Saving Rabindra Sarobar – An Oasis in the City of Kolkata
A focus on the RabindraSarobar Lake in Kolkata, its ecological importance and the present challenges it faces.
“A Lake is the most beautiful and expressive feature of a landscape. It is often described as the Eye of the Earth and rightly so.”
Smt. Pratibha Devi Singh Patil (Her Excellency, Former President of India)
Winter is that time of the year when there is a nip in the air – the perfect time when many migratory birds come and spend the winter in India from the western extremities of their ranges to restock on their food supply and raise their little ones.
Ducks swim freely in the RabindraSarobar Lake, Kolkata [Photo: Author’s own click]
The city of Kolkata, the capital West Bengal, is a populous city and plagued with an unbalanced population growth, a regular pressure of migrant workers from rural areas, towns and adjacent states and most importantly industrial and vehicular pollution. Of the innumerable water bodies scattered around the city, the Rabindra Sarobar Lake (previously called Dhakuria Lake), a lake of National Importance and the second largest water body (an artificial lake) in Kolkata, is situated in the southern part of the cityscape, within the roars and hustle-bustle of this busy and pollutant – ridden city. The Lake is surrounded by the Southern Avenue to the North, Russa Road to the West, Dhakuria to the East, and the Kolkata Sub-urban Railway track to the South. Around 38% of the total 192 acres area, 73 acres constitutes the water body while the residual area (119 acres) comprises of varieties of floral species some of which are century old.
It is truly an oasis with its spacious pedestrian walks, and immense floral and faunal diversity. The lake serves as an important accessory lung, which provides a natural carbon-dioxide sink of the metropolitan city, apart from its pristine beauty and aesthetic value. A major environmental reserve with huge amenity and recreational value, the lake ecosystem plays a role in urban ecology and societal benefit and also serves as a suitable habitat for a variety of amphibians, fishes, reptiles, waterfowls and migratory birds. Considering its importance, the lake was declared as a “National Lake” in 1997, under the National Lake Conservation Programme of the Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change
A Painted Stork along with a pack of cormorants on the island of RabindraSarobar Lake [Photo: Author’s own click]
However, due to the unfortunate and poor management of the lake and its adjoining premises, lack of education and awareness and severe anthropogenic pressures, the lake is showing signs of rapid degradation in terms of its fragile aquatic ecosystem and local environment. The pressures of increased human activities have led to the deterioration of the environmental components especially the lake’s water quality.
A cable-stayed bridge, constructed by Burn & Co. in 1926, at the RabindraSarobar Lake, Kolkata [Photo: Author’s own click]
Rabindra Sarobar remains one of the most poorly documented areas of Kolkata and information about its history is incompletely known. As per various sources, once upon a time, Tigers used to roam freely in the present Lake area. The Southern Avenue was an isolated narrow stretch of road which was dreaded by bullock-carts. The Gariahaat was in Garia and the road from now Gariahat crossing to Garia was lined by dense forest cover. The Dhakuria Lake was originally a large swamp, “shrouded with miasmatic mists and malarious marshy jungles”.
In the early 1920s, The Calcutta Improvement Trust (CIT) decided to take over the entire area, beautify it, build roads, and develop the area for habitation. The Lake was excavated under the leadership of Cecil Henry Bompass and initially named as “Bompass Lake”. There were four islands in the lake, one of which houses a Mosque. During the lake excavations, three cannons were unearthed, which are presently displayed on the southern part of the lake. These cannons are thought to have been left behind by Siraj-ud-Daulah’s army after the seizure of Calcutta (1756-1757).
In 1958, The Lake was named as Rabindra Sarobar, in the honour of legendary Bengali poet and Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore.
The cannons displayed on the southern part of the lake [Photo:Deepanjan Ghosh]
Statue of Rabindranath Tagore at RabindraSarobar Lake
Landmarks in the Lake area:
Today, the Lake and its surrounding areas are one of the most populous recreational areas in the city of Kolkata.
