Begusarai (Bihar), March 14 (IANS/ 101Reporters) Sitting on the banks of the scenic Kanwar Lake in Begusarai district, fisherman Nandan Sahni (45) opens up about his tough existence. "I am dying of hunger. The lake has less fish. Even if I am lucky enough to catch a few, it will fetch me only Rs 250. How can that be sufficient?" says the resident of Panchmahala Tola.
Bihar's only Ramsar site, Kanwar Lake is spread across Bakhari, Naokothi, Cheriya Bariarpur and Garhpura blocks and is the source of livelihood for around 20,000 fishermen in 16 villages located on its banks. However, the depletion of this wetland due to manmade factors has dashed their hopes of a decent living, according to another fisherman Mallah Rajo Sahni (53).
"Less the water less the fish," says Lalo Sahni (70) from his experience. Brahmdev Sahni (35) interjects to point out that pothi, singhi, garai, khesar and telpiha varieties have reduced substantially. "We definitely have a problem," he says, with a grim expression.
The local fishermen are fully dependent on the lake and do not own agricultural lands. They want the wetland to be as expansive as possible so that they will get a better catch. Ironically, there is another group whose interests lie in perpetual contradiction with that of the fishermen. They are the local farmers.
"Several mauzas (revenue villages) were included under the Kanwar Lake Bird Sanctuary, making farming in the notified areas illegal. A ban on land sale deteriorated our condition. We are unable to raise money even for marriages in our families," says Anmol Kumar Sharan of Manjhaul village.
Agricultural plots in Manjhaul, Jaimangala Garh, Jaimangalpur, Manjhaul, Narayanpipar, Shripura, Ekamba, Sakra, Rajour, Manikpur, Kanausi, Cheriya Bariarpur, Khodawandpur, Chhourahi, Garhpura, Bakhari and Naokothi are presently part of the notified area.
"I have 50 bighas, but what is the use? Our living conditions will improve only if farming is allowed in the notified land," claims Arunesh Kumar of Manjhaul. Vikesh Kumar, the head of Manjhaul panchayat-2, agrees that the notification dealt a big blow to the farmers in the area.
"It is okay to declare the place a wetland, but do it only where water is present. The rights of farmers should be restored on the rest of the land," Sharan demands.
Shrinking water body
Kanwar Lake is touted as Asia's largest freshwater oxbow lake, originally covering an area of 6,786 hectares. But is it true? "Yes, the lake has shrunk, and there is water only in 1,000 to 1,500 hectares," admits a forest department official on condition of anonymity.
However, Mohammad Nawazuzzoha, a research scholar at Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi, claims that only 89 hectares of the wetland hold water. "The government data were based on geo-sensing and older studies," Nawazuzzoha tells 101Reporters.
"During my field visit in January 2020, I found areas with cultivation on the wetland with water diverted to make more land available for agricultural purposes. This has affected the lake's biodiversity. Both its depth and fish availability have decreased. Some have even disappeared," he says.
He claims the arrival of migratory birds has also decreased. To make matters worse, hunters are active in the area. Notably, the site houses the critically-endangered oriental white-backed vulture (Gyps bengalensis), long-billed vulture (Gyps indicus) and red-headed vulture (Sarcogyps calvus). Earlier, over 100 species of local birds and over 50 species of nesting birds could be spotted here.
Being part of the wetland complexes in the interfan of Burhi Gandak and Kosi rivers, the Kanwar wetland connects to the Gandak through a canal, now choking with silt. This has compromised the inflow-outflow mechanism to turn the wetland into a shallow marsh. Fishermen have repeatedly sought canal desiltation, but the state government has shown the least interest.
"Our emphasis is to maintain Kanwar Lake as a bird sanctuary. So there is no enthusiasm for fishing and other activities," claims the forest official, when asked about the department's activities to save the lake.
Encroachments, illegal cultivation using fertilisers and chemicals, and other human activities have increased the nutrients in the water, leading to excess algal growth and decomposition that deprive oxygen to wetland flora. The inclusion of areas with human settlements under the protected zone has only added to the problem of pollution.
In 1986, the Bihar government declared Kanwar Lake as a protected area to prevent bird hunting. On June 20, 1989, 6,311 hectares were notified as a bird sanctuary. The process did not take into consideration the human settlements that dotted the area. Result: people became encroachers on their own lands.
