Early in December, the Buddhist Monpa tribe waits in the Tawang district of Arunachal Pradesh eagerly. Their eyes seek one sight solely, the Black-Necked Crane. This Crane is listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species with only 10,000 remaining in the wild (IUCN, 2017), but the Monks of this tribe seem not much concerned about this. For these monks, this bird signifies good fortune, the arrival of a new morrow, a representation of their sixth Dalai Lama. However, for the past two years, the monks have been disappointed, as the numbers of birds arriving dwindle.
These birds are beautiful creatures, with a striking black neck. They are a migratory species who travel to India from Tibet, and halt in the north-eastern parts of the country for the winter. But why are these birds reducing? Why are their numbers falling sharply, and what does this absence signify? For this, it is necessary to look at the life cycle of the bird. In the Indian context, two sites are extremely important for these birds- The Tso Moriri Lake in Jammu and Kashmir and Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh. The site in Jammu and Kashmir is also classified as a Wetland of International Importance and is important as it is a breeding site for these birds. The site in Arunachal Pradesh is also crucial, as it is a wintering area for these birds, where they refuel, to help them carry on their onward migratory journey to Tibet. The former site is a lake; while the latter is a freshwater wetland, both of which are accorded protection under the Ramsar Convention. There are two main causes of threat to birds in these sites: (i) the threat of sand mining and (ii) the threat caused to these birds due to the presence of feral dogs in the area.
India is a contracting party to the Ramsar Convention. The Ramsar Convention is a multilateral environmental treaty calling for the wise use of wetlands. This wise use requirement extends to all wetlands within the territory of a country which is a party to the convention. Under Article 4.1 of the Ramsar Convention, India is expected to conserve the waterfowl (birds which depend on the water resource in question) housed in a wetland. Helping to maintain the level of biodiversity in the wetland area is a crucial component of the wise use of wetlands in the territory. This directly puts a duty on India to conserve the black-necked crane in both these sites. With regard to feral dogs, the restrictions on them are few and they are largely the cause of death of these birds. But, there is one more clear area where direct human action adversely impacts the habitat of these birds, this area is sand mining.
The Ramsar Convention also recognizes the threat caused to biodiversity through acts of sand mining. Activities of mining in areas near water resources hamper the ground water ecology of an area, impacting not only the water resource in question, but also other water resources in its vicinity. The NGT in India also banned sand mining through a 2013 notification around both these water resources. However, in Arunachal Pradesh in particular, this notification has had no effect. The forest department has washed responsibility off its hands by stating that the wetland is not a part of forest cover, while the department of mines and minerals has simply failed to curb the land mining in the area, which only increases as trucks of sand leave the area repeatedly, heading illegally towards China. The industrialists in the area have also planned a hydroelectric project in the area, which calls for greater fervour towards mining to clear up areas. The Supreme Court in 2012 laid down the requirement of an Environment Impact Assessment for any such mining project. Previously, such a procedure under the Environmental Protection Act, 1986 was not applied in cases of sand mining as sand is a minor mineral under the Mines and Minerals Act, 1957. But this judgement made these procedures non-derogatory in case of sand mining as well. Today, no such mining can take place without an EIA as well as approval from the Ministry of Environment and Forests. However, these provisions only exist on paper.
Mining continues in Arunachal Pradesh without any Environment Impact Assessment despite these provisions. The implications of the mining on the crane are not directly established, but monitoring shows that the number of black necked cranes wintering in Arunachal Pradesh reducing each year. These birds face a dual threat when they enter India. There is a lack of protection for these birds in their breeding area, where their eggs are carried away by feral dogs, and the birds often lose their lives fighting with them. When the birds reach their wintering area in Arunachal Pradesh, they find themselves in a habitat which is degrading more and more year after year, forcing them to seek shelter elsewhere.
India, through its treatment of this vulnerable species, is consistently violating both national as well as international law, changing crucial sites supposed to be safe havens for birds into a nightmare for them. These birds do not just have great international importance [particularly, in light of the Black-necked crane festival in Bhutan, celebrating the bird] but also are culturally important for monks in India. It is necessary to develop a plan with stakeholders, to conduct proper management of the two important sites for these birds in India, to protect and conserve the species and to enable it to continually serve as a harbinger of good luck, and a reminder of a better future.
This Article is authored by Samidha Mathur. Samidha is a student of law at Gujarat National Law University and a member of the GNLU Centre for Law and Society.
 Article 3.1, Convention on the Wetlands of International Importance, especially as Waterfowl Habitat [Ramsar Convention], Feb. 2, 1971, 996 U.N.T.S. 245.
 Ramsar Convention Secretariat, Handbook 1: Wise Use of Wetlands 1 & 9 (2010).
 Ramsar Resolution 9 (VII) (Nov. 26, 2002) 21.
 Ramsar Monitoring Procedure, Report No. 29, St. Lucia Site ¶10.
 Deepak Kumar v. State of Haryana, (2012) 4 SCC 629.