Urban planning in 21st century India has been reduced to optimising land for tangible purposes, ideally for-profit enterprises. If some land is allowed to be, it is considered wasted – khaali zameen. The case of the Basai wetland illustrates this absurdity.

If you have not heard of Basai, it is probably because you are not a birder, nor have been close to one. It is all but a formally recognised wetland in Haryana’s Gurugram. As a birder, I find these 206 hectares much richer than the better known Keoladeo National Park, formerly the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary. It lies on an important flyway – or flight path – which hundreds of thousands of migratory birds take from Europe and Central Asia to India. Several settle down in the marshy, muddy, swampy waters of Basai and its neighbourhood water bodies. Some, such as the Steppe Eagle, are endangered and others, such as the Black Tailed Godwit, are vulnerable, which means they can be classified as endangered if their habitats are lost. Such birds are plentiful.

Although I have often enjoyed aha moments at Basai, it was only after reading the Delhi Bird Foundation’s petition to conserve this hotspot that I learned of its legal status. The petition to the National Green Tribunal states that Basai has been declared an “Important Bird Area” by the Bombay Natural History Society, Wildlife Institute of India and the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History, and identified as a “Key Biodiversity Area” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The note to the court contains this extraordinary statistic: Basai shelters 20,000 birds of 280 species, 60% of the total bird species seen in the National Capital Region. Clearly, it is a key biodiversity hotspot in India.

It seems only a few thousand people feel this way. Otherwise, why would a group of citizens – entrepreneurs, restaurant owners, tourism professionals, other regular folk – band together to fight Basai being declared a protected wetland?

A water rail, a bird that is not very common, at the Basai wetland. Photo credit: Pankaj Gupta

‘Wasted space’

It all began with the Haryana government permitting a construction and demolition waste recycling plant to be set up on the edge of the wetland. Dust – comprising ground bricks and cement chunks – from the plant will certainly choke the area. Legally, the plant should not have been sited here. A dismayed community of birdwatchers went to the National Green Tribunal against this.

The conversations that followed were revealing. Senior government officials told me about two years ago, when the matter was fresh, that everywhere they went, local people protested against the plant. They felt the wetland could be used as it was a “wasted space” without the menace of NIMBY.

When I pressed them about the value of the wetland, they eventually asked what exactly I would recommend to protect Basai without formally declaring it protected. It did not make sense because the framework civil servants often use is this: land can be gold if you mine it for projects; otherwise, it remains a mere untapped gold mine. The framework many others use is this: you cannot think of land-nurturing wilderness as untapped riches, its very presence is public wealth.

Another official I met casually told me I should stop whining about Basai. “I will just handle the sewage and then you show me the birds,” he challenged. My response was that he should handle the sewage but also acknowledge the wondrous byproduct of state incompetence. I reminded him the birds had not just landed up at Basai at random. The area was a rich wetland for a long time before many local ponds got urbanised.

Such myopic, uninformed thinking has been mainsteamed when it comes to land use in Indian cities. Open spaces of Central Delhi’s residential areas, for example, are “wasted” unless redeveloped. Chennai’s wetland spaces were “saved from being wasted” by being dumped in and built upon, rendering them dead and unable to shield the city from floods. Such examples abound across India.

The opposite do too, of course. A small part of Delhi’s own rich, sandy Yamuna banks are conserved for their biodiversity by the Delhi government, much to the delight of wilderness-hungry citizens of all persuasions. A few years ago, two young boys living nearby came up to me as I struggled to identify a mixed flock of gulls on the riverbank and mentioned how much they loved sitting by the river and watching that very sight. Indeed, research has shown that mental health benefits of experiencing the outdoors cannot be understated.

The Basai wetland lies on an important flyway which hundreds of thousands of migratory birds take from Europe and Central Asia to India. Photo credit: Pankaj Gupta

‘Blind spot’

An opportunity arose when the Smart Cities Mission created a Liveability Index, whose 79 indicators include open physical spaces, identity and culture. The mission, based on projects submitted by the competing cities themselves, was expected to encourage urban India to aspire to at least become more livable. Basai – a gem of a hotspot – contains the dream indicators of a Smart City. Yet, it is the victim of a particularly unsmart city. Why should this not be undone? Why should it not be declared a wetland by law and protected?

Our urban landscape is becoming unliveable in so many ways – air pollution, unsafe spaces for women, loss of community. Less acknowledged is the killing of wilderness. Partly, this is because of ambiguity about what constitutes wilderness and green. It is not just trees and forests, but also wetlands, beaches, wild grassy patches, thorny scrub forest and sandy desert – all these and more are vital ecosystems. Most Indians are not educated to appreciate that all these landscapes are as rich as the lush tropical forests we are typically taught to venerate. This blind spot extrapolates into policy.

Another crisis has emerged over the last decade from the global emphasis on creating tangible, financially self-sustainable value in cities. Such reductionist thinking allows inviolate open spaces in masterplans to be easily violated for buildings, and trivialises that which cannot be projectised. The sheer pleasure of looking at geese you know have flown in from the Trans-Himalayas, or hearing the sound of grasses and reeds rustling against the breeze, or seeing the flashing blue of a Verditer Flycatcher in the winter of the South make us mentally resilient and happier, contributing positively to the quality of our lives.

These moments help us rise beyond our jobs, our everyday travails and trepidation of being employees and siblings and neighbours and lovers. They elevate us for a while from our transactional state of being – one where we seek ways to save money or maintain our homes, for example – to being part of something greater. The intangible pleasure of all kinds of wilderness allows us to embrace our fuzzy 21st century civilization. For that reason alone, people should never have to fight to preserve the great outdoors. It should be a given.

Bharati Chaturvedi is an environmentalist and founder of the NGO Chintan.

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