The disturbing photographs of carcasses of animals and fish lying on the dry bed of Haryana’s Sultanpur Lake, India’s smallest national park, have many stories rolled into one single frame. For starters, they are a damning indictment of the state of India’s wetlands, the transitional zones between permanently aquatic and dry terrestrial ecosystems.
Wetlands are important because they recharge aquifers, are habitats for indigenous and migratory birds, help stem flood erosion and also serve as ecotourism spots. Yet, they, like Sultanpur, often fall prey to environmental and anthropogenic pressures. India is a signatory of the Ramsar Convention and, therefore, the government is duty-bound to save these resources.
What, however, stands out in the Sultanpur story is the complete business-as-usual attitude of the people who look after the lake. Asked about the dry lake, an officer nonchalantly said that there was nothing to be perturbed about because the lack of water will only help get rid of the unwanted African Black fish that eat up smaller fish, the food of migratory birds. Unless the official had a dry sense of humour, surely, this is a drastic way of getting rid of one species of fish. How did this predatory fish come to be in the lake in the first place? What about the collateral damage like animals that depend on the water body for drinking? However, the good news is that the government has come out with a draft regulatory framework for wetlands conservation.
But the larger story is one of the severe water crises across the country. The lake did not get water from the Western Yamuna Canal because it was diverted for farming purposes. If it is farming versus environment here, in other parts it is a straight fight between farming and drinking water. Then there’s also the three-cornered fight among industries, agriculture and drinking water needs of human beings. In many places, industrial pollution has also made
the availability of water a challenge. With rapid urbanisation, such conflicts will only rise. These will remain unresolved unless and until conventional water management strategies are overhauled and new water governance structures are put into place. We need a better understanding of our rights and entitlements to water, a sustainable livelihood (and also human rights) framework that meets the minimum needs of all.