Where there’s muck there’s brass: making money from sewage in Kolkata

On a sultry afternoon Golam Gaiyan, a 75-year-old fisherman, sits together with his again to the solar on the porch of a two-storey home, paint peeling off the partitions. Sunbeams peek by means of a row of betel-nut timber and light-weight up Gaiyan’s white vest. Thick veins pulsate alongside his tawny arms, which transfer in live performance over the gold-grey nylon fishing web sprawled in entrance of him.

Equipped with a big needle, a small scraper and a knife, Gaiyan fixes the frayed and torn sections of a dragnet, a weighted web that may be drawn throughout a large space. It is not any easy activity. The web weighs 37kg and when solid right into a pond it covers a circumference of some 60 metres. Identifying a rip in this maze of overlapping mesh requires each diligence and a pointy eye. Gaiyan speaks softly, stitching every unfinished sentence to the subsequent with a protracted pause, his gaze targeted on the duty at hand.

He is readying the online for the morning. The East Kolkata Wetlands are a large waterscape of round 50 sq. miles of water which lies to the east of the choking megacity of Kolkata in West Bengal. Each day the wetlands come alive with the sound of those fishing nets: the swish of a khapla, a small castnet, because it lands on the floor of a sewage-fed fish pond, or the frantic wriggle inside a ghana jaal, a dense dragnet, being slowly pulled out of water. In the tussle between fish and web, each find yourself scarred.

“In the old days, the fishing nets used to be made of cotton in this jalabhoomi (wetland),” Gaiyan says. Nylon is cheaper and extra sturdy, nevertheless it lacks the grace of a cotton web. It additionally lacerates the fish. Gaiyan holds up a piece he has mended, a white triangular patch sutured with new nylon threads. “Pangash tangra,” he says, with a twinkle in his eyes: the feisty and carnivorous yellowtail catfish is a relative newcomer to those wetlands, launched by business farmers, and its frenzied writhing when caught can shred even the hardest nylon.

The wetlands have been described variously because the “kidneys of Kolkata” and “the lungs of the city”

Fish is the foreign money of the East Kolkata Wetlands, a mosaic of 264 our bodies of water, every one managed independently – some are personal, others are run as co-operatives. At the tip of a tough day, staff receives a commission a wage of 150-250 rupees ($2-3.50), together with a fish weighing at the very least 300g.

At night time thieves typically attempt to steal fish. They come from neighbouring areas and slink round, casting their nets into unguarded fishponds. Locals take into account this to be the equal of a financial institution heist.

“Did you ever fix a thief’s fishing net?”

“Never had the misfortune,” Gaiyan laughs. But there’s a sorrow too: there are fewer fish thieves round these days, he says, as a result of the wetlands are disappearing.

Water, water in every single place A employee by his fishpond (opening picture). Golam Gaiyan, a weaver of fish nets, aboard his boat (high). Ready for market (center). The palm earlier than the storm (backside)

The East Kolkata Wetlands aren’t solely well-known for fish. Most cities in India clear their sewage in therapy crops. But in Kolkata, the filth of 5m inhabitants is as a substitute recycled into fortune organically.

The wetlands are a sprawl of salt marshes, settling basins, sewage farms and agricultural farmlands. They have been fashioned over the course of centuries, as repeated tidal flooding introduced in silt and created an surroundings that was neither open water nor terra firma. Thousands of individuals work right here, occupying small concrete homes and shanties of corrugated iron with tarpaulin roofs that fly off each time a cyclone blows by means of. There are makeshift stalls purveying tea and biscuits, weekly wholesale markets, just a few schoolhouses. Paved roads and unpaved causeways criss-cross the marshes.

Wildlife thrives right here too: there are greater than 65 forms of birds, dozens of reptiles and amphibians, and at the very least 16 species of mammal. If you’re fortunate, you would possibly glimpse an Asian palm civet (known as poetically in Bengali gondhogokul, or “the fragrance of aromatic rice”), a golden jackal or a smooth-coated otter. And then there are the 40 or so sorts of fish farmed in the business fisheries.

The most extraordinary factor concerning the wetlands, nevertheless, is their capability to rework the sewage of a teeming metropolis into shimmering black gold. The wetlands have been variously described because the “kidneys of Kolkata”, “the lungs of the city” and an “indispensable heritage”. Every day 750m litres of sewage and wastewater move into them. With almost a century of data behind them, annually some 50,000 fisherfolk and vegetable farmers flip excrement into 10,000 tonnes of fish and 50,000 tonnes of greens.

