Punjab government has been successful in getting three more wetlands declared as Ramsar sites of international importance. The state already has three wetlands with Ramsar tags namely Harike, Kanjli and Ropar wetlands. The government in October 2019 had proposed a total of five sites including Ranjit Sagar conservation reserve and Hussainiwala wetland for Ramsar tags. The new wetlands selected for the tag are Keshopur-Miani community reserve, the Beas conservation reserve and Nangal wildlife sanctuary. So now six wetlands in the state are covered under Ramsar convention.
The state forest department and WWF team were working in this direction over past couple of years. In the year 2019, the government has also taken some remarkable decisions regarding conservation of wetlands in the state. However, by the year end, there has not been any significant progress on the issue from the government.
Wetlands in Punjab According to the National Wetlands Inventory Assessment report of MoEF&CC of 2010 for Punjab[i], the state has 1381 wetlands of area greater than 2.25 ha, covering an area of 81234 ha, including 24286 ha under water in pre monsoon season and 36344 ha under water Post monsoon. In addition, it has 5049 wetlands, each of area less than 2.25 ha, with total area of 5049 ha. Thus the total 6430 wetlands of the state cover an area of 86283 ha. 15920 ha of this is covered by aquatic vegetation post monsoon and 17160 ha pre monsoon. The report divides the wetlands (area larger than 2.25 ha) into several categories, the largest area of wetlands among these is under “Riverine/ Stream” wetlands, 151 in number, with area of 59864 ha.
In January 2019, the Punjab government told the Punjab and Haryana High Court (HC) that it had prepared an action plan[ii] for the preservation of wetlands in the state and the same was in the process of being implemented. In this, suo motu case, the HC called for a “fresh status report” on progress made for the implementation of the action plan. The court also took on record a status report filed by the state.
The HC further asserted that it had been brought to its notice that the validity of the Wetlands (Conservation and Maintenance) Rules, 2017, was under challenge before the apex court. The Bench added that it deemed it appropriate to await the outcome of the proceedings pending before the SC before directing the listing of the matter after three months.
Taking up a related petition alleging unauthorised constructions in and around the Harike wildlife sanctuary, the HC had earlier put the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests and Punjab government (MoEF&CC) on notice.
In a significant meeting of State Board for Wildlife, on February1, 2019, Chief Minister (CM) Captain Amarinder Singh gave approval to declare the Kanjli wetland[iii] and the holy Kali Bein River as a wildlife conservation reserve to mark the historic 550th birth anniversary of Sikhism founder Guru Nanak Dev. The CM also gave approval for establishing turtle hatcheries at the Harike wetland.
Further, on the concerns of the Shalla Pattan wetlands, Gurdaspur – the last habitat of common Sarus Crane in the state – he asked the State Wildlife Department and the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) in Dehradun to come out with an action plan for compensating local farmers in case they keep their land fallow for one season.
In the meeting a decision was also taken to declare Indus River dolphin found in Beas river as state aquatic animal. On the issue of irregular flows in the river, he asked the Water Resources Department to ensure minimum flow of 5,000-6,000 cusecs of water to ensure continuity of water streams. The Wildlife department was also asked to immediately initiate the process of declaring the Beas river as a “heritage river“.
Later in the month, the state government decided to declare[iv] 50 acre of land at Shalla Pattan wetlands as protected area for critically endangered species common Sarus Crane. The plan was to compensate farmers to keep their crops fallow for the winter months to restore the natural ecosystem of the wetland when common cranes descend here in good numbers. This marshland or swamp area of floodplain of river Beas provided conducive atmosphere for the survival of waterfowls.
According to wildlife officials, the habitat was severely impacted with the efforts of irrigation department to drain out the area to remove waterlogging and bring it under agriculture.
In 2007, the presence of over 1000 common cranes with their juveniles along with Bar headed geese and Sarus Cranes at Shalla Pattan had drawn attention of wildlife lovers. As per the statistics of the wildlife department, the number of Sarus Crane too came down over the years from 596 in 2018 and mere 493 in January 2019 at Shalla Pattan because of tempering with existing habitat.
The approval was thought to pave way for[v] conservation of area which functions as water sponge by recharging groundwater and meeting the water requirement for drinking and irrigation purpose for local people, apart from ensuring protection of many flora and fauna species which are waging survival battle in this habitat.
Kanjli is upstream of Harike wetland located in the Beas river basin. It is said that the erstwhile Maharaja of Kapurthala, Raja Randhir Singh, built the head regulator on the river Kali Bein, a tributary of Beas river to provide irrigation facility to local people, in year 1870. The headworks resulted into creation of Kanjli wetland, which also subsumes the Kanjli lake.
