On March 22, World Water Day, when the chief of a global wetland convention cited the East Kolkata Wetlands (EKW) as a model for sustainable use of water, a real estate agent in the city offered to sell plots in its protected area.
Ganesh Dasgupta of land dealing firm Sai Gardens offered Rs 3.5 lakh per cottah as Martha Rojas-Urrego, secretary general of Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, spoke highly of EKW.
“There will be no problem in land conversion for plots up to 5-6 cottah. Up to five-storey buildings can be raised,” he assured this correspondent, posing as a buyer. The plot he offered was once a fishpond called No 7 Belekhali within Kharki mouza, one of the 32 revenue villages that comprise the 125-sqkm wetlands.
Two- and three-storey buildings all over Kharki and neighbouring Bhagabanpur mouza should give prospective buyers confidence.
The Ramsar Convention describes EKW as “one of the rare examples of environmental protection and development management” where the city’s sewage is treated through a network of canals and fishponds, simultaneously with wastewater pisciculture.
The system has been so effective that Kolkata was not provided funds for setting up conventional sewage treatment plant under the Ganga Action Plan.
However, the wetlands continue to shrink. A site where conversion of land character was banned by the Calcutta high court 25 years ago and reaffirmed by the Ramsar guidelines in 2002 and state government’s EKW (Conservation and Management) Act, 2006, illegal constructions are mushrooming.
The loss of wetlands and biodiversity at EKW is explained in the following: World Wildlife Foundation India found in 2012 that only half its floral and faunal species recorded a decade ago exist; a 2014 Indian Council for Social Science Research (ICSSR) survey said fishponds had shrunk to 202 from 264; and a survey by the Society for Creative Opportunities and Participatory Ecosystems (SCOPE) revealed water cover at Bhagabanpur Mouza fell from 88% in 2002 to 19% in 2016.
Encroachments, however, are not the only threat. Siltation in the canals and fishponds has disrupted the basic hydrological functioning, coupled with drop in quantity of sewage the wetlands used to receive, has affected fish production, and the livelihood of the people involved in wastewater pisciculture, thereby threatening the water treatment system.
For years, environmentalists have tried ways to get the government to act, but with little effect. NGOs have moved the National Green Tribunal even as around 200 FIRs lodged against people involved in illegal land conversion and construction have not been acted upon.
In 2013, members of Kolkata Commons Centre for Inter-disciplinary Research and Analysis (CIRA), a group of experts in mathematics, remote sensing and GIS decided to assess the impact of urbanisation and malfunctioning of the system on the livelihood of the people who maintained it. They found there was no data to rely upon and decided to conduct the survey themselves.
“We found the canals and fishponds were no longer working in the way they used to,” Asesh Sengupta, coordinator of CIRA, said, adding loss of livelihood had forced people with wastewater-fed aquaculture to search for other jobs.
“Inhabitants have also been deprived of basic amenities such as electricity and transport and government schemes on the grounds that these could not be implemented in protected area,” Sengupta said.
They then invited Ramsar authorities for a spot visit, to work out a plan for adopting a holistic approach to preserve the site. Lew Young, Ramsar senior advisor for Asia and Oceania who visited in March, recommended a census of the people within the site to estimate population increase, updating the present ecology and socio-economic condition, review of the map to estimate the land-use changes and working out a clear set of time-bound actions to address the threats and challenges and funding plan.
According to Shashidulal Ghosh, former state deputy director of fisheries and now secretary of 24-Parganas Fish Producers’ Association, the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) was deliberately channelling sewage straight to the Sunderbans ecosystem without getting it treated in the wetlands. “We raised the issue with government departments several times for more than a decade, but nothing worked,” he said.
Members of SCOPE approached the NGT, seeking its direction to KMC to come clear on the quantity and quality of the sewage released.
“It is the conventional wisdom of the local community that helped develop and sustain the system. The wetlands and the people involved in wastewater pisciculture are directly linked and each must survive to help the other survive,” said Dhrubajyoti Ghosh, an environmental engineer-cum-ecologist who is credited with discovering the ecosystem in 1980s.
“The review of the map and the ecosystem was to be conducted every six years since 2002 but has not been done yet. The state government’s 2006 Act had prioritised clear demarcation of the site, but it did not happen,” he said. Young, too, has recommended clear demarcation of the area.
Now that CIRA’s efforts have gotten the ball rolling, environmentalists are worried about the intentions of Kolkata mayor-cum-environment minister Sovan Chatterjee, who has also taken charge as the head of EKW Management Authority. Chatterjee is supposed to form a broad-based stakeholder group for the task Young recommended, but his remarks-to ensure no waterbody is filled up, to review land use policy to facilitate building public infrastructure and regularisation of existing illegal constructions-have not gone well with those trying to protect the site .
“Wetlands do not comprise only water bodies. Does the mayor mean he would allow conversion of land within the designated area?” asked Dhrubajyoti Ghosh.
Activists Subhas Dutta, and Naba Dutta said they would move court against it. Despite repeated attempts, HT failed to elicit a response from Sovan Chatterjee.