(Feature Image: Screen shot of video report showing boats plying inside flooded JNCU campus in Oct. 2019. Source: Balia Express)
In blatant defiance of Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, Wetlands (Conservation & Management) Rules, 2017, Suraha Tal Eco-Sensitive Zone Notification 2019, National Mission for Clean Ganga Notification 2016, the Uttar Pradesh State Government has allowed and funded construction of a college in core zone of Suraha Tal wetlands, a notified bird sanctuary in Balia District.
The Suraha Tal[i] (lake) is an important and the largest floodplain wetland in middle segment of Ganga river in Balia district of Uttar Pradesh. The open, oval ‘U’ shaped lake is spread over 34.32 sq km area and located about 10 km north of district headquarter. Geographically the lake is situated between Ghaghara river (North) and Ganga river (South).
There is no clarity on the origin of the lake with some reports mentioning it as an oxbow lake formed by meandering of Ganga while others terming it as natural rain fed water body. Some unverified reports claim that it was formed by impact of a crater. However, the National Wetland Atlas, 2011 and State Government have classified (code 1102) under natural wetlands category.
Suraha Tal is rich in biodiversity[ii] and provides several socio-economic benefits to local population through fisheries, irrigation, tourism and recreation. It has been listed as a high priority wetland. Over 40 fish species are found in the lake area apart from several fresh water aquatic animals. The fish composition is similar to Ganga river system. The lake surroundings provides habitats to several native species of water and riparian birds. Number of migratory birds visit the lake in winter.
Suraha Tal is of pulsating nature swelling in monsoon and shrinking in lean season. The Madha and Garari nullah carry run off water to the lake while 23 km long Katehar nullah passing close to Balia town drains it out in Ganga river. During high floods in Ganga, the lake is filled with back waters through Katehar nullah. The wetland functions as groundwater recharge zone throughout the year. However, over fishing, weed infestation and excess drainage for irrigation are among the threats affecting the ecology of wetlands for past several years.
Notified Bird Sanctuary & Eco Sensitive Zone
Given its ecological significance, Suraha Tal has been notified as Bird Sanctuary on March 27, 1991 by Forest Department, Uttar Pradesh. The wetland was officially named as Jay Prakash Narayan Bird Sanctuary on December 10, 2002.
On March 8, 2019 the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) has declared 1 km area surrounding the wetlands as Eco-Sensitive Zone (ESZ) prohibiting and regulating a range of activities detrimental to wetlands eco-system. The notification also directed State Government to prepare a Zonal Master Plan (ZMP) for preservation and management of Suraha Tal within two years. The draft notification was put in public domain for objections and suggestions on Jan 31, 2018.
University in Suraha Tal
In 1997, State Government acquired 74 acre of Suraha Tal wetland area near Basantpur village to build Shaheed Samarak (Martyr Memorial) in the memory of freedom fighter. The memorial was built in the wetland area on Dec 22, 2006. At that time, a trust namely Shaheed Samarak Trust (SST) was formed headed by former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar to develop tourist facilities around the memorial.
Between 2000 and 2009, the trust approved several construction activities including rest house, staff quarters, an old age home, a children park, a bund for nature trail, boundary wall and a fountain on the acquired land.
On Dec 22, 2016, the memorial area was converted into Jan Nayak Chandrashekhar University (JNCU). In July 2017, the district administration directed[iii] Revenue Department to complete land demarcation process for the University. Same month, it was granted[iv] Rs. 50 lakh for establishing Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Research Centre from State budget.
The trust transferred about 51 acre of land to Higher Education Department, Uttar Pradesh on March 9, 2018 for construction of college buildings. The university officially started its academic session there from 2018 onwards using existing infrastructure. Till Dec 2020, the University was not recognized by University Grants Commission (UGC); however there were talks of opening a medical college also in JNCU campus.
Violations of Rules
According to Wildlife Protection Act 1972, no such construction can take place inside a notified Bird or Wildlife Sanctuary without permission from National Board of Wild Life (NBWL) however no such permission has been sought or given either from NBWL or Forest Department, Uttar Pradesh.
The Suraha Tal has also been inventoried in National Wetlands Atlas, 2011[v] and identified in wetlands list[vi] by State Government, despite this memorial land has been used for construction of college in Suraha Tal wetlands area which is in clear violation of Wetlands (Conservation & Management) Rules, 2017[vii].
All through the years, National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG) has taken no step to stop the illegal act while NMCG’s October 2016 notification[viii] has prohibited new construction in Ganga floodplain area. Similarly, the Forest Department and District Administration have remained silent on the issue.
Flooding, waterlogging in JNCU
Since the JNCU has come up in core zone of Suraha Tal wetlands, its functioning has been severely affected by flooding and waterlogging.
