Deepor beel: Entangled in a net of dangers

Banning fishing in the beel has not only affected the sustenance of the Keot fishing community in Guwahati but it is also threatening the beel's very existence.
Deepor Beel awaits a fresh gush of life
Deepor Beel awaits a fresh gush of life

“Posua botah”, he said, “the wind is blowing from the west now so we cannot take you to the beel to show you how we catch fish. This wind cleans the water and we won’t get fish. 'Bhatial botah', when the wind blows from the east, the water turns muddy and the fish come up to the surface to breathe. That’s the best time to fish”, he explained.

They know the beel like they know their body.

They are the 'Kewat' (Keot in Assamese), a fishing community of more than 820 families from Keotpara in Azara. They are completely dependent on the Deepor beel for their sustenance. The beel gives them food and the people look after her with sincere devotion. 

With a perennial spread of about 10.1 km2, which extends up to 40.1 km2 during floods is Assam's lone Ramsar site, one of the largest wetlands of the Brahmaputra valley and the only major storage water basin for Guwahati's drainage. Till 2009, the beel was maintained by the State Fisheries Department. Then the state government declared the beel as a bird sanctuary due to the number of migratory birds that visit annually and banned fishing. And just like that, the fishermen's lives went for a toss. 

Sadly, while fishing is banned to protect the wetland, there is no dearth of conditions created for the wetland to choke and die including the deposition of oil refinery waste and hospital waste that are killing the fish and spoiling the very beel that the government is trying to protect.

Now, the state government plans to form a Deepor Beel Management and Development Authority, which is a welcome step. The Chief Secretary of the State who will head it has stated that the body of the Authority will be constituted soon. “If we can develop sustainable eco-tourism, we will be able to tackle the issues related with livelihood of the communities depending on the wetlands like the Deepor Beel and the conservation of their biodiversity”, said State’s Principal Chief Conservator (PCCF) of Forests R.P. Agarwalla.

It would not be wrong to say that they worship the beel that has sustained them for ages. They have a local committee to prevent fishing in the beel during the breeding season. Anyone from among them, who flouts the rule is penalised. "To fish during the breeding season is suicide for us, if the fish is gone, we are gone", says Niren Kumar Das, a resident of Keotpara. They have a practice of releasing fishlings to manage the population of the fish in the beel- a system that respects rules of the ecosystem.  

Towards the end of October, the locals construct ‘khar bheta’ or ‘khar bandh’- a temporary structure of series of bamboo screens, across the Khanajan (the channel that carries water from the Brahmaputra to the wetland). This is made to prevent the fish from going out of Deepor beel. During the monsoons when water enters the beel, this ‘khar bandh’ is opened for the fish from the Brahmaputra to come in. This picture shows the final set of screens at the Khanajan channel.

 

On the other hand, the Guwahati oil refinery waste is directed through the Bharalu and Kalmoni rivers to the beel. The channels also carry other industrial and hospital waste to the beel. The water has turned black and smelly. The wetland is home to hundreds of birds and fish species and hosts many endangered migratory birds during the winter. Official sources say that the release of sewage into the water might have caused the fall in oxygen levels resulting in the death of fishes

 

Fishing is now illegal at the beel. Dumping of the city’s waste is freely allowed. Guwahati generates about 450 tonnes of waste everyday that finds its way to the periphery of the beel. The birds now seem to prefer the dump and why not- there is enough to eat!

 

Fishing was once the only means of livelihood for people of Keotpara but now things are changing. If only the local systems and management were respected!

 

Many have started rearing pigs for additional income support as the fish numbers deteriorate and their livelihood is on stake

 

Rowing away...hopes of many have succumbed to satisfy the hunger of the growing city.

The problem is not that of urban sprawl eating away the water bodies but it is that of man not recognizing himself as a part of the system being tampered with. Everyone who depends on the beel-be it fish, bird or man- is important and shouldn't be ignored. Finding the balance in handling all of them is the key.

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