Protecting waterbodies: Are we chocking India’s water vein?

By Subhrajyoti Karmakar*

Tapas Das is one of the front leaders who is fighting India’s water movement.

Tapas Das, a river and water body conservationist based out of Kolkata, is leading the fight to save natural water bodies in various parts of India. Grown in a joint family, the journey of Tapas Das began in 2007 when he travelled along the coastal line of India barefoot, starting from Ganga Sagar in West Bengal to Gujarat, covering multiple states. Although people’s language, food, and culture changed every 100 kilometers, the problem with using water seemed universal. He decided to become a part of resolving India’s water struggle by fighting the root cause. A country, which is water rich with rains and rivers, has to struggle with water at different corners. We see floods during monsoon and draughts in summers. Tapas Das believes the problem lies in the planning, as we create infrastructure without thinking much about mother nature.

Water is one of the basic necessities of humans, and Tapas Das started his movement based on rivers, called ‘Naadi Bachaao, Jiban Bachaao Andolan’ (Save River, Save Life Movement). In 2014, he came into prominence when he organized a cycle rally covering 2200 km from Gomukh to Gangasagar to protest against the construction of barrages at every 100 kilometres on the Ganges. Like most other environmentalists, he also believed that this would cut the chord of Ganges into several pieces and turn it into smaller lakes by blocking the natural course. India has more than 5000 large dams currently, which in many cases destroyed the natural flow of rivers and created phenomena like draughts and arsenic pollution. He led several conventions and brought together large masses to fight for the cause. In 2017, in the Mourigram Convention, his team led out a clear roadmap on tackling this issue and continued their fight to raise awareness across different stakeholders, including the government.

Das is also concerned with Bengal, his home state. West Bengal has always been one of the pioneers in agricultural productivity in the country due to the presence of several rivers and their tributaries. However, many places in Bengal is facing the wrath of water crisis and arsenic pollution through the last decade, as it has erected multiple dams and changed the natural flow by creating canals and channels. One of the trends which has picked momentum in the last 5-10 years has been the indiscriminate filling of ponds and lakes to create roads and houses. Recently, this trend has reached in the neighbourhood of Das at Behala (Kolkata), where the state government is filling some portions of the 22 km long Charial Khal (Charial Canal) for making roads. Charial is one of the oldest canals and has historical mentions during the rule of Jahangir (Mughal Emperor) and the British. It was renovated multiple times earlier and in a major overhaul, it was extended by 3 km in the 1980s. This canal is popular locally and helps in recharging groundwater for a vast area and providing cool winds.

Das thinks that the government’s thought process has always been for the short-term and without considering the adverse side effects of any development. He says, “India has been a signatory in the world forum against this kind of activities (filling of water bodies); but the kind of work that Kolkata Municipal Corporation is doing is a serious breach of such contracts. It only reflects the age-old British mindset of infrastructure building by harming nature.” He believes that such activities only call for greater confrontation with the activists, and he too is committed to fighting against this menace. Starting from organizing conventions, writing letters to the administration, and protesting, he is amassing voices against this filling. In a news portal called Ground Zero, he has also published an article to raise awareness.

The activities of Das has not only been limited to the urban centres but also have reached far fetched rural areas like Tapan, a village in the northern part of West Bengal. The village’s name is kept after the name of a large local lake named ‘Tapan Dighi’ (Dighi means lake in Bengali). The local administration is currently building a wall surrounding the lake. According to them, it is done for protecting the lake. Das says that this kind of logic is absurd and only creates a barrier between nature and humans. The erection of the wall will deprive the local community from using it for various purposes and restrict the natural phenomenon like gentle breeze over the lake and its aesthetic view. Tapas Das has been at the forefront of the movement and is raising awareness by bringing together the local community. From organizing street protests to building human chain, his team is leaving no stone unturned to increase awareness and bringing down the long wall.

Being a follower of Rabindranath Tagore and Gandhiji, Tapas Das believes we are moving away from nature by coming up with such projects. These projects are eating up the government’s financial resources and opening up a never-ending loop of investments required to protect them and secure the new group affected by the development. We have walked a long way with our development projects in the wrong direction. While we should have been developing infrastructure to protect the environment, we have only affected it for building such projects.

Tapas Das believes that he will be able to channel people’s sentiment against such activities and hopes that the new generation will join his cause to take the movement of conserving waterbodies forward.

*PGP-2, 2nd year, IIM Bangalore

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