The politics of Narmada
While talking of Narmada River – the lifeline of Madhya Pradesh – one immediately recalls the inauguration of the ambitious Rajiv Gandhi Watershed Mission on 20 August 1994 by Digvijay Singh when he was heading a Congress Government in the largest State in the country (Madhya Pradesh no longer enjoys the largest State status following its bifurcation and creation of Chhattisgarh in the year 2000). On that occasion, I remember telling the then chief minister in my capacity as State Correspondent for The Hindu that what was being planned was too little and was like creating small bowls in a rapidly spreading desert across an area that was once supposed to be covered with thick forest. In the same context when asked what was being done to protect the forests in the catchment of the Narmada River to ensure its tributaries remain charged through percolation of rain water and gradual release of water through streams and rivulets so that the grand Narmada remains perennial and we don’t have too much of silting through runoff which reduces the river’s carrying capacity and as a consequence when monsoon arrives there are flash floods as too much of water flows into the river in too short a time thereby leaving the river thin and lean for remaining part of the year. Responding to the pointer about the progressive devastation of forest cover, Digvijay Singh had stated, with a chip on his shoulder, that the State Forest department was there to take care of forest. On this reply one had submitted with total resignation: If your approach is so casual, let’s see the groundwater situation ten years from now.” Incidentally Digivijay rule lasted 10 years and by that time, the water crisis was at its peak. A backlash was imminent and when elections came in 2003, the suffering masses voted “Diggi Raja” out of power on the issue of “Sadak-Bijli-Pani”(roads, electricity and water). [Digvijay’s friends call him Diggi Raja due to his erstwhile royal background]
Between 2003 and now – a lot of water has flown through the Narmada and its tributaries- a river system that is no longer flushed by the monsoon rain as planned by nature but is characterised by 21 Major and 23 Medium irrigation projects in the Narmada basin. This system of dams is one big reason adding to the pollution of the river in the absence of free flow of water.
Narmada is the longest west flowing river of India. It rises from a spring at Amarkantak in Madhya Pradesh and flows westwards over a length of 1,312 km and drains an area of 98796 sq.km before falling into the Arabian Sea.
There are 19 major rivers that are tributaries of the Narmada. These are:
Hiran, Tendoni, Barna, Kolar, Man, Uri, Hatni, Orsang, Burhner, Banjar, Sher, Shakkar, Dudhi, Tawa, Ganjal, Chhota Tawa, Kundi, Goi, and Karjan.
These rivers, which are 270 to 60 km in length, are supposed to keep the Narmada River parennial. In order to take a closer look at the prevailing situation, one chose to zoom in on the Uri river. It originates from Vindhyan Ranges in Sardarpur district Madhya Pradesh and meets the River Narmada about 12 km downstream near Barwani.
A study [“SCS curve number method in Narmada basin” by Tejram Nayak, M.K. Verma, Hema Bindu and published by International Journal of Geomatics and Geosciences, Volume 3, No 1, 2012] conducted a few years ago on the catchment of Uri with special focus on changing landuse reveals that scrubs with cultivation and agriculture inside forest have been mostly converted into agricultural area, which has doubled during the study period and it has also been found that the medium and low canopy forest area has reduced to about half. The scrub-pasture and barren area have also reduced to half and the cleared land has been developed as cultivable lands by the local farmers.
In general the report on Uri river points out that 20 to 40 percent increase in runoff have been obtained in the year 2007 in comparison with 2001 and the variation is mainly due to reduction in forest cover and increase in the agricultural fields.
Large-scale land use change as revealed by the Uri River study has become a common phenomenon or practice leading to massive depletion of forest wealth in the catchment of the Narmada and its tributaries in Madhya Pradesh.
The forests that stretch across the undulating slopes and ridges of the Vindhya and Satpura mountain ranges that provide the passage to the Narmada river and its tributaries to flow have continued to face immense biotic pressure due to a horde of factors including illegal logging, massive encroachment, reckless collection of minor forest produce and firewood collection, unhindered grazing on forest land and forest fires. What is compounding the situation is political patronage to timber and mining mafia and especially those engaged in large-scale sand mining from the river bed. The implementation of the Forest Rights Act is another problem area that requires in depth investigation.
Under the prevailing scenario, there is widespread ground water level fluctuation –this is reason enough to raise the alarm bells. The Narmada Basin Report (2014) produced under the project “Generation of Database and Implementation of Web enabled Water resources Information System in the Country” [short named as India-WRIS WebGIS] jointly executed by the Central Water Commission (CWC) and National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSC), Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) concludes on the basis of groundwater level fluctation maps that in a large portion of the basin, there is a fall of 2 meters. Some parts of the districts Betul, West and East Nimar, Dewas, Sehore and Jabalpur also shows a fall of ranging between 2 and 4 metres with West Nimar, Dewas and Betul showing a fall of less that 4 meters in some areas.
