ON January 11, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan is slated to perform Bhoomi Pujan for the Rs. 750-crore Coca-Cola bottling plant and food processing unit at the Mohasa-Babai industrial estate in Hoshangabad district. The proposed plant is just eight km from river Narmada. Billed as the biggest Coca-Cola bottling unit in India, the proposed plant will require one million litre water per day, according to the State’s industry minister Rajendra Shukla.
On this day, the Narmada Sewa Yatra (Narmada pilgrimage) will likely enter into the district with the message to conserve each drop of the holy river. The ‘Save Narmada’ campaign, christened as Namani Devi Narmada, was flagged off by Chief Minister Chouhan on December 11 at Amarkantak, the river’s origin in Anuppur district. The 144-day long awareness campaign is Chouhan’s brainchild. Its stated objective is to motivate people to conserve the river through incentivising afforestation along the riverbed that stretches 1,077 km in Madhya Pradesh. Chouhan government’s hypocrisy on the save Narmada campaign is glaringly evident here.
While the Chief Minister has been exhorting the State’s people to save each drop of Narmada, his government is rolling out a red carpet to industrialists and thermal power companies to exploit the river water for their commercial use. At least 35 power plants are in the pipeline along the Narmada, besides the nuclear power plant in Chutka village in Mandla district.
NARMADA Bachao Andolan (NBA) activist Medha Patkar says the Chouhan government has no moral right to even talk about saving Narmada.
“It is the government that has ruined the river by permitting sand mining and inviting industries and thermal projects near its banks,” she alleges. NBA has been agitating to save Narmada River since 1986 by opposing construction of big dams and industrial units on its banks.
Narmada conservationists are highly sceptical of the Namani Devi Narmada campaign. They allege the campaign is a disingenuous ploy of the Chief Minister to fool the gullible devout of the river. The tone and tenor of the campaign thus far has proved the sceptics right.
From the start, the leitmotif of the Namami Devi Narmada has been sanctimonious invocation of the mother goddess. The campaign is suffused with religious symbolisms such as artis, puja and chanting of mantras to propitiate the river. Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and affiliate groups, along with assorted sadhus, are at its forefront. Water conservationists are conspicuous by their absence.
ENVIRONMENTALISTS such as Ravi Chopra, Shripad Dharmadhikary Brij Gopal and Himanshu Thakkar, among others, not only rejected the State government’s offer to be associated with the Narmada pilgrimage but slammed the Chief Minister for allegedly working against conservation efforts for the Narmada. NBA was not even invited by the government in view of the organisation’s strong view on the CM’s alleged inaction over rampant sand mining on the Narmada riverbed in the western part of Madhya Pradesh.
Stockholm Water Prize winner Rajendra Singh, known as the ‘Waterman of India’, was one of the few conservationists who partici-pated in the Namami Devi Narmada Seva Yatra.
“The campaign will face many challenges, which will be difficult for the government to deal with. For example, in Amarkantak itself, influential people have violated rules. Whether the government will be able to deal with them is the big question,” he said. The Narmada Sewa Yatra would end on May 11, 2017. Leaders, activists and villagers would cover a distance of 1,900 km by foot, while the Chief Minister has been participating in the yatra in phases.
The yatra aims to ensure plantation on the riverbank, toilet in each house, cleanliness at ghats, changing rooms for women and sewage system in the cities so that pollutants don’t enter the river. The yatra will pass through 1,104 villages spread across 51 blocks of 16 districts before its conclusion.
According to the Chief Minister, he conceived the idea last year when he saw the river’s flow having shrivelled during inauguration of a bridge in Dindori district. Afforestation is being planned up to one kilometre deep on both banks. Farmers would be encouraged to plant fruit trees. They would be given a compensation of Rs. 20,000 per hectare till they start earning from the trees on their land.
Bhopal-based environmentalist Subhash C Pandey says the government’s plan to build an eight-metre pathway on Narmada besides planting fruit-bearing trees on its banks will spell disaster to the biodiversity.
“They plan to plant fruit-bearing trees in a lush wild forest, which is an irrational thought. They will cut wild trees that help balance the ecosystem and plant smaller trees bearing lemons and pomegranates. Then, these trees would require pesticides and insecticides, which will again destruct the river water. Any environment expert would know that deep-rooted big wild trees are necessary on river banks to prevent soil erosion, which fruit-bearing trees would not be able to do,” he says.
