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These Beautiful Wetlands In Assam Are Shrinking Fast, And Here’s What We Stand To Lose

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Chandubi Beel is a naturally perennial landscape that was formed as a post-catastrophic consequence of the tectonic submergence of forests during the massive earthquake of 1897 in Assam. It constitutes a cultural ecotone between the two neighbouring states of Assam & Meghalaya. Chandubi Lake is located at the foot of the Garo Hills, under Rabha Hasong Autonomous Council, Kamrup District, Assam, which is about 60 kms distant from Guwahati via the NH-37 route. This wetland is bordered by the Borduar Reserved Forest to its north & the Mayong Hill Reserved Forest to its south. Chandubi wetland has one stream connected to River Kulsi, a southern tributary of River Brahmaputra.

The Assam Remote Sensing Application Centre (ARSAC) revealed through its satellite imaging studies that the wetland had a water-spread area of 448.08 hectares in 1911-12, but drastic shrinking led to the wetland’s water-spread area being reduced to 186.52 hectares in 2007. This decline is still continuing. Vanishing wetlands – and the consequent reduction in biodiversity – are major challenges globally, as such ecosystems have been proven to be natural structures of ‘disaster risk reduction’. Chandubi wetland is far from urban & industrial settlements, which had led to the least amount biotic interferences. It thus acts as a ‘no conflict zone’ between humans & wetlands. This makes it a ‘secluded wetland’, which is a favourable destination for A1 category bird conservation. Chandubi is a paradise for migratory birds in winter.

Lesser Adjutant (Leptoptilos javanicus) and Pallas’s Fish-Eagle (Haliaeetus leucoryphus) are the threatened species found in this lake, which also attracts a large number of waterfowl. In the adjoining tropical moist deciduous forests, White-cheeked Hill-Partridge (Arborophila atrogularis), Mountain Bamboo-Partridge (Bambusicola fytchii), Blyth’s Kingfisher (Alcedo Hercules), Blue-throated Barbet (Megalaima asiatica), White-throated Bulbul (Criniger flaveolus), Grey Peacock Pheasant (Polyplectron bicalcaratum) are the various biome species that need to be conserved.

Chandubi Lake was once a rich habitat for much extinct Piscean fauna. Declining Piscean species is one of the major threats to the ecological stability of the wetland. Expanding human settlements are posing a great threat to life & livelihoods to a large extent. Studies have revealed that Chandubi Lake has lost almost 90% of its Piscean fauna so far. About 20% of precious ornamental species of fish have already become extinct. Apart from being a niche for the critically endangered fish species Nandhani & and the ornamental fish Phutkiputhi, this tectonic wetland is a favourable habitat for Chital. River Kulsi a habitat for Gangetic Dolphins (Platanista gangetica), and it is well connected to the Chandubi Wetland and its surrounding water bodies. Chandubi wetland provides a healthy ecosystem to such dolphin species and fish species, which migrate to River Kulsi via a long channel of around 2.5 kms. Experts accept that Chandubi Lake is supposed to be a habitat for around 70 different species of fish.

The Chandubi wetland is a waterlogged productive ecological asset which offers ‘ecosystem based disaster risk reduction’ against floods. This wetland provides stability to the hydrological cycle. The lake offers life and livelihoods to the nearby village Rajapara and other rural agglomerations in proximity to the wetland. Being an ecosystem of high economic & biodiversity value, local inhabitants show serious discontent over the way the government is managing the wetland ecosystem and biodiversity.

Villagers allege that a logger syndicate has been operating here for some time, imposing serious sustained strain over forest resources. Illegal logging of timber trees in a protected reserve forest habitat raises serious questions over the role of forest administration. What has been preventing them from stopping logging, transportation and purchase of timber wood by illegal means, is beyond understanding. Persistent logging has led to biodiversity depletion & it is imposing a detrimental effect on the food chain system. Locals say that there were once numerous populations of clouded leopards & Bengal tigers. Their ‘food density’ has now gone down to a dismal level. Such top tropic predators have been reported extinct because the Chandubi wetland isn’t offering affordable habitats for wild pigs, swamp deers, barking deers, Himalayan black bears, Hoolock gibbons, porcupines, etc. Locals allege that Gangetic Crocodiles (Gravialis gangeticus) used to be seen till 1960, but now they have vanished from the ecosystem.

While assessing the economics of the Chandubi wetland ecosystem & its biodiversity, I observed that the cultural and ecological externalities operate in a significant way to explore new dynamics of livelihoods for the locals and provide a great economic source for the State without upsetting normal discourse of the wetland. This tectonic wetland has been a sacred spot for Rabha dominant agglomerations. The state administration, along with locals, organizes the famous Chandubi Festival in the first week of every year. This festival celebrates the fringe culture of different tribes residing in the Borduar-Mayong Forest Range in the Garo Hills adjoining Meghalaya & Assam. Tourists visit the great native festival from all across the North-East States, India, and the world. I witnessed a formidable number of overseas tourists watching the festival. This festival is all about the diverse food, fabric, traditional war-tactics, dance, arts and handicrafts, traditional herbal treatments, ancient fishing & hunting tactics, boating, farming and harvesting, etc of different tribes.

The Chandubi wetlands have had no issues with urban municipal dumping or corporate encroachment till now. This tectonic lake is surrounded by the Borduar-Myong protected forest habitations. This is one of the most beautiful wetland sites in India. This scenic eco-tourism destination attracts a large number of tourists. Winter (April-November) is the best time to travel to this tectonic wetland. Though Chandubi hasn’t been developed into a full-fledged eco-tourism spot yet, one can visit early in the morning from Guwahati via private cabs, or arrive early by public transport so that they could return by evening. Tourists should carry adequate amounts of food with themselves. If one wishes to stay for a day or two, there is a well-furnished government guest house, but one would have to bring food, emergency lights, battery power banks, and other necessary accessories, as they may not have electricity or an operational canteen. One can hire a boat to go fishing or to watch the scenic beauty of the lake and the forest coverage around this natural tectonic structure.

Though eco-tourism sometimes degrades the quality of such precious ecosystems, for this wetland, it is an urgent need. Universities, schools, non-government organizations etc. should make it mandatory to visit the wetland for the purpose of research, analysing the significance of such a productive ecosystem for the welfare of urban and rural communities.

Pictures: Dimple Dimp

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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