When Calcutta was the capital of colonial India, the River Hooghly was used as an outlet for town’s sewage in addition to a supply of consuming water. The folly of this turned clear after repeated outbreaks of cholera. So, in the late nineteenth century, the huge salt marshes on the jap fringe of town, the place the dry channels of the Bidyadhari river terminated, began getting used for sewage disposal.

The subsequent stage of the wetlands’ improvement was pure serendipity. In 1930 a neighborhood landlord known as Bhabanath Sen, who owned just a few native fish farms, started to let Calcutta’s wastewater into his fish ponds. About 5% of it was precise faeces. Rather than kill the fish, he discovered that they thrived and the soil grew fecund. Other fisheries quickly copied him, and new ones have been arrange.

After native engineers recognised the worth of sewage as a low-cost supply of vitamins for fish, they began to develop a drainage system to convey wastewater east. A variety of rich landlords-turned-fishery-owners siphoned off the sewage into inter-connected fishponds, often known as bheris, across the space now often known as Salt Lake. By the time India gained independence from Britain in 1947, Calcutta’s authorities had accomplished a collection of channels to convey big portions of sewage into the fisheries. Sewage was turning into a precious commodity.

Waste not, need not Dwellings beside a canal (high). At Topsia pumping station, two flows of wastewater come collectively (center). A boatman in a fishpond (backside)

Jiten Munda is sitting on a just lately constructed marble platform constructed across the base of a peepal, a sacred fig tree, wrapped in a skinny cotton towel and chequered sarong. A rivulet of black sewage flows behind him. The immense trunk of a coconut tree, scaffolded with bamboo poles and jute ropes, has been laid throughout the width of the canal to function a bridge.

Munda leads us throughout the bridge to his fishpond, which is surrounded by a thicket of elephant-eared taro and communist weed (so-named as a result of the ideology was proliferating quickly in India in the Nineteen Sixties, similtaneously the plant was doing so). The water is clearer right here, aside from a layer of brownish-green specks. “It’s fish feed,” he demonstrates, throwing a bit of rock on the pond. The splash reveals clear water beneath.

Converting black wastewater to clear water in fishponds is the miracle of the East Kolkata Wetlands. This alchemy, which challenges the traditional scientific knowledge of wastewater as a pollutant, is produced by the intersection of labour, daylight and fish.

Munda is a second-generation fish farmer, now in his late 50s. He prepares his pond earlier than releasing fish eggs into it, draining water out by means of a pipe through the winter, then cleansing, ploughing and mixing the uncovered mattress with lime, earlier than scattering the seeds of a shrub known as prickly sesban. Just a few months later, when the plant has grown to about 6ft, Munda opens up the incoming pipe to the canal and fills his pond, submerging the crops with wastewater and setting in movement a fancy interaction between algae and micro organism.

The wastewater, which consists of vitamins comparable to nitrates and phosphates, and faecal matter containing cardio micro organism, enters the fishpond. There the water submerges the crops, enabling them to supply algae as they rot. The algae photosynthesise to emit oxygen, which the cardio micro organism then use to interrupt down the vitamins in the sewage. This course of releases carbon dioxide: the algae eat this and so proliferate. Within just a few days an algal bloom drapes the floor of the pond in a luxuriant inexperienced. The bloom radically improves the standard of the water by oxygenating it, and likewise produces what Munda refers to as “maacher menu”, a buffet of plankton for the fish. Tiny fish are then launched into the water to feast on the plankton and different vitamins, and their gorging cleans the water additional.

One of the glories of sewage is that everybody’s waste appears the identical

Another plant, the water hyacinth – which in the favored creativeness is vilified as an invasive interloper from the Amazon – additionally works as a tireless air purifier of waste. Though ecologists decry it in analysis papers, unlettered fishpond staff have lengthy used the plant to their profit. Lining the rim of a pond with water hyacinths protects the banks from erosion. The roots of the water hyacinth soak up heavy metals comparable to lead and mercury, together with extra nitrogen and potassium, which helps to wash the wastewater.

