By Bibhuti Pati
Water airport on Chilika’s water will give a watery grave gift to Chilika. In the name of wheedle economic growth through water airport on Chilika, we should not cajole to Chilika and threat its life!
Water, water, everywhere, And all the boards did shrink; Water, water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink. (The Rime of the Ancient Mariner)
These lines remind us of the unenviable predicament of man who has senselessly exploited nature for his petty selfish interest and has treated his fellow living beings with acts of cruelty. The Ancient Mariner in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem suffered immensely for killing the harmless seabird Albatross. He had to do penance, but no penance is sufficient enough for the atonement of the sin he had committed by killing the innocent bird. Every bird and every beast, every living creature for that matter, has a right to live with dignity. Using brute force to deprive them of their legitimate rights is an act of cruelty.
The story of the Ancient Mariner is retold in a thousand ways almost everywhere on the earth. Our forest area is getting depleted and the number of endangered species is increasing every year. Birds and animals are losing their habitat, as man is building new cities and raising skyscrapers. Earth is degraded; air is polluted and water bodies are fast disappearing.
Chilika lagoon at the tri junction of Odisha’s Puri, Khordha and Ganjam districts is a place of unparalleled beauty. Spread over an area of 1,100 sq km, this lagoon is separated from the Bay of Bengal by a long sandy ridge.
Chilika has numerous islands: Sanakuda, Badakuda, Honeymoon, Berahpura, Nalabana, Nuapara, Kalijai, Phulbari, Parikuda, Kanthapantha and Tampara. The larger islands, separated by shallow channels, lie between the barrier and the main body of the lake. The water spread area of the lagoon ranges between 1165 sq km and 906 sq. km during the monsoon and summer respectively.
All these islands are picturesque; almost each of these provides an idyllic setting to every nature-lover. Radhanath Ray, the eminent Odia poet at the turn of the last century, begins his long poem Chilika, by describing it as a jewel of Utkal Laxmi, a storehouse of beauty of the land: Utkal Kamala vilasa dirghika/ Marala malini nilambu Chilika/ Utkalara tuhi charu alankar/ Utkala bhubane sobhara bhandar.”
Eminent freedom fighter and poet, Gopabandhu Das, while travelling by train, implores the moving train to stop awhile so that he could enjoy the enthralling beauty of Chilika. He wonders if such a scene is real. Godabarish Mishra, teacher, journalist, poet and politician, has immortalised the popular Kalijai legend, which narrates the pathetic tale of the beautiful rustic bride. She met her watery-grave on the way to her in-law’s house when the boat carrying the bride capsized due a storm. Since then, the bride has turned into an angelic spirit whose abode is the hillock named after her. It is believed that she safeguards the people moving to the sea.
Chilika, the largest brackish water lagoon in Asia, is indeed a place of enchanting beauty. It received the prestigious Ramsar Wetland Conservation Award and Evian Special Prize for 2002. The lagoon was added to the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance in 1981. The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, especially as Waterfowl Habitat, is an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands. It is named after the city of Ramsar in Iran, where the Convention was signed in 1971.
According to a survey, 45 percent of the birds in Chilka are terrestrial in nature, 32 percent are waterfowl, and 23 percent are waders. The lagoon is also home to 14 types of raptors. Around 152 rare and endangered Irrawaddy dolphins have also been reported. The lagoon also supports about 37 species of reptiles and amphibians. Besides, it is home to microalgae, marine seaweeds, sea grasses, fish and crab.
Chilika provides the largest wintering ground for migratory birds on the Indian subcontinent. It is home to a number of threatened species of plants and animals. The lagoon is an ecosystem with large fishery resources. It sustains more than 150,000 fisher–folk living in 132 villages on the shore and islands.
The lagoon hosts over 160 species of birds in the peak migratory season. Birds from far off places like the Caspian Sea, Lake Baikal, Aral Sea and remote parts of Russia, Kirghiz steppes of Mongolia, Central and southeast Asia, Ladakh and the Himalayas visit the place. These birds travel great distances to reach the Chilika lagoon.
Nalabana Bird Sanctuary or Nalabana Island is the core area of the Ramsar designated wetlands of Chilika lagoon. It was declared a bird sanctuary under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. In the heart of the park, one can see thousands of birds descending during the migratory season. During the monsoon, the island disappears due to inundation, only to emerge again post-monsoon.
According to the bird census report released in January this year, a total of 8,93,390 birds of 147 species were spotted in Chilika, in comparison to 9,47,119 birds of 167 species spotted last year. Similarly, 3,20,826 birds were sighted in Nalabana this time as against 374,756 sighted in the sanctuary.
Out of the total birds, the highest number was spotted in Nalabana and only 720 birds were sighted in Rambha. A new species of bird, namely River Lapping, was spotted in Chilika this year. While the number of flamingos was 314, that of pintail birds was 1,36,874, gadwall birds 1,34,369, common coot birds 84,958 and Eurasian Wigeon 1,56,671.
It is a matter of concern that the number of migratory birds visiting the Chilika lagoon has dropped in 2017-18 with 53,000 fewer winged visitors sighted at the lagoon compared to 2016-17.
Nature has already issued a warning. Over the years, Chilika has been subject to degradation. Siltation, choking of the seawater inlet channel, decrease in fish productivity and the overall loss of biodiversity – all these have contributed to its degradation. Around 1.6 million tonnes of sediment, particularly silt, is deposited in the lake by rivers such as Daya. In 1993, the lagoon was added to the List of Ramsar Sites in Danger.
