- Dr. Jayaditya Purkayastha
Shame, worthlessness and a sense of betrayal grips me whenever pass through Deeporbeel. Why? I will explain but first things first. Deeporbeel is a wetland situated in the western side of Guwahati, around 25 km from the city centre. The NH-37 passes a little distance away from the eastern margin of the beel while the Rani Reserve forest and the Meghalaya hills surround the southern part. Chances are that you have passed through Deeporbeel, if you are going to catch a flight at Lokpriya Gopinath Bordoloi International Airport. An area of 4000 hectare of this wetland was declared a Ramsar site in 2002. A Ramsar Site is a wetland designated of international importance under the Ramsar Convention. A part of this site (4.14 sq km.) was declared as wildlife sanctuary in 2009. Due to the rich birdlife of this wetland, it has been designated as an Important Bird Area (IBA) by Birdlife International since 2004. To give you a context about its biodiversity, the wetland is home to the biggest land animal, the elephant, infact it is said that the name Deeporbeel has an elephant origin. In Sanskrit “dipa” means elephant, and “beel” is a local term used to denote a wetland. Apart from elephants, this wetland is famous for its birdlife. More than 200 species of birds are known from the wetland, with many migratory species visiting Deeporbeel in winter. One of these bird species is the very rare and endangered Greater Adjutant Stork, whose global population is less than 2000 individuals. It is also home to around 59 species of phyto-planktons, 170 species of Zoo-planktons, 315 species of aquatic invertebrates, 54 species of fishes, 20 species of amphibians, 40 species of reptiles, including the largest venomous snake in the world, the King Cobra. The socio-economic survey conducted in the fourteen villages in the Deeporbeel fringe unveils that 22.63% of the people are dependent on the natural resources of the wetland for their livelihood, 17.3% of the people are partially dependent and 45-56% of the families depend on the wetland for fodder for their domestic animals. Around 1200 families living around the wetland are directly or indirectly dependent of Deeporbeel for livelihood.
I was once a regular visitor to this wetland like many of you. It all started in the year 2010 when I saw a red snake, that I had never seen before. I still remember that day, it was sometime in early June when on a boat ride on the Deeporbeel, late in the evening, I saw a snake amongst water hyacinth vegetation, hanging its head upright. I had no clue of what it was! For the past few years, I had been working and learning about snakes of Northeast India and not a single guide book or photographs I saw matched with the snake. As all these were playing in my mind, the snake took the chance and disappeared. The feeling was one that I can never forget, I was very angry with God, “Why did you show me the snake when you did not want me to see it in details?” I asked, and God smiled and within 15 minutes I saw the next one. The boat shook vigorously and I heard my boatman shout but did not realize what he was saying. When I realized, me and the boatman, both were inside the water. What happened was on seeing the snake, I jumped into the water to get hold of it and the leap made the boat disoriented and it capsized. For me it was a trance like situation, I had no clue about the snake and still caught it. When I think back, I realize, how stupid I was, it could easily have been a venomous snake and a single bite from it could have put an end to my life. Luckily, that was not to happen, the snake did not bite me nor it was a venomous snake but it was a priceless snake. A live specimen of the snake was not seen by any of my herpetological colleague from around the world, even a coloured photograph of the snake did not exist. This was the all enigmatic Painted keelback snake, “Bat-feti” in Assamese. With subsequent visits it became clear that the snake was not very uncommon in Deeporbeel. A snake, that most of the modern herpetologists had not seen, was almost plentiful in Deeporbeel. There was one more species of enigmatic snake that I found only in Deeporbeel in the whole of Northeast India, and that was Bar-necked keelback. Both these findings were later published in reputed journals.
What I wrote above, was not to brag about my work but to tell you how unique and rich the Deeporbeel was. As many of you may already know, it used to be paradise for birds too. I myself have visited Deeporbeel day in and day out to click photographs of birds to boost my collection of bird photographs and often brag about my photos on social media. During these times, I met many other photographs, wildlife enthusiasts, researchers from different universities, different organization working on various aspects of Deeporbeel. I did a Google scholar search with the key word Deepor beel which gave me 851 search results. For those of you who do not know what Google scholar is, it a specialized search engine by Google, which shows results regarding research articles. Now that we know, a lot of research effort has been invested on Deeporbeel , than why the wetland is degrading with every passing year? Is it because the research did not come up with substantial solution or while making conservation action plan for Deeporbeel, these research works were not accounted for? Whatever be it, we are not seeing Deeporbeel getting rejuvenated. Again, Deeporbeel is not the one which is away from limelight. A big archive of popular and news articles are present in the worldwide web on various issues of Deeporbeel, such as issues related to water quality, livelihood to jumbos being run over by train. So how come we miss acting for this wetland? May be it is because of people like me, who were friends with the wetland in its better times, used its resources for personal gain starting from research work to photographing its biodiversity are now nowhere to be seen. Now when “Aita”(grandmother) is ill, I have no time for her! I do not know if it is the time or the feeling of guilt that do not let me see her in the eye. Is it because, I realize that I could have done lot more for her rather than attending a marathon of meetings on her name and munching away on snacks and nuts.
Now whenever, I have to cross the beel, I feel like the old lady is bellowing as hard as she can but that her voice has gone so low due to her ever deteriorating health that we hardly can hear her. It is as if her mammaries has nothing left to feed her children, its biodiversity, but they are still suckling it in a hope. Yes, it is all about hope. The last thing that came out of the Pandora’s box was hope. Should we still be hopeful, yes of course! We have to bank on the budding generation and hope that they could undo some of those which we have done. But will it be fair on them to leave everything on their shoulders, I do not think so. We can make a huge difference by discussing some pragmatic solution and not live in fantasies. Organisations and individuals working on Deeporbeel to achieve same goal should talk more leaving aside their personal differences. We need to be more eco-centric than being ego-centric. Deeporbeel is not just an ecological entity; it brings about philosophical and spiritual values. In a time where human values are fast losing meaning, a fighting wetland may teach us a lesson of revival and values of unity of thoughts and action. It is never too late to start, and even the miniscule contribution matters. Our “Aita” needs us, are we ready to be by her side?