The man-made Keetham Lake lies at the heart of Agra’s Soor Sarovar Bird Sanctuary. Covering just about 700 hectares, the lake and the surrounding dry deciduous forest provides vital habitat for over 160 species of birds and a number of mammals and reptiles. However, illegal constructions, sewage, chemical discharge and fluctuating water levels are now steadily degrading this protected area.
Situated on the southern boundary of the sanctuary, between the Reserve Forest and NH-2, is the Anand Engineering College, a unit of the Sharda Group of Institutions. Established in 1998, the college administration has expanded infrastructure in to the sanctuary in clear violation of a 2000 Supreme Court order that prohibits all non-forestry activities within the protected area without the prior permission of the apex court. Further, in violation of the WLPA, 1972, the college directly discharges all waste and sewage in to the Keetham Lake.
Despite the concerted efforts of a number of officials of the Forest Department (albeit without any support from the district magistrate) since 2003, Anand College continues to develop its campus under the pretext of maintenance and repair. Notices from the Deputy Conservator of Forests (DCF), assistant wildlife warden and the forest range officer have been issued from 2003 till 2012, with no response from the college administration. The regional officer of the UP Pollution Control Board had also given notice to the college regarding the violation of the Environment Protection Rules – 1986 via two letters sent in 2009 and 2012. Copies of all these letters are available with TEHELKA.
Finally, in September of 2012, the DCF of Chambal Wildlife Division, Sujoy Banerjee, raided the campus premises and found large scale unauthorized constructions. In view of the violations, the DCF ordered for the college to be sealed and vacated within three days. However, when the college authorities sought time for legal remedies, the DCF relented, in the interest of the college students, and gave conditional permission to conduct classes till 15 December 2012. The Anand Engineering College went on to file writ no. 49984/2012 in the High Court of Allahabad, but have till date failed to procure any relief. A number of letters written by the DCF to the district magistrate of Agra, the commissioner, Agra as well as higher authorities of the Forest Department on this matter seem to have gone unnoticed.
In January of this year, the Forest Department revisited the college premises and found it to be fully operational. With no choice left in the matter, they filed an FIR and booked a departmental case against YK Gupta, Vice Chairman of Sharda Group, Dinesh Saxena, Registrar and SR Chaudhary, Director. Even as the Forest Department booked these cases, a picture and news article in the Dainik Jaagran showed that a mere two months later, Subhash Chandra Dubey, the Senior Superintendent of Police, Agra attended a function at the college as the chief guest and shared the stage with YK Gupta.
A member of the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee, DK Joshi, wrote to the chairman of the Central Empowered Committee on this issue in March 2013 urging him to take appropriate action against the college and inquire in to the connivance of the officers responsible for allowing the college to continue despite the sealing orders. Numerous calls for a quote to both the college and the college’s corporate office in South Extension went unanswered.
For over a decade, the administration of the college has flouted the law to the detriment of the habitat and the numerous species of wildlife that inhabit Soor Sarovar. The university with a population of 5,000, with each student paying phenomenal fees has profited, while the Supreme Court orders have been spurned.
In another case of environmental violations, the Keetham Lake has been experiencing fluctuating water levels due to water supplied to the nearby Mathura Refinery. The refinery, which is an offshoot of the Indian Oil Corporation, began to draw water from the Keetham Lake in 1981. At this time they signed a 25-year agreement with the Irrigation Department of the Government of Uttar Pradesh. Though the agreement came to an end in 2006, the refinery continues to draw water from Keetham Lake.
The problem does not lie in the drawing of the water per say, but rather in the habitat disturbance caused by an abruptly rising water level. The Irrigation Department regularly releases fresh water in to the lake via a canal. Water is then lifted through an intake well situated on the lake and channeled to a treatment plant located on forestland in the sanctuary. The lease for this plant itself expired in 2007 and has not been renewed. The purified water is then pumped to the Mathura Refinery that is located at a distance of about 30km from the sanctuary. The use of this forest land would not only require the clearance of the Central Government under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, but would also require the clearance of the Standing Committee of the National Board of Wildlife since the area is located within a sanctuary.
