The livelihood of about 60 fishermen who cultivate fish in two bheris (ponds) in East Kolkata Wetland, protected under an international inter-governmental convention, is at stake. The fishermen were asked to leave the two ponds, about 100 acres in size, or cough up ten thousand rupees every month to protect their livelihood.

Allegedly the supporters of Arabul Islam, the strongman of Trinamool Congress (TMC) in south 24 Paraganas district, have demanded money, ostensibly in a “polite way,” the locals told The Hindu. However, Mr Islam said he was not “aware” of any such development.

The incident took place in Bantala area on the north-eastern fringe of the city on Tuesday. At around 9 a.m. seven men reached two bheris – Dakshin Gorumara I and Dakshin Gorumara II. Sixty-one persons cultivate fish in the ponds. Mr Islam’s men allegedly told fish growers to pay a levy to continue their work.

“Arabul Islam’s right hand man, Nityogopal, was in the team. They will be back on Friday to prepare a list of names,” a local fisherman told this newspaper on condition of anonymity. “I think they are preparing the list to target us and our families,” one of them said. The men are even scared to register a formal complaint.

When contacted, Mr. Islam will look into the matter.”

Mr. Islam, a former MLA, controls the party in the Bhangar town in South 24 Parganas district.

Opposition parties alleged that he “rigged” the election in the Jadavpur Lok Sabha constituency during the general elections to ensure the victory of historian Sugato Basu. He also allegedly orchestrated an attack on former CPI (M) minister Abdur Rezzak Molla.

Activists alleged that the giant bheris of the wetland have been on the radar of TMC-backed promoters for several years. With a growth in the realty market, land prices of the areas adjacent to Kolkata, including Bantala, have gone up. Mr. Islam and his men are trying to grab the land and the ponds in the area to sell it to the realtors, said activists.

Former Chief Environment Officer of the State government Dhurubojyoti Ghosh said Mr. Islam was trying to capture the land as it is located on the “southern most fringes of the areas controlled” by him. “Hence, controlling Bantala and the adjoining areas is a prestige issue for Mr Islam,” said Mr Ghosh. The area is mostly inhabited by people from lower income group, Scheduled Castes and Tribes.

These ponds are part of the East Kolkata Wetlands, which are recognised as the only Ramsar Site in West Bengal. The Ramsar Convention is formally known as the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance. According to the convention any change of land use at a Ramsar is cited is prohibited. Activists allege that some portions of the wetlands have already been filled up on the eastern side of the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass.