Guest Blog by Dr. Ruchi Shree (TMBU, Bhagalpur)
Is it merely a coincidence that I am writing this last segment of my three-part writing on Champa river when due to ongoing lockdown amid unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, the rivers not only all over India but worldwide are said to have become cleaner. Many scholars and environmentalists are calling it a ‘boon in disguise’ and asking us to take it as an opportunity to re-engage with human being’s relationship with the surrounding nature. To quickly recap what I have already said in my previous writings that rivers are more than merely water-bodies and each river has not one but many stories around it. These stories are about how did they come into existence to what are their specific features and many more. (Photo above: Live History)
When I wrote the first part, next morning I received an email from Krishna Gopal Vyas Sir. To my utter surprise, he had sent his blessings and best wishes for my desire to work on Champa river. He had also mailed me his writing on Champa river[i] that was published on India water portal. It was only after two to three days I realized that the email was from the same person about whom I had read in Dainik Jagran, the renowned geologist K G Vyas who visited the Champa River in December, 2019. It gave me quite a sense of satisfaction to have heard from him. His three-page writing titled ‘Bhagalpur ki Champa: Aas abhi baki hai’ (Champa River of Bhagalpur: Hope is still there) is an important document for me as a beginner, a lay researcher on Champa.
Let me summarize a few points on Champa river which I gathered from the writing of Vyas Sir and also two long telephonic conversations with him. In fact, I must share that in this journey of Champa I was benefitted by numerous people in different ways[ii] and a special mention is needed for Rani Sahay to have shared her TED talk[iii]. She and her organization “Peepal: A resilience lab” seem to be doing a very useful work with the people living on the banks of the river. The organization is spreading awareness among the local people by organizing events such as ‘run for river’, nukkad natak (street play) on Champa. Peepal is promoting the cause of organic farming, natural dyes, waste management and also making products such as organic soaps and seed rakhis which provides livelihood to the girls and women. Recently, the organization displayed its natural sewage treatment plant (STP) to the Chief Minister of Bihar and they are now in process of implementing it in a Panchayat on the bank of Champa.
Champa, a 28 km long river originates in Banka district and has many names in this region. During the Vedic period, it was called Malti and it is considered a sadaneera (everflowing) river. At the origin it is called Chanan and later bifurcates near a place Birma into two streams named as Chanan and Andhari. Chanan is still flowing but Andhari has almost dried and villagers on its bank are suffering due to their dependence on its water for irrigation, fishing, etc.
Champa is a river of Ganga basin and it is divided into many branches and sub-branches. To rejuvenate the river, we need to understand the river in all its dimensions. We also need to go in depth into the problems faced by the river in its totality rather than looking at fragments related to the river. At its origin, water is still clean and has good taste and thus K G Vyas ji, a geologist is quite hopeful about its revival.
One of the biggest problems faced by this river and many others is that of illegal and unsustainable sand mining. When the sand is taken away from the rivers in quantities beyond annual replenishment and using machines, it badly affects the health of the river and the ecosystem surrounding it. Vyas underlines that excessive ground water extraction is quite evident and the aquifers needs to be recharged. It is a regional problem and needs regional solution viz. rejuvenating the ponds of that area, to stop encroachment on the rivers, streams and water bodies. Stop destruction of catchment area and its capacity to hold, stop and recharge water.
We seem to be caught amid a paradoxical situation where we have a few examples of river revival in India but numerous rivers and lakes are getting dammed, becoming dumping grounds, encroached, dried and polluted all over the country. To mention two usually mentioned success stories of river rejuvenation, Kali Bein rivulet’s revival was claimed and credited to Sant Seechewal in Punjab with the help of community participation[iv] and Tarun Bharat Sangh (TBS, Rajasthan) under the able leadership of Rajendra Singh has revived the Aravari river[v]. In recent past, Jaggi Vasudev’s ‘Rally for Rivers’ became quite controversial on social media and the debate got polarized between its supporters and opponents[vi], though admittedly, it is not an example of river revival. The govt. of Bihar is known to be closely working with Rajendra Singh and he also visited the Champa River in Bhagalpur[vii] in November, 2019. He stressed on the need of community participation for the success of river rejuvenation.
Deviating from present, let’s recall a historic decision of March 2017 when the rivers Ganga and Yamuna were granted the status of legal entity by the High Court of Uttarakhand, which was stayed by the Supreme Court in July 2017. Hardly anything has changed at the ground in these years. In my another writing[viii], I have written about it and also why numerous plans and policies on Ganga since 1985 have not been able to achieve much. Even the idea of river rejuvenation has often been used by the central govt. as well as govt. of Bihar, their usage of terms such as ‘nirmal’ (pure/clean), ‘aviral’ (ever-flowing) seem to be more of mere slogans. A clear roadmap is missing and even after setting up institutions such National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA) earlier and now National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG), we could hardly gain anything.
