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FEB 2020  
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Can the East Kolkata Wetlands Be Saved? Conserving the Wetlands from Encroachment

On December 18, 2019, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) ordered the formation of a Task Force under the chairmanship of the chief secretary to monitor remedial measures to stop further degradation of the East Kolkata Wetlands (EKW). The NGT move followed an order passed in May 2019, in response to a legal suit filed by activist Subhas Datta, which had set up an expert committee comprising senior scientists from the state and union governments, and the district magistrates of the North and South 24 Parganas districts to look into the complaints of encroachment on the EKW by illegal plastic processing and recycling units, and suggest recommendations. The Order had also directed a fence to be set up around Mollar Bheri, which was being (wrongly) used to dump solid waste by the Bidhannagar Municipal Corporation. 

Earlier, the NGT had also upheld a landmark judgement passed by its Eastern Bench regarding illegal construction in the EKW, which was in response to a legal suit filed by the NGO People United for Better Living in Kolkata (PUBLIC). The onus of demolition of the concerned structures – which comprised a building constructed by the Vaidic Dharma Sansthan of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, and a road around Munshir Bheri by the Nabadiganta Industrial Township Authority – was passed on to the East Kolkata Wetlands Management Authority (EKWMA) that failed to comply inviting penalties of ₹50 lakh each from the Vaidic Dharma Sansthan Trust and Nabadiganta Industrial Township Authority. Interestingly, this came after the order of demolition issued by the NGT’s Eastern Bench, the previous year, had remained infructuous.

However, little action followed. This time around, the NGT apparently means business, especially spurred by the zeal of activists such as Subhas Datta, who surveyed and prepared a list of illegal units that were set up in EKW area for filing a PIL, and Naba Datta of Sabuj Mancha, who filed a Right to Information (RTI) application, to discover that there had been 87 violations at the Ramsar site over the last decade.

Given the lackadaisical approach of the authorities in compliance to the Tribunal’s orders, how successful will the NGT be this time?

While environment activist Subhas Datta feels, ‘It is a start, which we should wait and watch, in hope,’ Naba Datta is not too hopeful. Expressing his concern, Naba Datta said, ‘The East Kolkata Wetlands can only be saved by the local community there, as the late Dr Dhrubajyoti Ghosh had pointed out. What is said officially, does not get translated into action. When I filed my RTI application, I was told of the violations. But no action had been taken on them. I also found that 117 NOCs had been issued by the EKWMA. On my taking it up, these were revoked. This was when it was headed by the chief secretary. But on reconstitution of the EKWMA, the then environment minister took back the revocation orders. Notwithstanding what is officially said, there are a host of government departments working in collusion to develop the East Kolkata Wetlands, and shrink the waterbody. This is the reality.’

The NGT ruling, in a way, also points to the flaws with reference to the new Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2017, which had done away with the Central Wetlands Authority ruling and had instead, ruled in favour of the state wetlands authorities to deal with the respective states. Criticized by environmentalists for doing away with a central authority, it had earned flak for its ambiguity on other counts, such as filing appeals to the NGT. The critiques can be appreciated when one looks at the contradictory statements by Bengal’s ruling party with respect to the wetlands. Even as Chief Minister Ms Mamata Banerjee informs about her government’s decision to never tolerate any encroachments in the EKW, Trinamool panchayat pradhan Biswanath Mondol went on record to appeal for delisting of the EKW as Ramsar site. His sentiments were echoed by the then mayor, and former environment minister Sovandeep Chattopadhyay, who found the Ramsar listing an impediment to development.

The state government has been pushing for the construction of a 5-km flyover from the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass to New Town, cutting across the wetlands. The `650-crore flyover, as per the blueprint, involves the building of 140 piers that would require at least 10 bheris (fish farms) to be fully or partially filled. Although the Calcutta High Court passed an order in July 2018, restraining the state government from going ahead with the project – even if it be cleared by the Central Wetland Authority, responding to a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by PUBLIC and Sabuj Mancha – one cannot be too sure of the state government’s intentions.

In fact, in December 2017, the state government, as per a document prepared by EKWMA under the Department of Environment, had proposed the creation of four management zones within the wetlands that included: (i) a no development zone, where no changes/development shall be permitted; (ii) a regulated development zone; (iii) a limited change zone/wise use zone; (iv) a ‘no importance to wetlands’ zone, where no special wetland regulations would be applicable. The management’s plan, according to EKWMA’s Chief Technical Officer Sandipan Mukherjee, who is also the member-secretary of the steering committee, was envisaged to reduce the problems faced by residents, who were unable to even expand their ‘existing houses’.

Wetlands and Their Importance

The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands defines wetlands as 'areas of marsh, fen, peatland or water, whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is static or flowing, fresh , brackish or salt, including areas of marine water, the depth of which at low tide does not exceed six metres' (Ramsar Convention Secretariat, 2013). Inundated by surface or groundwater for durations sufficient to support vegetation, wetlands are typically adapted for life in saturated conditions. Coastal or inland, wetlands help maintain the water table, retaining water during dry weather, while acting as natural sponges during floods.    

When water from a stream channel or surface run-off enters a wetland, the water spreads and flows through dense vegetation, facilitating the removal of sediments and pollutants. Wetlands are often points of groundwater discharge to the surface, as also natural recharge to the water table. Natural recharge to the water table can be either diffuse or localized. Diffuse recharge is the widespread movement of water from the land surface to the water table as a result of precipitation, while localized recharge refers to the movement of water from surface waterbodies to the groundwater system. Most groundwater systems receive both diffuse and localized recharge, which can be facilitated by the presence of wetlands.

