East Kolkata Wetland: Seeing through the lens of “Urban metabolism”

‘Urban metabolism’, ‘resiliency’ and ‘sustainability’ are competing concepts. ‘Sustainability’ is the oldest and more like an umbrella term for the rest. ‘Urban metabolism’ is rather the newest amongst them. In this blog, I aim to explore which of the three concepts (used in Urban Planning) could be applied to a case of Ramsar site to make a stronger argument for preservation of the wetland.

East Kolkata Wetland (EKW: here and here) is a 12,500 hec Ramsar site, located in the periphery of Kolkata Municipal Corporation. Kolkata, previously called Calcutta, was the capital of British India and now is the third largest metropolitan area in India. EKW is an asset of my hometown Calcutta that unfortunately even many citizens are not yet aware of. Interestingly, being prominently located next to one of the busiest expressways (Eastern Metropolitan Bypass) that connect the airport to the central part of the city, the wetland is visible to all the passers by, however, without any knowledge of the significance of the wetland. Here I argue two points. First, EKW is a Green Urban Infrastructure in its true sense (contributing towards sustainability). This is in contrast to other popular forms of green infrastructures like city parks and roof top gardens, which are often valued at the cost of such ecological sites. Second, using the lens of “urban metabolism” (here), I argue that EKW is an integral part of Kolkata Metropolitan Area as the absence of the wetland in its existing land-form, land use and function would have an impact on the metabolic system of the city. It is concluded that ‘urban metabolism’ makes the stronger argument.

By definition, wetland is not necessarily water body; wetland is defined as an eco-system. EKW was recognised important in early 1980s, and first officially documented in early 1985. It was declared a Ramsar site on 19th August 2002. My introduction to the project is during 2003-2004, as part of my first Master’s degree dissertation. The dissertation was part of a Department of Science and Technology, Govt of India funded project on mapping and monitoring of East Kolkata Wetland. My one year involvement included frequent visit to the wetland. Here I revisit the subject with new lenses of Urban theory.

The wetland is divided into three sections: core area, internal and external buffer area. Conceptually, the core area is consisted of the main ecological system and any kind of land conversion is strictly prohibited. To certain extent, soft construction was allowed in the internal and external buffer area. The wetland is connected to the Sunderban and Bay of Bengal. Like any other metropolitan cities in India, the boundary of KMC is under continuous pressure of extension. Hence the most challenging part was to preserve the section of wetland, which falls within the existing KMC (Kolkata Municipal Corporation) boundary. The entire wetland falls within Kolkata Metropolitan Area (KMA). The stretch along the E.M.Bypass, which is also inside the KMC boundary, has since long been an eye sore to the real estate developers who can potentially make millions from developing on the land. The property value on the other side of the expressway is high as it locates landmark projects like city-level recreational facility (Science City, Milan Mela), and high-profile real estate developments (ITC Sonar Bangla). The government, being under pressure from the big-name real estate developers, and understanding the potential of collecting huge taxes from large-scale developments, has also been undecided and implicit about whether to preserve the wetland or encourage the development. The city authority’s dilemma in deciding whether to promote the wetland as an important ecological site (and to preserve) or the development potential of the land is, in particular, interesting. In summary, the issue is highly political. While the land conversion is restricted, local brokers always claim that this is temporary and they can negotiate with the (next elected) government.

Two things I came to know recently. First, once the EKW Management Authority was formed in 2004, the supreme court order on restricting land use conversion was automatically resolved, really leaving it in the hand of weak (in negotiating power and financial power) committee members to save the wetland from development. Hence, this is literally open to day-to-day negotiation (here). Second, the land use conversion was restricted, but there was no restriction to sell out the land if a farmer/ land-owner wishes. Now many of such lands are owned by well-known, nationally reputed, real estators who have bought the land as speculative investment and has not really developed the land yet. Developers would find large chunk of land here in close proximity to the city at a comparatively cheaper price. Based on the following points, I argue that EKW is proven to be an integral part of KMA’s urban system in its present form. Hence, insensitive alteration of landform, land use and land right may affect the metropolitan area’s metabolism system.

Natural Sewage Treatment Plant
The wetland functions as the natural sewage treatment plant for the city. During British period, there were hard infrastructure to purify the waste water before disposing this off to the river. However, fishing communities migrated to the region and introduced fish, the ecological manipulator into the system. Since then the waste water is automatically purified. In addition, the wetland is located at a specific latitude and altitude, and it receives sunlight at a particular temperature so that the waster water gets automatically purified. This is the uniqueness of the wetland.

