How a citizens’ initiative is protecting the Godavari in Nashik
14th July was the first day of the Simhastha Kumbh Mela in Nashik (Maharashtra), on the banks of Godavari River, the largest river basin of Peninsular India (Godavari’s Story: https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2014/11/24/an-introduction-to-godavari-basin/). For perhaps more than a thousand years, people have been congregating on the banks of Godavari every twelve years on the occasion of Simhasta Kumbh, making the ghats come alive. Kumbh has a distinction of being the largest peaceful gathering of humans in the world (Peaceful is subjective term. In Nashik Kumbh 2003, 39 people were trampled to death in a stampede and bloody fights between the sects are not uncommon).
In many senses, Kumbh is a celebration of rivers. It is held once every four years on the banks of Ganga in Haridwar, Ganga-Yamuna Sangam in Allahabad, Shipra in Ujjain and Godavari in Nashik, in rotation. For this year’s Kumbh, about 1 Crore people are expected to be in Nashik, while about 25-30 lakhs in the temple town of Trimbakeshwar, about 28 kms upstream from Nashik.
When I visited my hometown Nashik a week before Kumbh this year, I went to see the Goda Ghat and Ramkund (a small ghat built along the river in the heart of the city) where the drops of nectar are supposed to have fallen. To my surprise, the river was flowing and it was not the sewer that I was accustomed to seeing. There was too much concrete on the Ghats and it was more of ghat than the river, but whatever water that flowed, albeit not crystal clear, was not the usual sickly brown-grey.
What had changed? Several things it seems. And most of them spearheaded by citizens. This is a story of an initiative that is trying to save the river from the clutches of pollution and absence of flow for the past 5 years. Story of committed foot soldiers of Godavari and the Godavari Gatarikarn Virodhi Manch.
“Gatarikaran” is a very strong word, not used often in Marathi. Gatar is a drain and Gatarikaran, is a verb, like “Drainification”. It is very apt though. It highlights that Godavari is being converted into a drain. Just a few years back, the river which flowed through Nashik was sick and several stretches had Dissolved Oxygen levels of zero. I’ve been meeting and talking with the members of Manch for some years now. It is a small group and Rajesh Pandit is the captain of this ship.
Pandit is a common citizen with no special agenda. But in 2011, he was shaken by the news that 3 buffaloes had died in the Godavari entangled in a mesh of thick water hyacinth, as the river entered the city. The rotting carcasses were neglected for as long as they could be neglected. When the water stank unbearably, were they finally lifted up using cranes. In a strange coincidence, a similar incident had brought me closer to the river as a child. I was pushed by my father to investigate what’s wrong with the river, but that’s a different story
Rajesh Pandit and his friends did the first thing any a citizen could do: approached the Nagarsevaks, met politicians, NMC officials, bureaucrats with a simple request: “Please let us know what the Action Plan for cleaning the Godavari is. If it does not exit, please put it in place.” They were not asking for a magic wand or immediate results. Only for an Action Plan. No one answered them, no one even talked with them.
From here on a diverse group of citizens came together with a single vision that Godavari should be a living and flowing river at least in Nashik.
They organized protests, satyagrah for a credible action plan for Godavari. When nothing was forthcoming and when they saw that the administration is laying sewage pipes in the river, only to release untreated sewage in the river itself, they evoked Section 431 of the Indian Penal Code: Mischief by injury to the river. Pandit tells me: “This is intentional harm. The municipal corporation intentionally brought and laid down sewage pipes and released sewage into the river, knowing perfectly well that this will destroy the river. This should be a criminal act.” No Police station was ready to register his complaint against the Commissioner of Nashik. Storm water and sewage water pipes of the city were combined into one and all the sewage ended up into the river. Nashik has Sewage Treatment Plants of 270 MLD (Million Liters per Day) capacity, but these are located only after the river leaves the main city.
With no police station ready to file his complain, Pandit filed his first case in the Hon. Bombay High Court in 2011. This case is still not disposed off and is now a beacon of hope and positive action for the Godavari. Multiple directions laid down by the HC from time to time, multiple applications and affidavits filed by the petitioners and respondents, several rounds of discussions of Action Plan on cleaning Godavari, several rounds of awareness camps, sampling exercises, compliance measures etc., have resulted into a robust and flowing process to protect the river. A one-time court order, even if it had levied exemplary fines, may not have ensured the kind of oversight that this case has ensured.
During the first hearing, when the petitioners showed pictures of the river with sewage, solid water, water hyacinth etc., to the judges, the bench headed by Justice Oka asked “How is this possible? Is this a river at all?”
In a landmark order in March 2014, the Hon. High Court categorically said that not only the administration, but the citizens too have failed in their constitutional duty towards protecting the river. It asked for an immediate stop to sewage flowing into the river. It asked for a time bound action plan from the corporation, and at the same time, it asked for Police Protection for Godavari!
The order said: “The Commissioner of Police, Nashik, will appoint an officer not below the rank of a Deputy Commissioner of Police, in-charge of the Cell of the police force deployed for the protection of Godavari River. Minimum staff of at least one Inspector of Police, four SubInspectors of Police and 30 Police Constables shall be made available. During the Kumbh Mela, large number of police personnel will have to be deployed.”
