One January morning in 2007, birdwatcher and photographer Anand Arya was on his regular morning bird walk at the Okhla Bird Sanctuary in Delhi, when he got talking to a boatman.
The boatman was not impressed by the birds and Okhla, boasting that there were far more at his village lake, Bil Akbarpur in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, about 40km from Okhla.
A hitherto unexplored new birding hot spot is one of those holy grails of birding; and so Arya made the trip to Bil Akbarpur. He found thousands of birds; waterfowl, resident water birds, song birds, and raptors—more than in Okhla, in terms of the number of species. Among the birds sighted was the Bristled Grassbird (Chaetornis striatus), a species endemic to the Indian subcontinent, and a globally threatened bird according to International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.
Arya, a 66–year–old management consultant, tirelessly recorded the presence of the bird on subsequent visits to Dadri, even as he fought a losing battle in the courts to save his own backyard—the forested area adjoining the Okhla Bird Sanctuary where around 9,000 trees were felled by the Mayawati government to make way for Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Memorial Park.
In August last year, on a visit to Dadri, Arya observed that the Bristled Grassbirds he had spotted were gathering nesting material. His trips became even more frequent after that, as he sought to find out if the birds were breeding in the tall grass beds common in Dadri. In September, he saw a female carrying food. In November, he got a glimpse and photographed a juvenile. This is the only breeding record of the Bristled Grassbird in India.
Rapid Development is Paving Over Crucial Bird Habitats
The Bristled Grassbird gets its name from five strong bristles set on a movable flap of skin that the bird moves back (almost as if on a hinge) to protect the eye as it moves through dense, sharp–leaved grass where it is generally found. This enigmatic bird is slightly smaller and slimmer than the Jungle Babbler (popularly known as the Seven Sisters) that frequent backyards and city parks—a bird with a short, thick bill and streaked heavily with brown–buff.
Not much is known about the Bristled Grassbird and records of sightings are scarce. In the past few years, the bird has been spotted a few times in and around the National Capital Region of Delhi, in Corbett Tiger Reserve and most recently in the Naliya grasslands of Kutch district, Gujarat. The Gujarat sighting comes almost 100 years after the bird was last seen in that area.
Even as Arya was recording the breeding of the Bristled Grassbird, the land use pattern in and around Bil Akbarpur changed. The government sold huge tracts of commons (or government land widely used by the local community) and farmland acquired from farmers, to real estate developers who wanted to build residential townships and apartment blocks. Almost overnight, the lake at Bil Akbarpur became "Lake Olympus."
For Arya, it was a cruel reminder of his failure to protect the buffer forest around the Okhla Bird Park. The state government, he claims, ruined the forest—classified "moderately dense" by the Forest Survey of India—knowing that doing this would disrupt the birding at the sanctuary. According to the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), 302 species of birds have been recorded at Okhla of which two, the White–rumped Vulture and the Indian Vulture, are critically endangered, 11 are vulnerable and seven, nearly threatened. Since then, the number of birds at the sanctuary has fallen. Birder Nikhil Devasar, who runs The Northern India Bird Network, and popular e–group 'delhibird, says: "In 2000–01 we used to spot more than a thousand Greater Flamingoes at Okhla, which we don't get to see at all now. Wintering waterfowl came in thousands in the past, but the numbers have greatly dwindled after the development activities around the park boundary."
At Dadri, Ansal Properties and Infrastructure Ltd (Ansal API) has launched an ambitious 2,500–acre township project, buying out prime agricultural land from farmers at around 50 lakh (about US $115,000) an acre, according to an Ansal executive who did not want to be identified.
The township, branded "The Megapolis," is extendable to around 9,000 acres and the company plans to invest 26,800 crore (over US $6 billion) over the next five years for its development. In addition to this housing project there is the 280–acre Shiv Nadar University which is right at the edge of the wetland, and is being built at an estimated cost of 600 crore (about US $138 million) according to a press release from the university.
A portion of this area around Bil Akbarpur belongs to the Dalit tribal community which got this land under the Bhoodan (land–gift) movement of the early 1950s—a land reform movement started by Acharya Vinoba Bhave in 1951. "One cannot sell off this land as it is a gift from the government under the Bhoodan Andolan," claims Arya.
The fertile agricultural land and water bodies in Dadri were also in recent news when the the Allahabad high court quashed the Uttar Pradesh government's notification for use of emergency powers to buy land for Anil Ambani (Indian business tycoon) group's 8,000 megawatt Dadri power project.
