|Deepor Beel: best indicator of Guwahati’s environmental quality|
Deepor Beel in Lower Assam has some major social, cultural, biological and environmental importance. The lake which covers an area of 10.1 sq. km was declared as the ‘Deepor Beel Wildlife Sanctuary’ by the State Government in 1989. The rich wetland is also the lone Ramsar Site of the State and the second of its kind in North East India after Loktak Lake in Manipur.
With a water-holding area of about 10.1 sq km, which can extend upto 40.1 sq km during floods, the lake has undergone rapid change due to irrational industrialisation, careless agricultural activities, destroying forest cover in the adjoining areas, and illegal human settlement within the vicinity and its buffer zone. What is more, the storm water flowing from Guwahati city to this wetland causes a hazardous environment for the aquatic flora and fauna by degrading its water quality.
The contamination of water at the Deepor Beel Bird Sanctuary would have far-reaching consequences on the biodiversity, including local and migratory birds, plants, reptiles, insects etc. Last year, several dead fish were spotted floating around in the wetland by the local residents. The Pollution Control Board of Assam (PCBA) collected samples of water from Deepor Beel to ascertain the cause of fish deaths in the wetland. The reason found was water contamination.
In 2013, there was a similar situation when a large number of fish were found dead for the same reason. Now the question arises as to how the water body of the lone Ramsar site has become so polluted? A Government body like Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) is very much responsible for the pathetic condition of the beel as it has been using the wetland as its dumping ground since 2006 onwards.
Even on a cursory glance, the GMC dumps around 450 tonnes of waste generated by the city every day in the periphery of the beel. An environmental crusader filed a case with the National Green Tribunal (NGT) against the GMC for its irresponsible deed, following which the civic body was directed to stop dumping garbage in and around the beel, and termed it as an “illegal” activity.
Dumping of garbage and sewage on the wetland has a disastrous effect on the wetland’s ecosystem. Bowing to sustained pressure from green activists, the Kamrup (Metro) district administration ordered the GMC to shift its garbage disposal project from the periphery of Deepor Beel to Chandrapur. Another prime reason of pollution in the beel is industrial effluents. Though the beel is not directly connected to industrial effluents, yet brick kilns located in its adjoining areas have also become problematic over the years as the waste material from the brick kilns are dumped into the beel along a 2-km radius from each brick kiln, thereby polluting the Deepor Beel even further.
Such pollution harms the growth of flora and fauna in the water body. The deposition of oil refinery waste and hospital waste are also killing the fish and spoiling the beel rapidly. Moreover, solid and liquid waste leaching into the beel during the rainy season further helps in deterioration of water quality.
Gradual ecological degradation of Deepor Beel has turned out to be a major issue for hundreds of fishermen and farmers dependent on the wetland. The wetland produces a large quantity of fish variety each year which supports around 500 poor families of fishermen of five villages in an around Azara-Garigaon as their sole means of sustenance.
Unfortunately, the output of fish has become unpredictable over the last few years. Herds of wild elephants foraging for fodder too have cleared the waterbody by feeding on the lake vegetation. However, such activity has been partially affected due to the presence of a railway line on the southern boundary. The railway line has virtually become a death trap for the jumbos as many elephants coming from the adjoining Rani and Garbhanga Reserve Forests have till date been either maimed for life for even killed by passing trains over the railway tracks while trying to cross it.
The slatey grey giants subsequently become irritated and turn violent due to blockade of their ancestral corridors and destroy the crops and villages nearby. Hence, the oft-cited man-elephant conflict has been growing rapidly. Encroachment of the water body is another important concern. Recently, the Kamrup (Metro) district administration evicted illegal encroachers from around Deepor Beel to minimise threats to the ecosystem of the water body. The eviction drive was carried out by the district administration of Kamrup (Metro) to clear encroachment from the entire area surrounding the water body, besides the elephant corridors.
Around 20 structures and a major portion of a boundary wall constructed by the National Public School (NPS) were demolished. An FIR was also lodged against the NPS authorities at Gorchuk Police Station for possession of 100 bighas of wetland at Chakardoi. Not surprisingly, however, rampant encroachment and illegal construction have been continuing in full swing in and around the beel after the aforementioned drive, which indicates the two- step rule of the State Government.
For the record, the beel once covered a 40.14 km area, which has today declined to 9 km (900 ha) out of which a 4 km area was declared as a wildlife sanctuary. It is an open-ended wetland connected to a river by a feeder channel. In all, 219 species of birds were recorded in this beel, out of which 70 migratory bird species and several globally threatened species visit the wetland every year. About 50 species of fish belonging to 19 families and 20 amphibians, 12 lizards, 18 snakes, 6 turtles (tortoise) species were also recorded by the researchers in this area.
Considering the unique wetland habitat for wild flora-fauna and wild animals, it was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1989 and was included in the Directory of Asian Wetlands and Ramsar Site list. It should therefore be the prime duty of the concerned authorities to work for the preservation of the unique wetland before it is too late. But the lack of coordination and cooperation between the GMDA, Fisheries, Town & Country Planning, Revenue, Environment & Forests, Tourism, Pollution Control Board and the Assam Science Technology and Environment Council (ASTEC), have been witnessed, due to which a number of overlapping and duplicating activities are running on for the development and restoration of the beel.
It includes provision of drinking water to the villages in the vicinity of Deepor Beel, providing funds for digging fish ponds for aquaculture, training on pisciculture, development of eco-tourism activities, etc. Some NGOs and local bodies are repeating the same things for years together. However, the need of the hour is to form a high-power Government body for effecting management initiatives for restoration of Deepor Beel. At present, there is no policy or institution that deals specifically with wetlands at the State level in Assam. Of course, there was a State Wetland Board about two decades back, which is now defunct.
As Deepor Beel is the best indicator of environmental quality of the city, we should realise the alarm signals well in advance, especially when avian density has lessened during the last one or two decades. The Government should strictly curb encroachment by settlers or industries in the wetland by enforcing the provisions of the Guwahati Water Bodies (Preservation and Conservation) Act, 2008, and prevent contamination by agricultural and industrial waste, as well as create a proper management system to regulate human activities. Bird trapping and illegal fishing should also be stopped with stern enforcement of law. Picnic and high-decibel sound should be avoided in and around the wetland area for maintaining a clean environment and for facilitating birds’ habitat.
The State Government may take some initiative to generate awareness among the local communities and other stakeholders by using effective communication strategies for the protection and conservation of the beel. Without people’s active and spontaneous participation, the conservation process can never be successful.