Deepor Beel, the riverine wetland in lower Brahmaputra valley, on the brink

Print edition : March 26, 2021

Wild Asiatic elephants frolicking and foraging in Deepor Beel on the outskirts of Guwahati. Photo: RITU RAJ KONWAR

Egrets in flight over the “beel” (lake). Photo: RITU RAJ KONWAR

A pair of ruddy shelduck. Photo: RITU RAJ KONWAR

A flock of two male and three female cotton pygmy goose, or cotton teal. Photo: The Hindu

Some parts of the hill landscape of the wetland are getting denuded owing to stone mining and earth excavation. Photo: RITU RAJ KONWAR

A flock of glossy ibis. Photo: The Hindu

A grey heron. Photo: RITU RAJ KONWAR

Community fishing in the lake. A file picture. Unregulated fishing is threatening the lake’s ecosystem. Photo: RITU RAJ KONWAR

Once abundant in the wetlands of the north-eastern region, the giant water lily is now found only in a few wetlands because of large-scale harvesting of its seeds by destroying the plant. A villager turns the leaf to collect the seeds, in Deepor Beel. Photo: RITU RAJ KONWAR

According to the Assam Forest Department, the increased presence of human beings on the southern bank of the wetland may prevent the movement of wild elephants from the Rani and Garbhanga forests. Photo: RITU RAJ KONWAR

The wetland area has been suffering from environmental degradation due to continuous encroachment and waste dumping. The Guwahati Municipality dump yard, located at Boragaon, lies in the eastern corner of Deepor Beel. Photo: RITU RAJ KONWAR

According to experts, many fish species in Deepor Beel have become extinct and many are facing the threat of extinction because of continuous water pollution. Photo: RITU RAJ KONWAR

Further alteration of the “beel” landscape can cause flash floods. Photo: RITU RAJ KONWAR

The wetland ecosystem is disturbed by the railroad in its southern boundary. Photo: RITU RAJ KONWAR

An elephant crossing a railway track running along Deepor Beel. Photo: AP

An seriously injured baby elephant, which was knocked down by a train in Deepor Beel. Photo: RITU RAJ KONWAR

Two Asiatic elephants knocked down by a passing train. Photo: RITU RAJ KONWAR

Unplanned urbanisation around Deepor Beel has reduced the original water spread area. Photo: PTI

(Right and far right) Rag pickers and a muster of greater adjutant storks at the garbage dumping site. Photo: RITU RAJ KONWAR

The rail and road corridors around Deepor Beel.

Deepor Beel, a Ramsar site near Guwahati in Assam, known for its fish and bird diversity and rich aquatic vegetation that attracts wild elephants, faces conservation threats from garbage dumping, quarrying, and the construction of a railway line, besides a smart city project.

DEEPOR BEEL, a perennial freshwater lake located 10 km south-west of Guwahati city, is the only wetland in Assam designated as a site of importance for “conservation and sustainable use” under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. (The international treaty is named after Ramsar in Iran, where it was signed in 1971.)

The landscape of Deepor Beel, a riverine wetland in Kamrup district in the lower Brahmaputra valley, is dynamic, holding attraction for ornithologists, wildlife biologists and environmentalists. It is also a grooming site for bird enthusiasts as it sustains over 200 species of birds, including about 70 species of migratory birds.

Residents of Guwahati often visit or stop over at Deepor Beel for a breath of fresh air and get immersed in the serenity of the landscape. The lake attracts ecotourists and visitors from the across the world. However, the hard realities of increasing conservation threats to this unique biodiversity site lie hidden beneath the spectacular sights.

It is a treat to see wild Asiatic elephants from the Rani and Garbhanga Reserve Forests in Kamrup East Division bathing and feeding on nutritious aquatic food in the wetland. However, there is no guarantee that all the elephants foraging and frolicking in the water will return safely to the four elephant corridors crossing the railway track. For that matter, even their passage to the beel (lake) from the hills for a feast of the water hyacinth and shoots, rhizomes and flowers of the giant water lily, commonly known as makhana (Eueyale ferox), and other aquatic vegetation is fraught with danger.

Incidents of elephants getting run over or hit by speeding trains on the railway line running through the reserve forests and the Deepor Beel Wildlife Sanctuary in the section between Azara and Kamakhya railway stations are grim reminders of how environmental activists’ warnings against construction of railway lines through the wetland went unheeded. In the past two decades, at least 15 wild elephants were hit by passing trains while crossing the railway track.

