There are large number of stories this week from all over India highlighting the crisis that Urban Rivers in India face. Urban rivers, like the Urban Water sector, exist in complete policy vacuum. There is no policy to guide the Urban water governance. Cosmetic efforts being done when President Donald Trump of USA visits India on Feb 24-25, 2020 at Yamuna (in view of his visit to Agra) or Sabarmati (visit to Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad) won’t really help. The crisis not only affects the rivers, but the health, livelihoods and lives of millions and millions of city dwellers too, in addition to the downstream river users. Our Water Resources establishment has no clue, as is evident from their calling the Dravyawati river channelization in Jaipur as an example of river rejuvenation and suggesting such rivers should be given to corporates to rejuvenate in similar ways! It’s doubtful if the new National Water Policy now being formulated will help, unless it dares to suggest radical changes.
The Maharashtra government submitted an affidavit in High Court that the state has 15865 wetlands, down from 44714 in 2010. How did 28849 wetlands disappear from the very definition of wetland? While all of these wetlands may not have disappeared from ground, their disappearance from govt papers as wetlands means that they are now open to all kinds of abuse and encroachments. It along with other wetlands related stories here shows how little the governments are concerned about the wetlands.
This week’s news bulletin has a number of examples of Better Water Management Options that India has, let us focus on the example from state. These examples come from Kerala (achieving a barren land free constituency & KERI study showing the need for desilting of Malampuzha reservoir), Tamil Nadu (lessons from implementation of System of Rice Intensification in large parts of cultivable land and also declaring the Cauvery Delta as protected agriculture zones that will help stop the problematic hydrocarbon exploration project as also, hopefully other destructive projects), Odisha (govt filing affidavit in the Supreme Court asking it to stop work on Polavaram Dam of Andhra Pradesh is hugely belated but right move), Telangana (rejecting the Godavari Cauvery River Linking proposal of NWDA for its shoddy water balance), Uttarakhand (Dehradun DM accepting in affidavit to High Court that 270 acres of river bed land is encroached in the district), Kashmir (drive to remove encroachments of Khushal Sar lake, even if selective, hopefully it will be a beginning), NGT (cancelling the township coming up in lake eco sensitive area in Bengaluru) among others. We have listed only the welcome initiatives from the govt. Even if these initiatives are taken to logical conclusion and also emulated by other states, it can go a long way in moving towards better water management.
A number of welcome developments around dams appear in this week’s DRP News Bulletin from SANDRP. The prominent is the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation declaring that it may not need Pinjal Dam, which SANDRP had said in its report way back in 2012-13 and the then BMC commissioner had agreed to in an interview to NDTV. This should also lead to cancellation of the Damanganga Pinjal River Link proposal. The Maharashtra govt decision to review the need for Human dam is also welcome. The Kerala State Information Commissioner’s decision to direct that the Dam Break Analysis should be in public domain is also a useful precedent that all states and CWC need to follow immediately and also amend the proposed Dam Safety Act to include a provision that all Dam Safety related information, including meeting minutes, agenda, decisions, status reports etc will be in public domain.
On February 2, the World Wetlands Day is celebrated globally. The theme of 2020 is Wetlands and Biodiversity to emphasize the critical roles the wetlands plays for wildlife, aquatic life, and native vegetation. They also play crucial role in harvesting rainwater, recharging groundwater, providing livelihoods, acting as carbon sinks and providing cushion against flash floods thus they hold immense significance in changing climate.
This compilation puts together some of the positive developments related to wetlands that took place in 2019. It also includes few individual initiatives of lakes and water bodies cleaning from greater Noida, Chennai and Udaipur. There have been some fruitful efforts by citizen and community groups in Maharashtra, Goa and Kerala.
Punjab government has been successful in getting three more wetlands declared as Ramsar sites of international importance. The state already has three wetlands with Ramsar tags namely Harike, Kanjli and Ropar wetlands. The government in October 2019 had proposed a total of five sites including Ranjit Sagar conservation reserve and Hussainiwala wetland for Ramsar tags. The new wetlands selected for the tag are Keshopur-Miani community reserve, the Beas conservation reserve and Nangal wildlife sanctuary. So now six wetlands in the state are covered under Ramsar convention.
The state forest department and WWF team were working in this direction over past couple of years. In the year 2019, the government has also taken some remarkable decisions regarding conservation of wetlands in the state. However, by the year end, there has not been any significant progress on the issue from the government.
The statement of Shri U P Singh, secretary, Union Water Resources Ministry, that “industry (private or public sector) could adopt small rivers” seems to suggest that the government is moving towards handing over the rivers to Corporate bodies. The example Mr Singh gave of Drayavati River of Jaipur is even more disturbing since that river has been completely destroyed by the project implemented by the Tatas. It should not surprise though, considering that no less than the Prime Minister has been giving the example of canalisation of Sabarmati as an example of rejuvenation of the river. If this is what the government means by rejuvenation, that even Ganga and Yamuna are facing major risks of destruction. Its not less shocking that while Nitish Kumar, the Chief Minister of Bihar has questioned Modi government’s attempt to achieve Nirmal Ganga without attempting Aviral Ganga, his own government is basically following the same Sabarmati model on Ganga in Patna. If this is the example of “rejuvenation” of river according to the top most bureaucrat of of the government in charge of Water resources, nothing can save India’s rivers except a people’s movement against such moves wherever such destruction of rivers is attempted.
Jammu and Kashmir has many wetlands of national importance and international recognition. These water bodies are critical source of livelihood and job opportunities for a large number of population in form of fishing, farming, tourism etc. Moreover, most of the wetlands in the region fall under Central Asian Flyway Zone (CAF) and visited by lakhs of migratory and endangered birds during their annual migration march. These wetlands areas also provide safe refuge to native vegetation and wild animals. Their protection is crucial to combat the dual impact of climate change, water scarcity and flooding.
A large number of stories this week remind us that India urgently needs national urban water policy.
The water footprint of urban areas is gradually on the rise. The cities have several problems with management including destruction of water sources, groundwater exploitation, poor performance in treating and recycling the polluted water, pollution and encroachment on water bodies etc. To fulfil their growing demands new dams, barrages and check dams are being planned, proposed and built on the rivers in faraway places, which is in turn displacing and depriving the local people of equitable water share.
Even before onset of summer, the Army in Sagar district have started patrolling Chitora dam to prevent water thefts (denying farmers to take dam water for irrigation).
With the beginning of New Year, there have been several media reports highlighting the river revival works and floodplain protection efforts going on in different parts of country. While the community driven efforts with active support from administration and experts to revive Kasal Odha in Solapur and bring back Old Lakhandei river in Sithamarhi have been bearing fruits. The civil societies, judiciary and administration have also taken steps to protect the floodplains of Ramnadi, Indrayani, Hindon rivers.
The artificial pond efforts by NGT panel and Delhi government have also shown positive results in preventing the pollution from idol immersion pollution reaching the Yamuna river. Similarly the CPCB has raised the issue of Mahi river pollution by industries in Central Gujarat. The Karnataka High Court questioning the authority and fund collection mechanism by Isha Foundation for Cauvery Calling initiative is particularly significant. While revival of rivers is imperative task, the accountability and transparency cannot be set aside.