Representative image.

Wetlands are vital to our water needs, food production and act as important repositories of aquatic biodiversity. In addition to hosting a wide variety of plant and animal life, wetlands also provide water storage, filtration and offer us protection from floods. Despite their vital economic role, there is an appalling lack of awareness about the functions and significance of wetlands among the masses.  Even our Central environmental policy largely failed to acknowledge their contribution and the State governments classify them as wasteland in land records! So there has been rapid conversion of water bodies to other uses.

Wetlands are at the moment going through policy transition in the country. The new legal framework for wetlands—the Wetland (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2017, has replaced the earlier Rules of 2010. The 2010 and 2017 Rules for wetlands both emphasize that the ecological character of wetlands ought to be maintained for their conservation. In the 2010 Rules, some related criteria for wetlands such as natural beauty, ecological sensitivity, genetic diversity, historical value, etc were made explicit. However, these have been omitted in the 2017 Rules. The 2017 Rules came under severe criticism for doing away with strong wetland monitoring systems and omitting important wetland types.

Deepor beel has become a classic example how wetlands are abused due to clashes of multiple interest. Although a protected site under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, 1971, continuous encroachment reduced this wetland to one fourth of its original size. To make things worse, the Guwahati Municipal Corporation had chosen this Ramsar site to be the city’s municipal garbage dumping site! Degradation of this important water body started heavily with dumping of waste by the Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) in close proximity of the water body since 2006, flouting all norms of municipal solid waste rules. The death of Greater Adjutant Storks in the vicinity of Deepar beel, tells the story of how the GMC and the sheer apathy of the state forest department has turned this important bird area into a danger zone for the globally threatened species!

In an inspection made to this Ramsar site by the judicial member of the National Green Tribunal (NGT), it was noted that waste was being dumped “not beyond the site but within it,” and “demarcations are made by drying out areas or cutting off water sources”. These are classic ways of killing a wetland and turning it from a wet to a dry ecosystem; or from a lake to a cesspool. Wetlands being multiple-use areas, it is absolutely necessary to identify and map these multiple uses at the same time conserving or managing the integrity of the wetland ecosystem is the key. The Tribunal has now asked for the “traditional” spread of the wetland.

Understanding the traditional spread and ecological character is an important bulwark for the conservation of these unique ecosystems. Deepor, as the very name suggests, is a traditional refuge of the elephant and has been protected as a wildlife sanctuary.  The sanctuary, in order to remain alive and perform some definite ecosystem services, needs more a conservational approach. However, the new government policies seem to ride over this very fact. The Guwahati smart city mission envisages Deepar beel as a water park. The area-based projects being undertaken as part of the smart city plan of Guwahati includes—The Brahmaputra riverfront, The Borsola beel (wetland), The Bharolu ecological corridor, The Mora Bharolu eco corridor and the Deepar Beel Wetland Park totalling 696 acres. There would be other projects on improving roads and public transport system.

Guwahati smart city project to cash in on its natural heritage

The Borsola beel Lake Project is the first on the smart city agenda for completion. The next is the beautification project of the Brahmaputra riverfront.  The south bank river promenade shall also incorporate riverfront restaurants, floating jetties; river cruises, water skiing etc to generate revenue. It is said that the riverfront is a destination project that shall redefine the way Guwahati engages with the mighty river.

The Guwahati Smart City Mission envisages Deepar beel as a wetland park. The dossier of Guwahati Smart City Mission mentions that the Deepar Beel wetland– a Ramsar site shall be designed to become an international class birding destination–and shall have ticketing revenue, CSR revenues and jungle style eco-lodging with special souvenir shop etc. to help generate revenues.  In other words the smart city project would cash in on the city’s natural heritage.

It is interesting to note that the concerned departments in lake development of wetlands under the smart city project are—SPV, Guwahati Metropolitan Development Authority (GMDA), Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC), Jal Board, Water Resources department, Public Health department, Tourism department and the Assam State Electricity Board. No mention of the forest department here raises many eyebrows.

Not taking cognizance of Deepar Beel as an important bird area and also a wildlife sanctuary by the smart city planners irked conservationists. “A water park cannot be the solution for Deepar beel. The focus of the government should be to conserve the wetland ecosystem of this wildlife sanctuary rather than turning it to a recreational park with the sole intention of revenue generation,” said an activist.

“Deepor beel, an ideal destination for thousands of migratory species, witnessed a sharp decline in the number of winged visitors over the years. Construction of a railway line, major road linkages as well as growth of industrial units in and around the wetland’s vicinity shattered its once pristine habitat. No further intervention should be made in this Important Bird Area. Let it remain a wetland only,” professor P C Bhattacharjee, retired head of zoology, Gauhati University, said.

It has been reported that a high level meeting chaired by the state chief minister recently has come up with plans of constructing the protected area boundaries of the Sanctuary to its half! Continuous encroachment has already reduced this once 4,000 hectare (ha) wetland shrunk into less than 500 ha area! The focus of the government should be to conserve the wetland ecosystem of this wildlife sanctuary rather then turning it to a recreational park with the sole intention of revenue generation!

Exploitation of wildlife habitats for other has been a serious lapse in our policy decisions. Would anyone kindly tell the chief minister that the Deepor as a wildlife sanctuary has been secured for elephants and his plan to “transform Deepor Beel into an attractive tourist destination” would compromise the very basis of our conservation goals? Wildlife requires inviolate space. What we need at the moment is a change in presumption of our policymakers that wildlife can be conserved under all kinds of development and sustainable use!

Mubina Akhtar

Mubina Akhtar is an environmental journalist and wildlife activist. She can be reached at: newildflowers@gmail.com

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