A citizens’ initiative to protect the hundreds of ecologically sensitive ponds in Bihar’s Darbhanga city from the prying eyes of real estate developers and illegal encroachers

A relentless battle is underway in the historic city of Darbhanga in Bihar, in which neither is fire being exchanged nor are bombs being hurled. It is a battle that is silent but creepy; the proponents having unleashed calculated attack on the rich heritage of one of the ancient cities of Mithila. At the centre of the battle are its innumerable ponds of various shapes and sizes, which the real estate developers have set their eyes on.

If doctoral research work by S.H. Bazmi at the city’s L.N. Mithila University is any indication, Darbhanga could easily be called a ‘city of ponds’. From as small as 500 sq. metres to as large as 190,000 sq. metres in size, there are no less than 213 ponds in the town of little over 300,000 inhabitants. The city’s history dates back to the times of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, when it was a part of the cultural hub of Mithila extending into present Nepal.

Not only for its rich history and intriguing mythology, Darbhanga has also been known for braving recurring floods. Situated in the floodplains of rivers descending from the Himalayas, the district is literally surrounded by rivers on all sides. The Bagmati, Kamla and Tiljuga rivers flow through the district. Not only have ponds in the district been usually fed by these rivers, these water bodies have played a flood moderating role by storing excess flow during monsoons.

Given that the entire Mithila region has been flood-prone, the districts of Supaul, Sitamarhi and Madhubani in north Bihar have had a rich tradition of ponds. According to records, the Darbhanga district has 9,115 whereas neighbouring Madhubani has as many as 10,746 ponds. Despite their immense ecological and cultural significance, as ponds have historically been venues for fairs and festivals, these water bodies now present a picture of utter neglect.

Ironically, some 50 ponds in the city have been completely levelled to real estate interests. Sensing the decline of its rich water culture and the impending water crises, local resident Narayan Jee Choudhary has mobilised eminent citizens of Darbhanga to launch a campaign to save ponds under the aegis of Talab Bachao Abhiyan. In a recent memorandum, the group has sought the administration’s intervention towards restoration and reclamation of ponds in the city.

“With each encroachment in a pond, a bit of history gets erased,” says Mr. Choudhary. Three of the largest ponds — Dighi Museum, Ganga Sagar and Harahi — cover an area of 41, 28 and 22 hectares respectively and were built by then rulers between the years 1136-1324 AD. While the administration has turned a blind eye, dumping of wastes and subsequent encroachment of ponds has been more of a norm than an exception within the city limits.

In an apparent case of a fence eating the grass, many encroachments have either been made by the district administration or by the concerned gram panchayat. While a primary school has cropped up on the bed of the Dighi pond, a fish market has been built over an acre of encroached area in Ganga Sagar. “If such is the plight of historic ponds, smaller ponds disappear much before anyone takes a note of them,” laments Mr. Choudhary.

Citing several cases wherein the Supreme Court and some High Courts have highlighted protection of commons for water security and biodiversity conservation, the Talab Bacaho Abhiyan has been acting like a pressure group to protect the cultural heritage of Mithila. There are several provisions in the municipal rules that the campaign is trying to invoke for protecting the water bodies from pollution, misuse and encroachment.

If the plight of ponds and lakes across the country are any indication, it is a long drawn battle to which Mr. Choudhary and his colleagues have committed themselves. Given the fact that wetlands are neither in the State List nor in the Central List, and not even the Concurrent List, protecting ponds and lakes has not been provisioned under the law. No wonder, the country is losing wetlands to real estate interest systematically and most unlawfully.

“Nothing can be more shocking,” says wetland conservation expert Dr. Dhruvjyoti Ghosh, “than the fact that between 1984-2011, not a single question on disappearance of urban or peri-urban water bodies was debated in Lok Sabha.”

Given the political neglect and official apathy, it is left to citizen’s movements like Talab Bachao Abhiyan to draw attention to the protection and conservation of commons.

(The writer is with the Delhi-based The Ecological Foundation)