Kolkata Has World’s Largest Natural Sewage Treatment System, Thanks To One Man’s Lifelong Struggle

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From the narrow, dusty streets, as the traffic emerges into the wide roadways of E.M. Bypass, Kolkata, a waft of fresh air welcomes the commuters. The wide green fields, interspersed with tiny water bodies are a soothing relief for the eyes, sore with the sight of skyscrapers and pollution all around.

The East Kolkata wetlands, as this greener stretch of the city is called, actually has much more than what meets the eye. While crossing one of the many bridges over the lakes and canals, one might have wondered how the foul-smelling, dirty black water on one side ends up into pristine lakes on the other. The reason is fascinating, which has earned East Kolkata Wetlands the designation of a ‘Ramsar Site’. The wetlands constitute the world’s largest organic sewage management system.

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– Anne Frank

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Where does it all go?

While sewage treatment continues to be a serious concern for almost all the thriving metropolises of India, Kolkata, with its bustling population of 5.8 million is managing fine without a single sewage treatment plant. The amount of sewage water generated per day in the city is a whopping 750 million litres. So, naturally, the question comes, where does it all go?

The answer lies in the amazing ecosystem of the East Kolkata Wetlands – comprising diverse flora, fauna and microbes – which naturally filters the sewage water. More interestingly, the wetlands have been developed and maintained by humans – mostly the local fishermen and farmers, around 30,000 in number.

The discovery by Dhrubajyoti Ghosh

Residents were completely oblivious of the ecological wonderland lying in the heart of the city until 1981, when late Dhrubajyoti Ghosh, an erstwhile sanitation engineer, discovered it. He was appointed by the municipal authorities to check what happened to the city’s sewage water – a mystery till then.

In a 2016 interview with The Guardian, Ghosh referred to the natural sewage filtration system as ‘serendipity’. In fact, he was the one to name the region as East Calcutta Wetlands and later went to win a legal battle with the state government for preserving the site from real estate encroachment.

The miracle of East Kolkata Wetlands supports 30,000 lives

The wetlands represent an extensive network of streams and canals, connected with the distributaries of the Hooghly river – Kolkata’s historic lifeline. The wastewater released from the city’s houses is carried through these channels towards the marshlands.

Meanwhile, the UV rays of the sun and heavy microbial population breaks down the raw sewage waste, thereby refining the dirty sludge into nutrient-rich water. This water is further filtered by underwater and superficial algal growth in the lakes and ponds, rendering it highly favourable for the growth of freshwater fish. The algae serve as natural fish food, reducing the cost of pisciculture by almost half.

Apparently, fish thriving in sewage might not seem so appealing for the palette, but Dhrubajyoti Ghosh and a team of scientists have found them to be completely safe for consumption. One reason for this is the low level of harmful heavy metals in Kolkata sewage, thanks to the natural systemic breakdown of the sludge.

How the wetlands help combat inflation

At the same time, cultivation of vegetables and even paddy is practised alongside the banks of these canals and lakes. The nutrient-rich water negates the need for any chemical fertilisers or pesticides. Estimates show that Kolkata’s sewage water is treated naturally within only 20 days.

In the early hours of the morning, while the City of Joy is yet to wake up, a horde of small trucks and carriers can be found lined up alongside the streets of Salt Lake, Dum Dum and other localities surrounding the East Kolkata Wetlands. These vehicles supply fresh vegetables and fish produced in the wetlands to the markets of the city.

As a matter of fact, due to local farming in these marshes, vegetable prices are still incredibly low in the city, even when other major Indian cities battle skyrocketing inflation.

The vegetable cultivation and freshwater pisciculture at East Kolkata Wetlands have given rise to a community of farmers and fishermen dwelling in and earning their livelihood from the area.    

Ghosh won one of India’s first major legal battle for environment

It might be astonishing to note here that at one point, the city was almost on the verge of losing its most wonderful ecological wonder, to crony capitalism. As urban migration increased the population of the city, expansion in her outskirts was necessitated. Thus Salt Lake City was developed around the wetlands, following a well-planned protocol of organised urbanisation.