Unchecked prawn farming is also posing a serious threat to the Chilika lagoon. Prawn culture, which has brought traditional fishermen face to face with big farmers, contributes to the rising silt load of the lagoon, adversely impacting its bio-diversity. Silting, it is feared, could also lead to the shrinkage of the lake area, and make it further shallow. The reduction in the lake’s depth due to the rise in its bed, a result of heavy silt deposit, has a direct bearing on the quality of its water that sustains its aquatic life.
Prawn farming in the lagoon continues with the active support of rich businessmen, powerful bureaucrats and influential politicians. This affects its salinity level that sustains a large variety of flora and fauna, part of which is food for local and migratory birds that spend winters in the lagoon. Traditional fishermen complain that their catch has been falling because of the prawn gherries that dot the lagoon. They allege that since even bureaucrats have a stake in the lucrative prawn trade, the occasional drives carried out by the administration to demolish prawn enclosures are mere eyewashes. Prawn enclosures are back in the lagoon soon after the demolition drive ends.
The lagoon now faces yet another threat, this time from the union government, which, in its bid to give a boost to tourism, has proposed to set up a water aerodrome in the lagoon. The proposed water aerodrome will come up in an area of open water to be used regularly by seaplanes or amphibious aircraft. It has been reported that Spice Jet has been shortlisted for setting up the facility.
The Civil Aviation Ministry has approved a proposal for setting up of water aerodromes at several places in the country. Under the proposal, water aerodromes would be set up near places of tourist and religious importance. The Airports Authority of India has identified sites in Odisha, Gujarat, Assam, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh where water aerodromes would be developed. Chilika lagoon in Odisha, Sardar Sarovar Dam and Sabarmati Riverfront in Gujarat have been identified to be developed for such facilities in the first phase, it is reported.
This is bound to adversely impact the unique eco-system of Chilika lagoon. The project, if worked out, could pose a serious threat to the movement of birds in winter. There are also chances of birds hitting the aircraft. Disturbances in the Chilika ecosystem will endanger the lives of the dolphins as well.
The movement of boats in many areas of Chilika, including the Nalabana bird sanctuary has ordinarily been restricted. Noise pollution generated by nearly 10,000 boats has already taken a toll on the endangered Irrawaddy dolphins. The amphibious aircraft operation would now add to their woe.
In such a situation, a water aerodrome in the area is not at all justified. The then minister Debendranath Mansingh, who represented Chilika constituency in the Odisha Legislative Assembly in 1980, 1985 and 1995, has expressed his concern deep over the proposal. According to him, tourism can be promoted even without a water aerodrome. Both domestic and foreign tourists can always board a flight to Bhubaneswar, from where they can travel about 100-150 kms by train or by road to visit places like Mangalajodi, Satapada, Balugaon, Barkul, Kesharpur and Rambha. There is no need to set up a water aerodrome at a huge cost. “Odisha Chief Minister should urge the Minister, Civil Aviation and the Prime Minister not to proceed with the proposed project. Chilika Development Authority should study the detailed project report (DPR) and impress upon the state government to take necessary steps immediately,” says Mansingh.
Civil Aviation Ministry has taken it (Water Airport Project) as an up-coming pilot project in India. In the near future Govt. has various water airport project proposals to connect different parts of India through their ‘Udan Plan’. But in our country it will be not an effective project. This water airport project will damage the locals’ livelihoods and around more than 2 lakhs traditional fishermen community will displaced from their livelihood. Villagers have already warned for a mass moment. What about Chilika’s Coastal Regelation Zone? This project will be definitely violating the Chilika’s CRZ rull and regulations,” Mansing added.
The idea of a water aerodrome had occurred too many, but has not yet been successfully implemented. Kerala Seaplane service promoted by the Kerala Tourism Infrastructure Limited in collaborations with Pawan Hans Helicopter ltd. was an utter failure. Chief Minister Ommen Chandy launched the service on 2 June 2013 in the backwaters of the Ashtamudi Lake in Kollam district.
There was stiff opposition to this service in Kerala. Traditional fishermen claimed that the seaplane service posed a threat to their livelihood and marine ecology. The state government constituted a committee to study the impact of the seaplane operations on the livelihood of the local fishing community. Environmentalists, marine ecology and biodiversity experts said and submit their opinion that this project will destroy the environment, biodiversity and ecology. Although, the expert committee could not submit its final report even by the year-end but considering all these opinions the Kerala Govt has stopped its project, says by Kerala Tourism Minister Surendran.
The idea of operating seaplane was floated in London several decades ago, but has not been worked out. Thames Estuary Airport has been proposed at various times since the 1940s. A proposal was studied from various angles in 2013-14. In October 2016, go-ahead was given for a third runway at Heathrow, implying that the idea of a Thames Estuary airport is now unlikely. Similarly, the proposal for Thames Hub Airport could not take off. The Met office predicted that there would be three times as much fog than at London Heathrow over the course of the year. Under the circumstances, it is not wise on the part of the NDA dispensation in New Delhi to go ahead with the Chilika project.
Tourists visit Chilika to enjoy its captivating beauty. Once its pristine beauty is list due to reckless human activity, no one will certainly visit the place. Ultimately, Chilika will lose its importance as a tourist destination. The precious jewel of Utkal Laxmi will lose its shine.
We should not take nature for granted and continue to exploit it in the name of development and improvement of infrastructure. It will spell doom for all in the long run. Future generations will not forgive us for our irrational exploitation of nature.
(To be concluded)