Forest officials and environmental experts have been batting to conserve the lake for several years now, and argue that its environs need a higher degree of protection for its rich avian ecosystem, which could be lost without it.
A survey of the area and species found in the waterbody was carried out in May.
“A 50-acre area around the lake has been surveyed that has the potential to be demarcated as a bird sanctuary. It is extremely crucial to protect this wetland in order to conserve both its biodiversity as well as its ecological significance. This is one of the only rich wetlands in the city that has the potential to help raise the groundwater level of west Delhi areas such as Dwarka, which are mostly parched,” said a senior official, who did not wish to be named.
The lake is located in a natural depression in southwest Delhi, close to the Gurugram-Rajokri border on National Highway-48. It is fed by the Najafgarh drain, which has a sizeable catchment area in Gurugram. A portion of the lake falls in Haryana.
There are a number of bird sanctuaries around Delhi, including Okhla (under the Uttar Pradesh administration), Bhindawas bird sanctuary in Jhajjar (Haryana) and Sultanpur national park, essentially a bird sanctuary on the Gurugram-Jhajjar highway.
A sanctuary declared under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 is a green place reserved exclusively for wildlife — birds, mammals, reptiles, and insects. It provides protection from any encroachment or development activities surrounding the area while allowing favourable conditions for the wildlife within it.
Birders say that Najafgarh, with its long stretch flowing from Haryana to Delhi, has a greater number of birds than Sultanpur or Okhla bird sanctuaries.
“There is no other place in the Delhi-Haryana region except for Najafgarh where one can find such a large number of greater flamingoes. Also, it is the only place where they have been found trying to build nests. However, with an uncontrolled volume of water being released, the nests often get destroyed every monsoon. It has a large number of common cranes not found in many places in and around Delhi,” said birder Pankaj Gupta.
He also said that Najafgarh along with Basai, Sultanpur and Bhindawas forms a wetland complex where there is the most bird movement. Amid these are a number of unprotected wetlands, which have a lot of birds too. “Making it a sanctuary will help strengthen this wetland complex and hence the movement of birds,”
In a preliminary survey, the forest department with the help of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) has prepared a checklist of over 300 bird species (both migratory and resident birds) that are found in the wetland. This includes more than 15 species that are red-listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
“Once finalised, the proposal will be sent to the Delhi government for consideration. The proposal also considers the area to be developed as an eco-tourism site that may also help boost the local economy,” the official said.
So far the lake is not a protected water body or wetland area either under the Delhi government or the Haryana government. In 2019, Delhi government’s wetland authority following an order of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) asked the concerned departments to carry out an extended survey of the area and formulate a plan to notify the area as a wetland under the Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2017. The new wetland conservation rules prohibit the setting up or expansion of industries and the disposal of construction and demolition waste in a wetland.
The Delhi government had set up an expert committee to create a plan for the restoration and protection of the lake. “The environment management plan has been sent and is at present with the Union environment ministry for consideration,” said a Delhi government official requesting anonymity. Haryana is yet to submit its plan for the same, the official added.
However, officials and experts believe that mere notification of the area as a wetland won’t do: it needs a sanctuary status for more stringent protection rules.
Sohail Madan, an ecologist and centre manager of the BNHS’s Conservation Education Centre at the Asola wildlife sanctuary, said that Najafgarh jheel is a very important wetland for Delhi and its surrounding areas. Of all the migratory birds coming to Delhi, a huge percentage comes to this area. “It is an important habitat for predatory birds such as marsh harriers, Indian spotted eagle and peregrine falcons, among others. Apart from biodiversity, it’s an ecologically important site for groundwater recharge and hydrology of Delhi. But due to so many concerns and stakeholders, the project never takes off. I hope that in this instance, it’s successful,” said Madan.
Citing an example of a lost wetland, he said the Basai wetland in neighbouring Gurugram was lost to the construction of a highway and housing colonies.
Manu Bhatnagar, principal director, natural heritage division of Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, said that if any area is declared as a sanctuary, it automatically comes under the purview of the Wildlife Protection Act, which has far stringent rules against encroachment or construction than those applied to a notified wetland.
“The Najafgarh lake certainly requires this degree of protection. Once it’s declared a sanctuary it would imply that the environmental impact assessment requirements of new development interventions here and in the vicinity will change. It would also mean the place will have layers of protection in terms of a buffer zone, a core region (where visitors are not allowed) as well as prescribed limits for sound and the use of lights,” he said.