Tag Archives: wetland

Stork beak locked in plastic- and we are to blame.

A rescue team near Gurgaon is looking for an unusual subject – a black-necked stork unable to open its mouth, as it has a plastic ring around its beak.

Images of wildlife with plastic fatally stuck to them are becoming increasingly common. There are marine turtles with plastic rings around their neck, there are albatross chicks dying with bellies chock-full of plastic, there are whales and elephants dying agonisingly with plastic bags in them.

The bird is unable to open its mouth because of the ring. The bird is unable to open its mouth because of the plastic ring. Photo: Manoj Nair

Who would write obituaries for these ancient races filled with symbols of the modern age? The wildlife die unloved, unmourned, detected on coastlines and forest areas, in various stages of decomposition — and only if someone finds them. Most importantly, they die because of us.

Many of these animals are found in remote locations — islands, tiger reserves and coastlines and thus, it doesn’t seem like our problem. At least two things in the case of the stork show us this is our problem.

Firstly, Basai Important Bird Area (IBA) is in our backyard — Gurgaon — and shows the devastating impacts of plastic waste. Ironically, we are in the middle of a Clean India movement, and on World Environment Day on June 5, PM Modi called for an end to single-use plastic.

Secondly, this incident proves just how badly our natural areas are treated. Wetlands become wastelands, and rivers become sewage drains. I wrote earlier how some of Delhi’s biodiverse wetlands, Basaiand Najafgarh, are under imminent threat.

A construction and demolition waste plant is coming up next to Basai wetland, something the Delhi Bird Foundation has been fighting against in the National Green Tribunal. Not only does Haryana not recognise Basai as a wetland, making a waste plant near this wetland is likely to have terrible impacts on the biodiversity – such as debris, further water pollution, wetland dumping and filling.

marine turtles with plastic rings around their neck, or their nose. Photo: Reuters/FileMarine turtles have been found with plastic rings around their neck, or their nose. Photo: Reuters/File

The stork with its beak encased in a plastic ring is just an early sign of what litter and pollution tragedies take place when waste is dumped in wetlands and wildernesses.

Birders from NCR and the Haryana forest department have been trying to rescue the stork, which is doomed to die without intervention. “The bird was spotted today but could not be caught. There is a huge mountain of plastic bottles dumped next to the wetland,” says naturalist and birdwatcher Abhishek Gulshan. Till June 11, a team comprising conservationist Rakesh Ahlawat and the Haryana forest department were still looking for the bird.

Meanwhile, the Municipal Commission of Gurgaon has asked the company that dumped the bottles to immediately clear the area.

The problem of haphazard and harmful municipal waste dumping and management in NCR though, is far from over. Plans to make a landfill site on the Yamuna river plain, near Sonia Vihar, are afoot.

This could be yet another way of ensuring plastic and leachates reach our gravely imperilled Yamuna river. The problem is the colonial mentality—which saw wetlands (which did not earn revenue) as “wastelands”. Dumping in wetlands also dries up the area, leading to encroachment.

Plastic is killing our rivers. Photo: PTI/filePlastic is killing our rivers. Photo: PTI/file

“Wetlands are not wastelands awaiting “development”. Dumping of municipal solid waste and debris has been the most insidious way of reclaiming the wetlands by vested interests. Plastic is the latest despoiler. The sad plight of the stork is a tight slap on the face of civilised humans. If only the stork too could poke our faces!” says Manoj Misra, convener of the Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan, and petitioner in several cases for river and wetland rejuvenation.

Less than a week ago, PM Modi had said on World Environment Day: “The choices that we make today will define our collective future. The choices may not be easy. But through awareness, technology, and a genuine global partnership, I am sure we can make the right choices. Let us all join together to beat plastic pollution and make this planet a better place to live.”

What is a municipality for if it cannot systematically deal with our waste? Photo: PTIWhat is a municipality for if it cannot systematically deal with our waste? Photo: PTI

One of the ways to do this is to cut down on plastic trash by not using plastic bags (the kind you’d find in a whale or elephant’s stomach), plastic can holders (whose rings you may find around a bird, dolphin or turtle’s neck or mouth), and plastic straws (found recently inside the nose of vulnerable Olive Ridley turtles), to name a few.

That’s on the individual level.

On the collective level, we have to make our waste — and how it is dealt with — an election issue. No more can our waste go into “wastelands”, “behind the colony”, “in that pond” or “next to that river”. These are not places for our waste. The idea is not just to get waste collected from our doorsteps but to ensure they don’t poison our last wild places and to place accountability for these urgent public health issues. What is a municipality for if it cannot systematically deal with our waste?

