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Management, hydrology, salt pans — What’s behind Rajasthan’s bird crisis?

Harsh Vardhan, an ecologist with over four decades of work speaks to The Indian Express on the deaths of 18,000 migratory birds in Rajasthan's Sambhar lake.

Written by Hamza Khan | Jaipur | Updated: November 21, 2019 8:00:23 am
Over the last 10 days, thousands of migratory birds have been found dead at Sambhar Lake.

Harsh Vardhan, an ecologist with over four decades of work, is currently the Honorary Secretary of Tourism and Wildlife Society of India. He was previously Rajasthan Director of the World Wildlife Fund and been associated with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and International Crane Foundation. He spoke to The Indian Express on the deaths of 18,000 migratory birds in Rajasthan’s Sambhar lake.

Have there ever been so many bird deaths in India? What can the cause be?

No, never. The Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History in Coimbatore and Wildlife Institute of India (Dehradun) will give you the causes.

Management, hydrology, salt pans — What's behind Rajasthan's bird crisis? Carcass count

How well has the government handled the situation?

The government does not have the capability to handle such a crisis; they are overwhelmed by an unexpected calamity. But whom should we blame? The Forest Department does not even have an office there. Personnel from the Animal Husbandry Department personnel have been sent there but they don’t even have access to drinking water, let alone make a cup of tea, because the water is saline.

What can the government do?

The government should pass legislation in the Assembly to create a Sambhar Lake Development and Conservation Authority. This authority should be handed A to Z responsibility of Sambhar Lake. Currently, no one is there. No official is ready to speak and every government department passes the buck, be it Forest or Irrigation. The Revenue Department says they had the land once; Panchayat says that they had the land but gave it to Hindustan Salts Limited, and Hindustan Salts is now not ready to talk; they are not even answering calls.

Mystery illness at Rajasthan lake kills 8,000 birds, many migratory Civic workers bury birds at Sambhar Lake. (PTI Photo)

We are now telling the government that you have not done anything all these years, yet we do not wish to criticise you, but do something at least now. Set up the Sambhar Development Authority along the lines of Odisha’s Chilika Development Authority for Chilika Lake, and make the Chief Minister its Chairman. CM Ashok Gehlot should speak to Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik today and ask him to send over Ajit Patnaik, former chief of Chilika Development Authority, for help in setting up the Sambhar Lake Authority.

What are the issues at Sambhar that need to be addressed immediately?

There is no document about management of Sambhar Lake. World Wildlife Fund had created a document about 22 years ago, and it is now outdated. A fresh document should study why the water from four rivers, which flows into the lake, has decreased over the years. It should study the hydrology, sedimentation, the increase or decrease in depth of the lake, as well as birds, animals, their food sources, etc.

What are the possible reasons for deteriorating ecology at Sambhar Lake?

The absolute lack of management, the lack of bandobast. You [government] have set it loose, and handed it [partially] to Hindustan Salts Limited which did not do anything and is itself making losses.

Mystery illness at Rajasthan lake kills 8,000 birds, many migratory Sambhar Lake: A dead bird at the Sambhar Salt Lake in Rajasthan, Monday. (PTI Photo)

In 2016, National Green Tribunal had acted on a complaint that alleged the presence of illegal salt pans at Sambhar Lake. Are those still active?

Dher saarey, plenty of them. And all belong to politicians, sarpanches, MLAs, MPs, ministers. More are in Nagaur. But there is no one to share this information as there is no one who is answerable. For example, Jaipur Development Authority and Jaipur Municipal Corporation are ready to talk about Jaipur, but there is no one for Sambhar. The death of birds should make the government take concrete steps.

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