‘Majhi jo nau dubaaye, to usey kaun bachaaye’ laments a popular song[i]. It literally translates as: ‘If an oarsman sinks his boat, who can save it?’
This is a question that concerned citizens of Kolkata are asking themselves today in connection with the famed East Kolkata Wetlands. A notified Ramsar site, this extensive wetland spread over 12,500 Ha has been protected for decades by the communities who live within it and by The East Kolkata Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Act, 2006. Today, it is the Environment Minister of West Bengal who has taken it upon himself to destroy the wetlands.
The anti-environment minister: It began with an article in the Times of India, on the 10th of June[ii]. The newspaper revealed that barely a month after taking charge, West Bengal’s Environment Minister was actively campaigning against the need for environmental safeguards. Mr Sovan Chatterjee, also the Mayor of Kolkata, stated that he ‘wants to alter the status of the wetlands to the east of EM Bypass to take up development projects’. In a clear dig at those who facilitated the Ramsar process, Mr Chatterjee said, ‘One cannot ignore the legitimate requirements of a city and blindly follow environmental restrictions because someone decided to go to an international body with the wetland map and get a huge chunk of land demarcated for protection.’ Mr. Chatterjee has stated his willingness to push for a change in legislation and had already begun to take steps in that direction.
‘No relevance to the common man’: Betraying a shocking ignorance of the relevance of ecosystems to the livelihoods of the poor – and of the lives of people of his constituency – Mr Chatterjee has said that wetlands conservation ‘means little to the common man’.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
The East Kolkata Wetlands (EKW) support an incredible number of people – mostly poor. Ms. Dhruba Das Gupta, an environmentalist in the city, clarifies that about a lakh of people from 32 revenue villages depend on the wetlands; 20,000 are directly employed in fishing or vegetable rearing. According to a study under the ‘Renewable natural resource-use in livelihoods at the Calcutta peri-urban interface’ project, the highly productive fish ponds produce 13,000 tonnes of fish annually, and 150 tonnes of vegetables are harvested daily[iii]. In addition to fish and vegetables farming, other sources of employment are garbage sorting, trading, auctioneering, selling, raising fish seed, making nets, maintaining drainage, and reinforcing banks[iv]– not the sort of jobs the elite concern themselves with.
It is not just livelihoods that depend on the East Kolkata Wetlands. The lives of the people of Kolkata are also dependent on the wetlands.
What is MoEF doing? When Prof Brij Gopal, well known wetlands expert and former Professor of Jawaharlal Nehru University wrote to Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, expressing his concern about these developments, Director, NRCD (National River Conservation Director) wrote to back to Prof Brij Gopal asking for the reports, he was unable to locate! This seems to indicate that the MoEF is in complete dark about these developments, it also reflects the failuring of monitoring and wetlands protection schemes. In his letter Prof Brij Gopal rightly said: “the Centre cannot and should not abdicate its responsibility with respect to the Ramsar sites and its other obligations as Party to the Convention. I urge upon you to take immediate notice of the matter and advise the State government against taking any precipitous action on the Ramsar site in West Bengal… If the Draft wetland rules (2016) are not withdrawn immediately, the fate of many other Ramsar sites in other States will be at risk.”
A river runs through it: Kolkata is a low-lying city on the Bay of Bengal; it is also home to the mighty Hooghly. These three elements make the city very vulnerable to floods. The only protection that the city has are the wetlands that serve to absorb floodwater. What their loss would mean for a city like Kolkata with the kind of sea-level rise projections we have now, is not difficult to imagine; we have seen Chennai floods of Dec 2015. That is not all. “They are not just floodplains,” said Dhrubajyoti Ghosh in a recent interview[v] “They serve a more complex and significant purpose. They are really the kidneys of the city. Calcutta has no water purification system in place other than EKW.”
The willingness to pay for conservation of a natural resource is one measure of how that resource is valued by people. A study conducted this year[vi] discovered that 62% of the users are willing to pay for conservation of the wetlands. Of the ones who declared themselves unwilling to pay, the reasons cited were variations of the understanding that the payment had already been made, either through taxes or by another organisation. No respondent made the case that it was not worth paying for.
The case for accountability: Unlike what Mr. Chatterjee would have us believe, the notification of the wetlands as a Ramsar site did not happen because of arbitrary thinking. The process was initiated back in the 1980s when the State Planning Board investigated the possibility of reusing Kolkata’s wastewater. The function of the wetlands was then investigated both within and outside the country. It is only after the wetlands met with worldwide acclaim that the state put into process its notification as a Ramsar site. Ms. Das Gupta says, ‘The map of the East Kolkata Wetlands was finalised in February 1985 after an intensive two-year participatory wetland mapping process. The logic was simple: map the flow of the waste water through successive resource recovery practices and purifying wastewater in the process. Local people and local experts were involved throughout.’ She further says, ‘The minister’s statements appear to equate Dhapa dumpsite, a part of the wetlands which is less than 500 acres, with the entire East Kolkata Wetland area, which is 12,500 hectares[vii]. This creates a deliberate confusion which needs to be avoided.’
Today the East Kolkata Wetlands are applauded as an excellent example of pro-poor and environmentally sound waste management.
If despite all the evidence pointing towards the value of these wetlands, the Environmental Minister for the state can decree that they are more valuable as real estate to be ‘developed’, then this only proves that wetland conservation needs a stringent set of rules. Several organisations, including SANDRP[viii], protested against the draft of the Wetland Rules 2016 pointing out that they removed all oversight from the Centre and significantly weakened the protection extended to wetlands[ix].
The people of Kolkata will not let their wetlands disappear without a struggle. But the actions of the State Environment Minister have underscored the need for multiple accountability when it comes to preserving our wetlands.
[ii] Niyogi S and Ray S. 10 June 2016. ‘Mayor wants to open up wetlands for development projects’. Times of India, Kolkata.
[iv] Suutari A. July 2006. Making the most of it- wastewater, fishponds and agriculture. The EcoTipping Points Project. http://ecotippingpoints.org/our-stories/indepth/india-calcutta-wetland-wastewater-agriculture-fishpond.html
[vi] Haque, A. U., & Shah, S. A. (2016, March). ESTIMATING BIODIVERSITY VALUE OF EAST KOLKATA WETLAND IN WEST BENGAL -A CONTINGENT VALUATION APPROACH. IMPACT: International Journal of Research in Business Management, 4(3), 125-134.