Saturday, March 31, 2001
M A I N   F E A T U R E

The lake in all its restored pristine glory

Till about a year back, Harike was as good as dead. Water hyacinth had spread wildly all over this wetland and siltation had become a major problem. Migratory birds, its major attraction, had almost deserted this picturesque site. It was feared that this "lung" of the region would soon collapse. Then the state government requested the Army to step in. Operation Sahyog was launched by Vajra Corps in August 1999. Working with great zeal, the Army not only rid the lake of the menace of water hyacinth but also restored its old glory. Today, Harike smiles back at the world, says Reeta Sharma

IGNORANCE IS NOT always bliss, especially if the price for it is to be borne by everyone around. So if a few ignorant industrialists get rid of their toxic effluents in a nearby water body, others prey on the wildlife or encroach upon " nature’s reserve", the price we will end up paying will be monumental.


Harike Pattan, on the outskirts of Ferozepore, is one of India’s six ‘lungs’. The wetland came into being in1952, when a barrage was constructed downstream near the confluence of the Sutlej and the Beas. The barrage was constructed for meeting the irrigation and drinking needs of southern parts of Punjab and the adjoining state of Rajasthan. The Harike wetland was spread over 41 sq. km. and for 30 long years remained, thankfully, undisturbed. It grew into a blissful summerhouse for migratory birds from far-off places like Siberia and Eastern Europe. Besides the birds, Harike became the home for rare Indian species like the test dine turtle and the smooth otter. Both are listed in the International Union for Conservation of Nature red list of threatened animals. The wetland was known for its large population of avifauna like the diving ducks, scup ducks, falcate teals and the white-headed stiff-tailed ducks. Those undisturbed 30 years allowed Harike to emerge as an ideal habitat for waterfowl.

Army men engaged in clearing up water hyacinth from the Harike Lake. Wildlife researchers counted over 20 ducks and over 210 avian species in this area. This prompted the Harike Wetland’s designation as a bird sanctuary in 1982. But the acquiring of this ‘name-plate’ did not help Harike’s cause.

For the next 12 years, birds at Harike had strange persons giving them company in the silent surroundings. During this period, terrorists took shelter in the deserted Harike areas. The state government, in turn, had a ready excuse to close its eyes to Harike and its legitimate dwellers.

However, the Ramsar Convention of 1990 declared Harike as the Wetland of International Importance. At that Convention, in an intra-government treaty, various countries agreed to cooperate in the conservation of wetland
habitats. Interestingly, this idea was initially adopted in 1971 but did not come into force till 1975. India signed the convention only in 1982.

Wetlands are extremely essential not only for hydrological and ecological processes but also because they support rich fauna and flora. Their identification at the international level is done after considering the ecological, botanical, zoological and hydrological criteria. Hence, Harike’s selection in this category should have generated a spontaneous and duty-bound response from the bureaucrats who were heading the related departments from 1982 onwards.

Even if one was to exclude the insurgency period, the role of bureaucrats posted in the Forest and Wild Life Preservation department from 1991 is dismal. At least 12 senior IAS officers headed this department from 1991 to 2000. None took any note of the fact that Harike had been declared an internationally important bird sanctuary. The end result was the terrible devastation of Harike’s fauna and flora. The dwindling wetland has the following picture to offer:

The ecological crisis of Harike has reached such a stage that environment experts now estimate its lifespan to be less than 80 years. The lake is virtually a receptacle of domestic, agricultural and industrial waste, which flows in
from the Sutlej and the Beas. The other main reasons of the degradation are weed infestation, illegal fishing and siltation. As if all this was not enough, nearly 80 per cent of the open water surface got covered with water hyacinth and its 33 islands were hardly visible. This dreadful weed, in the shape of deceptive ornamental flowers, entered India from South America when a fascinated traveller brought it to plant in his garden. It eventually escaped from his garden and infested every possible water body throughout India. Water hyacinth breeds like a rabbit, covering every inch of a water body. It obstructs the flow of floodwater, raises the bed level by deposition of silt and enhances seepage losses. Fish population is as adversely affected as the space for migratory birds. Water hyacinth presently ranks as the world’s worst aquatic weed. Here is the horrendous profile of hyacinth: Weight of one plant of hyacinth—2.3 kg Weight of 1 sq. m— 27 kg. Weight of 100 sq.m—2.7 tonne Total weight of water hyacinth in the lake—350,000 tonnes Re-growth Factor: One plant doubles in a fortnight.

