Okhla Bird Sanctuary: Birds of a feather don’t flock here anymore
Delhi Digital

Okhla Bird Sanctuary: Birds of a feather don’t flock here anymore

A visit to the famous ecotourism destination in Noida reveals a surprising lack of concern for the habitat of the birds it's dedicated to.

By Shubham Bhatia and Nischai Vats

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Mega skyscrapers, high voltage electricity towers, dome of a famous park, and no visible signs of animal life—this is the scenario one experiences on a visit to Okhla Bird Sanctuary. 

A famous tourism and environmentalist spot in Delhi’s satellite city Noida, the sanctuary has, over the years, become an endangered species in its own way due to encroachment and loss of flora and fauna. The presence of birds is dismal and public footfall is low. 

On a visit to the 29-year-old bird sanctuary, these reporters found major signs of encroachment around the perimeter. As you walk past signboards at the entrance warning “No smoking here”, “Please don’t litter” and “Stay away from the water body,” you wonder about the high voltage electricity poles—about 5-6 of them. The electric current passing through each wire looks like it poses danger to the whole habitat.

The sanctuary is supposed to be an eco-system for 300 species present here. But when you see nests built by birds on top of the electricity towers, you wonder what the authorities were thinking. Some of these electricity towers are rooted in the lake, making it dangerous for habitat. It would be no surprise to hear that the high-tension wires are killing birds. Several advertisement hoardings around the lake spoil the natural beauty.

As you tour the place, you see sign giving information about the different kinds of species that come and go from the sanctuary. But the absence of many species makes the bird-watching experience excruciating. A forest guard who refused to be named says, “The birds usually come during the winter but now their number has become pathetic.”

Choked by concrete

Once declared a “protected area” by the Uttar Pradesh government in 1990, the Okhla Bird Sanctuary today grapples with commercialisation. Right opposite the main gate is a tall skyscraper by real estate giant Supernova, a work in progress. The National Green Tribunal passed an order in 2014 restricting all construction and other projects in and around the Okhla Bird Sanctuary within a 10-km radius and directed that any project shall not be cleared until the National Board of Wildlife (NBWL) issues a no-objection certificate.

The skyscraper being built opposite the sanctuary’s main gate.

However, in August 2015, the NBWL gave its nod to new construction projects awaiting its approval. The NBWL cleared a proposal to notify certain areas around the sanctuary as an eco-sensitive zone (ESZ) which paved the way for several realtors like Supernova and Supertech. 

On the right of the perimeter walls is Rashtriya Prerna Sthal, built by former Chief Minister of UP Mayawati. A 10-12 metre long wall guards the memorial. As is typical of parks commissioned by Mayawati, it is a concrete jungle made with expensive marble which shimmers in the sunlight. The park was once a known tourist spot and an attraction for film shoots. 

Whatever the politics surrounding the Rashtriya Prerna Sthal, the environment of the Okhla Bird Sanctuary has deteriorated. Even the lake which surrounds the sanctuary and is a watering hole for several birds has become polluted.

Pollutants emitted from the heavy vehicular traffic are another key factor in the deteriorating health of the sanctuary. The Delhi Noida Direct Flyway and Noida Sector 18 road pass just adjacent to the sanctuary. 

Poor upkeep

As we go further into the sanctuary, more signs of encroachment are clearly visible: tin sheds have been put up in one corner where cows and buffaloes graze. 

“Encroachment alongside Okhla Bird Sanctuary is worrisome. In addition to needing a quaint wetland, wintering ducks need open grounds for feeding,” says Abhishek Gulshan, a nature educator and founder of NINOX: Owl about Nature, an awareness initiative in Delhi-NCR.  Talking about earlier times, Gulshan says, “The sanctuary had an undisturbed landscape with an untouched wetland and an expanse of open grounds to host thousands of migratory birds in winters.”

He says, “Encroachment by real estate companies has proved to be fatal and the activities have been masked in the name of development. Okhla Bird Sanctuary is one of the largest wetland reed habitats surviving but for how long?” 

Addressing the question of electricity towers in the sanctuary, Gulshan says flying birds generally rely on free air space for movement. “Above-ground power lines cutting across bird parks can lead to high and large-scale bird mortality due to risk of collision and electrocution during their flight at night time or at low visibility hours.” 

Electricity towers in the sanctuary.

Gulshan points out that this may also “reduce the preferred habitat and wintering grounds for birds in the area, which could adversely affect the number of birds visiting the area during migration time and otherwise affecting the health of ecology in the area and ecotourism as well.”

Deploring the fact that the footfall has fallen off in the sanctuary, Gulshan says, “Birds are recognised as one of the most important environmental indicators of how healthy an ecosystem is. There is a decline in the population of migratory birds due to the above mentioned reasons. It is no longer what it used to be historically and birdwatchers now are keen on visiting other bird-rich areas that might be slightly less disturbed. This decline shows alarming signs of habitat degradation.”

Hoping for solutions

So can the Okhla Bird Sanctuary still be saved from human depredation? Gulshan says, “The sanctuaries are definitely well equipped to cater to birds but there are certain harsh decisions to be made. Avoid any kind of construction in the vicinity. Regular upkeep of the area by holding cleaning drives, manual removal of water hyacinth from the wetland. Hyacinth chokes the lake.”

He says: “The sanctuary is perhaps the most expensive when it comes to entry fee, so it is high time they started maintaining the sanctuary in the manner it deserves it. Littering should be made punishable by law and people should actually be fined for the same. Strictness when it comes to upholding laws is needed.”

Environmentalist Verhaen Khanna deplores the rapid construction happening around the radius of the sanctuary. He says, “Earlier too there were some buildings but now we see these tall giant buildings. Birds may crash into these skyscrapers because they reflect the sun.”