However, in the early 1990s, the West Bengal state government tabled plans to construct a world trade centre tower in the middle of the wetlands, which would have led to the encroachment of almost the whole area. Dhrubajyoti Ghosh resisted the idea, registering the help of an NGO.

Together, they started the movement PUBLIC (People United for Better Living in Calcutta) and filed a PIL to thwart the government’s project plans. The verdict ultimately went in their favour as Justice Umesh Chandra Banerjee of Calcutta High Court declared that the wetlands must be preserved to support the livelihood of the fishermen and farmers, as well as protect the environment.

Unparalleled dedication & legacy

In a bid to apprise the government of the environmental worth of the wetlands, Dhrubajyoti Ghosh had invited the then West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu to take a trip in the region with him. During the visit, Ghosh drank a glass of water directly from one of the ponds. To the utter disbelief of Basu, Ghosh did not suffer from any ailment as the water was as clean as it is claimed to be.

For his extraordinary work throughout his life, Ghosh was awarded the prestigious Global 500 Award by United Nations, adding him to the likes of notable environmentalists David Attenborough and Jane Goodall who were honoured with the same. His sole endeavour resulted in the recognition of East Kolkata Wetlands as a Ramsar site in 2002.

Ghosh, who passed away on February 2018, always lamented the unplanned urban expansion happening at present, as unscrupulous syndicates of real-estate developers are encroaching upon the wetlands. Despite his lifelong efforts, he failed to convince the government to set up a proper management system for East Kolkata wetlands.

Efforts For Good take

For decades, Kolkata citizens are unknowingly encouraging the principles of sustainability and recycling, as they continue to consume the produce from these wetlands. However, with Ghosh’s demise, an uncertain future lies ahead for Kolkata’s precious environmental miracle, unless the citizens proactively involve themselves in its preservation. Efforts For Good urges the citizens to take note of their natural blessing and work towards its conservation.

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It's not how much we give
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A Group Of Karnataka Women Pushes Alcoholic, Abusive Husbands & Social Stigma Aside, Earns Through Recycling Workshop

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At thirteen, Neela was married off to a husband much older than her. At sixteen, she became a mother, and at nineteen, she was a widow. Despite having no regular income, she was faced with the daunting task of taking care of her in-laws, her own parents and of course, her little daughter. For young Neela, life has never known a trajectory where her voice is heard and her destiny is not blamed. That was until she came under the ambit of Hosa Belaku Artisan’s Foundation and discovered a new identity for herself. The taste of financial independence was indeed delightful for her, but her zeal to work hard for a newer, better life stood at the helm of it all.

No one has ever become poor by giving – Anne Frank

Founded by Kameshwari from Bengaluru, the foundation works with distressed women in three Karnataka villages, helping them to earn their livelihood by handcrafting a wide range of decorative or daily-use household items. Like Neela, nineteen women with struggles similar or worse, have found a new lease of life at Hosa Belaku Artisan’s Foundation. Every piece of item created at Hosa Belaku is recycled from leftover fabrics, paper, dry waste or scrap metals.

Hosa Belaku – a new dawn

“I have been working in the social sector for the past two decades. Since 2013, I got associated with Belaku Trust, who was working with rural women in Karnataka,” shares Kameshwari, a former legal executive. 

“Most of these women were victims of alcohol abuse and harassment on the domestic front. Some were widowed, single mothers or differently-abled – making life all the more hard for them in a patriarchal society. Unfortunately, circumstances led Belaku Trust to close their operations in 2015. The women were left in a lurch,” she narrates.

Some of these women desperately pleaded with Kameshwari to let them sustain their only source of income and independence. Moved by their plight, Kameshwari resolved to do her best to help as many women as possible. Investing a sizeable proportion of her own savings, she launched the Hosa Belaku Artisan’s Foundation in 2017.

At present, the foundation has active workshops in three villages in the suburbs of Bengaluru, namely, Halasuru, Achalu and Kadahalli. 

