Kolkata: When he started out, he was a lone warrior. By the time he died on Friday, aged 70, environmentalist Dhrubajyoti Ghosh had raised an army to carry on his fight for Kolkata’s endangered wetlands.
Only about six months ago, Ghosh had said the movement to save the wetlands must carry on if Kolkata didn’t want to become another Chennai. Though protected since 2002 under the Ramsar Convention as wetlands of international importance, the East Kolkata Wetlands aren’t safe and real estate developers are taking every opportunity to encroach.
Whereas in 2002 there were 264 recorded fishing lakes of around 12,500 hectares, the number had dwindled to 202 by 2014, Ghosh had said. Chennai had around 650 wetlands 20 years ago, but now has only 27, and the city is paying for destroying its marshes, he used to say.
But for Ghosh, Kolkata too might have gone the same way.
As an officer of the state government, he was asked to conduct an investigation into the East Kolkata Wetlands in the early 1980s. What he figured was a unique phenomenon, partly man-made and partly miraculous in character. The marshes acted as a natural wastewater treatment mechanism, which also supported substantive fish and vegetable cultivation.
Back in 1879, the area was given on a 20-year lease by the British to Bhabanath Sen, a zamindar who had established successful farms using garbage. The aim was to secure his help and expertise in managing the expanding city’s sewage in a productive manner.
Remains of a failed water treatment plant built by the British are still found in the area, which Sen converted into a unique ecosystem.
The wetlands currently support at least 20,000 families, according to “conservative estimates", said Dhruba Dasgupta, who has worked closely with Ghosh for years. Nutrient-rich water fed by Kolkata’s sewage yields at least 10,500 tonnes of fish a year, she said. The farm output, too, is abundant—estimated at around 150 tonnes a year.
On the one hand, the wetlands were a defence against floods in Kolkata, which is barely five metres above sea level. On the other, it is a source of livelihood for thousands of families. The East Kolkata Wetlands were the key to the city being “so affordable", Ghosh used to say, and his campaign for the preservation of the marshes was based on these two planks.
Still, only last year, Kolkata’s mayor Sovan Chatterjee had proposed to set up civic infrastructure within the wetlands without encroaching on fishing lakes. Among environmentalists, the move was widely seen as an attempt to regularize illegal encroachments. Ghosh quickly sprang to the forefront of the movement to neutralize Chatterjee’s plans to create man-made structures in the wetlands.
The marshes have received protection under the Ramsar Convention since 2002, but the state hasn’t still come up with a long-term plan for their management, said Dasgupta. Even with all the recognition that he received for his movement to save the marshes—Ghosh received the prestigious Luc Hoffman award in 2016—Ghosh’s attempts with successive governments to prepare a long-term plan for management didn’t yield any result.