- India’s 2023-24 budget announces new schemes for mangroves and wetlands.
- Wetlands, which include mangroves, are under threat in the country.
- Experts are optimistic that the new schemes could help improve management and local participation in conservation efforts, but they have pointed to limitations as well.
India’s finance minister has announced two major programmes for mangrove plantation and wetlands conservation in the country’s latest annual budget, drawing a mixed response among the conservation academics who welcomed the announcements but pointed to some limitations.
Presenting the 2023-24 budget in the Parliament on February 1, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said, “Building on India’s success in afforestation, Mangrove Initiative for Shoreline Habitats & Tangible Incomes (MISHTI) will be taken up for mangrove plantation along the coastline and on salt pan lands, wherever feasible, through convergence between MGNREGS (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme), CAMPA (Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority) Fund and other sources.”
Sitharaman also announced a new three-year scheme, Amrit Dharohar, for wetlands, saying they are vital ecosystems that sustain biological diversity. Pointing out that India’s total number of Ramsar sites has increased from 26 in 2014 to 75 in 2022, Sitharaman said that local communities have always been at the forefront of conservation efforts. Through the Amrit Dharohar scheme, the government plans to promote the unique conservation values of local communities in wetlands preservation, encourage optimal use of wetlands, and enhance biodiversity, carbon stock, ecotourism opportunities and income generation for local communities.
India has not, however, upped its allocation for the ministry of environment, forests and climate change, which remains at Rs. 30.79 billion, only a very slight increase from last year’s pledged funds of Rs. 30.30 billion.
Researchers and policy experts working on mangroves and wetlands broadly welcomed the announcements.
Budget pays attention to wetlands
Wetlands include mangroves, peatlands and marshes, rivers and lakes, deltas, floodplains, flooded forests, rice fields, and even coral reefs. Wetlands exist in every country and every climatic zone, from the polar regions to the tropics and from high altitudes to dry areas.
India’s 75 Ramsar sites cover an area of 13,26,677 hectares. Tamil Nadu has the maximum number of Ramsar sites, with 14, followed by Uttar Pradesh which has 10.
India has created the largest network of Ramsar sites in Asia. These sites form 8-9% of the known wetlands in the country, Ritesh Kumar, director of Wetlands International–South Asia, told Mongabay-India. “Given its size, it is fitting that there is a dedicated scheme to achieve our international commitments on Ramsar,” which includes maintaining their ecological character, managing and monitoring them, he said.
The new scheme indicates a focus on the principle of ‘wetlands wise use’ which involves preservation of their biodiversity, carbon stocks, tourism, ecological conservation and development. He added that there is a focus on participation, with increasing realisation in many agencies that “it is not just the government alone but all of society” that needs to be engaged in wetlands conservation.
Kumar also points out that wetlands should not be seen as an add-on activity that requires separate funding. “What is required in better management of Ramsar sites and better development convergence,” he says. “More funds do not guarantee better management.”
Also needed are legal protection to ensure their protection and capacity development (as wetlands management is a specialised sector) that needs to be improved in India, and mass awareness, Kumar adds.
Mangroves in India’s budget
Mangroves in India have been the focus of attention nationally and globally. The country is making special efforts to get international recognition for its mangroves and wetlands – it joined the Mangrove Alliance for Climate (MAC) during the UN climate talks in Egypt in 2022.
“I welcome this good idea (MISHTI),” says K. Kathiresan, professor of marine biology at the Annamalai University in Tamil Nadu. Kathiresan sees multiple benefits: provision of food fish and coastal livelihoods, carbon sequestration, flood control, erosion reduction, storm protection, sedimentation, pollution control, groundwater protection against salt intrusion, biodiversity preservation, wave reduction, tourism development, and provision of forest products.
“Planting mangroves is a very good initiative having local, regional as well as global benefits,” Saudamini Das, professor at the Institute of Economic Growth (IEG), Delhi. The government wants to prioritise this initiative through fund allocation from MGNREGS and CAMPA, which aims to promote afforestation and regeneration activities to compensate for forests being diverted for non-forest use, says Das who researches on climate change, disasters and livelihoods.
Under MISHTI, the government has identified coastline and salt-pan lands for plantation.
According to the 2021 India State of Forest report , India has about 3% of the total mangrove cover in South Asia, and the country’s mangrove cover has increased by 54 square km (1.10%) as compared to the previous 2019 assessment. West Bengal has 42.45% of India’s mangrove cover, followed by Gujarat 23.66% and Andaman & Nicobar Islands 12.39%.
While the cover has increased, mangroves, however, are under threat. India’s mangroves along the Bengal coastline, already at risk due to climate change, sea level rise and land use changes, are beginning to fast erode, new research shows.
