Representative: A pair of rose-ringed parakeets. Photo: archer10/Flickr, CC BY 2.0
- Informal estimates suggest more than 2,500 birds have died of unnatural causes in Faridkot since 2016.
- According to environmentalists, the birds usually die just before or during the monsoons.
- The National Green Tribunal has directed the wildlife warden of Punjab to organise an inquiry.
Punjab’s former princely state, Faridkot, has over a thousand jamun and mango trees that are very old and produce fruits every summer that are a feast for birds. But birds have been dying after eating the fruits, due to the extensive use of illegal chemical sprays on the trees, claim local birdwatchers.
“In the last five years, over 2500 birds, mostly parrots, have died after feeding on these trees,” estimated Shankar Sharma, a Faridkot-based birdwatcher. About 400 deaths were reported last month (June 2021) alone, when dead birds were spotted in the compound of the deputy commissioner’s office, which has a vast number of jamun trees, Sharma informed.
“To begin with, those that died were parrots (referring to parakeets found in the area) and sparrows but later we found dead pigeons, herons (baglas), and even eagles and peacocks, too,” he said.
“We first noticed the deaths in the summer of 2017. Since then it has been a yearly trend and there were no concrete steps to prevent it. The local authorities collect the dead birds whenever they find them and dispose of them quietly so that no one questions them,” alleged Sharma.
The overall number of birds that have died is feared to be much higher, said Sharma. “We have inside information that workers of the contractors dumped a large number [of] dead birds without bringing it to the knowledge of local authorities and general public,” he added. When the contractors spray on the trees, public entry is prohibited for a few days. This is the time when they get a chance to bury the dead birds without the knowledge of general public. “We demand that a thorough inquiry is needed to find the truth,” he said.
Faridkot has a large population of domestic as well as migratory birds. “The reason for this is that Harike wetland is close by,” informed Sharma.
Petition in NGT
Chandigarh-based social activist and advocate H.C. Arora has filed a petition in the National Green Tribunal (NGT), on behalf of birdwatchers in Faridkot. The petition states that the heavy use of pesticides and other chemicals on trees is to be blamed for the deaths of birds on such a large scale.
As per the petition, there are 1,000 jamun trees in and around Faridkot on government land. Apart from jamun, there are a large number of mango trees and kinnow (a mandarin hybrid) trees. They are leased out every year on auction, but authorities have so far turned a blind eye on the contractors illegally using poisonous sprays on the trees to ripen fruits early to get the maximum yield.
Due to the spraying, parrots (parakeets), doves, sparrows and many other birds have been dying in huge numbers, states the petition. Further, at the site where dead birds were found, an empty envelope of pesticides was found. Challenging the claims of the local administration that these birds might have died during a storm, the petition states that these dead birds were found near or under fruit trees, proving that the deaths are related to the poisonous sprays on the trees.
Shankar Sharma, who has been healing the injured and ill birds for over 10 years, said that the mortality rate of birds in Faridkot is extremely high.
“We spoke to a hired contractor about why he makes sprays that cause the killing of birds. He argues that they have to recover the cost of the lease amount and earn some profit as well,” said Sharma. Most of the trees are old, and as they grow older, the ripening of fruits slow down, forcing the contractors to use sprays to fasten the ripening process, said Sharma.
He said the maximum lease value of these trees is not more than Rs 3 lakh per year, but the local authorities deliberately lease them out at twice the amount. The birds here will continue to die unless the local administration steps in and starts stopping the illegal activities by the contractors, he said.
“To our surprise, the contractor who was awarded the contract has sublet the contract, and main contractor has been unreachable ever since we moved NGT and got the matter highlighted,” said Sharma.
He added, “The authorities must realize that birds are important to be saved as they play an important role in our ecosystem. But sadly, there is a very low level of sensitivity among officers towards preserving nature.”
NGT orders probe
Arora told Mongabay-India that their petition before NGT sought direction to prevent the death of parrots and other birds in Faridkot and NGT has admitted their plea by ordering a probe.
Passing the order on July 9, the NGT bench stated that according to the applicant, such deaths have been taking place every year since 2017, and duly published in the media, but no remedial action is taken. This adversely affects the ecosystem.
“From the material filed, it is difficult to give a clear finding as to why the death of parrots is taking place. However, the reason for the death of such a large number of birds may need to be looked into. Accordingly, we direct Chief Wildlife Warden, Punjab in coordination with Environment Department or any other Expert, to look into the matter and take remedial action in the matter,” reads the NGT order.
Punjab’s Chief Wildlife Warden R.K. Mishra told Mongabay-India that after the NGT order, he wrote to the environment department and asked them to constitute a committee. A committee, as per the latest update, has been constituted. They will soon visit the place and submit a report.
Mishra said that prima facie, the deaths of birds are feared to have taken place due to the overuse of pesticides on the fruit-bearing trees. “But I can’t give exact cause until the inquiry is complete,” he added.
The petitioner H.C. Arora said that though NGT order does not give a time frame to conclude the probe, it must be done on priority and with the right mindset.
“There are numerous papers and studies that confirm that the use of pesticides and other chemicals on fruit trees, where birds often feed and make their home, is fatal for them. The birds are a hundred times more sensitive to these chemicals than mammals. It is estimated that over 60 million birds die annually in the US due to pesticides and other chemical exposure but there is not such study here in India, where the use of such substances is much higher,” said Arora.
Meanwhile, there is also a parallel inquiry being undertaken by the Faridkot deputy commissioner under the sub-divisional magistrate. But birdwatchers have alleged that the committee has not taken samples of the dead birds, or of trees so far.
“The SDM-led inquiry appears to be an eyewash. Let’s see what comes out in the wildlife warden’s constituted committee. The more they delay the probe, the more it will be difficult to get a right sampling, whether of trees or of dead birds,” said Sharma.
This article was first published by Mongabay-India and has been republished here under a Creative Commons license.