Mangrove trees in the Sundarbans delta. Photo: Thennavan Jayaraman/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0
Kochi: Mangroves are in the news, thanks to finding special mention in the Union Budget this year. Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced ‘MISHTI’, a new scheme for mangrove plantation along India’s coasts, in her Union Budget speech on February 1.
But while some experts have lauded the move, others are not convinced. The Minister did not specify the amount that will be earmarked for the scheme; the Union Budget does not dwell on it either. At the same time, the government has slashed fund allocation for several schemes that aid mangrove afforestation, including the National Coastal Mission. Together with the Union government’s weakening of environmental and coastal protection laws to improve ease of doing business rankings, India’s coastline is being exposed to more vulnerabilities than an unbudgeted mangrove initiative can mitigate, environmentalists said.
Mangroves and India
Trees and shrubs with finger-like aerial roots rising above wet, marshy ground, specifically adapted to a confluence of fresh and saltwater: the mangrove ecosystem is unique. Globally, mangrove forests are distributed across the tropics and subtropics. Here, they occur in the intertidal zone, between the land and the sea. Mangroves are considered to be one of the most productive ecosystems because of the numerous ecological functions they perform – from serving as nurseries to fish and thus helping boost fish resources that local communities are dependent on, to serving as important flood and disaster mitigation systems because they can break strong wave action. But like most natural systems, mangroves too are under threat. Mangrove cover is shrinking and degrading worldwide due to urban development, conversion to agriculture and aquaculture, among others.
Around three-fourths of the world’s mangroves occur in just 15 countries. India is one of them. India’s mangroves may account for only 2.7% of the global total (as per a 2010 satellite imagery study, the extent is around 3,682 square kilometres) but these habitats are crucial for local livelihoods, biodiversity and ecosystem function. For instance, scientists estimated in 2021 that mangroves in Odisha’s Bhitarkanika National Park provide numerous provisioning ecosystem services to the local communities in the area, ranging from food and fodder to medicines; several regulating services such as stabilising the shoreline during extreme weather events and pollination; and serving as a crucial carbon sink by sequestering carbon in the form of vegetation.
As per one estimate, India lost 40% of its mangrove area over the last century. As per the government’s biannual India State of Forest Reports (ISFR) in recent years, however, mangrove cover in the country is on the rise. The latest Economic Survey, released on January 31, quoted these reports to show how mangrove cover in India has risen from 4,639 sq km in 2009 to 4,992 sq km in 2021.
The ISFR, however, has come under fire: experts have called the report’s methods into question, especially the possibility that it may be showing India to be more forested than it really is, as The Wire Science reported.
And mangroves in some areas are not doing too well. The Sundarbans in West Bengal, for instance, lost two square kilometres of very dense mangroves – forests that have a canopy density of more than 70% – between 2019 and 2021, as per ISFR 2021. Progressive salinisation is one of the reasons behind a decline in the density of mangroves, Debal Roy, chief wildlife warden of West Bengal told Hindustan Times. Rising salinity levels due to lesser freshwater flow were taking a toll on several mangrove species, a researcher added.
In fact, the reduction of freshwater flow – caused by dams on rivers – is one of the major threats to mangroves in India, as per a study by scientists at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru. India, incidentally, is in the process of damming more of its rivers. As of December 2021, 21 dam projects were under appraisal at the Central Water Commission, under the Ministry of Jal Shakti.
Some studies paint a grim picture of the future of mangroves. Mangroves are likely to degrade – shrink and shift their distribution – by around 50% by 2070 especially in southern India, due to the decline in suitable habitats along the east and west coasts of India, IANS reported.
India’s mangrove moves
But India appears to be making all the right mangrove moves. Successful mangrove restoration, including afforestation or plantation efforts over thousands of hectares, has been undertaken (and is still ongoing) in many states including Gujarat, West Bengal (the Sunderbans), and Tamil Nadu.
Last year, India was among the first countries to join the Mangrove Alliance for Climate. Launched by the United Arab Emirates and Indonesia on the sidelines of the 27th Conference of Parties in Egypt, the initiative seeks to bring together “NGOs, governments, scientists, industry, local communities, and funders” to conserve and restore mangroves worldwide.
This year, in her Budget speech on February 1, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced a new scheme to focus on mangrove plantations along India’s coasts.
“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, CAMPA Fund and other sources,” Sitharaman announced in her speech.
Mangrove biologist K. Kathiresan welcomed the move.
“I most welcome this project which will be of immense relevance in the present context of climate change,” he told The Wire Science. Mangrove planting will support climate change mitigation and remove carbon emissions, he explained. “Because mangrove forests are five times more efficient at storing carbon than terrestrial forests.”
