Above: The beautiful Lohit River, Arunachal Pradesh Photo: Arati Kumar Rao (http://riverdiaries.tumblr.com/)
As 2014 comes to a close, here is a review of what happened at the ‘river’front, and which rivers (other than the Ganges) came up in the public limelight, and why.
The government at the centre that took office on May 27, 2014 rechristened the Union Ministry of Water Resources as ‘Ministry of River Development, Ganga Rejuvenation and Water Resources’. As the changed name suggests, cleaning of the Ganga is a priority mission with this government. And the fact that the word ‘river’ has been added, seems to give an impression that finally rivers have been understood to be beyond the perceived notion of water conduits. But ‘development’ makes the whole exercise seem counter effective. A conflict of interests, arises right here in the name itself.[i] In fact almost everything that this new government at centre has done has been on balance, largely against the cause of Ganga Rejuvenation. Its concern has remained only at symbolic level like in this case in renaming the ministry.
Sushri Uma Bharti took over as the new Union and Prof Sanwar Lal Jat as Minister of State in the Ministry for Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation. Both have reiterated their government’s priority for Interlinking of rivers, and also for symbolic value, to clean India’s rivers.
A highlight for 2014 has been the first ever India Rivers Week- 2014[ii] that was celebrated in Delhi, where over 150 river experts, researchers, artists, enthusiasts and activists from all over the country, came together to discuss state and future of our rivers. Individuals and organizations, who have worked dedicatedly on river integrity and safety, were honoured by the “Bhagirath Prayas Samman”. The awardees were Dr Latha Anantha, (Chalakudy Puzha Samrakshana Samiti, who has worked on the river Chalakudy in Kerala), Akhil Gogoi, (Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, who fought against the ill conceived projects on river Subansiri in Assam) and Koel Karo Jan Sangathan, (an organisation that has made efforts to safeguard the integrity of the rivers Koel & Karo in Jharkhand). With debates ranging from river definition to river rights, an outcome in the form of an ‘India Charter for Rivers’ is soon to be published.
An important milestone for rivers in 2014, has been that the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) in an affidavit to the Supreme Court of India undelined the importance of providing longitudinal connectivity in a river[iii] while building any dam, diversion or hydropower project. Longitudinal connectivity can be understood as the pathway at the river bed level, such that there is a free, uninterrupted flow of water from upstream to downstream. When barriers such as dams are created across rivers, this connectivity is broken, which affects living organisms, nutrients, sediment flow, in fact the fundamental life of the river itself.[iv] Environmentalists have been demanding that longitudinal connectivity of a river needs to be maintained to keep a river healthy and alive.
The Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) of MoEF&CC for River Valley and Hydroelectric Projects (RVP), in its last few meetings in 2014, have added this important term to their observations made while recommending projects for Terms of Reference (ToR) and Environment Clearances (EC). Projects like Chhatru HEP (Hydroelectric project), Rupin HEP (in Himachal Pradesh), Kalai-II & Talong HEP (Arunachal Pradesh) that came up for EC, have been asked to explore the possibility of longitudinal connectivity. Rupin HEP, that was recommended for EC, was asked to provide longitudinal connectivity. For Dugar HEP, EAC observed that an attempt is to be made to provide longitudinal connectivity, if found feasible from design point of view. For Raigam HEP (Arunachal Pradesh) that came up for amendment to ToR, a longitudinal connectivity is to be provided to ensure sediment transportation and biota movement. EAC which approved ToR for conducting Basin Study for hydroelectric projects on tributaries in Lohit Basin, also included an additional ToR on longitudinal connectivity. Though definitely a positive start, what we need next is a concrete move towards its implementation.
