The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Clear-water welcome for feathered guests

Night-long vigils by rotation and endless hours of wading through the waters of the 15-hectare jheel weeding out stifling hyacinths and other debris have kept the Bapis, Laltus, Pikais and Bhombols of Santragachhi station para busy for the past few months. The reward for their labour: a symphony of quacks, whistles, chirps, squeals and the deafening applause of a thousand wings.

This annual routine of the autumn clean-up has been carried out by members of Chotto Dol, a para club on the banks of Santragachhi jheel, for the last eight years. “We just want our guests’ stay to be as comfortable as possible,” says Gautam Banerjee, a member of the club.

Their guests are 64 species of migratory birds, including Lesser Whistling Teals, Baikal Teal, Jacana, Moor Hens, Pintails, Pochards, and Tufted Ducks, which fly in from parts of south-east Asia, Nepal, Ladakh and Siberia in their thousands. Surrounded by a labyrinth of houses and smoke-belching chimneys, their calls are often drowned by the din of bellowing horns and speeding trains. The birds have learnt to share “their winter retreat” with humans who wash clothes and clean utensils on the banks of the jheel.

“But it was not always this way,” says Latu Ganguly, another member. “Even in the late 80s, the sojourn of our feathered friends signalled hunting season for many residents in the area. Some would shoot them down, others would lay traps for them in the water and many would steal their eggs.”

It was in 1988 that Arup Goswami, a bank employee who passed away in December 2002, began the battle to save the birds’ habitat. “A combination of action and words put an end to the killing spree. We wrote numerous letters to the railway authorities, since the jheel is their property, which prompted them to stop pisciculture and the indiscriminate dumping of effluents in the lake,” Banerjee said.

Eight years ago, Goswami’s determined campaign gathered momentum, and with the support of like-minded individuals, he set up Chotto Dol. The club with humble beginnings now boasts 250 members. In his legacy, Goswami has left behind people dedicated to ensuring a safe haven for the “visitors from distant lands”.

Not keen on waiting for the Centre to approve the Rs 1 crore project and declare the lake a bird reserve while Goswami’s dreams gather rust, the Chotto Dol members are pooling in their own resources to set up garbage vats and educate people about keeping the lake clean. They also invite bird-watchers every year to know how the population is doing. The reason for their efforts — “Most of us cannot even recognise the different species. All we know is that we need to protect them because they travel thousands of miles to their Santragachhi home,” the crusaders chorus.

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