"The nexus between the district collector, the "patwari" and the builders leaves very less options for the land owners. They are forced to sell the land within a fixed price. Huge tracts of farmland and marshland are being turned into concrete jungles," says Arya.
The problem is, farmland and commons are not sanctuaries. Nor are they wetlands in the government's mind. A bird as plain–looking as the striated grassbird—at least to the untrained eye (birders find even ordinary looking birds beautiful) is unlikely to be noticed.
Loss of Wetland Ecosystems
The area around Bil Akbarpur may have been christened, "The Dadri Wetlands" by birders, but it isn't one according to the ministry of environment and forests' National Wetland Inventory and Assessment released earlier this year.
Nor are two other birding hot spots close to Delhi—near Basai (close to Gurgaon) and Najafgarh.
And even when a birding site is recognized as a marsh or wetland, it does not guarantee the safety of birds. The Pallikaranai marshes in Chennai for instance, are protected but ringed on all sides by buildings, including several high–rises occupied by IT companies.
Scientist and wetland ecology specialist BC Choudhury of the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) says it should be the state's responsibility to identify and protect wetlands and other habitat. "It should be a bottom–up approach where the district collector along with the "panchayat", identify and notify these areas. Instead of doing this, we are still following archaic Acts (of the British–era) like the Town and Country Planning Act, and the Land Acquisition Act dating back to 1894."
Wetland ecosystems account for around 6% of the global land area and are among the most threatened of all the environmental resources. Wetlands have long suffered significant losses and continue to face an ongoing conversion threat from industrial, agricultural and residential developments.
Where Have the Birds Gone?
The disappearance of commons and wetlands affects immediately the number of bird species recorded in a region. Delhi boasts a checklist of 500 species of birds, the second highest in the world in a city (after Nairobi), but in recent years, even during peak birding season, birders record a maximum of 271 species—the number was recorded during a bird count in March 2005—a whopping nearly 50% decline. Of the 500 bird species, 45 species including the Lesser Florican, and Little and MacQueen's Bustard have not been sighted since the early 1970s, and 250 species are termed "scarcer" in the "Atlas of the Birds of Delhi and Haryana." Sultanpur National Park and Bird Sanctuary, which is situated a few kilometres away from Gurgaon, used to have rolling hills as the backdrop to its lake filled with Sarus cranes and other water fowl. The hills are gone and with every passing season the line of skyscrapers draw closer and closer to the sanctuary.
It's the same story in other cities. Kolkata lost its salt marshes, still known as the east Calcutta wetlands, to the development of the Salt Lake city.
Sumit K. Sen, who runs the Birds of India website says that "even as late as the 1970s, there was nothing but salt marshes covered in tall reed–beds. It used to attract thousands of waterfowls in winter and I remember seeing huge numbers of geese, ducks and waders. It was a true avian paradise till land–filling wiped off the wetlands." Indeed, 70 species including Black Baza, Red–crested Pochard, Spot–billed Pelican, Laggar Falcon, Black Eagle, Pallas's Fish Eagle, White–winged Tern, River Tern and Rock Eagle Owl are no longer seen in Kolkata, according to Sen.
"In the last 15 to 20 years, every vacant plot of land, including playgrounds where children played football and cricket, and ponds have been converted into housing complexes," adds Sen.
In Guwahati, the demise of wetlands has seen adjutant storks—the city boasts half the world's population of these birds—end up as scavengers on rubbish heaps.
Bangalore's tony Koramangala area has come up where a water body once used to be. Author and birder Bikram Grewal recounts birding in the area when he was younger. Between 1973 and 2007, the number of water bodies in Bangalore fell from 207 to 93 according to a research paper titled "Wetlands of Greater Bangalore, India: Automatic Delineation through Pattern Classifiers" by Ramachandra TV and Uttam Kumar of Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.
Arya and other birdwatches who have been to the Dadri wetlands will be hoping that the lake at Bil Akbarpur doesn't go the same way—for the sake of the Bristled Grassbird.
Notes for readers: This article was first published on July 27 by livemint.com/The Wall Street Journal in India. It is published with minor edits by ClimateStoryTellers.org with kind permission of Ananda Banerjee. All photographs are published with permission and can be reposted with this piece.
Copyright 2011 Ananda Banerjee