Kali Bein feeds the Kanjli wetland which once used to be the habitat of ghariyal, critically endangered species. The state government had already introduced ghariyal in Harike water system which is ecologically quite similar to Kanjli. Over the years, two more satellite wetlands have been formed around Kanjli wetland providing good habitat to the migratory as well as non-migratory birds. A number of unique birds belonging to species like waders and ducks were seen frolicking in and out of water. These include Eurasian Curlew (Near threatened by IUCN), Common Pochard (Vulnerable by IUCN). The protection and conservation measures were automatically extended to these satellite wetland though they were not under any jurisdiction at present.
In another significant development, the Keshopur wetland in Gurdaspur was seen as having potential for third Ramsar site[vi] in the stare. A three-day joint inspection visit of the WWF experts and officials of Punjab forest department to prepare a report on this matter had concluded on April 26, 2019. The report was to be tabled before the office of chief wildlife warden and then forwarded to union environment ministry for a final seal on the declaration.
The Keshopur wetland is also known as Keshopur-Miani Community Reserve or ‘Chhamb’ in local Punjabi dialect. It is one of the Asia’s biggest wetlands, located in the middle of the Ravi and Beas rivers. There are experts who believe that the area which earlier must have been a flood plain of the two rivers before barrages and dams were erected over it, is now fed by rain and groundwater.
The 850-acre-marsh was declared as country’s first notified community reserve following a Punjab Government Notification on June 25, 2007. This was jointly managed by forest department and the locals of five villages namely Keshopur, Mattam, Miani, Maghar Mudhian, and Dala who shares ownership of the site.
At present, the state is home to three wetlands Harike, Kanjli and Ropar under Ramsar convention, spread in an area of 56.48 sq km. These wetlands are significant habitats for waterfowl, fish and plethora of other endangered and vulnerable species of flora and fauna. Ranjit Sagar and Nangal are declared as national wetlands.
According to a statement made by MLA Rana Gurjit Singh Rs 4.5 crore were to be spent[vii] on Kanjli wetland to give it a new look and make it tourist-worthy. During a visit to the area, the Kapurthala legislator said there was lack of proper walking track in the town and proposed to develop 10 to 20 feet wide track with landscaping along the Bein. He further talked of a separate 4-5 km track for cyclists, besides, arrangements of restaurant, football ground, boat club and games.
In October 2019, fiver more wetlands[viii] were proposed for the international tag including 185 km stretch of the Beas conservation reserve, Ranjit Sagar conservation reserve, Nangal wildlife sanctuary, Keshopur-Miani community reserve and Hussainiwala wetland. Confident of all the five proposed sites getting international tag, Dr Kuldip Kumar, principal chief conservator of forests said that the process was near completion and all the proposed sites fulfil the requisite conditions.
The problem of smog and stubble burning[ix] was also reported as deterring migratory birds from making a temporary home in Harike wetlands and Haryana’s Bhindawas Bird Sanctuary. WWF experts say the number of birds arriving at the two sites had fallen by almost 50% this year as assessed till November 30. As per the WWF bird census this year, only 35,000 winged guests have come as compared to 60,000 in the corresponding period last year.
Even after two months the state govt announcement that the Kanjli wetland was to be revived at a cost of Rs 450.94 crore, nothing was done[x] in this regard. The wetland, once a popular picnic spot, was lying in neglected conditions for decades. The wetland, spread over 183 ha, holds religious significance as it is part of the Kali Bein, a holy rivulet associated with Guru Nanak.
As per the announcement made during 550th Parkash Purb celebrations in September, Rs 275 crore was to be spent on the construction of a 2-km road in the wetland area, developing a cycle track, a walking track, besides repair of Kanjli head regulator; Rs 59.10 crore was to be spent on renovation of restaurants, a reception centre and a boating point and Rs 57.75 crore on horticulture and landscaping. Also, power infrastructure was to be developed at a cost of Rs 46.81 crore and Rs 10.12 crore was to be spent on water supply channels and renovation of washrooms.
According to another report, a pond of sewage water[xi] near the Government Senior Secondary School at Ullana village in Ghanaur block, Patiala was posing serious health and life threats to over 540 students. Over one acre land near the school premises was turned into a pond of waste water and a dumping ground. The pond water emitted foul smell and had become a breeding ground for mosquitoes and snakes, thus posing threat to lives of residents. The pond was situated outside the schools on an adjoining land. A broken wall, which used to separate both the lands, had further increased the risk.
In an attempt to boost tourism[xii] at Harike wetland and wildlife sanctuary, the government was planning to build tree houses, tent houses and restaurants for vacationers at the confluence between Sutlej and Beas rivers.