- The Lake Mosque is the only example of a mosque in the middle of a lake in the city of Kolkata. In 1926, a cable-stayed bridge was constructed by Burn & Co. connecting the island with the Lake Mosque to the western shore.
- The only Japanese Buddhist temple in Kolkata is located on the southern fringe of Rabindra Sarobar. It was established in 1935 by Nichidatsu Fujii, founder of the worldwide Buddhist association, the Nipponzan Myohoji.
- In 1960, the construction of a 26,000 capacity football stadium began at the North-West corner of the lake area (Rabindra Sarobar Stadium).
- In 1980, the construction of a 3,500 capacity Open Air Theatre began, which were recently (in 1991) converted to a closed auditorium and named Nazrul Mancha.
- A number of rowing and swimming clubs are situated within the Sarobar area – The Calcutta Rowing Club, The Bengal Rowing Club, The Lake Club etc.
- In 2012, an abandoned waterhouse in the lake premises was turned into a museum by the CIT/KIT, locally called as ‘Thakur-der-gallery’ – a place for some of the award-winning Durga Idols of Kolkata.
The Bridge, Lake Mosque and the RabindraSarobar Stadium
The only Japanese Buddhist temple in Kolkata
An award winning Durga idol displayed at the ‘Thakur-der-gallery’
Today, the RabindraSarobar Lake and its surrounding areas are one of the most popular recreational areas in the city. A number of people come for a walk around the lake in the mornings to enjoy the fresh air. During the day, it is visited by families for picnic, tourists, young lovers and joggers. The moment one enters the lake area, one can feel the calmness, tranquility, and peace with the cool air breeze sweeping the area briskly, which makes the place “uniquely wonderful”.
The transition of the RabindraSarobar Lakes, from marshy jungles to its present-day condition, was done under the supervision of the Calcutta Horticultural Society. During the lake excavations, some blocks of earth which were left undisturbed in the centre of the lake, were raised and planted with trees and flowering shrubs. These earth blocks are now islands, and are extremely attractive features of the lake. As per studies on the flora of RabindraSarobar, it was found that in the present time nearly 366 species of terrestrial vascular plants and around 7,000 trees are found in the Lake premises. Some parts of the lake have emergent and floating vegetation like Lotus and other vascular plants. Some medicinal plants like Aegle marmelos, Aloe vera, Azadirachta indica etc were also documented within the lake premises. Diversity of species over a small area is the indicator of good environmental health of the place. The floral wealth and undisturbed habitat are very much required for the species diversity. The dense canopy of the trees is very much essential for the ecological security of the city and the development of the lake area as the lungs of South Kolkata.
The islands on the lake, the nesting sites of migratory birds
Floating vegetation on the lakes[Photo: Collected from Google]
“O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing”
– La Belle sans Merci (John Keats)
The Lake is a birder’s paradise and attracts myriad of migratory and native species of birds. However, the administration’s efforts to beautify the long- neglected lakes, islets and shores have taken away almost hundred years of solitude for the birds that flock to the lake in high numbers and multiply in the area. At least 107 species of resident and migratory birds are sighted in RabindraSarobar Lake. The reason behind the choice of birds for visiting this lake, surrounded by skyscrapers is unknown but nevertheless, the Lake and its islands are home to several varieties of migratory birds every winter.Crow-billed Drongo, flycatchers, warblers are among the winter birds that flock to the lake. The migratory bird list (as per different reports) includes – cotton pygmy goose (found in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh), large-billed leaf warbler (breeds in Central China and Himalayas), Tickell’s leaf warbler (found in many parts of Asia), black-headed cuckoo shrike (parts of India and South-East Asia), Asian subtail, and different varieties of flycatchers. The islands in the lake are home to several birds like the Painted Storks and the peace – loving cormorants. The Trans-Himalayan migrants that have been spotted at Sarobar are Taiga Flycathcher and Blyth’s reed warbler. Apart from the migratory birds, the common birds which are found in the Lake include:
· Eurasian Golden Oriole
· Blue-throated Barbet
· Coppersmith Barbet
· Oriental Magpie Robin
· Black Drongo
· White-cattle Egrets
· Pond Herons
· Rose-ringed Parakeet
· Pied Starling
· Asian Koel
· Indian Pitta
· House Sparrow
· Jungle Myna
· Rufous treepie
· Red vented Bulbul …. And many more.
