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Dying, slowly: Illegal salt mining is threatening the wetland ecosystem of Sambhar Lake

Flamingos at Sambhar

Flamingos at Sambhar

Stretching before me is a vast expanse of a lake — only, it is dry, encrusted with salt. The bright sunshine lends a silvery sheen to the salt flats. As I crunch my way across a kyar (salt pan), I see a few birds wading in a little pool of water. I am at Rajasthan’s Sambhar Lake, India’s largest inland salt lake and the site of a recent avian tragedy.

In late 2019, the lake bed had turned into a mass graveyard for migratory birds. An estimated 25,000 birds dropped dead: Kentish plovers, tufted ducks, northern shovelers, pied avocets, little ringed plovers, stilts and gadwalls, among 36 species. The Indian Veterinary Research Institute in Bareilly said avian botulism could be the culprit.

As Sambhar Lake came under the international spotlight for this mass die-off, another phenomenon drew attention to the lake: rampant illegal salt mining and a shrinking wetland. Salt pans were proliferating and illegal borewells dotted the area, causing a massive degradation of the famous lake.

Protection needed

The 230, shallow, elliptical wetland straddles the districts of Jaipur, Nagaur and Ajmer.

Salt production in Sambhar is nothing new. It has taken place for centuries, but in

Threatened: A dry stretch of Sambhar Lake.

Threatened: A dry stretch of Sambhar Lake.

a traditionally sustainable manner, providing livelihood to the local community. The Mughals, the British, and now Sambhar Salts Ltd (a subsidiary of Hindustan Salts Ltd, a public sector company) have all controlled salt production. But today, there is a mushrooming of illegal salt mining and that is grievously threatening the wetland ecosystem.

Nawa, on the northern side of Sambhar Lake, is controlled by private salt manufacturers. It is notorious for the many illegal borewells that over-extract brine. The salt pans encroach upon the lake, and pipelines transport the brine, with unauthorised electric cables, across several kilometres, connecting the lake bed to villages.

As I travel to Nawa I see mounds of salt even from a distance. Pumpsets are attached to the borewells dug deep inside the lake bed, and a mesh of wires, covered with mud, lies on top.

Following a National Green Tribunal direction, some action against illegal borewells was initiated. Last year, 288 borewells, 32 submersible pumps, and 14 hectares of encroachment were cleared. “We have also cleared 8 of pipelines and electric cables, and we keep monitoring the area. Our priority is protecting the habitat and ecology of Sambhar,” says Brahmlal Jat, Sub-Divisional Officer, Nawa Tehsil.

Sucked away

“Sambhar Lake’s future is totally dependent on the seasonal rivers that flow into it during the monsoon. But now this water is being sucked away before it reaches the

A dead bird, one of hundreds found in the Sambhar Lake area in 2019

A dead bird, one of hundreds found in the Sambhar Lake area in 2019

lake, causing it to dry up,” says ecologist Harsh Vardhan. Mendha, Rupangarh, Kharain, Khandel and several such streams and rivulets used to recharge the lake. But the farmers in the 7,560 catchment area of the lake have built surface embankments across the rivers, obstructing their downstream flow into the lake. They have sunk tubewells along the rivers and laid pipelines to transport water to their fields, choking the rivers and ultimately threatening the wetland ecosystem.

The lake supports flamingos and migratory birds from as far away as Siberia that feed on the algae and micro-organisms found in the saline waters. Members of Wildlife Creature Organization, a local NGO, recall wistfully how the entire lake would turn pink with thousands of flamingos just a decade ago.

Optimum use

T.K. Roy, a conservationist, counted 1,004 birds belonging to 30 species during the annual Asian waterbird census this January. This is a dramatic decline from last year’s 43,510 birds. But 2020 might have been an exceptional year due to the rains; the last few years have shown an otherwise steady decline.

“It is an issue of management. Sambhar Lake should be clearly demarcated and its uses defined taking all stakeholders into consideration,” says R.N. Mehrotra, former Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Rajasthan, and member of an expert committee formed to give recommendations to the High Court on Sambhar. He adds that Sambhar, being on revenue land, was never scientifically managed as an ecosystem. “Sustainability will come only when there is optimum use. There is a habitat here for birds. Until the forest department is given an identified area for the habitat, they cannot make it sustainable.”

To add to the wetland’s woes, a tented heritage resort has come up, and a 117-year-old, 11 km meter gauge train line was re-laid three years ago. As I stroll along the white earth, I wonder: what is the rationale of ecotourism if the wetland and its birds are themselves under threat?

The writer searches for positive stories across the country.

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Printable version | Sep 25, 2022 6:10:16 pm |