Poisoning our last wildernesses — which have their own range of ecosystem services — would be like putting a plastic bag over our heads as we roam about in NCR’s critically polluted “air”.

Meanwhile, a stork awaits its fate — metaphorically holding its breath, without opening its mouth.

This first appeared in my column for DailyO, here
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Its Migratory bird season – and here is where you can find some birds!

For Delhi: Basai, Najafgarh and Mangar. And read on also to know why these places are under threat.

There is a sense of oldness in natural places.

The earth before you will have evidence of being freshly trodden- the many-grooved footprints of birdwatchers in their field shoes, tracks of Nilgai, three-cleaved marks left by hopping birds. The marks may be new, the smell of fresh animal droppings stinging the air. But the place itself feels both new and old; new because you see something unseen each time, old because there is something primeval about natural spaces. These are places shaped not by the human hand, but by sun, wind, water, birds and animals.

If you’re standing under trees in Aravalli’s Mangar forest, the leaves dapple the sunlight, leaving chequered shadows on the ground and on your face. The colour of the light, and so your immediate world, may become a greenish yellow, sieved through the leaves; on the ground, shadows shift as the leaves move, creating a kaleidoscopic effect. If there are Nilgai nearby, say in the Delhi Ridge, you may be standing on a path made by them. If you are in a wetland – like Basai or Najafgarh, the levels of the water are different in different seasons, and the land around the water shifts accordingly. You could be a completely bone-dry spot that becomes aquatic at other times. Water shapes the place, migratory birds mould its character. The oldest things on earth — birds that are actually living dinosaurs, water that whips terra firma — create the place.

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When Delhi talks about being an “old” city, we mostly refer to fifteenth-century monuments and tombs, the sun warming their stone on winter afternoons. We think of Old Delhi’s ancient bazaars – still selling spices and silver, flanked by solid wrought iron pillars which have seen the times of kings. We think of the feeling of Delhi, an old capital, a centre of power, the sense of government flags, corridor whispers, red beacons, which are hints in the air — power was and is here. But very few think of Delhi as an old city through its natural spaces.

Maybe that’s why Delhi-NCR’s spectacular natural spaces are under threat.

We are at a remarkable moment in the story of the city – citizens are fighting, under duress, to preserve Delhi’s history, for its future. Of the many struggles going on in the city — to preserve avenue trees, to save the trees at the iconic Pragati Maidan from getting axed for redevelopment, and to conserve lakes, three stand out in scale.

One is the pitched battle to save parts of the world’s oldest mountain range, the Aravallis. It may not be enough to say that these hills and ridges are ancient geological heritage; it may not even be enough to say the Aravallis act as a safety net for Delhi, protecting it from complete desertification from the Thar. Clearly, these arguments are not enough for developers and a determined state government bent towards hacking away Aravalli’s trees, levelling the ridges, and to sell green-view apartments, which certainly won’t have a “green” view for long.

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A concerned citizen has moved the National Green Tribunal against the cutting of more than 6,000 trees in the Aravallis in Faridabad. While the Haryana forest department says all of the Aravallis are deemed forest, trees were cut all the same. Not only does this fly in the face of environmental concerns, it is a denial of the fact that the Aravallis too — and not just apartments — are part of cultural and lived heritage for Delhi, Faridabad and Gurgaon. Delhi’s Paharganj, derived from “Pahar” or hill, is named such as it was a hilly area, and today the Delhi Ridge (named as the area undulates with Aravalli hills, ridges and streams) is a forest that gives lungs to the gasping city.

Another chapter of forgotten history, lost through tomes of city master plans, is Delhi and Haryana’s Sahibi river. “Cartographic assassination” is what rivers and wetlands face, as they get described in public record and maps, says urban ecology and planning expert Manu Bhatnagar. What was once Sahibi river has today become Najafgarh naala. In this naala too, Delhi and Haryana show reluctance to recognise the old Najafgarh jheel, which hosts flamingos, and migratory birds from Tibet and other high altitude regions.

The area also has what is considered one of the biggest heronries in North India – more than 200 birds have created communal nests in a clump of trees. Heronries are classic features next to wetlands, reminiscent of the sight of squawking chicks-in-a-row at heronies in the world heritage site, Bharatpur. Indian National Trust for Art and Heritage (INTACH) had filed a case in the NGT for the conservation of Najafgarh jheel, though the lake is yet to be officially protected. Birdwatchers and citizens have been rallying for the conservation of the area for years, even as flats in Gurgaon inch closer to the wetland, and have swallowed its basin.

