- For the past 15 years, municipal solid waste of Guwahati has been unscientifically dumped next to the Deepor Beel, a prominent wetland in Assam. It is Assam’s only Ramsar site.
- Research shows substantial contamination of the water bodies, including Deepor Beel from the untreated legacy waste.
- The waste is a health hazard for people, livestock and wildlife.
Prabhat and Prabin Sharma own a cattle farm of 85 buffaloes in Paschim Boragaon village near the Deepor Beel, the only Ramsar site in Assam. This is their native village and the family has been rearing buffaloes for generations. The buffaloes graze on grounds adjacent to the wetland, feeding on the abundant greens. Recently, 14 of buffaloes developed severe health issues after grazing here; four of them died soon after.
This is suspected to be because of pollution in the wetland that is adjacent to the Guwahati Municipal Corporation’s (GMC) waste dump. Farmers, residents, scientists, and environmentalists allege that pollution from the waste dump is harming residents, livestock, and aquatic fauna. The rivers flowing in the vicinity – Bharalu, Bahini, and Basistha as well as the Deepor Beel itself – all have become polluted over the years. The GMC dumping site, set up in 2006, was shifted to another location in 2021, about half a kilometre from the old site, although huge amounts of legacy waste still remain.
“Our cattle are dependent on the grazing land, and we do not use any other commercially-available feed. Healthy grazing is reciprocated with good milk production. Recently a herd of 14 cattle was grazing on its usual ground, in the vicinity of the old dumping ground, when their bellies suddenly got swollen,” said Prabhat Sharma. A veterinarian was called, but four animals died during treatment – two milch cows, a bull, and a calf. The doctor gave injections to the other 10 buffaloes and treated them to release the gas from their body. The post-mortem report is awaited till the time of filing this report.
The Sharmas immediately relocated their cattle shed to another location about four km away from their native land. “Transporting such a huge herd is not an easy task, but after the relocation, the animals are doing well. It is temporary now, but we must think of permanent relocation if the government continues with its lackadaisical attitude in treating the legacy waste,” said Prabhat Sharma.
Even the native fisher community, comprising over 800 families, for whom the wetland waters have been their source of livelihood for generations, now fear being on water for long hours. “Half our lives have gone by in the waters. We fish on the wetland and used to have most of our meals right on its bank, cooking with the same water. Now, spending a few extended hours on that water causes itching and rashes on our hands and feet. This happens with all fishermen. Now we do not drink that water. Although we still sell the fish from the wetland, we do not consume those regularly, like in previous years,” said Guluk Das, president of the fishermen’s cooperative society.
Physician Homen Kumar Das, who has a clinic in the area said, “The fishermen come to me with skin problems on limbs. For now, the ailments can be cured with certain ointments. But these are clear indications of the impending health hazards.”
In the Deepor Beel, which once boasted of high quality freshwater fish, breeding has gone down. For several years now, the fishing community releases fish seedlings for rearing which are then sold. They have opined that once out of the water, the fishes are usually dead within five minutes, and produce a foul scent after a few hours. “Even refrigerating them won’t work,” Das lamented.
Over 15 lakh tons of untreated waste
The Assam government allocated about 30.10 hectares of land adjacent to the wetland to the GMC in 2006. Henry David Teron, vice president of the Deepor Beel Suraksha Mancha, an association of local citizens for the protection and preservation of the Ramsar site and its adjacent areas, said, “The site that is now a garbage dump was once a lush grassland of Kans grass (locally known as kohuwa bon) and elephant grass. We have seen large herds of pachyderms coming there to breed from the nearby forests,” Teron added. “The tribal community cultivated Bao dhan (Kekowa genotype; deep water brown rice) near the water body; it was in abundance. The wetland is a haven for both native and migratory birds.”
“We have seen the degradation of this fertile land and water and the gradual decline of several species of flora and fauna in the past 20 years,” he said.
Activist Rohit Chowdhury filed a complaint with the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in 2020 against damage to Deepor Beel wetland by actions in violation of Municipal Solid Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2000 (now MSW Rules, 2016) and Wetland (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2010 (now Wetland Rules, 2017).
The NGT in its final declaration after the hearings observed, on April 2022, “It is seen that solid waste is not being scientifically managed nor legacy waste has been remediated. Capacity of proposed integrated waste management plant has not been specified. There is also no water quality monitoring programme of the wetland. In spite of monitoring by the Tribunal for a long period, no satisfactory progress has taken place so far. Estimated waste generation is said to be 600 TPD (tones per day). There is, thus, need to work in a mission mode to remediate the legacy waste, scientifically handle current waste, speedily set up plant of adequate capacity, regular monitoring of the water quality of the wetland and other measures which stand identified.”
