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Callous politicking threatens the last bastion of the world’s tallest flying bird: A TSI exclusive
VIKASH KUMAR | Issue Dated: April 22, 2007
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MAYDAY FLIGHT FOR THE SARUS Sarus cranes hold the distinction of being the tallest flying birds in the world. These cranes are revered across Asia for they symbolize luck, longevity and good fortune. Japanese consider their cranes a national treasure and a symbol of peace. Sarus cranes have long been associated with Hindu mythology, with verses eulogising their intense bonding in the epic poems. Uttar Pradesh boasts the maximum number of Sarus cranes in India, specifically in the Etawah District. Having coexisted in perfect harmony for centuries, bird and man are now facing up to changing times. The Sarus’ habitat, for instance, is being destroyed at an alarming rate, all in the name of ‘progress’.

According to W I I (Wildlife Institute of India), the total population of Sarus crane in India stands at a paltry 2,468 and about a third of them are found in Etawah and Mainpuri districts. These magnificent birds, nearly six feet tall, are predominantly non migratory and their range stretches from Pakistan to Indochina. In India, their range is restricted to Northern and western India. However due to the governmental apathy to its habitat range, these cranes are now critically endangered.

Mulayam Singh Yadav, the UP Chief Minister, has virtually declared war on the Sarus crane, which incidently is the state bird of Uttar Pradesh, during his term in office. Mr Yadav hails from a town called Safai which is approximately 21kms away from Etawah. About nine km from Safai in a town called Nagla Kehri, an airport is being constructed amidst heavy security. The construction site is ringed by a high wall, which is patrolled 24/7 by security guards. Nobody is allowed inside, least of all, reporters. This correspondent, however, managed to sneak in for some sleuthing, where a guard, on conditions of anonymity, revealed, “Nowadays it is rare to see cranes, but about two-three years ago, there were flocks of cranes... laid their eggs right on (what is now) the runway.” Rahul Kaul, Director, Conservation, Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) explains, “The waterlogged areas – used by about 12 pairs of Sarus for nesting – are being drained for the expansion of the runway”. MAYDAY FLIGHT FOR THE SARUS In 2002, a PIL was filed in the Allahabad High Court and the Court ruled in favour of conservation of the wetlands. However, the government ignored the ruling and decided to green light the project. This Rs 44 crore project was deliberately underfunded by crores so that no permission would be required from the Environmental Council. When the matter came to light in February 2006, the Hon’ble Supreme Court decided to step in. It formed a Cabinet Empowered Committee (CEC) to assess the situation. However, CEC failed to see any Sarus crane when they visited Safai, as villagers from surrounding villages were instructed by ‘authorities’ to scatter the cranes whenever they tried to land there. A TSI team visited Ughiani village which is about a kilometer from Safai but people simply refused to comment. When we asked the previous village headman, Lala Omprakash, about this he said, “What do we care about this Sarus crane; this interests only reporters”. Finally, a village elder told us that just before the inspection, local authorities had given villagers specific instructions to drive the birds away. The government, however, denies this.

There are three wetlands: Gaad, Sauj and Sarsai in Etawah and Mainpuri districts which harbour a substantial Sarus population. The Gaad wetland is mainly in private hands. Sarsai is about 22kms away from Navar Airport, and here too the population of the Sarus is declining. About one third of this wetland belongs to farmers. The farmers prefer to cultivate rice near the wetlands, which in turn sucks the water out of the wetland, leading to its destruction. Deprived of food in their natural habitat, the cranes wreak havoc on the farmer’s crops leading to conflict situations which historically have never existed before. The government is non-committal on this issue. Later they promised the CEC that the Sarus crane would not be affected by the development taking place. Ironically, it also constituted a Crane Conservation Committee with a budget of about 8-10 crores, like a case of wolves guarding the sheep. MAYDAY FLIGHT FOR THE SARUS The District Collector of Etawah, Mahendra Aggarwal told TSI, “We are fully committed to the conservation of the Sarus, but we cannot achieve this at the cost of other developmental work.” According to the data available with the UP government, there are about 51 and 62 wetlands in Etawah and Mainpuri respectively. But how long will they last against a government bent on their destruction is something nobody knows. The latest salvo comes in the form of a sugar mill in Timrua Village, a short distance from the Safai wetland. Rahul Kaul told TSI, “Setting up of a sugar mill would encourage farmers to start sugarcane cultivation. Even those who cultivate paddy would switch to sugarcane. Now, as the length of the sugarcane crop is more than the Sarus crane, it feels unsafe for not being able to look around.” Sarus cranes have already disappeared from Pilibhit, Dudhwa National Park and Nepal owing to the same reason. Monogamous Sarus cranes mate for life and are revered all over India. The great Mughal Emperor Jahangir once wrote in the Jahangirnama, “We are again thinking of going to Sarsai Navar to see the Sarus crane, the joy of seeing these amazing birds is unparalleled! I just hope that they haven’t left yet; this thought keeps me awake at night”. Crane lovers face many such sleepless nights in the wake of apathetic government policies and a toothless judiciary. MAYDAY FLIGHT FOR THE SARUS Bird soup for the greedy soul

Once amongst the most abundant birds of prey, the vultures of India (The Oriental White-Backed, the Long Billed and the Slender Billed ) now teeter on the edge of extinction, thanks to, ironically enough, a veterinary drug called diclofenac for livestock. Traces of the drug remained in cattle carcasses that the vultures scavenged on and proved lethal for the great birds. The drug, though banned, remains popular in the black market because of low prices and high demand.

The Delhi Ridge was declared a Protected Zone in the 1962 Masterplan. It covered Aravalli Hills, which are 15 million years old, various species of rare birds and myriad flora and fauna. Called the ‘oxygen bank’ of Delhi, this ridge is being hemmed in from all sides by an ever growing human population in spite of a Supreme Court order in 1997 enjoining no construction be carried out inside the ridge. But in 2005, a shopping mall was being constructed, right in the heart of the ridge! Construction is still taking place, on a 42 acre D.D.A plot and also on a 330 acre plot which belongs to the Army, although with Supreme Court’s permission. Nevertheless the illegal construction hasn’t stopped either.
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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017