Sitting idle at the shores of Nal Sarovar are 300 odd boatmen, a little over fifty kilometres the west of Ahmedabad. Last season they ferried tourists from one side to the other meandering through the flocks of migratory birds – a total of nearly 200 species as per a forest official on site.
The lake has dried up completely, laying bare its cracked bed. An eerie reminder of the lost ecosystem and its livelihoods.
As per the trend, the new year would have rung hordes of tourists to the lake as lakhs of migratory birds made the natural wetland its home. From lesser and greater flamingos to herons and white storks, white-tailed lapwing to rosy pelicans, over 200 species of bitterns and grebes travelled from their northern breeding areas, some from as far as Siberia, to the bird sanctuary every October and left only as the days became warmer in March. Abdulbhai, a boatman tells, “During the tourist season, we usually earn Rs. 600-700 on weekdays, whereas making Rs. 1000-1500 on weekdays." His family is among these boatmen, some of them who have moved to the city to work as daily wage labourers.
But this January, there is none – neither the swarming tourists nor the birds. “The last time the marshes experienced a drought like this was in 2002”, offered Rameshbhai, the driver, as a consolation to my disappointment at not being able to see the famed bird sanctuary for its flamingos. He further added, “there is another lake not far from here that might have some birds near Kalol on our way back to Ahmedabad”. For a little more money and a ton of my gratitude, Rameshbai drove to the Thol lake near Mehsana. This lake, however, is an unwarranted product of the construction of an irrigation tank built in 1912. It was declared the Thol Bird Sanctuary in 1988. It is now known for its flocks of flamingos and saurus crane against picturesque landscapes.
It seems to be that out of the birds which remain in this region, many prefer this once artificial lake in Thol. Amidst the loss of livelihood and biodiversity around Nal Sarovar, there are calls from the Nauka Vihar Nalsarovar Mandali, an association of boatmen and the sarpanch of Vekariya village to replenish the fresh-cum-brackish water wetland distributing water through the Narmada canal. While the authorities are considering the option in lieu of restoring livelihoods in the concerned region; Ketan Tatu, the founding editor of the e-periodical Jalaplavit and a senior scientist from the University of West Virginia argues against any such unnatural replenishment of the concerned wetland. In a satirical email addressed to the “Almighty” itself, he puts
“The wetlands created by you (i.e. natural wetlands) are destined to go through an extended period of dryness once or twice in a decade or so... God, please give insight to my folks that Nal Sarovar is a special, fresh-cum-brackish water wetland. It is not a conventional man-made waterbody wherein waters from any external water sources can be "dumped" for satisfying recreation or economic needs of man. For satisfying such human needs, we can create an artificial reservoir”
His observations are supported by a study conducted by the department of life science, Hemchandrachaya North Gujarat University, which concludes that the migratory birds prefer Thol over Nal Sarovar due to underlying anthropogenic pressures and increased tourism. These activities have deterred the birds from using the wetlands and any other man-made interference may just worsen the situation. For now, Thol remains as a Nal Sarovar’s lesser-known artificial counterpart but pivotal in sustaining the local biodiversity. As for the local economies and livelihoods, the government needs to intervene in not just sustaining eroding livelihoods but creating new ones. While the answers may be many, the one that comes to my mind is microfinance!