Ecological degradation of Deepor Beel, a freshwater lake of international importance on the outskirts of Guwahati, has turned out to be a major electoral issue for hundreds of fishermen and farmers dependent on the wetland. Spread over an area of 40.1 sq km, the lake, which is listed in the Ramsar Convention, supports livelihood of over 1,200 families living in 12 villages around it.
Fishermen complain that the fish output has become unpredictable over the last few years after elephants, which cleared the waterbody by feeding on the lake vegetation, stopped visiting it because of the presence of a railway line on the southern boundary of the wetland. "Elephants from the adjoining Rani and Garbhanga Reserve have a tough task in coming to the beel now because of the railway tracks. Many of them get injured and even die while crossing it," Purna Ram Das, president of the Deepor Beel Paanchpada cooperative society, said.
He says that elephants are crucial to fishing as the large mammals clear the waterbody which gets congested with waterweeds, hyacinth and other vegetation. "They clear the lake for us and the year they do not come, the fish production decreases," another fisherman said, adding that last year the production was three times less.
Fishermen want their next MP to take up this issue with the Railways as all their complaints have fallen on deaf ears.
Guwahati goes to poll on April 24.
Laxman Teron, a paddy farmer in one of the villages encircling the lake, complains that when the elephants are not able to go and eat in the wetland they get angry and attack their fields. "Not only they eat whatever we grow but also attack our huts. Man-animal conflict as a result of this has increased," Teron said, demanding that there should be an elephant corridor for the safe passage of animals.
The farmers are also demanding compensation for the loss of agriculture produce and property.
Noted environmentalist Prof P C Bhattacharjee, who has retired from the Gauhati University, said the population around the lake has been increasing steadily over the years.
Once a healthy wetland, Deepor Beel has undergone rapid changes due to industrialisation, agricultural activities, forest cover change in the adjoining reserved forests, and human settlement within the wetland and its buffer zone. Moreover, the inflow of stormwater from Guwahati city to the wetland is degrading its water quality causing a hazardous environment for the aquatic flora and fauna.
Deepor Beel is also believed to support threatened species of birds like spotbilled pelican, lesser adjutant stork, greater adjutant stork, black necked stork, and large whistling teal.
"If the wetland is healthy, the people living around it will benefit automatically," Prof Bhattacharjee said.