ASSAMENVIRONMENTGUWAHATINATURE

DEEPOR BEEL AND ITS WOES

 JUGITA SHARMA

When it comes to Deepor Beel, what instantly strikes us is all those various species of fishes- and we people of Assam love our fish, but……….FRESH FISH. Just recently when my editor asked me to write an article on the Deepor beel, I was really excited. So, the very next day I wrapped up myself and headed for the wetland to do the needful research.

Winters arriving, I was sure I’d be lucky enough to spot some varieties of migratory birds.

Photo by AG Borah

As I was nearing the Beel, a strange odour filled my nostrils, and it was increasing with my every step. Unbearable as it was, I stopped to enquire someone of that locality; to know from where was the stench emanating. And I was shocked on hearing what that person had to say, “fishes are dying and floating all over the Beel baideo and the smell is coming from them, don’t go any further, it smells really bad.” I wanted to go ahead, but couldn’t convince myself as I was already out of breath from holding it for so long. I ran back and swallowed some air or else my lungs would burst out. On my way back, those words, ‘fishes are dying and floating’ was constantly ringing in my head. How can fishes just die and float like that? Something really wrong has happened.

It is a strong matter of concern not only for the administration and the State Government, but for people like you and me—the common people. The question arises —Where are we progressing to? What are we doing to our own motherland?

Does every Guwahatian know that The Deepor Beel in Guwahati is the only wetland in this part of the country and has a very important role in preserving the earth’s eco-system? And that Deepor Beel is listed a Ramsar site for undertaking conservation measures on the basis of its biological and environmental importance. I really doubt that everyone knows.

It is high time for all of us to know about the beels importance and also its degradation.

Polythene bags floating at Deepor Beel

The Basistha and Kalmani rivers are the main sources of water to the wetland. And during monsoons the lake acts as a natural storm-water reservoir for guwahati city and is stated to be the only major storage water basin for the city( a boon in disguise). Keeping in view the fact that how dangerous the water-logged streets of guwahati turns out during monsoons, it is unimaginable to even think what would happen to our city if the beel didn’t exist.

The Deepor Beel is a natural habitat to many varieties of flora and fauna, it directly or indirectly provides its natural resources for the livelihood of fourteen indigenous villages located in the surroundings. The inhabitants  of those villages located in the periphery of the beel utilise it for various purpose like fishing, as a waterway for transporting the villagers of the southern boundary to the N.H.37, or to collect fodder and aquatic seeds etc.

‘Freshwater fish is a vital source of protein as well as income for these communities. The beel is an open water system representing a biologically rich wetland environment. The fish yield in the beel at the rate of 245kg\hectare’ (Sources, AFDC, Assam). The villagers also raise ‘the boro paddy’ sown in the months of December and January and harvested in April and May.

Of late the Beel’s existence and reputation as a Ramsar site wetland and a Bird Sanctuary is on threat. Also on threat are the villagers of the 14 indigenous villages whose health and wealth are directly dependent on the Beel’s eco-system. The Beel’s eco-system is in the process of deterioration and its causes are many.

They are:

  • Proliferation of encroachers, unplanned construction of roads and industries around the Beel’s periphery causing pollution.

“There is no concrete land tenure data of the Beel. Originally the entire Beel area(40Km2) was a part of Government vacant land,” told  Proffesor Dr. Prasanta K. Saikia, Reader, Department of Zoology, Gauhati University. He further added, “As a result of which Government Departments such as settlement, revenue, fishery and forest have been demanding their own right on it to implement their departmental activities. Apart from 4.14sq.km of beel core area, the settlement department shows only 36 bighas as Government vacant land. The rest of the area is either encroached without valid ‘patta’ or converted into ‘temporary patta land’ by the society’s most influential people and also people from neighbouring areas. Though the Government’s land law indicates that the wetlands, lakes or rivers cannot be a patta land of any individual or if it is patta land, apparently it cannot be converted into settlement areas.” Surprisingly Dr. Saikia further disclosed that actually, “allotment of the patta was started systematically since 1989, which is one of the threats in respect of conservation of the internationally important wetland.”

  • The discharge of untreated waste water through the Bharalu and Bahini rivers from different parts of the city and the adjoining areas into the Beel have brought the wetland’s pollution to an alarming position.

