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Harike (or Hari ke Pattan), noted for being the village in Tarn Taran District in Punjab, Northern India where Guru Angad Dev Ji the second Sikh Guru was born (March 31, 1504) is about 40 km from Moga by road; the nearest railhead is Amritsar (60 km)). Sri Hari Ke Pattan Gurdwara Nanaksar (video at YouTube [1]) with its beautiful colorful gardens is located on the banks of the wetland at Harike Lake.

The nearby Harike Barrage, located downstream from the confluence of the Beas and Sutlej rivers, channels water into the Indira Gandhi Canal, which runs for about 400 miles (640 km) to the southwest. The barrage was constructed to meet the irrigation and drinking needs of southern parts of Punjab and the adjoining state of Rajasthan.

The resulting Harike Wetland, including Harike Lake in its deeper part, is the largest wetland in northern India in the Amritsar district of Punjab state, in India. The wetland has long been considered to be one of India’s six ‘lungs’, when new the wetland covered more than 41 sq. km. For 30 long years it remained, thankfully, undisturbed. Over the years it grew into a blissful 'summerhouse' for migratory birds from far-off places such as Siberia and Eastern Europe. Besides the birds, Harike became the home for rare Indian species like the test dine turtle and the smooth otter. Both are listed in the International Union for Conservation of Nature red list of threatened animals. The wetland was known for its large population of avifauna like the diving ducks, scup ducks, falcate teals and the white-headed stiff-tailed ducks. Those undisturbed 30 years allowed Harike to emerge as an ideal habitat for waterfowl.

Wetlands are extremely essential not only for hydrological and ecological processes but also because they support rich fauna and flora. Having a particular Wetland recognized for its importace, at the international level, is done after considering the ecological, botanical, zoological and hydrological criteria, hence, when Harike’s selected n in this category, it should have generated a spontaneous and duty-bound response from the bureaucrats who were heading the related departments from 1982 onwards.

Even if one excluded the insurgency period, the role of bureaucrats posted in the Forest and Wild Life Preservation department from 1991 was dismal. At least 12 senior IAS officers headed this department from 1991 to 2000, but not one of them took any note of the fact that Harike had been declared an internationally important bird sanctuary. The end result of such neglect has led to the terrible devastation of Harike’s fauna and flora. The dwindling wetland has the following picture to offer:

The ecological crisis of Harike has reached such a stage that environment experts now estimate its lifespan to be less than 80 years. The lake is virtually a receptacle of domestic, agricultural and industrial waste, which flows in

from the Sutlej and the Beas. The other main reasons of the degradation are weed infestation, illegal fishing and siltation. As if all this was not enough, nearly 80 per cent of the open water surface got covered with water hyacinth and its 33 islands were hardly visible. This dreadful weed, in the shape of deceptive ornamental flowers, entered India from South America when a fascinated traveller brought it to plant in his garden. It eventually escaped from his garden and infested every possible water body throughout India. Water hyacinth breeds like a rabbit, covering every inch of a water body. It obstructs the flow of floodwater, raises the bed level by deposition of silt and enhances seepage losses. Fish population is as adversely affected as the space for migratory birds. Water hyacinth presently ranks as the world’s worst aquatic weed. Here is the horrendous profile of hyacinth: Weight of one plant of hyacinth—2.3 kg Weight of 1 sq. m— 27 kg. Weight of 100 sq.m—2.7 tonne Total weight of water hyacinth in the lake—350,000 tonnes Re-growth Factor: One plant doubles in a fortnight.

The most alarming threat to Harike is from water hyacinth. Interestingly, the Punjab government only recently woke up from its slumber and realised that Harike was a casualty of the negligence, ignorance and indifference of its half a dozen departments that were supposed to take care of it in the last two decades, at least. The Chief Minister, Parkash Singh Badal, considering the gravity of the water hyacinth threat in Harike, decided to approach the Army for help. He formally handed over the task to Vajra Corps in August 1999.

The Army took up this joint venture, Pilot Project Sahyog, as a challenge from day one. Lt-Gen. Kamal Daver, General Officer Commanding of the Vajra Corps assigned this job to Maj-Gen Lalit Tiwari, who was General Officer Commanding of the Golden Arrow Division stationed at Ferozepore. Gen. Tiwari went about the project meticulously. Not only did his men went about cleaning the lake of hyacinth on a war- footing, but his team also worked along with him on the Internet with every organisation involved in nature conservation to collect information and prepare a data base giving a wider perspective to the Harike project.

Maj.Gen Lalit Tiwari is a person obsessed with environment and nature. Recalling the operation, he says, "Initially, we were inspired by Lt.Gen. Vijay Oberoi, PVSM, AVSM, VSM. After his departure, on being appointed as the Vice-Chief of the Indian Army, Lt.Gen. Surjit Singh, PVSM, VSM, our new GOC-in-C of the Western Command took to the Harike project as a fish would take to water. We received enormous encouragement and we went about the project as our duty towards the nation."

He put his engineers on the challenging job of improvising high-tech machinery available abroad for the removal of hyacinth into cost-effective indigenous machinery. "Through a number of innovative methods, we succeeded in making dynamic booms, and winches etc. After the operation, we have placed static and dynamic booms at strategic points in the Harike Lake to hold back the floating mats of water hyacinth so that it doesn’t spread. At the end of six months of untiring labour by our team, we had opened four channels, which had got choked with silt over the years. We also planted 750 saplings of plants of two years of age on the island for birds to nest and roost in future."

Gurdwara controversy

in an unprecedented move, the Punjab Council of Ministers has transferred 104 kanals and 16 marlas worth crores belonging to the state irrigation department to a Gurdwara at Harike, at a throw away price of Rs 10,000 per acre! The gurdwara is located on the banks of the Harike Lake. It was built in October 1963, in the memory of Baba Ishar Singh of Nanaksar, whose body was immersed in the Harike Lake. At that time, the place was a jungle and had thick wild vegetation and undergrowth. No one objected and the construction continued. As per the memorandum on the subject submitted to the Council of Ministers, the place has a religious aura. It is visited by thousands of pilgrims and tourists. Through these years, the ashes of the family members of all the followers of Baba Ishar Singh continue to be immersed in the Harike Lake.This has also added to the pollution of the lake into which municipal and industrial wastes also flow.

However, it is claimed that the presence of the gurdwara has enabled many people in the adjoining villages to give up drugs and intoxicants and adopt a religious way of life.

The gurdwara is actually built in the village Talwandi Nepalan. The land was previously with the department of Wildlife and Bird Sanctuary (Forests). In November 1999, through a government gazette notification the land (106 kanals and 16 marlas) under the occupation of the gurdwara was taken out of the purview of the ownership of the Wildlife and Bird Sanctuary department. One of the conditions put on the transfer of the land to the gurdwara is that it will be the responsibility of the gurdwara management to seek clearance of the same from the ministry of environment and forests. Thus, the ball is now in the court of the said ministry, which is already in confrontation with the state government over the Anandgarh project as well as this gurdwara. Besides the notified land, the gurdwara management is also accused of having bulldozed more than one sq.km of land, which had housed rare birds and other species for over 50 years. This area is adjoining the gate of the gurdwara. The state government has asked the Deputy Commissioner of Ferozepore to inquire into the alleged encroachment of land by the gurdwara management. Meanwhile, it may be mentioned here that the gurdwara management had joined hands with the Army and done kar sewa to remove water hyacinth from the lake

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