East India Wetlands Review 2017: West Bengal Bent On Destroying World’s Largest Natural Sewage Treatment Plant

The East Kolkata Wetlands (EKW) are unique yet complex system of natural and human-made wetlands in West Bengal. The wetlands cover 125 sq km comprising of salt marshes, salt meadows, sewage farms and settling ponds. They are used to treat Kolkata’s sewage, and the nutrients contained in the waste water sustain fish farms and agriculture.

Devised by local fishermen and farmers, these wetlands served, in effect, as the largest natural sewage treatment plant (STP) for the city. And using the purification capacity of wetlands, Kolkata by transforming nearly one-third of the city’s sewage into a rich harvest of fish and fresh vegetables daily, has pioneered an environment-friendly system of sewage disposal. Because of this, the EKW were designated a “wetland of international importance” under the Ramsar Convention on August 19, 2002. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/East_Kolkata_Wetlands

However for past many years, these wetlands are under threat due to exponential expansion of real-estate projects. Recently illegal landfills are on the rise and unprecedented land development and urbanization have been creating concerns about the impact on EKW environment. 2017 has seen the situation turning only worse for EKW. 

Reality Chokes EKW In Feb. 2017 a study reiterated that the EKW may soon be history if more and more buildings keep coming up around it. It also revealed that the rapid conversion of land use has hobbled the fisheries and vegetable farms in the area and led to a crash in the local economy, thus ultimately creating distress among fisherfolks and farmers dependent on EKW.  http://indiaclimatedialogue.net/2017/02/01/realty-chokes-kolkata-wetlands/ (India Climate Dialogue, 1 Feb. 2017)

A report in The Better India revealed that the Kolkata produces almost 750 MLD of wastewater and sewage. Strangely, the core area of the city does not have a single STP as the EKW treats all the waste water through natural process. https://www.thebetterindia.com/84746/east-kolkata-westland-dhrubajyoti-ghosh-organic-sewage-management/ (The Better India, 2 Feb. 2017)

In this short video by The Better India, ecologist Dhrubajyoti Ghosh speaks about discovering and documenting the amazing resource recovery features of the EKW.

The Times of India raised concerns over mushrooming of illegal recycling units in EKW. As per report, tonnes of plastic -from cement bags to toothpaste tubes -are dumped in hundreds of illegal sheds within EKW. The toxic waste is sorted out and sold to illegal processing units that have also cropped up in EKW area.. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/kolkata/kolkata-faces-renal-failure-as-plastic-chokes-wetlands/articleshow/56945586.cms (The Times of India, 3 Feb. 2017)

EKW Bill further endangered EKW future In Feb. 2017, the EKW Bill was placed in the state assembly. Strangely the bill made, Sovan Chatterjee, the state environment minister as the chairperson of the East Kolkata Wetlands Management Authority (EKWMA). The environment minister also happens to be the state housing minister, the state fire services minister as well as the Kolkata city’s mayor.

Before this, Sovan Chatterjee had openly said that wetlands conservation meant little to the poor and wished to change the status of wetlands to take up developmental projects. Questioning the precautionary measures prescribed to safeguard EKW under Ramsar convention, the minister labelled as hindrance in the development of eastern Kolkata and had plan to build Eco Park-like development on the wetlands. His becoming the chairperson of EKWMA triggered alarm among concerned, who opined that the amendment vested too much of power in one person. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/kolkata/now-environment-minister-sovan-chatterjee-to-decide-fate-of-wetlands/articleshow/57137637.cms (The Times of India, 14 Feb. 2017)

Environment Minister proposed review of Ramsar status to EKW Immediately after being appointed as chairman of EKWDA the environment minister proposed a review of the Ramsar site and argued in favour of “proper utilization” of the “barren” land in EKW. On assuming charge, he showed no let up in his plans and continued to argue against the curbs placed on EKW by the Ramsar Convention. The minister also questioned the Chief Secretary’s role as past chairman, accusing him of never questioning the rationality behind EKW’s inclusion in Ramsar convention. The minister also alleged that Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) was kept in the dark during selection of EKW as a Ramsar site in 2002.

Refuting the minister’s allegations, experts pointed out that the none other than the state environment department had sent the application to the Ministry of Environment & Forest (MoEF) in 1994-95 seeking Ramsar status to EKW.