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Finally, there is Basai. It is known in bird watching circles as Delhi-NCR’s finest wetland. It lies unassumingly in a corner of Gurgaon, shoved uncomfortably close to construction sites. This incredible site, hosting nearly 300 species, designated an “Important Bird Area” due to its avian wealth, is created by sewage water. But ecosystem processes sieve and save the water, creating not a filthy cesspool but a resounding arena of life. This is one of those rare places where you will find both the migratory goose in the water and the resident eagle in the sky; where you have a wet grassland merging into a wetland, creating a green-and-blue, grass-and-water mosaic one normally sees in far more “remote” or “wild” spaces.

In less remote, urban spaces, which ironically jostle for both breath and water, wetlands often turn to wastelands, quite literally so. The Delhi Bird Foundation, helmed by avid birdwatchers, has approached the NGT against waste going into the wetland –a construction and demolition waste plant is coming up next to Basai wetlands. Fifteen-year-old birdwatcher and Delhi resident Maitreya Sukumar explains why: “It is a wetland home to many birds. It is a thriving ecosystem. It gets rare birds each year and should definitely be preserved,” he says. Maitreya’s mother is one of the petitioners in the case.

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All over the world, natural spaces in crowded cities are cherished as islands of succour. These are not just points, but “places”, which hold deep meaning for those who visit, an ongoing relationship of belonging between person and place. These places carry a sense of being old, timeless, and un-changing in the surrounding echelons of chaos and noise. New York’s Central Park is not famous because it is a park, but because it is in one of the world’s busiest, fastest-paced cities; the park itself is maintained more as a wilderness than a fully manicured area. The Nara Park in Japan holds several deer; the deer come out and stroll through the city of Nara, walking between people, an unsaid conversation between hooves and heels.

Closer home, Sikkim has recently passed a unique legislation to increase fraternal bonds and personal relationships with trees, allowing a person to adopt a tree as a child: the Sikkim Forest Tree (Amity and Reverence) Rules 2017.

Delhi’s own amity does not lie only in its buildings. Delhi’s geological and ecological history has shaped the names of its places, the quality of local life, and resilience — an ancient story of Nature’s survival in a harsh, polarised environment and environs.

It would be imperative for India’s national capital to not forget where it came from.

This piece first appeared here.

Wet/Land

Land or wetland?

A waste of land?

A look at our curious bipolarity towards wetlands, which teem with life but are valued more as land than waterbody.

This piece appeared in February this year, since then the National Green Tribunal has called for the re-establishment of the National Wetland Regulation Authority.

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(Photo: foggy morning in Yamuna Biodiversity Park, Delhi)

On February 2, the world celebrated the International Wetlands Day. This is fitting particularly for India, where wetlands have always been celebrated and used in some form. We rejoice when it rains, have built our cities next to rivers, and have created acres and acres of paddy fields, all joining up into a living, ethnographic entity.

It is also fitting then that it took years of hard work to create a legislation for the diverse array of wetlands that India possesses, but tragically, this is mostly on paper. Taking note of this, the National Green Tribunal recently sent a notice to the states asking for action taken to protect wetlands.

Our legislation maps out the various corporeal forms of wetlands, and importantly, also the natural forms in which they do not resemble wetlands. The Wetland Rules, 2010, say that wetlands are an area of marsh, fen, peatland or water, natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish or salt, including areas of marine water (with depth of six metres or less), which includes all inland waters such as lakes, reservoirs, tanks, backwaters, lagoons, creeks, estuaries and man-made wetlands along with the wetlands’ zone of influence.

Thus, wetlands are waterbodies endowed by nature, or made by us; many wetlands are ecologically water bodies even if they are seasonally dry.

Further, the Wetland Rules set down governance which mandate that wetlands fulfilling ecological parameters need appropriate protection. Yet, despite this legislative definition which considers both ecological and social dimensions, the Wetland Rules have not been implemented.

Consider this: the Wetland Rules mandated the creation of a Central Wetlands Regulatory Authority (CWRA) which will oversee issues related to wetlands identified for protection. Not only have most states not fully identified wetlands for protection, but the CWRA has been defunct since 2012.

At the primary level, this creates a huge gap in the protection matrix for wetlands. Wetlands, as habitats for biodiversity and repositories of ecosystem services, do not get adequate protection unless they are already in protected areas. At the secondary level, this creates conflict in land uses. The Wetland Atlas says there are 1,88,470 natural and manmade wetlands in India. But several times, they are seen as ‘land’ rather than ‘wet’ and annexed for terrestrial purposes.

