Kolkata: The city’s first line of defence against industrial waste that finds its way into the Hoogly is, curiously enough, a group of fishermen that not only treats the water, but uses it to rear fish.
By doing this, the Mudialy Fisherman’s Co-operative Society Ltd (MFCS) manages to do its bit for the environment in the areas surrounding one of Kolkata’s dense industrial regions—the Taratala, Budge Budge, Garden Reach area in the city’s south-west—and, at the same time, help its members earn a living.
Dirt disposal: The main source of waste water into the nature park run by the Mudialy Fishermen’s Co-operative Society. (Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/ Mint)
Every day, tonnes of untreated industrial waste from the industrial belt pours into an inlet pond at the waste water fishery. The water passes from this, and through settling ponds—essentially ponds where the water can be still for some time so that solid waste settles to the bottom—to, in succession, eight so-called anaerobic tanks.
“Here, the water is treated using biochemicals such as lime,” says Ashok Patra, one of the directors of MFCS. “We also make extensive use of hyacinth (a plant), which is great at absorbing oil, grease and heavy metals,” he says.
The water moves from tank to tank through hyacinth-filled canals; each tank is also used to rear fish such as singi and magur that can withstand the pollutants. The water becomes cleaner with every tank and the output, comparatively clean water, is released into the Monikhal canal that flows into the Hoogly.
“Our parents and grandparents, all fishermen, came here from Howrah district in the 1930s after they were displaced when the Damodar river dried up,” says Patra; he claims that this was caused by severe drought and a change in the course of the river.
Then, the erstwhile Calcutta port commissioners auctioned rights to rear fish in the area where the fishery currently stands. In 1956, some fishermen got together, collected Rs26,000 and won a three-year lease as a group. Five years later, they formed the cooperative and won the rights to carry out fishing in the port commissioners’ lakes.
According to Patra, in the 1960s and 1970s, the waterlogged wasteland choked with hyacinth was used for dumping garbage.
And until 1985, pisciculture continued in isolated pockets here interspersed with mounds of garbage.
“That year, in 1985, with the Calcutta Port Trust’s permission, we reclaimed the entire derelict water area and made it fit for pisciculture,” says Ganesh Bag, the chairman of the cooperative. “We got financial assistance from the Fish Farmers’ Development Agency under the World Bank-aided inland fisheries project,” Bag adds.
The canal that purifies water organically using biochemicals and hyacinth. (Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/ Mint)
The money helped the co-operative build embankments and much of the other infrastructure (including the tanks) that stands today.
According to Madhumita Mukherjee, deputy director at the state fisheries department, which has been actively involved in promoting the Mudialy model, the waste water treatment and fish rearing initiative of the cooperative “has been replicated in other parts of Calcutta as well, but not in toto”. She cites the examples of the fish farms in the East Calcutta Wetlands area, where domestic sewage from the city is treated.
Hyacinth is a saprophytea plant that grows on and derives nutrition from dead and decaying organic matter. “In this way, we are treating an average of 25 million litres of waste water biologically and using it to farm fish, before releasing it into the Hooghly,” says Patra.
In 2006-07, the cooperative sold fish worth Rs60 lakh.
Apart from the fishery, the cooperative also runs a nature park in the area and lets in visitors for a nominal fee of Rs10. In a city starved of open spaces and greenery, MFCS’ nature park has been a runaway success.
Apart from the 34 varieties of fish that inhabit the MFCS waters, the park is now also home to 127 varieties of trees. “Over 119 varieties of birds have been spotted here, especially during winter,” says Patra, pointing to a few cormorants, perched on concrete piers jutting out of one of the lakes.
The cooperative’s activities aren’t just restricted to the environment or pisciculture, though 90% of its revenues comes from the sale of fish. “We also run an anganwadi (a kind of creche or day care centre) school under the integrated child development scheme and have a fair price store,” says Bag.
Close to 300 families depend on the co-operative for their livelihood.
“Depending on their skills and the duration of membership of the society, the wages vary from Rs50-110 per day,” says Patra.
The society also provides medical aid, educational loans, old-age pension and housing loans to its members.
However, MFCS is now locked in a legal battle with the port trust over control of the area. The Calcutta Port Trust can exercise its right to take back any part of the wetlands for development, Patra claims.
The port body retained this right when it licensed out the land to MFCS and is now trying to reclaim some land, he adds. The chairman of the Kolkata Port Trust was unavailable for comment despite several efforts to reach him.
“They (the port trust) wanted to evict us and begin construction activity in the area,” claims Patra. “They also wanted a year-by-year lease and a hefty increase in the licence fee with every extension.”
Recycled ride: People enjoy boating inside the nature park. (Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/ Mint)
This prompted a non-governmental organization, Citizens’ Forum, to approach the Calcutta high court, which granted an injunction in 1992.
However, even with all the efforts to keep the water clean, there are bad days. On a recent visit, scores of dead fish floated belly up in the inlet pond at the industrial waste water fishery complex.
“We keep particularly hardy and resistant fish here” to cope with the effluents, says Patra.
“However, a few days ago, a public sector factory released some effluents that were so toxic that even these fish died,” he adds.
As if on cue, a huge drainpipe disgorges a fresh load of foul-smelling liquid into the pond, sending a sow and her piglets scurrying for cover.