Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to conclude the Narmada Seva Yatra (NSY) at Amarkantak on May 15. Given the nature of the power hierarchy that prevails in India, it is not surprising that Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan has invited the PM for the gala event that will mark the end of the five-month-long NSY. It is a crucial move by the MP CM that seeks to kill two birds with one stone: it gives him an occasion to both showcase and increase his popularity while hoping that by "impressing" the prime minister he will win his support ahead of next year's Assembly election.
But, for the people who can see through the smokescreen of the state-funded publicity blitz many uncomfortable questions remain unanswered.
1 NGT's directives: National Green Tribunal (NGT) in Bhopal has already ordered that for the massive event at Amarkantak, no more than 1,50,000 people should be allowed. However, many local MLAs have been given huge targets to bring people from their constituencies and nearby areas. The total target according to knowledgeable circles is 5 lakh people. Even if half of them turn up, the fragile ecology of the Amarkantak hills will be further damaged.
It must be remembered that Amarkantak has been declared a biosphere by the UNESCO. Therefore the government should have been more responsible in planning an event of the scale.
It is not surprising that Madhya Pradesh CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan has invited PM Modi for the gala event that will mark the end of the five-month-long Narmada Seva Yatra. Photo: PTI
Although, going by the experience of the past decade, with respect to the ecology of the river Narmada, one cannot expect much from the government. Four years ago, the chief minister had announced the construction of a shopping mall and a rope-way connecting major sites within Amarkantak. If this is indeed allowed to happen, it would be wholly incongruous with the terrain and the serenity of this holy place, which has a rich Sal-forest all around it.
2 Shrinking river-spread: Narmada flows between two wooded hills in a 500-meter-wide gentle valley. Most of the water-spread area has been covered with roads, buildings, ashrams, temples and parking spaces. Regular attempts have been made during the Congress and BJP regimes to encroach on as much as the river-spread area as possible.
This has reduced the Narmada to a mere nullah for most of its course, till it can reach the Kapildhara falls. After the BJP government came to power in 2003, the local "sants" started constructing ashrams and temples on the river-spread with impunity.
One can see dozens of so-called concrete "samadhis" along the river. The famous Kalyan Ashram has built a huge school building whose sewage drains straight into the Narmada.
On a circuitous bend of the river called "Chakra Tirtha", another "saint" Siyaram Baba has constructed a long pucca shed, a big temple and a dharamshala. Efforts were made to stop the construction in 2004, but all administrative attempts to remove the encroachments were thwarted at the behest of the then chief minister of MP, Uma Bharti (now the Union water resources minister).
A local minister of dubious reputation is a devout follower of the Siyaram Baba and thus the local administration has been rendered powerless to remove any encroachments by him.
In 2005, an attempt was made to clear the river of such illegal constructions by involving the local community, students, and some saints too, through a public-private-partnership model. However, as Uma Bharti was camping in Amarkantak for "introspection" after being removed from the CM's post, the new CM Babulal Gaur scuttled the plan in the fear that Bharti might use this initiative to resuscitate herself, politically.
Petty politics had prevailed over the great river's welfare.
3. Legal and illegal sand mining: All along the course of the river, particularly in areas where it flows through the plains after having negotiated the hilly terrain, sand mining has become a popular income-generation venture.
Jabalpur, Narsinghpur, Hoshangabad, Harda are some places where rapacious sand mining is going on unchecked for the last 7-8 years. Even during the NSY, thousands of truckloads of sand have been excavated from river on a daily basis.
Not satisfied with extracting the surface-level sand, the sand mafia has been using special machines that extract sand from the water-level thereby denuding the river-bed of sand and leaving it full of pebbles and stones.
The local administration in such places is just not competent to tackle illegal sand-mining because all operations are controlled by political heavyweights in Bhopal, most belong to the BJP. In Bhopal alone, more than 1,000 trucks bring sand from nearby Hoshangabad and Budhni on a daily basis.
Though so far unsubstantiated, it has been alleged by many that many of the sand contractors are relatives of the present CM himself. This massive 'sand-rush' is explained by the soaring price of sand which had reached as much as Rs 37 per cubic feet.
If the MP government was sincere about the conservation of the Narmada, whose ecology has been severely damaged by sand mining, the least it could have done was to ban all such mining during the course of the nationally-publicised NSY.
4. Polluting industries along the Narmada: Many industries like the Trident's cloth factory and the recently sanctioned Coca-cola plant across the river in Budhni pose a serious threat to the river.
The Coca-cola plant will use least 2.5 lakh gallons of Narmada water everyday. Effluents from these plants would be drained in the river making its water toxic. The flow of the river has stopped at many places, including Hoshangabad and Budhni and the stagnant water poses a major health hazard.
Even in Amarkantak where the river originates, such disruptions have led to the growth of Coliform bacteria.
5. Improper understanding of the source of Narmada: Unlike Himalayan rivers which originate from glaciers, the Narmada is formed because of the Sal trees that dominate the Maikal range in which Amarkantak is situated.
The Sal tree is special because each tree holds the rainwater in its roots and gradually releases it as trickle underground.
It is by the collective draining of water by lakhs of Sal trees that the Narmada kund in Amarkantak is replenished with water throughout the year. The first 50 kilometres of the course of the Narmada is covered with a rich Sal forest which used to provide enough water for the river to keep flowing.
A sizeable chunk of this forest was destroyed by the Salborer epidemic two decades ago. Sal itself is a self-generating tree and cannot be easily planted. The endeavour of the government and public should be to preserve as many Sal trees as possible and to disallow anything that might damage or disturb the underground seepage of water into Narmada for at least 50 km downstream.
Namada Action Plan
A reading of the proposed Narmada Action Plan as available on the government website states its broad objectives as "increasing awareness about Narmada's conservation, promoting improved agricultural practices, plantation, making of Sewage Treatment Plants etc..." These are good practices common to all river-conservation efforts.
People worship the Narmada through its entire course till the Arabian Sea. It is the lifeline of central Madhya Pradesh, and it also flows through 96 assembly constituencies, therefore it seems the CM has cleverly combined the BJP's zeal for mixing religion with politics in the guise of the Narmada Seva Yatra, with an eye on the 2018 Assembly election.
Inviting saints and celebrities of all hues and colours doesn't really make it a people-led effort for the river's conservation. The money for this publicity-campaign comes from the state's coffers and with the CM and his family present on every occasion to spruce up his image, the NSY looks more like Shivraj Seva Yatra.
In characteristic style, the CM has declared that it is the biggest river-conservation movement in the world! It is yet to be seen what comes out of the tall promises being made by the CM. It is indeed a reflection of the pathetic state of the opposition that despite ordinary people knowing that the government schemes are floundering on the ground, the government is able to shine quite well through extravagant publicity drives.
Amarkantak and Narmada to bear the bruntOfficial figures say that from May 11 to May 18, Amarkantak will be flooded with 100 temporary toilet, 150 mobile toilet, 1,500 urinals and 50 tonnes of solid waste. Add to this 2,000 buses that have been requisitioned (by RTOs) for the big rally for the PM that will bring at least two lakh people from five districts of MP and adjoining Chhattisgarh, and you might, perhaps, be able to imagine the mess that will be left behind.
It does remind one of what Sri Sri Ravishankar did to the Yamuna a year ago. But unlike then, no penalties will be levied on anybody as this is a government function.