Under the project estimated at Rs 150 crore, the government was also planning to make a golf course for tourists at north India’s largest wetland which is spread over 4,100 ha. As many as 48 pedal boats and 6 e-rickshaws have already arrived at the wetland. The project was announced by former tourism minister Navjot Singh Sidhu on the occasion of World Wetland Day 2018. At the time the minister had also suggested introducing Kashmir-style shikaras in the wetland to attract tourists and also talked of bringing Indus dolphins from Pakistan in exchange of crocodiles from Chhatbir zoo.
Every winter, more than one lakh migratory birds arrive at Harike from the Himalayas, Europe and Siberia. Some of the regular winged guests sighted in the sanctuary are the large cormorant, purple moorhen, bar-headed goose, white-winged tern, tufted duck and the white-eyed pochard. The wetlands are also home to several species of turtles, snakes and fish. The rare Indus dolphin can also be seen here. Earlier in 2016, then Punjab government had launched an amphibious bus at Harike to attract tourists but the project failed.
Later in the month, the numbers of birds had reportedly increased in the annual census and Wildlife Department spotted the greater white fronted geese for the first time[xiii] in Nangal wetland. As per the census, the top five species at Harike were Eurasian coot (73,765), Gadwal (22,553), greylag goose (8,321), little cormorant (3,540) and Eurasian wigeon (2,054).
Also the common merganser duck was stated to be seen after a decade[xiv] at Harike wetlands. Around the same time there was a bird flu threat[xv] at the wetlands. The wetlands was put on high alert[xvi] following large scale birds’ death at Sambhar lake in Rajasthan in Nov 2019.
Experts even said the turnout of water birds in wetlands of Punjab was one of the highest as compared to previous years. About 21 species of mammals, 384 birds, seven turtles, four snakes, six taxa of amphibians, 16 fishes, 189 invertebrates and 38 plants were recorded at Harike alone.
Meanwhile, Keshopur Chhamb in Gurdaspur, one of Asia’s biggest wetlands, has recorded a dip[xvii] in the number of migratory birds this year. The annual bird census conducted on January 11-12, 2020 pegged the number at 20,528 birds. The number was 22,500 last year. A total of 80 bird species were spotted at the wetland, located 5km from the district headquarters. Rare varieties, including northern lapwing, sarus crane, bar-headed geese, ruddy shelduck, osprey, pallied harrier and brahminy kite were spotted during the census.
Keshopur Chhamb was renamed Keshopur Chhamb Community Reserve in March 2013 after the wildlife department decided to develop it as a bird sanctuary. It is spread over 850 acres in Keshopur, Miani, Dalla, Mattam and Maghar Mudhian villages having small and big ponds of shallow water.
Of three new Ramsar wetlands, Keshopur-Miani community reserve in Gurdaspur is spread over an area 343.9 ha and is natural. On the other hand, 185-km stretch of the Beas conservation reserve, and Nangal wildlife sanctuary spread in an area of 116 ha in Ropar, are both man-made. The Nangal, which was declared as a wildlife sanctuary in 2003, attracts between 8,000 and 15,000 migratory birds[xviii] every year of 134 species and 25 species of fish are found here.
Summary The wetlands in Punjab are crucial hotspot for migratory as well native birds and supports diverse vegetation and wildlife. They are also playing critical role in absorbing excess run off and recharging groundwater.
It is surprising that the state does not have a separate, dedicated department or agency for this work as recommended by Wetlands Rules 2017. So far the forest and wildlife departments are entrusted with this job for different wetlands.
In the first half 2019, the state government took some important decisions of declaring Kanjli wetlands and Kali Bein river as a wildlife conservation reserve. It has also declared 50 acres of Shalla Pattan wetlands as protected area which is found to be the last resort of Sarus Crane endangered bird in the state. Similarly the state government has declared Indus River Dolphin as state aquatic animal and Beas as a “heritage river” given the religious and cultural significance of these rivers and wetlands. In later part of the year, the government proposed five wetlands for the Ramsar list.
However apart from declaring, proposing and deciding the wetlands as important sites; nothing concrete has been done on ground to ensure overall protection of the same despite sanctioning a budget amount. One the other hand, the reports describing plans of walking, cycling tracks, public facilities, tourism infrastructure around Kanjli and Harike wetlands show that government is pushing more concrete structures and human interference facilities in the wetlands areas which in true sense are against protecting the wetlands.
The state government has now even bigger responsibility to ensure protection and conservation of the wetlands. Hope it takes some effective steps to protect the wetlands instead of wasting money on concretization and crowding the wetlands area with human centric infrastructure which damages their natural state and disturbs the biodiversity. One also hopes the local communities have a role in governance of the wetlands.
Bhim Singh Rawat (firstname.lastname@example.org)