The most alarming threat to Harike is from water hyacinth. Interestingly, the Punjab government only recently woke up from its slumber and realised that
Harike was a casualty of the negligence, ignorance and indifference of its half a dozen departments that were supposed to take care of it in the last two decades, at least. The Chief Minister, Parkash Singh Badal, considering the gravity of the water hyacinth threat in Harike, decided to approach the Army for help. He formally handed over the task to Vajra Corps in August 1999.

The Army took up this joint venture, Pilot Project Sahyog, as a challenge from day one. Lt-Gen. Kamal Daver, General Officer Commanding of the Vajra Corps assigned this job to Maj-Gen Lalit Tiwari, who was General Officer Commanding of the Golden Arrow Division stationed at Ferozepore. Gen. Tiwari went about the project meticulously. Not only did his men went about cleaning the lake of hyacinth on a war- footing, but his team also worked along with him on the Internet with every organisation involved in nature conservation to collect information and prepare a data base giving a wider perspective to the Harike project.

Maj.Gen Lalit Tiwari is a person obsessed with environment and nature. Recalling the operation, he says, "Initially, we were inspired by Lt.Gen. Vijay Oberoi, PVSM, AVSM, VSM. After his departure, on being appointed as the Vice-Chief of the Indian Army, Lt.Gen. Surjit Singh, PVSM, VSM, our new GOC-in-C of the Western Command took to the Harike project as a fish would take to water. We received enormous encouragement and we went about the project as our duty towards the nation."

He put his engineers on the challenging job of improvising high-tech machinery available abroad for the removal of hyacinth into cost-effective indigenous machinery. "Through a number of innovative methods, we succeeded in making dynamic booms, and winches etc. After the operation, we have placed static and dynamic booms at strategic points in the Harike Lake to hold back the floating mats of water hyacinth so that it doesn’t spread. At the end of six months of untiring labour by our team, we had opened four channels, which had got choked with silt over the years. We also planted 750 saplings of plants of two years of age on the island for birds to nest and roost in future."

Harike’s growth will be sustained’
N. K. Arora,
Chief Secretary, Punjab

SUSTAINING OF ARMY'S remarkable results by the government of Punjab is a question about which everyone is filled with apprehension. Going by the previous record of the departments concerned, it is quite apparent that the preservation of wildlife is of least interest to the bureaucrats.

N. K. Arora, Chief Secretary, PunjabHowever, the new Chief Secretary of Punjab, N. K. Arora, makes a categorical statement, "The fact that the state requested the Army for help to restore Harike speaks volumes about its honesty of purpose. The state government promptly released funds to the Army to enable it to procure equipment and make a success of the Pilot Project Sahyog. We are very thankful to Lt.Gen. Surjit Singh and his team for the unprecedented success of the Project. And now our own team is very motivated to sustain the revival of Harike Wetland." Arora disclosed that a review of the progress achieved at Harike Lake was held last month. The state has already approached the Union Ministry ofEnvironment and Forests (MEF) to notify the Wetland Conservation Authority of Punjab, WETCAP, under the Environment (Protection) Act. Moreover, Arora said an integrated conservation and management action plan has been prepared for Harike, Kanjli and Ropar wetlands for Rs 250 lakh, Rs 34 lakh and Rs 40 lakh, respectively.

The Principal Secretary, Science, Technology and Environment, Rajan Kashyap, says, "After the Punjab government takes
over we have designed a specific programme of monitoring and management of Harike Wetlands. Our first step is to decentralise. For instance, the Deputy Commissioner, Ferozepore, has been empowered to handle problems arising on the spot. Besides, we have commissioned the Wetland International to conduct a study and, accordingly, we will take a decision to promote tourism, which would maintain the delicate balance of bird sanctuary.

