A confession...this is not being reported from the field. I have not personally visited Bharatpur National Park, not recently anyway. You could say I have abandoned it in its dire days-I simply do not have the heart to witness the slow death of the wetland, once fecund and so alive with the call and colour of myriad birds. My memories of Bharatpur are affectionate, dappled with bird song. The wetland was alive, wherever you looked, there were waders, geese, darters, ducks, pintails, cormorants, teals, babblers, kingfishers, egrets, storks, eagles, owls, vultures... Here was not the silence of the jungle: Dawn was announced with the trumpet of the sarus cranes and the cackle of the peafowl. That set the tone for the day-parakeets shrieked, geese gaggled...you get the drift. Nights, you could hear the soft hoot of the owl, but only if it managed to rise above the howl of the jackals. Rare fishing cats prowled the waters, jungle cats surprised you by their sudden appearance, you could spot rock pythons curled up, soaking in the sun, nilgai and deer pranced in knee-deep waters.
This was Keoladeo Ghana National Park, a world-renowned waterfowl site, topping over 350 species of birds.
It's all quiet now, and it is the silence of the dead.
The first sign of unhappy days ahead came in the early winter of 2002, when Keoladeo's star visitor, the Siberian crane, dwindling over the years, failed to show up. Some took it as an omen, a sign of grim times. True enough, drought plagued the region from 2003 onwards.
Bharatpur shriveled up. Once, the Ghana canal was the park's lifeline. It supplied water from the Ajan Dam, built on the confluence of the rivers Ghambhir and Banganga in the 18th century. Dams built along both the rivers staunched the flow of water to Ajan's reservoir. Continual deficient rainfall in the catchment areas made matters worse, and water from the dam was denied to the sanctuary, due to agitating farmers and water politics. Local villagers demanded water for their fields, and the then Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje, went far enough to say, in 2005, "people, not parks, were her priority".
She missed the point completely; not understanding that denying the wetlands would mean groundwater for nearby farmers would not be replenished. The powers-that-be succumbed to political pressure and diverted water meant for the swamps to farmlands, repeatedly, over the years. The result was complete and total devastation. Matters improved marginally in 2008 with good rains, but the situation now is worse than ever before.
The wetland, accorded the status of a Ramsar Site is arid--no water, no grasses, no fish. The monsoon breeding birds and the migrants gave the dry, desolate park a miss. The Siberian cranes are already history. Painted Storks, so emblematic to the park have ceased to breed, the ‘heronries' are a painful memory. Sarus cranes, who once danced in the hundreds, can now be counted on your fingers. Most don't breed, for instinct dictates that their young will not survive. A few Common Cranes came by but took wing soon thereafter.
Lacking prey, the raptors have fled too. From the 350-odd species the park once boasted, the numbers have crashed to less than a 100. The park that saw hundred of thousands of birds in a normal season now hosts less than 5,000. Other species have suffered, too. The fishing cat has vanished. Otters are nowhere to be seen, and turtles,perhaps a handful, can be seen desperately thrashing in tiny, putrid pools of water.
The once prolific Bharatpur has become a graveyard.
With the wetland on its deathbed, the villages and town are feeling the pinch. Farmers, in bordering villages, lament the loss of groundwater, their borewells are drying up. And Bharatpur, which thrived on bird tourism, is a bit of a ghost town now, the buzz has died, and people are worried with their main source of income drying up, along with the park.
The only facile attempt to save Bharatpur, are a few tubewells nosily churning out dead, sterile water, which has no nutrients for the birds.
The government has changed in Rajasthan now, but the indifference to the park continues. A project to build a 17-km underground tunnel to divert water to the park from a storm drain of the Yamuna, part of an earlier Govardhan project, has been dormant for over a year now. The centre has actually sanctioned 40 crores of the required 56.2 crores. But the state is simply sitting on the money. Bharatpur is a World Heritage Site, but in all likelihood it will lose this valued status by the next year, unless things improve, or the Rain Gods give us a repreive..if only for this year.
Many wetlands around the country suffer a similar fate. Yet, one hoped that the famous ‘Ghana' would somehow be spared. Not so.. inspite of its many aficionados, noone is rallying for Bharatpur's cause.
Bharatpur, it appears, will die unmourned...