Only Raisen, Hoshangabad, and East Nimar are districts that show a rise of 2-4 meters in comparatively smaller areas.
A special study conducted by Mukesh Katakwar on the subject “Narmada river water: Pollution and its impact on the human health” [International Journal of Chemical Studies 2016; 4(2): 66-70] concludes that the water quality of Narmada River may not be in a position to sustain the aquatic life and the river water also would be unsuitable for domestic purpose. Due to lack of time and resources, the sampling programme was limited to four months duration, from June, 2014 to May, 2015. The disposal of industrial waste affluent into the riverine system has given rise to heavily localized pollution and threatens the environment, the study based on samples collected from villages along the river and the urban area of Hoshangabad, points out.
A report on the “Status of Riparian Buffer Zone and floodplain areas of River Narmada” by Vipin Vyas, Ankit Kumar, Shahnawaz Gani Wani, Vivek Parashar Department of Environmental Sciences and Limnology, Barkatullah University, published by International Journal of Environmental Sciences [Volume 3, No 1, 2012] based on an extensive survey along flood plain areas of a selected reach of river Narmada, on both the left and right banks states that the riparian buffer zone and floodplain areas were dominated by agricultural practices on both banks. The results depicted that agricultural practices and human habitation contribute 57.5% and 16.5% respectively, different types of vegetation like shrubs covers 1.5%, bushes 9.5%, pasture land 7%, barren land 6% and erosion approx 2% which shows that ecological conditions of river is directly disturbed due to excessive human interventions.
The National Water Policy of India (2002) already recognizes that development and management of water resources need to be governed by national perspectives in order to develop and conserve the scarce water resources in an integrated and environmentally sound basis. The policy emphasizes the need for effective management of water resources by intensifying research efforts in use of remote sensing technology and developing an information system. The national water policy has been based on the principle that “optimal management of water resources is the necessity of the hour in the wake of development and growing needs of the population of India”.
For optimal management of water resources in an integrated manner, the river basin has been recognized as the ideal and practical unit to ensure complete understanding of upstream and downstream hydrological interactions and solutions for management for all competing sectors of water demand.
The National Water Policy and the framework for management of water in the Narmada basin already has been in place for 15 years. Suddenly after we have reached a stage when there is acute shortage of water even to flush the toilets being built in villages under the national programme to make India open defecation free by 2019 under the Swachh Bharat Mission – the flagship sanitation programme of government of India, the Madhya Pradesh Government woke up, as if out of deep slumber, and launched the “Narmada Seva Yatra” last year- two years ahead of the State Assembly election. While announcing the launch of the Yatra (11 December 2016 to 15 May 2017), Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan had declared that compensation will be paid to the farmers who own agriculture land on the banks of the Narmada river for plantation of fruit bearing trees till they mature. The “Narmada Seva Yatra” (journey) will build awareness among the people for the conservation of Narmada River and also to make it pollution free, he had told the gathering on this occasion.
The Chief Minister has announced that Narmada Seva Action Plan will be released on May 15 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is especially coming to Amarkantak to attend the function to mark the conclusion of the yatra. Legal provision will be made to maintain minimum water flow, the chief Minister also announced while addressing the concluding session of “River, Water and Environment Conservation Conference” in the State capital on May 8.
The State Government has further announced that a policy for zero discharge of polluted material from industries and local bodies to river will be framed. Area of organic farming will be expanded. Also, grant will be provided for organic farming and organic fertilizer will be standardized. Silent and meditation zones will be developed on Narmada banks. GIS mapping of all the pollution sources will be made. River zone and flood zone will be identified. No mining will be allowed in Amarkantak area. Conservation of Narmada river will be considered in the master plan of Narmada banks. Moreover, a committee will be constituted to ensure implementation of Living Entity Status Act made for Narmada river.
In the first week of May (2017) , the State Assembly also passed a resolution giving “living entity” status to Narmada river. The Chief Minister also told the House on this occasion that a bill for heavy punishment to those harming the river will be brought soon.
The objective of the Yatra, publicised by the State government as the world’s biggest river conservation campaign with public participation, is:
- To increase awareness about the need for conservation of river Narmada and sustainable use of its resources.
- Plantation at the banks of river Narmada for protection of riparian zone and reduction in soil erosion.
- To suggest remedial action in the field of river conservation and promotion of eco friendly agricultural practices.
To identify various sources of river pollution and to resolve the same through public awareness and participation.
Duration: The Narmada yatra began on 11 December 2016 from Amarkantak (Anuppur District). It will conclude on 15 May 2017 at the same place after covering both banks of the river.