The recent death of Dhrubajyoti Ghosh, who focused global attention on the East Kolkata Wetlands, comes at a time when this unique urban ecosystem is in danger of being wiped out

Ecologist Dhrubajyoti Ghosh rendered an invaluable service to the East Kolkata Wetlands (Photo by Sudeshna Ghosh)

It was a turbulent ride on a slushy road in the interior of Howrah district of West Bengal, at the western fringe of Kolkata, but neither of us was unduly bothered. Dhrubojyoti Ghosh, the engineer turned ecologist who passed away in February, was extremely keen to explain how he was trying to replicate the globally famed East Kolkata Wetlands model of turning wastewater into wealth in Howrah as well.

After more than two decades, hardly a couple of months ago, Ghosh was equally keen when he called early morning to share how he, after a fight spread over years, was almost on verge of formalising a government pension for the hundreds of waste pickers working in the wetlands area.

In between, we kept talking over two decades, which can be termed as one of the most spread out interviews ever conducted. More often than not, the survival of the East Kolkata Wetlands was the topic of discussion. As a matter of fact, it was, and still is, impossible to disengage Ghosh from East Kolkata Wetlands — the 12,500 hectare wetland at the eastern fringe of Kolkata that he introduced to the rest of the world as a unique urban ecosystem.

Dhruboda, or Dr. Ghosh to his near ones, was a different species altogether, someone who decided to use his engineering knowledge in the practical field of wetland ecology despite being a government official, and ended up one of the most revered urban wetland ecologists, winning such esteemed global awards such as UN Global 500 and Luc Hoffmann Award. Not to mention, annoying a major part of the government machinery of which he was a part and the political powers that controlled them.

A query changed the city’s future

It all started with a simple query from a senior official of the then urban development department, where Ghosh was a junior engineer. “Where are these millions of litres of the city’s wastewater going everyday?” That was an era when the wastewater treatment plants were being introduced all over the world. The question changed the course of wastewater management in the city.

“Around early eighties somebody in government became inquisitive about the fate of millions of litres of waste water going out of Kolkata every day and I was asked to enquire,” Ghosh once said. A search for the answer took him to a vast hitherto uncharted area dotted with wetlands and fishing ponds off today’s Eastern Metropolitan Bypass, where the wastewater gets treated through natural action under sunlight after passing through a series of water bodies, and is then subsequently used by local farmers to grow rice, fish and vegetables.

Realising that the fate of the metropolis hinges on this unique practice and culture, he quickly turned into a crusader for protecting the wetlands. “Not only treating the huge amount of city’s wastewater free of cost, which otherwise would have taken more than INR 10 billion (USD 154 million) as capital investment and few hundred million for annual maintenance, the wetlands is also key to lower cost of living in Kolkata compared to most metro cities in country due to huge amount of fishes and vegetables produced in the area utilizing the nutrient filled waste water,” he observed.

Ecologically subsidised city

Ghosh used to repeatedly say that Kolkata is actually an “ecologically subsidised city”, with rivers like Ganga and Bidyadhari on two sides, enough groundwater and a sprawling wetlands working as the city’s kidney. “Unfortunately, we hardly appreciate the fact and callously waste this subsidy from nature,” he used to lament.

This “callousness” has been most apparent in the way the wetlands have been treated over the last four decades. They were essentially seen by successive state governments and by real estate developers as a low hanging fruit, as a “development zone” so close to the city.

So it is no surprise that Ghosh had to face a lot of opposition when he tried to impress upon everyone the need to keep East Kolkata Wetlands encroachment free for the sake of treating city’s wastewater as well as maintaining traditional livelihoods of thousands who used that waste water for fishery and agriculture.

This was the era when the state government led by Jyoti Basu was trying to bring investment to West Bengal and identified the wetlands area for a proposed World Trade Centre and other projects. According to sources, relatives and close associates of some senior politicians of then ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) were also eyeing the largely vacant area and clearance to a World Trade Centre would have opened up a Pandora’s Box.

“I realized quickly that unless there was judicial intervention, the wetlands would be lost,” Ghosh said, and recounted how he helped non-profit organisation PUBLIC (People United for Better Living In Calcutta) covertly when it went to court challenging the government’s plan.

Second line of defence

A verdict from the Calcutta High Court stopped the legal encroachment of 12,500 hectares of wetlands but Ghosh wanted to have a second line of defence. Fighting against the then government’s wish, Ghosh applied for Ramsar status for East Calcutta Wetlands and got the recognition — in November 2002 — as an urban wetland of international importance with wise use system, referring to the system of livelihood based on recycled wastewater.

But for the last 15 years, successive state governments have done nothing to conserve the wetlands area apart from forming an authority, East Kolkata Wetlands Management Authority, in 2006, which, Ghosh complained, did more to regularise violations than act against them. Most of the violations have been by local land mafias with the covert support of politicians.

Threat becomes official

The threat took a different hue recently when the state government — now formed by the Trinamool Congress — dropped clear hints to encroach on the wetlands in the name of development. Sovan Chatterjee, ironically the state’s environment minister, started talking about a building a bridge over the wetlands, and of ecotourism. Ghosh, who was made a member of a committee looking after wetlands, continued to fight these ideas, and finally resigned from the committee.

Recently, he sent me the link to one of his articles, where he called himself a “failed ecologist.” I wrote back on a humorous note, “If the captain retreats, how will the soldiers fight?” “The situation is really serious,” he wrote back.

Dhrubajyoti Ghosh died with the East Kolkata Wetlands still passing through the “really serious” period, and the fight is intensifying every day.

 

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