Soon after Independence, India embarked on a path of development through the five-year plans. Big dams across rivers were planned and constructed with aim to improve food production through irrigated crops and increase industrial production through generation of electricity. However over the years, the over exploitation of water and natural resources for industrial as well as food production (demand for cash crops) has not only polluted the water bodies and ground water, but has also caused severe depletion of water resources and extensive damage to the environment.
Swaraj Forum of Peaceful Society organised a national conference on ‘River valley and water’ in March 1999 at Jamshedpur in Jharkhand. More than 100 activists, journalists, artistes, eminent persons from theatre, persons working with movements and mass fronts, professors, social scientists and researchers from across the country attended the conference. The topics discussed included protection of environment, the adverse effect of big dams on the local community, encroachment of river beds, death of small rivers, issues such as displacement, flood, drought etc. It was felt that strong people’s movements have to be evolved and these have to be linked regionally, nationally and globally.
The Jamshedpur conference culminated in the formation of a national network of activists and movements who are working with communities located on river valleys and basins. The Indian River Network (IRN) as it is called will be a peoples’ forum and initiate, support and strengthen the struggle of common people against the discriminatory and exploitative development processes in the river valleys. It was also decided that this network should link up with other national forums for effective lobbying and advocacy.
The river based four consortiums- three in Bihar and one in Jharkhand; One of Tel and Koel-Karo rivers in Odisha and Save Idukki Campaign in Kerala became part of IRN..
Damodar Consortium (Save Damodar Campaign)
Damodar is one of the major rivers in the State of Jharkhand. The Damodar Valley Corporation is one of the largest and oldest thermal and hydel power stations in the country had lead to large-scale displacement of the local population affecting their livelihoods. A number of coal mining units, thermal power plants, cement and tin factories located on the riverside release the effluents into the river thereby causing massive pollution and contaminating the water bodies. This has had an adverse effect on the drinking water sources and the health of the communities living in the vicinity of the river basin.
The problems faced by the local communities of the Damodar river basin were undertaken as part of the PSP process of Swaraj. After due analysis of the problems, certain core issues were identified and accordingly activities were framed. Damodar Bachao Abhiyan (Save Damodar Campaign) was launched to create awareness and plan interventions. The objective of the programme is to save Damodar river from industrial pollution and to prevent destitution of local people owing to deforestation, mining and industrial expansion and displacement caused by dam.
Consortiums in Bihar
Bihar is the worst flood affected state in the entire country. According to a state government report, 37% of the total geographical area of the state is flood prone. North Bihar is especially vulnerable to floods with as much as 76% of the region coming under the influence of floods. This phenomenon has aggravated largely due to building of large dams, barrages, canals etc. on the rivers without giving due consideration to the natural flow of the river and ecology. This resulted into damage to the lives of the people living in the vicinity of these rivers adversely affecting their livelihoods and surroundings. The three major rivers Ganga, Koshi and Gandak together are the major source of devastation and destruction caused due to floods every year. Swaraj has initiated three consortiums in the state (Ganga Koshi and Gandak) to organise and strengthen people’s movements and persue the government to address issues in the region.
In 1993, about 189 NGOs, people’s organisations, activists, villagers and individuals with strong faith in Gandhian, Vinoba and Jai Prakash ideology came together and formed a river basin network called Koshi consortium. The purpose of the consortium is to bring awareness among the local people and make sustained efforts to find solutions to the problems of the region.
Gandak is one of the major rivers of North Bihar, which originates in Nepal and traverses through parts of North Bihar and Uttar Pradesh before merging into the Ganges. Another river called Budhi Gandak also flows in this region and floods about 8.21 hectares of land annually. Floods are common during monsoons every year and the Gandak and Budhi Gandak cause extensive damage in more than 8 districts in the region. In terms of disaster and damage caused due to floods, Gandak ranks third after Ganga and Koshi.
The Gandak consortium was constituted in the year 1997. A group of activists, institutions, people’s organisations and individuals who were inspired by the efforts of the Koshi consortium and Swaraj came together and decided to address the issues in the Gandak region. The work of the consortium extends to six districts in the region.
The Ganga Consortium was formally constituted in January 2000.
The problems faced by the community in the region due to floods, displacement, and environmental degradation other relevant issues such as lack of education, poor health and sickness, rights and provisions under the new panchayat rule, gender equality and women’s empowerment are being taken up by the Consortium.
IRN- Orissa ( Tel & Koel-Karo Rivers)
There are10 main rivers and more than 300 small rivers and rivulets in the state of Orissa. There are four major hydroelectric projects in the state- Hirakud, Machhakund, Rengali and Indravati. Besides, these there are many steel plants, paper mills, aluminium plants etc. The river valley projects, industrial, mining and defence projects are mainly responsible for large-scale displacement of human habitat and destruction of vegetation cover.
IRN-Orissa has been working on the issues relating to the environment and rivers in the state. One of the initiatives is the Tel River Eco- Expedition and Study (TREES) programme. The fellows and activists associated in this programme have more than a decade of experience on the environmental and development issues in the Tel river basin. Some of the critical issues facing the region are
- Rapid loss of natural forest cover on both the sides of Tel.
- Soil erosion, loss of water retention capacity of soil and loss of fertility of agricultural land.
- Increasing frequencies of drought.
- Increasing trend of migration of agricultural labourers.
- Acute scarcity of water for both drinking and irrigation purposes.
21 organisations, movements and activists are associated with Save Idukki campaign. One fellow is associated full time with the programme. Besides this, many environmentalists, social workers, nature lovers, literacy workers, and government officials etc. based in Ernakulam and Idukki districts lend support to this campaign.
The Periyar dam and other small dams built over the river Periyar and its tributaries along with the surrounding industries have caused enormous environmental degradation in the region especially in Idukki district. Encroachments on the riverbanks and in forestlands are another major issue. Idukki being a hilly terrain landslide, soil erosion is common in the region. Save Idukki campaign aims at protecting and reducing pollution of the rivers in Idukki district in Kerala.
Save Chaliyar Campaign: Chaliyar is another prominent river flowing from the Western Ghats to the Arabian sea near Calicut. The river was extremely polluted due to an industry which was later closed down due to people’s resistance. IRN/SWARAJ revived the movement in the name of Save Chaliyar Campaign to fight against sand mining, possible pollution and protects her from encroachment etc.
IRN hold national level conferences at Jamshedpur – Jharkhand, Sevagram-Maharashtra, Cochin-Kerala, Birahi-Uttarakhand, Alwaye-Kerala and Kodaikanal- Tamil Nadu.
IRN prepared a draft policy through series of consultations for Conservation and Restoration of Rivers in India and the same being submitted to the Govt of India.