Calcutta is filled with many hidden treasures, but the East Calcutta Wetlands are perhaps the most visible and certainly the city’s most valuable asset. Despite this, they may also be the least well-known and the most underappreciated, absent from travel guides and most tours of the town.
The Wetlands are hidden in plain sight, one of the first parts of Calcutta many visitors see. Whenever I fly in, I press my nose to the airplane window and marvel at the miles and miles of tree-lined ponds and canals on the approach to the airport. It is easy to see the Wetlands — they’re prominently visible to anyone driving on the EM Bypass — but harder to appreciate their size and scope and the central role they play in all of our lives.
I have heard the Wetlands compared to Calcutta’s kidneys, and they are as essential to the city’s survival as the metaphor suggests. The East Calcutta Wetlands are the largest natural wastewater treatment system in the world, processing 870 million litres of sewage every day, saving the people of Calcutta an estimated Rs 540 crore per year.
For more than 200 years, the Wetlands have embodied the recycling principles that much of the world is now seeking to emulate, using waste water to support water-intensive production. Almost 1 lakh people earn their livelihoods from the Wetlands, in an economic symbiosis that generates almost 15,000 tonnes of rice, 11,000 tonnes of fish and 55,000 tonnes of vegetables per year.
Beyond the invaluable role they play in Calcutta’s survival, the Wetlands are a blessing for Calcutta residents, offering opportunities to enjoy wildlife and the outdoors right on the city’s doorstep. I am an unabashed lover of this city and as the people of Calcutta engage in a dialogue about what they would like their city to become in the coming generations, I hope the Wetlands will find a prominent place, not just for its essentials role in the city’s sanitation, but as a blessing for urban living.
For the last 12 months I have joined a ragtag group of runners who appreciate the opportunity to exercise in the clean air, quiet atmosphere and beautiful surroundings that the Wetlands afford. We are a mix of abilities and nationalities, but we all share a love of the outdoors and an eagerness to escape the bustling city from time to time.
More importantly, perhaps, this gang of runners embodies a spirit of hope and ambition for Calcutta, a belief that this city has a bright future. Marc Lorenz, the general manager at the Hyatt Residency, is a charter member of this group and a passionate advocate of environmental stewardship. As part of the Hyatt’s global Thrive programme, Marc and the Hyatt team have partnered with NEWS, a Calcutta NGO, to encourage communities living near the Wetlands to cut back on the use of plastics and other pollutants.
Eric Danion, a fleet-footed Frenchman, came to Calcutta to establish a presence for one of the world’s most prominent sporting goods companies with a mission to, as he puts it, “promote pleasure, energy, and conviviality and make sport accessible for more people”.
Willy Bergogne works with Terre des Hommes, a Swiss NGO that works to raise livelihoods and combat trafficking-in-persons in South 24-Parganas and elsewhere in India. Canadian Mark Marshall, Dutchman Robyan Kleinman and Frenchman Florent Prime are each engaged in different aspects of the industrial sector, participating in the growth of Calcutta’s skyline and the modernisation of its infrastructure.
This multinational, multisectoral group has gathered regularly over the past year for an outdoor ritual. Shortly after sunrise, we all gather on a small footbridge on the edge of the Wetlands and set out on a 10km loop through the maze of fishponds and canals. The truth is that the exercise is secondary to the enjoyment of the outing, the fun of learning about the rich ecosystem and the people who live there. At first, members of the local community stared in amazement as our group came jogging through, but as we have become more familiar we are greeted with calls of welcome recognition from men working on fishing boats and women cutting back the grass and hyacinth that threaten to choke the lakes.
For those of us who work in air-conditioned cubicles, it is a wonderful treat to enjoy glimpses of rural Bengal so close to the city, and we have also enjoyed the chance to spot wildlife on our weekly jaunts. We often see snakes and mongoose, and the birdlife is colorful and plentiful, with many varieties of Kingfisher, long-necked Cormorants and statute-like Indian Pond Herons stalking fish along the path.
Eventually, our 10km loop brings us back to where we began, and we each return, refreshed, to our life and work in Calcutta. We keep coming back, though, waking up early to enjoy the Wetland’s respite, the breath of fresh air, the sense of freedom that comes with open space, and the serenity of water and wildlife.