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Why are villagers protesting against sand mining in Bundelkhand’s lifeline Ken river

By Bharat Dogra* 

While the famous Ganga and Yamuna rivers have at least received some attention regarding their protection, several of their important tributaries have been badly neglected even at a time when their protection needs urgent attention. Ultimately of course this neglect of tributaries will prove very harmful for the Ganga-Yamuna river system as well.
The Ken river deserves special attention among the various tributaries of the river Yamuna that deserves very urgent attention regarding protective measures.
Ken River, lifeline of Bundelkhand region in Uttar Pradesh, is badly threatened at present by sand mining and its future is threatened by new emerging factors which need more careful attention instead of allowing very costly mistakes to be made. In addition there is also the problem of pollution.
Sand mining has been taking place in the Ken river at much beyond sustainable levels. Almost all the rules and precautions of safer mining have been violated with ruthlessness and those who question or challenge this have been threatened.
While small-scale mining carried out manually with care for river protection may not cause much harm to the ecology what has happened in reality is that very large-scale and indiscriminate mining is done using heavy machinery. Instead of confining to river-bank or flood-plain area the heavy machinery digs deep into the river-bed and for this temporary bund-making is done to check the flow of water.
This has several impacts which can deplete the water in the dry season while at the same time increasing the threat of erosion and floods at the time of rains. The capacity of the river to absorb and retain water and also to link with the groundwater aquifers and to replenish them when these need water is adversely affected.
The increasing turbidity created by machinery, bunds , removal of sediments are all bad for diversity of aquatic life and fish as well as other species may perish in large numbers or suffer a gradual decline. Needless to add the satisfaction of the water needs of human beings, farm and domesticated animals as well as wild life around the vast area around river banks is also adversely affected.
This is particularly true of Bundelkhand region where the number of stray cattle is very high and for them dependence on river water for quenching their thirst can be very high. If river is badly depleted in the pre-monsoon summer months then this can be disastrous for a large number of stray animals, while at the same time difficulties for farm and dairy animals also increase.
Reports are already available of a large number of animals in this region dying due to water shortage and acute thirst in drought years and summer months of intense heat.
Hence it is important to take steps to check highly destructive sand mining on Ken river. Very powerful mafias are active in this mining work who use massive corruption as well as threats to go on violating existing rules and even law court directives.
While some mining leases may be obtained legally but at the same time a lot of illegal mining is also done and the truckloads of sand carried away is much in excess of any sustainability norms. Hence the Ken river is badly threatened today.
While highly destructive sand mining is taking place in several stretches of Ken river, matters came to a head recently in a river-bank village called Kolawalpur Raipur (located in Mahuwa block of Banda district).
On the one hand the river was being damaged very badly by mining carried out on a very large scale using heavy machines, on the other hand wages of several workers were not paid and compensatory payments were not made to farmers whose fields were converted to roads for the trucks carting sand away from the river-site.
Villagers presented a mix of demands which combined curbs on destructive mining practices with payment of proper wages to workers and compensation payment to farmers. Heavy mechanization was opposed and there was a demand to change the mining methods so that river is better protected and at the same time workers using manual methods get more employment.
When their demands were not accepted and the local police sided blatantly with the mining mafia and threatened the peaceful movement, villagers gathered at the river bank.
A leading role was played by women. Several of them entered the river-water and stayed there for a long time shouting slogans and offering prayers , asserting their determination to protect the river.
Later when the protesters moved towards the road people of other nearby villages joined them. The fear of a fast growing protest led at last to rapid action on the part of the authorities and most of the demands of this jal satyagraha were accepted.
However this was only a success at one mining site as indiscriminate heavy mining continued at several other sites. Wider efforts are certainly needed to protect and save this river.
Heavy mechanization was opposed and there was a demand to change the mining methods so that river is better protected
At the same time the disposal of larger amounts of waste as well as the gathering of a large number of workers for digging and transporting has led to increasing pollution of the river.
Last but certainly not the least there is the increasing possibility of water depletion during the lean season and this can reach alarming levels once the plans being made to withdraw a lot of its water reach a final stage. The serious depletion of water during the dry and lean season that can be already seen has been caused by reckless sand mining and deforestation of catchment areas.
This can be seen in the context of not just the main river but also its tributaries like Ranj and Gharar which have dried up to a larger extent. Hence the water availability for farmers and vegetable growers who depend on the Ken and its tributaries and canals has been already adversely affected at a time when water is badly needed for farming.
Despite this, however, there are ongoing plans to withdraw huge quantities of water from the Ken river to the Betwa river under the Ken-Betwa river link scheme, using a 230 km long canal. Either such water just may not be available, or if still effort to transfer from Ken is made then surely the Ken river lean flow is likely to be further affected adversely and like its tributaries the main river too may dry up in certain stretches during the dry season.
What an important study titled ‘Strategies for Water and Food Security in Bundelkhand in the face of Climate Change’ by Prof. Brij Gopal, Prof Dinesh K Marothia and Prof Bhartendu Prakash (2017) has stated in this context is very relevant:
“Ironically, the Ken-Betwa Link project is being promoted to provide irrigation and drinking water to some parts of Bundelkhand, without realizing the gravity of the situation that the river Ken which is assumed to have ‘surplus’ flow, had gone bone dry for two years for most of its reaches except the deep rocky pools. 
"And, if that is not sufficient ground to think over the management strategy, the project is designed to create a 78 m deep reservoir with a submergence area of over 100 sq km of Panna’s dense and biodiversity rich forest (estimate more than 2.3 million trees with a girth of more than 20 cm)… Finally, the river may not have enough water to feed the link canal system if the projections of climate change also become reality.”
If very less water is available in the river and its canal system, then this will have a very adverse impact on farming and a very large number of farmers and vegetable growers, including those who specialize in growing crops like watermelons and musk melons on the river-bank, will be affected very badly.
The same study has stated, summarizing the research of several experts:
“Analysis of trends of rainfall over the past more than a century shows that in Ken river basin the frequency of droughts has doubled whereas the total annual rainfall is declining.”
In such conditions to continue large-scale mining and to plan for transfer of its water to another river is surely going to have very disturbing and disruptive impacts for environment as well as livelihoods,. One can imagine the very harmful impact on fish and other river-life if and when the river goes dry for several stretches.
Hence urgent steps to protect the Ken river are needed on urgent basis and a strong public campaign for this is also needed.
---
*Honorary convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include “Planet in Peril”, “Protecting Earth for Children” and “A Day in 2071”

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