Visit Calcutta, even briefly, and you soon learn the rules of the road — or rather that there aren’t many, if any. You will also meet some of the planet’s most resourceful people, from street children to scientists who are masters of making very little go a long way.

Earlier this month, I spent 12 days in that city on the Hoogly River in West Bengal with a group of students doing internships at Indian NGOs. We all got back to Japan unscathed, having learned that, for pedestrians, there’s just one rule of the road: undivided attention, in every direction.

But on the roads or anywhere, India is full of surprises. So I was pleased, but not surprised, on my third day in this hive of humanity now known by many as Kolkata to find an article in The Times of India about the work of Dr. Dipayan Dey, a biotechnologist and environmental scientist with unique research experience in India, Bhutan, Japan and the United States.

Dey,42, is the director of the South Asian Forum for Environment (SAFE), a nonpolitical, nongovernmental organization working on environmental conservation in the Indian ecoregion, with independent chapters in Bhutan, India and Bangladesh.

I wondered if I’d be able to find Dey in a city of some 12 million souls where I could barely cross streets — but I decided to try. The SAFE Web site lists several land-line numbers and one for a cellphone, so I called the cell. On the third ring someone answered and I asked for Dr. Dey.

“This is Dipayan,” the voice replied. Another pleasant surprise.

Two days later, I met Dey and his associate, Amrita Chatterjee, for tea. We agreed to talk for 30 minutes and do the rest by e-mail, but that stretched into 90 minutes as we found we shared friends as far afield as Afghanistan.

Environmental activism

The lofty mission statement of SAFE is to pursue “ecological restoration and conservation to achieve sustainable environmental development through community participation, partnership and reciprocity in the Indian ecoregion of South Asia.”

In practice, however, the work of Dey and his team is a classic example of environmental activism at the most basic and grassroots level, focusing on the East Kolkata Wetlands. This vast area is a so-called Ramsar site, referring to an international agreement, the Convention on Wetlands, signed at Ramsar in Iran in 1971, and intended to provide a framework for encouraging international cooperation and national action to conserve wetlands and wetland resources.

In short, Dey and Chatterjee are working to save a unique ecosystem of regional and global importance.

Dey grew up in India, where he was educated to doctorate level in biotechnology. He then joined Delhi University as an associate professor and for 10 years was posted to Bhutan, where he taught environmental science and became passionate about environmental conservation and sustainability.

While in Bhutan, Dey began taking a more interdisciplinary view of the environment, and in 2000 he established the first SAFE chapter there.

“In Bhutan we were working on water-arresting systems in the hills, where there is a terrible water crisis. My interest was more with the wetlands and the floodplains in the foothills, so I started SAFE. In 2002 I left teaching, because being in a job you cannot really work for an NGO, which has to be full time. So I came back to India and started the India chapter of SAFE in 2002,” he explained.

Also while in Bhutan, Dey’s research on high-altitude lakes earned him a fellowship from Shiga Prefecture, where he spent several months in 2000. Later, in 2003, he received the Ibaraki Kasumigaura International Award from the International Lake Environment Committee, Japan, and soon after another fellowship from the U.S.-based Society for Wetland Scientists International.

Then, in 2004, Dey visited Iwate, Japan, on a yearlong scholarship provided by the United Nations University and the Ocean Research Institute of Tokyo — a sojourn that remains one of the highlights of his research career.

Chatterjee, too, has followed an unusual path to her present work with the people of the East Kolkata Wetlands. After university she took a job at The Times of India as a journalist, but soon moved into corporate public relations, followed by a job teaching environment communic- ations. While doing research on the use of the media to raise environmental awareness, she met Dey and found her passion for grassroots action.

“I immediately joined him on his mission,” she said, with a smile that confirmed she has found her calling.

Between Dey’s research and scientific accomplishments, and Chatterjee’s PR, media and education credentials, the two make a unique, multitalented team. This is good, because their goal, to save the wetlands of West Bengal, is a massive undertaking.

The East Kolkata Wetlands cover an enormous area of more than 12,500 hectares, and they are under continuous threat from increasing pollution and urban expansion. Each day, 780 million liters of sewage from Calcutta’s residents flow into the area. Incredibly, the waste has not overwhelmed the wetlands. Rather, one reason why they were designated a Ramsar site in 2002 is that they contain a unique combination of natural and anthropogenic resource-recovery systems.

More than waste management

“The wetland is largely human-made, comprising intertidal marshes, salt marshes and salt meadows, with significant waste-water treatment areas, like sewage farms, settling ponds and oxidation basins,” says the WWF-India Web site. As a result of this age-old system for managing waste, the city has never constructed a sewage-treatment facility.

But the wetlands provide much more than just waste management: “It is the largest ensemble of sewage-fed fishponds in the world in one place,” the WWF reports. And because the wetlands cover such a vast area and are shallow, water is purified and the waste is biodegraded through a combination of sunshine, bacteria, plants and fish, explains Dey. The sewage-fed fishponds also provide a livelihood for local people who raise and sell the fish.

About 100,000 people live and work in the wetlands, and they provide 11,000 tons of fish to Calcutta’s markets each year — amounting to about 45 percent of the fish protein consumed in the entire West Bengal region. In addition, the wetlands provide about 150 tons of green vegetables per day using “garbage farming,” notes Dey.

However, as Calcutta grows so does the volume and toxicity of its waste, raising new concerns about the health of those doing the fishing and the sustainability of the wetlands.

Right now, SAFE-India is particularly keen to raise awareness of the wetlands’ rich biological diversity, including 108 known species of plants, 20 species of mammals, 40 species of birds and 52 endemic species of fish — of which 32 are now endangered. It is also dedicated to helping wetlanders survive floods that frequently hit the region.

“We use local festivals to educate local people about what to do when they face natural hazards, while also reminding them about their own traditional knowledge,” explains Chatterjee.

“During the major tsunami that hit the Andaman Islands [in the Bay of Bengal] several years ago, not one native islander died. They knew the tsunami was coming from their instinct and experience. If we can identify this traditional ecological knowledge and share it through modern media, it can be a wonderful early-warning system,” Dey added.

But like most NGOs, especially those in developing nations, SAFE has a long list of concerns — but limited funding. India’s environment ministry and the University of Kolkata are helping train students as volunteers and researchers, but many essential projects cost money: GPS mapping, environmental impact assessments, safety and risk communication, basic education for local families, and health and sanitation facilities. The list goes on. So far, small grants from Ramsar and Rotary International have helped, and last year SAFE got its first overseas funding, a research grant from the British Ecological Society.

Dey is now particularly interested in the concept of “biorights” as a way to help local people finance development by converting their natural land rights into financial value. For example, in return for effectively managing Calcutta’s waste water, biorights values deem it appropriate to remunerate local people sufficiently so they can begin developing community infrastructure and sustainable businesses, such as ecotourism.

‘A question of survival’

Nevertheless, Dey is not naive about the depth and breadth of the challenges he faces. “I am not confining myself to India,” he said. “The people of the entire ecological region must be aware of the environment; it’s a question of survival.

“It is essential that the traditional ecological knowledge of the people who live closest to the environment be respected in order to preserve the environment. Management cannot be top-down — it should be community based, participatory, a partnership. We must do this focusing on awareness and participation, in close cooperation with the government and local people.”

It’s a wisdom worth taking to heart everywhere, whether in Calcutta, Kyoto or Kansas City.

For more information on the SAFE-India Chapter, visit its Web site at www.safeinch.org or e-mail SAFE at office@safeinch.org

Stephen Hesse welcomes readers’ comments at stevehesse@hotmail.com


Coronavirus banner