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Disappearing ponds: Situation as shocking as it looks

TreeTake is a monthly bilingual colour magazine on environment that is fully committed to serving Mother Nature with well researched, interactive and engaging articles and lots of interesting info.

Disappearing ponds: Situation as shocking as it looks

“Yes, development cannot be stopped but at least they should have left some area. Complete habitat destruction isn’t healthy for environment. Sustainable development should be ensured. The development lobby is far more influential than the environmental lobby & hence the state of affairs"

Disappearing ponds: Situation as shocking as it looks

Thinking Point

Ponds and wetlands anywhere are home to biodiversity everywhere. Pond Ecosystem has a great significance. Besides providing inhabitation to scarce species, they support biodiversity much more than any other freshwater habitat. They are home to lot many species. They are even hosts to thousands of migratory birds that flock the subcontinent. Keoladeo National Park is an example. In the midst of landscapes, the farmland ponds can provide us wildlife. Ponds work as mini reservoirs that help to drain fields during rain. Ponds recycle the nutrients and reduce the amount of nitrates and phosphates. They provide drinking water during dry weather and vegetation to animals...

Himanshi Shukla

Every pond has a story to narrate about different people who visit it- be it for fishing or for soaking cart wheels. It is not just important for quenching thirst or providing a habitation, but also for adding beauty to Mother Nature. It touches our heart and we feel calm and close to nature just by being near it and being able to see it. From the Great Bath in the Indus Valley Civilization to the ponds attached to more or less every temple in India, ponds have also had a religious or spiritual reverence. Ponds attached to a temple compound were especially not supposed to be made dirty. No one was allowed to throw anything in them that could cause filth. It was a win-win situation as the ponds would cater to the temple so would the temple to the ponds. But they are fast disappearing from the face of the earth. Or rather we should use the phrase that they are being made to disappear. Unmindful, unabashed urbanisation has literally spelled a doom for such water bodies which has in turn impacted human as well as animal lives in countless ways that are seldom realised by us.

Ekana Wetland and the Gomti River- A big but scary picture

Dr Venkatesh Dutta, Professor of Environment Sciences and River Scientist, Baba Saheb Bhim Rao Ambedkar University, states: “Gomti River is a meandering river and that’s how it got its name. Lucknow only witnesses the middle segment of the river till the river leaves the city at Pipraghat. Upstream portion is hosted by districts like Lakhimpur Kheri, etc and downstream portion by Barabanki, etc. Since the river does not have a glacial source, it is entirely rain-fed and it is the only tributary of the Ganges that emerges from the plains. This accounts for its sluggish flow. Thus, groundwater recharge and connected wetlands become imperative for the good health and shape of the river. Unfortunately, the ‘development’ trajectory that began from the early 1980s in Lucknow has spelt doom for the river. This was the time when Gomti Nagar was built. The premium on land was high. Embankments were built on both sides of the river which flooded a lot of area and also impacted the river flow. But even this didn’t impact the river so much as did the rapid urbanization and now Mega city- Smart city project wherein high priority is being given to land for urban development and not preserved for its ecological importance. To develop the river front, diaphragm wall was created which disturbed the entire river system. As a result, 22 out of 26 tributaries of the Gomti have dried up. The dangerous state of affairs can be imagined from the fact that in the other four tributaries that are there, are only left with limited flow. Thus even they are on the verge of extinction. Groundwater levels and the Gomti River are considered to be part and parcel of each other. One cannot exist without the other. In monsoon season, as the groundwater recharges the Gomti Basin, the river is able to maintain its flow in the pre-monsoon and post-monsoon period due to this factor.”

In his research over River Gomti that was published in Indian journal of Ecology, Dr Venkatesh Dutta concludes that 76 per cent of water in the Gomti in Lucknow is groundwater. This is also known as the ‘Base Flow Index’. This index indicates the importance of groundwater for a river. The biggest problem faced by the river is that the groundwater levels have gone down below the Gomti Riverbed which is causing it to dry up.” He points out: “Ekana Wetland, where the Ekana Stadium (Atal Bihari Vajpayee stadium) in Lucknow was built, used to be home to a lot many species of birds, reptiles, amphibians, etc. This was essentially the destruction of their habitat. The adjoining Acacia jungle too was removed. Similarly, mega projects like the Shaheed Path, Awadh Shilp Gram etc. all have a similarly story to tell.”

