Government must save Basai ‘wetland’ to keep Gurugram liveable, save ecosystem
In my last column I wrote of Gurugram being blessed with birdlife. What I want to bring to the reader’s notice today is how we are destroying their natural habitat and how the government has failed—miserably—to protect wetlands, either dismissing them as ‘wastelands’, or by denying their existence. To explain further, let me talk to you of Basai.
I first visited Basai about 12 years ago, when the outer reaches of Gurugram still had the touch of the rural. Basai was one such village—a mosaic of fields (paddy, millets, pulses, wheat), pastoral lands, tiny pockets of scrub forests, a network of six ponds, and a wetland, about 260 hectares in size, dotted with floating vegetation, reeds, making this marshy swampland home to a variety of frogs, turtles, fish, insects and other aquatic life. Basai offers refuge to an astonishing variety of migratory birds that fly in from as far as Siberia and Europe—ducks, geese, songbirds, snipes, godwits, stints, plovers, harriers, eagles, cranes; along with permanent residents like egrets, herons, kingfishers, spoonbills, etc. In monsoons, this lush wetland brims with life with regional visitors—the purple swamphen, also called ‘Lipstick’ for its blood red beak, the pheasant-tailed jacana, a gorgeous bird which makes its nest on floating vegetation, colourful bee-eaters, rare bitterns and the sarus crane, India’s tallest flying bird and a symbol of marital fidelity in folklore. The cranes also make a gorgeous dancing couple. Come summer, the wetland shrinks; even so, it teems with life thanks to the herons, moorhens, munias, francolins and cormorants (you might have seen them, sitting on dry branches, sunning themselves with wings spread), which breed here.
Many of the species found here are endangered and threatened, such as the steppe eagle, imperial eagle, egyptian vulture, black-bellied tern, lesser flamingo, sarus crane, black-necked stork, painted stork, alexandrine parakeet, ferruginous duck, to name just a few. Basai is home to no less than 20,000 birds of over 280 species, and has been recognised globally as an Important Bird Area. It has other wildlife here too, both aquatic and terrestrial—turtles, mongoose, jungle cats, golden jackals.
Yet, the Haryana government fails to acknowledge this as a wetland.
With rapid development and urbanisation, village fields have been ‘plotted’, morphed into apartment blocks, and five of the six ponds have been paved over.
In May 2017, the Municipal Corporation of Gurugram (MCG) delivered a death blow to Basai, when it starting constructing a waste-processing plant, repurposing the land for non-wetland purposes. The Delhi Bird Foundation has taken the matter to the National Green Tribunal (NGT), but the MCG claims that Basai is just a “piece of barren land where a few birds occasionally roost... there will be no loss of flora or fauna by setting up the plant there.” The NGT has asked the petitioners to approach the Haryana government to declare Basai as a wetland.
In a function at Sultanpur National Park last year, forest minister Rao Narbir Singh, when urged to declare Basai a wetland, said it would be “difficult” due to the high prices of real estate in Basai.
But do we need more apartment complexes, or do we need wetlands?
Not just for the birds, or for its sheer beauty, the upliftment of the heart and spirit in our high-stressed lives, but the fact that wetlands add to the livability of a city. The rich diversity of birdlife indicates a healthy wetland, and in a water-stressed city, wetlands like Basai perform the critical service of storing and purifying water, groundwater recharge as well as sequestering carbon. When it rains, it is wetlands like Basai that absorb excess water, and mitigate damage.
Speak up, and petition the authorities to save Basai; Basai matters and it must be saved if Gurugram is to be a livable city for us and our children.
Though she lives in Gurugram, the writer is at home in the forests she is committed to protect. Her book: The Vanishing: India’s Wildlife Crisis, was released in June 2017