On Feb. 20, 2017, the EKW (Conservation and Management) (Amendment) Act, 2006, was amended to make the environment minister the chairman of EKWMA in place of the chief secretary. Incidentally, the central government bill on the basis of which the amendment was introduced was still in the draft stage. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/kolkata/sovan-chatterjee-new-wetlands-boss-talks-of-proper-use-of-protected-site/articleshow/57263722.cms (The Times of India, 21 Feb. 2017)

Greens mulled legal action against Environment Minister Reacting strongly to Sovan Chatterjee’s “proper utilise” comment, activists indicated possibility of legal action against the Environment Minister. The environmentalists also expressed apprehension that his comment was an attempt to “legalise illegal constructions” in the EKW. They also alleged that a large section of the wetlands has already been encroached upon. http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/greens-see-red-over-bengal-ministers-comment-on-wetlands/article17397737.ece (The Hindu, 3 March 2017)

Environmentalists express apprehension that his comment was an attempt to ‘legalise illegal constructions’ in East Kolkata Wetlands. Image Source: The Hindu

Government to frame ‘wise use’ plan for EKW  In March 2017, following the visit of Llewellyn Young, a senior official of the Ramsar secretariat, the State Government decided to come up with a “wise use” plan on how to best manage the ecologically fragile EKW in the future. The move came in response to reports raising concerns over state government move to “legalise illegal constructions” in the fast-shrinking wetland. This also prompted concerned citizens to start an online petition. http://www.business-standard.com/article/news-ians/bengal-to-frame-wise-use-plan-for-east-kolkata-wetlands-117030400633_1.html (Business Standard, 4 March 2017)

EKW only hope for flood-prone Kolkata: Study In the same month, a SAFE-IWMI study pointed out that in a decade -from 2005 to 2015 -Kolkata has lost 53 per cent of its peri-urban wetlands and currently 86 per cent of the stretch of Adi Ganga flows below the average environmental flow volume. It also revealed that heavy siltation in peri-urban wetlands and land-use changes due to rapid urbanisation has decreased the flood-resilience efficacy of the wetlands by 65 per cent. Taking all these into account, the study found that about 17.3 % of population of the city was in high flood risk zone. Areas of wards 111-115 and 122-126 are very prone to inundation from sea level rise in southern Kolkata. With the given conditions, in the next five years, the city’s natural flood resilience system would succumb to a mere 48 hours of torrential rain and will flood the entire city with more than 2000 million litres of raw sewerage, which will stop flowing due to water logging. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/kolkata/east-kolkata-wetlands-only-hope-for-flood-prone-kolkata-study/articleshow/57472932.cms (The Times of India, 5 March 2017)

EKW continues to face hostile government plans In the same month, experts, activists, and environmentalist objected to civic authority proposal to develop a solid waste management site inside EKW. They also raised voices against the state government move to make changes in land use jeopardising the remarkable ecosystem. EKW was already under threat from real estate development and such anti wetlands plans may further damage it. There was also a move to legalise existing illegal activities in the wetlands. Environment department officials reiterated the need to modify the existing mandate of no land use in light of galloping urbanisation in the area. http://indiaclimatedialogue.net/2017/03/13/east-kolkata-wetlands-face-new-threats-government/ (India Climate Dialogue, 13 March 2017)

Why does the Ramsar official suggest that EKW boundary to be redrawn? In a strange move, Lew Young, Ramsar in March 2017, recommended redrawing of 12,500-hectare EKW map after a study of its ecology and socio-economic conditions. There were clear indications from the report that the area under the wetlands would shrink following the exercise.  As per the report, Lew Young had recommended a ‘wise use’ plan that would include, “a review of the map of the EKW site when it was designated in 2002 to estimate the actual area of wetlands at that time and to estimate the land-use changes since.”  https://www.hindustantimes.com/kolkata/east-kolkata-wetlands-boundary-likely-to-be-redrawn/story-3AKr9yh2LJaOIQ0SDNkSVO.html (Hindustan Times, 15 March 2017)

The East Kolkata Wetlands straddles two districts North 24 Parganas and South 24 Parganas.

