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The wetlands will weep today

Aditi Roy Ghatak |

Dhrubajyoti Ghosh is larger than life even in death. He is larger than the sum total of all the many awards that he has received; the Ashoka fellowship and the United Nations’ Global 500 laureate that he received fairly early in life and the CEM Luc Hoffmann Award that he received in 2016 amongst others.

Ahead of his times, Ghosh (71) was a “new generation” thinker, who realized the joys of learning from nature; understanding the myriad ways it supports humanity that is hell bent on destroying it; perchance teaching those who were privileged to listen to him about the omneity of nature with humankind, as he shared his understanding in his soft, unobtrusive way. Even political/ecological opponents he sought to handle with gentle fists.

“I have a battle strategy in my life. I avoid frontal assault or taking the name of a political person. That reduces my space for subsequent manoeuvres”, he wrote to me. Few citizens have made a greater contribution to Kolkata in the past half a century and no one has been less celebrated by the city; no “shera baangali” award has come his way, a testimonial to the city elites; some of whom how sit in the heart of the wetlands, in high rises, possibly absorbing the lakes and the waters without a clue about the man who made this exceptional contribution to conserving the ecosystem.

He was just as sensitive to the plight of “The Trash Diggers” of Dhapa, just besides the wetlands, on whom he wrote his last book, almost an album on his working life spent in the Dhapa region and its denizens. Ghosh’s work on the East Kolkata Wetlands began with identifying the uniqueness and opportunities of the ecosystem, where he serendipitously arrived in 1981 to seek the answer posed to him in the course of work with the state government: how could the wastewater be re-used for the city.

It was an instant engagement with a region that he named the East Kolkata Wetland, which he mapped as he calculated the economic value it was adding to the economy of the metropolis. It took a decade of engagement to convince the global arbiters of the importance of East Kolkata Wetland for it to be finally declared a Ramsar site in 2002.

What is so exceptional about this12,500-hectare system of wetlands comprising waterbodies, vegetable and paddy fields on Kolkata’s eastern fringes that arguably constitute the world’s largest peri-urban wetlands? The area serves as the city’s kidneys, the drainage waters naturally flowing towards them given the tilt of the city as the wetlands filter out toxins from the waste; courtesy their unique characteristics. They provide a city with vegetables at a price much lower than what they would otherwise have been and around 10,000 tons of fish. This ensures that much of city’s poor is not as malnourished as it would otherwise have been.

Meanwhile, much of Kolkata’s trash gets sorted out here at little to no cost; some by hand and others sewered off naturally, for free. The scientific miracle of environment works through the large natural bodies of water serving as oxidation ponds, drawing on the sunlight above and the algae and fish within to cleanse the waste water (95 per cent water and five per cent faecal matter). No more than 0.01 per cent faecal bacteria remains.

This was hardly a miracle that the average bureaucrat would understand or one that the rapacious realtor would care to countenance. Even when former chief minister Jyoti Basu accompanied him to the region, much to the chagrin of his bureaucrats, Dhrubajyoti drank a glass of water taken from a pond to convince him about the water quality. The bureaucrats looked on in open-mouthed dismay. Later, with his inimitable humour the ecologist remarked: “They were possibly worried that the chief minister would get to breathe too much of the pure air because I was not giving him the water”.

Dhrubajyoti Ghosh was not quite alone in this battle to save the wetlands and its denizens. There are public spirited people and organizations who devote time and energy to take the battle for the environment into the heart of the realtor world; or into the hearths of the plastic recycling units that are entirely hostile interlopers in the area with zero respect or connection to the wastewater treatment and recycling heritage of the region. The last lot have in recent times established themselves around Lalkuthi siphon and Chhayanabhi crossing beyond Bantala Lock Gate area, threatening the life of the hapless Anita Mondal, for instance.

Said Ghosh: “She came to me as her final hope. She wanted help to save her home; a hut with an unpaved courtyard, with some trees around and a small pond. A local real estate sub-agent has been hounding her for some time, blocking access to her own house and continuously threatening her in an attempt to make her surrender her ancestral home. My attempted intervention may well have worsened things for her”.

This “counter-ecological urbanisation” driven by the realtor-bureaucrat-politician lobby, is what occupied his mind till the last days and did the tall talk on climate restoration irk him. “In both the cases we can see public decisions are being taken privately. While in case of EKW it is done nakedly, in the second case it is wrapped under the confusing statements of heads of the states and smart spokespersons of transnational NGOs”.

As he lay in a city hospital in coma for a few days prior to life ebbing out of his body on the morning of Friday, February 16, the molten waste from the plastic units flowed along the fishery canals. Dhrubajyoti Ghosh had lived in the dread that they would finally kill the fish.

As far as the city’s commitment to saving the wetlands… the last three chief secretaries have personally been requested by him to put up billboards in important places that these are a protected wetland to serve as an unstated warning to realtors that they should not build there. There were no takers for the suggestion. Ghosh’s abiding dismay was that his was a life of a “failed ecologist”. The only hope is that those whom he has inspired with his life may have greater fortune in making a success of his mission.

The writer is a senior journalist.