The ecologically subsidised city: on Kolkata's wetland communities

Nature’s bounty: East Kolkata Wetlands is located in the eastern fringes of the city. Special Arrangement  

If ever there was someone who lived true to his name, it was Dhrubajyoti Ghosh. In Sanskrit, “Dhrubajyoti” refers to the light (jyoti) emitted by the pole star (dhruva tara). The ecologist, who passed away in February, was unwavering in his commitment to the cause he lived for and fearlessly defended: saving the ecologically critical East Kolkata Wetlands from the greed of developers for almost four decades, right up until his passing away.

Rural ecological wisdom

What Ghosh discovered serendipitously, as a public sanitation engineer in the early 1980s, was that Kolkata’s wastewater is introduced into and detained in shallow waterbodies (bheris in Bengali) which serve as oxidation ponds because of the presence of algae. Under the open tropical sun, the water undergoes change, getting comprehensively treated and cleaned as the bacteria disintegrate and the algae proliferate, serving as food for fish. The treated water is used by villagers in the area to grow vegetables and paddy.

The beauty of what Ghosh discovered is that these villagers have been following such sane ecological practices for many decades without any help from the State, and well beyond the gaze of the media. It suggests remarkable ecological wisdom on the part of largely illiterate villagers, based on knowledge of local conditions and wetland hydrology.

Thanks to his dedicated work, the 125 sq km area of the wetlands were recognised internationally in 2002 as a ‘Ramsar site’, or a wetland of international significance, which made it incumbent by both the State and the Central governments to protect them from invasive encroachments.

To the untrained eye, wetlands are easily and frequently mistaken to be wasteland, a point of view that shows remarkable ecological ignorance. Greater Kolkata, with a population of more than 14 million people, is one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world. A growing population of this size in a developing economy puts huge pressures on the infrastructure, sanitation being foremost among them.

Nature at work

Kolkata is fortunate to be home to the world’s largest organic ‘sewage treatment plant’, the wetlands. Unobserved by the rest of the world, sun-fed algae and the bacteria in the sewage perform this wondrous function.

A conservative estimate of this great service being performed quietly by nature would give us this data: the capacity to treat 750 million litres of wastewater per day. In monetary terms it would be over $25 billion (₹162,500 crore) annually.

But this is only one part of it. These wetlands are also home to a wide variety of aquatic life, vegetation, and hundreds of species of birds. Moreover, after nature’s organic treatment, the sewage that drains into the wetlands results in 55,000 tonnes of vegetables and paddy and 10,000 tonnes of fish annually, giving a community of 100,000 people a livelihood. In effect, the wastewater works as a costless fertilizer to produce cheap food for what Ghosh called an “ecologically subsidised” city.

Because these invaluable benefits cannot be calculated, they are often brushed aside in the calculations of developers. No textbook of development economics in India or elsewhere talks about “the developer’s model of development”, the one that is actually the dominant understanding of development at work across 21st century India.

In 2005, the UN Millennium Ecosystem Assessment found ecological degradation to be more prominent within wetlands than any other ecosystem on Earth.

Dhrubajyoti Ghosh recognised this and did more than perhaps any other individual in creating public awareness in India about the need to conserve its wetlands. His efforts were recognised internationally, when he was named, in 1990, as a UN Global 500 Roll of Honour laureate. In 2016, he received the prestigious CEM Luc Hoffmann Award from the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Ghosh was an ecologist, not an environmentalist. Based on his close observations of wetland communities and their organically renewable livelihoods, he argued for several new concepts relevant to ecological pedagogy and policy-making. For him, the environment was not a mere after-thought in the operations of a market economy; and the forgotten natural world was no mere ‘resource’. Such a perspective illustrates the holistic quality that an ecologist brings to his vision and work. Ghosh was that sort of a man.

Aseem Shrivastava, a writer and ecological thinker, is the the author (with Ashish Kothari) of ‘Churning the Earth: The Making of Global India’

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Printable version | Sep 15, 2021 8:06:17 PM |

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