By Tenzing Choppel Gensapa*
“Where there is a sufficient social movement of self-reliant communities, there can be political change. There must be political change.” — Jerry Brown
“Save River, Save Life,” a slogan borne by Shri Tapas Das, a social activist dedicated to river and water body conservation, started his journey in 2007 and has marched on ever since. The message is simple, and it should be so, for it is but an earnest request to all to save our rivers and consequently save our culture, livelihood, and ultimately life. Converted into Bengali, Shri Das’s mother tongue, the “Nadi Bachao Jibon Bachao Andolan” seeks to inspire and involve the people of India in this effort. I had the fortune to talk to Shri Das, who allotted me some time from his busy schedule to talk to me and made writing this article possible.
Civilization has grown around rivers and water bodies, from the Mesopotamian to the Indus Valley and Harappan Civilizations. Sentiments of the Indians are connected with rivers – be it Narmada or Tapi in the west, the Brahmaputra in the East, Ganga or Yamuna in the north, Godavari or Krishna or Kaveri in the south. Shri Dapas wants to address these sentiments, and the crony capitalism which he sees is seeking to displace these sentiments. Armed with the wisdom and knowledge gathered from fishermen, boatmen, and farmers across India, the movement has gained traction since 2014.
Differentiating between “Gyan” and “Vigyan,” Shri Das says “Gyan” or knowledge is shared among all people and has been passed down the generations. However, since the modern era, “Vigyan” or science has taken precedence in solving the world’s problems and led to people ignoring the “Gyan” part of the solution. Quoting a past conversation with a boatman in Benaras, Shri Das asked him whether the boatman was aware of the polluted nature of Ganga. The boatman simply replied that he did not understand pollution fully, but he knew that the river would clean itself if water were allowed to flow freely downstream. Shri Das wants to share the combined wisdom from both “Gyan” and “Vigyan” across people’s movements to protect water bodies ranging from the Sundarbans to Bhagalpur.
Although Shri Das is primarily based out of Kolkata, his movement does not require any formal membership procedures. He calls the movement a platform that people can join and help aid any water body conservation efforts in any part of India. The movement undertakes a program-based funding scheme, where a program is detailed out, its aims and execution strategy, and subsequently, donations are requested towards this fund. No more than required for the program is gathered. Shri Das also does not wish to take funding from companies, although they have offered help many times, for he wishes the movement to be a people movement in the fullest sense.
In Kolkata, he gives the example of Churial Khal (Khal – canal), which carried stormwater from Kolkata and fed into the Ganga River. A 3 km extension of the Khal was closed by TMC in the KEIIP phase-2 program. Instead, a road is to be constructed above, and the stormwater now travels in an underground sewage tunnel and flows into the Ganga. Shri Das says that the open canal used to foster biodiversity and could still function with the appropriate technology use; however, the Government is adamant and unreceptive to suggestions.
In the northern district of Dakshin Dinajpur, West Bengal, the Government is trying to build a 1 km wall around the lake locally known as Tapan Dighi. He considers the wall to be another attempt by the Government to create a fence between humans and nature. He denounces the “development” which the Government is trying to bring about and refers to it as “Cancerous development.” Similar to cancer development, he sees such development activities as consuming nearby ecology and the biodiversity in its exploitative streak.
Shri Das likes to take cycle rallies and padayatras out to support his movement, as he sees the cycle as the vehicle of the common people, besides the non-polluting nature of the cycle. Just as one’s cycle is his own, he wants the people to own up to nature and not forego it easily to large companies or the Government. “Know Nature, Love Nature, Save Nature” is a quote he tries to teach during his talks. He wishes the people to know and love nature truly, and only then can one attempt to save it.
One of the biggest challenges in the movement was explained by Shri Das, who quoted the example of the Farakka Barrage across the Ganga River, which activists had protested as unsustainable before construction. However, it was still built and completed in 1970, but not without causing massive soil erosion and leading to flooding across the nearby region. This is particularly more impactful in the downstream areas from the barrage. Mass local communities were displaced, and yet the Farakka committee has not taken any impactful steps in this action. Shri Das wishes to have a national policy addressing soil erosion following the construction of dams and barrages and a rehabilitation policy geared towards the affected communities. Herein lies the challenge of lack of political support and willpower to bring about such legislation.
This is where I consider the educated youth of India can make a difference and support Shri Das and other fellow activists. Suppose we can leverage our education and technology – be it social media, blogs, videos, online petitions, make demands and pressurize our local representatives. In that case, we can hope to fill this void of political support for such legislation. India has made great strides economically, but it has done so, harming the very things that have made it possible. India’s rivers and water bodies hold cultural and religious significance for millions and are ingrained in our way of life. They have existed for centuries and nourished and cared for generations of Indians. It is high time we take accountability and take care of them too.
*Studying PGP (Post Graduate Program in Management) course at IIM Bangalore (2020-22)