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Water warriors

The passing of two eco-fighters will make Calcutta more vulnerable

Last month, two close friends, both in their seventies, died within a fortnight. They had known each other for decades, shared the same concerns, had similar passions; the older of the two used to help out his younger friend's son (now settled abroad) with his chemistry lessons when he was a schoolboy and every time the young man came to the city to see his father, they would pay a visit to the older gentleman. I wonder, especially now that they are both gone, what these two men spoke about when they met, especially in the last few years of their lives? Were they upset or angry that the work each had done for much of his working life seemed to have come to nought? Did they exchange notes on how successive governments had failed to listen to their pleas or pay heed to their warnings? Did they discuss how a largely apathetic public - always barring a few individuals - which had once hailed them and celebrated their recognition and success had turned its back on them and their work?

Of these two friends, the first to go was Dhrubajyoti Ghosh, aged 71, who passed away on February 16, followed by his comrade-in-arms in ecology, "Arsenic Man" Dipankar Chakraborti, four years older, who died on February 28, ironically the very day on which Ghosh's friends and admirers had gathered to pay homage to, and celebrate the life of, a man who had done more than anyone else to highlight the importance of the wetlands on the eastern fringes of Calcutta to its ecological health and economic affordability. Somewhat tragically, whilst Dhrubajyoti Ghosh's passing was covered by most city newspapers and many outside, Dipankar Chakraborti's death merited scant mention in local media. Perhaps this was only to be expected for a man who first alerted us to the "arsenic volcano" on top of which we are leading our fragile lives way back in the 1980s, but whose findings have been systematically ignored by the city's municipal authorities for three decades now. In recent years, he had even been labelled a "scaremonger" and the validity of his findings challenged by politicians with absolutely no authority or expertise to question the meticulously-documented mapping of arsenic contamination carried out by Chakraborti and his colleagues at the School of Environmental Studies, Jadavpur University.

Contamination of groundwater by arsenic, which the World Health Organization labelled "the largest mass poisoning of a population in history" way back in 2002 [see: http://www.who.int/features/archives/feature206/en/], has received considerable scientific attention and there are now methods of getting rid of such contamination using several kinds of technology [for an overview, see: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4730453/]. What seems to be stopping our civic leaders from openly acknowledging this threat and advising their constituents on how best to combat it seems to be a combination of lethargy and greed, the latter fuelled by a real-estate lobby intent on making quick profits by not investing in the technologies necessary for delivering arsenic-free water at the buildings they are busy constructing. But thanks largely to Chakraborti's decades-long efforts, now that we know the threat (arsenic contamination), we can think of ways of alleviating it. In fact, entrepreneurs have recently begun talking of turning this potential disaster into an opportunity, with relatively inexpensive community-run arsenic treatment plants, that can ensure the long-term environmental health and economic security of a village or an urban neighbourhood. So, even though he was a prophet largely ignored in his own land, Dipankar Chakraborti's crusading efforts might yet get translated into some real benefits, especially for the people of his beloved Calcutta.

No such possibility of redemption seems to exist for the East Kolkata Wetlands, which Dhrubajyoti Ghosh meticulously mapped, skillfully analysed and dexterously brought to international attention as, in his words, "the world's largest and most efficient municipal wastewater treatment plant", one that not only does not cost the city it serves a paise, but also actually pays it back in the form of cheap fish and vegetables. Ghosh's work brought him a measure of fame - he was awarded the International Union for Conservation of Nature's highest honour, the Luc Hoffmann Award, in 2016, and was a Global 500 laureate - but, far more importantly, it brought recognition to the EKW and its unique significance in maintaining the ecological health of this teeming megalopolis. Over a quarter-century ago, Ghosh had plaintively asked if Calcutta would think of a sustainable future for its wetlands or doom them to takeover by real-estate interests - with his death, the last bulwark that stood guard over a wholesale conversion of these lands into residential high-rises and offices is gone. The realty sharks who have been circling for decades can now move in swiftly for the kill. In fact, there are plans ready for a flyover and a metalled road cutting through the very heart of the EKW and, as Ghosh wrote in what was probably his last published piece ("Dispensation of a failed ecologist", in a Calcutta newspaper), plastic recycling units that are tolling "the final countdown for this decaying marvel" have already sprung up and are daily pouring molten waste into the ponds that will kill all the fish there.

The term "cognitive apartheid" has been used for about two decades now to describe how humans compartmentalize knowledge, especially when it comes into conflict with their other beliefs. Ghosh would often invoke the concept when speaking of how the average educated Calcuttan refused to think of wastewater as a resource rather than a pollutant, in sharp contrast to the "uneducated" cultivators in the EKW who used it as a source of nutrients for growing vegetables and fish. Most of us, it appears, suffer from variants of this cognitive disconnect, where we may understand the need to take steps to check arsenic pollution or the necessity of preserving the EKW but fail to act on our understanding, perhaps because we are much too much in thrall to the glitter of shiny sky-high buildings, or are convinced that even if the EKW disappears we will stumble along somehow, as always.

It seems not unreasonable to assume that with the going of these two valiant eco-warriors our city will become more and more vulnerable, to poisoning by arsenic and through the accumulation of untreated sewage. The real-estate takeover of the EKW will remain in the background until we are confronted with a disaster similar to the Chennai floods of November-December 2015 which, it is now clear, were exacerbated by the filling up of nearly 90 per cent of the city's once plenteous waterbodies, leading to untold damage and human suffering. But by the time we are able to overcome our cognitive apartheid, it will probably be too late.

The author is professor of Comparative Literature, Jadavpur University, and has been working as a volunteer for a rural development NGO for the last 30 years

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