This was the first time that police was deployed for protecting a river not only from the administration, which wantonly disposed sewage into the river, but also citizens, who threw construction debris, encroached upon the river, threw garbage and polluted the river.
The High Court did not stop at that, it had earlier appointed NEERI (National Environmental Engineering Research Institute) as an expert organization to help the Municipal Corporation in controlling pollution. NEERI submitted a preliminary, interim and final Report on “Rejuvenating the Godavari” to the Hon. High Court. It has also submitted an action plan for Kumbh Mela. The HC has directed the NMC to follow almost all recommendations of NEERI report or River pollution as well as Kumbh Mela.
In their March 2014 order, the HC appointed a joint committee to monitor the implementation of court orders and recommendations of various NEERI reports. The divisional Commissioner is the Chairperson of this committee which includes:
(a) The Commissioner of Nashik Municipal Corporation;
(b) The Collector of District Nashik;
(c) A representative nominated by the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board
(d) An expert in the field appointed by the Divisional Commissioner after consulting the Petitioners and the Municipal Corporation;
(e) A representative of NEERI
This committee meets every 2 months to monitor the steps taken to protect Godavari. Members of the Manch are a part of this meeting too. In addition to Police Protection for the river, the HC also ordered stoppage of sewage flowing into the river through 19 Nallahs across the city, strict monitoring of 30 mg/lt BOD outfall standards for all STPs (Sewage Treatment Plants) for the city. It has directed setting up 2 more STPs upstream of the city and the NMC is in the process of setting these up. It has ordered the MIDC (Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation) to establish CETP (Central Effluent Treatment Plant) immediately and the NMC to carry out extensive awareness drives about keeping the river clean.
It has upheld NEERI report’s first major recommendation that water should be released from the Ganagpur Dam for the river itself. Gangapur Dam is a large dam about 10 kms upstream of the city which was originally a multipurpose dam, but is now increasingly captured by city and India Bulls Thermal Plant in the downstream). To call the meagre amounts calculated by NEERI as e-flows would be erroneous, but at least water release for the river now becomes a part of the court order. As recommended by the NEERI report, the court has also ordered that all water from STP will be recycled and reused for irrigation and equal amount of freshwater will be released only for the river from the dam.
In December 2014, final report has been submitted and the Court, in its order in December 2014 has asked the Central and State governments well as the Kumbh management committee of the state Government to abide by all the directions of the HC as well as NEERI. A grievance redressal cell, specifically for matters related to Godavari has been set up and citizens are encouraged to record their concerns and issues here. The court has also ordered the NMC to upload judgements, Court orders and NEERI Final Report on NMC Website for Public Access.
Water is being released for a river! While the NMC claimed that Godavari is a perennial river with self-cleansing properties, the petitioner claimed that Gangapur Dam has killed all the perennial characters of the river and its flow depends completely on erratic dam releases. Indeed, if we see the 2013 water release table issued by the Irrigation Department, between July 2013 and November 2014, in at least 8 months there has been no water released into the river at all. Part of NEERI’s report deals with Environmental flows and it recommends 41.6 cusecs (cubic feet per second) for 8 days during November to January and 125 cusecs for 10 days during February to June. It is unclear if this release should happen every month or is one bulk release. NEERI has admitted that this recommendation is only for improving water quality and not environmental flows as such.
As per the report, all of the 19 nallahs meeting Godavari have been intercepted. While 10 are permanent interceptions through sewers, 9 are temporary in nature and can breach with rains. The group is consistently raising the issue of temporary diversions and need to make them permanent.
While all this is happening, the petitioners also filed an application stating that water discharged below Tapovan STP is foaming and the STP upstream of Nashik City (Gangapur STP) is not built and hence pilgrims should not be allowed to enter in the river as the river water is not bathing standard. This has again moved the NMC and Pollution Control board to further improve STP functioning.
Due to this sustained fight, all Nallahs carrying untreated sewage to Godavari have been intercepted, plan for water release into the river is in place, STPs are working if not at the optimum level, at least better than before, operators and NMC are on their toes, new STPS are to be set up in the upstream of the Nashik city and Goda Ghat is drastically improved than what it was. In Rajesh Pandit’s words “We can at least see that what flows from the city is a river.”
Modest though it may sound, this is indeed a very significant success. Godavari has become the focal point of discussions, meetings, plans, projects, participation and this is no mean feat for an Indian City. In fact the NMC’s bigger initiative of Green Kumbh is put in place taking inspiration from this process. There are issues still, for example like my friend Amit Tillu discovered, Nallah interception in many places is cosmetic. Sewage is either being released deep in the river, or the connection to drainage lines is too flimsy and sewage is again overflowing into the river. STPs are not equipped to handle additional sewage coming from intercepted nallahs, they may be overloaded. STPs are not always operated honestly, aerators may be closed, night sewage dumping happens… the list is long… These hiccups need to be addressed asap.