The East Kolkata Wetlands straddles two districts North 24 Parganas and South 24 Parganas.(Ramsar)

Solar project on EKW threatened farmers Government approval was awaited on a proposal to set up a solar power harvesting centre on Dhapa, a part of the EKW. However, this proposal may run into hurdles as it involves change in land-use plan of the EKW eco-system. Vegetable farming has been undertaken here for decades and presently an estimated 40 per cent of the city’s vegetables come from these areas. The project also posed a threat on the livelihoods of thousands of vegetable growers depending on EKW. http://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/kolkata/kolkata-solar-project-under-shadow/article17532674.ece (The Hindu, 19 March 2017)

Another global recognization to EKW Meanwhile, the secretary-general of Ramsar Convention, Martha Rojas-Urrego recognised EKW among two of world’s most precious natural resources for waste water treatment and a desired model for optimum reuse of water to combat global water crisis. The recognition of EKW was significant as it has been facing existential threat. Indeed, the State Government needed to wake up to the priceless ecological and livelihood services availed free of cost by EKW and proactively take steps to protect its area. http://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/kolkata/kolkata-solar-project-under-shadow/article17532674.ece (The Times of India, 29 March 2017)

EKW: The wonder, threats and battle to preserve it In a elaborative report Hindustan Times, highlights the shrinking lake area due to mushrooming illegal constructions. Referring to a 2014 Indian Council for Social Science Research survey, the report revealed that over the years the fishponds had shrunk to 202 from 264; and water cover at Bhagabanpur Mouza fell from 88 per cent in 2002 to 19 per cent in 2016.

“Encroachments, however, are not the only threat. Siltation in the canals and fishponds has disrupted the basic hydrological functioning, coupled with drop in quantity of sewage the wetlands used to receive, has affected fish production, and the livelihood of the people involved in wastewater pisciculture, thereby threatening the water treatment system.” https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/east-kolkata-wetlands-the-wonder-threats-and-battle-to-preserve-it/story-EcdihvGXGSsm6gl45lhTHL.html (Hindustan Times, 6 April 2017)

Mayor planned to build flyover through EKW In May 2017, State Environment Minister and Mayor of Kolkata Sovan Chatterjee appeared to be keen on building a 6.5-km long flyover cutting through the heart of EKW, with 146 piers being planned in the ecologically fragile pocket. The flyover project, which was apparently quietly mooted a year-and-a-half ago, had reached an advanced stage with the alignment in place and detailed project report being prepared. Chatterjee who is also the chairman of the EKWMA had reportedly held a meeting on with senior state officials to discuss the hurdles faced by the plan. Before this, the minister had made a proposal to set up an amusement park at the Ramsar site. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/kolkata/mayor-wants-flyover-through-wetlands/articleshow/58723538.cms (The Times of India, 18 May 2017)

Can make new lake for flyover project: EKWMA Chairman Surprisingly, to take the flyover project forward, Sovan Chatterjee  on World Environment Day, June 5, has said that a 25-cottah lake could be dug up in the adjoining areas of the same mouza, to compensate for the loss of 10-12 cottahs for the flyover project. https://housing.com/news/bengal-environment-minister-assures-alternate-lake-construction-flyover-project/ (Housing.Com, 6 June 2017)

Flyover project on EKW cleared According to The Telegraph report, the EKWMA  in its July 14, meeting cleared the project. The minutes of the meeting read: “…after discussion chairman, chief secretary and other members of EKWMA decided that due to public interest involved the Authority approves the project in principle…. Environment safeguards need to be observed by the project implementing authority (and) compensatory water body equivalent to that affected by the project would be needed to be created”.

Rebutting the claim, Dhrubojyoti Ghosh, a member of the committee running the wetlands management authority and a wetlands expert, said there was “no unanimity” at the July 14 meeting on the flyover project.

A meeting of Sabuj Mancha, an association of civil society organisations. (Photo by Jayanta Basu)

A meeting of Sabuj Mancha, an association of civil society organisations. (Photo by Jayanta Basu)

As for the “public interest involved”, Ghosh, known  internationally as knowledgeable on wetlands, said: “Where is the public interest? Has there been any credible study which points out the urgent need to build the flyover filling up a number of major water bodies and affecting the livelihood of thousands, apart from triggering a ecological disaster.” Banani Kakkar of PUBLIC, a former member of the committee, said: “This clearance is unacceptable as the high court has barred construction within the EKW.” (The Telegraph, 30 July 2017, https://www.telegraphindia.com/1170731/jsp/calcutta/story_164755.jsp)

In first meeting, Minister clears several projects placing EKW under new threat Reviewing the EKW related development since Jan. 2017, The Third Pole report rightly highlighted that the EKW were facing threats from none other than the State Government as it has proposed numerous construction projects within the wetland area, and the state’s environment minister Sovan Chatterjee seems only too keen to push them through.