Painted Stork (Mycterialeucocephala) Greater Cormorant (Phalacrocoraxcarbo)
 Rose-ringed Parakeet (Psittaculakrameri)  Indian Pitta (Pitta brachyura)
Blue-throated barbet (Megalaimaasiatica)  Coppersmith barbet (Megalaimahaemacephala)
Asian Pied Starling (Gracupica contra)  AsianKoel (female) (Eudynamysscolopaceus)
 White Wagtail (Motacillaalba)  Chestnut-tailed Starling (Sturniamalabarica)
- Photos: [1, 2, 8] : Photographed by Souvik Sarkar
- Photos: [4, 5] : Photographed by RounakPatra
- Photos: [6, 9, 10] : Photographed by Sourav Debnath
- Photos: [3, 7] : Photographed by Diptarka Ghosh (Author)
Birds are considered excellent bio-indicators of the effects, urbanization has on the ecosystem. Besides, birds are also identified as indicators of aquatic and terrestrial habitat quality and the study of the avifaunal diversity of a region is very important to assess the impacts of environmental change on its biodiversity resources.
Apart from the avifaunal diversity, RabindraSarobar is a home to an amazing diversity of invertebrates – mainly insects. Insects belonging to orders- Hemiptera (Bugs), Coleoptera (Beetles), Lepidoptera (Butterflies) and Hymenoptera (Ants) have been recorded in many studies. The Lake is also rich in Vertebrate faunal diversity including – many varieties of Pisces (fishes), Amphibians, Reptiles and Mammals (Five-Striped Palm Squirrel, Common Palm Civet and Indian Grey Mongoose).
Five-Stripped Palm Squirrel (Funambuluspennantii) Common Castor (Ariadne merione)[Photo: Sourav Debnath]
Thus, it is clearly evident from the above data, that the RabindraSarobar Lake is inhabited by diversified floral and faunal components and is a biodiversity-rich area in the concrete jungle of Kolkata.
Causes of Concern:
Degrading Water Quality:
The signs of water pollution and environmental degradation of the RabindraSarobar Lakes have been evident for long, more recently the imperative of saving the lakes from the misguided beautification and the perils of urbanization. The water quality of the lake has deteriorated so much so as to cause some serious disturbances to the biodiversity of the lake. Due to encroachment, the lake has shrunk beyond recognition and is heavily polluted as large numbers of people are using its waters for washing and bathing purposes daily.The unrestricted growth of aquatic vegetation transforming into thick floating vegetative mat along with receding water level at several edges and corners of the lake has been a common problem.However, the authorities in charge of the lake do not take enough initiatives to clean and remove the vegetation regularly. As a consequence, a significant part of the lake, particularly along the edge of the shore has accumulated huge vegetation mats trapping a large quantity of floating garbage and slowly deteriorating the water quality of the lake. Growth of water hyacinth (Eichhorniacrassipes) has resulted in bleaching of oxygen causing harm to fishes.
