India Rivers Day

India Rivers Day 2019: Mustaqueem Mallah Awarded Bhagrirath Prayas Samman

For Mustaqueem Mallah, restoration of Katha River is sole aim of his life. And the 30 years old has been making steady and solid efforts to achieve this for past over 8 years. Belonging himself to Mallah (boatman) community, Mustaqueem has been witnessing the degradation of Yamuna river, flowing close to his village Ramra in Kairana block of Shamli district, Uttar Pradesh.

“Loving rivers is my religion”, says Mustaqueem who has formed the Kevat Mallah Ekta Samiti to raise the issues of fishermen, boatmen and riverbed farmers the river dependent communities who have been suffering adversely due to absence of flows in Yamuna river for most months of a year.

Recognizing Mustaqeem’s dedication and passion, his inspiring efforts in revival of Katha River a tributary of Yamuna, Rajiv Ranjan Misra, Director General, National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG), Ravi Singh, Chief Execute Officer (CEO), World Wildlife Fund for Nature- India (WWF) and Abhilash Khandekar, Member, Organizing Committee (OC), India Rivers Forum (IRF) honoured the youth with Bhagrirath Prayas Samman (BPS) 2019 award during India Rivers Day (IRD) event held in New Delhi on Nov. 23.

The Bhagirath Prayas Samman Award

The BPS award is being given every year since 2014. There is a jury of independent persons who go through the nominations coming from all over India for exemplary river conservation work, either by individual or organisation. The Jury takes decisions based on set criteria. The people who have received this award include the following:

2014: Koel Karo Jan Sangthan, Dr. Latha Anantha, Chalakudy Puzha Samrakshana Samiti, Akhil Gogoi, Krisham Mukti Sangram Samiti

2015: Emmanuel Theophilus, Save Mon Region Federation, Sachidanand Bharati

2016: Himdhara Collective, Prof Dinesh Misra, Citizens’ Concerns for Dams and Development

2017: Mahavir Singh Sukarlai, Meenachil Nadee Samrakshana Samithi, Kerala

2018: Vishwanath Srikantaiah, Bengaluru

About Mustaqeem Mallah

Mustaqueem Mallah is a simple, young Muslim of Ramra village. Due to weak financial condition of his family, he could not complete formal education beyond eight standard. In his early teenage years, he had to take up small works of delivering newspaper, selling spices village to village to earn livelihoods. But since childhood he wanted to lead a life in the service of humanity and village people.

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Villagers do earth work for Kuccha checkdam on Katha stream. 

During the course of time, he became worried over increasing water problems and degradation of water sources in and around his village. This is where he thought of reviving these sources including Katha river. He formed a small team of his friends and started working on restoration of water the sources. Side by side he resumed his studies through school of open learning and this year has completed his Bachelor of Social Work study from Jamia Milia Islamic University as a distant learner.

About Katha River

Katha is about 100 km long stream originating from a pond of Naya Bans village of Nakur block in Saharanpur district. The course of the river runs through Muzaffar Nagar district between Yamuna river and Eastern Yamuna Canal (EYC) before joining river Yamuna at Mawi village of Kairana block in Shamli district.

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Google Earth Image showing course of Katha river. 

Elderly of Ramra village still remember Katha carrying clean water round the year. However, over past 5 decades the stream has turned defunct due to degradation of catchment. The introduction of canal and tubewell based irrigation system and change in farming practices over the years have also made locals indifferent towards the cause of Katha.

The course of the stream has been levelled and converted into farmlands at many locations. It now primarily functions as drainage channel to run off rainwater during monsoon. It occasionally floods and even runs downstream up due to back flow in Yamuna river during monsoon.  

Why Reviving Katha Is Important

Groundwater table in the region along the Yamuna river has been going down for years. Moreover it has been heavily polluted with excessive irons, ammonia and other contaminants due to man-made and natural reasons. All this has been taking a toll on villagers’ health. Also the farmers in the area are forced to spend huge money on restoration of frequently failing tubewells due falling water table.

Secondly, Yamuna river has turned from perennial to seasonal between Hathini Kund Barrage (HKB), Haryana and Wazirabad Barrage, Delhi as maximum waters is diverted into canals. For about a length of 200 km, no tributary supply additional flows into the river between this stretch. Though there are Dhanura Escape in Karnal and Drain No. 2 in Panipat meeting the river but both are loaded with toxic industrial and domestic pollution.

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Bone dry Yamuna riverbed at Mawi, Kairnana. (Image Bhim Singh Rawat, June 2010)  

Amid this gloomy scenario, revival of Katha river offers benefits not only to farmers, villagers in the region but also to the river dependent communities at the mouth and to the Yamuna river to some extent. 

About Mustaqueem Mallah Work: Katha River Revival

Mustaqeem Mallah has been campaigning in the villages along the Katha stream sensitizing them on the need and benefits of bringing the river back. He has also been mobilizing resources from the communities and local administration to store and harness rain water in the dry stream.