On a different note, the same Expert Appraisal Committee in the year 2013 & 2014 has considered a total of 114 hydropower, irrigation and drinking water projects, 7 river basin studies, 1 link project and 1 discussion on environmental flow in rivers with various organisations. Out of these projects, the EAC has not rejected clearance to even a single project. It has only temporarily rejected 4 projects (1 for consideration of EC and 3 for ToRC), asking for fresh application. The committee should first and foremost be an ‘appraisal’ committee whose prime job is to apply its mind to environment and social viability of the project among the options available, adequacy of the Environment and Cumulative Impact Assessment and public consultation process. Unfortunately, that is still missing here!
Interlinking of rivers (ILR) is being projected as the government’s panacea that will provide ‘benefits of flood control, navigation, water supply, fisheries, salinity and pollution control’[v] . It is claimed to give ‘rich dividends’[vi] for the people, the proposal includes 30 river links that will involve 37 rivers. The first of these, the Ken Betwa link, that had its Public Hearing (PH) on 23 & 27 December, 2014 has committed gross violations[vii] and is fundamentally illegal. Further, the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), used at the PH itself, is not only incomplete, but also inadequate and self contradictory[viii]. What needs to be understood is that these envisioned massive water transfers are not only ecologically unsound, but economically prohibitive and definitely not people friendly.
Was the Sabarmati river ever revived, or is the restoration work simply an excuse for the real estate developers to make some more profit through the reclaimed area?[ix] The water that flows in this river through its length in Ahmedabad, is not its own, but diverted from the river Narmada. Even as the government pushes the issue of riverfront development aggressively, green activists protested against Godavri riverfront development[x] on the same lines as the Sabarmati model. However, there are plans of riverfront development that includes river ‘beautification’ and ‘rejuvenation’ along the Gomti, Godavri, Brahmaputra & Mithi rivers, to name a few. Cosmetic changes at the river banks should not be mistaken for river restoration.[xi]
Moving on to Kanhan river, a tributary of Wainganga (Godavri), a bio diversity rich river that flows through Nagpur, it is both a source of water supply and a receptacle for untreated effluent from the power plants Khaparkheda and Koradi.[xii] The river, which is incidentally not included as river in the state government’s list of notified rivers(2000)[xiii] , faced a threat from Maharashtra State Power Generation Company Limited’s (Mahagenco) Khaparkheda power station, who began the construction of a new ash bund for disposal of flyash[xiv], within the river’s no development zone. All this was proposed, without any legal clearance from the state pollution board. The plant officials’ vehemently denied any violation and claimed that they had all the required permissions to begin work. Fortunately, the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) paid attention and issued a show cause notice!
Sand mining churned the riverbeds again in 2014. Mining of areas above 5 ha requires environmental clearance; Unfortunately, this leaves an easy, legal loophole for ‘business’ of riverbed exploitation by sand mining in areas that are lesser than 5 ha. Even though the public perception is that sand mining has been banned by the Supreme Court (SC), that is not the case. The SC has ordered that ‘leases of minor mineral including their renewal for an area of less than five hectares be granted by the States/Union Territories only after getting environmental clearance from the MoEF’.[xv] Unfortunately this seems to have had no effect on the strong mining lobby that continues virtually unchallenged, and was known to manhandle a correspondent, who was photographing the ravaged river beds of Cauvery, even as the quarries along the river and its tributaries, contribute to fulfilling about 60% of Tamil Nadu’s sand requirement[xvi]. A complaint submitted to the National Green Tribunal (NGT) has pointed out that even ghariyals are threatened by this onslaught on sand banks, which are their nesting areas. NGT is yet to pass any directive.
In a tragedy at Beas River[xvii], unsuspecting students were swept away. These students were on tour from Andhra Pradesh. 25 young lives were lost when water was suddenly released, without any warning from the upstream Larji hydropower project. The trucks and tractors that blatantly stole the sand from the riverbed had created a walk able road to the river bed, that eased the students’ entry into the riverbed. Unfortunately, this is part of long series of tragedies created by hydropower projects[xviii].