Several reports and research articles published in recent years have supported this indicating high load of pathogenic bacteria in the water, poor biological and biochemical oxygen demands, increase in alkalinity and turbidity to mention only a handful of detrimental water quality parameters. The high pathogenic load in the water has been attributed to direct mixing of animal and human wastes into the lake water promoting eutrophication as well as high loads solid organic matter in the water. Furthermore, non-biodegradable items like plastic bottles, cups and packets and the practice of idol immersions by indiscriminate dumping of different idols as part of the Hindu celebration and rituals directly into the lake water has been another important causal factor contributing to serious water pollution through the leaching of synthetic lead based paints from immersed idols into the water body. In addition the putrefaction of the water due to dumping of flowers, fruits and different synthetic materials associated in the manufacture of the idols causing long term environmental damages to the aquatic ecosystem.
One of the distinguishing characteristics of the lake is the abundance of swimming pools and rowing clubs on the periphery since colonial times. None of these clubs however have any wastewater treatment plant and the entire release from these busy hubs of urban entertainment drain into the lake. Illegal construction and encroachment of the lake by one of the private clubs have been going on continuously.
The lake bed near the shore is dotted with empty packets of chips, gutkha and plastic water bottles discarded in the water by the public who come to the lake, and the inability of the local administration in controlling the rampant and unregulated entry of hawkers into the lake arena.
Death of Fishes was reported in the polluted Lake waters[Photo: Times of India]
Chhath Puja Menace:
Thousands of devotees have been performing the Chhath Puja rituals in the RabindraSarobar Lake, flouting the National Green Tribunal (NGT) ban on ‘any puja, community picnic and religious ceremonies in and around the RabindraSarobar Lakes.’ As noted by environmentalists, due to this Chhath Puja, the lakes face immense damage to the flora and fauna from mass bathing, offering of flowers, leaves, ghee and oil, bursting of crackers throughout the night in celebrations and entertainment in the form of loud music.
Chhath Puja at RabindraSarobar Lake[Photo: Times of India]
The destruction of biodiversity:
The alarming level of water pollution was confirmed about a year back when morning walkers were shocked by hundreds of dead fish floating on the surface of the water. Researchers said that this was most likely caused by the plummeting levels of oxygen in water. There has been no dredging of the lake, since its excavation and due to unrestricted dumping of untreated sewage, mass decimation of the aquatic species has occurred. Due to the frequent rowing events organized by the clubs, there has been a drop in the number of avian visitors to the lake. The strong light and noise from various events in the lake premises has been a cause of concern for the birds. Due to denudation of trees and soil, the migratory birds gave the islands a miss last winter. No painted stork visited the lakes as there was no nesting site. The lead, mixed in the fuel, and other obnoxious gases and particles of the vehicular exhausts pollutethe area which might have adverse effect on the faunal wealth of that place,particularly on the soil dwellers.
Rowing events – a problem for the lake birds
The beautification drive by the Kolkata Improvement Trust (KIT) includes creation of concretised pathways and sitting areas and installation of decorative lights along the shores of the lake. The concretised pathways that runs close to the water edge, has serious implications on the water quality and overall aquatic biodiversity. Due to the cementing of the bases of the trees in the lake premises, the roots of many trees have inadequate soil and water – leading to gradual weakening of roots and consequent withering of the trees.
Concretization has led to weakening of roots and withering of trees[Photo:Collected from Facebook]
Events at RabindraSarobar Stadium:
The RabindraSarobar Stadium, adjoining the Lakes has become a venue for the Indian Super League Football matches in the city. Environmentalists feared that the matches held at the stadium would cause disturbance to the adjoining Sarobar Lake’s, ‘eco-sensitive zone’. The intense lights and the use of high-powered speakers and fireworks are extremely hazardous for the local ecosystem. The National Green Tribunal has allowed the matches in the Stadium to be held on schedule, on the condition that “the organisers limit themselves to playing only the National Anthem and the theme song of the tournament.”
