by Lesley D. Biswas
- India -
Commuting along the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass that runs parallel to the Indian city of Kolkata, the huge expanse of the East Kolkata Wetlands is a daily sight for city dwellers, and yet most of us are unaware of the important role this natural habitat plays in our lives. Despite acknowledging the escalation in Kolkata’s urban development, hardly anyone seems to notice how the congestion of the city’s skyline is leading to a loss of habitat for many living in its shadow.
Covering an estimated six percent of the earth’s surface, many of these valuable wetlands are threatened by various forms of degradation - from conversion to agricultural land, urban development, and pollution from untreated toxic waste. If the environmental damage continues at the current rate, the loss of this rich natural resource would not only ensure the extinction of many endangered species, but would also have an enormous impact on the millions of poor people who depend on them for their survival.
A staggering 1.5 lakh (150,000) inhabitants live either directly or indirectly off the East Kolkata Wetlands, which are comprised of 250 inter-connected, shallow lakes. Largely man-made, they are comprised of inter-tidal marshes like salt water lakes, sewage farms, oxidation basins and salt meadows. They are home to rare animals like the endangered Indian mud turtle as well as more than a hundred plant species and nearly 40 species of birds like egrets, jacanas, shag, cormorant, coot and kingfishers. One third of Kolkata’s daily fish requirement comes from its sewage fed Bheris (or fish farms), and 15,000 metric tons of rice are produced annually from its paddy. Besides supplying these two main staples in the Bengali diet, this ecosystem provides porters, retailers, traders and countless other small businessmen a means of livelihood.The wetlands also play a huge part in Kolkata’s waste-water treatment plants. According to a survey by the Indian Statistical Institute, the East Kolkata Wetlands save the West Bengal government at least Rs.400 crore (US$4 billion) on construction costs by treating around 1,000 million liters of city sewage every month, all free of cost.
In November 2002, the East Kolkata Wetlands were designated as a Ramsar site and became internationally recognized as the world’s largest resource recovery system. A rich natural resource, the wetlands have remained largely intact because they play such an important role in the country’s economy. But that is changing.
Rani, whose ancestors survived off work in the fisheries, now works as a domestic since some of the Bheris are now being filled in for construction. Rani says men are finding it particularly difficult to switch occupations.
“Many of my brothers and their sons are jobless [because] it’s hard for them to unlearn their traditional work. Women have taken to working in households, but we have a tough time supporting our [families since] our men do not contribute.” As a result, Rani says her family’s meager monthly income barely exceeds 1,000 rupees (US$20). “Fisheries not only provided us with a better income but also supplied the fish for our daily meals. Now we have to buy the same fish from the market, which is much costlier.”
The destruction of these wetlands now threatens to plunge thousands of families like Rani’s, who depend on them for fishing and farming, into utter poverty and distress. A survey conducted by the South Asian Forum for Environment (SAFE), a NGO for environmental conservation in the Indian Eco-region, reveals that the families that live off this ecosystem generally consist of four to five members with a monthly income of 2,500 rupees (US$50).According to SAFE, the prime threat to the East Kolkata Wetlands is the encroachment of rapid urbanization. Almost half of the 20,000 acres of wetlands recorded in 1945 has already been swallowed up. The remaining 12,500 acres are actively being drained for construction and getting filled up by the thoughtless deposit of solid waste. Just four years after achieving its status, Ramsar Montreaux threatened to de-list the wetlands due to this severe degradation. Clearly this calls for urgent action and requires sensitive government policies so that the environmental damage is mitigated and the local community is reassured that their fragile livelihood doesn’t get snatched away.
In 2002, the Indian chapter of SAFE was founded. Co-chair, Dr. Dipayan Dey, believes that a sustainable environment can be achieved steadily. An ecologist, Dr. Dey proposes bringing together land use planning, flood management, pollution control and nature conservation to strengthen the wetlands’ restoration policy. Knowing that the beauty of the wetlands attracts many tourists who come for bird watching, boating, picnicking and photography, SAFE launched an innovative program called Biorights to restore and develop the East Kolkata Wetlands so that this precious habitat remains intact. In 2007, the Kolkata Urban Services for Poor, funded by the UK’s Department For International Development, supported SAFE’s eco-tourism ambitions by involving the local communities, who have been sustained by the wetlands for over 200 years.
Chiranjeet Chatterjee, Project Supervisor and Community Development Officer for SAFE explains the concept of eco-tourism. “Fisheries [do not provide year-round employment] as fish production drops during the winter months. Due to this irregularity in income, younger generations are losing interest in pisciculture. So to supplement the livelihood of poor fishermen, eco-tourism has been launched,” he says. “The East Kolkata Wetlands is a popular picnic site. With the help of the local community, we have put together thatched huts, which are rented out to visitors. The local fishermen and their families provide them with services like catering and hospitality for a reasonable charge. In this way the ecosystem will be taken care of while also sustaining the community.”SAFE emphasizes that the local community gets equal opportunity in the decision-making process and is involved in the project’s execution. Amrita Chatterjee, SAFE’s Executive Officer for Research and Liaison, says, “Altogether, six groups have been formed among the local women and we have trained them in hospitality and catering, a service they will provide to the eco-tourists. This has been initially started at two wetland [fishery] sites called Sukantanagar Bheri and Natar Bheri. Once eco-tourism flourishes out here, we plan to implement this project at the many other Bheris.”
Government authorities are viewing this as a positive step. Biswajiban Majumdar, Bidhanagar Municipality Chairman says, “We hope this project is a success because it’s very important to restore the wetlands while keeping the interest of the local inhabitants in mind.”
As the world’s population shifts towards cities and more densely populated areas, urban diseases like depression are on the rise. Green spaces like the East Kolkata Wetlands provide an escape from crowded city life and help reduce stress. By conserving this natural resource, we not only protect the health of the environment, but our own and that of future generations as well.
Lesley's article is part of this month's focus on water. - Ed.
About the Author
Lesley D. Biswas is a freelance creative writer and journalist based in Kolkata, India. She has written extensively for the past eleven years on sports, gardening, women and youth issues. Her articles have appeared both in print and online for publications such as the Woman’s Era, Reader's Digest, Funds for Writers, 4indianwoman, Kolkata Mirror and East Kolkata, among others.