Narmada Seva Yatra - A Con Job

Religious sentiments are frequently used by political parties in power to garner votes at the polls. This has happened more in BJP regimes than ever before. Hence one witnesses a series of religious festivals that are hyped up and celebrated with fanfare with generous inputs from the government treasury.

Narmada Seva Yatra is one such hyped up campaign supposedly to conserve the highly venerated River Narmada that flows through Madhya Pradesh for a little more than a thousand kilometers of its highly polluted course of more than 1300 kilometres – down to the Arabian Sea on the Gujarat coast. This is claimed to be the world’s biggest campaign of this nature for conservation of a river.

After holding the Simhast Mela, which is in fact the 12-yearly Kumbh in Ujjain last year, the chief minister probably could not find an issue which he could hype up involving the general public. He seemed to have found Narmada Seva Yatra a good medium to earn encomiums. This is nothing but an attempt at a kind of alchemy of Hindu piety with river conservation.

Surprisingly, however, the same government did not move even an inch after Anil Madhav Dave, a Member of Parliament of BJP from the state and now Central Minister for Environment, toured up and down the banks of the same river a few years ago and not only briefed the government about what all he found but also wrote a tome on his travels. Narmada – they call it Ma Narmada – is as polluted as any other river in India. It gets industrial effluents as also sewage from the cities and towns on its banks. Snatches of Dave’s report were published in newspapers.

Time was when it was pristine – but no, such is not the case any longer. And this fact has not been hidden from the government which has been aware of the progressive pollution of the river. One recalls an important minister of the government found dharmashalas in Amarkantak, the town at the source of Narmada, discharging their sewage into the Narmada River. At that time neither this minister nor the government ever thought of saving at least the source of the venerated river from pollution. But now without any seeming provocation the government launched the Seva Yatra to build awareness about the need for its conservation. The intention was perhaps totally different; maybe, to try and remain in public eye and win public approbation for (non-existent) commitment to the Holy River. And hopefully, the approbation might eventually get converted into votes.

That this is a fraud being played out has apparently been missed by the people at large. A look at the “key facts” of the campaign would reveal the campaign’s hollowness. Among the things that are indicated to be done are:

  • “All the villages along the river will have Narmada Seva Samitis. These Samitis will take follow-up action on measures to be undertake for its preservation

  • “Trees will be planted along the banks of Narmada. Participation of public and society will be ensured in it. It will cover more than 1900 kms. in 16 districts

  • “Districts and villages along the banks will have the facility to treat sewage water before it discharge into the river(sic)

  • “The yatra holds religious, social and scientific importance of the river to create awareness about its conservation” (whatever that means!).

It has also been stated that the journey of around 118 days will be monitored by a core team of 50 persons. “The yatra will comprise of (sic) workshops and public meetings.”

Various aspects of conservation of the river have been kept delightfully vague. For instance, the Narmada Seva Samitis are expected to take follow-up action on measures to be taken for the river’s “preservation”, but it has not been indicated what those measures are or would be. It has also been indicated that sewage will be discharged into the river after treatment by sewage treatment plants (STPs) but no one knows when this will be done. STPs in the villages and towns on the banks of the river are mostly conspicuous by their absence. No time frame has been indicated about having the STPs up and running. It has conveniently remained unmentioned. The journey stated to be of 118 days down the banks of the river will be monitored by a “core team” of 50 persons but the statement is blank about what the monitoring would be about and who would be included in the team which is supposed to be a “core team” but one does not know of what.  The whole thing does not make any sense, particularly when it emanates from the government.

Of all the things, the biggest omission is the total absence of any mention of sand mining in the river. Narmada is being stripped for years of its sands in a big way and this is what is destroying the river. A report recently had said that even mid-stream sand-mining is being carried out which can severely damage the river’s bed. The mining is so rampant that the courts have had occasions to opine in the matter. The government, however, is procrastinating by talking of inviting experts to come and tell it about the impact of sand mining on the river. The government has departments of water resources and environment working for it which should be aware of the effects of uncontrolled sand mining on rivers. If not that, there is a huge amount of literature available on the subject including a large number of research papers by Indians. And yet, the government has been using the ruse of inviting experts and consulting them.

The fact, however, appears to be the involvement of political biggies in sand mining in Narmada. For a long time a rumour has been floating around in the state about the involvement of chief minister and his family in Narmada sand mining. Recently the Indian National Congress has made a direct allegation against the chief minister about the matter with photographic evidence. It seems his close relatives are indulging in sand mining and probably, hence, the procrastinations. Sand is big money and clamping down on sand mining would hurt his family and others. It would hit the builders’ lobby as well which also distributes big money to politicians and bureaucrats.

Besides, how can one expect this government to conserve Narmada when it has not been able to properly conserve the relatively much smaller sheet of water, viz. Upper Lake in the state capital that serves drinking water to 40% of the city’s populace? Experts of the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology of Ahmedabad who were asked by the government to suggest ways to conserve the Lake submitted their report in 2013 but the same has not seen the light of day so far. When the government and its allied agencies have not shown any interest in conserving the two rivers that feed the lake and a bunch of others that once used to flow through the capital how can it be expected to save Narmada? For want of functioning STPs raw sewage is still flowing into the lake through as many as eight drains. Constructing STPs for all discharges from the towns and villages on the Narmada banks is, therefore, just tall talk signifying nothing.

The Narmada Seva Yatra is, therefore, is not for serving the interests of the Holy River; it is only to hood wink the people. One wonders how Amitabh Bachchan and Lata Mangeshkar have commended it.  It is, to repeat, a fraud that is being played out on the people. 


More by :  Proloy Bagchi

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