The National Green Tribunal Orders displayed at the Lake
One of the biggest nuisances within the lake premise has been the unrestricted access to the lake and the natural resources by the local slum dwellers. These poor communities have developed their slums over decades illegally along the edge of the lake on railways and government land through encroachment. The people living in these slums are severely dependent on the lake water and adjoining resources for their daily sustenance, which includes regular use of lake waterfor washing clothes and utensils, illegal bathing, collecting lake water, catching the fishes in the lake, defecation along the edges of the lake premises, using water for washing of different vehicles and indiscriminately dumping waste into this majestic water body.Several incidents of mugging, snatching and harassments of ordinary visitors and helpless tourists by local goons have appeared in the local newspapers due to lack of sufficient street lights and security lapses.
Illegal construction and encroachment of the lake by one of the private clubs[Photo:Somendramohan Ghosh]
The RabindraSarobar Lake and its surrounding area, play a very important role in maintaining the ecological balance of the city of Kolkata. The environmental imbalance that has occurred in the Lake area deserves special consideration and steps have to be taken by the Government authorities to control the situation and to restore the original ambience as well as aquatic and terrestrial biodiversity of the Sarobar area.
1. There must be regular awareness programmes in the RabindraSarovar area to educate people and make them aware about nature, plants, animals and biodiversity.
2. The area must be developed with more trees and wild indigenous fruit trees that have a large canopy must be introduced to give shelter and food for the small animals and birds. By conserving plant diversity around RabindraSarobar, the variety of insect life will also be conserved.
3. The islands in the middle of the lake should be free from all sorts of developmental activities, as they are vital nesting habitats of many water-birds as well as many migratory birds that visit the lakes. The bottom of the lake should be cleaned of garbage and pollutants as the lake water is vital for the survival of aquatic animals like turtles, amphibians and fishes.
4. Sewage should be strictly discharged into underground drainage line of the municipality. Any sewage or garbage generated in clubs and/or in other areas should never be discharged /deposited in the lakes.
5. Anthropogenic activities in the lake area should be restricted.
6. The KIT and other Government authorities must make people (who practice Chhat puja in the lake premises) aware of the problems resulting from Chhath Puja in the lakes.
7. The restoration measures planned for the lake include in-situ treatment through bioremediation using “Continuous Laminar Flow Inversion + Oxygenation” and introduction of indigenous fish for controlling mosquitoes. Other measures include the improvement of drainage and sanitation in the surrounding areas, shoreline protection by bamboo piling and improvement of aesthetics.
The importance of the RabindraSarobar Lakes cannot be overstated. Lack of education, awareness and sensitivity towards the local ecology and environment has contributed towards the lack of apathy in conserving it efficiently. We must also keep in mind that the eco-system in and around the lake is fragile and any irresponsible behavior can lead to irreparable damage. Several nongovernment organizations, prominent citizens, ecologists, environmental and wildlife enthusiast, bird watchers, botanical and environmental societies have come close to develop a common platform to protect the local ecosystem and environment and raise awareness. It is hoped that the Government agencies and the citizens will come forward to restore the floral and faunal wealth,as well as the virginity of the environment which is beneficial for thepopulous metropolitan city of Kolkata.
Serene Beauty [Photo:RounakPatra]
1. ChaudhuriSukanta – Calcutta : The Living City
2. Calcutta – the Concrete Paparazzi –Lake Mosque (Deepanjan Ghosh)
3. EIA Report of RabindraSarobar, Kolkata – Published by West Bengal Pollution Control Board, June 2018.
5. Ghosh, SN, Sheela S, Kundu BG. 2005. Ants (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) of RabindraSarovar, Kolkata. Records Zoological Survey of India (Occasional Paper No. 234). p. 1-40.
6. Grimmett R, Inskipp C and Inskipp T. 2011. Birds of the Indian subcontinent. 2nd Edition. Christopher Helm & Oxford University Press, New Delhi. 528 p.
The article would not have been possible without my short birding trips along with my friends Souvik Sarkar, Sourav Debnath and Anindita Banerjee at the RabindraSarobar Lake, which helped me to discover and know about the beauty of the place more intently. Thanks are also due to my brother RounakPatra for his beautiful photographs.