Water

How Assam’s Deepor Beel is perishing from concretisation, waste dumping

The lake is home to exotic birds, wildlife and supports livelihoods of hundreds 

 
By Gurvinder Singh
Published: Tuesday 07 September 2021
How Assam's Deepor Beel, home to exotic birds, is perishing from concretisation, waste dumping

Deepor Beel, a perennial freshwater lake and the only Ramsar site in Assam, has shrunk around 35 per cent in size since 1991. It is now spread across 4,014 hectares. 

The waterbody once attracted exotic birds and tourists and offered livelihood to the fisherfolk. But heavy encroachment for railway line construction and other development projects as well as proximity to a waste dumping yard have robbed it of its ecological health. 

Situated on the outskirts of Guwahati, the state capital, the wetland shelters over 200 species of birds, of which 70 are migratory. 

Threatened habitats, littered lake

A 24-hectare garbage dumping yard lies to the east of the lake in Boragaon. Birds and animals feed on rotten flesh and waste from the site, littering the waterbody and threatening their lives. 

The lake was listed as a biologically and environmentally threatened habitat in November 2002 and declared a Ramsar site. Three years later, the dumping yard came up in its vicinity.

Huge mountains of solid waste are turning the picturesque lake into a stinking drain, said CHD Phukan, a Guwahati-based environmentalist. The biodiversity has been impacted but the authorities have made no efforts for its revival, he added. “The wetland is dying and nobody is bothered.”

Photo: Gurvinder Singh

The expert attributed the pollution to lack of waste segregation at the origin.

Guwahati generates around 550 tonnes of waste every day and inadequate measures of its disposal have been taking a toll on the health of the beel. 

Endangered species such as greater adjutant stork in Assam have been forced to feed on toxic waste and dead carcasses instead of fish, rats and snakes, its usual prey. This further threatens the existence of these species. 

In 2017, 26 greater adjutant storks were found dead in the garbage dump raising an alarm. Following this, the National Green Tribunal had issued a notice to the Assam government seeking an explanation.

Concrete factories, houses and warehouses built illegally on the wetland damage the ecology. The laxity of the administration in taking action against culprits sustains the menace, experts pointed out. 

In 2014, the then Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi inspected the lake and ordered immediate measures to remove encroachments from the notified site. But not much has been done to conserve the waterbody and land sharks continue to make inroads. 

Rail track impacts wildlife

A railway line passing through the bird sanctuary has also been posing a danger to the wildlife in and around the lake. 

The Rani Reserve forest and Garbhanga hills to the south of the lake, are the habitat of the Asiatic elephants. But the broad-gauge single railway line has served as a death bed for several elephants over the years.

At least 14 jumbos were killed crossing the railway track till 2014 between Rani Reserve Forest and Deepor Beel. 

 

Photo: Gurvinder Singh

Four corridors are used by the elephants to cross the track for bathing and feeding on the aquatic plants in the wetland. 

In 2019, the railways had decided to construct a double railway through the lake. The project was stalled after stiff resistance from environmentalists and locals who stressed that the move would increase the mortality rate of wildlife.

The construction could have increased the death toll of elephants and other wildlife species, besides increasing the human-animal conflict, according to Narayan Sharma, assistant professor, Department of Environmental Biology, Cotton University. He did an extensive study on the lake in 2018. 

“The wetland is already on a ventilator and any further disturbance would push it to extinction,” he added. 

In June this year, the state government proposed the realignment of the single railway line. 

Lost livelihoods

The deterioration of the lake harmed the livelihoods of several hundred fishers who have depended on it for generations. The government has banned fishing in the core area of the lake. 

Many from the finishing community have been forced to migrate, said a local fisher. “The government has turned a blind eye to the encroachments and pollution in the lake while solely blaming the fishers for its destruction.”

The locals use traditional methods of farming, which are not dangerous for the wetland, said Sharma, adding that their surveys have shown the extent of impact on fisherfolk.

Discharge from a local oil refinery has been further polluting the water and inducing kerosene-like smell in the fish, he added. 

The local population have complained to the administration about the stench from the polluted lake but to no avail.

Government officials, however, claimed they were taking stern action against encroachers. “The state government is serious about saving Deepor Beel and have already urged the railways for the realignment of the railway line to save wildlife,” said a senior government official on condition of anonymity. 

The authorities are also planning to segregate waste at the source to ensure it doesn’t pollute the lake, he added.

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