The sixth addition of India Rivers Day (IRD) 2019 held on Nov. 23 in New Delhi saw participation of scientists, academicians, experts, government officials and civil society groups. In the day long day seminar organized by India Rivers Forum (IRF) presentations, debates and panel discussion were held on the theme “Envisioning the Institutional Framework for River Governance in India”.
After honoring Mustaqueem Mallah with Bhagirath Prayas Samman (BPS) for his sustained efforts made in revival Katha river, Manoj Misra, member Organizing Committee (OC) IRF, presented the summary of “Rejuvenating Ganga A Citizen’s Report”. The report highlighted that most of the government work under Ganga Action Plan (GAP) and National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG) is done on the main stem of Ganga river which forms only three per cent of the entire basin.
The report further revealed that in last thirty years, there has been reduction of around fifty per cent flows in almost all the tributaries of Ganga river including Chambal (63%), Sind (81%), Betwa (56%), Sone (58%), Ken (48%) etc. Similarly Upper and Lower stretches of Ganga has seen reduction of around 49% and 54% flows and Upper and Lower stems of Yamuna river, the largest tributary of Yamuna has registered a fall of 51% and 60% flows in last three decades. In contrast to this the Ghaghra, Gandank and Koshi rivers originating in Nepal have seen flow reduction of 34% and 27%.
Holding the construction of thousands of dams, reservoirs, barrages in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh states which forms southern basin of Ganga river, Mr. Misra described that there has been no significant reduction in rainfall in these years. “None other than heavily damming of tributaries along with unsustainable groundwater use is the reason behind loss of flows in Ganga rivers, and if construction of the dams at this scale is taken up in northern part of the basin, the river will lose even the remaining flows”, cautioned Misra. He also stated that the main reason behind comparatively better flows in Ghaghra, Gandank and Koshi is that they have remained undammed to a large extent so far.
Other than the dams and barrages, the report underlines the rampant sand, boulder mining and excessive groundwater extraction from riverbed, floodplain and basin areas robbing the rivers of base flows during lean season. “The engineering notion that water drawn, diverted from rivers, floodplains come back to the rivers, is misplaced”, added Misra. Through his presentation, Mr. Misra also urged government representative to learn the lessons from failure of Ganga Action Plan (GAP), Yamuna Action Plan (YAP) and look into studies of IITs for course correction before it is too late.
As part of solutions, the report recommends shifting of river rejuvenation approach from river stems and stretches to bottom up river basin management, stopping construction of under construction, proposed, planned dams, maintenance of environmental flow at least fifty per cent of flows downstream each and every dam, barrages, strict regulation on extraction of groundwater and riverbed minerals, protection of floodplains and wetlands, notification of River Regulation Zone (RRZ) which is held back for unknown reasons by central government since 2014, implementation of National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA) order in letter and spirit, integration of river basin management concept in all other policy, planning processes related with forest, farming, water and groundwater sectors.
The report suggests several other essential steps to include and improve river governance in the country including initiation of a Dam Decommissioning Policy.
Addressing the audience as Guest of Honor, Mr. Rajiv Ranjan Misra, Director General, NMCG, elaborately spoke about short comings, challenges, achievement and way forward regarding rejuvenation of Ganga and other rivers in the country. Acknowledging the need and significance for developing river basin mind set and giving serious consideration to river governance issues, he said revival of rivers is a long journey to be taken with constant efforts and holistic approach. “The problem of pollution, issues of structures (dams & barrages) were not created in a day, and the solutions to resolve these are also not short term”, said Rajiv Ranjan Misra.
Video of Mr. Rajiv Ranjan Misra speaking as Guest of Honor during India Rivers Day 2019.
He also shared that the Ganga Authority order has given NMCG a mandate to begin, however issues of implementation needed further improvements. As per him small and positive initiatives can go a long way in achieving the ultimate target and NMCG has begun GIS mapping of floodplain and natural and cultural heritage of Ganga.
As per him so far the afforestation work could not be initiated due to lack of funds, approvals but it would be started soon with the financial and technical support from Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and about a dozen more rivers have been selected for catchment area treatment.
To educate and make aware all concerned and public at large on the issues of rivers, he suggested Universities, IITs to start a course which gives exposure to science and art of river rejuvenation. Appreciating the work of Mustaqueem Mallah, he said that we need passionate and dedicated persons to work sincerely on ground but NMCG inherently gets workforce from government departments which needs training, skills necessary for the river rejuvenation work.
Explaining that river basin management approach have come into the debate, discussion, planning of NMCG, Mr. Ranjan said that the issues of sand mining, land use change, agriculture and irrigation need to be worked on to achieve the objective of environmental flows in the river.
