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Dankuni In Distress!

Dankuni In Distress!

Despite a recent High Court order to protect the Dankuni wetlands in West Bengal, without public pressure we could lose these wetlands to land sharks.

Home to the vulnerable fishing cat and other wild marshland species, the Dankuni wetland complex is threatened by land reclamation. Photo: Meghna Banerjee.

Tapan Dutta was murdered in 2011. A resident of West Bengal’s Howrah district, Dutta was the General Secretary of the Jalabhumi Bachao Committee, an organisation working to halt the destruction and filling of the rich Dankuni wetland complex. His supporters believe that Dutta was assassinated for leading movements against the private companies involved in the destruction of Dankuni.

This particular wetland complex lies on the Damodar-Hugli interfluves, an area of comparatively high ground between the two rivers. Dankuni is part of a floodplain. These fertile ecosystems have been under incessant assault by agriculture since the Green Revolution. However, when allowed to thrive, these ecosystems are flush with biodiversity, home to Schedule I wildlife like the charismatic fishing cat and a multitude of other wetland species. Despite this, they are widely considered to be wastelands and very few of them fall under India’s Protected Area network. What this means is that these habitats fall victim to land grab. Fishing cat conservationist and Sanctuary Wildlife Service Award Winner 2016 Tiasa Adhya suggests that West Bengal may have lost over 50 per cent of its marshlands to land reclamation for real estate development.

The wetland complex of Dankuni was once spread across 25 sq. km. of marshland, but today survives in fragmented parcels. This has, of course impacted the wild species that live here, most notably the fishing cat. Dankuni is one of only three odd zones that this small felid persists in south Bengal, and since this part of the state itself links to Odisha, it also provides a crucial route for dispersal. The destruction of Dankuni will thus invariably have consequences on the persistence of fishing cats in the region, not to mention the dozens of other species that will be affected.

Dutta, murdered for his activism, sought to protect Dankuni as he knew the wetland served as a sponge – absorbing excess water in the monsoon and keeping residential areas safe from floods. Adhya knows that if Dankuni is destroyed, the vulnerable fishing cat, native to just eight countries in the world, will lose its footing in India. If we are to learn any lessons from the Chennai floods, then it is this – it is also our destruction that we face. And the members of PUBLIC, a Kolkata-based organisation, know that the law should be wielded to protect this precious site. In 2013, based on a Public Interest Litigation filed by PUBLIC and DISHA, an NGO, the Kolkata High Court ordered not just a ban on the destruction of Dankuni but also that the marshlands be restored. It was a huge win for the conservationists who had battled relentlessly in and out of court for the preservation of this habitat, but as so often happens in India – legal loopholes could negate any successes.

Though the trucks carrying flyash are not to be seen, Dankuni could be plundered again if an unethical nexus manages to resume construction work. Signboards announcing new construction projects continue to dot the landscape. Ever-resilient wildlife continues to survive in the pockets that remain, but unless Dankuni is secured, they may as well have been served an eviction notice. “If we win back Dankuni, it would be a landmark for wetland conservation in India. The pace at which they are disappearing is alarming and saving Dankuni may just help us set a precedent for the preservation of other vital wetland habitats,” say Meghna Banerjee and Suvrjyoti Chatterjee, a lawyer-activist duo, without whom this fight would be impossible.

Sanctuary readers, wetlands are precious wild habitats which India is fast destroying. Join us in asking West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to intervene and save Dankuni, home to the beautiful and iconic little fishing cat and a host of other animals. Please send a polite letter on the issue to:

Smt. Mamata Banerjee
Nabanna, 14th Floor,
325 Sarat Chatterjee Road,
Shibpur, Howrah – 711102,
West Bengal.

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