Monday, December 5, 2016

Bhopal Notes :: 44 :: Ramsar status of Bhoj Wetland threatened

A weekly pull out of a local English language newspaper published the other day the news of arrival of the feathered friends around the water bodies of Bhopal. With the approach of winter these friends are flying in from distant lands only to roost and breed around the local water bodies. The report was based on the sightings of several bird-watchers of the city. Apparently, bird-watching or birding as it is generally mentioned is becoming popular, more so, during the few winter months. Among the water bodies the report mentioned were numerous ones, from Hathaikheda Dam, Kaliasot Dam to Kolar Dam and Ghodpachhad Dam in and around Bhopal, though Van Vihar or, more appropriately, Bhoj Wetland remains the primary venue for the visitors. Even the Shahpura Lake gets some of these birds.

Most of the birders are very charitable towards the Bhoj Wetland. They never mention that the birdlife of the water body has been steadily dwindling. Hence the names of water bodies located outside the city are generally mentioned. Only a couple years ago I had come across a report that the migratory birds were coming to this region during the season but they were overflying Bhopal and going as far as Halali Dam, around 50 kilometres away.

The arrivals in Bhopal had to decrease because of thoughtless increase in human activities around the Wetland. To start with, it was a mistake to locate the Sports Authority of India complex so close to the Bird Area. It may be satisfying the requirements of distance from a bird area but the intense human sporting activities with or without powerful lights does drive away the birds. Unceasing human activities of such nature close to a bird area will never be to their liking, especially when they come flying over long distances from their native habitat.

The amusement complex of Sair Sapata of the Tourism Development Corporation was another ill-conceived project which is now up and running for some years. Situated bang on the Upper Lake next to the bird area, it is spread over an area of around 25 acres. Designed to entice visitors, especially children, it has a toy train, musical fountains, children’s play area spread over 2 acres and several view points. An additional attraction is the suspension bridge with profuse illumination at night. Conceptually one cannot have any quarrel with it but its location was unwisely chosen particularly because it is so close to the Wetland threatening its status of Important Bird Area. Its nightly activities would certainly drive away the birdlife from the area which, according to some reports, has already happened.

Apart from these major deterrents, the water of the Upper Lake was highly polluted till the arrival of the last monsoon. It had been so for humans for quite some time but it later became harmful even for the fauna that have made the Wetland their temporary or permanent habitat. The last heavy monsoon seems to have been helpful in diluting the pollutants and has drained away some of their lethal elements. This is what the local Pollution control Board claims which, I am afraid, one takes with a pinch, if not fistful, of salt.

What is more alarming is the ongoing construction that is continuing unabated in the absence of any check. The government and the Municipal Corporation have not acted upon the report submitted two year ago by the Centre for Environmental Planning and Environment engaged by the government for suggesting ways to conserve the Upper Lake. In the absence of any check already numerous schools have been opened in the Bishenkhedi area and there is a proposal to build a cricket stadium of international standards accompanied by sundry other construction that might become necessary. If that were to happen the bird life of Bhoj Wetland could well be written off.

As situation stands today, the fact that seems to emerge that Bhoj Wetland does not habour any more the birds – domestic or migratory – in the same numbers as it used to when it was declared a Ramsar Site as also, later, when it was designated as an Important Bird Area by Birdlife International. Apparently, before Bhoj Wetland was declared a Ramasar Site it used to host on a “regular basis” 20000 or more water birds. That is one of the criteria for designating a wetland as a Ramsar Site under the Ramsar Convention. From the reports one gets these days or even on the basis of visual assessments it looks like that the Wetland hosts “on regular basis” far less number of water birds. If that be the case the Ramsar Status of the Wetland would be considered to be under serious threat and so also its status of Important Bird Area.

Only a scientific count of the birds and bird species would reveal the facts of the matter. I do not recall any such count in the recent past. It would, therefore, seem to be high time that such a count is arranged by the state government in collaboration with some recognized organization like the Bombay Natural History Society or by the Indian chapter of Birdlife International. If the views that now prevail of reduction in the Wetland’s birdlife are found to be correct, the authorities could, perhaps initiate actions to strive and prevent withdrawal of the status. 
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