The Basai wetland, an immensely popular area for migratory and common birds in Gurugram, near Delhi, is under threat. For, it has been chosen as the site for a waste-processing plant, which will not only eat into the already reduced wetland area of Basai but also disturb the fragile ecosystem.

The wetland, adjacent to Basai village, is a swathe of marshy swampland dotted with submerged and floating vegetation of tall grass and reed beds. Surrounded by agricultural fields, the water levels fluctuate every season, making the wet meadows home to a variety of fish, frogs, turtles, and other insects and aquatic life forms. Most importantly, however, the wetland is a rich oasis for avian life—attracting and hosting thousands of migratory guests from as far as Europe and Siberia. Migratory eagles, harriers, cranes, songbirds, ducks and geese, waders like sandpipers, godwits, stints, snipes and plovers mingle with local birds like herons, storks, egrets, flamingos, ibises and spoonbills.

Birds of different sizes, colours and plumes in the Basai wetland have been drawing birdwatchers from the Capital and its surrounding areas for almost two decades. Some rare birds like the water rail, spotted crake, grey-headed lapwing, red-throated pipit, water pipit, bimaculated lark and smoky warbler make this place their home while escaping the harsh season of their native land.

Throughout the year, especially on weekend mornings, you can spot people waiting patiently for a glimpse of rare species, or just gazing at the avian biodiversity.

The Basai wetland was “discovered" as a birdwatching destination in 2001 when ornithologist and author Bill Harvey made a pit stop by the Basai railway track, en route to the Sultanpur National Park for a morning round of birdwatching. Harvey’s tale of this “excellent damp and flooded grassland full of bar-headed geese, ibises, spoonbills, herons, egrets, lots of ducks and waders, eagles…" spread and bands of birders soon began landing at this spot. This nondescript village with rice and mustard fields transformed into a rich birding spot and a green getaway for fatigued city dwellers. A 2001 field report of the Delhi Bird Club mentions that the Basai wetland covered an area bigger than Sultanpur jheel, a landmark bird sanctuary a few kilometres further down the Gurugram-Sultanpur road.

In 2004, the Basai wetland was marked as an “Important Bird Area" by Birdlife International, a global conservation non-governmental organization, giving it the status of important habitat for conservation of bird population.

Current statistics record 284 bird species in the wetland (which is equal to around 23% of bird species recorded in India and 60% of species seen in the National Capital Region), according to Ebird.org.

State authorities, however, seem to be oblivious to the importance of the Basai wetland. In May, the municipal corporation of Gurugram started the construction of a waste-processing plant on these wetlands. This was met with outrage from bird lovers. The move was seen as a death knell for the birding ecosystem, especially given that the Dadri wetland in Greater Noida, near Delhi, had already been taken over for the development of townships.

Even the Supreme Court questioned the Central government about whether “if it was at all serious in conserving wetland ecosystems across the country".

Wetlands are primarily a mix of government, private and community land, so their status when it comes to protection and preservation is rarely clear. In the case of Basai, the village has already seen the ugly side of development—the rural charm of paddy, wheat, millet and mustard fields replaced by intimidating housing plots, water bodies reduced by drainage, the Dwarka Expressway and a flyover over the railway crossing.

Die-hard birders approached the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in June to salvage what little is left of the watershed. Calling it “short-sightedness of the municipal corporation, the petition says, “though we are not against the recycling plant, it’s sad that the Municipal Corporation of Gurugram has chosen a wetland for this project. The MCG claims that it is just a piece of barren land where few birds occasionally come and there would be no loss of flora or fauna by setting up the recycling plant there." The NGT heard the case on 10 January and lifted the stay on construction.

It is common knowledge that urbanization is taking a toll on wetlands. But why are they so vulnerable? To some, a wetland is still a wet damp place, a breeding ground for mosquitoes and other insects, a veritable swamp for vector-borne diseases.

Further, as demand for land takes precedence, all scientific knowledge, the goods and services provided by wetland ecosystems, is brushed aside. It’s estimated that India has already lost a third of its wetlands, and others—like Basai—are under severe stress.

Experts say the new set of Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, notified in September, are a watered-down version of the 2010 rules. The 2017 rules were introduced after the Supreme Court reprimanded the Central government for not doing enough to protect or conserve ecologically important wetlands.

A part of the blame also goes to scientists for failure to disseminate information on the specificity of wetland ecology. In the case of Basai, the birdwatchers could have drawn public and policy attention to the wetland when it was declared an important bird area in 2004. In 2012, when the master plan for development around Basai was drawn up by the government, these same birders could have intervened to protect the area from aggressive expansion.

Today, the rain- and sewage-fed Basai wetland is still a magnet for numerous bird species. Construction work on the waste plant has been stopped since July, when the NGT’s stay order was passed.

A few hours of birding can still notch up to 70-100 species. On a winter morning, the cackle of migratory greylag goose is a reminder of the transience of the wetland, where construction will have commenced before the next migratory season. The fog blinds us as we trudge through the narrow path by the wetland; the birdsong boosts our morale.

Where will Delhi birders go now that this too is lost?

Out In The Wild is a column on the good, bad and ugly of nature conservation.

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