Portions of mudflats or saltpans can be used for mangrove plantation, he said. However, a detailed management plan of how this is going to be done is crucial, he highlighted. The planting should not be done by forest departments alone; local communities should be involved in it, especially youth, he added.
However, forget a management plan, there has been no allocation of funds for the new scheme in the Union Budget 2023-24.
MISHTI is a welcome step, coupled with Amrit Dharohar (also a new scheme announced by Sitharaman in this year’s budget, aimed at conserving wetlands), to showcase India’s thoughtful leadership in promoting nature-based solutions, said Abinash Mohanty, Sector-Head Climate Change and Sustainability at IPE-Global, an international development organisation.
“Announcement of MISHTI in the budget spells clear intent, but the devil lies in the details, and finer specifics on allocation, spending and scope of action will determine whether budget 2023-24 will be able to bring climate action from margins to the mainstream,” he commented. “It’s an optimistic note that the budget calls out on climate action convergence, but the implementation pathways are dusky.”
Funds for MISHTI would come from a “convergence between MGNREGS, CAMPA Fund and other sources”, Sitharaman said in her budget speech. However, she did not specify the amount that will be earmarked for the scheme. The Union Budget does not mention it either.
While announcing a new, unbudgeted scheme for mangrove plantation on one hand, the Union government has slashed budgets for several central schemes that aid mangrove conservation in this year’s budget. One of them is the National Coastal Mission. Mangrove planting is one of the many activities undertaken as part of this central sector scheme.
Though the actual expenditure for the National Coastal Mission for 2021-22 was Rs 27 crore, and the government budgeted Rs 25 crore in the last Union Budget (for just the programme component), that has been revised to just Rs 4 crore for 22-23. The Mission received an allocation of just Rs 12.50 crore for 2023-24 per the latest Budget.
The government, incidentally, sees the Mission as being important for mangrove conservation. In a reply to a question about steps taken by the government to conserve mangroves from coastal erosion in the Lok Sabha on February 6, Minister of State, MoEFCC, Ashwini Kumar Choubey said that the government is taking both “promotional” and “regulatory” measures to do so. He said that the promotional measures are being implemented through a scheme called ‘Conservation and Management of Mangroves and Coral Reefs’ under the National Coastal Mission Programme. “Under this programme, annual Management Action Plan (MAP) for conservation and management of mangroves are formulated and implemented in all the coastal States and Union Territories,” his reply read. (This is, incidentally, the same excerpt in a reply listed by the same minister last year in the Rajya Sabha, regarding the conservation and protection of mangroves.)
India has one of the longest coastlines, and it substantially contributes to our ongoing and aspirational developmental pathways, commented Mohanty. “The [Union Budget] has clear allocations to promote the blue economy, but [National Coastal Mission] still holds credentials to its climate and developmental trajectories,” he said.
Similarly, the latest Budget also slashed funds for the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) scheme. It allocated only Rs 60,000 crore for 2023-24, which is 18% lower than the budget estimates for 2022-23 (Rs. 73,000 crore), and 33% lower than the Rs 89,000 crore revised estimates for the year.
The MGNREGA scheme has been used to plant mangroves in the past, as The Wire reported. The Union government’s fund freeze affected the mangrove plantation scheme in West Bengal last year, The Telegraph reported.
The MGNREGA scheme will fund some part of MISHTI, Sitharaman said in her Budget speech.
Furthermore, two other central schemes that have also been used to restore or plant mangroves, the National Adaptation Plan and Climate Change Action Plan have been moved from scheme to secretariat: there’s no specific budget for these two programmes in this year’s budget.
This year’s budget focused on carbon emission reductions, pollution control, conservation of natural resources, and research into green technologies but missed to allocate substantial resources to flagship initiatives like National Climate Change Action Plan, the National Adaptation Plan, and the National Mission on Himalayan Studies, among others, agreed Mohanty.
“This budgetary miss comes in light of a once-in-a-decade event like that of Joshimath sinking,” he said. “While it is also important that net-zero focuses are more inclined to urban development, rural development still remains core to India’s developmental trajectories. Climate-proofing of the rural economy through mainstreaming climate adaptation actions and fiscal share should become a national imperative.”
At the same time, the Union government has also diluted several environmental protection laws to improve ease of doing business. For instance, India’s Coastal Zone Regulation Notification 2011 identified sections of the coast that are ecologically and environmentally important. The intertidal zone comprising mangroves is classified as CRZ-I, and activities are strictly regulated here. In 2018, however, an amendment in the Notification enabled industries to apply for post-facto clearance, after initiating construction on CRZ-regulated land.
“The exploitative development model pursued by the government even as it weakens environmental and coastal protection laws to ease the doing of business expose India’s coastline to more vulnerabilities than an unbudgeted mangrove initiative can mitigate,” said writer and environmental activist Nityanand Jayaraman. “And Mishti can do nothing to sweeten that bitter fact.”