One of our primary areas of concern and activity has been towards trying to protect our aquatic environment—our rivers, waterbodies, and wetlands in general, from environmental harm. Our concern with protecting our aquatic environment has led to our developing close ties with the communities whose lives and livelihoods are dependent on the ecological health of the water areas, namely the small-scale fishing communities. Some of our past and ongoing key activities to save rivers, wetlands, and waterbodies are:
GANGA ACTION PLAN
Since the early years of this new millennium, we have been working to facilitate the objectives of the Ganga Action Plan. To this end, we sensitized the citizens to the need for river conservation through a host of events, including those that were aimed at students, young adults, and children. We had been assigned with organizing public awareness campaigns for Ganga Action Plan by Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority (KMDA) in the Budge Budge Municipal Area. In 2005, we published an awareness-based booklet “Ganga Hok Dushan Mukto” (For a Pollution-Free River Ganga) in Bengali.
Over the years, in addition to the Ganga, we have supported and organised campaigns for the protection of rivers like Vidyadhari, Mathabhanga, Churni, Jalangi, Ichamati, Keleghai, Subarnarekha, Buriganga, Jamuna, Atreyee, Karola, Mahananda, Teesta and large water bodies in Murshidabad and Nadia closely linked to rivers. These campaigns have seen active participation from local fishworkers’ collectives, Panchayat bodies, and other environmental groups.
In 2018, we coordinated with the fishworkers’ collectives and Gram Panchayats of Meenakhan and other villages to open dialogue with the State Pollution Control Board for the protection of the river Vidyadhari in North 24 Parganas district. In the same year, we co-organised a 3-day cycle rally with active and enthusiastic participation from students, activists, and fishworkers’ collectives to raise awareness about the environmental degradation of the rivers Mathabhanga and Churni in the Nadia district of West Bengal.
2018 was also a key year in terms of our national-level work on the implementation of sustainable action plans to save rivers. In July 2018, we co-organised a meeting in Delhi to sensitize representatives from 15 states to facilitate the implementation of the order passed in that same year by the Principal Bench of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) for the rejuvenation of 351 river stretches in India.
In March 2021, we organised the first-ever state-level open assembly to save rivers, wetlands, and water bodies of West Bengal. Held at Entally, Kolkata, it saw enthusiastic participation from fishing community members from fishworkers’ collectives, NGO workers, students, and environmental activists from across the state.
The northern districts of West Bengal have their fair share of wetlands. However, in terms of water areas, the southern districts are in a different class altogether. Containing one-third of the Ganga-Brahmaputra delta, they are home to mighty streams, And, in the flood plains of its streams, there are innumerable large, medium, and small wetlands. At one time, they played a crucial role both as flood cushions during the monsoon and as aquatic reservoirs recharging the streams during the dry season. Many continue to do so. However, along with the other components of the natural environment, our wetlands, just like wetlands everywhere else in the world, have been victims of the planetwide Great Acceleration since the 1950s. Population explosion, brisk expansion of agriculture and human settlements, urbanization, and rapid increase of roads and railways have doomed many wetlands. Constant siltation, the inevitable fate of natural water bodies in the Ganga-Brahmaputra plain, has also played its part.
Wetlands come in different types and render well-known hydrological and ecological services. West Bengal has a variety of wetlands ranging from coastal and marine wetlands to inland freshwater lakes, rivers, dams, and swamps as well as the constructed wetlands in irrigation schemes and high-altitude wetlands (See West Bengal Wetlands and Water Bodies Conservation Policy submitted to Department of Environment Government of West Bengal 2012—also known as Draft Wetland Policy). However, Kolkata and its environs include a relatively unusual category of wetlands—these are water bodies that come under a wastewater ecosystem. They draw in the wastewater from Kolkata’s metropolitan and periurban sewage systems, use them for rearing fish or on neighbouring farmlands, and thereafter let them out into outflowing canals. In the process, the water in the shallow pisciculture ponds gets treated through the interaction of sunlight, bacteria, algae, and fish, resulting in the water getting cleaned before being ejected into the external aquatic environment. The system is so efficient that a great deal of Kolkata’s urban and periurban wastewater gets treated without the aid of modern STPs. The other beauty of the system is that it is community-managed. The oldest and most well-known of these wetlands lie on the eastern fringes of the city and have been classified under what is known as the East Kolkata Wetlands (EKW)—a cluster occupying an area of 125 sq km and included in August 2002 in the Ramsar list of Wetlands of International Importance. They have also been listed by the Government of India as a protected wetland stretch as per the Central Wetland Rules under the Environment Protection Act, 1986.
Since our early days, DISHA has been involved with wetland protection. We drew the attention of the Hon’ble Calcutta High Court to the need to protect the various categories of Wetlands in our State and this resulted in the creation of a government High Power Committee on Wetlands in 2012, which, in turn, led to the protection of numerous large and small water bodies in the State. In collaboration with Sabuj Mancha and other environmental groups, we have been active in trying to protect the East Kolkata Wetlands. A major citizens’ campaign was conducted in June 2018, which included a road show across the entire stretch of the EKW, ending in a deputation to the Department of Environment. In 2021, we campaigned on the issue of environmental degradation caused to the EKW through illegal encroachment and dumping of toxic waste by plastic units on both sides of the Basanti Expressway.
Since 2016, we have been working towards the protection of a couple of wetlands in the Hooghly-Damodar doab (river basin): one close to Dankuni and the other close to Uttarpara, both in the Hooghly district of West Bengal. In 2018, we guided a local club in reviving a ‘dead pond’ in the Shahid Nagar area of Kolkata. We are also in constant touch with local initiatives to protect and revive water bodies in the southern neighbourhoods of Kolkata.
For World Wetlands Day on 2nd February 2022, we co-authored a note on the efficacy of the existing legal instruments governing the administration and protection of the EKW, emphasizing wetland ecosystems and proposing sustainable solutions in this regard. This letter was shared with the Environmental Commissioner and Chief Environmental Officer of the East Kolkata Wetland Management Authority.
In August 2022, we co-hosted a stakeholder’s dialogue on the Connecting Wetland Narratives to Action Plan at Jadavpur University, Kolkata. It saw enthusiastic participation of people affected by the degradation of wetlands, including local activists and ground-level collectives from various places in and around Kolkata, e.g. the EKW, Briji Patuli area, Taratala-Brace Bridge, and Bonhooghly and also from the Murshidabad and Malda districts of West Bengal, along with NGO-workers, civil society environmental activists, academics, students and government officials from relevant departments dealing with the management of wetlands.
Presently, we are working with a community of wastewater fishers in the Briji Patuli area, namely, the Briji Patuli Matsyajibi Samabay Samiti Ltd., to restore two medium water bodies that have suffered severe eutrophication and water hyacinth infestation (Link to Pictures.).
We continue to help an assortment of initiatives to protect the EKW, create a rich information database for these wetlands, and support local groups in their efforts to protect other local wetlands, rivers, and waterbodies in West Bengal and beyond.