The University campus remained waterlogged[ix] for weeks after heavy rainfall for days beginning on September 29, 2019. Following this, the administration had to declare indefinite vacation as swollen Suraha Tal flooded[x] several of University rooms damaging valuable goods, furniture and auditorium hall. The important documents were transported through boats to safe locations.
For days, the Chancellor discharged its duty by setting up office by a road. With no respite from water logging the Chancellor office was finally shifted to a rented accommodation in Basantpur village.
Even after 41 days[xi], the campus remained under 3 feet deep water. As a result the convocation ceremony scheduled for November 19, 2019 was cancelled. The situation was so bad that even District Magistrate (DM) and Superintendent of Police (SP) were able to access the flooded campus through boats for inspection related work.
Two years later, the University faced the same condition[xii]. Entire campus area was flooded after rains in last week of August 2021. Interestingly, in the first week of the August 2021, Anandi Ben Patel, Governor, Uttar Pradesh had virtually inaugurated[xiii] JNCU administrative building. And later in the month boats were used[xiv] for days to access the same administrative building by the officials and staffs including Registrar and Chancellor. Students were unable to reach the college and the regular classes were cancelled[xv] affecting their studies.
Kalplata Pandey, the Chancellor admitted that flooding has been a problem affecting functioning of the University. She also accused district administration of negligence in de-waterlogging of campus area.
Even after two months the University campus remained waterlogged. The University Management was forced to rely on a private school[xvi] for completion of new admission examination process scheduled for October 8, 2021.
Initially, the Chancellor was using BSNL rest house located inside campus on relatively higher area to run the office. Later on, it was also encircled by flood waters[xvii] necessitating search for a temporary office. The students were unable to visit the University. There was fear of drowning and snake bites incidents in campus area.
The back flow from Ganga through Katehar nullah was also blamed for aggravating flooding this time.
In past 3 years, the government and district administration have not worked out[xviii] any effective step to resolve the flooding problem although several ministers and leaders have been visiting the campus and are aware of the issue.
During convocation ceremony on March 13, 2021, Anandi Ben Patel, Governor had reportedly suggested[xix] shifting the JNCU’s administrative and educational facilities to another location. On the occasion, Dr. Dinesh Sharma, Deputy CM had also asked the Chancellor and District Administration to find out alternative plan to flooding problem.
The proposal of shifting the University was opposed[xx] by students’ leaders, local politicians. Following this, the Chancellor clarified[xxi] that there were talks of construction of second campus[xxii] for the University on 40 acre of land belonging to Katai Mill on Rasda-Mau main road which could be used during flooding of JNCU campus.
In June 2021, the state government was learnt to have approved Rs. 92.39 crore[xxiii] for JNCU renovation and construction of college buildings in Suraha Tal itself. The Public Works Department (PWD) was given responsibility for the construction work which then had issued tender regarding this.
As per a September 2021 news report, there is a plan to build new regulator[xxiv] costing Rs. 8.30 crores by Irrigation Department at tail end of Katehar nullah in Vijayipur, Balia to drain out Suraha Tal overflow during monsoon months as a solution to flooding problem in JNCU campus and about 24 other villages along the nullah. The old regulator is stated to be 40 years old and not functioning smoothly.
Interestingly, on World Water Day 2022, Survesh Kumar Singh, Joint Secretary, Government of Uttar Pradesh has written to all district level departments: DM, CDO, Forest, Irrigation, PWD and Senior Environment Engineer, Clean Ganga Mission, UP to conduct ground inspection regarding solutions to waterlogging in University area. The letter has also been marked to the JNCU management and Education Department.
It is during this joint inspection, all officials from concerned departments have agreed to the fact that only after permanent solutions to water logging and flooding problem, construction of buildings for JNCU can be successful.
Summing Up Suraha Tal is another vital but threatened wetlands along Ganga river in Uttar Pradesh. Despite its valuable socio-economic and ecological services, the wetland is being encroached and degraded by none other than State Government itself in clear violations of rules.
Instead of protecting the notified bird sanctuary, the government has not only allowed conversion of memorial trust into university campus but also funding various kind of infrastructures inside Suraha Tal’s ESZ.
The waterlogging during and after monsoons months in 2019 and 2021 has severely affected about 60 acre of wetlands area mostly under JNCU occupation. The flooding has also damaged University infrastructure, furniture and disrupted academic sessions for months.
The future of the wetland as well as students is in real danger unless concerned departments and University management take a course correction which seems highly unlikely. Under such a scenario, the Suraha Tal as part of its natural process would be flooding JNCU campus time and again to remind government of its illegalities, however in the long run a large part of it would be grabbed and abused.
One only hopes that the government would take effective decision to restore the Suraha Tal wetlands instead of reclaiming and encroaching on it.
Bhim Singh Rawat (firstname.lastname@example.org)