We have also accepted the constructive recommendations of the Army to form the Eco-territorial Army, which will be a task force comprising of ex-servicemen, school children, NGOs and responsible senior citizens to spread the idea of social fencing. We are also approaching industrial houses of the state to support restoration and preservation of Harike Wetlands. "As far as the menace of water hyacinth is concerned, the Irrigation and Power Research Institute had earlier released 46,000 weevils for biological control of the killer weed. Later it released another 58,000 weevils. We now propose to release additional one lakh weevils."

It may be mentioned here that the World Bank had held back Rs 48 crore projects for restoration of wetlands in Punjab. If the Punjab government and its indifferent bureaucrats get on with the job, money would not be a constraint.


Operation Sahyog

Maj Gen Lalit TiwariIT goes to the Army’s credit that though it was requested to remove water hyacinth from an area of 1.2 sq. km only, it actually cleared 7.5 sq. km. Lt.Gen. Surjit Singh, GOC-in-C of the Western Command,is yet another Army officer who is passionately involved with issues concerning the environment. He is worried about Harike’s fate in the long run.

"We have tried to take all possible steps to ensure that the Harike Bird Sanctuary becomes one of the best internationally. We have imparted training to 25 officials of the Punjab Forest and Wildlife department so that they can carry forward the work done by the Army. We would remain associated with the civil authorities till the end of this year but not too actively. We have made the following recommendations to the Punjab government:

Lt. Gen Surjit Singh-Notification and establishment of a state wetland authority to supervise andcoordinate all aspects of Harike Wetland management;

-- An ecological task force for long-term management of Harike Wetland should be raised;

- - Funds should be released early for the procurement of boats, outboard motors and conveyer belts;

-- Steps should be taken to control pollutants ;

--The proposal for promoting eco-tourism at Harike Lake should be carefully examined. It should not be allowed to develop indiscriminately

Gurdwara controversy

IN AN UNPRECEDENTED move, the Punjab Council of Ministers has transferred 104 kanals and 16 marlas worth crores belonging to the state irrigation department to a gurdwara at Harike at a throw away price of Rs 10,000 per acre.
The gurdwara is located on the banks of the Harike Lake. It was built in October 1963, in the memory of Baba Ishar Singh of Nanaksar, whose body was immersed in the Harike Lake. At that time, the place was a jungle and had thick wild vegetation and undergrowth. No one objected and the construction continued. As per the memorandum on the subject submitted to the Council of Ministers, the place has a religious aura. It is visited by thousands of pilgrims and tourists. Through these years, the ashes of the family members of all the followers of Baba Ishar Singh continue to be immersed in the Harike Lake.This has also added to the pollution of the lake into which municipal and industrial wastes also flow.

However, it is claimed that the presence of the gurdwara has enabled many people in the adjoining villages to give up drugs and intoxicants and adopt a religious way of life.

The gurdwara is actually built in the village Talwandi Nepalan. The land was previously with the department of Wildlife and Bird Sanctuary (Forests). In November 1999, through a government gazette notification the land (106 kanals and 16 marlas) under the occupation of the gurdwara was taken out of the purview of the ownership of the Wildlife and Bird Sanctuary department. One of the conditions put on the transfer of the land to the gurdwara is that it will be the responsibility of the gurdwara management to seek clearance of the same from the ministry of environment and forests. Thus, the ball is now in the court of the said ministry, which is already in confrontation with the state government over the Anandgarh project as well as this gurdwara. Besides the notified land, the gurdwara management is also accused of having bulldozed more than one of land, which had housed rare birds and other species for over 50 years. This area is adjoining the gate of the gurdwara. The state government has asked the Deputy Commissioner of Ferozepore to inquire into the alleged encroachment of land by the gurdwara management. Meanwhile, it may be mentioned here that the gurdwara management had joined hands with the Army and done kar sewa to remove water hyacinth from the lake

— Photos: Surkhab Shaukin