It was only 10 years ago. On a hot summer afternoon on the banks of the Mahananda river in Malda, West Bengal, we had just finished speaking with a group of village elders about floods and wetlands. As we walked through the village, we came across a small wetland. “How deep is it?” Dhrubajyoti Ghosh casually asked someone who was walking past. “Four feet,” came the prompt reply. “Are you absolutely sure?” Ghosh asked. “Let me show you,” the man answered and in the blink of an eye, took off his mud-stained undershirt and dived into the water. He flipped his legs up straight, his body upside down in the water, his waist emerging out of the surface. As he started to swim away, we heard him say, “Aami bhul boli na.” I was not wrong. With a twinkle in his eyes, Ghosh turned to me and said, “You see that innocence? You see his love for water? That is what protects these wetlands, not policies.”
The ecologist who loved wetlands and people in equal measure died on Friday in Kolkata. He could have died any other day, and the city of death and decay would not have noticed. Ghosh, the city’s UN Global 500 laureate, died just the way he lived, quietly and with dignity.
Almost 30 years ago, as a sanitation engineer with the government of West Bengal, Ghosh wanted to find out where Kolkata’s 750 million litres of wastewater disappeared, given that the city did not have a single treatment plant. His curiosity led him to discover the “kidneys of Kolkata” – the East Kolkata Wetlands. Surviving on the eastern fringes of the city, this vast network of wetlands received the city’s sewage and converted it into food for fish, which was then sold back to the city. Upending conventional scientific wisdom, Kolkata is a city where sewage is a nutrient and not a pollutant.
Ghosh fell in love with this unique ecosystem and the people who nurtured it. Protecting the East Kolkata Wetlands was his life’s mission. In 2002, he achieved a major victory when it was designated a Ramsar site – making it a wetland of international importance. However, the land mafia he had managed to push back soon extracted revenge. He lost his job and the vengeful state apparatus even refused to pay his pension and other dues.
Champion of the poor
Today, Kolkata, wrapped in cheap Chinese LED lights, aspires to become a London of the east one day and Singapore the other. The East Kolkata Wetlands survives within this schizophrenia. Ghosh always knew the 12,500 hectares of the East Kolkata Wetlands would not survive the autophagy of urban growth. To take on the collective might of the state and the real estate lobby, he fought this conservation battle as a government bureaucrat, a researcher, an academic, a public intellectual and an activist. He worked closely with the farmers, fisherfolk and waste pickers managing the East Kolkata Wetlands. “Every time I interact with them, I learn something new,” he once told me. His last book, The Trash Diggers, celebrated the work of the poor waste pickers of Kolkata whose unacknowledged recycling services saved the city from choking on its own trash. In his other book – which, much against his wish, was given the drab title of Ecosystem Management – he coined the term “cognitive apartheid”, a systematic exclusion of the knowledge of the poor by the elite.
With his empathy for the poor users of wetlands, this silver-haired septuagenarian was an anomaly in the misanthropic world of conservation. While his patience for fly-by-night, glib conservationists was wafer thin, he had immense reserves of it for the poor and curious. His uncompromising stand in support of the poor and against neoliberal conservation increasingly pushed him to the margins of conservation discourse in India and abroad. He once laughingly told me, “They don’t know what to do with me, they don’t like what I say, but at the same time they can’t ignore me; it must be very frustrating for everyone involved.”
When he received the prestigious Luc Hoffman Award from the International Union for Conservation of Nature in 2016, he was actually quite surprised. He was used to being on the margins and had considered himself to be forgotten by the world.
The last of his kind
It was only in recent years that he started receiving the attention he deserved. It is a pity that his first book, Ecology and Traditional Wetland Practice, which should be an essential read for wetland conservationists the world over, is almost impossible to find in a bookshop. In it, he sets the foundation for what he would go on to call “the enlightenment of the ordinary”, everyday ecological improvisations by the urban poor in an ecosystem.
The death of Dhrubajyoti Ghosh follows that of Anupam Mishra, whose quiet work on traditional water harvesting systems is considered a watershed in India’s environmental history, and who wrote the introduction to Ecosystem Management. Both had immense respect for each other – an interesting relationship between a Marxist ecologist and a Gandhian environmentalist. With their passing, India has lost two great environmentalists within a very short period of time.
The last text message Ghosh sent me ended with, “I think I now know how to know ecology that saves people in ecological distress.” I would have loved to know more, but that conversation will remain forever unfinished, like many of his writings. Dhrubajyoti Ghosh, like Anupam Mishra, was not only the last of his kind, but his kind was the last. His death is a lighthouse switching off on a stormy night. We lost him at a time when he was needed the most.
Amitangshu Acharya is a Leverhulme Trust PhD candidate in Human Geography at the University of Edinburgh.