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regular-article-logo Friday, 21 June 2024

Bengal’s sorrow

The journey of the state’s rivers has covered the arc from deification to destruction

The Editorial Board Published 21.03.21, 12:48 AM
 India’s experience with the rejuvenation of the Ganga at the national level shows that a dedicated department need not always make a difference. What can make a difference though is turning conservation — of water, air, forest, species — into a truly representative, public endeavour.

India’s experience with the rejuvenation of the Ganga at the national level shows that a dedicated department need not always make a difference. What can make a difference though is turning conservation — of water, air, forest, species — into a truly representative, public endeavour. File picture

Can geography become history? The query need not necessarily be looked at as a riddle. Geography — Bengal’s riverine geography, a fragile landscape threatened with imminent destruction — is very much on its way to becoming a relic of history. Bengal’s riverine ecology has been correctly surmised to be symbolic of the fecundity of its soil, intellect and culture. Poets, writers, artists, film-makers have celebrated this bond between land and water memorably: the joyous sparkle of “Amader chhoto nadi” by Rabindranath Tagore, the pathos in Jibanananda Das’s Rupashi Bangla, Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s enchanting Ichhamati, Ritwik Ghatak’s Subarnarekha — the list is both rich and long. Yet, the lives of Bengal’s rivers appear to be short.

A recent rally by Sabuj Mancha, a philanthropic organization, in Calcutta brought to light the sorrow of Bengal’s rivers. The data are discouraging. Seventeen of the most polluted rivers in India are from this state; 10 major rivers — the Alokananda, Kankona, Chaiti and Bhairab are among them — have gone extinct; the Kalinga, Paglachandi, Morali, Mathabhanga, Churni, Buriganga are either nearing or threatened with annihilation. Their feeble waters will carry with them intricate local ecologies, enchanting marine flora and fauna, dependent cultures, traditions, occupations — entire ways of life, living, and civilizations — to the grave. The causes of this devastation are well-documented. Untreated sewage continues to be one of the principal poisons being injected into the rivers: an earlier report by the state pollution control board had found that most of the major rivers in Bengal are massively polluted. Administrative apathy, the multiplicity of government departments that make it easier for the authorities to pass the buck and — most crucially — the marginalization of ecological prerogatives in the political domain have been instrumental in deepening this rot.

The scale of the crisis necessitates seamless, coordinated action on a number of fronts. A specific department to look after the health and regeneration of rivers sounds like a promising idea. However, India’s experience with the rejuvenation of the Ganga at the national level shows that a dedicated department need not always make a difference. What can make a difference though is turning conservation — of water, air, forest, species — into a truly representative, public endeavour. Sabuj Mancha’s suggestion of decentralizing conservation, with its proposal of the establishment of specific tiers of redressal at the grass roots — a river sabha, panchayat and zilla sansad — could well be an imaginative way of replenishing the fraying bond between communities and water bodies. There is also an indisputable economic rationale behind the resurrection of Bengal’s waterways. It has been estimated that over 25 lakh people have lost their jobs on account of dying rivers: the return of life to these precious waters could resuscitate allied marine industry. What is needed for all of this to come together is the transformation of the environment into a political issue. Unfortunately, there is some distance to be covered here. None of the political parties in election-bound Bengal seems serious about their pledge of ecological revival. A metaphorical river separates election manifestos and the needs of Bengal’s ecological renaissance.

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