The gates of scent A sluice gate regulates the move of water into every pond (high). Goltala, one of many greatest fishponds in the East Kolkata Wetlands (center). Dhruba Das Gupta, a wetland researcher and activist (backside)

Munda and different fish farmers in the wetlands maintain the water hyacinth trimmed. The plant supplies shade to fish from the scorching summer season solar, and its roots present meals for at the very least one of many species discovered right here. You would possibly count on sewage deposits to make this a no-go space for wildlife. Instead, the fish, water hyacinths, micro organism and folks all work in live performance to purify the uninterrupted move of excrement, turning garbage into riches.

One of the glories of sewage is that everybody’s waste appears the identical. Topsia pumping station, constructed in 1972, is positioned on the confluence of two totally different channels of wastewater. One stream of muddy gray flows from the rich trendy enclaves of South Kolkata. The different comes from the congested outdated neighbourhoods of the North. Both mingle right here and enter the identical canal, heading in the direction of the wetlands. Industrial effluents from close by tanneries are drained right into a separate canal system and funnelled away from the wetlands.

The rivers of sewage abut a shanty neighbourhood. Clothes dry on traces stretched between wood-apple timber and the sound of a transistor radio floats throughout the wastewater. A cattle egret in pristine white plumes perches itself on a half-broken pipe jutting out of a makeshift bamboo rest room and pecks a meal out of the darkish flowing water with its orange beak. Slightly woman sits on one facet of the embankment attempting to catch white butterflies. Behind her, tumbledown tenements with blue partitions and roofs of layered black plastic sheeting and terracotta tiles line the financial institution that separates sewage from individuals.

This slum is thought solely by its official quantity: Ward 66. Informally, it’s a majdoor para, a colony of migrant labourers. A big concrete plaque outdoors declares that Ward 66 is a “solar slum”, the second of its type in India, benefiting 200 households. In follow which means a single photo voltaic panel glitters on a rooftop, enveloped in vines.

From Topsia we comply with Dhruba Das Gupta, a wetland researcher and activist, alongside the dry-weather move, a 17-mile-long sewage canal that carries waste to the wetlands. The street alongside it’s dotted with small plastic-recycling crops. Built on low cost migrant labour, these crops have mushroomed in the final decade due to weak regulation. The polluting affect of those items has but to be calculated.

For greater than a decade Das Gupta has labored with locals to guard the wetlands from builders. She has executed so below the tutelage of Dhrubajyoti Ghosh, an ecologist, who was the primary individual to systematically analysis this aqueous laboratory. He gave it its identify and had it designated as a wetland of worldwide significance by a global conservation treaty. In the Nineteen Eighties Ghosh famously drank water from a wastewater fishpond in entrance of the then chief minister of West Bengal to display that the wetlands, which have been managed purely by means of human labour, have been extra environment friendly at treating city sewage than a mechanised therapy plant. His bravado labored and plans to accumulate therapy crops have been ditched.

Old, new and timeless Colonial-era sluice gates (high). Sector V, an IT hub on the north-eastern fringe of the wetlands (center). Fish being retrieved from nets (backside)

Vindication arrived three a long time later. A analysis research in 2008, performed as a part of a undertaking by the Asian Development Bank, estimated that the East Kolkata Wetlands had saved town a complete funding of $125m by treating the sewage for gratis, money that may have in any other case been spent developing typical sewage-treatment crops.

We ask Das Gupta if the fish produced by the wastewater are secure.

“Pollution is not in the wastewater,” she says, exasperated. “Pollution is in people’s minds.”

Under a vivid noon solar, the sewage in the principle canal acquires a blue tint. The street by the canal meanders away from the asphalt and the feverish honking of automobiles in the direction of a quiet inexperienced panorama, the place stridulating crickets lodged in a coppice are accompanied by the drumming of woodpeckers on coconut timber. Ahead of us lies an unlimited lattice of fishponds, all the best way to the horizon. The murk of the sewage in the canal contrasts with the clear, inexperienced water in the fishponds, which replicate the white candyfloss clouds floating above.

Bideshi Mandal has lived in and across the wetlands all her life. Armed solely with a slingshot and an arsenal of scatological insults, she was chasing away cormorants from the fishponds when she came across us sitting with Golam Gaiyan, the net-maker. “Women here don’t work at mending nets or get in the water too much,” she says. Her sari is draped over her head and a big pink bindi crowns her forehead.

