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Water, livelihoods dry up for fish farmers of East Kolkata Wetlands

The wetlands (macher bheris in Bengali) are drying up mainly due to the diversion of wastewater from Kolkata city into river Vidyadhari

A metro train runs on its track during a cold and foggy winter morning, in Kolkata (Photo: PTI)

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Kolkata, March 18 (IANS/ 101 Reporters) The fish farmers of East Kolkata Wetlands are fast losing out on their farm water. Once a major breeding spot of rui, katla, pona, telapiya, tyangra, parshe, bhetki, chitol and galda chingri, the wetlands (macher bheris in Bengali) are drying up mainly due to the diversion of wastewater from Kolkata city into river Vidyadhari.
Developed and perfected by humans over the last century, the wetlands serve as the natural sewage treatment unit of the city of Kolkata, while also promoting fisheries and vegetable cultivation. The Bantala Canal area on its eastern side receives most of the sewage from the metropolis.
"When the sewage accumulates at a height of 9 feet, the wetlands that house 200 fish farms receive water for pisciculture. For the fish ponds to benefit, this water level should be maintained at all times of the year," explains Bantala resident Sudhir Sardar, 60.
If the sewage level is above 9 feet at Bantala station, the water flows to the farms. Conversely, if it falls to 8 feet or below, the water will not reach the wetlands. The entry of sewage into fish ponds is of great significance as the organic matter in the wastewater aids in the growth of plankton that the fish population feeds upon. The biological process also treats the sewage, thereby addressing the issue of water pollution.
"There were 270 fish farms in the area (approximately two katthas for one bheri), covering about 300 bighas of land and water," says Niranjan Mondal, 45, whose family has been into pisciculture in Bantala for over five generations.
By 2002, it had come down to 208 and the latest estimate pegs the number at 200, according to Ashok Sardar Bantala resident and the secretary of Laban Hrad Matsya Chashi Kalyan Samiti.
He said if the decline of fisheries continues, it will affect the livelihood of four lakh people who are directly and indirectly involved in fishing. Today there are seven registered cooperative societies and 30 more unregistered societies that simultaneously function in the area.
Fish from the wetland area caters to the needs of Kolkata in addition to several other districts of West Bengal, with fish also being supplied to Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha, and some other states, he said.
Already many fishermen who had to give up their farms are now working as wage day labourers at various places in the city, he says. "Some are working as construction workers, others as porters in wholesale vegetable markets while some have migrated to other states like Uttar Pradesh or Maharashtra in search of better job opportunities."
Unwelcome diversion
Spread over an area of 12,000 hectares, some portions of the wetlands come under the jurisdiction of ward 36 of Bidhannagar Municipal Corporation, while some are panchayat areas. Several underground canals bring sewage to the wetlands, with the municipal authorities and irrigation department controlling the flow of water from the Bantala pumping station.
The problem began when the authorities began to redirect water into the Vidyadhari. An engineer from the New Town Kolkata Development Authority, said on the condition of anonymity: "Kolkata's sewage is so toxic that it will destroy the good bacteria in the wetlands. Things do not work the way they did a decade ago. The Pollution Control Board has directed us not to let out untreated water.
"The sewage from Salt Lake, Rajarhat and New Town surrounding the wetlands flows into three new treatment plants built in New Town. Once treated, the water is let out into Bagjola Canal, which flows into the Vidyadhari."
Meanwhile, the sewage treatment plant at Bantala catering to East Kolkata Wetlands is in a state of disrepair for a decade now. The redirecting of water into Vidhyadhari even during monsoons not only increases the risk of a breach downstream but also flooding in Kolkata city.
Foul play alleged
Environmentalist Sourav Chakraborti is sure that the local goons working closely with the ruling Trinamool Congress, realtors and the police have formed a nexus. "They are trapping poor farmers by cutting off the water supply, thus forcing them to sell off fish farms to realtors. Old-timers say the real estate syndicate dates back to the 1990s."
Putting the blame on both the CPI-M and Trinamool Congress governments for the poor state of the water body, Chakraborti says no political leader wants to acknowledge that the wetlands purify sewage. "They just want to encroach upon the entire area because they need money to fund elections."
Undoubtedly, the biggest gainers from dry wetlands are real estate dealers. As water runs out, more and more fish farmers are forced to sell their lowlands to real estate promoters for constructing multi-storied buildings.
"These poor people do not understand the significance of wetlands. So, when the realtors offered them jobs and a sum of Rs 6 lakh, they sold off their farms. However, the twist in the tale is that they have not received the money promised, even five years after the land deal," adds Niranjan.
One such farmer, Dinabanhu Bera tells 101Reporters that he is yet to get the entire amount originally agreed upon. "Whenever I approach the realtor with this demand, I am given Rs 10,000 and told to get back later. To date, not even half of the promised amount has been paid."
Alleging that local politicians, police and promoter syndicates are involved in the scam, Bera says the duped farmers approached the local police several times, but nothing happened.
"They (realtors) have now built boundary walls on our farmlands and do not let us inside," he laments.
Javed Khan, a realtor, told 101Reporters that he bought a couple of fish farms because the area dried up.
"The fishermen needed money and I got the land in exchange. What is wrong with that? However, if you ask me why the fish farms dried up and where the water went, I will not be able to answer. The state government should reply," he clarifies his position.
Amaresh Mondal, the head of Bamanghata panchayat in North 24 Parganas, says: "I am aware that fish farms are drying up and people are selling them to realtors. However, I do not know whether they received the full amount. They were advised against land sale, but they did not listen to us then. We hope to find a solution to this issue soon by holding talks with the state government."
In 2020, local NGO Laban Hrad Matsyachashi Kalyan Samiti filed a public interest litigation in the Calcutta High Court on the issues faced by fish farmers.
Last December, the court ordered demolition of buildings constructed in the area. However, police or municipal authorities are yet to act.
"An atmosphere of fear makes many stay silent. Even if they suffer, they refrain from talking about it. I can name three fishermen -- Rabi Ghosh, Tapan Pandit and Roga Jasmin -- who have been untraceable ever since they approached the police. That is why we moved the court on their behalf," says Ashok Sardar.
Refusing to comment on the issue, Bidhannagar Municipal Corporation Chairman Sabyasachi Dutta says: "Mayor Krishna Chakraborty will talk about this." However, Chakraborty toes the same line. "I have no knowledge about this. I will not say anything."
(Showli Chakraborty is a West bengal-based journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters)

(Only the headline and picture of this report may have been reworked by the Business Standard staff; the rest of the content is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

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First Published: Mar 18 2023 | 8:43 PM IST

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