Who will pay the price for the damage to the ecology of Narmada in recent years

Lalit Shastri

Madhya Pradesh Government is in the dock as many among those who are worried about conservation and its related issues have started asking questions and want to know why the State Government had spent recklessly a huge amount of public money to mobilise attendance at the ecologically sensitive area of Amarkantak -where the Narmada River originates – for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s public rally to mark the closing of the Narmada Seva Yatra on 15 May 2017.

To drive home their point, those questioning the whole idea of mobilising a couple of lakh citizens to attend Modi’s rally at Amarkantak, are underscoring the verdict by a Committee of Experts appointed by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) that held Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living foundation responsible for destroying the ecologically sensitive area of the Yamuna floodplain that was used by the foundation for organising the ‘World Culture Festival’ in March 2016.

Addressing the gathering at Amarkantak, the Prime Minister certainly had hit the nail on the head by stating that the Narmada River has been “brutally exploited in recent years” but what is rather confounding is that there was no mention, what to talk of castigating or punishing, of those at the helm of affairs in Madhya Pradesh who have been responsible for either turning a nelson’s eye or had chosen to patronise, as widely alleged, the forces behind the progressive encroachment of forest land or the timber and mining (especially sand mining) mafia. In these circumstances, it would be a tall order to seek the prosecution and conviction of those who have devastated the sensitive ecology of the Narmada river in recent years, particularly after the National Water Policy which defines the framework for management of water in the Narmada basin was put in place by the Government of India in 2002.

People should be aware that it was at the Millennium Summit in September 2000 – the largest gathering of world leaders in history – that the UN Millennium Declaration was adopted to achieve the Millennium Development Goals through a new global partnership aimed at reducing extreme poverty through a series of time-bound targets, with 2015 as the deadline. Ensuring “Environmental Sustainability” was one of the eight Millennium goals.

The Bharatiya Janata Party has been in power in Madhya Pradesh continuously since 2003. Yesterday at Amarkantak, it was none other than Prime Minister Modi who stated categorically that the Narmada has been “brutally exploited in recent years”. In the last few years, the issue of illegal sand mining and the damage it has been causing to the ecology and biodiversity of the Narmada landscape has been debated fiercely in the State Assembly on a number of occasions. The media has also raised this matter repeatedly by highlighting the involvement of a powerful lobby
having close links with those in power in the illegal sand mining activity.

People are also aware of the various factors threatening and wiping off vast tracts of forests in the catchment of the Narmada river. Those in knowledgeable circles are pressing for an independent investigation to find out the extent to which forest land has been encroached upon and also the status of forest in terms of total growing stock and forest density in the Narmada basin with special reference to misuse of the Forest Rights Act, forest fires, illegal mining and logging of timber, firewood or headload collection, reckless grazing, poaching and minor forest produce collection.

Any attempt to short shrift the above pointers would demonstrate callousness and total disregard to the millennium goals and the deadline for achieving these, which has already been missed.

Setting conservation goals, on the culmination of Narmada Seva Yatra, is laudable but what cannot be digested is that those who have presided over the system that was supposed to arrest the ecological disaster in recent years are now taking the credit of laying before us the road map or the blue print for conservation of the Narmada River. It may be politically correct on the part of the State BJP Government to give monetary incentive to farmers planting fruit bearing trees on their land along the Narmada river especially at a time when the State Assembly election is round the corner. This initiative may even deliver political dividends and keep the rulers entrenched and riveted to the seats of power in Madhya Pradesh. If fruit bearing trees in the catchment of a river could prevent the top soil from getting washed away during monsoon and reduce the amount of silt and clay in the rivers and streams that drain the area, Nature would not have blessed the central Indian landscape and the highlands of Madhya Pradesh with such fantastic sal, teak, bamboo and mixed forests.

Postscript: The big question is what about the damage to ecology that has already been caused due to lack of action in “recent years”. If one were to draw an analogy, so many monetary scams that we talk about would pail into insignificance if we were to assess in real terms the damage and destruction that has been caused to the ecology of River Narmada in recent years.

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