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Kolkata’s Waterscapes: What Does It Mean For The Future?

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The future is most certainly not urban.  

At least not in the form it is in now. Serious questions around urbanisation, or the current built form arises. The inability of cities to accommodate the challenges and the impact of climate change is a repetitive concern we will have to face now and in the future. 

What do cities need to do, to become climate resilient, sustainable and inclusive?  

Starting with the last idea first, ‘inclusion’, the fundamental questions that earlier went into building commercial centres were around ‘what occupations city dwellers’ should follow. We know that cities formed for different reasons through India’s history, from being temple towns, to being centres of trade where artisan and artist’s guilds operated, or small ports engaged in sea faring trade. Later post industrialization, cities were industrial townships, or political and commercial hubs and developed as financial and capital centres.  

Despite these different trajectories, cities had one thing in common about them, a clustering of humans into one place and space, with vectors that led out into its hinterlands, taking more from it than giving back to it. Thus, a rapid transformation of natural landscapes into built form, and pushing out of occupations and people who defied the very ‘purpose’ of city life (capital concentration) to its fringes. 

Another important commonality that binds ancient and modern cities is ‘water’. Most cities were built on the banks of a fertile river. Water availability whether it was a waterhole or creek in Dubai, or the Nile in Cairo, or the Yamuna for Delhi, cities grew around water resources and irrigation systems.  

Exploring Kolkata’s waterscapes, brings forth new questions in terms of how we view the city.  Kolkata embedded in the northern portion of the world’s largest delta spanning across two countries, the Sunderbans, seldom brings into its prominently discussed colonial heritage of monuments, the natural landscape that governed its precincts since pre-colonial times.  

Kolkata’s waterscapes and the people and practices closely associated with it pales in comparison to the nostalgic narratives built into the city, delectable option of food haunts famous in the city, and the popular idea of the accommodative spirit of diversity amongst its citizens. In fact, it is its living breathing waterscapes, that wish you to jolt yourself out of memories, into the present, and what this could mean to the future. 

An ecological artifact to the east 

On the eastern side where the tidal river Bidyadhari, at one time spilled over into salt-water marshes, is a sewage channel now. Here lies an interesting adaptation design and an ecological artifact. The East Kolkata Wetlands with an intricate drainage network of canals, knits its existence into the city’s needs, in a symbiotic way. Carefully studied by ecologists, like Dr. Dhrubajyoti Ghosh in the past,

these intricate drainage systems built by local engineers in the 1940s drained the sewage water of the city into these areas. The wetlands in turn with its unique tidal influences, adequate sunlight, microbes and microorganisms, purified the sewage turning it into fish feed and water for horticulture. This provided the city the opportunity to maintain both an ecological balance through recycling its wastewater and livelihood balance for those living along its hinterlands. The added advantage was an abundant supply of fish and vegetables for city dwellers at low prices cutting transport costs and a buffer green belt around the city. The wetlands support more than 60000 people in terms of daily livelihoods. The fishing communities and small horticulture farmers who don’t necessarily fit the tag of being ‘urban’ are a critical group that guide our eyes into the numerous dots of blue across the city which are now fast disappearing.  

Water and Climate Change  

The World Water Report released by UNESCO on World Water Day warns of the intrinsic link between water and climate change. Key impacts of climate change are extreme weather events leading to disruptions in the water cycle and therefore an increase on water stress. Due to diminishing ground water supply, increasing salinity and extremities in weather events, water bodies are important storage spaces for fresh water, and recharging sites of ground water.  

The report states, “Wetlands accommodate the largest carbon stocks among terrestrial ecosystems, storing twice as much carbon as forests. Taking into account that wetlands offer multiple co-benefits – including flood and drought mitigation, water purification, and biodiversity – their restoration and conservation is of critical importance”. 

Sustainability and Urban Aspirations 

Coming to the second idea, sustainability, which is interpreted in various ways but must bear that clarity that the idea around environmental conservation should be closely intertwined with development. Social inclusion is a part of sustainability (https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/social-inclusion-making-development-truly-sustainable-64778/) calling for incorporating the needs of all communities while planning for cities.  

Economic concerns and ecological sustainability must go hand in hand for the city to survive, but the wetlands continue to be threatened by the ever-expanding growth of the city.

Economic concerns and ecological sustainability must go hand in hand for the city to survive, but the wetlands continue to be threatened by the ever-expanding growth of the city, and the proliferation of livelihoods that support this growth. New migrants living along the semi urban clusters bordering the East Kolkata Wetland, do not know the traditional fishing practices, and therefore have no emotional attachment to the swampy marshes amidst the other urban aspirations the city has to offer.  They find the location convenient, as the rents are cheap and there is easy access to their workplaces.

There are over 357 FIRs filed against encroachment on the East Kolkata Wetlands, and over 25000 hectares have been encroached upon in the last few years. Different urban green action groups have filed cases, and more recently the National Green Tribunal called for a removal of all these encroachments.  Reports of the Mayor attempting to raise these illegal encroachments post the order was circulated this year in January 2020. Media reports claim that these are mostly illegal plastic recycling units, leather processing units and auto workshops. Many of them have hazardous implications for the agriculture and pisciculture, taking place in the area.  Furthermore, many channels are choked and clogged with household waste. The very nature of waste has also changed over the years, calling for the need to revisit water testing and the need to build new guidelines on effluents and waste management. Fettered by many competing economic interests, a consensus on the importance that wetlands and water bodies hold economically for local communities and ecologically for the entire city needs to be publicly understood.

