comprehensive legal history of water management in India, and attaches the issue of identifying and restoring water bodies to other legal matters which will impact the country’s environment,” the petitioner Sarvadaman Oberoi said.

Another positive development of the May 10 order, Oberoi added, is that Chief Secretaries of states will now be directly responsible for overseeing these action plans, and will be held accountable in case of any lapses.

However, some experts displayed their scepticism at whether the NGT’s instructions would affect any change on the ground as states have blatantly violated the NGT’s instructions earlier. In November 2018, the Tribunal directed all states to submit action plans to reduce pressure on groundwater resources, but 21 states are yet to submit any such document.

Chetan Agarwal, an environment analyst who was part of the GMDA’s survey team, said, “The order is positive. What remains to be seen is whether the states will follow through.”

First Published: May 18, 2019 04:10 IST