On Monday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that future generations will “talk of our struggle to rejuvenate the Narmada river”. He was speaking at the conclusion of the five-month long Narmada-Seva Yatra — also called the Namami Devi Narmade — that began in December last year. Its website describes the yatra as the beginning of a “people’s movement” to rejuvenate the Narmada.
The PM congratulated the people of Madhya Pradesh for participating in the campaign. Given that river conservation initiatives end up being state-driven top-down endeavours, the MP government’s efforts signal a welcome change. But the project’s website only delivers homilies on plantations, “sustainable use of resources”, and soil and water conservation. It does not attempt to address the ecological specificities of India’s fifth longest river.
The Narmada, unlike the Himalayan rivers, does not originate from glaciers, but in a forest of sal trees in Amarkantak. The roots of these lofty trees hold rainwater and gradually release it, replenishing the river’s catchment area. But in the late 1990s, the sal-borer pest wreaked havoc in nearly 1,50,000 hectares, including the Narmada’s catchment area. The river is yet to recover from the ravages.
MP Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan has talked of reviving sal forests. But the sal is a self-generating tree. Replanting it, though theoretically not impossible, requires much more effort compared to regenerating other forests. The Namami Devi Narmade website has nothing on how the government intends to go about this endeavour, beyond platitudes about “involving people”. It has nothing
on preventing future sal-borer epidemics, which as history shows, occur every few decades. Containing the pest would require coordinating with neighbouring states, UP, Chhattisgarh and Odisha.
The sal-borer pestilence of the 1990s hurt the Narmada much more compared to the previous epidemics because pollution was already taking a toll of the river. Reports of the Madhya Pradesh Pollution Control Board incriminate municipal waste for the poor health of the river. So does a study in the International Journal of Chemical Studies, published last year, which shows that industrial discharge and domestic waste from at least 10 cities,
including Jabalpur, Omkareshwar and Hoshangabad, have rendered the Narmada’s water unfit for drinking. The Narmada rejuvenation plan does envisage sewage treatment plants (STPs) to treat such waste. But given that a majority of the population of cities in MP lives outside the sewerage network — much like most parts of the country — STPs will clean a very small fraction of the dirt that flows into the heavily-dammed Narmada. Given that the plan to clean the Narmada is still in a nascent state, the state government would do well to address these shortcomings. Otherwise, the so-called “people’s movement” could come a cropper.