About 50 fish species and aquatic resources provide livelihood support to about 1,200 households residing in about 12 villages on the fringes of the wetland. Some residents of these villages can be seen rowing their flat-bottomed boats to collect seeds of the giant water lily and nymphaea nuts that are in high demand in local markets.

Unregulated and increasing fishing activities have come into conflict with the activities of migratory birds. The winged visitors use the wetland as a staging site for depositing fats by preying on the fish species. Birdlife international declared Deepor Beel as an Important Bird Area (IBA) site. Some of the unique migratory bird species that can be spotted here are the white-eyed pochard, the greylag goose, Baer’s pochard and the gadwall, a dabbling duck.

The ecosystem

The Deepor Beel, which was notified under the Guwahati Water Bodies (Preservation and Conservation) Act, 2008, is the only major storm water drainage for the ever-expanding capital city. Mora Bharalu, an abandoned 13.5-km-long channel of the river Bharalu, which flows through the city, and the Basistha-Bahini rivers are the inlets that carry rainwater and untreated sewage to Deepor Beel. The city with a population of 12 lakh does not have a sewage treatment plant. The Khandajan outlet situated in the north-eastern section of the beel is connected with the river Brahmaputra.

The Rani and Garbhanga hills, the habitat of the Asiatic elephants in the southern side of the beel, are part of this ecosystem. Some parts of the hill landscape of the wetland are getting denuded owing to stone mining and earth excavation while heaps of unsegregated municipal solid waste from Guwahati are getting dumped in the Boragaon landfill site near the wetland.

The major villages in the catchment areas of the wetland are Chakardeo, Pamohi, Sakardhum Mikir, Matia Pahar, Deochotal, Maghuwapara, Banghara Than, Dharapur Chariali, Gorchuk and Boragaon.

Following a right to information (RTI) petition, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) directed the Assam government to take steps to declare Deepor Beel an eco-sensitive zone in order to address the growing conservation threats to it. The government has submitted the draft notification to the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. The NGT, in its order on December 1, 2020, directed the Ministry to file a status report.

Fragmentation of elephant habitat

In its affidavit to the NGT, the State government stated that the Wildlife Institute of India proposed in 2019—on the basis of a feasibility study conducted by the Delhi Integrated Multi-Modal Transit System Limited for alternative alignment of the railway line in order to avoid the elephant corridor between Azara and Kamakhya stations—that the most suitable alternative would be “realignment/northern alignment of the railway track outside ‘Deepar Beel’ as it will completely avoid the elephant-prone area and also it will not affect the entire ‘Deepor Beel’ and any major habitations”. This was the same suggestion put forward by those who opposed the construction of the railway track running through the wetland decades ago.

The Northeast Frontier Railway authorities are yet to take a decision on the realignment of the track. Nripendra Bhattacharyya, Public Relations Officer, Northeast Frontier Railway, told Frontline: “Work of doubling of the railway line from New Bongaigaon to Guwahati via Goalpara is progressing but work on Azara-Kamkhaya section (about 16 km) through the Deepor Beel on this route has been delayed as final decision is still pending.”

Shrinking area

Contradictory positions of the River Rejuvenation Committee (RRC), Assam, and Guwahati Smart City Projects Limited on the total area of Deepor Beel is a reflection of the hard realities of the wetland standing at the crossroads of development priorities and conservation challenges.

“The notified area of the beel is about 6.89 sq. km. Though earlier reports indicate 40 sq. km of beel area, the current total wetland area is about 13 to 15 sq. km,” claims Guwahati Smart City Projects Limited. The Action Plan for Deepor Beel approved by the RRC, on the other hand, states: “Ramsar Convention in 2002 declared 40.14 sq. km as Deepor Beel wetland and 4.14 sq. km area was proposed as a bird sanctuary under the Wildlife Protection Act of India, 1972 (Government of Assam, 1989).

According to the Assam Forest Department, the entire range of land starting from Deochotal to Chakradeo and beyond to the east and west was used by the wild elephants of Rani and Garbhnaga forests as passage to Deepor Beel. “The beel is part of the elephant habitat and contiguous to Rani and Garbhanga reserve forests. Increased presence of human beings on the southern bank of the wetland may lead to stopping of the movement of wild elephants from Rani and Garbhanga reserve forests to Deepor Beel permanently,” it said. The department wrote to the Guwahati Smart City Projects Limited authorities suggesting that the watch tower and a restaurant with a picnic spot should be constructed on the northern bank of the lake as per the Government of India’s Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2017.

