A quarter of a century after it was first declared as a no-tamper zone, East Kolkata Wetlands Ramsar Site is set for a thorough review. Lew Young, Ramsar senior adviser for Asia and Oceania, has recommended that the map of the 12,500-hectare site be redrawn after a study of its ecology and socio-economic conditions.
There are clear indications from the report that the area under the wetlands will shrink.
These wetlands are regarded unique by Ramsar officials as it is the only sewage-fed site. There are 25 other Ramsar sites in India but those are lakes such as Chilika Lake in Odisha and Keoladeo National Park in Rajasthan.
The report can be far reaching in implications as the East Kolkata Wetlands has been at the centre of fierce controversy with many green NGOs zealously guarding its protected status not to allow even building of basic public infrastructure, and a real estate/commercial lobby that has always argued that there is no application of mind in the zeal.
The sprawling wetlands for the eastern boundary of the city that has been growing the fastest in this direction, triggering frequent conflicts between the two camps.
“With the growth of Kolkata city over the past couple of decades however, there has been increasing pressing on the wetland from urban encroachment, demand for land to expand and improve the existing garbage dumping site on the edge of the East Kolkata Wetlands,” reads a part of the report.
Young visited the city and the wetlands on March 2 and 3 apart from holding meetings with key functionaries of the state government, he also interacted with various stakeholders of the wetlands including environment groups and a body of volunteers who spent years surveying the area.
In his report Young has recommended a ‘wise use’ plan that would include, “a review of the map of the site when it was designated in 2002 to estimate the actual area of wetlands at that time and to estimate the land-use changes since.”
It also speaks of the need of a “census of the people within the site and an updated account of the present ecology and socio-economic condition of the East Kolkata Wetlands Ramsar Site.”
The wetlands was designated as a Ramsar site in 2002, a decade after Calcutta high court declared in response to a public interest litigation that the character of land cannot be changed in this area.
Headquartered in Geneva, Ramsar Convention is an international body set up for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands. It was set up in 1971 and named after the city of Ramsar in Iran where the convention was signed. Every three years, the member countries meet to improve the operations of the convention.
The East Kolkata Wetlands is a unique site that, through a network of canals, fish ponds and agricultural fields, treat, hold and drain the sewage of the Kolkata metropolis. The wetland also provides livelihood for more than 25,000 families for fishermen and is believed to produce over 10,000 tonnes of fish per year apart from rice and vegetables.
The report has not only strongly recommended a review, but has also emphasised a time-bound action plan to implement changes.
“The next step will be the formation of a broad-based stakeholder group who would develop the ‘wise use’ plan and to oversee its implementation,” read the report.
“Be it the green lobby, or those who want selective commercial exploitation, the wetlands has so far been viewed only through selective prisms. But over the past so many years the local population has increasingly got divorced from the wetlands. They should have been the custodians of the area, but ironically, have the least ability to make themselves heard. The holistic plan should take into account all three, including the need of a growing city judiciously,” said Asesh Sengupta, coordinator of Kolkata Commons Centre for Interdisciplinary Research And Analytics (CIRA), the painstaking ground level research of which led to the workshop of the stakeholders and brought the Ramsar official to Kolkata.