Way back in February 1971, Ramsar, a city in Iran, had hosted a significant event that was destined to have a lasting impact across the globe for all times to come. The event, organised under the auspices of UNESCO, and attended by representatives of as many as 169 countries of the world, discussed at length the past, present and future of wetlands and water bodies of the world, and it came to be known not just as convention on wetlands, but also as the Ramsar Convention.
The convention is an intergovernmental treaty which provides the framework for national and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources, with all signatory nations pledging to implement the resolutions in the larger interest of environment in general and mankind in particular.
Wetlands have a significant value in the ecosystem and they play multiple essential roles � from recycling nutrients to purifying water, from assuaging floods to maintaining stream flow and recharging groundwater. It also supports wildlife and provides recreation and ecotourism facilities. Wetlands are helpful during dry spells as well as monsoons. During the dry season, the wetlands keep the water tables stable and during the rainy months, they minimise floods and retain nutrients from run-off water.
While most of the area of the present city of Guwahati used to comprise numerous low-lying areas, marshlands and swamps for a long time, it was only after the establishment of the State�s �temporary� capital at Dispur that the entire face of Guwahati underwent rapid changes, thus exerting tremendous and unprecedented pressure on the these water bodies. The numerous hills in and around the haphazardly growing city have also come under an onslaught of anthropogenic activities which, in turn, have had a cascading effect on the wetlands.
While the clamour for protecting Guwahati�s wetlands had begun in the early 1990s, it was only in 2008 that the Government of Assam came up with a legislation to protect the wetlands and water bodies of Guwahati. By this time, a sizeable portion of wetlands and water bodies has already been lost due to both change of status of land, allegedly at the behest of unscrupulous government officials and illegal occupation of such water bodies by encroachers. Schedule 3 of the Act gives details of the area and the boundaries covered by Silsako Beel.
Silsako covers an area of 407 hactare. The localities near Silsako include Hengrabari, Satgaon, Birkuchi, Kalitakuchi, Bondagaon and Mathgharia. Though there are a few signboards in Silsako warning against encroachment, quite a number of unauthorised structures exist within the Beel area.
It is pertinent to mention that the government had allotted land on Silsako Beel to various organisations much before the enactment of the Act. These include the OKD Institute of Social Change and Development, Institute of Hotel Management, Institute of Cooperative Management, Ginger Hotel (a Tata Group hotel), All Assam Tennis Association, Asam Sahitya Sabha, etc.
Likewise, one plot of land on the Beel was also allotted to Bhupen Hazarika before it was notified under the Act. Similarly, IHM, Catering Technology and Applied Nutrition, Institute of Cooperative Management, OKDISCD, tennis courts and Ginger Hotel � all on the south-central part of the Silsako Beel � were allotted land before the Act came into force. The Koch-Rajbongshi Development Council office set up by the State Government in 2004 is also located on the Beel.
I have noticed that a huge quantity of sand and earth comes down the natural stream from Meghalaya to Silsako, a portion of which is collected by a number of people in the Juripar locality. While this portion of sand and earth thus collected is used by people to fill up their plots for construction of houses, a sizeable portion flows down to the Silsako Beel. The quantity of sand and earth coming down from Meghalaya was very less 15 years ago. Older residents of Juripar say that there was very little sediment in the stream 25-30 years ago. They attribute this increase in sand and earth to rampant earth-cutting in Meghalaya. The other stream flowing through the Army cantonment has also registered more sand and earth flowing with the passage of time.
Luckily for Silsako, the authorities have launched occasional eviction drives since 2015, and after removing the illegal structures, the GMDA has started removing the earth that the encroachers had dumped on the Beel. However, visits to the Beel from the two southern approaches show that hardly five to 10 per cent of the earth has been removed so far. The authorities have acquired an amphibian dredger, a barge-mounted excavator, an amphibian excavator and several other machinery that have been used to dredge the Silsako Beel and remove the earth.
After Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) shifted its garbage dumping site to Boragaon (which is now affecting Deepor Beel), various organisations that were allotted land started earth filling. Garbage dumping had rendered a lot of damage to the Silsako wetland.
Prior to 2008, when the Act was not there, the GMC used Silsako as the city�s main garbage dumping site. Prof Kalyan Das of OKDISDC said the untreated waste of the GMC garbage dump had already caused a lot of harm to the Beel�s water quality and the overall environment. Even after shifting of the GMC dumping site, citizens continue to throw garbage into the wetland, especially from the VIP Road.
With the Act coming into force, steps are being implemented to protect this important wetland but at a snail�s pace. The policy makers now clearly understand how vital it is to protect Silsako as well as all other wetlands in order to prevent artificial floods in Guwahati. As the entire world realises the need to save and protect our natural wealth, it is definitely our duty to act locally and conserve our immediate surroundings apart from observing events like the World Wetlands Day every year on February 2.