First in Feb. he took over the charge of Chairman EKWMA and its first meeting he made a series of decisions clearing several governmental projects “in principle”. The most contentious of them was the proposed flyover road through the core of the wetlands, connecting the E M Bypass with New Town. Two other projects — an ecotourism proposal named the EKW Park and a center to highlight local agriculture – were also approved conceptually, although detailed project reports are yet to be prepared.

According to sources, Chatterjee, who is also the mayor of the Kolkata Municipal Corporation, spoke in the meeting about the need to carve out part of the wetlands to accommodate the dumping of solid waste from Kolkata city; a demand he has been making in public since assuming office.

Wastewater is released into the Kolkata wetlands at the Bantala Lock Gate (Image by Soumya Sarkar)

Apart from these infrastructure projects, the West Bengal Housing Infrastructure Development Corporation (WBHIDCO) has started building at least two roads through the wetlands; one connecting Sector V with the newly created Sector VI at Bantala at the eastern fringe of the protected wetlands, and another off Sector V through a large water body. Apart from this, the illegal conversion of wetland areas by land mafias has also increased significantly over the last year, since the present govt assumed power. https://www.thethirdpole.net/2017/08/15/fresh-proposals-place-east-kolkata-wetlands-under-new-threat/ (The Third Pole, 15 August 2017)

PIL filed against flyover project in EKW In Sept. 2017, a PIL was filed in the Calcutta High Court (HC) pleading for an immediate halt to the flyover project over EKW, saying that the project will severely impact its ecology. As per Joydeep Kar, the HC appointed amicus curie on wetlands, the state govt or any other authority has to take prior permission of the HC for any activity on the wetlands. http://www.business-standard.com/article/pti-stories/pil-moves-against-flyover-project-in-east-kolkata-wetlands-117090801098_1.html (Business Standard, 7 Sept. 2017)

Flyover project sent to CWRA for approval, Govt informed HC During next hearing the Govt informed the HC that the flyover project had been sent to Central Wetland Regulatory Authority (CWRA) for approval thereby indicating that the project had already been passed by the EKWMA. The admission left green activists shocked as the EKWMA was set up to protect the wetlands instead of approving a project that threatens to alter its distinct character. Former members of EKWMA said any proposal had to first be ratified by the authority before being forwarded to Delhi for clearance.

Appearing for petitioner (NGO called PUBLIC), advocate Siddhartha Mitra argued that the EKWMA had no authority to give clearance to a project of this nature as Section 10 of the EKWMA Act allowed it to only sanction those projects which are good for its upkeep and benefits the local environment. Concluding the hearing the HC asked the Govt to file an affidavit by Oct. 30 and directed the petitioner to file its reply by Nov. 15 following which the next hearing was expected in last week of Nov. 2017 but there is no further information about the case.  https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/kolkata/green-activists-slam-nod-to-ekw-flyover/articleshow/60503184.cms (The Times of India, 14 Sept. 2017)

NGT orders demolition Sri Sri’s building on EKW In Oct 2017, NGT eastern zonal bench, asked the EKWMA to demolish a three-storied building belonging to spiritual guru Ravi Shankar’s organisation Vaidic Dharma Sansthan (VDS) within three months and also consider on imposing a penalty on the violator.

VDS in past, had ignored notices sent by EKWMA and built the structure since July-August 2015. Despite having powers, EKWMA did not demolish the illegal building, following which an NGO, PUBLIC filed a petition before the green tribunal in 2016.

During the course of the hearing at the NGT, VDS had filed a writ petition in the Calcutta High Court, which ordered EKWMA to give VDS a hearing. Following the hearing, the EKWMA concluded that the construction was raised on farmland, which is illegal, and was also done without permission from the EKWMA and civic authorities. On Oct 24, EKWMA said that the application of VDS had no merit. The next day, NGT issued the demolition order. http://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/ngt-orders-demolition-of-building-of-ravi-shankar-s-charitable-body-in-kolkata-wetlands/story-5frmmLP7ic5TRXYSMzYWwO.html (Hindustan Times, 27 Oct. 2017)

Another disastrous proposal from government In Dec 2017, State proposed lifting building and land conversion restrictions in a section of the 12,500 ha of EKW. The environmentalists felt that the move would kill the EKW and choke Kolkata.

