A garbage dump in Guwahati has become an unlikely favourite for ornithologists and nature lovers.

Swanky cars laden with tourists equipped with big lenses and binoculars step into the stench-laced dump to get one shot of the rather unusual resident birds—the Greater Adjutant storks.

While the garbage dump may have become a food source for these scavenging birds, fact is the Guwahati city has chosen to dump its waste in one of the most scenic and ecologically important wetlands.

And while the birds make the most of the free food, the dump is slowly choking this ancient water body. The wetland, Deepor Beel (Beel means wetland or a large aquatic body in Assamese), located to the south-west of Guwahati city, in Kamrup district of Assam, is a permanent freshwater lake.

Today, the entire city’s garbage is dumped on the edge of this prime habitat, which is supposed to be a haven for migratory birds, elephants and all forms of biodiversity.

Some of the large congregations of migratory birds in Assam were once found here during winter. Because of the richness of avian fauna, the Beel was selected as one of the Important Bird Area (IBA) sites by Birdlife International and designated a Ramsar Site (a wetland deemed to be of international importance) in 2002.

But a stinking garbage dump is only part of its problem.

Originally, the Beel had its natural linkages with the river Brahmaputra. Today, due to construction of residential buildings, NH-37 and a railway line, the main link has been disrupted. And that brings in problems of its own, not just for wildlife but the fishermen who live off the wetland.

Farmers allege that due to the link being broken, elephants that used to come down to the area to drink water are unable to and, therefore, end up using their fields, thus leading to crop damage.

Fishermen used to welcome the elephants as their presence would clear the wetland of vegetation that the elephants would forage on, thus increasing fish output. The presence of the elephants was thus always welcomed by the 1,200 odd fishermen’s families that live around the wetland. However the presence of the railway track has disrupted the elephants’ access from the nearby Rani reserve to the wetland.

Apart from illegal construction, the Deepor Beel has become heavily infested with water hyacinth, and other weeds perhaps due to the inflow of enormous quantity of the untreated Guwahati city sewage and other effluents from a nearby refinery

Recently, it was the National Green Tribunal, or NGT, that had to step in to save the wetland by restraining the Guwahati Metropolitan Development Authority (GMDA) and the Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) from dumping any waste in respect of the Municipal Solid Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2000, and the Wetland (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2010.

Sadly, on a recent visit, this columnist found that trucks were still quite active and continued to belch out the city’s waste on the Beel in spite of orders from the green court.

While the Assam government has brought in a legislation to protect and conserve Deepor Beel and, in 2008, declared a part of the area as a wildlife sanctuary, problems continue.

To make matters worse, the fishermen were stopped from fishing in the area. Such short-sighted measures only end up alienating the local people instead of giving them a stake in conserving the habitat.

What Deepor Beel needs is a strict prohibition of dumping of waste and effluents, a greater participation of the local fishermen in its conservation and a political mandate that recognizes the importance of such wetlands.

As the state goes to elections this month and for a state that has so proudly played host to a rich variety of biodiversity, one hopes that politicians will come forward to save this crucial water body of Guwahati city.

At a time when every city across India is facing a water crisis, saving our wetlands has become important not just for biodiversity but for the entire urban landscape.

Bahar Dutt is a conservation biologist and author of Green Wars: Dispatches from a Vanishing World.

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