The true test of the Wildlife Action Plan will be to see if it can alter legal frameworks under the Wild Life Protection Act and bring about a change in the historical attitudes towards marine ecosystems and communities
Aarthi Sridhar and Naveen Namboothri
Across the world, the history of marine regulation is traced to approaches and worldviews emerging from terrestrial domains. In India, the protection of marine ‘wildlife’ and spaces which are protected is mainly through the creation of marine protected areas under the various categories of the Wild Life Protection Act, 1972 (WLPA), or by categorising various species on the protected species lists or ‘schedules’ of the WLPA. Nearly half a century of WLPA-style protection has passed, but few can claim that marine habitats and species have been well-served by this legislation and its approaches to conservation.
Marine conservation perspectives have always been on the margins of the conservation narrative. The new National Wildlife Action Plan (NWAP), in an attempt to change that, suggests some bold steps towards new and inclusive approaches. But how these suggestions are implemented will depend on changing many of the historical attitudes of wildlife conservationists, the forest department, development planners, and the legal edifice of the WLPA.
The terrestrial approach of the WLPA is based on a foundation that firstly fails to recognise the fluidity of marine species and ecosystems. Nearly all marine species, either in their early life stages or as adults disperse several miles across the oceans and are inherently in a state of flux. Managing such a dynamic system necessitates an ability to think beyond conservative fortress approaches and adopt protection measures that are spatially and temporally dynamic.
The second major shortcoming is the inability to perceive marine wildlife as a resource that can be sustainably harvested. This approach is in stark contrast to the perspectives of coastal communities and fisheries departments, thereby bringing the four million fisherfolk who depend on these resources in direct conflict with the WLPA. Bans on the trade of species like seahorses and sea cucumbers persist, despite evidence that shows that the trade has merely gone underground in regions like the Gulf of Mannar and the Palk Bay, and that prices have shot up and trade in these items continues in neighbouring Sri Lanka which has not introduced such bans.
Further, the WLPA has few mechanisms to address impacts to habitats from practices like bottom trawling, shipping or marine dredging. The NWAP’s call for greater coordination with the ministry of agriculture indicates that there is recognition of the problem. But the proposed action (that calls for immediate amendments to the fisheries laws rather than broadening the scope of the WLPA itself) indicates a hesitancy to reflect upon the limitations of the WLPA.
More important, India’s coastal and marine habitats today are first and foremost threatened by industrial developments that are already changing entire inter-tidal habitats, mangrove forests and estuarine flows across coastal India. The political decision that will fuel the desired institutional coordination hinges on the Indian government embracing a philosophical turning point on the question of growth and development.
Layers of jurisdiction
Today, a multiplicity of departments are in charge of coastal and marine regions such as the Forest Department, Coast Guard, Fisheries Department, Public Works Department, Port Authorities, Marine Police, Customs Department to name a few. Even legislations like the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) Notification that have been in operation for over a quarter of a century have not been able to ensure ‘institutional coordination’ to protect coasts.
With the entry of large infrastructure, oil and gas, and large-scale tourism into the coastal space, an autopsy of laws like the CRZ (or the WLPA) are instructive to policy reform. How else can one understand how contemporary coastal India, once the domain of multiple maritime traditions and livelihoods has become, despite decades of central legislation, a contested space marked by large industrial infrastructure on the one hand and impoverished ecologies and communities on the other? To these problems of coastal environments, the NWAP’s series of ‘Coastal and Marine Ecosystem Cells’ might appear to some as an institutional silver bullet, but an institutional black box to others.
A curious paradox marks conservation today. While the legal edifice of the WLPA appears fixed in its long-standing tradition of separating (local) development from (global) conservation, (local) people from parks, India’s new NWAP comes as a welcome surprise. Whether it will succeed in accomplishing all its goals is anybody’s guess. The novelty of the ‘new NWAP’ will be felt only if it makes the slightest dent to the legal edifice of the WLPA and its historical attitude to people and their fluid relations with wildlife and that of the state to development.