On the question of what alternatives should the authorities have chosen, Dr Dutta comments: “Yes, development cannot be stopped but at least they should have left some area. Complete habitat destruction isn’t healthy for environment. Sustainable development should be ensured. The development lobby is far more influential than the environmental lobby and hence the state of affairs.”

Not the only case

Sadly, destruction of Ekana Wetland is not an isolated case. Neither is it the first case nor will it be the last. Therein lies the problem. The issue is not just about ponds being filled up and land being put to use for development, but inserted in are an array of problems which can be viewed as a Domino effect. When a pond or a wetland vanishes, with it vanishes the habitat of the species. Thus, the biodiversity takes a setback. The surrounding greenery is, more often than not, also cleared for industrial use. This ‘concretization’ of land causes it to lose its water retention capacity, affecting groundwater recharge and eventually the water table. Parallel to this, demand for clean water has been increasing and is more than ever now. This depletes the existing groundwater levels which were getting lesser water as it is. Water scarcity is a real problem in India which is not being realised by a majority of people because it is unevenly distributed. In 2018, NITI Ayog report titled ‘Composite Water Management Index’ mentions that India is undergoing the worst water crisis in history and nearly 600 million people are facing extreme water stress. ‘Water crimes’ are increasingly becoming the order of the day. The most acute problem is faced by the farmers who then take extreme steps like as suicide in consequence.

‘Chronicles of Disappearance'

Eminent photographer from Kodungalloor, Kerala, KR Sunil shares his experience of photographing the photo series- ‘Chronicles of Disappearance'. The photo-series went on to win the India Habitat Centre Photosphere Award in 2016 and were also exhibited at ‘Water Wisdom’ RMIT gallery, Melbourne Australia.

“It was more of a personal observation within me as I had grown up spending memorable times in relation to ponds. Ponds used to be a place of bathing, hanging out, etc. So, when they started to disappear, it was evidently visible to the eye. That’s how the pursuit began. But, I guess in these years the disappearance has only continued, and still is. Construction, waste disposal, etc have deemed the ponds and their waters useless. The biggest disappointment is that people do not realise their value even when they are lost. One such ‘value’ is that clean water becomes available for a number of homes from a single pond, but this is, more often than not, taken for granted by the community itself. That is quite an unfortunate phenomenon. The significance of the ponds is easily understood by the fact that at many towns, villages and neighbourhoods in Kerala are named after ponds or ‘Kulams’, as they are known in Malayalam. They were the biggest landmarks of a locality, back in time when they were flourishing. For example- Eranakulam, Kunnamkulam, Koothattukulam, etc. The list is too big to be noted. Such was the significance of our ponds. But from such prominence, ponds have become one of the most neglected aspects in our society,” he says.

When asked what should be the way forward, he says: “The corrective measures have to begin right from creating awareness in the community. The emphasis should be on what they give back to the community and what it means to them. Without awareness, other measures like clean-up drives, etc wouldn’t meet fruition in a long term basis. I don’t think that the authorities are doing anything seriously. In such a case, it is imperative for the people to step up.”

‘Aaj Bhi Khare Hain Talaab’ (The ponds are still relevant)

Noted Gandhian Environmentalist, late Anupam Mishra’s magnum opus book, ‘Aaj Bhi Khare Hain Talaab’ recognises the seminal importance of Ponds.

“Hundreds, Thousands of ponds did not appear out of nowhere.

There were ones involved who commissioned their construction,

Tens involved in their construction

The ones and tens together made up hundreds and thousands of ponds

But in the past hundred years,

A ‘differently’ educated society

Brought to zero those tens and ones and hundreds and thousands”

This new society didn’t even bother to think about the fact that who constructed all these ponds in earlier times. The new society which built educational institutions like the Indian Institute of Technology (IITs) and other Civil Engineering schools also didn’t bother to get these ponds recorded or measured. Had they done so, they would have at least wondered where were IITs at that time? Who were the directors? What was the budget of the University and how many engineers did they produce? But that was a long time ago. Nowadays there are promises made to solve the water crisis from a new angle and new methods. Who is to talk about the villages when such promises were made about cities that there would be a 24/7 water availability! When one measures these claims of this society against the reality, sometimes the claims appear to be false and sometimes the reality itself! Today these ponds have become nameless but only some time back they were held in high reverence. Across the length and the breadth of the country, there were people who commissioned the construction of ponds and also the ones who constructed them. Sudarshan Lake in Gujarat is a beautiful example which was conducted and preserved by many generations of kings. The Gonds had a deep relationship with the ponds. At Mahakaushal, this description of Gonds can be found everywhere. Near Jabalpur, a pond made by Koodan is flourishing from nearly one thousand years. In the same Gond society, Rani Durgavati, in her small tenure, constructed countless ponds.

