Bikramgarh Jheel in Kolkata, gets a new lease of life

In a city where land prices are climbing up by the day, and homes must be constructed for a growing population on scarce land, water-bodies are falling prey to the avaricious schemes of land-sharks. But as water-bodies disappear, groundwater levels fall. Realising the need to act before it is too late, a citizens group and a non-governmental organisation - Nature Mates - have managed to restore the badly mauled Bikramgarh Jheel  in Kolkata.

Bikramgarh Jheel is an 8-acre water-body in Kolkata that has been facing the pressures of a growing city, and increased disposable income in metropolitan India. Once a huge waterbody that stretched from a little off Prince Anwarshah Road in south Kolkata to Bijoygarh, it is now a fraction of its original size. 

The South City Complex, comprising the tallest high-rise towers in Kolkata and the new abode of the well-heeled rich of the city, has encroached on a full one acre of the water-body, as was proved following a complaint made by many environmentalists, scientists and activists. Meanwhile, smaller realtors have also built on the waterbody, while residential quarters have surreptitiously fenced off parts for gardens and flower beds. Garbage is thrown all around the once-beautiful lake, polluting its once pristine waters. Thus, the once 14 acre water-body (as per 1976 records) which had been a landmark behind the Jay Engineering factory on Prince Anwarshah Road has come to be reduced to half its original size over the years. 

Building of roads and connectors have also taken their toll of the water-body over the years, breaking it into secondary lakes or ponds around.

As Bijoygarh residents saw the  beautiful water-body they had grown up with, getting badly mauled into a dumping ground over the years, a citizens committee took it upon itself to mend matters. And thus was born the Bikramgarh Jheel Bachao Committee. They were, of course, emboldened by the efforts of Vasundhara, a non-governmental organization headed by activist Mohit Roy, that took up the matter of encroachment on the water body by the South City Developers in Calcutta High Court, and the fact that the groundwater level in their neighbourhood was getting lowered with land sharks swallowing up chunks of the huge water-body.

The need to save water-bodies had been felt by state authorities several years ago. As far back as 1984, the authorities in West Bengal had taken a stern view of the filling up of water-bodies in the state. This Act, amended further in 1993, bars the filling up of any water-body measuring 5 cottahs or more, where water is retained for a minimum of 6 months.  Further, Section 24 of the Water (Prevention & Control of Pollution) Act, 1974 and 4 D of the West Bengal Land & Land Reforms Act, 1956 , can also be applied  to stop filling up of  water bodies. Due to environmental and ecological reasons, the West Bengal   Town and Country ( Planning & Development) Act, 1979, denies permission for filling up of  a water tank, pond  or water-body.

However, realtors and promoters get around  the existing legislation by getting trucks of garbage dumped into wetlands and water-bodies. Later, fly-ash is dumped, until a mixture of water hyacinth, fly-ash and garbage obscures the existence of fresh water. Once the water disappears to make way for solid ground, the foundations are laid and  construction commences for a residential or office structure.  Even the East Kolkata wetlands, a Ramsar site, has not been spared such “ development.” The extent of the encroachment, and the dangers it poses to  a city devoid of natural green lungs and sewerage options had conservationists insist and achieve the setting up of the East Kolkata Wetlands Development Authority  a few years ago.  The Wetlands ( Conservation  and Management) Rules, 2010, too has gone on to provide a legal framework  for protecting an ecosystem  that has come under serious threat from unregulated developmental activity. Besides, the government has also created the Central Wetlands Regulatory Authority to protect all water-bodies in the country.

Yet, to this day ,  it is an open secret  that numerous wetlands all over the country,  face the risk of encroachment by realtors out to make hay.  The laws are openly flouted in the capital city of New Delhi, right under the nose of the seat of government.  Water-bodies get encroached upon and converted into prime residential land, with no one caring , or daring to lift a finger.

In the districts surrounding Kolkata, large swathes of wetland and water-bodies along the national highways in Dankuni ( in Hooghly district), Bally (in Howrah district) are particularly vulnerable.  The land mafia is extremely strong , and goons who were once protected by the Marxists in the past, have been quick to shift their allegiance to the ruling Trinamul. 

The megabucks involved are in crores; hence, it is small wonder that  a prominent activist-Tapan Dutta- who took the legal route to resist further encroachment in Bally-Jagacha block, only a little north of Kolkata, was murdered in broad daylight at Bally railway station. An year earlier, Dutta’s brother had been killed in the Bally marketplace one morning, in full public view.

In Kolkata, understandably, the situation is far worse. Unchecked, unplanned growth has seen the city move into areas earmarked as its green belt and ecological bulwark.  Since land is limited, realtors think nothing of encroaching on water-bodies that dot this eastern metropolis which lies in the heart of the world’s largest inhabited riverine delta. The modus operandi is simple. Garbage and fly ash are initially thrown to interfere with the free flow of water. As truckloads of ash and garbage result in the water body giving way to solid ground, foundations are laid and a structure appears where a water-body had been.Keen to stem the rot before it was too late, Arjan Basu Roy, an engineer by training and a conservationist at heart, decided to act and save Bikramgarh Jheel before it took the shape of  a “nalla”. His NGO, Nature Mates, which has been into conservation for several years,  teamed up with several like-minded friends to clean up the Jheel. 

Not that it was all smooth sailing.  Although the waterbody belongs to the Municipal Corporation, nothing has ever stopped encroachers. The presence of a borough office only a stone’s throw away has never deterred anyone from claiming his pound of flesh. Throwing garbage into the jheel, of course, is child’s play.  Once Nature Mates took up the cause of the  Bikramgarh Jheel, the threats came in strong and fast, as Basu Roy tells me. Thankfully, the Nature Mates had the local Borough Chairman supporting them , and then Opposition leader and now Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee encouraging them on. Besides, in an ironic twist, the residents of the South City Complex also contributed financially to their effort. Thus, with Rs 1.5 lakh collected for the task, Nature Mates set about cleaning the lake.

When Basu Roy’s and his people commenced their cleaning operations at Bikramgarh, the labour force was beaten up by goons, and they had to stop work for a while.   But with political will on their side,  Basu Roy and his friends triumphed.  In exactly three months spanning April-June 2012, Bikramgarh Jheel was cleaned up.

The nod to the jheel’s stature came in when birds chose to once-again visit the water-body. This was something its feathered friends had forgotten about ever since the clear waters of the jheel had given way to a putrid pond stinking of garbage. 

Making use of the Corporation’s records on the Jheel, a plan had been drawn to fence off the Jheel and make a permanent structure to offset any further encroachment.  At the moment, Nature Mates intends to assist the Corporation in beautifying the place around the Jheel as a promenade for walkers. There are also plans to maintain the Jheel on a regular basis, lest garbage and encroachment s  again threaten its existence.

However, when one looks around the Jheel today, the battle hardly seems over.  The encroachments –in the shape of buildings, shanties or garages, may have been declared illegal, and await removal.  But   garbage continues to be  thrown all around it. Sooner or later, this is bound to disturb the beautiful birds who have only lately resumed their tryst with the Jheel after a long break.

Meanwhile, Nature Mates is currently engaged in cleaning up another adjacent two -acre waterbody that lies overrun with water hyacinth and garbage. “ This had been a part of the larger waterbody that we  know as the Bikramgarh Jheel. A road running in between apparently separated them from each other.” Basu Roy explains to me.  One only hopes, as conservationists restore the water-bodies to re-establish the natural links that had existed between them in the past, they manage to successfully link humans to nature by making them aware of the need to maintain a healthy, sustainable environment  beneficial to all living creatures, including Man.

Post By: IWP2