What about the electricity poles? He says, “For the wire, many trees have been cut. Because of high power electricity cables, one can hear a lot of noise. The number of species has reduced as the habitat is in danger.” He can recall the time when he took a group of school children to the Okhla Bird Sanctuary and spotted around 50 species, including the exotic flamingo. However, he says, “The number has gone down. Earlier, people reported that there were more than 200 species in the sanctuary. However, now less than 100 are left.”

According to activists, less than 100 species of birds remain in the sanctuary.

Poor infrastructure within the sanctuary is another concern for Khanna. “When I went to the sanctuary, I was not able to visit the watchtower due to poor infrastructure. The pathway that helps in reaching that spot cannot be seen any more.”

Khanna feels the situation can still be saved. “New water bodies, plants and trees need to come up in the sanctuary in order to rejuvenate it. Proper fences and boundaries are required in and around the sanctuary.”

“There should be security and some more people on alert. Like when I visited with a group of children, they should send at least one person to accompany groups like ours,” says Khanna. 

Dying river

Rajeev Suri, another environmental activist, explains why migratory birds travel for 8,000 km under the most dire conditions over the Himalayas. “They come here for the warmer climate. In India we have a tremendous amount of water bodies: wetlands of rivers and water bodies in low-lying areas. These water bodies used to attract a lot of migratory birds.” 

Recalling how the Okhla Bird Sanctuary used to be, he says, “It was so vibrant. Now birds are migrating to other parts of the country to areas where there’s less water contamination and wetlands are in its pristine form.”

“The water of the Yamuna has become highly contaminated,” he continues. “Today it has no living beings. It’s a dead river.” The Yamuna is one of the most polluted rivers in the country today. The ecologically dead river takes in 1.5 billion litres of untreated sewage and 500 litres of industrial waste every single day. On top of that, “In Delhi the wetlands have diminished, and so have the floodplains. The water contamination is so high that birds are not attracted to come here anymore.” 

He gives examples of the Delhi Zoological Park, River Yamuna, the floodplains of the river, Sunder Nursery and Lodhi Gardens. He says these places are now frequented by the birds that used to come to the Okhla sanctuary. “As we continue to build more and more areas and as construction continues rapidly, the birds’ habitat is shaken,” worries Suri. “They also need a safe place to live, but we are removing the place where will they live.” 

And it’s not just about the birds. Khanna points out, “Humans can’t live just by themselves, they need entire ecology for their own self to survive.”

Asola too in danger

While the Okhla Bird Sanctuary is being unabashedly abused by rampant encroachment and major life-threatening lapses, its sister in the Aravallis is still in a better position. Asola Wildlife Sanctuary in Haryana has faced illegal construction and rampant encroachment in recent years. When we reached there to check out the encroachment, a plethora of houses greeted us before the main entrance of the sanctuary. 

Poor road infrastructure in the area suggests that encroachment has been done in recent times only, with narrow dingy lanes separating the houses. There’s no layout, no planning. Some houses are in the process of rising up to first and second floors. 

The entrance to the sanctuary is through a vast open ground. We were not allowed to enter the premises because a permission has to be taken in advance from the authorities. We tried getting the permission on-site, however, the process has to be done in person in the authorities’ office, which is unknown to the guard himself. “It’s all deserted inside. What will you do?” asks the guard who did not reveal his name. 

In February this year, the Haryana government had passed a controversial amendment to the Punjab Land Preservation Act (PLPA) and had opened up thousands of acres of land to the real estate and other non-forest activity that was until then protected under the ACT for more than a century. The issue is critical as the ecology and wildlife in the Aravallis will be impacted to a great level. Asola Wildlife Sanctuary’s health has an effect on Sariska Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan.

Coming down heavily on the Haryana government, the Supreme Court warned the administration that it would be in “trouble” if they do “anything” to the Aravalli hills or the forest area. 

The courts ordered in January this year that the 425-acre Kant Enclave is to be razed to the ground. The 39-year-old estate had 1,600 plots, of which 180 only were registered. The apex court ordered demolition of all buildings, which were built after 1992. Of the 33 plots, where some form of building came into formation, so far, over 20 properties have turned to dust till now. 

In its directive, the apex court said “irreversible damage” was made to the ecology of the Aravalli due to rampant construction.

The State Forest Department had also taken up the anti-encroachment drive and had razed an 11-feet high compound in April 2016. The National Green Tribunal (NGT) had observed that “an unmanageable situation” has risen in and around Delhi, with constructions taking place in the protected land of sanctuaries and forests to commercialise the areas. 

Currently, the Asola Wildlife Sanctuary boasts of the largest number of antelopes, nilgai, jungle cats, porcupines and a large number of monkeys.

Only 150 bustards left

According to a recent report by the Ministry of Environment, the endangered Great Indian Bustard is close to becoming extinct, predominantly because of the high voltage power lines that criss-cross their path. 

The Great Indian Bustard.

The report, prepared by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), a statutory body which comes under the ministry, shows that only 150 of the Great Indian Bustard are left now with Jaisalmer being its biggest habitat. The report shows that these birds are dying at the rate of 15 per cent annually after colliding with high voltage power lines. Over the past 30 years, the population of GIB has been reduced by 75%, the WII report says.

“All bustards are prone to collision due to their poor frontal vision and inability to see the power lines from a distance,” the report said. 

The report also said that apart from the Great Indian Bustard, other species are also dying because of collision or electrocution with the transmission lines at the rate of 10 birds per month. The total comes down to one lakh bird deaths annually. 

This article first appeared in Patriot.