Protecting the Commons

Delhi and its environs are a birder’s delight, and dismay as commons—or agricultural lands home to migratory birds—are under threat from real estate development


Red Crested Pochard ducks can be seen in one of the agricultural ponds surrounding the fields near the Yamuna Biodiversity Park, Delhi. Photo: iStockphoto
Red Crested Pochard ducks can be seen in one of the agricultural ponds surrounding the fields near the Yamuna Biodiversity Park, Delhi. Photo: iStockphoto

Yamuna Khadar is downstream from Wazirabad, not far from where the river enters Delhi. It’s a very different river than the one you see from ITO Bridge or Nizamuddin Bridge. To see the river, you go down Outer Ring Road, past the University and Timarpur, and turn off towards the Yamuna Biodiversity Park. Then you weave your way through the dusty bylanes of Jagatpur, just another one of those urban villages that dot Delhi, till you reach the fields bordering the river. Concrete roads cut across the fields of vegetables and mustard to the river, jutting like grey-brown fingers on green baize.

If you are lucky, and it is the right time of the year, you may see Red Crested Pochards, not inside the biodiversity park, but in one of the agricultural ponds surrounding the fields. The large diving duck that comes to India from Europe and central Asia is unmistakable. The males have a bright orange head and a striking red bill. The fields themselves are home to the Red Avadavat, a pretty red bird that belongs to the munia family, Scaly-Breasted Munia, weavers of various kinds, chiff-chaffs, warblers, and other common birds. Eurasian Marsh Harriers are common, Eurasian Hobbies not so (although you may see them). And in the winter months, the air is filled with Black- and Brown-Headed Gulls, and the occasional Pallas’s Gull.

The Red Avadavat, a pretty red bird that belongs to the munia family. Photo: iStockphoto
The Red Avadavat, a pretty red bird that belongs to the munia family. Photo: iStockphoto

Then the road (no matter which one you are on) ends abruptly, and you are at the river. On a typical day, you may find some people bathing here, others immersing ashes of the dead, and still others just hanging around. The bank is usually littered with garbage, plastic bottles, marigold garlands, shiny packs that one served as homes for chips or biscuits. Lapwings (you may spot two varieties usually, three if it is your day) and larks dot the banks. The water is unexpectedly clean (or at least looks clean). In the winter months it is filled with gulls and the kind of ducks you see in Delhi in those months—Northern Shovellers, Northern Pintails, Eurasian Wigeons, two or three kinds of pochards. One afternoon, I sat by the bank and watched dying sunlight leap off the russet brown bodies of a huge flock of Ruddy Shelducks. We (my son and wife were with me) ticked off around 60 species that day (many others have seen more)—not exactly a high number in Delhi where you can see 30 species in your garden.

Indeed, Delhi and its environs are a birder’s delight and dismay. One year, a bunch of us, in a convoy of seven cars, drove 90-100 km away to Dighal to see a rare Marbled Teal that had somehow strayed into India. The bird was in an agricultural pond, in the middle of a village. It wasn’t a particularly clean village; we had to watch our step. A Peregrine Falcon makes its home in a tall TV tower in West Delhi. It is seen there every year.

The Marbled Teal is rarely seen in India. Photo:
The Marbled Teal is rarely seen in India. Photo:

Most people associate birds with forests. At the least, they expect a green area earmarked as a sanctuary, or a water body surrounded by greenery, like Haryana’s Sultanpur National Park. Yet, there is better birding to be had in the fallow and cultivated fields and scrubland behind the park that birders call Sultanpur Flats. And in a place not too far away from Sultanpur, Basai, near what is touted as the region’s next hot real estate zone, developments adjoining the Dwarka Expressway.

There is even better birding to be had along a drainage canal in Najafgarh. The Aravalli Biodiversity Park, Basai, Sultanpur, Bhindawas, Dighal—all are probably hotspots in the Central Asian Flyway, a migratory path from Europe and Central Asia to the Indian peninsula that birds have been using for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. A few of the hotspots have become national parks. Many are privately owned agricultural land or commons.

Across India, the commons are under threat and the owners of agricultural land are selling their holdings thanks to the relentless development of our cities. In Basai, real estate developments have sprung up in fields once homes to thousands of waders and Bar-Headed and Greylag geese. The birds still come, flying over the Himalayas en route, although their numbers are dwindling. On the other side, in Uttar Pradesh, the huge lake near Beel Akbarpur in Dadri (Greater Noida), and the surrounding marshes that were once home to thousands of waders and ducks is gone, consumed by developments including a large Ansal project and a university funded by Shiv Nadar, an IT-billionaire-turned-philanthropist. In 2014, a birder photographed a Lesser Florican in the stub of grassland that remains behind the university. The bird, a bustard, is named in Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife Act—promising it absolute protection. To be sure, it could have been a vagrant. And to be sure, birds have shown far more resilience to the inexorable march of progress than many other species.

Migratory birds at the Sultanpur National Park in the outskirts of Delhi. Photo: HT
Migratory birds at the Sultanpur National Park in the outskirts of Delhi. Photo: HT

Not far from Dadri is Dhanauri Kalan, made famous by happenings in an adjacent hamlet Bhatta where farmers protested that they weren’t getting fair value for land being acquired by real estate developers. The commons here are home to the largest roost of Sarus Cranes near Delhi. I’ve seen up to 120-125 of them playing, dancing, and calling in unison. But Dhanauri was lucky. Thanks to the efforts of an environmentalist, Anand Arya, it was classified a wetland.

Many other commons are not as fortunate.

In India, no one really associates the commons with the “environment”, which is not surprising in a country where most people think removing weeds and scrubs from a plot and replacing them with Australian grass is actually good for the environment.

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