She came to me limping, badly. She was Anita Mondal, Amal’s mother. She had injured her left leg a few months back and has not been able to walk properly since. Even standing was difficult. She has had no effective treatment since the accident that did her in. A makeshift stick that her younger son had shaped from a branch of a tree served as an improvised crutch. Every step that she ventured to take was reflected in the squeezed wrinkles at the edge of her eyes. They inadvertently displayed the intensity of the pain that she was in.
She came to me as her final hope. She had to save her home, a simple, typical village house with trees around, a small pond, an unpaved courtyard. That was all. This was in Natunhat, about six km from Science City; in the heart of the East Kolkata wetlands, supposedly protected by the judgement of the late Justice Umesh Chandra Banerjee.
In 1981, serendipity took me to these wetlands in search of an answer a question set by the state government: how can wastewater from the city of Kolkata be reused. I reached the unknown wonder of the world that I named then and there: the East Kolkata Wetlands. I mapped it along with the villagers and the area of 12,500 hectares was identified. Today, this wetland is a Ramsar site, declared so in 2002.
A local real estate sub-agent has been hounding the Mondals for quite some time, restraining access to their own house and continuously threatening them with dire consequences if they do not surrender their ancestral home. The arm of the law does not reach here. In an attempt to help the family, I had taken the then German Consul General, Olaf Iversen, who was keen to get an idea of these unique wetlands and their inhabitants, to them. Sometimes visits by important people help the hosts. I ended up enraging the local strongmen who became more menacing in their threats. My manoeuvre had back-fired. These muscles fear no one. Olaf was one of the most thoughtful visitors to the wetlands.
My conversation with him took me back to my unforgettable rendezvous with Ann Wright, one of the best-known forest lovers and conservation thinkers of her time. That was around the end-1980s, when she was a member of the Board of Trustees of the World Wide Fund for Nature (India), ahead of my entry into that group, on her recommendation.
“This is my pilgrimage”, she had said, after more than two hours of leisurely walking and standing, gazing, touching upon the innumerable viewpoints of the unique wetlands. Through all these decades, more than a few hundred interested souls from the world over, particularly from Europe, had expressed their unending reverence and awe.
None had moved me as much as Ann’s comment had. Ann will remain unforgettable for her spiritual benediction. I wish I could tell her this. I also wish to submit to her that I have reached my journey’s end for the wetlands seem to be beyond salvation now. In 1986, I had the privilege of bringing the then chief minister of the state right into the middle of my ecosystem. His retinue of salaried caregivers seemed unaware of the security steps to be taken.
Were they worried that the Chief Minister would breathe too much of fresh air, which he was unaccustomed to? I told him that he was standing beside the world’s largest and most efficient municipal wastewater treatment plant that works on solar energy and relies upon the community knowledge of a natural biological reactor. I was not lying. In 2017, on World Water Day, the ecosystem was flagged as the most outstanding wetland treating domestic wastewater at the behest of a uniquely informed wetland community.
Today, I need to add that the wetland acts as a carbon sink, a term not then mandated by the climate connoisseurs who dictate suitable terminology to fashion the meta narratives. These are now compulsory in the development caricature of the branded do-gooders. who can be shrugged off. But what hurts is Kolkata’s lack of concern. Few cities in the world have been as well served by a wetlands ecosystem as has been Kolkata.
The just concluded annual Durgotsav celebrations showcased Bengal’s unique attractions through a festival that signifies triumph of good over evil. The decor brings out outstanding creativity of its people in a manner that no other place in the world does. The themes are quite unbelievable, drawn from history, livelihood displays, traditional expression of rural life and outstanding environmental messages apart from themes based on events in other parts of the world. Unsurprisingly, there has never been a single theme dwelling on the model of the East Kolkata Wetlands. Out of thousands of tabloids, flexes and hoardings, not one has displayed this unique wetland practice. The bureaucracy is just as unconcerned about the ecosystem value. In the course of about a decade, I have requested at least three chief secretaries to consider putting up billboards in important places. I am waiting. The billboards advertise realty interests exclusively. There is a robust hoarding at the start of the East Kolkata Wetlands directing the visitors how to reach the Sundarbans, which is a protected area as much as the East Kolkata Wetland is.
I have also met three environment ministers in the last two decades. The first proved his fealty to Karl Marx and was compulsively uncomfortable in my presence. The next two ministers were exemplary in their disposition but ministers have too many priorities and pressures to focus on nature’s bounty. This year, just after the end of Durgotsav festivities, I went to the Bantala area, the centre of activities of the hydrological system of the East Kolkata Wetlands. I noted a few changes that clearly signalled the final countdown for this decaying marvel. This time it was not just about filling up of waterbodies and yet another set of buildings coming up. This was way more lethal and being carried out by a group of people who cannot be removed.
As we have learnt to live with hawkers who own the crucial walkways, the East Kolkata Wetlands display precisely the same takeover of land by illegal units of waste conversion, essentially plastics. The entire community of these plastic recycling units are hostile outsiders to this place, have no idea, no respect, no connectivity to this wastewater treatment and recycling heritage. They have established themselves firmly around Lalkuthi siphon and Chhayanabhi crossing beyond Bantala Lock Gate area. The molten waste can now be seen flowing along the fishery canals and will finally kill the fish. They are establishing large hemispherical contraptions of about three metres in diameter, which boil leather turnings.
Liquid waste from these cauldrons will certainly add toxins to the canals reaching the fish ponds south of B.N. Dey Road (Basanti Road). This visual on the once serene Lalkuthi siphon area was so diabolic that I stood before the new landscape in disbelief. I am sure that I will be under immense pressure to visit this place again. A shuddering realisation came upon me that I have been a failed ecologist. This obscenity will continue to haunt me like a hobgoblin for many years to come.
(The writer is a UN Global 500 Laureate and the winner of the 2016 Luc Huffmann award.)