Every other piece written about the East Kolkata Wetlands starts with an image of placid waters surrounded by menacing high-rises. The starkness of this image, where a fragile waterscape – a wetland of international importance protected by the Ramsar guidelines – is haunted by ever expanding urban greed, has framed a binary conservation narrative. Invisible from this picture is the urban poor. With remarkable ingenuity, they have converted this waterscape into Kolkata’s biological wastewater treatment plant where 750 million litres of wastewater – a pollutant in the eyes of many a scientist – is treated daily and recycled to become fish feed, while 150 metric tonnes of vegetables are produced every day on the garbage substrate in the surrounding dumpsite at Dhapa.

In binary conservation narratives, ecosystems do not speak for themselves. They are interpreted by experts who establish their value and communicate the same. The urban poor, who inhabit the landscape and conserve it through use, are written out.

Therefore, it is unsurprising that the syndicated piece carried by Scroll.in on April 9 extends such forms of erasure to the East Kolkata Wetlands. Written from a distance, absent from any interaction with the users of the wetland, and understood mostly through a few scientific papers and conversations with their authors, such reportage sets the scene for what the late Dr Dhrubajyoti Ghosh – who gave the East Kolkata Wetlands the name by which it is known today – called “cognitive apartheid”. This is a form of knowledge discrimination legitimised in a society where textual knowledge is valued over lived experience. As the terrain of conservation shifts from the unlettered user to the lettered expert, the latter starts to decide on how an ecosystem should be conserved.

Taking along the wetland users

There is consensus among scientists that the wetland is of immense value to Kolkata, a city where freshly constructed concrete flyovers collapse but an ecological infrastructure in the form of a socially engineered wetland survives for a century. The political system, which fills its coffers by concretising every inch of the city, disagrees. If the challenge is to convince them, then well-wishers of the East Kolkata Wetlands must recognise that the users and inhabitants of the wetland are critical for its survival.

Over the last decade, the East Kolkata Wetlands has attracted a steady stream of researchers who have produced a rich volume of work, all of which agrees that the wetland is critical to sustaining Kolkata. Unfortunately, while the number of peer reviewed journal papers on the wetland has increased in this period of time, the actual ecosystem is in rapid decline. In 2017, the Society for Creative Opportunities and Participatory Ecosystems, a Kolkata-based non-profit, conducted a study of encroachment in a revenue village in the East Kolkata Wetlands. It showed that the village’s waterbody area had decreased from 88% in 2002 to 57% in 2006 to 19% in 2017.

The crisis looms large. Yet, the case for conserving the East Kolkata Wetlands through wise use is weakened by research that goes ahead of its findings, some of which has been mentioned in the piece in Scroll.in. Economic studies argue that users of the East Kolkata Wetlands no longer find fishing and farming profitable, and this is driving younger generations to look for opportunities elsewhere. This narrative of the internal weakening of incentives for wise use of the wetland does not account for the external politics that engineers economic stress. On several occasions, farmers and fisherfolk have complained to the East Kolkata Wetlands Management Authority of not being supplied enough wastewater to sustain their activities. A livelihood crisis is being engineered by simply cutting the East Kolkata Wetlands off from what sustains it – wastewater. Research that does not engage with such politics is in danger of naturalising the economic stress of the wetland users, which then allows the political system to use it as a club to beat conservation efforts on the head with.

Subsequent studies that have established the East Kolkata Wetlands’ ability to absorb harmful carbon in wastewater have wasted no time in intervening to arrest the “decline” by offering carbon credit schemes to farmers. Globally, carbon markets are riddled with inefficiencies and corruption, and rife with speculation from the hedge fund market. Not only have they failed to make any dent on global emissions or on reducing poverty, they are now being touted as the next big bubble on the horizon. More than famers, carbon credit schemes benefit the people who promote them. An article on the global failure of carbon markets in The Guardian says:

“In fact, carbon markets have created a lot of income for consultants, carbon brokers and project developers, not to mention the validators, policy makers, NGO professionals and academics who have made a living from these markets.”

When the East Kolkata Wetlands was designated a Ramsar site, it was the first and only wetland recognised for its wise use in India. (Credit: ramsar.org)

Erasing the wetland’s ideology

Bringing in such forms of neoliberal conservation into a politically charged waterscape is bound to unleash its own pathologies. The entry of private capital works to disconnect the state-citizen contract and puts ecosystem users at the mercy of volatile corporate markets. What the users of the East Kolkata Wetlands need in order to continue providing “ecological subsidy” is recognition from the state, continued supply of wastewater, and law enforcement to protect them from the land mafia. This will only emerge out of an environmental justice movement.

When the East Kolkata Wetlands was designated a Ramsar site, it was the first and only wetland recognised for its wise use in India. The man behind this, Dhrubajyoti Ghosh, was the first to articulate the term “ecological subsidy” in 1997, to show how the wetland saved the city a vast amount of money by treating its wastewater for free and then providing it cheap fish and food. This, to him, was an example of the urban poor’s “positive ecological footprint”, where they consumed very little resource but gave back a lot more. Unfortunately, in the syndicated piece, this is unacknowledged and misattributed. Not only does it show a lack of journalistic rigour, it also plays into erasing the ideology that has ensured the survival of the East Kolkata Wetlands.

The East Kolkata Wetlands has strong community institutions that take the brunt of the state’s efforts to disenfranchise the poor and push them out of their habitat, but it is hard to find researchers working with them. Recent research and conservation efforts are piecemeal and periodic, and disappear into ether once project financing dries up. They also fall prey to the temptation of recreating knowledge hierarchies where users become project beneficiaries. Once that subversion is naturalised, then users are no longer seen as bearers of knowledge but recipients of expertise.

The East Kolkata Wetlands is not only a unique urban ecosystem, its very existence tells us that a city can be imagined differently. Any writing or research that attempts to erase its historical and ideological legacy and ignore its political reality will do so at the risk of undermining its struggle for survival.

Dhruba Dasgupta is Project Director at Society for Creative Opportunities and Participatory Ecosystems – a Kolkata-based non-profit.

Amitangshu Acharya is a Leverhulme Trust PhD Scholar in Human Geography, University of Edinburgh, UK.