A city has secrets. These secrets often lie in plain sight yet remain undetectable to most city dwellers. Yet, there are a few who thrive to protect and preserve these secrets, which form a vital link to the city’s eco-system.
Dr. Dhrubajyoti Ghosh, a slim, bespectacled septuagenarian, who is an engineer turned ecologist, has devoted a large part of his working life to an ecological wonder located on the eastern fringes of Kolkata. Ask him what’s unique to Kolkata and he will reply without hesitation, “The East Calcutta Wetlands.” He says, “The United Nations has recently given a call to connect nature to people. My idea of ecology centres on the same premise. And the most living example of this near home is the East Calcutta Wetlands.”
East Calcutta Wetlands – A natural waste to wealth site
The East Calcutta Wetlands is special because it is a community-based ecosystem. These wetlands that lie on the eastern fringes of the city, are lined by Kolkata’s main sewage canal that transports the city’s waste to the Bidyadhari River in deltaic Sunderbans. The indigenous communities that live in rural hamlets in this region have been using this waste water by diverting it to bheris (pisciculture sites) and agricultural farmland. Ghosh is of the opinion that nearly 30% of the city’s sewage is diverted into these sites. Ghosh stated, “Waste water is 95% water and about 5% bacteria. The natural ultra-violet rays break down the effluent. This water is channelised into ponds and becomes highly nutritious for fish and agriculture.”
Kolkata has been called one of the cheapest Indian cities to live in. Ghosh opines, “It is one of the cheapest because waste water is used to produce fishes and vegetables, which form the food staple of the city’s population.” Since these areas are practically right on the city, transportation costs remain minimum.
Kolkata is a low lying city. At most places, it is barely 5 metres above the sea level. The wetlands act as a deterrent to floods. The depreciation of these wetlands may result in floods as was the case in Chennai. Twenty years ago, the southern city had more than 600 water bodies and marsh lands. Now it has around 27. The city is now left vulnerable to periodical floods that often displace large numbers of city-dwellers.
It was mostly due to the efforts of Ghosh and his team that the East Calcutta Wetlands has been identified as a Ramsar site. This recognition has given a much needed boost to the conservation efforts. Ghosh informed, “The Ramsar Convention recognises the indigenous knowledge of the local people who have innovated a natural biological reactor, all on their own, which treats municipal waste water better than any conventional sewage plant, uses it to produce fish, paddy and vegetables, using only solar power. This is what makes this wetland so unique, probably the only one of its kind in the world.”
Ghosh informed that the East Kolkata Wetlands (Conservation And Management) Act, 2006, recognises 12500 hectares of this wetland and has various provisions to safeguard the ecological site. However, this ecological wonder site is under immense pressure from the real estate sector. Ghosh admits, “Despite conservation efforts, the area of the wetland is shrinking.” There have been multiple reports stating real estate companies advertising to sell land within this area.
The area where this wetlands are located was originally far out of the city. But the city has been expanding with new townships being built on its eastern fringes. The value of this land has multiplied. The indigenous population living in this region is fighting an unequal battle against a politically connected real estate lobby. Ghosh laments, “Wetlands have no vote bank.” He hints at the political apathy towards conservation efforts. He also makes another interesting observation. The communities that reside around this wetland and ensure the functionality of these wetlands are highly marginalised. They need government support. Apathy from the government is pushing these marginalised farmers and fishermen to the brink. These communities have been using their indigenous knowledge to sustain these wetlands. Yet, they have not been educated regarding its ecological significance.
Ratan Mondal owns a large farm for pisciculture on these wetlands. He informed BE, “The government seems to be diverting the sewage water. Without sufficient availability of this sewage water, our pisciculture farms cannot exist as it this water that generates nutrients for our fish. Additionally, there is the problem of silting. Deepening of our pisciculture farms were last done in 2007 when the Rajarhat Township was being built. The government needed soil to raise the land there and they dug our bheris. Since then, no progress has been made. Our fish produce has reduced drastically. Earlier, it was three quintals per bigha whereas now, it is only one quintal. We are being forced out of the only trade that we know.” Ghosh shares their concern. These wetlands have tricky ownership patterns. Grey areas on ownership patterns are often used by unscrupulous agents to fill up parts of these wetlands for real estate construction.
Save the wetlands
Ghosh has been associated with these wetlands, documenting them and advocating for their conservation, for more than three decades. He could successfully make the state government refrain from building a World Trade Centre in the late 1990s on this site. He has also been able to acquire the Ramsar recognition. Yet, his city remains strangely oblivious to this magnificent community based eco-system. But there is hope. Recently, children associated with city schools organised a massive signature campaign to save these wetlands. The civil society has also been proactive on the issue.
Ghosh told BE, “Kolkata has been done up. There are beautiful signs that highlight important city locations. There are government signs announcing the Sunderban mangroves, a world heritage site. Why would the area under the East Kolkata Wetlands not be specified as a Ramsar site using signboards? That could bring this eco-system into the public perception.”
Though the government has an Act in place for the protection of these wetlands, there has been rampant real estate construction in the region. The authorities must be keen on the implementation of this Act. Additionally, the local people must be made aware of the significance of this eco-system. The government must ensure their development because the conservation of this eco-system is integrally related to the well-being of these marginalised communities. Ghosh and his associates have devoted their lives for the cause, often battling powerful adversaries. The city needs to recognise their efforts and the best way to do so is to ensure the conservation of this unique eco-system.