“The beel plays an important role in maintaining the environmental quality of the area in its vicinity and also of the city like Guwahati. It represents one of the last vestiges of the once ubiquitous wetlands of this region,” quipped Dr. Prasanta Saikia.

  • Construction of the broad-gauge railway line on the periphery of the Beel is damaging the fragile eco-system of the wetland.

“Wetands,” says Dr.Saikia, “are essential not only for hydrological and ecological processes but also for the rich fauna and flora they support. This is why the Ramsar Convention’s broad objectives are to stem the loss of wetlands and ensure their conservation.”

  • The Government Settlement department has been allotting Government vacant lands to private party’s.

According to Dr. Saikia, “the beel, which acts as a natural storm water reservoir during the monsoon season, is greatly influenced by the rapid pace of urbanisation and improper land use pattern of Guwahati city.” He added, “A number of temporary farmhouses have been constructed in recent years around the beel. Besides, several settlements and Industrial units including the Border Security Forces Housing Complex and the Artfed Industrial Complex have come up in the swampy area of the beel.”

  • Many brick kilns have mushroomed in and around the vicinity of the Beel whereas soil-cutting has become rampant on the hills resulting in deforestation and accumulation of huge deposits of earth and silt on the Beel’s bed.
  • Hunting, trapping and killing of wild birds and mammals is being taken place in a rather insensitive manner.
  • Unplanned and intensive fishing practices both during the day and night is threatening the rich biological wealth of the Beel.

Dr. Saikia further put forth that, “In addition to the general obligation of including conservation of the wetland heritage in their land use planning, Government’s that are parties to the convention(RAMSAR) undertake to respect four main obligations namely:

  1. To designate at least one wetland for inclusion in the list of wetlands of vital importance.
  2. To promote the wise use of wetlands in their territory.
  3. To consult with each other about implementing obligations arising from the convention, especially but not exclusively, in the case of a shared wetland or water system.”

There are so many factors for the concerned authorities to look into and we want to know, why are these anomalies happening at all? Inspite  of being aware of the wetlands importance, how can the Administration and State Government be so insensitive to the growing issues of pollution taking place in so many many forms. It is to be noted that in 2008, A Planning Commission team visited the Beel under the National Wetland Conservation Management Program of the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests, recommended the State Government and the Administration to take corrective measures for the wetland’s survival.

Photo by AG Borah

Though the management authority for the Beel is the forest Department of the Government of Assam, whereas the Fisheries Department is the functional Authority, there are several public and private institutions and universities which have involved themselves in creating awareness of the ecological importance of the Beel and the need to restore it to its original status. Some important ones are:

  • The Ramsar  Convention which has recognised ‘Deepor beel’ in its list of 1782 wetland sites, with 158 contracting parties to the convention of the world; holds seminars to create awareness of the Beel’s uniqueness.
  • Aranyak, an NGO organisation set up to foster conservation of biodiversity in north east India through research, environmental, education, capacity building and advocacy for legal and policy reform to usher a new era of ecological security is actively involved in community based Conservation projects, which is among the projects, ‘The Deepor Beel community conservation project.’ The project was designed to reduce the anthropogenic pressure on the wetland by providing for alternative and diversified means of livelihood to the people living along the periphery of the Beel. The purpose of the project is to set up some community run ‘self help group’(SHG) to strenghthen their livelihood options through diverse means and gain their support in the conservation of the Deepor Beel as a wetland eco-system.
  • The animal ecology laboratory in the Department of Zoology, Gauhati University has been involved in the biological studies of the Beel, headed by Dr. Prasanta K. Saikia, reader, dept. of Zoology, alongwith Dr. (Mrs) Malabika Kakati Saikia.

The Beel being the only wetland in this part of the country obviously has a strong prospect for tourism with its wide variety of both residential and migratory birds, endangered animals and large species of fishes breeding on its bed. But unless the Government and Administration do not take corrective measures as soon as possible, the Beel will be converted into a massive garbage dump resulting in the damage of the fragile eco-system, making it too late for any kind of preservation measures, leave aside its prospect for TOURISM.

Source: ‘Faunal Biodiversity of Deepor Beel’ (Ramsar Site) Assam. Published by SEHRA, Zoology Department, Gauhati University. Authors: Dr. Prasanta K. Saikia & Dr.(Mrs) Malabika Kakati Saikia.
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