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Saving Kolkata’s Future: One Pond at a Time

Kolkata’s innumerable freshwater and salt-water bodies, if we cherish, manage, and protect, will play a vital role in mitigating our tenuous climate future These wetlands
Kolkata wetlands
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There has been a staggering rate of sea level rise along the Bay of Bengal.  Kolkata, a low-lying city, approximately five meters above sea level, is vulnerable to global warming and the concomitant climate crisis.  The World Bank indicates that a 20 cm sea level rise would make Kolkata the third most exposed city in the world to the risk of flooding. Kolkata has experienced a rise in temperature of 1.2 degrees Celsius, the highest in India, which increases storm activity due to high degrees of precipitation.

The Bounty and promise of the wetlands

Kolkata’s innumerable freshwater and salt-water bodies, if we cherish, manage, and protect, will play a vital role in mitigating our tenuous climate future These wetlands play a pivotal role in naturally treating our sewage through a self-sustaining system, partly natural and partly engineered.  Additionally, the wetlands provide abundant fresh vegetables and a range of fish. For residents with little access to water, the ponds are places to wash and bathe. Beyond these utilitarian functions, water bodies are a haven for life – trees surround them, fish live in them, birds find a home and people gather to enjoy their irresistible beauty and ambience.  Ponds are a community, cultural, and ritual space.

In 1981 Dhrubojyoti Ghosh decoded the role of the East Kolkata Wetlands (EKW) in treating Kolkata’s waste and raised awareness about the importance of protecting them.  The EKW is recognized by the Ramsar Convention (1971), the intergovernmental treaty that provides the framework for the conservation and wise use of wetlands.  People United for Better Living in Calcutta, PUBLIC, won the first legal battle to preserve them. The EKW is the only Ramsar site in the world that has the ability to recycle the city’s sewage into a profitable agriculture and fishing activity that supplies the city with affordable food due to low transport costs.  

The Jaladarsha Collective: Barefoot research and advocacy

For more than two decades “state sponsored corporate colonization” has endangered the wetlands. Local grassroots initiatives, such as the Jaladarsha Collective (JC), are drawing attention to the importance of the wetlands. Sayantoni Datta, researcher and founder of the Jaladarsha Collective, notes: “Over 50 percent of water bodies we surveyed are in a state of neglect. Satellite images of the East Kolkata Wetlands show a similar scale of loss.  There are over 350 complaints of encroachment registered.”

Theater practitioners, writers, dancers, painters, and community members formed the Collective in 2019.  Its members direct art to reclaim our connection to the environment.  JC nurtures collective community art practices and does barefoot research to raise the voices of the most marginalized communities directly affected by climate crisis and environmental hazards.

Jaladarsha Collective Save Wetlands activity
Madhyama Halder of Jaladarsha performing at an awareness raising program.

This group of citizen activists have conducted walks in distinct parts of the city to locate water bodies and learn about their uses from people living around them.  In 2022, JC surveyed eight wards in southeastern Kolkata where there was rapid urbanization and expansion to assess the health of 250 water bodies. They note that though over 50 percent of the water bodies are dumps for wastewater and garbage, poor people rely on them for bathing, washing, and cooking.  In 2023 they conducted a similar audit of four wards in eastern Kolkata surveying 61 ponds. Jaladarsha has published two booklets on their findings with recommendations for preserving these water bodies for local government authorities, developers and for citizens to undertake action-based programs for conservation.  

Partnering to clean up water bodies

The land mafia presents the biggest challenges to cleaning water bodies in the city.  Jaladarsha, in partnership with the fishing community, has cleaned pond ecosystems in the city that are part of the EKW.  Fishing communities receive a lease for a water body from the fisheries department.  If they are unable to maintain a waterbody, they are sometimes compelled to hand it over to other investors and leaseholders that leads to the loss of the wetlands. Thus, the Birji Patauli fishing cooperative was keen to partner JC in cleaning the waters that had become stagnant and rancid due to the dense growth of water hyacinth in three ponds covering 15.5 bighas of EKW.  

Earth Day seminar of Jaladarsha

Fishing cooperative members play a vital role in cleaning and maintaining the water bodies including ensuring that the right kind of fish are cultivated to keep the waters clean and ensure ecological balance.  Rapid urban expansion has led to the loss of their lands making them dependent on pisciculture. To revive the three ponds, community members removed water hyacinth manually, drying the plant on the sides of the ponds to serve as fish food. The process of cleaning is time and labor intensive but is more ecologically sustainable than rapid beautification. The collective also trained women in the community to make products from water hyacinth, The Collective continues to collaborate with communities facing loss of water bodies.

Raising awareness and cultural commitment to a shared future

On April 22nd, Earth Day, the Jaladarsha Collective held a community event to celebrate the cleaning of ponds at Patuli and to raise awareness on the importance of revitalizing the wetlands.  The event was on the premises of the fishermen’s collective, Birji Patuli Matsyajibi Samaybay Samiti. The entire area decorated by the artists was festive.  Beautiful wall panels were themed around Water – its abundance, scarcity, and significance in the Circle of Life.  Wetland residents and environmentalists conducted a community forum on the state of communities at the EKW, and discussed the actions needed to preserve and maintain them.  Community members and activists shared their struggles, stories, and knowledge of the local solutions to nutrition, waste management and kitchen gardening.  Local women displayed their artwork and hand-made products with water hyacinth. Folk dance performances, flash dances, music, and theater poignantly and powerfully rendered environmental messages.  The cultural events brough attendants together to make a sacred commitment to revere and protect the environment.   

Also read: Harry Bids Farewell

The spirit, dedication, sophistication, and talent of the young activists partnering with local communities most impacted by climate change is inspiring.  They must be coupled with sustained, transparent, informed state and local action by duty bearers to protect the wetlands. The JC asserts: “Creating systems of accountability around neglect, inaction or malpractice by duty bearers through public hearings or people’s tribunals is essential.” 

  Local actions such as this initiative that combines citizen research, advocacy for policy change, action through partnership with local communities, and art for social change provide a pathway to safeguarding our collective future, one pond at a time.

Image courtesy: Jaladarsha Collective & Wikipedia

Jael Silliman, born in Kolkata, was educated at Wellesley College, Mass., Harvard University, University of Texas, Austin. She received her doctoral degree in international education at Columbia University. She has written extensively on gender and economic development, and women’s movements in the developing world. ‘The Teak Almirah’, ‘Where Gods Reside: Sacred Places of Kolkata’, ‘Jewish Portraits, Indian Frames: Women’s Narratives from a Diaspora of Hope’ are some of her published works.

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