Kolkata and its unending supply of legendary fresh fish-did you ever imagine this had any connection with the sewage generated by this overcrowded city? Well, its true – Kolkata has the world’s largest collection of fish farms fed by sewage water! Large areas of vegetables are grown on garbage and paddy fields are irrigated by sewage effluent.
All this at the East Kolkata wetlands at the edge of the city – a place few people, even Kolkatans, have bothered to visit.
When I first heard about it, my reaction was, “Oh, must be a mucky, smelly swampy place.” When I actually went deep into the wetlands, walking along the bunds, guided by Bonanidi who has been here hundreds of times and fought a case for it back in 1992, it simply took my breath away.
You have to see it to believe it. And it didn’t look dirty at all. A network of small square cut ponds, edged with water hyacinth, paddy fields soaked in water, all interspersed by bunds, little bamboo bridges, tree-lined canals. You forget you were just half an hour ago in a big bustling city like Kolkata.
I felt humbled, but I was truly humbled when I saw people – yes human beings – living in an intricate relationship with these wetlands as if their life depended on it. It is their forefathers who helped build the wetland as it is today and has been nourished from generation to generation.
The region is part of the mature delta of the River Ganga and the wetlands are the interdistributory marshes in the delta.
The streams which were once active became inactive after the shifting of the main river and consequent loss of headwaters from the Hoogly. The tidal action of the Bay of Bengal earlier caused salinity and tides in these lake areas.
The earliest known accounts of these Salt Lakes go back to the year 1748 when it was a vast area, teeming with fish and birds and extending right up to a mound known as Dumduma, near which Burmese and Mug traders arriving in boats used to anchor.
The East Kolkata Wetlands as it is known today comprise nearly 115 sq km. Using the purification capacity of wetlands, Kolkata has pioneered a system of waste disposal that is both efficient and environment friendly, at no extra cost. The cost of setting up a sewage treatment plant today would be about Rs 400 crore and require Rs 1,000 crore in yearly maintenance.
Kolkata, the second largest Indian city containing 14 million people generates roughly 680 million litres of sewage. One-third of the city’s sewage and most of its garbage is converted into 20 tonnes of fish and 50 tonnes of vegetables.
This provides for about 60 g of fish and 300 g of vegetables daily for about 5 lakh people.The wetland foliage has spongy roots that can accumulate heavy metals in their tissues at 100,000 times the concentration in the surrounding water and also house nurseries of fish among them.
Eichhornia crassipes or water hyacinth found here, is known as the Jekyll and Hyde of the wetland world because though it helps remove toxic materials in some wetlands it is often a costly adversary in others because of its phenomenal growth. In the East Kolkata Wetlands, the fishermen prevent the hyacinth that edges their bheris (The fishermen use gates to direct the foul smelling sewage into their tiny shallow water fishponds called bheris) from clogging the ponds by ingeniously and simply holding them back with bamboo fences.
Rare mammals like the Indian marsh mongoose, small Indian mongoose , palm civet, and small Indian civet are found in and around the area. Threatened reptiles like the Indian mud turtle are found. Birdwatchers regularly come to watch the local as well as migratory birds that visit the wetlands. More than 40 species including coot, grebe, darter, shag, teals, cormorant, egrets, gulls, jacanas, snipes, tern, eagle, sandpiper, rails and kingfishers are seen here.
One-fourth of Kolkata’s total requirement of vegetables reach the city with minimum cost of transport. Fish reach the stalls straight from the auction market – there is no expense on cold storage or fish feed, Yet Kolkatans are ready to pay a good price because they can see how fresh it is.
Not many city dwellers realise that these wetlands are the lungs and kidneys of Kolkata. Over the years, people have been eyeing this area as free space – whether for building an eye hospital or as a place for old cows and goats!
They even wanted to build a World Trade Centre in the middle of the wetland! In 1992, the Kolkata High Court designated 12,500 ha of the wetland as a conservation area, after the judge himself visited the area. Like I said, seeing is believing!
The court order prevents changes in landuse. Yet developers encroach on its edges and development speculation never ceases to dog the area, with an active promoter-real-estate-developer lobby waiting in the wings.
Now Dipayan Dey, environmentalist and LEAD India finalist, through the Indian chapter of the NGO SAFE is working on a project that aims to restore to restore and develop the East Kolkata Wetlands so that this precious habitat remains intact and also help sustain the communities that depend on it.
Keeping in mind that the beauty of the wetlands attracts many tourists who come for bird watching, boating, picnicking and photography, with the help of the local community, they have put together thatched huts, which are rented out to visitors. Women of the fishing communities have been trained in hospitality and catering and the families will provide these services to eco-tourists for a reasonable charge. In this way the ecosystem is taken care of while also sustaining the community.
This area is internationally recognised as the only Ramsar entry from India for wetland wise use and the only one that is by the side of a city. The people of the wetlands do not care about all this, they only want to be allowed to coexist with nature. Though Kolkata may not be aware of its lungs and kidneys, for these people, it is their very life.