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Development vs environmental security: How to kill an ecosystem


Sukanta Chaudhari writes: Today, a great threat looms over wetlands. Under a new environmental regime, each state will be free to form its own guidelines. Bengal’s new environment minister, has declared his intention of ‘developing’ the wetlands and even having their Ramsar status annulled. The truth is that Kolkata’s wetlands are ‘real estate in waiting’.

Sukanta Chaudhuri, The Economic Times

Kolkata is flanked on the east by a vast tract of wetland. It has thrown up a unique challenge in weighing development against environmental security. At stake is the well-being, or even the survival, of a city of 4.5 million.

The East Kolkata Wetlands cover 12,500 hectares, including 4,000 hectares of fish farms or bheris, criss-crossed by a system of creeks and canals. Kolkata Corporation does not have any sewage treatment plant. The entire sewage flows through these canals, purifying itself in the bheris that act as oxidation ponds, and draining out through the Kultigong river towards the Sundarbans.

The canals also absorb the city’s monsoon storm-water. Its garbage is offloaded at nearby Dhapa to sustain market farms. The area yields 55,000 tonnes of vegetables and 10,500 tonnes of fish a year. Farming and recycling sustain 20,000 families directly and some 50,000 indirectly.

If the wetlands are effaced, the loss in food supply would be the least part of the damage. It would leave the city without means of disposing of its waste, especially its sewage, and its abundant storm-water. Come monsoon, and Kolkata might annually face the paralysis and health hazards witnessed in Chennai last year.

Above all, we would destroy a unique eco-friendly system of waste disposal: costing nothing, generating substantial production and employment and ensuring an immense depolluting zone bordering the city. No other wetland recycling system anywhere exceeds 100 hectares. Experts cross the world to see Kolkata’s wetlands. But the city’s otherwise articulate population is oblivious.

The apparent rural tranquillity of the wetlands is misleading. They have always been prone to violence: earlier, to drain fisheries for ricefarming or flood them back again. Today, the greatest danger is from realtors and big-time encroachers.

On paper, the wetlands enjoy ample protection. A landmark high court judgment of 1992 has been reinforced over time, culminating in international recognition in 2002 under the Ramsar Convention. The government and corporation have declared their commitment. Yet, 185 cases of encroachment, including colleges and housing estates, have reached the courts, and 14 eviction orders issued though not executed. One-off administrative fiats have been equally destructive, in one case, reducing the open land within aparticular tract from 43% to 3%.

Today, a still greater threat looms over the wetlands. Under a new environmental regime, states will be free to form their own guidelines. Bengal’s new environment minister, who is also mayor of Kolkata, has declared his intention of ‘developing’ the wetlands and even having their Ramsar status annulled. The Ramsar authorities might themselves delist wetlands that cease to be such.

The mayor has arguments on his side. He is right in saying that the system of solid waste disposal needs expansion. In itself, this would not alter the land use pattern. It would allow scientific separation of wastes, so that toxic matter does not contaminate the soil or water. It would require only a small fraction of the land, and leave the water bodies untouched.

But the mayor also argues that the city-side segment of the wetlands, west of Kolkata’s Eastern Bypass, is already a concrete jungle: why should the rest be sacrosanct? That is like saying that a man who has lost three toes might as well lose both legs.

The truth is that the wetlands are ‘real estate in waiting’, to quote Dhrubajyoti Ghosh, a leading expert and crusader. Today, real estate arguably constitutes West Bengal’s biggest industry, and 12,500 hectares is a lot of land. No wonder the authorities are keen to open it for development.

But first, they owe the citizens of Kolkata a few answers.

  • How will they dispose of 750,000,000 litres of sewage a day, not to speak of 2,500 tonnes of garbage? Funds might be obtained for sewage treatment plants on a gigantic scale. But besides the transitional and operational challenges, the sheer retrogression in terms of environmental management would be indefensible, with incalculable effects on citizens’ lives and probably on climate change. The wetlands are a mini-biosphere with threatened and even unique species.
  • Where would they channelise storm-water during the monsoons?
  • In an alarmingly polluted city, what would happen if this carbon sink were replaced by urban settlements, not only removing but reversing the depolluting factor?
  • How would 50,000 families, often displaced from their land, find alternative livelihood? Battles have been fought on precisely this issue in West Bengal in the recent past.

These questions may not trouble fly-by-night realtors, but responsible corporate stakeholders must address them. And they cannot but weigh upon the city, state and Union governments; on everyone intending to live or work in the space of the lost wetlands; and on every citizen of inner Kolkata, who (all else apart) might be trapped without access to drainage outfalls. Would Kolkata remain viable as a metropolitan space? What would be the consequences for the state’s economy?

Crucial decisions about the wetlands might be taken soon and heavy pressure brought to bear on the exercise. The parties most favouring the conversion must realise that it would ruin their own interests along with all others. They will have killed the goose yielding them a steady supply of golden eggs.

(The writer is Professor Emeritus, Jadavpur University, Kolkata)

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