Urban rivers and the havoc they are capable in causing, need further deliberation and thought, before we squeeze them into tighter, convenient, concretised channels. Even as Jammu & Kashmir faced the fury of floods and the rivers were flowing above danger mark for over a week, it was disturbing to learn was that the Central Water Commission had neither any flood forecast nor any hydrograph, for any place in the complete state[xix]! The floods also showed how disastrous the consequences can be when cities like Srinagar and Jammu encroach on the river beds and destroy the local water systems.
Even as the Yamuna continues to be polluted, a “Unified Centre for Rejuvenation of River Yamuna” (Restoration & Beautification) has been set up in the DDA that will use a 3 pronged approach to rejuvenate the river which includes cleaning the river & riverfront development (both to be coordinated by the DDA), and increasing the water supply for Delhi through reservoir building and inter state water sharing.[xx] Disastrously, the new Union Government Budget[xxi] also provided funds for the unwanted Renuka Dam for Delhi water supply. The question however remains whether we need to augment our water supply when our per capita water supply is already over 200 lpcd in the capital. Importing water from long distances from other states for Delhi is not at all necessary. The government, however, now plans 3 sub cities around Delhi[xxii].
On to a few other rivers in the country, nearly 40MLD of water from the Tapi river, that was used by Surat’s textile units, will now be saved. These units will utilize recycled water supplied by Surat Municipal Corporation instead, and also save themselves Rs 4 per kilolitre in the bargain.
People too came together and found a voice for their rivers. In Madurai, they formed ‘Save Tamirabarani River’, a forum to protect the Tamirabarani River, a lifeline for people living in Tirunelveli and Tuticorin districts, from illegal sand miners. Local residents also protested against governments plan to link treated sewage to the upstream portion of Cooum River, that is still unpolluted, and a source of drinking water and irrigation.
Legal interventions too made their mark when Bombay High Court gave a historic judgement that establishes a citizen’s right to water, and stated that people, whether living in unauthorised structures or illegal slums too, had a right under the Constitution to get water.[xxiii] In response to another petition filed at the Bombay High Court, NEERI was asked to prepare a pollution report on Panchganga river. NEERI proposed a decentralized water treatment system and nallahs redesign as part of the mitigation process. Replying to another affidavit, MoE&CC also informed the Bombay HC, that draft guidelines were to be framed for riverbed and floodplains management.
But industrialists in Nagpur came up with a devious move to ensure more water availability, without environmental hassles, through a proposal to de-notify Nag River[xxiv]. Concerned citizens, experts and even government officials have voiced their protest against this nefarious act. Thankfully, the Maharashtra Water Resources Regulatory Authority (MWRRA) had earlier turned down a similar proposal. Ambazari lake in Nagpur too faced the same predicament, where wrong information was submitted by the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) who allege that it is not a dam (reservoir), but simply a lake. In its submitted proposal, the MPCB gave contradictory statements.[xxv] On one hand MPCB recommended that Ambazari lake overflow point be the river’s origin, but further on declared that the river originated from hills on Amravati road and entered into Ambazari lake. If this de-notification of the lake is accepted, it will aid the de notification of the Nag river, which in turn will allow industries to mushroom on its riverbank without any concern to the river health or ecology.
An initiative has been launched by the Water Ministry and ISRO to study river behavior through satellite monitoring that will involve 12 critical rivers, including the Ganga & the Brahmaputra[xxvi]. This will not only aid understanding rivers better, but also give a true picture of their actual state- the waters they carry, their erosion capacity, their flooding pattern etc. We look forward to this endeavor, and hope that the information will be placed in the public domain.
It seems that for rivers, the true strength has been people. People who live by it, are affected by it or those who simply cannot see their rivers shrivel up and die. They are the ones who petition, protest and put their heads together to bring out the many river issues in the public glare. More power to them and our rivers in 2015!
Sabita Kausal, SANDRP (firstname.lastname@example.org)