Our car is dashing down the Vidyasagar Setu, the mammoth suspension bridge over the Hooghly river that links Kolkata to Howrah. From the towering perch of the bridge, Howrah town can be seen sprawled below — little tufts of green vying with the concrete that has spread with cancerous intent, rendered fuzzy under a smoggy veil.
Sharing the back seat, Arjan Basu Roy shares his pragmatism as the secretary of Nature Mates, a name that self-explains the Kolkata-based organisation’s agenda. Early on in his life Arjan understood the futility of fighting development. He joined it, only to bombard it from inside: developing parks in housing complexes, eco-sensitising real estate promoters, substituting foreign saplings with local variants, playing the green agent within the grey system.
Recently, the expertise of Arjan’s organisation was called upon for an altogether novel venture — the cleaning up of Santragachi Jheel, a waterbody spread across 32 acres in Howrah district, which has been home to a large number of migratory birds in winter.
With water hyacinths clogging up Santragachi Jheel earlier this year, there was the risk of the winged guests giving it the go-by altogether this winter. Like with humans, bad news is known to spread fast among birds, and ornithologists feared that the Jheel would be blacklisted by them. The Santragachi Jheel occupies a prominent place in the international map of migratory birds, being among the few such zones in south Bengal. Much was at stake.
The funds-starved forest department confessed helplessness, and it was left to the good offices of a group of citizens to initiate a revival. Led by media professional Mudar Patherya and former cricketer Arun Lal, businessmen Sandip Seksaria and Jayanta Chatterjee pitched in too with their chequebook, resources and green hearts. Many other individuals and organisations chipped in as well.
We are now approaching the Santragachi Jheel and Arjan is keen to show off with “look my Jheel” and “my birds”, displaying, almost, the proprietorial rights of a lover over the partner. “How can we afford to lose this?” he wonders aloud as we now stand at the edge of the waterbody, its clean, sparkling waters stretched out, catching the late afternoon sun. It took days of toil — involving payloaders, jeeps, dumpers, boats, life jackets, labourers and members of the local Chotodol Club — to extract 1,200 tonnes of hyacinth from the Jheel and present this sight.
What the birds, and the Jheel, are up against is easily visible. And heard too — trains whistle from the northern periphery, passenger announcements float in from the Santragachi Railway Station, amplified Hindi film music is heard from the shanties in one corner, while rickshaws and bicyclists press on their bells in the residential area flanking the other end of the Jheel. Hemmed in from all sides, there is the other constant drone — thousands of birds merrily chirping away from small islands within the lake.
No less than 10,000 birds are expected this winter. As we speak, a bronze-winged jacana daintily treads over a patch of hyacinth, deliberately conserved for the birds to rest. A pond heron flies by, its white flapping wings held in contrast to the evening sky. A flock of lesser whistling teal does a coordinated semi-circle before landing on the water with a ballerina’s grace. Flying in from the Himalayan region, the teals constitute almost 90 per cent of the population.
Arjan points out the common moorhen, garganey, red crested-pochard, gadwall, yellow wagtail and pintail. I drool over the Batman-pose struck by the commonly-found cormorant, perched on a floating piece of bamboo.
Soon there is another reason for merriment. A group of birders has spotted a comb duck, which has flown in from a great distance to be here. As of this winter, the balance has been restored in favour of the birds at Santragachi Jheel.