Encroachment, increasing water pollution, greater likelihood of floods and, most importantly, loss of aquatic life and fewer birds—in the absence of notification of wetlands in the National Capital Region, they are facing a huge challenge to their survival, say experts.
Delhi ranks second among national capitals in the number of bird species it hosts. Only Nairobi in Kenya boasts a greater variety of birds than Delhi’s checklist of nearly 450 species.
But environmentalists and birdwatchers are concerned about a decline in the number of bird species spotted in the city, including migratory birds, as their natural habitats are facing threats from human activity.
“Not just the larger water bodies such as Najafgarh jheel, Surajpur and Dhanauri, but even comparatively smaller lakes and ponds such as Hauz Khas Lake, Sanjay Lake and even the Old Fort Lake were hubs of different bird species until some years ago.
"Unless these water bodies are brought under a law, it would be very difficult to protect them from drying up or getting polluted and the number of birds decreasing. And the measures needed are not for beautification but keeping the wetlands as natural as possible,” said environmentalist TK Roy.
In 2017, the Union Environment Ministry amended the law of 2010 by decentralising wetlands management and giving states powers to identify and notify wetlands within their jurisdiction and keep a watch on prohibited activities.
The Wetland (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2017 prohibit activities in wetlands such as setting up and expansion of industries, waste dumping and discharge of effluents.
The Centre’s role under the amended law is restricted to monitoring its implementation by states and Union Territories, recommending trans-boundary wetlands for notification, and reviewing integrated management of selected wetlands under the Ramsar Convention—an international arrangement to preserve wetlands.
The Asian Waterbird Census 2019 revealed that the migratory bird count at Najafgarh jheel and drain had fallen by nearly 50 per cent compared to last year.
The census was carried out at six wetlands in the NCR—Okhla Bird Sanctuary, Surajpur Wetland, Najafgarh jheel and drain, Yamuna river, Sanjay Lake and the National Zoological Park.
As per the report, only 1,679 birds were sighted during the winter, against last year’s 3,091.
The AWC’s 2018 report had stated that there was an almost 135 per cent increase in the number of birds and 21 per cent increase in the number of species at the jheel compared to 2017.
“The land mafia is a serious issue; in areas such as Dhanauri and Najafgarh, real estate agencies are grabbing the land and bringing up buildings, that too on wetlands.
"Who is giving them permission to do so? The greater the delay in implementing the law, the more we are heading towards loss of birds… day by day their habitat is vanishing and therefore there is a drastic reduction in the number of bird species, irrespective of season,” said Anand Arya, a birdwatcher.
Najafgarh Lake complexity
Bordered by Delhi and Haryana, Najafgarh Lake was fed by the Sahibi river, which was connected to the river Yamuna by a natural shallow drain called the Najafgarh nullah because of the untreated sewage that is dumped into its waters.
The drain carries water to the 7km-long Najafgarh Lake on the Delhi-Haryana border.
On visiting the lake region, this journalist found that while Delhi has restricted major construction on the wetlands, on the Haryana side there were buildings and small factories right on the wetlands.
Many prominent companies have marked their plots of land there with posters and hoardings.
Residents of nearby villages in Haryana complained that the poor quality of the water had prevented them from cultivating the land for a long time. Around six villages located on the wetlands are facing this issue.
“There used to be good farming of watermelons; the water would be clean. But now the lands are lying unutilised. Those having bigger property near the lake... it is a huge loss for them.
I have even seen floods in this village, after which the agricultural land would become more fertile and had good cultivation,” said Ganga Singh Chauhan, 84, from Khekri Majra village.
On the state’s plan to identify the area as a wetland, the residents said no information about it had been given to them by the government.
“A few days ago, officials from the revenue department came and took note of the land and our property.
"No matter if we cannot cultivate the land, but it is our property. If the government is planning to take it on lease and pay a good amount, I think we shouldn’t have much problem,” said Ajeet Chauhan, 33, from the same village.
Environmentalist Ramesh Mumukshu, who is working on protecting the Najafgarh Lake, noted that since it was private land, the villagers were inclined towards selling their property to real estate companies, from whom they can get good money.
The matter of the lake was brought into the limelight after the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural heritage (INTACH) filed a plea in 2014 with the National Green Tribunal seeking directions to the Delhi and Haryana governments for revival of the lake, as almost equal parts of it fall in the two states.
The plea alleged that large-scale construction in the wetland had weakened the area. It claimed that sectors 106, 107 and 108 of Gurugram were being constructed in the “high flood level” area of the lake, while construction was also taking place on the Delhi side.
After claiming that no natural lake existed in Najafgarh, the Haryana government told the NGT in 2017 that it was a water body. Earlier this year, the Tribunal sought action-taken reports from the Delhi and Haryana governments on the declaration of wetlands in Najafgarh.
Last month, the Delhi government said that it was considering declaring the lake a notified wetland and had asked the Delhi Jal Board to survey the area.
As of now, five villages share portions of the lake.
“The lake can produce 20 million gallons of water a day—enough for a population of 1 million. A plan similar to that introduced for the Yamuna can be followed on the Delhi side of the lake,” said Manu Bhatnagar from INTACH.
“Delhi needs to ensure its water security without relying on dams. If the water of this lake is cleaned and Sahibi river is revived, that will reduce a lot of water issues in Delhi.
However, the last response of the Delhi government to the NGT on this matter is not satisfactory,” said Mumukshu.
Steps taken by Delhi
Earlier this year, the Delhi government formed a committee to deal with conservation and management of wetlands in the national capital.
The members of the committee include the environment secretary, the DDA vice-chairman, the environment secretary, PWD secretary, urban development secretary, DJB CEO, fisheries secretary, irrigation and flood control department secretary, and the municipal commissioners.
Responsibility for preserving and restoring wetlands in the city lies with several agencies, including the Delhi Jal Board, Delhi Development Authority, the Public Works Department, and the municipal corporations. The Old Fort Lake is under the Archaeological Survey of India.
The NGT has directed the committee to convene a meeting and take a decision on whether the Tikri Khurd Lake in Narela is a wetland.
“Although the environment is never an issue for any government, the Delhi government is at least working on it. It is a time-taking process and very different on the ground. Clarity on their initiatives will come gradually. I think the state government is interested and they will do what needs to be done, but the process may not be as quick as might be expected,” Bhatnagar stated.
A top official from DJB said that the Jal Board had volunteered to restore any water body on behalf of the respective land-owning agency.
“The Jal board doesn’t have any water body under its jurisdiction, but we volunteer that if any agency wants to rejuvenate any water body or lake, we will do it at our own cost. Whatever bodies DJB is reviving, we are trying to ensure it is done as naturally as possible,” he said.