The alarm was raised most recently by a team of scientists from the department of geography at the Delhi School of Economics in the University of Delhi, and the West Bengal Biodiversity Board in Kolkata, who divided West Bengal state’s coast and mangrove areas into grids and found that about one-third of the coastal grids, and around 40% of the mangrove grids, are highly vulnerable to climate change.
The mangrove-dominated islands such as Thakuran Reserve Forest, Bulcherry Island, Dulibhasani Reserve Forest, Dalhousie Island, Bhangaduni, and Gosaba are under severe threat, their report in Remote Sensing Applications: Society and Environment says.
The findings add to those of a second recent study on changes in the shoreline of three islands in the estuaries of the Sundarbans delta that is both a Ramsar Site and a World Natural Heritage Site (UNESCO).
The Sundarbans mangroves are not the only mangroves in India under threat, affecting the lives and livelihoods of the community. For example, scientists have observed erosion in the Godavari and Krishna mangroves along the Bay of Bengal. Similarly, in Muthupet mangroves, large-scale mangrove destruction occurred after the 2019 Gaja cyclone that uprooted a large number of trees and led to the loss of nearly three square km of mangroves, according to data from the 2019 India State of Forest report.
Mangroves along the Odisha coast too are under threat due to the high density of population in these areas and the competing demand for land for agriculture and prawn farming. Mangrove vegetation in the Mahanadi delta region between Barunei mouth to Mahanadi mouth (Paradip) is fragmented and degraded due to large-scale encroachment of these areas. There are sparse mangroves further south, from the Mahanadi mouth to Devi mouth, degraded mangroves in Bhadrak District coast, and Subarnarekha mouth in Balasore District, according to state government data.
“It is a good idea to plant mangroves wherever feasible, and the MISHTI programme will help to increase the forest cover,” says Ramasamy Ramasubramanian, senior fellow, coastal systems research, MS Swaminathan Research Foundation, Chennai. Already the funds of MGNREGS funds are being used in pilot projects in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, and the new programme will help to get more funds for mangrove plantation, he says.
Recent efforts at mangrove restoration in Odisha, too are paying off. For example, a community-led effort to convert degraded land into a 25-acre mangrove forest helped save a village from erosion.
Limitations of mangrove ambitions
However, growing mangroves may not suit all degraded coastal areas. Since mangroves can be grown in limited areas, the other vegetation (shelterbelts) can be planted along the shore to get protection and income to the community, says Ramasubramanian.
Large areas of sandy coast are available in the country to take up large-scale shelterbelt plantation. Mangroves can not be planted all along the coast but only in muddy shore areas, especially in river mouth areas. Sandy shore can be planted with sand dune vegetation. Seaweeds can be grown on rocky shores. Hence, besides mangroves, the vegetation associated with them, can be used for greening India’s coast according to the suitability of habitats.
Das too is sceptical about mangrove plantation in Gujarat’s salt pans. “These are also called vanishing lands if wave action is high in the region,” she says. “There is much to learn from the Gujarat experience, where mangrove planting in the Gulf of Kachchh is so successful as it is a sheltered area, but not in the Gulf of Khambhat.”
In Gujarat, mangroves are distributed over 14 districts, but this distribution is highly skewed towards a single district i.e. Kachchh which has 71% of the state’s total mangrove cover. Other important districts are Jamnagar, Bharuch and Ahmedabad.
Mangrove conservation in Gujarat is based on large scale plantations, protection measures, capacity building of managers and staff, development of new mangrove habitats at suitable areas, nature education, awareness programmes, sensitisation of different sectors of community, involvement of community and industries, research-based management and ecotourism and effective concurrent monitoring of mangrove plantations, according to the state government’s website.
Mangrove planting has livelihood security in the medium and long term but not much in the short term, except for employment generation for developing nursery and planting activities, says Das. Such actions will last a maximum of one or two years only, she points out.
A model for an effective melange of mangrove conservation and development has emerged in a new study along the coast of the western state of Gujarat in India, which offers one of the ways forward for reconciling the two.
An analysis on a successful mangrove restoration model in Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science journal highlights two case studies, one in coastal urban port of Mundra in Gujarat’s Kachchh district, and the second in a coastal rural area in Surat district. Together, the two case studies indicate that concerted efforts and collaboration between government agencies, local communities and the private sector could pave the way for such working models in the country.
Mangrove planting without involving the local community may be futile, points out K. Kathiresan.
Banner image: Point Calimere Wildlife and Bird Sanctuary, Ramsar Site in Tamil Nadu. Photo by India Water Portal/Flickr