- Established in 1991, the Jai Prakash Narayan (Suraha Tal) Bird Sanctuary, is a critical area for birds including many migratory species.
- The eco-sensitive zone around the sanctuary was finalised in 2019 which prohibits and regulates many activities around the sanctuary. But, according to environmentalists, what could threaten the birds and the wetland, is the Jananayak Chandrashekhar University, which is within the sanctuary area.
- It is reported that there was a recent plan to find an alternate site for the university, outside the sanctuary but it was not finalised and now construction is being done to expand the facilities of the university.
Any construction within an eco-sensitive zone of a protected area, whether a national park or bird sanctuary, is always a contentious issue but what is the way forward when a university is operating from inside such a sanctuary and is now staring at an expansion?
One such curious case is playing out in the Ballia district of Uttar Pradesh where the Jananayak Chandrashekhar University is situated within the Jai Prakash Narayan (Suraha Tal) Bird Sanctuary. The land for establishing the university was transferred in 2018 by the Shaheed Smarak Trust, which has been inside the bird sanctuary since 1997.
An expansion of the university facilities is now being planned but it is alleged that construction activity is being carried out without the required clearance and permissions from the forest and wildlife departments.
Spread over an area of 34.32 square kilometres (sq. km.), the bird sanctuary, which was established in 1991, is located about 10 kilometres from the district headquarters in Ballia. In fact, the Suraha Tal Lake is the largest floodplain lake in the Ballia district and “it is an ox-bow lake in the floodplain” of River Ganga.
According to the Indian Government’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) the bird sanctuary offers a “good habitat for a variety of flora and fauna” and “various species of birds are known to arrive here frequently due to the availability of nesting and feeding habitats”.
Former IFS officer and environmentalist Manoj Misra who spearheads Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan, a group working for the rejuvenation of the Yamuna river, said the Jai Prakash Narayan (Surahatal) Bird Sanctuary was notified long ago in the 1990s and its eco-sensitive zone was also notified a few years ago.
“The incident shows how ill-informed political decisions can illegally play havoc with wildlife protected areas. What is planned is wrong, illegal and destructive of a flourishing bird sanctuary which also is a flood plains wetland being river Ganga’s ox Bow Lake,” Misra told Mongabay-India.
Research by forest experts of the state already shows that the lake in the bird sanctuary has “an enormous amount of anthropogenic pressure” and even though several species of birds can be seen in it “their number has dwindled”.
The sanctuary is a habitat of nilgai, Asiatic jackal, honey badger, fishing cat, grey mongoose, Bengal fox, five-striped palm squirrel, Indian crested porcupine, rock python, spectacled cobra, Bengal monitor, and many species of turtles such as crowned river turtle, three-striped roofed turtle, Indian eyed turtle, red-crowned roofed turtle, brown roofed turtle, Indian roofed turtle, Indian tent turtle, spotted pond turtle, southern Indian flapshell turtle, Indian narrow-headed softshell turtle,
According to the MoEFCC, the sanctuary has a large number of bird species such as sarus crane, cattle egret, little egret, peafowl, grey heron, yellow-legged green-pigeon, and is also visited by a large number of migratory species of birds such as red-crested pochard, Asian openbill-stork, Asian woollyneck, grey heron, purple heron, Indian pond heron, and black-crowned night heron, etc.
According to local news reports, top officers in the Uttar Pradesh government are aware of the university expansion threatening the wildlife, birds and the wetland but the tussle is not yet resolved.
Queries sent to the Vice-Chancellor of the Jananayak Chandrashekhar University regarding the alleged expansion were unanswered at the time of publishing. Query sent to the Uttar Pradesh government’s Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change in the Uttar Pradesh government Arun Kumar Saxena also remained unanswered.
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Is there an alternative?
The eco-sensitive zone of the bird sanctuary was notified in March 2019. According to the notification, the eco-sensitive zone was to an extent of “one kilometre uniform around the boundary of Jai Prakash Narayan (Suraha Tal) Bird Sanctuary and the area of the eco-sensitive zone is 27 square kilometres”.
The notification had said that forests, horticulture areas, agricultural areas, parks and open spaces earmarked for recreational purposes in the eco-sensitive zone shall not be used or converted into areas for commercial or residential or industrial activities. It had noted that activities such as commercial mining, stone quarrying and crushing units, industries causing pollution, new saw mills, hydroelectric project, and brick kilns would be prohibited in the eco-sensitive zone of the sanctuary.
The notification had also clarified that no new commercial hotels/resorts and no new commercial construction of any kind shall be permitted within one kilometre from the boundary of the sanctuary area or upto extent of the eco-sensitive zone, whichever is nearer.
In the present case, the construction for the university is being done inside the sanctuary.
But according to another senior official of the Uttar Pradesh government, who wished for anonymity, the university has been operating there despite posing threat to the environment and wildlife inside the sanctuary.
“Now, several hundred crores are being spent on renovation of the university but that is also being done without required permissions. It is a sad state even though everyone knows that the sanctuary is a critical area for many birds including migratory birds,” he said.
An official of the Uttar Pradesh’s forest department, who also wished for anonymity, admitted to Mongabay-India about a recent conversation around an alternate site for the university but said that despite such conversation nothing materialised.
“Some time ago, there was a conversation around shifting the university to an alternate site but it didn’t happen. There is no clearance from the wildlife bodies – neither on the state nor on the central level. Moreover, during some months of the year, a part of the sanctuary is underwater and those going to the university have to use boats. Will the students use boats to reach the university?” said the official.
Manoj Misra said the incident shows that despite the boundaries of the sanctuary and it’s eco-sensitive zone being crystal clear it is strange how a university campus came to be planned inside the core area of the sanctuary.
“Local news reports have highlighted that an alternate site was chosen for shifting the university premises but it was still not done,” he said.
Banner image: The Suraha Tal Lake is the largest floodplain lake in the Ballia district. Jananayak Chandrashekhar University is situated within the Jai Prakash Narayan (Suraha Tal) Bird Sanctuary. Photo by Ballia district administration.