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Friday, 1 February 2013

The shrinking wetlands Destructive Cocktail Of Official Apathy And Realtor Greed

20 December 2012
The shrinking wetlands
Destructive Cocktail Of Official Apathy And Realtor Greed
suranjana banerji
THE East Kolkata wetlands is a unique ecosystem where the city’s sewage water gets treated in a natural manner through sewage-fed pisciculture. The area covers agricultural land and a garbage disposal site. It also acts as the repository of sewage and rain-water and has emerged as the dumping ground for wastes. The area covered by the
East Kolkata Wetlands had shrunk drastically between 1945 and 1992 because of continuous encroachments. This was observed by Justice Umesh Chandra Banerjee of Calcutta High Court, while delivering his judgment on a Public Interest Litigation case initiated by the NGO, People United for Better Living in Calcutta (PUBLIC), in 1992. His observation was based on a sketch map that identified 32 mouzas that formed the East Kolkata Wetlands. Justice Banerjee ruled that no government or non-government body can reclaim any more wetlands within the East Kolkata wetlands area. The land schedule indicating the 32 mouzas along with a report on the uniqueness of the region were sent by the Government of India  to the Ramsar Convention. The government suggested that it be declared a “wetland of international importance”.The Ramsar Convention had declared this wetland a “Ramsar Site” in August 2002. Five more mouzas from South 24-Parganas and North 24-Parganas districts were added to the East Kolkata wetlands, which now covers 12,500 hectares.
Regretfully, the landmark judgment and the subsequent declaration of the
East Kolkata wetlands as a “Ramsar Site” failed to prevent further encroachments. The Ramsar Site secretariat, in its letter to the Union Ministry of Environment, warned that it would consider taking the East Kolkata wetlands off the Ramsar list if appropriate measures were not taken to stop illegal encroachments (The Statesman, March 12, 2007).
To deal with this problem and address the need for conservation, the
West Bengal government enacted a new piece of legislation ~ the East Kolkata Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Act, 2006. It provides for stringent measures for preventing illegal encroachments. The East Kolkata Wetlands Management Authority under the chairmanship of the Chief Secretary, was set up to implement the provisions of the Act and to take steps for the preservation of the area.
However, these steps did not end the problem of illegal encroachments. The is partly because of the lack of coordination between the different departments/agencies of the government. In the name of development, policies that run counter to the declared policy of preservation ~ through prevention of encroachments ~ have been initiated.
Another important factor that has contributed to the gradual shrinkage is the real estate activity by property developers who are filling up the wetlands. The realtors generally act in cahoots with a section of politicians and the local administration.
The East Kolkata Wetland Management Authority has had to approve projects which were earlier thought to be against the principles laid down for the preservation of the Ramsar Site. In effect, it changed its own decisions. The KMDA’s proposal in 2005 to widen the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass for faster movement of traffic was embroiled in controversy because of objections raised by the Pollution Control Board. However, construction work was carried out. Widening of the Bypass from Chingrighata to the Park Circus connector has reduced the size of the “Captain bheri”, in violation of the government’s policy. In 2006, the KEIP sought the permission of the East Kolkata Wetlands Management Authority to set up a ‘land-fill site’ for KMC on 113 hectares of land adjacent to Dhapa where the KMC deposits solid waste. The PCB had serious reservations about the project as it would damage the Ramsar Site. However, the project was cleared by the East Kolkata Wetland Management Authority. It was to be executed by the KMC ~ instead of the KEIP ~ and directly from its own resources.
The Left Front government had planned to build a 84-km highway linking Barasat with Raichak.   The task was entrusted to the Indonesia-based Salim group. Had the plan materialised, it would have violated the principles laid down by the East Kolkata Wetlands Management Authority . It would have led to further shrinkage of the wetlands at Bhangar. Indeed, this became an election issue in the Jadavpur constituency before the Lok Sabha elections in 2009. The CPI-M candidate supported the proposed project while the Opposition campaigned in support of those engaged in pisciculture and agriculture in Bhangar and Baruipur. Earlier, the government had allowed changes in the land-use pattern in the Mukundapur area for setting up a hospital.Collusion between realtors and the parties is endemic. And the Trinamul Congress is as culpable as the CPI-M. For instance, a 300-bigha waterbody within the former Chief Minister’s constituency had allegedly been partially filled up. Although the matter had been brought to the notice of the police by the nodal officer of the Authority, no steps were taken to bring to book the persons responsible. Large chunks of at least two waterbodies within the area of the
East Jadavpur Land and Housing Society have been filled up. The land records mention the two ponds as a waterbody for fishery. A Deputy Director of Fisheries had written to the Superintendent of Police of  South 24-Parganas in April 2010, urging him to take action. Nothing was done. The East Kolkata Wetlands Management Authority had even accused the police of sitting on as many as 200 complaints. There have been unauthorised changes in the land-use pattern because of the failure of the police to act.
The illegal encroachment on “Collector bheri” by first draining out its water and then constructing a boundary wall were first highlighted by the media in December 2011. Three stop-work notices ~ two by the East Kolkata Wetlands Management Authority and one by the KMC ~ were issued and two FIRs filed, one by the East Kolkata Wetlands Management Authority and the other by the KMC. But the illegal construction of the boundary wall couldn’t be stopped thanks to the nexus between the powerful land mafia, a section of politicians and the police. However, ultimately it was the pressure mounted by the media and the environmental activists that led to coordinated action by the East Kolkata Wetlands Management Authority, the KMC and the Kolkata police. The boundary wall on the sprawling 43-bigha bheri was demolished.Post-paribartan, the scenario hasn’t changed. Despite the Chief Minister’s warning of stern action against those who would illegally encroach on the Ramsar Site area, a recent report in The Statesman (24 November 2012), points to the filling up of a large number of bheries in the Sonarpur police station area within KMC’s Ward 108. It has been alleged that the builders enjoy the support of a  section of the ruling party, including a minister.Clearly, preservation of the
East Kolkata wetlands will not be possible unless there is a political will to implement the law. The East Kolkata Wetlands Management Authority as well as the local administration must be given strict instructions to implement the provisions of the East Kolkata Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Act, 2006 in letter and spirit. Failure to do this will endanger this Ramsar Site. This will damage the ecology of the area and threaten the livelihood of those who depend on fish-farming and agriculture. It will damage Kolkata’s environment further still.
The writer is Assistant Professor of Geography, Taki Government College, West Bengal