The State is arranging funds on clean Narmada drive under National River Conservation Plan through its Urban Development department. The plan envisages sewage management in towns developed nearby Narmada River and its tributaries. The plan also seeks to augment water supply in these towns.
As many as 54 towns are on Narmada river bank and need nearly Rs. 1,350 crore for necessary sewerage or waste management. The plan, which has yet to come out of the drawing board, is to cover 24 towns developed on a 10-km strip on the either side of the river while the second phase was to cover 30 towns of 50-km stretch.
The State has so far received an assurance for a fund of 116 million US dollar from World Bank and 50 Million Euros from KfW Bank, Germany. The KfW is a German government-owned development bank based at Frankfurt. The central government would also fund 50 per cent of grant under Amrut (Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation) towns.
RAMPANT sand mining over the years has rendered vast swathes of Narmada riverbed along the river’s 1,077 km long flow in Madhya Pradesh precariously perforated. It is common knowledge in the State where the river is revered as its lifeline. Therefore, any campaign to conserve and cleanse the holy Narmada was expected to address this big menace on top priority. However, the “Namami Devi Narmada’ has different priorities.
“The government, with its various moves, is trying to convert Narmada into a lake. If the intrusion of industrial corridors and mining is not stopped, Narmada will soon vanish,” Medha Patkar says.
Patkar and other environmentalists have written a letter to the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change to demand immediate ban on sand mining. The letter has highlighted the NBA’s dismay over the inaction of Narmada Valley Development Authority (NVDA) and Narmada Control Authority regarding massive illegal sand mining for the last 5 and more years.
Union Water Resource Minister Uma Bharti, who was not invited to be part of the campaign, also says that sand mining is the biggest threat to Narmada.
“Reckless sand mining in the Narmada has remained the biggest problem, but since Shivraj Singh Chouhan has given the assurance that he would put an end to sand mining in this river, it will get protected in the natural course,” she told newspersons recently in Sehore.
However, the Chief Minister’s apparent dilly-dallying on banning sand mining belies Bharti’s optimism. The Chief Minister says he does not believe in framing more legislations to ensure protection of the Narmada.
Chouhan recently said in the State Assembly that the State government will consult experts and environmentalists on whether there should be ban on sand mining in Narmada. “Such decisions can’t be taken in haste like this.”
Mineral Resources Department Director VK Austin says studying the impact of mining on Narmada will take a lot of time and will require expertise. “We want to study how much sand quantum is being excavated, what is replenishing rate of the river and whether mining is affecting the river as a whole.”
ILLEGAL sand mining on Narmada is reported on a regular basis. Experts say sand mining has affected the river’s groundwater tables besides destroying habitat of biodiversity. At least half-a-dozen Narmada tributaries in the State have completely dried up due to rampant sand mining.
Sand mining is a big political issue in the State. Most sand mining leases are with either BJP leaders or the contractors protected by them. Chief Minister’s relatives too are facing allegations of extending political protection to rampant illegal mining in his native Sehore district. The biggest mining company, the Shiva Corporation Limited (SCL), has hogged headlines from time-to-time for alleged connection with the Chief Minister and his relatives. The company’s near monopoly on sand mining has affected the market. Bhopal-Indore corridor is a construction hub and the SCL has formed syndicates with builders and transporters in this corridor. They decide the price of sand in the State. It was involved in illegal mining in the Chief Minister’s constituency.
Nobody knows about SCL’s stakeholders. Before starting online auction process for sand mining in March 2015, the State government released a new policy to bring more areas under sand mining. After the policy was unveiled, sand mining area increased from 5,206 hectares to 9,946 hectares this year. State exempts sand mining from environmental clearance. Mining areas are not demarcated.
Therefore, mining far exceeds the allotted area. A strong nexus between contractors, politicians and bureaucrats facilitates illegal mining. It is rampant in the rivers Chambal, Narmada, Betwa and Ken. A network of criminals, known as the sand mafia, is active on the Narmada riverbed and ravaging it with heavy machines to loot sand and sells it to builders. Police officers and activists, who fought against the sand mafia, are either attacked or threatened.