GMC was dumping the metropolitan city’s daily garbage collection on this site from 2006 to June 2021. The site was closed following an order of the NGT in 2019 against a previous case filed by Chowdhury in 2014 seeking an immediate end to garbage dumping and disposal of sewage at the Boragaon landfill. The green tribunal, ordered in May 2019 that the dumping site be shifted from Boragaon by June 2019.
However, the GMC stopped the transfer of solid waste to the old site at Paschim Boragaon only from June 28, 2021, and started transferring it to Chandrapur. At present, the solid waste is transferred to another place called Belortol in Paschim Boragaon village from August 10, 2021. The present site is about half a kilometre away from the old one, and also in close proximity to Deepor Beel.
The state of Assam, in an affidavit filed before the NGT in November 2021 stated, “the treatment of legacy waste started at West Boragaon w.e.f. January 2021. It is estimated that there is approximately 15 lakh MT of legacy waste accumulated at West Boragaon dump site till now.”
In mid-May, 2022, a fire erupted on the waste that continued for over a week despite the monsoon spells. Although the municipality denied it, locals and conservationist Promod Kalita, who is also a resident of the area and has been vigorously fighting for the cause, have alleged that the GMC ignited the fire as a cheap means of disposal of lakhs of metric tonnes of garbage, releasing harmful smoke.
“Prayers and protests, and even the NGT’s orders have been overlooked by the Corporation. The Assam government talks of several developmental and beautification activities to attract tourists to Deepor Beel but has failed to do the basics to protect such an important water body,” said Suchil Teron, President of the Deepor Beel Suraksha Mancha.
Experts highlight contamination from legacy waste
Dharitri Choudhury, Assistant Professor of Ecological Restoration Department, Dimoria College, published a PhD paper titled Impact of waste dump on surface water quality and aquatic insect diversity of Deepor Beel (Ramsar site), Assam, North-east India in 2017. The paper concludes that dump site is the point source of pollution.
Choudhury explained, “I conducted my study between 2013-15. I collected data from 10 sites of Deepor Beel, from sites adjacent to the dumping site to the furthest point for eight consecutive seasons. I collected water and aquatic insects from the sites as the presence or absence of certain species of insects serve as indicators of pollution levels in water. There are certain species that can survive on polluted water but certain others that do not tolerate any level of pollution.”
Choudhury explained that samples were also collected from the dump site and the presence of heavy metals and pollutants in these samples were compared to those of the water samples collected from the wetland.
The study concluded, “High concentration of heavy metals in the solid waste as well as in the water and occurrence of highest percentage of tolerant species of insects speak of the influence of MSW (municipal solid waste) dump in the water of Deepor Beel. It can be said that Deepor Beel is bearing the brunt of anthropogenic input into the system through municipal solid waste.”
The study also notes that wetlands have the ability for self-purification. But this ability is reduced by a high input of wastewater, leachate, sediment, and heavy metals. These unwanted components also negatively impact the health of the aquatic organisms and, in turn, the health of the inhabitants, who depend on the wetland. Since inhabitants of 14 villages around Deepor Beel are dependent on the wetland resources for their livelihood, it is necessary to control pollution at the source and take some ameliorative measures.
Arundhuti Devi, associate professor at the Institute of Advanced Study in Science and Technology (IASST), which is situated in the vicinity of the dumping site, added, “We have been monitoring the water quality by collecting water, sediment, plant and fish samples. The MSW site has pushed the wetland’s pollution to alarming levels, which gets aggravated during the monsoon with rain water sweeping large amounts of garbage and leachate from the dump to the wetland and other water bodies of the area. This is thought to be responsible for the decline of many aquatic species. Additionally, a foul smell generated from the garbage can also lead to serious health concerns of the locals.”
When the Deepor Beel was declared a Ramsar site in 2002, surveyors recorded about 19,000 water birds in a single day count. The Assam Forest Department had listed over 120 species of birds habiting the sanctuary, including threatened species of birds like spot-billed pelican, lesser adjutant stork, greater adjutant stork, black-necked stork, and large whistling teal on the wetland, then. Additionally, the wetland had over 50 species of fish belonging to 19 families.
However, in a recent survey conducted in February 2022, 10,289 birds of 66 species were found inhabiting the DeeporBeel wetland. The number of fish species has also reportedly reduced in the last 20 years.
Pramod Kalita, a conservationist, said, “The location of a huge dumping site on the periphery of the wetland polluted the water body and degraded the ecosystem to an irreparable extent. For two decades, the GMC had failed to treat the huge pile of accumulated garbage. There is no proper biodiversity assessment; neither any effort has been made for mitigation measures.”
Banner image: People walk past the MSW garbage dump in Deepor Beel in June. Photo by Surajit Sharma.