Green action groups while working on conservation, will also have to tie in the efforts of groups working on sustainable livelihoods, to be able to look at issues around hazardous plastic burning, and specifically small scale plastic recycling units. Plastic use, plastic disposal and plastic burning is a rampant problem in the city.

The thousands of blue dots inside the city

The idea of sustainability and social inclusion, needs to be equally understood specifically in a third world city like Kolkata where ecological burdens are not equally borne. Participative local micro practices facilitating sustainable alternatives and livelihood interests must inform the work of green action groups. A lot more stories are cruelly woven into survival in the city where social processes, loops of corruption allow for these encroachments to circumvent law and feed into the interests of the larger land estate market. For these tendencies to stop a broader vision and political will by big decision makers need to be regularly articulated and put into action to get the message across on how crucial the preservation of water bodies are for the future survival of the city.  

Only recently a new threat emerged where plans of a flyover over the East Kolkata Wetlands was announced. Water bodies and wetlands should be made ‘no go’ areas for construction and dumping of waste so as to maintain the ecological balance in the city and allow them to continue to play the critical role of recharging ground water, combating heat island effect, acting as carbon sinks, and maintaining biodiversity and urban ecological livelihoods in the city.

Intentions to protect water bodies and wetlands have been spelt out in the Vision 2025 Plans for the city. The West Bengal Inland Fisheries Act passed earlier provides safeguards and elements for protection of water bodies in the city, but there needs to be an integrated approach by the Municipal Corporation, Fisheries Department, Urban Planning authorities and Ward level authorities.

One has to move further into areas in the southern peripheries of Kolkata where no wetlands, but water bodies such as ponds and tanks are fast disappearing.

Studies have shown that Kolkata had as many as 8000 ponds, which have now shrunk to 2000, mostly swallowed up by urban growth and land estate grab. Despite laws disallowing the grab of water bodies, these ponds are surreptitiously filled up with garbage, and then snuffed out of existence. Soon they become ‘land’ which may then be used to make buildings. Local activists trying to save these smaller water bodies, warn against the violent and aggressive nature of the petty land mafia. It is almost as if these ‘living blues’ are ghosts in the new expanding urban areas, with no one to speak up for them. Sometimes a large fencing is constructed around this precious expanse of water, away from public eye, so people aren’t aware of the rapid illegal switch being made from water to land.  In the past however in southwestern parts of Kolkata, some cooperative housing societies, dug the earth and used the same to build houses. These dug up portions were then kept as large tanks of water, which now regulate temperatures, offer a cool breeze and wonderful aesthetics in the urban environment. They are leased out to the Fisheries Departments, which then allow fishing cooperatives to fish and maintain them. In these areas land was converted to water.

In some cases, ponds fall into neglect, simply because they do not form the ‘consciousness of the city’. A city with large streetlights, tall flyovers, overhead metros cannot accommodate these living blue-green specks across its surface. When you zoom in, you find a struggle for resources, local disputes, and burden on fishermen to clean large tracts of waste, from ponds as they fish. It’s another story, that Kolkatans are comfortable consuming these fish, being bred and sold in the market amidst appallingly filthy and toxic conditions and do not bat an eyelid when they see dumps of municipal waste in them. Owners of private ponds too need to begin to participate in this vision. What could their private motivations be to continue preserving these open spaces for future sustainability?

Speaking to fishermen reveal that the city dwellers do not have the consciousness to think about these ponds. The motivations and intentions of local ward councilors are critical to the maintenance of these ponds. In some cases, active ward councilors have helped in cleaning up ponds but there continues to be an issue of transportation and disposal of waste, which lies in the hands of the municipal corporation. In some cases local initiatives by members of a community club has worked very well, where the club maintains the place, offers lease to fisherfolk and make profits from the fish harvested. Where fisherfolk themselves maintain the water body, the ecological principles of a breathing water body are kept intact. In these small success stories, one finds that the water is clean for swimming, but does not look like a swimming pool, that there is adequate greenery surrounding the lake nourishing its living organisms and not ornamentally fenced off from public, that people have access to the space and they respect it because its clean, and there is regular maintenance.

Among poor communities in Kolkata, most get water from common municipal taps. Women, older men and women and children collect water from the tap as it comes for stipulated hours in the morning and evenings. For most, large ponds and tanks are a support system for bathing, washing and cleaning; where as civic supplies are used for drinking water and cooking. In some neighbourhoods, pipelines carrying supplies of water from the river. While the corporation has set up pump stations to improve the pressure of water, the city must come up with a water budgeting system. Improving neighbourhood supplies of water by keeping an inventory of fresh water systems would create a bank of information on water availability and plans for sustainability through water harvesting and treatment of pond water along with maintaining ecological balance and biodiversity needs. Maintaining these waterbodies will be blessings for the future, as the river cannot support everyone.

While citizen education is very important to ensure the maintenance of these ponds, there is helplessness with regard to its maintenance by users, given the lack of priority given to these small eco systems, which support a rich web of life. It will not be surprising to find people congregated and playing near a dirty pool, or a man fishing in a garbage filled pond to while away his time. Just as these water systems fail to enter a wider urban consciousness, they fail to leave the consciousness of the local citizens, who spend many moments around it. Small youth collectives working on the environment may form networks across the city to improve the willingness of different stakeholders to take forward these issues at the neighbourhood level. Ward level authorities may be empowered to take up these well being initiatives.

There is a need to launch a citywide drive to rehabilitate Kolkata’s lakes and ponds for the sake of its future water sustainability urgently.

Sayantoni Datta is an independent researcher. She was a former Fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla and the founder member of the Jaladarsha Collective working on water and environmental issues in Kolkata.

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