The full tank level of the Keetham Lake is 24 feet. While the refinery benefits from high water levels in the lake, from the viewpoint of wildlife management, high water levels are a matter of serious concern. When the water level rises above 19 feet, the islands within the lake and the immediate banks get completely submerged. These small patches of land serve as an ideal habitat for a number of wetland species and need to be conserved if the sanctuary is to maintain its breeding population of birds. Every year in March, the lake is filled beyond 19 feet and these habitats are inundated. This year too, the lake was filled to 22 feet by the third week of March. The water level was only brought down when the DCF wrote to the superintendent engineer of the Irrigation Department. Unfortunately, it was a little too late. Sources claim that migratory birds such as Bar-headed Geese and Great White Pelicans were forced to leave when their habitats were submerged.
The agreement between the Mathura Refinery and the Irrigation Department came to an end in 2006, yet for seven years, the water of the Keetham Lake has been exploited without permission. In order to legally continue using water from the Keetham Lake, the Indian Oil Corporation requires clearance from the Standing Committee of the National Board of Wildlife. Sources in the NBWL say that no such proposal has reached them. It is not just the sudden rising of the water that is of concern to environmentalists but also the release of chemicals in to the sanctuary area after the water purification process.
In September last year, a routine check of the treatment plant revealed the use of chemicals. It was further found that the residual waste from the process of purification of the water was being discharged directly into an open channel within the sanctuary. The DCF sent a show cause notice to the executive director of the Mathura Refinery about the use and manufacture of chlorine and the discharge of effluents within the sanctuary area. The reply received from Mathura Refinery, justified water use as being carried out since prior to the declaration of the sanctuary, with permissions from the Irrigation and Forest Department. The letter also stated that the refinery continues to pay charges to not just the Irrigation Department but also the Forest Department and the Pollution Control Board. Mathura Refinery claims to have phased out the use of chlorine since 2008 and replaced it with the comparatively non-hazardous Sodium Hypochlorite in compliance with environmental norms. Yet, in November 2012 when a Mathura Refinery’s truck was checked at the entrance of the sanctuary, department officials found Sodium Hypochlorite, Poly Aluminium Chloride, Hydrochloric Acid and Sodium Chloride in the vehicle. The concerned authorities were unable to explain the use of Hydrochloric Acid within the refinery. This chemical is a highly corrosive, strong mineral acid with many industrial uses. The supply of these chemicals have been stopped by the Forest Department on the premise that use of injurious substance within a sanctuary is prohibited under Sec. 32 of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 resulting in the stoppage of purification of water in the treatment plant. Yet, Mathura Refinery officials have reportedly urged the higher officials of the Forest Department to allow the use of these chemicals in the interest of smooth running of the refinery.
Worryingly, some reports suggest that the refinery is planning a massive expansion of their unit that will lead to a higher requirement of water. As the Keetham Lake is the only source of water for the refinery it can be inferred that there will be a resultant and permanent rise in the water level of the lake for this purpose. When the contract for even the existing water supply has not been renewed, it is shocking that the refinery is planning to expand.
According to Col Deshmukh, DGM of Mathura Refinery, the renewal of agreements with the Forest Department and the Irrigation Department are in process.
The Soor Sarovar Sanctuary provides shelter to more than 50,000 birds every winter and has recorded nesting activity of 14 distinct heronry species. This pocket sized, man-made wetland has been recognized as an Important Bird Area by Bird Life International and even qualifies to be declared a Ramsar site. “The Soor Sarovar Bird Sanctuary is home to a number of migratory and resident bird species. Two varieties of pelicans, the Great White and Dalmatian can be seen here is great numbers. It is also home to Lesser Flamingo, one of the very few places in north India, where these birds flock in thousands. It is also the largest heronry in northern India. Thus, this bird sanctuary is a must-visit site for bird watchers,” says Sujoy Banerjee, DCF of National Chambal Wildlife Sanctuary.
Home to a plethora of native flora and fauna, it will be disastrous if authorities continue to turn a blind eye to the blatant degradation of Soor Sarovar Sanctuary.