Guest Blog by Manoj Misra
Uttarakhand government is reportedly keen on taking up widespread river bed mining to generate around Rs 750 crore as revenue during 2020-21. More states anxious to recover revenues lost to ‘lockdowns’ due to COVID19 pandemic might also follow suit. Such indiscriminate actions would be unnatural, wrong, dangerous and even unethical.
Many people tend to think, “what harm could come if ‘lifeless’ boulders, gravel or sand were to be removed from a river bed?”
Accordingly the official stand has been that if studies show that river bed material is likely to get replenished with time then river bed mining could be permitted with some safeguards. One of the rather funny safeguard stipulated is by the wildlife authorities mandating that mining should be so carried out that it does not affect adversely the riverine – biodiversity. Hope they understand the stupidity of such a meaningless stipulation because such a ‘careful’ mining is possible only if no mining is actually carried out?
It is no wonder that the swamis at the Matri sadan at Haridwar have been consistently opposing the boulder and sand mining in river Ganga so much so that two of them namely Swami Nigamanand Saraswati in 2014 and Swami Sanand (Prof. GD Agarwal) in 2018 even laid down their life for the cause of Ganga, including opposing river bed mining among other demands.
In this context, the minutes of a recent meeting of Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) of MoEF&CC held on 23 April 2020[i] is relevant. Agenda items 1 and 2 dealt with proposals by the states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand seeking to divert 54.68 ha and 64 ha of forest land to extract sand, stone and bajari (gravel) from the river bed of river Yamuna and river Song (a tributary of river Ganga) respectively. Fortunately the FAC has deferred the proposals for the time being and sought more information from the concerned state governments. Following general observation made by the FAC is notable:
“The State government shall conduct a study to ascertain the impact of such mining in upstream and downstream. The study shall come out with clear recommendations as how such mining is useful in maintaining the natural flow of the river and health of adjoining forests. It should cover the impact of mining in the area over last 10 years. ……It may also ascertain as to how much loose boulder and sand can be collected for the purpose of mining every year. The study may be conducted through a recognised institute of repute”. (highlight provided)
While it would certainly be interesting to look at the methods, findings and recommendations of such a study, it is regretted that even the FAC has looked upon a river bed as a life-less and replenish-able commodity.
This article is an attempt to prove that the so called ‘lifeless’ material sitting on a river bed is not so and is neither dispensable nor disposable. On the contrary it is the very basis of hosting of life and several other ecological functions performed by a river.
A river is both a physical and a biological entity. And river bed which includes river channel and its floodplains plays an integral role in ensuring a stable and safe riverine system. Playing with its integrity would not only be unnatural but tantamount to inviting trouble. Worst is that floods in them might turn as a result unruly and far more devastating.
Let us first consider the physical part. The composition of a river bed is the result of two opposing forces. These are propulsion of water and associated material down a gradient driven by the force of gravity and a resistance to this flow from friction with the material present in the bed. This bed material consists of vegetation on one hand and discreet as well as aggregated sediment (boulders, rocks, gravel, sand, sand bars etc) of various sizes on the other. The complexion of the bed material varies as the river flows down the gradient from its origin in hills, enters foothills, widens into plains and finally meets the sea in a deltaic opening. Along the way several tributaries feeds it not just the water but bed material too.
Presence or absence of bed material determines the velocity of the flow and geomorphology of the river in question. Latter includes formation of river banks, river channel/s (braided, straight and meandering), its spread, islands in it, wetlands in floodplains and the kind of delta that it shall form. How the river shall interact with associated aquifers is also determined by the bed material. Most importantly the behaviour of a river during flood times is also a factor of the bed material. It is the presence of bed material in its natural course that ensures that a river in floods ‘behaves’ and keeps to its floodplain’s limits.
Secondly a river’s ability to host life in it is an element as much of varied habitats provided by the bed material as of the amount of dissolved oxygen (DO) present in its waters. Not many understand and appreciate the fact that it is the presence of coarse bed material that ensures a churning of the river’s waters to enhance its dissolved oxygen status and to facilitate its biological richness in terms of the range (micro fauna and flora, fishes, invertebrates and vertebrates) as well as the size of the population. Recall as a child overturning by design or by mistake a boulder sitting in a river bed to be greeted by a spider, scorpion or a crab?
Thus what might prima facie appear harmless to many in form of removal of apparently life less boulders, gravel and sand, is in effect robbing the river of its vital and essential elements. Their absence not only results in biologically dead rivers; significantly reduce ground water recharge potential by cutting off through deep and mechanized mining a connect of the surface water with the aquifers but turn the floods in them far more ferocious, unruly and devastating than previously experienced more than nullifying the benefits if any accrued from the revenues generated from river bed mining.
A state like Uttarakhand planning to mine its rivers which are gradient wise delicately poised between its steep mountain valleys, porous bhabar tracts and gradually widening floodplains could as a result only be inviting more trouble on the lines of recent devastations experienced in 1970, 2012 and 2013. Beware!
Finally a humble reminder to the Central and State governments who otherwise swear by the ancient holy scriptures of India:
समुद्रवसने देवि पर्वतस्तनमण्डले ।
विष्णुपत्नि नमस्तुभ्यं पादस्पर्शं क्षमस्वमे ॥
Samudra-Vasane Devi Parvata-Stana-Mannddale |
Vissnnu-Patni Namas-Tubhyam Paada-Sparsham Kssamasva-Me ||
(Oh Mother Earth) O Devi, You Who have the Ocean as Your Garments, and Mountains as Your Bosom,
O Consort of Lord Vishnu, Salutations to You; Please Forgive my Touch of the Feet (on Earth, which is Your Holy Body)
If believers every morning seek the forgiveness of mother earth (consort of Lord Vishnu) for the sacrilege of touching her with one’s feet, how much prayaschit (atonement) would be needed to allow her vitals to be torn apart through the act of mining?
Time to walk the talk, Mr Modi, Mr Javadekar and Mr Rawat!!!
Manoj Misra (firstname.lastname@example.org)