Women like Mandal have the onerous activity of managing the water hyacinth and defending the ponds from swooping birds. If left unattended, they’ll steal as much as a 3rd of the fish in a pond. Stork-billed kingfishers, pond herons and gadwalls all need their share. Particularly pesky are cormorants and Indian darters – a chicken that hunts whereas submerged in water, spears fish with its beak and brings its serpentine neck out above the floor to toss its prize in the air and swallow it head first.

The East Kolkata Wetlands have a violent historical past: armed battle, land grabs, political goons, robbers and thieves

Mandal chases these birds away by hurling invectives at them: “Khanki’r chhele! Shuorchoda gandu’r dol!” she spits (“Whore-sons! Pig-fucking assholes!”): “They only listen when you cuss at them,” she says gleefully. Mandal is the oldest individual in her prolonged household, her age is misplaced in the crow’s ft that etch her sun-tanned face. She is weather-beaten and formidable. She can also be a survivor.

“The wetlands”, says Dhruba Das Gupta, “constantly feel the heat of urbanisation.” The East Kolkata Wetlands have a violent historical past, and Mandal has seen all of it: armed battle, land grabs, political goons, robbers and thieves.

In the Nineteen Eighties, when the development of a bypass made this a part of town extra accessible, property builders started to eye up giant elements of the world. This led to clashes between builders – regularly in cahoots with politicians – and the individuals who lived and labored there. For the previous 40 years, property brokers have been sending groups of staff to fill in fishponds below cowl of darkness in order that they’ll then lay declare to them. Once stuffed in, the world is not protected by environmental legal guidelines. Unscrupulous politicians then legitimise these illegal transfers of land retroactively, usually deploying armed males to quash any resistance by fishery staff or farmers. Even as we speak, should you wander into the unsuitable locations with a digicam in hand, teams of younger males could materialise out of nowhere to intimidate you.

Pond life Some non-aquatic fauna (high). Children play beside a dumping web site for stable waste that was as soon as a fishpond (center). A verdant sewage canal (backside)

Perhaps it’s this lengthy acquaintance with the demi-monde of the wetlands that has led Mandal into doing one thing that’s extraordinarily uncommon and dangerous for ladies right here – guarding the bheris from fish thieves in the night time. She claims to have as soon as chased away six or eight thieves – she will’t bear in mind the precise quantity – in a single night.

‘We’ll kill you! We’ll feed you to the fishes!” they threatened.

“I’ll feed you and your grandchildren to the fishes!” she taunted in return.

Gaiyan cracks up at this re-enactment. “They’re all afraid of her,” he says.

As these two wetland spirits banter, their carefree laughter floats over the ponds. In the gap, on the fringe of the waterscape, the glass façades of skyscrapers glare again.

Slowly, the wetlands are disappearing from town’s horizon. High-rise buildings obscure them from public view like steel-and-glass curtains, and the property market nibbles away at them. Ghosh’s and Das Gupta’s analysis has discovered that just about 70 fishponds that have been as soon as a part of the protected web site, spanning virtually 740 acres of land, have disappeared, reworked into unlawful developments or plastic-recycling items.

The secret to dismantling a thriving wastewater-based ecosystem, as builders found, was easy. Switch off the move of wastewater and watch for all the things to crumble. Ghosh and Das Gupta documented how, over a time period, the move of wastewater into the wetlands has been diminished, pushing fish-farm house owners to extend their expenditure. As their earnings drops, so does their resistance to land sharks.

Like many individuals on these wetlands, Jiten Munda, the fish farmer we met, believed that his kids’s future could be in town. But it has proved simpler to show wastewater into fish than convert levels into jobs. Munda’s son, a university graduate, is unemployed however is unwilling to work with him farming fish. “He could easily help me,” Munda says, “but his education gets in the way.”

As we depart, Munda, ever courteous, walks slightly distance with us. We arrive on the peepal tree, the location of our likelihood encounter. A pair of terracotta idols of the Hindu god Karthik rests in opposition to its broad trunk. His eyes settle briefly on the discarded idols and he rapidly turns again in the direction of his home. The pitter-patter of his worn-out slippers lingers in the silence of a sundown hazy with air pollution. The sky turns a muted pink, virtually the color of Munda’s gown. He stops and turns. “Just the dirty water,” he whispers, “that’s all I need to survive. I ask for nothing else.”

AUTHORS: Amitangshu Acharya is a Leverhulme Trust PhD scholar at Edinburgh University and a fellow on the Konrad Lorenz Institute, Austria
Sudipto Sanyal is an assistant professor of English at Techno India University in Kolkata, India


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