‘Gajdhar’ is a wonderful word to remember the people with who constructed these ponds. It literally means ‘the one who measures and utilizes the land’. This word is still prevalent in many parts of Rajasthan. Gajdhars were held in high esteem by the society. They were the ultimate builders and protectors of villages, towns and cities because these places only flourished in relation to a water body. Teacher-student relationship flourished between Gajdhar and their students. An old and experienced hand would train a new hand so much that after some time, they would become a ‘Jodiya’, a faithful companion. Their knowledge was such that they could, without using any sort of tools or implements, tell where the water was. ‘Jalsungha’ or ‘the one who smells water’ were companions of Gajdhar who could smell and tell where water was. They only used Mango or Jamun wood to examine the flow of water current and make a calculated guess.  In contrast to this, nowadays, the companies who dig tubewells and borewells now first select the place and then call these Jalsunghas to examine water availability in that area. In government areas, their services are utilised without formally acknowledging them. But now as these ponds are vanishing, so are these people associated with them. Hundreds of ponds didn’t appear out of zero but those who constructed them have been reduced to zero.”

The importance of ponds in India can be understood by the fact that there are famous folklores related to ponds. The one that the book narrates goes on like: Koodan, Boodhan, Sarman and Korai were four brothers. All four would go to their farms early morning and in the afternoon, the daughter of Koodan would bring lunch to them. One day, the girl discovered a sharp stone when it hit her toe. Angered, the girl tried to uproot the stone from the ground and threw her axe on it. But lo and behold, the iron axe turned into gold the moment it touched the stone! Astonishingly, the girl rushed to her father and uncles with the stone and tile them everything in one single breath. The brothers knew then it was no ordinary stone. It was a touchstone, no less. Wherever it touched, whatever it touched, that turned into gold that very instance. They felt as if their entire life had glimmered with a new ray of life. But deep down they knew that the glimmer won’t shine for long as the news would soon reach the king who would demand it from them. So they themselves went to the king thinking, ‘better us than anyone else’. But to their utter surprise, the king neither demanded their gold nor the stone but instead told Koodan to go and make ponds with its help.

In Paithan, Gujarat, famous for its Rani ki Vav, there are four big ponds named after those four brothers. The story is set in the heart of the people in central India. There is Boodha Sagar in Boodhaghar, Sarman Saagar in Majhgawa, Korai Sagar in Kuagram and Kundam Sagar in Kundam village. In 1905, in the Gazette of India, a Britisher who wanted to write ‘organised’ history, heard the story from people in this area. To his astonishment, he found it geographically accurate. Then too Sarman Saagar was so big that no less than three villages were located at its periphery and it sustained all these people. History didn’t remember the four brothers but because they built these talaabs, history will be eternally grateful to them. The folklore is the lifeblood of the heart of the nation as it is found in central India, but can also be found in North-South and East-West in varying forms and so can hundreds and thousands of talaabs. Old ponds were never cleaned and new ones were never made (at least not as they used to be). Silt has not accumulated in the ponds, but in the heads of this new society. Old society’s forehead was clean, because it didn’t see the ponds as a problem but embraced it like a ‘prasaad’.