Supply of fish stock
Besides working as ecological manipulator, the fisheries also supply stock of fresh fish to Kolkata, which is the staple food of predominant Bengali population in the city. There are fish markets that operate two times a day, which supply fish stock to the main fish markets in the old city (Figure 3). This shows how the wetland supplies inflow of resources into the city, which is strongly related to its culture. In the absence of the fisheries, there will be two-fold impact. First, the city authority will have to invest huge amount on Sewage Treatment Plant, even if one disagrees to consider this heritage. Second, the supply of fresh fish stock will be disturbed. One counterargument could be that the water in the area contains heavy metal, so the fish stock is not consumable. However, it is argued, since there is no industry, there is no reason to have heavy metal in water.

Solid Waste Treatment
Until late 1980s/ early 1990s, we had known the area as ‘dhapa’ or garbage dump ground. The area with hills of garbage used to smell horrible because all the solid waste from KMC used to be dumped in that part of the city, which is immediate outside the boundary of the city. Over time, the dump disappeared from the eyes of the passer by, and the smell disappeared too. However, it is still there, in a more organised manner, and in the interior part of the wetland. Figure 4 shows a view of the current garbage dump, which is known as ‘dhapa’ in the local language. From all over the city, trucks dispose the waste in the area per day, disposing upto 3500 metric tons of garbage from 141 wards (15 boroughs). One fifth of the total garbage has to be deposited as inert waste, at landfill site. The rest has to be recycled. The garbage is then sorted out manually separating plastics by a group of local people/ waste pickers, who live very close to the dumping ground, are poor migrants, and are not acknowledged in the formal sector of employment. Then the waste pickers sell their waste to waste traders. This shows, on one hand, how the wetland absorbs the outflow of resources from the city, and on the other, lack of acknowledgement of the community who are working in the service sector.

Natural drainage basin of Kolkata
Lastly, the wetland is the natural basin of whole KMA. In times of flood, the landscape is expected to hold the additional water which is finally stored in the interconnected canals and lakes. This also leads to recharging of ground water level. Transformation of the character of the land to urban/ built up area will largely affect the ecosystem, leading to intensive flooding. With experience from other cities, the wetland must be acknowledged for its natural drainage capacity (ignorance shown in Mumbai) and recharging ground water table (ignorance shown in Bengaluru). Whereas Kolkata is a winner in terms of preserving its wetland longer than other cities and resisting the political pressure of development, the long-term sustenance of the wetland is still open to day-to-day negotiation. Whereas the wetland is acknowledged by international organisation for its preservation, many large scale real estate developers and local level politically influenced brokers are set out to settle a deal on the lands. This is evident at the local level. Large-scale real estate developments are already developed very close to the wetland, probably with a promise of view towards the wetland (Figure 5).

Interestingly, I came across the news just two days before the blog is published. The ex-mayor of KMC and the current Minister of Environment does not want the wetland to be designated as a Ramsar site, as the designation is coming into the way of “development”. The local level political pressure is not something new for EKW. The news headline is “Development vs. Environment”. In academic terms this economy/ecology dichotomy has been proven destructive. Before reaching this paragraph, I am sure readers were convinced EKW is part of Kolkata’s (urban) development, contributing towards its sustainability, metabolism, and world-class infrastructure, and NOT a barrier to development. This was a very preliminary attempt to understand if urban metabolism as a concept can put an end to ecology/economy, development/environment debates. This could be developed further to show that EKW is also the backbone of economy of the city and not otherwise.

Acknowledgement: I am grateful to Dhruba Dasgupta for providing detailed information on EKW, Dr. Dhrubojyoti Ghosh for the interview, and Sujit for showing me around the wetland.


About chandrimamukhopadhyay

Chandrima Mukhopadhyay was awarded her PhD from School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape, Newcastle University, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK. Her PhD dissertation was on highway development through Public Private Partnership in India. Her research interest includes Public Private Partnership/ Development, infrastructure development, governance, planning and urban theories, climate change and resilience. She was affiliated to Faculty of Planning, CEPT university, Ahmedabad, India as a faculty for one and half year. She is currently affiliated to CEPT University Summer Winter School as a visiting Faculty from Faculty of Planning.
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