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The gritty women of Hosa Belaku

At the prime of her life, Pavithra’s husband left her for another woman. Heartbroken and devastated, she was clueless about how to earn her living. The story is similar for many other women in these villagers, with careless, abusive or estranged husbands, most being alcohol addicts. The pangs of poverty would sometimes become more unbearable than the constant physical abuse by their husbands. Yet, they had no way to have some respite from the ordeal. Few women did work seasonally as agricultural labourers. The backbreaking toil in the sun would take a toll on their health, while the deplorable situation at their homes would haunt them for the rest of the year.

Empower Poor Women To Rise Out Of Poverty

Kameshwari mortgaged her jewelery for Rs 6 lakh to start Hosa Belaku Artisian's Foundation. Most of the women employed in this foundation face domestic violence in their homes. Kindly donate here : bit.ly/hosabelaku

Posted by Efforts For Good on Sunday, July 21, 2019

Society, with its primitive doctrines, only made it worse for these women. For instance, nobody was willing to marry Shivlingi because she had a facial deformity. After a point, her own brothers abandoned her as if she had become a liability.

If one visits these women now, they would be found basking in their newfound success with Hosa Belaku. But, not only the women, Hosa Belaku’s workforce comprises a 19-year-old young man as well. All his life, Yogi, who is affected by Polio, had accompanied his mother everywhere. She used to work with the foundation until she recently passed away in an accident. Yogi’s father is visually-challenged, so the entire family received a major emotional and financial setback after his mother’s sudden demise. A helpless Yogi would painstakingly drag himself from door to door in search of work. “We took him in and trained him in toy-making. Now you would find him in a corner, making beautiful toys for children,” shares a proud Kameshwari.

Sunshine, Lamp and Dawn – Illuminating lives

The women groups at the three villages are designated with three unique names and assigned with a unique task each. Kirana (Sunshine), the group at Kadahalli is involved with paper products, making notepads, bags and jewellery.

The Halsuru group Deepa (Lamp) has adopted the art of block printing. Vibrant, stylish and beautiful handbags, cushion covers, stoles and notebooks are curated with the utmost care and precision by the women.

At Ushe (Dawn), needle and thread rules. Women who were already skilled in sewing and embroidery now earn by making stuffed toys, patchwork products and embroidered fabrics.

True to their names, the groups have indeed brought new light into the lives of their employees.

Suma and Jayamma are both senior workers at Kirana who have succeeded in constructing small concrete houses for themselves, a huge step up from the dilapidated huts they spent their youth in. Another aged lady in the same group has another compelling achievement to be proud of. Bearing the taunts and trauma from her drunkard husband all her life, she has single-handedly raised a son and a daughter with proper education. Her son, who is currently an aspiring engineer, was supported with a laptop from Hosa Belaku. Honamma, a young widow from the group Deepa is treading a similar path, raising her son all on her own.

The only solace

How much gratitude these women have towards Hosa Belaku is perhaps evident from Shri’s unwavering dedication. Diabetes is taking a toll on her eyesight yet she refuses to give up and continues etching her grit on the ornate block-printed fabrics.

The reason for such gratitude is manifold. For the conscious urban consumers, Hosa Belaku is striving to save the environment with their 100%-recycled policy. But, for the workers, it is the lifeline which not only offers them economic security but also allows them a place to voice, share and resolve the problems plaguing their lives.

“They come here and find a peaceful break from their household obligations. Some still face domestic violence regularly, the workshop is an escape for them. They discuss their issues and try to find feasible solutions. It takes the load off their tired minds. The work here is a breath of fresh air for them,” Kameshwari asserts.

“We have been assisted time and again by established non-profits and retail chains across Bengaluru, who have graciously showcased and marketed products made by our artisans. We would like more people to know about Hosa Belaku and its incredible women, and respect their brilliant spirit by purchasing their crafts,” Kameshwari expresses her wish.

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It's not how much we give
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- Mother Theresa Quote
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