NMCG DG further stated that with the increase in population the proportion of pollution has also increased significantly and tapping of drains, treatment of effluents and simultaneously improving the capacity of treatment plants is essential and cannot be ignored. “Rivers cannot be revived with just one or two interventions. Cleaning is not only solution to revive a river, it cannot substitute the flow, but it is important component which cannot be looked over”, said DG. In his half an hour long speech, he also shared information on other initiative being taken by NMCG to revive the Ganga river.
In post lunch session, setting the context, Suresh Babu, Member OC (Organising Committee), IRF through his presentation highlighted the present situation of various river boards, authorities, tribunals and financial and regularity issues they are facing. “At district level there is so much talk of integrated plans for everything like water, irrigation, wetlands so integration of component plans have become a nightmare for most of the district magistrates”, added Mr. Suresh Babu.
Presenting an analyses of current approach of river governance, Mr. Manu Bhatnagar, Member, OC, IRF narrated the authorities dealing with rivers are full with engineers and bureaucrats looking at rivers merely as a source of water and overlooking basin level management, cumulative impacts of projects and alternatives in holistic manner. He further stated that even the issues of groundwater, climate change, potential threats are not being given serious consideration by these authorities. At the same time there is too much emphasis on technological interventions but too little attention on ecological impacts and issues of riparian communities.
In the following panel discussion chaired by well known environmentalist Dr. Ravi Chopra, Dr. Srinivas Chokakula from Cetre for Policy Research; Ms. Malika Bhanot, Ganga Ahvahan; Shri Paritosh Tyagi, Former Chairman of Central Pollution Control Board; Prof. Vinod Tare of IIT Kanpur shared their deep insight, knowledge and experience on the issue of river governance while arguing for and against, pros and cons of River Basin Management (RBM).
Citing the example of Yamuna river in Delhi where multiple central departments and state agencies causing lack of co-ordination, communication and collective efforts resulting in failure at various fronts, Mr. Manoj Misra stressed on the need of a final authority owning the responsibility of protecting the river.
Prof. Tare suggested scientific understanding of a river basin, clear communication to all stakeholders and capabilities to resolve conflicts as three guiding principles for the river basin management authority with realization of the fact that river, environment, ecology has a value which cannot be questioned or debated. “We cannot assign a value to a river like we do with other agricultural, industrial products. Development cannot go on at the cost of environment, ecology and rivers. RBM Authorities should keep this fact in mind”, said Prof. Tare. He further said that the NMCG is suffering from conflict of interest and donning the role of regulator, funder, and executors so it has become a criminal in the eyes of National Green Tribunal.
Sharing his experiences Mr. Tyagi said that vesting too much power in a single authority would be very dangerous. He also said that like industries, municipalities are equally culprit of polluting rivers but escape public, political, legal scrutiny for various reasons. The former CPCB head also strongly advocated for regular training, specialized skill development courses of pollution control boards officials to make the board efficient and effective.
Speaking on Bhagirathi Special Ecological Zone (SEZ), experience Ms. Mallika said that lot of misinformation was spread among villagers against SEZ projecting it as big obstruction for developmental work in the area, which was actually not the case. She emphasized on the need of transparent, honest communication with the local people as they are the eyes and ears for implementation of management structure. Prof Srinivas cautioned that given the weak federal structure, one needs to move carefully while putting forth creation of River Basin Management Organizations.
In the second panel discussion Prof. AK Gosain of IIT Delhi, Mr. Siddharth Patil, a Groundwater Expert, Mr. Rahul Chaudhary, Environmental Advocate, Ms. Martina presented their perspectives on the issue.
While Prof Gusain explained that scientific modeling and data can play critical role in managing and monitoring flows in the rivers, Mr. Patil shared that without participation of communities, legislation alone is not adequate in managing groundwater resources. As per Mr. Chaudhary even the judicial bodies, judges lack basic information on environmental and river issues and there are times when the judiciary, judicial committees are facing limitation to move ahead due to lackadaisical approach of governments and even orders passed by governments fail due to poor or no implementation. However, sharing the example of Rhine river, Ms. Ms. Martina Burkard, Program Director, GIZ (Support for Ganga Rejuvenation) appeared optimistic that if fourteen European countries can come together to form RBM authority, India too has chances of succeeding with the proposal.
Members of the audience including Mr. Ravi Agarwal of Toxic Links, Mr. Onkar Mittal, National Convener, Forum for Health Policy Dialogue, Mr. Chetan Agarwal, Policy Analyst, Mr. Arun Tiwari of Pani Post and others raised pertinent questions and made valuable comments, feedback and suggestion during the discussion. Prof. Brij Gopal observed that without understanding, defining rivers and improving existing river governance structure, formation of RBM is impractical in India.
Thus the IRD 2019 ended with enriching and enlightening the knowledge and experiences of organizers and participants. Indeed, rejuvenation of rivers is a long journey and formation of democratic, bottom up RBMs seems like an even longer shot. Hopefully, IRF effort will be a small but very useful step in this direction.
Bhim Singh Rawat (firstname.lastname@example.org)