The case of Champa river could be seen as a microcosm since several rivers of India are facing similar challenges such as encroachment of the riverbed area, sand mining, dumping of industrial & urban pollutants, channelisation and other wastes, to name a few. To learn more about the rivers of Bhagalpur and its surrounding areas, along with my students we have started a learning project named ‘Know your river’[ix]. The students of Masters in Political Science as part of their compulsory paper on Environment Education are engaged in the exercise of making ‘river profile’ as a group activity. We intend to do it in a three-step learning – first, to collect the data on rivers from the available secondary literature; second, to locate and visit some villages/places on the banks of these rivers; and third, to interact with the people to understand the changes in the rivers over a period of time around issues such as pollution, biodiversity, encroachment of the riverbed area, sand mining, reduced flow, etc. to name a few.
Nick Middleton’s book ‘Rivers’[x] is very useful for an interdisciplinary understanding of rivers. The text highlights the role of religion, myths and narratives as well as science and modernity to have shaped the course of rivers worldwide. In case of Champa as a historic river of this region, we can see that it has gained a renewed attention with Dainik Jagran’s “Kahan Gum ho gayi Champa’ abhiyaan. To sum up, we can say that rivers as the part of our environment are not asking us to save them but we are forced to think along that line to save ourselves. To recognize the rivers as living beings[xi] and to connect ourselves with the rivers could probably be our initial steps. To quote what Sopan Joshi[xii] mentioned in an informal conversation, ‘nadiyon ka apna dharm hai, jo hamare dharm se bahut purana hai’ (rivers have their own religion which is much older than ours). This research on Champa has not only invested me into learning more about the rivers but also to think more deeply about the essence of rivers in our existence as human beings.
Dr. Ruchi Shree (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Note: This is third and final part of the current series of articles on Champa River by the author. Earlier ones in the series can be seen here: 1. https://sandrp.in/2020/04/05/how-did-champa-nadi-river-in-bhagalpur-bihar-become-nala-drain/
[i] K G Vyas (2019), Bhagalpur ki Champa: Aas abhi baki hai’, https://hindi.indiawaterportal.org/content/bhaagalapaura-kai-camapaa-asa-abhai-baakai-haaie/content-type-page/1319335077
[ii] To name some of them-Madhbendra ji (reporter of Dainik Jagran) to have shared many relevant details of the newspaper, Prof. Sunil Chaudhary (PG Department of Botany, TMBU) for his insights on rivers of this region, Kishore Jaisawal ji is a social worker based in Munger and runs an NGO called SWARD i.e. Society for Watershed and Rural Development (he shared the link of a documentary on Angpradesh available on YouTube and also gave me the contact details of artists, journalists, etc. working on rivers in Bihar) , Pankaj Malviya ji (a journalist and also a co-ordinator of Jal Jan Jodo Abhiyan of Rajendra Singh).
[iii] Rani Sahay is quite passionate about her project and her enthusiasm does give a sense of hope. One may see her TED talk at https://www.ted.com/talks/rani_sahay_building_a_sustainable_community_around_dirt To know more about Peepal, one may visit https://www.picuki.com/profile/peepaltheresilience
[iv] To know more about it, one may read https://www.hindustantimes.com/punjab/eco-warrior-sant-seechewal-a-ray-of-hope-for-ganga-revival/story-OR4tSAOI8bsOhU2QZaNptO.html
[vi] To learn about the differences between Rajendra Singh and Jaggi Vasudev, please read https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/wont-support-rally-rivers-indias-waterman-rajendra-singh-ishas-campaign-73353
[vii] For details, see Dainik Jagran (Bhagalpur edition), 26th November, 2019.
[viii] Shree, Ruchi (2017), ‘Are we serious about our rivers’ in The Pioneer (Op-Ed), 30th March, available at http://www.dailypioneer.com/columnists/oped/are-we-serious-about-our-rivers.html
[ix] I am thankful to Himanshu Thakkar (SANDRP) for sharing his insights to develop this project.
[x] Nick Middleton (2012), Rivers: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press (OUP).
[xi] Ashish Kothari and Shristee Banerjee (2016), ‘Rivers as Human Rights: We are the River, the River is Us?’, Economic and Political Weekly, its summary is available on http://www.vikalpsangam.org/article/summary-of-rivers-and-human-rights-we-are-the-river-the-river-is-us/
[xii] Sopan Joshi is a freelance journalist who has done immense research on themes such as Gandhi, water, sanitation and his book Jal, Thal, Mal is a significant text to understand the ongoing ‘politics of environment’ (emphasized by the author) and the need to engage with an alternative discourse. His writings could be read at https://mansampark.in/