WHAT IS HAPPENING IN UPSTREAM TRIMBAKESHWAR The group is not restricted to Nashik. Upstream from the city, near its origin in Trimbakeshwar, Godavari is nearly entirely concreted channel and flows under concrete slabs! While this process started in 1950s, now there is no sign of the main channel of Godavari in the holy city which worships Godavari! The outfall from the holy tank of Kushvarta, which is Godavari main stem, is throttled in a pipeline of 300 mm dia and an entire market sits on top of the river! This pipeline emerges only at the Sangam of Neelganga and Godavari.
In November 2013, heavy rains hit Trimbakeshwar and caused immense water logging. People were stranded and water levels reached waist height. The entire town was scared. In Sahyadris, location of Trimbakeshwar is much like Kedarnath, situated in a small, steep valley of Godavari. The memories of Uttarakhand Disaster which happened just 5 months earlier back then, were fresh in the minds of the people. Lalita Shinde, a trustee of Trimbakeshwar temple and former corporator and chairperson of Trimbak Municipal Council, was worried. According to Shinde, “I am born in Trimbakeshwar and I know this place thoroughly. I didn’t want an Uttarakhand-like incident here. I began exploring the place and spoke to old people. They said they used to swim here when they were young as there was lot of water in the river then. However, no one was able to explain why the river had shrunk. Then I came across Godavari Gatarikaran Virodhi Manch, which is fighting for clearing the river of pollution, together we resolved to fight.” 
Poring over the older maps and stories of the river, Manch members and Shinde realized that a river lies buried below the town, nearly killed by concrete and pollution, including by purohits and pilgrims. This led to filing a case in the National Green Tribunal in 2013 to free the original flow of Godavari, remove the concrete and curb the pollution.
According to Pandit, “We obtained a map of the Trimbakeshwar town from the town planning department, which shows that the river is flowing midtown. We also procured photographs of Godavari river flowing from within Trimbakeshwar clicked during the 1950s. We have attached the map and photographs along with our petition. We demand the river to be cleaned and also to be revived to its original state.”
Amazingly, it was the Purohit Sangh (Association of the priests) which opposed removing concrete and opening up the river as they say they perform poojas there. This angered the NGT which asked the Purohit Sangh to stop disposing Pooja waste in the river and tanks and foot the bill for disposing the biodegradable waste produced during Pooja ceremonies!
In its order in October 2014, the NGT ordered that if the association did not take action against the waste and pollution created due to poojas, stern action, including attachment of their properties will be brought against them! Even as protecting the resource which provides them with employment is the basic duty of the Purohit Sangh and it had failed to do that.
The irony of singing paeans of the river, praising her in chants, worshiping her water in poojas, while simultaneously polluting her seems to be lost here.
Nevertheless, the entire machinery of Trimbakeshwar was put in action: Sewerage lines are being removed from the river, bio-methanation plant to treat waste that is disposed in the river is nearly commissioned and the Purohit Sangh is busy ensuring this!
In its latest February 2015 order, the Tribunal has asked for immediate setting up of a temporary STP in Trimbakeshwar for the Kumbh Mela. Biodegradable waste from Trimbakeshwar is coming to Nashik as per courts orders for disposal until the time Trimbakeshwar council sets up its own plant. Pandit says “According to mythology, Kumbh Mela revolves around the separation of amrut — holy waters — from the poisonous or unholy waters of the sea. If we consider it in today’s terms, the separation of the river and sewerage signifies the same. If this is achieved in Trimbakeshwar, then the holiness of the event will be preserved. This is the first step in making Godavari pollution free.”
Slowly but surely, Trimbakeshwar is not only chanting about and worshiping Godavari, but actually trying to clean it.
According to the group, “Government thinks Vikas (development) can happen only through cement and concrete. For a River’s Vikas, we need to remove the cement concrete we have put in blindly and let her flow. This is our only offering to Godavari.”
Where do they get the money to pursue these cases? Pandit smiles. “The lawyer Mr. Pravartak Pathak does not charge us. Godavari has been taking care of our personal expenses, which are meagre. We are managing, our bank balance is zero, but that does not worry us.”
Every step towards protecting Godavari is their bank balance. The group’s work is slowly growing organically, along with old members like Suneel Mendhekar, Nishikant Pagare. Dheeraj Bacchav, Nitin Hingmire, Lalita Shinde, new members are joining. Celebrities like Shankar Mahadevan, Marathi actors like Chinmay Udgirkar, Mrunal Dusanis, Dhanshri Kshirsagar, Anita Date not only support the work but have even cleaned the river at times. The current Divisional Commissioner Eknath Davale, Commissioner Praveen Gedam and Collector Deependra Singh Khushwa support the effort wholeheartedly and are ensuring all possible help. The Commissioner Mr. Gedam had himself cleaned the river during a drive.
Is it the millions of pilgrims, who come to the Godavari to wash their sins and replenish their stores of Punya, who hold the Kumbh Flag? Is it the Sadhus, who come to Godavari for their personal spiritual pursuit, who make this Kumbh significant?
No, this Kumbh, Godavari’s Flag is held proud and high by the citizens who love her selflessly.
– firstname.lastname@example.org, SANDRP