According to Chittaranjan Prasad Singh (78), former state vice-president of Janata Dal (United), the next blow came when the state government banned the sale of land around the lake in 2014. "Take 1,618 hectares in the wetland's northern part, which holds eight ft water even in peak summer, for the sanctuary. If they want more, another 404 hectares can be added. But the rest should be given to farmers," says Singh, who has been fighting for their cause at various forums.
In fact, in 2019, the Bihar government heeded their demand when Bharat Jyoti, the then additional principal chief conservator of forests-cum-chief wildlife warden of Bihar, wrote to the then additional director general of forests (wildlife), and the then member secretary of the standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife, Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, seeking redrawing of the sanctuary area.
The letter called for limiting the sanctuary to the main and current extent of the wetland, and sought the exclusion of farming tenancy lands and other lands in community/public use. Citing the National Wetland Atlas: Bihar, mapped by the Space Applications Centre, ISRO, Ahmedabad, using satellite remote sensing data, the state said the wetland occupied only 2,688 ha and appealed to limit the sanctuary's declared area to within 3,000 hectares. However, the Centre did not accept this proposal.
RK Ravi, Divisional Forest Officer (DFO), Begusarai, tells 101Reporters that only 2,620-hectare wetland of the 6,311-hectare bird sanctuary forms the Ramsar site. "At least 50% of the 6,311 hectares could be government land. Farmers may have some share in the notified land," he says.
However, nobody has a clear answer when it comes to land ownership - a reason why mapping the wetland and its catchment areas is necessary. The government agencies lack coordination regarding measures to save the wetland (providing boats to encourage fishing is an example of counterproductive efforts). Moreover, local farmers are influential, which makes it difficult for government agencies to work with them.
"The authorities do not even know the boundaries of the sanctuary. Naturally, encroachers make use of this loophole. How can the government agencies protect such a place?" wonders journalist and environmentalist Mahesh Bharti.
Passing the buck
On November 5, 2014, Seema Tripathi, the then district magistrate (DM) of Begusarai, wrote a letter to the then DFO and sub-divisional officer saying that the forest department should identify the area that strictly falls under the bird sanctuary. A suggestion to assess the raiyati (held by peasant cultivators) and government lands in the notified area was part of it.
In the letter, the DM advised the forest department to get a third-party assessment of the situation done. Another proposal was that a team of district and sub-division level officers should hold meetings every second and fourth Saturday to discuss the claims of farmers, the amount of land to be kept under the sanctuary and other general issues affecting the lake.
However, such a meeting has not taken place, at least in recent months. "I was posted here four months ago. So far, no such meeting has taken place nor have I been invited," Begusarai Additional Collector Rajesh Kumar Singh tells 101Reporters. He adds that the Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM) of Manjhaul would be in a better position to respond.
SDM Mukesh Kumar, on the other hand, claims the forest department is primarily responsible for taking policy decisions. "Being the custodian of land, the SDM hears and settles compensation claims raised by farmers. My team checks if the people seeking compensation are eligible or not. The mapping and assessment of how much area should come under the wetland and bird sanctuary are the forest department's job," he explains. Kumar also informs that he has not attended a meeting with any team related to Kanwar Lake so far, despite being posted here since 2021.
Compensation claims are heard by Manjhaul SDM where ownership of land is verified. "So far, 1,450 farmers have raised the compensation claim, of which 300 were found to be fake," DFO Ravi informs, adding that a decision on compensation would be taken only when all the claims get assessed. In a judgement delivered in 2015, Patna High Court noted that the claims must specify "the extent of right with necessary details" and "amount and particulars of compensation, if any". It was hearing the case of a petitioner, who had sought to sell his entire inherited land of 18.63 acres three years prior but couldn't. The case was dismissed.
Meanwhile, IUCN Species Survival Commission member and bird enthusiast Arvind Mishra tells 101Reporters that besides settling the claims, action to ensure enough water in the lake is a must. "Remember how water from the Chambal was brought to Rajasthan's Bharatpur Lake when it dried up? We cannot rule out similar steps for Kanwar Lake, like diverting water from Burhi Gandak... while bird hunting is common here, the diversity and habitat health are still good," he said approvingly.