A document prepared by the EKWMA under the department of environment wanted to divide EKW into four zones, the last of which was proposed to have no special regulation. Currently, conversion of wetland is banned and people who live on the EKW must seek govt permission even for building culverts or new farms. http://www.hindustantimes.com/kolkata/west-bengal-may-lift-building-limits-in-fragile-wetlands/story-8SHhaeNXHTPEsIOpKqlt9N.html (Hindustan Times, 13 Dec 2017)

A fishery pond, which locals are trying to save from land grabbers, in South 24 Paraganas district in Bengal.

A fishery pond, which locals are trying to save from land grabbers, in South 24 Paraganas district in Bengal.(Samir Jana/HT Photo)

Also see, Best of 2017: Realty chokes Kolkata wetlands In the year end review of EKW Soumya Sarkar writes that the unique ecosystem that serves as the mega city’s low-carbon waste disposal and sewage treatment network, is being rapidly filled up for an insatiable demand for real estate. http://indiaclimatedialogue.net/2017/12/23/realty-chokes-kolkata-wetlands-2/ (India Climate Dialogue, 23 Dec. 2017)

BIHAR WETLANDS DEVELOPMENTS 2017

Kanwar Lake suffering from Government negligence  The Kanwar Lake is a large floodplain wetland between the Gandak and the Kosi rivers in north Bihar. Spanning 67 sq. km, the wetlands offer many ecosystem services like recharging groundwater and buffering incoming floods. While the wetland is a designated bird sanctuary hosting several migratory water birds in the winters, it also sustains the livelihoods of thousands of farmers as well as fisher households. Despite its high socio-economic and ecological significance, it has received little attention in the regional and local development planning.  http://www.indiawaterportal.org/articles/some-floods-can-be-good-news  (India Water Portal, 2 Aug. 2017)

 

Wetland revival pays rich dividend This is an encouraging story of how a group of Mutlupur village farmers in Muzaffarpur district of Bihar turned a 87 acres of shunned wetland (locally known as chaur) productive by practicing fish farming, agro-forestry and horticulture thus providing employment and livelihood opportunities to impoverished villagers. https://www.thebetterindia.com/116185/mutlupur-farmers-transform-neglected-wetland-integrated-farming-bihar/ (The Better India, 21 Sept. 2017)

Gopalji Trivedi (right), former vice-chancellor of Rajendra Prasad Central Agricultural University at Pusa, convinced farmers in Mutlupur to use a barren wetland for agricultural purposes. (Photo by Mohd Imran Khan)

Gopalji Trivedi (right), former vice-chancellor of Rajendra Prasad Central Agricultural University at Pusa, convinced farmers in Mutlupur to use a barren wetland for agricultural purposes. (Photo by Mohd Imran Khan)

CHHATTISGARH WETLANDS DEVELOPMENTS 2017

Rs 250cr plan to build water bodies in forests As per the report, in Nov. 2017, the Forest Dept has given its nod for the Rs 250-crore plan to take up water conservation works on a large scale in forest areas. According to the plan, nearly 1,306 water conservation structures, including stop dams, canals, small ponds and waterholes, would be built in state’s forests under the jurisdiction of the forest management committees. The aim of the project is to reduce human-elephant conflict by providing water sources to the animals. At the same time, these water bodies will also act as a source of irrigation for farmers. http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/rs-250cr-plan-to-build-water-bodies-in-chhattisgarh-forests/1/1097185.html (India Today, 25 Nov. 2017)

Compiled by Bhim Singh Rawat (bhim.sandrp@gmail.com)

2 Comments on “East India Wetlands Review 2017: West Bengal Bent On Destroying World’s Largest Natural Sewage Treatment Plant

  1. Just a smiling visitor here to share the love (:, btw great style and design. “The price one pays for pursuing a profession, or calling, is an intimate knowledge of its ugly side.” by James Arthur Baldwin.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: