One can be reasonably sure that on the 2nd of February next the ministers concerned of the government of the central Indian province of Madhya Pradesh will mouth some platitudes about conservation of the Upper Lake and its adjunct the Lower Lake which together constitute Bhoj Wetland. In practice however, the local officialdom is more concerned about its “development” and by that they mean providing means for attracting more and more visitors to its shores or to its close proximity. Conservation is a word which does not seem to figure in their lexicon in so far as this fantastic natural asset of Bhopal is concerned, particularly when it is a Ramsar Site – a wetland of international importance, the only one in the state.
For the uninitiated, on 2nd February 1971 a convention was adopted by participating countries at Ramsar, an Iranian city, for “Conservation of wetlands of international importance, especially as waterfowl habitat” in recognition of their fundamental ecological functions and their economic, scientific, cultural and recreational value, the treaty eventually coming into force on December 21, 1975. The objectives set before the contracting parties were conservation and sustainable utilisation of wetlands, i.e. to stem the progressive encroachment on them and prevent their loss “now and in future”. Ramsar Day or World Wetland Day is celebrated every year on 2nd February to highlight the ecological importance of wetlands to the human community. India is among the 156 contracting parties.
Bhoj Wetland was designated as a Ramsar Site in November 2002, one of the main reasons being that it was an Important Bird Area (IBA), identified by Birdlife International and habitat for varied species of waterfowl. With its ecosystem stabilized over the last millennium of its existence, the Upper Lake presently represents all the features of a near-natural wetland. Its diverse flora provides sustenance to a large population of avifauna so much so that until recently many thousands of water-birds – domestic and migratory – could generally be observed annually.
Unfortunately, the Wetland is progressively losing this very attribute – the one that helped it in its recognition as a Ramsar Site. Of late, reports have appeared in the local press that birds seem to be avoiding this Wetland for roosting and are overflying to more congenial nearby water bodies. Local bird-watchers have noticed that among the hitherto regular migratory visitors black-necked storks, white storks, tufted pochards, common teals, mallards, bar-headed geese, etc. did not visit the wetland this year at all. Mohammed Khalique, a well-known local bird-watcher reported that he happened to find only one bar-headed goose that somehow lost its way into the wetland when in 2006 the species was seen in hundreds. Another bird-researcher, Sangita Rajgir, reported steep fall in the numbers of several migratory species that could be seen in thousands even five years ago.
Unsurprisingly, increasing human interference is being blamed for the loss of birdlife of this Wetland. Contamination of the waters due to yearly immersion of thousands of effigies of gods and goddesses painted with toxic paints after the Ganesh and Durga festivals as also chemical-based farming in the catchments and progressively intensifying tourism activities like plying of motorised boats and frequent assembly of people in large numbers in and around the Upper Lake have all contributed to make the Wetland inhospitable for water-birds. The addition of the tourism complex Sair Sapata, not even a kilometre away from the bird area, has become a big factor for the flight of birds from this IBA. Anticipating its likely impact, the Bhopal Citizens’ Forum had organised a photographic exhibition in December 2008 of photographs of birds of Bhoj Wetland taken by one of its member, reputed photographer AC Chandra. The intention was to sensitise the administration to the need to protect this IBA. All that, however, was to no avail as none in the government had eyes and ears for it. Even the Sports Authority of India complex that was built close to the bird area for year-round sporting activities has played no mean role in causing disturbance to the resident birds.
If today this Ramsar Site has ceased to be a bird area of significance the local government has to be held squarely responsible for the policies it adopted for its acute exploitation for generating tourism revenues. The most active in this regard were its Department of Urban Administration & Development and the State Tourism Development Corporation. Their collective acts of omissions and commissions have led to this unfortunate situation, putting under threat the Wetland’s Ramsar Status. Any talk of conserving this wetland on Ramsar Day by any of their representatives would, therefore, be pure and simple hypocrisy.