Jitendra Kumar, Divisional Forest Officer (DFO), Guwahati Wildlife Division, wrote to the Principal Chief Conservator of Forest and Chief Wildlife Warden on August 4, 2020, expressing the opinion that “all the development planning of Deepor Beel shall take place after proper demarcation of its boundary and preparation of the Integrated Management Plan as per the new Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2017, and giving due consideration of the movement of wild elephants.” In the DFO’s opinion, “the Deepor Beel Wildlife Sanctuary is an integral part of the Deepor Beel Wetland and it cannot be managed and developed alone”.

Conservation threats

An experts’ team constituted by the erstwhile Planning Commission in 2008 to review the status of implementation of the National Wetland Conservation and Management Programme of the Ministry of Environment and Forests identified the following major threats to the Deepor Beel ecosystem: Fragmentation of hydrological regime, siltation, pollution, encroachment and land reclamation, species invasion, including alien species, unregulated recreation and tourism, over-harvesting of resources and climate change.

“Large-scale encroachment, heavy siltation from the denuded hills surrounding the beel, accumulation of all sorts of filth and wastes from the Bharalu and Bahini rivers, unregulated fishing practice, invasion of aquatic weeds, industrial development within its periphery, construction of railway line along the southern boundary, quarrying within the beel ecosystem, etc., have pushed this once-pristine ecosystem to the brink of disappearance,” the report submitted by the expert team stated.

The threats have only increased over the past decade or so. The Action Plan for Deepor Beel approved by the RRC corroborates this. “The total area of the polluted stretch of Deepar Beel is 40.14 sq. km. The area has been suffering from environmental degradation due to continuous encroachment and waste dumping as the Guwahati Municipality dump yard (24 hectares) located in Boragaon, lies in the eastern corner of Deepor Beel. The encroachment of the beel is very evident and rampant as there are a number of dwelling units and cement structures and hence encroachment and settlements around the periphery has contributed to the shrinking of the beel. The wetland ecosystem is disturbed by the railways’ railroad in the southern boundary and the embankment for the railroad has resulted in the water flow blockage,” states the plan.

The beel has 111 species belonging to free floating, submerged and emergent weeds/plants besides swamp/marsh and wetland hydrophytes while the fauna in the wetland and adjacent forests comprise some 201 species of birds and 21 species of mammals. (Source: presentation by Dr Joideep Barua, who heads the Environment Assam Science Technology and Environment Council, to the Planning Commission Expert Team.)

Dumping site

Adjutant storks and rag pickers sharing scavenging space at the dumping site at Boragoan and the dumping site posing a threat to the wetland are pixels of an enlarged picture of a flawed model of development that often comes into conflict with environment protection. Smoke billowing from heaps of unsegregated and untreated solid waste and the stink emanating from the filthy and hazardous waste fail to deter rag pickers as their livelihood compulsion overshadows health hazards.

In response to an application filed by the RTI activist Rohit Choudhury, the Assam government submitted to the NGT on June 23, 2015, through an affidavit that “steps have been initiated to shift the municipal dumping site away from West Boragaon”. More than five years and eight months have elapsed since then, but heaps of garbage have only grown bigger as the municipal waste of Guwahati city continues to be dumped there. The government submitted to the NGT that the dumping site would be shifted once the four proposed decentralised solid waste management facilities in the city commenced and gave December 31, 2019, as the tentative date for discontinuation of dumping at the Boragoan landfill site.

“This wetland is not only known for its fish and bird diversity but is a major natural water reservoir for Guwahati city and its adjoining areas. Its conservation is crucial to avoid an ecological catastrophe in the area, which could affect local livelihood,” says Bibhab Kumar Talukdar, secretary general and chief executive officer of Aaranyak, an organisation engaged in research in biodiversity and environment conservation advocacy.

Unplanned urbanisation

However, in the past two decades, unplanned urbanisation around Deepor Beel has reduced the original water spread area, which is a cause of worry. If the existing landscape of Deepor Beel is further altered, it could trigger flash floods in the area, warns Bibhah Kumar Talukdar, an internationally acclaimed wildlife expert.

The experts’ team sounded the alarm bell in its report: “Deepor is the best indicator of the environmental quality of the city, and the day the birds cease to flock the beel, it will confirm the complete transformation of the once green city into a quagmire of pollution.”

Inordinate delay in preventing garbage dumping at the site, demarcation of the wetland’s boundary, notification of the eco-sensitive zone and implementation of an integrated management plan is pushing DeeporBeel to the brink. The growth of commercial, institutional and residential activities in the wetland landscape has sought to amplify the fears expressed by environmental experts 12 years ago.