Ballerinas of Najafgarh

Flamingos have found an unlikely habitat in a squalid Delhi ‘drain’

If you ask a farmer in South West Delhi’s Najafgarh where the ‘Najafgarh jheel’ is, chances are he will quizzically ask, “Kaunsi jheel (Which lake)? Aap naale ki baat kar rahen hain (Are you talking about the drain)?”

At first sight, the Najafgarh wetland looks forbidding. An impenetrable olive-green mat of water hyacinth, an invasive weed, envelops a portion of the water. You can almost taste the rancid water from its smell—the sour, lingering stench of sewage. Dusty, under-construction high-rise buildings peer down at the wetland, threatening to swallow it up. Electricity lines criss-cross the sky.

Images: Chinmoy Banerjee

And yet, there is a touch of the ethereal here. A dab of unreal pink. An estimated 2,000 greater flamingos came to Najafgarh this winter. Some have stayed on through spring and summer. Where these flamingos come from is unclear. Some ornithologists guess that they come from breeding sites in Gujarat; others say they may have migrated from Iran or Africa.

Greater flamingos can look like ballerinas standing on one leg—in fact they can hold this pose for hours; they even sleep and preen this way. Recently a paper revealed they can do so because their joints lock into place, and their knees don’t flex. They use their large hooked beaks to sift up microscopic food from the water. At Najafgarh, these birds are hard to miss, shining softly in the sun against a mosaic of fields flooded with the capital’s sewage. But if you train your eyes, it’s not just flamingos in the water. Other birds—ruffs, bar-headed geese, godwits, little stints and various kinds of ducks—can be seen at this wetland during winter too.

The wetlands conundrum

Why do these birds choose a dusty, semi-agrarian patch of land bullied by Haryana’s high-rises? The answers lie in history, as well as in a bit of the present. Before Najafgarh wetland was summarily dismissed as a ‘drain’, it was (and still is) a stormwater channel. Over the last few decades, it became a recipient of Delhi’s sewage and industrial waste. The beleaguered channel winds 50 kilometres through Delhi and Haryana, and forms a jheel or lake on the border of the two states. If not for the human waste, this piece of ecological history would have still been pristine.

Until this year, Haryana did not acknowledge Najafgarh jheel as a wetland. Wetlands in India are often caught between dream and desire—birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts dream of a habitat with lyrical reeds and flocks of wading migratory birds; planners desire wetlands for the land they envelop.

Among India’s kitty of environmental laws, the Wetland Rules of 2010 call for wetland protection; but the same Rules also state that only wetlands identified and notified by the State will be protected. It is perhaps no surprise that Najafgarh wetland, a refuge for birds though it is, is not notified as a wetland by the real-estate hungry Delhi or Haryana governments.

For years, a small but committed group of birdwatchers has been visiting Najafgarh to document its birds. This year, they found a particularly high number of flamingos. In the past few years, it also appears that flamingos have been choosing Najafgarh over Okhla, a bird sanctuary on the Yamuna between Delhi and Noida in Uttar Pradesh. While they look picture-postcard delicate, flamingos are resilient birds. Not only do they visit Delhi and Mumbai, two cities with some of the most polluted waters, they are largely able to adapt to these noisy cities.

Confusing jigsaw

For hundreds of flamingos flying to Delhi, the city must look like a confusing jigsaw, bifurcated by River Yamuna, tortured by land acquisition and pollution. Najafgarh jheel, however, has somehow endured. While government books may not commit to the protection—or even identification—of the lake as a wetland, for birds, this site is important.

Birders have counted more than 150 bird species here, and a half-day count during a recent bird race yielded 120 species—some of them migratory birds from Tibet and the Greater Himalayas. “Over 1,000 bar-headed geese come here to spend winters from the Tibetan plateau. Other wintering waterfowl, numbering several thousand, include the northern pintail, Eurasian wigeon, northern shovelers, common teal, ruddy shelduck, gadwall, common pochard and gargeney. Uncommon species seen here are the greater white-fronted goose, ferruginous pochard and common shelduck.”

“We observed flocks of over a 100 great white pelicans and large congregations of waders in the wet fields adjacent to the drain,” says Kanwar B. Singh, a Delhi-based birdwatcher.

Trees and fields around the wetland create a semi-agrarian wilderness. Black-naped hares bound across them; urn-shaped nests made by baya weavers hang from trees. Birds of the northern plains—quick-witted green bee-eaters, reptilian-looking black and glossy ibis forage in the fields; birds of prey—the oriental honey buzzard and black-shouldered kite hover above. Heronries—colonies where waterbirds breed—have formed here. The trees, the reeds, the soil and rain come together to filter and sieve away the worst of Delhi’s filth.

Najafgarh is not an idyll. But if spared the ravages of real estate, it can be so much more. And if you need evidence that this is indeed a wetland, it comes in the form of flamingos, in the migratory sojourns of birds crossing the Himalayas, and in the calls of birds and beasts that inhabit all year round.

First published in The Hindu.

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