Death of a wetland

Okhla, a wetland transcending Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, is a Wildlife Sanctuary and an Important Bird Area with nearly 400 bird species—a little under a fourth of the total number of birds in India. It counts amongst its residents the critically endangered white-backed and long-billed vulture besides the threatened Pallas Fishing Eagle, Sarus Crane, Bristled Grass Warbler. At the barrage you could—if you were fortunate—watch the attractive Indian Skimmer skimming the water to snap up fish, or the mating dance of the black necked stork as it cranes it glossy neck to meet its mate. Or listen to the lilting song of the golden oriel. Come winter, and the wetland welcomes waders, geese, ducks, poachards, gulls, teals, gadwells. Surrounding the fecund wetland were open spaces—parks with trees where birds perched and nested; and residents strolled.
The wetland served another purpose, replenishing the soil and the water table in the areas around.

Not that any of it mattered. In our scheme of things, lifeless statues paying abeyance to past and present leaders (no offence meant) matter more than mere birds who have no voice or vote. Which is why it was seen fit to chop down over 6,000 trees and pour concrete over slush and soil to construct a Rs 700 crore Memorial Park honouring Dalit icons bordering the bird sanctuary.

It has been a protracted battle to save the wetland ever since the Uttar Pradesh government started the project in 2008. It’s curtains for the park now, and the birds. On December 3, the Supreme Court gave the park the green signal stating that “the project is not so calamitous to the (Okhla) bird sanctuary.”

It did not matter that the project violated every green law in the book: the Forest Conservation Act (FCA), The Environment Protection Act (EPA). The project also skipped approval from the Standing Committee of the National Board of Wildlife as is mandated for a project that falls within ten km of a national park or a sanctuary, even though this was pointed out in an affidavit of the MoEF in October this year.

It is apparently of little consequence that UP has failed in following the Supreme Court order that mandates states to identify and declare Eco-Sensitive Zones around PAs which would regulate such projects which grievously harm the ecology.

The Ministry of Environment and Forests played a dubious role going around in circles, failing to take a firm stand-flip-flopping from an initial recognition that the park would be in violation of both the FCA & the EPA, to turning turtle two months later. In response to a PIL filed in the Supreme Court in August-end the MoEF said that, “The project’s construction work does not seem to violate any Act/Law… it did not attract provisions of the EIA notification or the Forest (Conservation) Act.”

Then again, in September 2009 the MoEF told a SC panel that the memorial park would have an adverse impact on the sanctuary and surrounding ecosystems, though there was no mention of the illegality of the construction at the sanctuary’s doorstep.

Admittedly, the court has given safeguards—trees closer to the sanctuary and reduction in the construction area. But where is the mechanism to ensure, and monitor, the safeguards?

I went to Okhla, the day after the ruling, watched the vast expanse of marsh and water, the storks and the cranes silhouetted against the smog and the concrete. Heard the song of the birds, fighting to rise above the roar of the traffic. The Okhla sanctuary clings on tenuously amidst the sprawl of urbanisation and we have added the proverbial last straw on the camel’s back by signing away its green buffer to columns and plazas and pedestal. As I watched the sunset (symbolic, I thought) dipping slowly into the horizon I wondered: Are we worshipping false Gods? Why do we fail to respect urban forests and wetlands, that serve as our green lungs and recharge ground water.

First published in The Sunday Guardian, December 19, 2010

One Response to “Death of a wetland

  • So often this is the crux of the issue, isn’t it: laws are passed but not enforced, regulations are drawn up and then ignored. And when citizens and even regulatory bodies testify to these violations in court, judges backtrack from the law. It is a vicious and frustrating circle, and we all-humans, birds, beasts, and plants-suffer for it.