The miracle, east of Calcutta

The Other Wealth (63 mins, directed by Sudipto Sen), described by its producer, Mise-en-Scene, as "a tale of magic wetlands, its people and their technology", is about an outstanding example of waste water and solid water recycling.

But a distracting technique, of long sequences without commentary or music, goes against the tale. In today's fast-moving world, well-known cinematographer and editor Nilotpal Majumdar expects the lay viewer to draw meaning from completely pedestrian shots of the squalor of a Calcutta marketplace, or the greenery of the wetlands, 3 minutes per go, without telling us the point of it all.

Cutting through the exasperating silences, one does find a story worth remembering. It is about the wetland region to the east of Calcutta, where poor and simple folk have worked the miracle of the world's largest integrated resource recovery practice, combining agriculture and aquaculture to use the wastewater nutrients of Calcutta, one of the filthiest cities in the world.

While sanitary engineers and scientists were cynically involved in "sewage treatment", technical adviser Dr Dhrubajyoti Ghosh tells us, ordinary people were able to prove that sewage -- and they get 150 million gallons of it a day -- is not a pollutant but a resource. They have used storage instead of drainage as a solution for waterlogging. Sewage flows into fish ponds which filter the dirt before it reaches agricultural fields. In this manner, the city of Calcutta gets 150 tonnes of green vegetables and 20 tonnes of fish every day. The wetlands not only improve the city's immediate environment but provide employment at 2 persons per hectare. A highly-polluted city like Calcutta desperately needs such huge, open tracts which can improve its air quality and act as a retention basin to reduce the chances of city flooding. As such, there is no doubt that wetlands form an extremely viable ecosystem, which is why it has achieved international acclaim.

Yet Calcutta does not care and regards the inhabitants of the wetlands as "aliens". Due to encroachment by land developers, the area has already shrunk from 7,290 ha in 1980, when UNEP recognised its ecological significance, to about 2,633 ha now. A decreasing supply of water and an absence of management inputs also portend a losing battle for the villagers.