River Conservation: How long can we ignore it?

This article by Harsh Agarwal* is based on a freewheeling conversation with river rights activist, Shri Tapas Das of the Nadi Bachao Jibon Bachao Andolan. During this conversation, Shri Das covered multiple aspects – from his cycle rallies, the ill-effects of river barrages, weak regulatory bodies to the lack of political intent, our lackadaisical approach to river conservation and his hope for the future

Shri Tapas Das runs the Nadi Bachao Jibon Bachao Andolan (Save Rivers, Save Life movement). Based out of Kolkata, Mr. Tapas has a unique way of organizing cycle rallies to raise awareness and garner support for the river conservation movement. One such rally in 2014 ran over 47 days as the activists covered 2200 kms distance from Gomukh till Gangasagar to protest the NaMo government’s plan of building barrages at every 100 kms on river Ganga.

Aviral Dhara, Nirmal Dhara: Continuous flow, Unpolluted flow

It is well accepted by experts now that barrage construction is detrimental for rivers and a major cause for siltation and flooding. During our conversation, Shri Tapas Das referred to the colossal damage caused by the now-infamous Farakka barrage in West Bengal. About 1/3rd of the district of Malda in WB, extending both upstream and downstream of the Farakka barrage has become flood pronei.

Farakka Barrage has also led to arsenic poisoning. Earlier, when the Farakka barrage was not built, Ganga used to flow through Padma to Bangladesh and distributaries like the Jhalangi would recharge the groundwater. However, building Farakka and taking water to Hooghly river through feeder canals has caused the drying up of these distributary rivers. As a result, when the groundwater is not recharged, the poisonous arsenic rises to the surface causing arsenic poisoning.

While the aviral (continuous) flow of rivers is disrupted through such barrages and dams, the nirmalta (purity) is taken away, thanks to the discharge of sewage into our rivers. Zero discharge policy has long been the demand of river activists to prevent contamination of river bodies. Swami Shri Gyan Swaroop Sanand, alias Prof. GD Agarwal, succumbed during his 6th fast in 2018 protesting, against the discharge of sewage into river Ganga, among other things.

Highlighting the importance of the zero-discharge policy, Shri Tapas Das draws our attention to how our rivers have come alive during the ongoing pandemic thanks to shut industries. If a few weeks of lockdown can bring back dolphinsii after 30 years, imagine the impact we can create by eliminating sewage discharge!

Who will bell the cat!

A key question that comes to mind is why cant we enforce strict regulations to eliminate sewage discharge. Shri Das answers that by highlighting how inadequately resourceful our pollution control boards are, versus their global counterparts.

For instance, the US Environment Protection Agency (EPA) acts as an independent and autonomous body, has a budget of around US$8 billion and employs around 14,000 full-time equivalents. The US EPA cuts through the bureaucratic red-tape and reports directly to the US president.

Compare that to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) in India which functions with 500 employees and an annual budget of ~US$5.6 million. The State Pollution Control Boards (SPCBs) in India are highly resource constrained and under-staffed. A scientist B officer at an SPCB, for instance, must look after multiple issues simultaneously discouraging specialization and focus. Add to it the administrative issues of paperwork, litigation etc. and the situation looks even more dim.

An article (“Crises plaguing state pollution control boards”iii) by Hardik Siroha highlights how SPCBs also have to deal with unrelated activities:

Haryana State Pollution Control Board (HSPCB) has poultry farms under its ambit, although the consent policy of the board — dated February 26, 2018 only covers poultry farms with more than 100,000 birds (that too in the White category, where no permission or no objection certificate from the board is needed).

Such complaints — because of a notification by the department of environment and climate change — on grievance portals are assigned to the board.

This results in a paradox where engineers and scientists — who do not have a degree in veterinary sciences or animal husbandry — have to look into the efficient functioning of poultry farms.”

This sentiment is also shared by the former CPCB chairperson who during an interviewiv mentioned, “We have set up a pollution control board without any teeth. All I can do is write 50 to 60 letters of complaints every day”.

With our pollution control boards, restricted to data collection with little real powers, the poor state of environment in India doesn’t look that impossible.

Is it right to shift the blame on politicians on the dire state of our rivers?

The answer is both yes and no!

The first Ganga Action Plan (GAP-I) was launched in 1986 by the Rajiv Gandhi government. 10 prime-ministers from all major parties including BJP, INC and JD have held office since GAP-I. During these 34 years, INR 4,800 crores – up from INR 250 crores budgeted in GAP-I – has been spent on river conservation initiatives and the situation is still worse than ever. This clearly highlights how the governments have been particularly inefficient in their approach and have tried to tame the issue with new ministries and more money. Even the 2019 national elections saw the major parties promising New Water Ministries in their manifestos to combat the problem. And even the few environmental issues which made it to the manifestos, were relegated to the periphery rather than being core issues.

But then, the political parties, at least during election years, manifest the aspirations of the people, right? So, in a sense, it is our failure that the politicians can get away with anything when it comes to environment conservation.

In the words of Shri Das, we identify ourselves based on our religion, caste or occupation and have associations catering to those needs, say Worker Union, Farmer unions etc. These bodies wield significant influence during elections. But have we come across any association for environment rights which is given prominence during elections? We haven’t and that’s because we don’t identify ourselves with the environment and take it for granted. What we fail to realise is that the things we attach importance to today will be of no significance when there is no environment.

Shri Tapas Das is hopeful that the situation will improve when we, the people, start associating our identity with our rivers. The change is visible, at least in pockets, in villages like Bori Budruk in Maharashtra where its people are on a mission to preserve a unique geomorphological feature on the bed of the river Kukadi that runs past their village.v

It’s only a matter of time before we all realise that we can save lives only when we save our rivers.

*2nd year student at IIM Ahmedabad


i “Is Farakka Barrage Responsible for Arsenic Poisoning?” published in Ganga Today on October 30, 2019. Retrieved from https://gangatoday.com/articles/273-farakka-arsenic-poisoning.html

ii “Lockdown effect: Gangetic dolphins spotted at Kolkata ghats after 30 years” published in Times Travel on 25th April 2020. Retrieved from https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/travel/things-to-do/lockdown-effect-gangetic-dolphins-spotted-at-kolkata-ghats-after-30-years/as75375783.cms

iii “Crises plaguing state pollution control boards” by Hardik Siroha published in Down to Earth on 16th March 2020. Retrieved from https://www.downtoearth.org.in/blog/governance/crises-plaguing-state-pollution-control-boards-69780

iv “We have set up a toothless pollution control board” Interview between Anju Sharma and the CPCB chairperson D K Biswas published in Down To Earth on 4th July 2015. Retrieved from https://www.downtoearth.org.in/interviews/we-have-set-up-a-toothless-pollution-control-board-27006

v “Story of a river bed, a geological marvel and community pride” by Manjula Nair, published in Mongabay on 10th December 2020. Retrieved from https://india.mongabay.com/2020/12/story-of-a-river-bed-a-geological-marvel-and-community-pride/

Note: Shri Tapas Das writes on River Bangla (http://riverbangla.com/?author=11)

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