By PRADEEP SINGH
When the Doon Valley was opening its portals to the modern world and allowing its length and width to be traversed by seasoned explorers and men of a scientific bent, the countryside presented a mind boggling landscape. Within its confines lay a kaleidoscope of terrain that changed every few miles. From humid steamy jungles, open grasslands, boulder strewn stretches, countless streams to undulating plains and uplands – all this enclosed by the Siwaliks and the Himalayas.
However, the single most striking feature of the geomorphology of the Valley was its ubiquitous wetlands that were encountered at regular intervals in a major part of the Doon.
Depending on how one looked at the country it presented a mixed bag of surprises. The biodiversity around the wetlands was a wealth of knowledge lying to be unraveled, perhaps untouched since millennia.
What did these wetlands do for the ecology of the Valley? Why were they thought of as being an impediment to development? Much depends on how you approached the problem. These wetlands, which included swamps, marshes, bogs, fens, etc., were primarily an ecosystem in themselves. They were the repository of huge quantities of fresh water that was available throughout the year and also helped to charge the underground water in the surrounding countryside giving people and wildlife, alike, water when it was needed. A host of beneficial aquatic life was supported by these wetlands, whether fish or edible green plants or an array of insects. For ornithologists, these wetlands were a veritable treasure trove as these water bodies were habitats for a wide range of birds, both resident and migratory, making Doon and Uttarakhand an avian hotspot.
These natural water bodies also helped in preventing flooding by slowing the pace of run-off water during times of deluge while absorbing a large amount of the water which it purified by filtering it. Even in modern times, these wetlands absorb dissolved toxic effluents and improve water quality through the natural filtration process.
The downside of living close to the wetlands was that it also bred mosquitoes, which were a source of dreaded malarial fevers that plagued the Valley, especially the eastern portion, from April to September, and thereby provided a ready excuse to clear these wetlands almost to extinction. The need for human habitation and to expand agricultural activities also found an easy solution in draining these wetlands and reclaiming land. In most of these reclaimed “wastelands”, sugarcane plantations were extensively promoted. The resultant rise in temperatures and drop in green cover created ecological imbalances that are difficult to reverse.
Thus, the Lacchiwala picnic spot of yesteryears, which was provided perennial fresh water from the Nakraunda swamp and adjacent Koel-Kund has now to depend on the new artificial channel constructed from the Song River to the east. The Nakraunda swamp itself has shrunk to less than a hectare when earlier it was quite extensive. The Mothorowala wetland, studied so keenly by a host of scientists, was a legendary wetland that gave rise to the Suswa and the Asan rivers. Today it has been reduced to a mere twenty-two acres in size and is under severe pressure from human activities posing a serious threat to its survival. Its water channels that still carry fresh water are joined by the polluted Rispana and Bindal streams to further accentuate the misery.
Today there are several so called picnic spots in the Valley that are popular amongst those choosing a different way to pass an afternoon, which are surviving remains of former wetlands. Mothorowala, Karwapani, Khattapani, Doodhpani, Teenpani, Gularghati, Golatappar and Nakraunda were once sizable wetlands that spread across the Valley. These were predominantly in the Eastern Doon, and before encroachment and unscientific exploitation, were almost connected to each other, presenting an unbroken chain of water saturated swathes of grasslands, marshes, and inundated forests. This ecological phenomenon was on account of the underlying subsoil and geology and the climatic features of the Valley. Heavy rainfall of the monsoons and also rains at other times falling on the northern hills percolated down rapidly due to the layers of gravel in the soil and disappeared under the surface to later appear on the southern extremes of the Valley where the Siwaliks prevented any further underground passage. This raised the water table to almost ground-level and water oozed out of the ground from “oggals” and numerous streams flowed perennially.
In the bygone days of the Valley, these wetlands and water courses left such an indelible impression on the minds of those who ventured into this ‘terra incognita’ that, at the resting place of a venerated sage who centuries ago made the Valley his spiritual domain, inscribed in poetic verse is the beauty and bounty of the bubbling streams and rivers and the sylvan vistas that abounded sans limit.