There is a lot of finger-pointing on the 2015 Chennai floods. But there is a consensus that the floods were exacerbated (if not caused) by building over wetlands and swamps. The fact that wetlands are not considered in planning exercises has led to losses in billions of dollars, and psychological trauma for all those who were flood-affected. ‘Zones of influence’ of wetlands were not protected in Chennai: notably the catchments and water sheds of the Adyar river. While wetlands comprise waterbodies, the zone of influence of the wetland includes run-offs, areas which are swampy (thus turning dry in non-monsoon or summer season), sources of water bodies, drainage outlets et cetera.

If the zone of influence of the wetland is encroached, then the wetland often ceases to exist. With rapid real estate development in National Capital Region, Bhadkal, Damdam and Surajkund, lakes have had their zones of influence gobbled up. A result today is that these lakes have shrivelled up, and for all purposes behave more like land than wetlands. This is likely to further impact the rather desertified, dry Aravali stretch and Haryana’s low water table.

Given the Chennai and the Srinagar floods, are we going to break down the roads, houses and flyovers that we have built over canals, swamps and drainage streams to stop the floods of tomorrow? While the past cannot be undone, surely the future can be better.

If you look at satellite maps of the Great Northern Plains of India, you will see strings of wetlands and wetland complexes, like beads on a necklace. This is the North Plain, where much of our food is produced. Attracted to wetlands, and wetland complexes, each year, tens of thousands of water birds, ducks, cranes and others sweep down on them.

‘Barren land’ for housing

Look at the same bodies in peak summer, and these wetlands are dismissed as “barren land” or wasteland. These are then earmarked for quick housing all over the country (the Commonwealth Games village complex on Delhi’s Yamuna river bed, and Bengaluru’s numerous lake-sides) for compensatory afforestation schemes, and for non-wetland purposes.

Wetland governance needs to involve the community, because of the very manner in which wetlands are being used today. In Srinagar’s Dal Lake — which incidentally, has been built over, shrinking from over 75 square km to about 18 sq km, important stakeholders are traditional horticulturalists and vegetable growers.

In a meeting and site visit there last year, I was told that ‘organic’ flowers and produce — cultivated over generations with no fertiliser or chemical input — are no longer so organic. This is because the lake is so choked with sewage that the bounty is no longer clean. Much of the wetland’s zone of influence is encroached, even as sewage is continuously going in.

Both the Wetland Rules and the International Ramsar Convention say that wetlands which are ‘of outstanding natural beauty’ are to be protected. Unfortunately, many would have us believe that this is a whimsical condition divorced from reality.

Wetlands are not lands waiting to be colonised. Perhaps, real estate and ‘development’ plans would prefer it more if wetlands could float in the sky like rainclouds, thus giving a clear field for colonisation of ‘land’.

We do not need more floods to recognise the ecological and ecosystem services that wetlands provide. What we do need is zonation that clearly sets aside drainage systems and zones of influence in town and city planning. In the case of wetlands, the cost of policy inaction would create a thirst that no engineering would be able to replace.

This first appeared in The Deccan Herald 

 

 

On World Wildlife Day, One Wish.

It’s World Wildlife Day today.

Many of my readers ask me, what is my favourite animal, or species?

There’s never an easy answer to that question, but this World Wildlife Day, I have a wish.

Not only for the most endangered and imperiled species. But for the most common ones.

Let’s keep our common species common.

When I was growing up, the little House Sparrow was a constant companion. It loved nesting just above our ceiling fans, or behind paintings. It didn’t mind the people in the family, at all. Slowly, the House Sparrow started disappearing.

And there are other birds, once ubiquitious, which are slowly fading. The Munia is one of them.

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A little Munia, on a little branch. Unbearable brightness of being! Photo by Amitabha Bhattacharya.

The Munia is poached and traded for the wild bird trade (more on that here). Living off grassy areas with low bushes, various sorts of Munias are also under threat from habitat loss. Their hard-grassy habitat does not look impressively ‘green’ and does not even get noticed when it’s gone.

Other birds that you will find all over the semi-urban/ country landscape are Black-necked Storks, Painted Storks and Openbill Storks. Painted Storks particularly have a habit of transforming a wetland with their bright colours and joyous numbers.

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Painted storks and cormorants in foggy, smokey Delhi. Photo by Neha Sinha

Common birds don’t steer conservation budgets. We like them, but like a favourite piece of furniture, we also take them for granted. My simple wish for World Widlife Day is: keeping the common birds and animals, common!

How much poorer would we be without them?!

A path through a wild woodland, and through our hearts.
A path through a wild woodland, and through our hearts. Photo by Amitabha Bhattacharya