Inclusion in the Ramsar list for international ecological sites can now ensure the protection the East Calcutta wetlands badly need
Calcutta’s greed for land has received a well-timed check. The East Calcutta wetlands, a gift of nature that the city fathers never duly valued, have been included by the Wetlands International under the Ramsar convention in the list of 18 protected wetland ecosystems in India. Nomination in the Ramsar list of a site in one of the signatory countries places significant responsibilities on both its government and its people. The goal of the convention is sustainable conservation. Therefore it privileges the symbiotic relationship between a site and human livelihood patterns dependent on it. Each site has its unique characteristics. The East Calcutta wetlands are remarkable for their biodiversity and are fertile with fish and vegetables. What is amazing is that they are fed by municipal sewage and have developed their own process of purification. The beneficial bacteria in the waste water which act upon the organic matter from the sewage thrive on algae, growing plentifully in the sunlight. The algae also provide food for the local fish. This natural purification system has sustained the municipal over-development on the east bank of the Hooghly.
The importance of the inclusion of the East Calcutta wetlands in the Ramsar list cannot be overestimated. Calcutta has been extending eastwards at a rapid rate, in spite of strong objections from environmentalists. Construction on reclaimed land is threatening to upset the balance of the site’s ecosystem, and it is a measure of the system’s stability that whatever is left of it is still flourishing. How significant it was as a natural drainage area is already being felt within the city after the building of the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass which works as a kind of dam. Further building and reclamation would have destroyed the wetlands’ function as a natural purifier and as a supporter of livelihoods. Listing under an international convention imposes strict standards of protection, and it is possible also to appeal to Wetlands International if the site is perceived as specially threatened. The Chilika Lake in Orissa was once among the endangered sites. Recently, however, the Chilika Development Authority has been honoured by Wetlands International for having achieved a triumph of sustainable conservation. Thus, visibility and the raising of awareness are the extra advantages of being listed.
Awareness of this kind is at a premium in West Bengal. While the people of Calcutta should be rigorous in protecting the wetlands, the government and municipal bodies should ensure that chemical wastes are no longer emptied into the waters. Chemical wastes cannot be purified. The listing has therefore given an extra edge to the move to relocate tanneries. Also, treating chemical effluents which are normally emptied untreated into the city’s sewers has to be made mandatory. A return to laxity after all the fanfare would be truly self-destructive.