Monday, November 10, 2008

Badha Lake : Lost Glory of Fazilka

by Aarish Chabra, Indian Express

The town of Fazilka owes its very existence to the location of Badha Lake at the place where the town stands now. In 1844, Vans Pat Agnew, the first British officer stationed in the area, selected the place for installation of a surveillance station of East India Company and built himself a bungalow on the banks of the horse-shoe lake of Badha. The bungalow still exists and houses the office of the Sub-Divisional Officer (Civil), Fazilka. But the irony is that the once 150-acre lake is nowhere to be found. It dried out, or rather, was made to dry out by people. The lake, which was, till the 60s, a flourishing water body that attracted several species of migratory birds, now exists only on paper. "A horseshoe lake develops when a river en ters the plains and seeks its path of least resistance. Badha Lake received water as recharge from Satluj, but the illconceived Indus Water Treaty, 1960, sealed its fate. The Satluj has been truncated at Suleimanki Head Works by the Water Commission of the Central government, leaving it with no source of water," says Dr Bhupinder Singh, an IIT professor, who has written a booklet on the issue. "The stretch of stream from Ferozepur to Fazilka hardly gets any water from Satluj; all the 105-kilometre stretch carries is waste from the leather industry of Kasur in Pakistan. This has affected the ecology badly and has left many such smaller horse-shoe lakes on its banks dry," he adds. "It was home to a huge population of peacocks, running into hundreds, but now not even one peacock is alive and if this is the fate of the national bird, one can well imagine the callous attitude of the officials concerned," says Navdeep Asija, a researcher based in Chandigarh. The attitude of the authorities can very well be gauged from the fact that despite the wetland being a place famous for the peacock population that once thronged it, District Forest Officer (Wildlife) Balbir Singh is unaware of its existence. However, when told about its history and importance, he said he would personally visit the area and inspect. The lake was a source of quality drinking water for 100 years (1844-1946). In the 50s, people of this region used hand pumps to extract water from a depth of four metres. But following the treaty and the subsequent diversion of Satluj, ground water depleted to such an extent that people now have to install submersible pumps to lift water from the a depth of 30 metres. The lake-bed is now listed as panchayat land in the local revenue department's documents and has been leased out for cultivation. "Repeated attempts have been made to construct colonies and to mine sand from its dry bed, but vigil by some local people has helped stop the area from becoming a concrete jungle," says Asija. "In 2000, the Punjab State Council for Science and Technology (PSCST) warned in its report to the state Environment Department that the conservation of this wetland is essential. Even the then DC of Ferozepur, Kulbir Singh Sidhu, had assured of all efforts to retrieve the sites as the natural habitats of migratory birds. Till today, no long-term conservation measure on saving wetlands has been taken by the government," he adds. Ferozepur DC Megh Raj, however, does not remember any such assurance given by one of his predecessors and, perhaps not so surprisingly, is not even aware of the two major wetlands we mentioned in the conversation with him — Ganj Baksh and Badha. Both of these are situated in his own district, Ferozepur. He says, "I have been caught up in election duties and procurement, the issue of environment has not got my due attention I admit." Scientists at the PSCST say that disappearance is a serious matter, but express helplessness as the lake-bed is panchayat land. "It can still be recharged through a channel routed from the Bhakra main canal to the existing network of channels in south Punjab, but past experience stands testimony that the lake's obituary is well overdue. All we can do is hope," rues Dr Bhupinder.

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