Legal Measures to Protect Wetlands

On realizing the many services rendered by wetland ecosystems, the Government of India had put the National Wetland Conservation Programme (NWCP) into operation in close collaboration with concerned state governments in 1985–86.  Thereon, 115 wetlands were identified by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) for urgent conservation and management initiatives.

However, the very first initiative to protect the wetlands was taken by the West Bengal Government through the West Bengal Inland Fisheries Act, 1984. This Act, as amended in 1993, forbade filling up of any waterbody measuring 5 cottahs or more, where the water is retained for a period of minimum 6 months. Other states, such as Karnataka, Bihar, and Kerala, have also enacted laws to protect their waterbodies and wetlands.

History and Role of EKW

Unique in its features, the 12,500-hectare EKW are part of the delta of the Ganga River. During the early 15th century, the Ganga changed its course towards an eastward shift. Many distributaries and redistributaries were cut off from upland flow, resulting in their decay. The mouths of some of its streams opened directly into the Bay of Bengal and were influenced by tidal action. One such tidal channel was the Bidyadhari River. Extensive saltwater marshes existed between the Hooghly River (to the west) and the Bidyadhari River (to the east). The tidal river fed the marshes that further acted as a spill reservoir.

Until 1830, the Bidyadhari River was an active tidal channel and served as a navigation route from the Bay of Bengal to Kolkata. Gradually, human interference reduced the spill area of the tidal channels, making the Bidyadhari ultimately defunct. The river was  officially declared ‘dead’ in 1928. The incomplete process of delta-building did not allow the low-lying areas to the east of Kolkata to rise any higher. Hence, the land to the east of Kolkata slopes towards the east and south-east, with the natural drainage moving in that direction as well.

Initially, during the British Raj, the city sewage used to be disposed of into the Hooghly River. But, given the natural contours of the land, this proved to be a failure. That was the time when an underground drainage scheme for disposal of sewage and storm water into the Salt Water Lakes of Eastern Kolkata, and finally into the Bay of Bengal, was introduced and approved. The drainage scheme was completed in 1884. Gradually, this garbage landfill in the saline marshes beyond Kolkata got converted into a waste-recycling area with local farmers and fishermen using it to their advantage. Today, it is the world’s largest resource-recovery system with vast tracts of wastewater fisheries and agriculture based on natural effluents.

The Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) generates roughly 750 million litres of sewage and more than 2500 metric tonnes of garbage, daily. The wastewater is led by underground sewers to pumping stations and then further pumped into open channels or dry weather flow channels of the drainage outfall system. The fishery owners draw the sewage and wastewater into the fisheries of the EKW. Here, the organic compounds of the wastewater are biologically degraded by exposing the wastewater to solar radiation. The fishery ponds act as solar reactors with the sun’s energy being tapped by a dense plankton population that feed the fish. Besides fish farming, the treated waters are also used to grow paddy and vegetables, thereby providing livelihood opportunities to many people. The methods are totally natural, with only lime and some calcium carbonate being used for vegetable and fish production.

Present Situation

This huge stretch of water, beyond Kolkata, is now under attack. From 1972 to 2011, the wetlands shrunk by nearly 38.6 km2. Part of the problem lies in the city dwellers being unaware of the services rendered by the wetlands, which cover two municipalities and 7 gram panchayats in the districts of North and South 24 Parganas. In fact, awareness around the traditional practices and their sustainability aspects was first generated by the late Dr Dhrubajyoti Ghosh in the 1990s. His work largely contributed to the EKW being declared a Ramsar site in 2002, thus paving the way for the EKWMA, which was set up in 2006. However, as PUBLIC Convenor Bonani Kakkar concedes, saving the wetlands from encroachment has been an uphill task.

In a city bereft of open space, reclaiming the wetlands is seen as the easiest way out to access land. Implementation of environmental laws has also been largely slack. In Kolkata, which hosted the country’s first Green Bench as far back as in 1996, chronic staff shortage has hindered the NGT.

However, the legal route alone cannot work. The fish ponds and lakes must be kept functional by adopting a slew of measures for their maintenance. Unlike in the past, when influential landowners ran the sewage-fed fisheries and vegetable farms, today, the wetlands are largely managed by unregistered fishworkers’ cooperatives that came into existence following the implementation of the Land Ceiling Act, 1956. Generally cash-strapped, unless supported by the government, many seek an easy way out by selling out to land sharks. The flow of organic sewage is also a major problem due to the lack of necessary coordination between the KMC, Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority (KMDA), and the Department of Inland Waterways, which are responsible for the supply of sewage. Even otherwise, there is a drop in the quality of sewage with detergents and shampoos finding their way as undesirable inorganic matter with city sewage into the fish ponds. In the absence of desiltation of the fish ponds and excavation work on the inlet and outlet channels, the capacity of these fish ponds has reduced over the years. This, in turn, has affected the quality of fish and consequently, the livelihoods of fishermen.

The EKW not only form an indispensable ecosystem for the survival of Kolkata, but they are an important source of livelihood for an entire community of fisherfolk and farmers. Rather than destroying them to build a concrete jungle, it is important to invest in maintaining the system of inlet and outlet channels that feed these wetlands, and conserve them for posterity.

Dr Rina Mukherji is an independent journalist with more than 25 years of experience. She holds a doctorate in African Studies and has several media and academic awards to her credit.

   
© TERI 2020
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Nominations open for CSP Today India awards 2013


The inaugural CSP Today India awards ceremony takes place on March 12, and CSP developers, EPCs, suppliers and technology providers can now be nominated.

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All eyes will be on the CSP Today India 2013 Awards when nomination entry closes on February 4 and the finalists are announced on February 11. The awards are open to all industry stakeholders to nominate until February 4 at
http://www.csptoday.com/india/awards-index.php or by e-mail to [email protected]

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