Where the eastern region is concerned, it is not just land, but the grabbing of wetlands that is a major concern. Densely populated, and facing a continuous influx of Bangladeshi infiltrators from across the international border, West Bengal is extremely short of land for its growing population. Situated along the downstream course of Himalayan rivers, this region is exposed to heavy siltation, which in course of time, causes navigable river channels to get clogged forever. This causes the formation of wetlands, which, on their part, serve as valuable sinks for cities and towns, and natural aquifers. However, the general tendency to view wetlands as ‘wastelands’ has caused many of these to be lost forever. As urban areas expand, wetlands within and in the vicinity of towns and cities get endangered, with realtors swooping down to grab the few open spaces and wetlands.
But, the loss of wetlands is a major environmental calamity for urban populations. Disappearing wetlands mean the loss of natural aquifers, and hence can bring down groundwater levels, resulting in a severe water shortage. The Government of West Bengal was one of the first state governments to enact a comprehensive legislation to protect wetlands (with the West Bengal Inland Fisheries Act, in 1984) as far back as 1984. The government of West Bengal had taken a stern view against water bodies and wetlands being filled under the West Bengal Inland Fisheries Act. This Act, further amended in 1993, bars filling up of any water body—measuring 5 cottahs or more, where water is retained for a minimum of six months. Section 24 of the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974 and 4D of the West Bengal Land and Land Reforms Act, 1956, can also be applied to prevent filing up of water bodies. Besides, the West Bengal Town and Country (Planning and Development) Act, 1979, denies permission for filling of any tank, pond or water body.
And yet, the land mafia continues to grab these precious aquifers unabated. The modus operandi is simple. Realtors and anti-socials out to make a quick buck dump rubbish in and around a wetland or water body. Once the garbage starts clogging parts of the wetland, trucks of flyash are dumped at strategic points at intervals. Months of dumping ultimately results in the death of the living ecosystem, and the wetland disappearing to make way for land on which construction can begin.
Bikramgarh Jheel in South Kolkata, the Dankuni wetlands, and a 2000 bigha wetland in the Bally-Jagacha block have managed to be saved by activists, who have taken the legal route. The East Kolkata Wetlands Development Authority is currently working hard to prevent encroachment on the East Kolkata wetlands, which is now a Ramsar site. However, there are numerous other wetlands, which are in danger of being encroached upon to vanish forever. The Ambuja wetland in the industrial town of Durgapur is one of the latest victims of rapacious realtors. Located near the Devi Chowdharini cave, or the Tilla of Bhabani Pathak (the legendary dacoit who made Devi Chowdhurani, an abandoned bride of a local zamindar, the leader of his gang, and about whom a novel was written by Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay), this wetland is a haven for winter migratory birds.
The Ambuja wetland receives some 50 different species of birds, which include the Lesser Whistling Ducks, the Jacana, Moorhen, Little Grebe and several varieties of heron, skimmers and egrets. Abounding in banyan, sal, palash, tamarind, mango, Jackfruit, and palmyra palm, as also shrubs like the Eupatorium, cassia and lantana, as also aquatic ferns and other plants, the wetland is a great draw for birds, butterflies and a variety of insects who have made it their home. In 2012, a group of promoters had encroached on part of this wetland, and were on their way to build a multi storey complex. Once the Durgapur Municipal Corporation stepped in, the wetland was fenced around for use as a children’s park and a boating complex. However, a part of the wetland has already been lost to a newly constructed factory, which poses the danger of polluting the waters and hence, posing a threat to the biodiversity.
Slum dwellers residing along the wetland not only fish here, but kill ducks and egrets with impunity. Everyone desires development and growth; but has it got to be at the cost of what nurtures us, and keeps us alive?