Some rays of hope

Brajendra Pal Singh, the founder of Lokbharati, an organisation that is spread across entire North India, claims Lokbharati has been at the forefront to rejuvenate the rivers and ponds that include- but are not limited to- tributaries of Gomti such as Kathina, Neem and Bhainsi, etc along with Bhadrasheela river in Shahjahanpur, Ramrekha river in Basti district, Sasur river (tributary of river Yamuna) in Fatehpur and so on. He shares his experience in rejuvenating River Bhainsi in Shahjahanpur: “River Bhainsi- stretching on some 45 kilometres, is a tributary of river Gomti. This river had dried up substantially due to over depletion of groundwater. Since 2019, repeated efforts have been made to revive it by Lokbharati in which people from 40 villages that dot the river too participate, and every Sunday 400-500 people gather for ‘shramdaan’. This involved a four-step process beginning from removing the silt that has accumulated in it, removing the wild growth that obstructs the river flow and then creating check-dams and diverting the flow of water into the river, followed by afforestation along the banks of the river to ensure that they hold the groundwater. It resulted in cleaning the Bhainsi River. Not only this, we diverted the seepage area of the nahar and dams into the river. This caused the 20 talaabs that dotted the area to swell up again. But they again dried up after three months. This happened not once but many times. This shows the extent to which the groundwater was depleting. But after our repeated efforts, we were able to stabilize the water not only in the ponds but also in Bhainsi River and Gomti River. The tubewells and handpumps that had gone dry in nearby areas too started to give water.” Singh ardently believes that it is imperative to harvest as much rainwater as one can and direct it back to groundwater to ensure water availability year-round.

Inspiring deeds from Bundelkhand region

Pushpendra Singh, a farmer from Bundelkhand region who started the ‘Apna Talaab Abhiyan’, was successful in encouraging and motivating farmers in the drought prone Bundelkhand region to dig ponds in their fields and to conserve rainwater to address the issue of water scarcity. His ‘ApnaTalaab Abhiyan’ was started during the drought year in 2013 in Mahoba district to sensitize and encourage around 50,000 farmers to take up Rain Water Conservation, Pond Construction and Community Pond Conservation.

In the Water Talk Lecture series by UP Singh, Secretary of the then Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation on March 22, 2019,  Pushpendra Singh stated: “By using simple innovative techniques to motivate the farmers, we prevailed upon the farmers to create 12,149 talaabs (ponds) creating 5,37,48,300 cubic metres of water holding capacity to provide water for one time irrigation of 60,000 hectares of land of hitherto non-irrigated land and two time irrigation for 30,000 hectares of land. According to studies, in the Bundelkhand region, 80 per cent of the groundwater is used for agricultural purposes, making the farmers the largest consumers of water. Hence, it was their moral responsibility to rejuvenate groundwater. Much of the burden for providing drinking water was on women and small children and hence it was much more necessary to take up water conservation work.”

The ‘Apna Talaab Abhiyan' broadly covers  the following initiatives:

 Paani Punurutthan Pahal- As there were no major government schemes that covered ponds building schemes, so farmer community themselves started working towards the Rejuvenation of ponds by offering ‘Shramdaan’. Gradually, a more organised strategy was formed after the government noticed the efforts of the farmers and supported their initiative

Infrastructure Development and Rainwater Harvesting Model- During the construction of a major railway line in the district, sand/earth was being taken from the farmers by the construction agency. So we implored the farmers to dig the sand from such a place that had the capacity to hold and retain the groundwater. The pond construction procedure was explained clearly along with rough estimates of the quantity of sand to be dug out and the capacity of water the ponds dug can this hold. Seeing the success of the initiative, the district administration too came forward to help and support these farmers.

Farm designing- One third of land in field is earmarked for pond, one third for the fodder of cattle and the remaining third for agriculture. It aims to enhance the ‘respectability of faming’ and attract youngsters, in addition to enhancing the productivity and income of the farmers.

“People have begun to appreciate the benefits of ponds. It is worth mentioning that now in some areas of Dewas, about 80 per cent of the people have their own private ponds. Many dried up wells in the field of Mahoba and Banda districts have been recharged by those Apna Taalabs and large areas of dry lands have become cultivable. Apna Talaabs have provided the capacity to sustain crops during drought years. These ponds have resulted in increased water table in the ground and increased humidity in atmosphere reducing exploitation of groundwater and better soil moisture all these leading to get a productivity for farmers,” he elaborates. Pushpendra Singh states: “These small initiatives that empower the farmers and local community are far better than large mega projects like the Ken-Betwa link project and Nal se Jal scheme that aren’t environmentally sustainable. Inspired by our encouraging results, Uttar Pradesh also launched the ‘Khet Talaab Yojna’. Between the year 2016 to 2019, 9549 tanks had been constructed with a capacity of 21383000 cubic metre.”

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