In the year 2016, with the support of experts and activists of the district, he initiated “Ek Lauta Jal Dan” (“Donate A Mug Of Water”) movement underlining the need of Katha revival for overall groundwater security in the area. The movement was joined by scores of villagers who actively volunteered their efforts in deepening the riverbed by removing silt to facilitate storage and percolation of rainwater in the ground. School students were also involved in carrying tree plantation drive along the stream.

The effort successfully rekindle the interest in people and administration in reviving the Katha. Later with his support and supervision administration allowed construction of two check dams on the stream. The check dams have been instrumental in storing millions of litres of rainwater thus helping groundwater table in the locality in the year of 2018.

Before this, he pro-actively participated in conduction of baseline survey of Katha river undertaken by Yamuna Gram Sewa Samiti, Ramra in 2011. And in 2013, as a member of the group. he advocated for opening of a regulator on Katha river at Mawi to allow backflow of floodwater in the stream. While the survey helped the group in developing action points for the revival of the stream by making them familiar with challenges and present day condition of the river from origin to end, similarly the opening of the regulator during 2013 monsoon season resulted in harnessing huge amount of flood water in dry stream.

Saving Yamuna River

The Mallah has also been championing the cause of boatmen, fishermen and riverbed farmers who have been suffering endlessly due to lack of water in the river during lean season. “Fish and aquatic life in the river has been affected adversely, since there is hardly any water for four to five months rendering the fishermen and boatmen jobless. Such a pathetic situation the river dependent communities are subjected to. No one had ever though that we would be facing water crisis and pollution by the river”, laments Mustaqueem.

He further adds that during summer seasons around 40,000 riverbed farmers are forced to migrate to Ganga banks for cultivation of traditional floodplain crops for livelihood and the non-stop discharge of pollution from Karnal and Panipat has made the lives of people miserable. 

“We have been petitioning the district officials regarding release of adequate water in the river from HKB when the river dries up in lean months and also raising issue of pollution in the river coming from Dhanaura escape Karnal”, says Mustaqueem. He also mobilizes villagers, farmers, religious groups to protest publicly to draw the attention of authorities from both Haryana and Uttar Pradesh states. Celebration of Yamuna’s birthday annually is another exercise the group indulges to keep people specially students connected to the cause of river.

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Celebration of Yamuna Jayanti at Mawi in 2015. Image Source: Iqubal Ramra

Nevertheless, he accepts that it is brazen illegal sand mining operations damaging the river most but to which government responded least and attack on villagers, reporters objecting to it have become a normal routine. “Recently four kids from nearby village got drown to death in the deep pit caused by illegal mining. Miners channelize and impound river flows without any fear”, shares Mustaqueem. Despite the apparent threats and risks, his group is thinking over legal intervention to control rampant illegal mining and resultant impacts on river eco-system.

Campaign To Save Local Water Resources

Along with Katha and Yamuna river, Mustaqeem has been working on the revival of the local water bodies and traditional water sources in and around his village. He has documented the wells and ponds in the area which are found either encroached or abused by dumping of solid and liquid waste. “First I would make people aware of importance of these water sources, then would approach the administration for removal of encroachments. I will also initiate public movement to clean the wells in my locality which are now buried under solid waste”, says Mustaqueem with firm will.  KWB.jpg

He also shares information of Mamor Jheel a large oxbow lake in nearby Mamor village. The lake is hotspot for migratory birds. Some fishermen also practice aquaculture there. Huge amount of waste water from Kairana block reaches the lake. The lake overspills during monsoon flooding adjacent farmlands. “My mentor and district administration have surveyed the lake recently. We all wish to initiate its cleaning work. Its water can also be used for irrigation. At the same time we want to protect avian and aquatic diversity of the lake”, explains Mustaqueem.

It is his passion, community mobilization skills and experience that Shamli district administration awarded him Guardian of Rivers award in December 2017. Also his Katha revival work has been appreciated and acknowledged at district level in July 2019. He wishes to engage young generation in protection of rivers and water sources in the region. On receiving BPS 2019, he feels greatly motivated and energetic to continue his endeavours. “I had never thought, that I would ever reach here, I am thankful for the honour and thanks my family members, my friends and team members for making this possible” says emotional Mustaqueem.

About India Rivers Day/Week

IRD/W is dedicated to the cause of India’s rivers. The event is being annually held in Delhi since 2014 by IRF. IRF is association of leading environmental organization including WWF-India, Toxics Link, Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), People Science Institute (PSI), PEACE Institute Charitable Trust (PEACE) and SANDRP. The theme for this year was “Envisioning Institutional Framework for Rivers Governance in India”.

Bhim Singh Rawat (bhim.sandrp@gmail.com)

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