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'Enviromental issues missing': Parties told to include river rejuvenation in poll agenda

By Our Representative 

Representatives from diverse organisations based in different parts of the country have raised concerns about the developmental policies of Central and State governments that have  allegedly "contributed to the commodification, privatization, appropriation and pollution of our riverine ecosystems."
Speaking at an online press conference organised by the River Valley Forum – a process initiated by the National Alliance of People’s Movements -- they highlighted "missing environmental issues which are side-lined over populist policies in short-sighted electoral goal setting."
"From the glacial rivers of the Himalaya to the Periyar we are campaigning for rivers to be recognised as living entities, and demanding strengthening as well as decentralisation of river governance to protect rivers and riparian rights of peasants – especially small holders, fisher people, nomadic communities and several indigenous and marginalised communities", said Medha Patkar of the Narmada Bachao Andolan.  
"For this purpose, we are releasing a draft of a proposed central legislation aimed at protection, conservation and rejuvenation of Rivers and Riparian Rights in India along with key demands for political parties and parliamentarians, in the wake of the Lok Sabha 2024 elections", she added.
"We oppose the relentless constructions of dams, barrages, embankments, hydroelectric projects, widespread commercial and illegal sand mining, sewage and effluent dumping, interlinking and river front projects", she insisted. "The change in land use and hydrologies caused by these have affected both surface and the inter-connected ground water regimes in the country, dispossessing and displacing millions of their livelihoods."
Manshi Asher of the Himdhara Collective spoke on how the growing density of dams and other mega infrastructures have impacted the Himalayan region, which in a under climate crisis situation, has into a disaster zone, as seen in the floods of 2023. "The ongoing struggle in Ladakh is highlighting the urgency of the ecological crisis in the region’", he asserted. 
The river-linking issue is related with mismanagement of transboundary rivers, said Mahendra Yadav of the Kosi Nav Nirman Manch, Bihar. "River embankments have been pushed as false solutions to control rivers and have become a cause of floods. The riparian communities have faced displacement, and even mechanisms like the Kosi Peedit Vikas Pradhikaran have remained only on paper, failing to provide relief or rehabilitation".
Rajkumar Sinha from Bargi and Basania Bandh Sangharsh, Madhya Pradesh, said, referring to the twin problems of urban pollution and illegal sand mining on Narmada and its tributaries, said, "Unless there is a public dialogue and involvement in governance we cannot address these questions." He pointed to how Adivasis who conserve water bodies and forests in scheduled areas are facing the brunt of extractive developmental policies. 
Speaking from the Mullaperiyar experience, SP Ravi from the All Kerala River Protection Council raised the need for "people to people dialogue for conflict resolution instead of relying on politicians who only escalate the conflicts for vested interests".
"As we have seen in the case of the Sabarmati Riverfront case in the High Court, if we do not look at the natural river flows in planning, this is bound to create problems for the citizens", noted Krishnakant of the Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, Gujarat.
Scarcities from problematic infrastructures and drying of rivers have led to growing interstate and inter-basin conflicts over sharing of water resources – like we see in the case of Cauvery, Mahanadi, Kosi (transboundary river) and other smaller rivers, he added.
 Mudita of the Gujarat Lok Samiti drew attention to the nature of governance which is "anti-people and anti-nature", insisting, it is "exploiting and polluting rivers even as farcical exercises in the name of ‘public hearing’ are held, while the actual affected people are never heard."
The activists said, given this framework, they have prepared a People’s River Protection Bill, which is being sent to all political parties and their MPs, to be included in their poll manifestoes, and also to take cognizance of the serious issues being faced by our rivers and riverine communities. ome of the key issues in the draft Bill are:
  • Recognise the holistic importance of rivers as sources of life and advocate for development paradigms that prioritize river protection.
  • The urgent need for principles to address unjust encroachments (especially dams and embankments) and impacts on rivers, emphasizing the importance of aligning with existing laws and constitutional values.
  • Principles ranging from defining rivers by their water flow to protecting riverine ecosystems and ensuring distributive justice in resource allocation/ sharing.
  • Emphasize the continuous and unpolluted flow of rivers as a priority, with measures to prevent drying even in non-monsoon months.
  • Call for afforestation and protection of forest cover in river catchments, by stopping of illegal sand mining, and strict control of pollution from urban, industrial, and agricultural sources.
  • Comprehensive assessment and prevention of impacts on rivers and their ecosystems, ensuring consultation and consent of riparian communities in decision-making.
  • Address displacement concerns and advocate for fair compensation and rehabilitation policies for affected populations.
  • Establish a River Basin Authority (RBA) with expertise from various disciplines and representation from statutory agencies, civil society, and riverine communities.
  • Defined functions of the RBA, including planning, budgeting, execution, and monitoring of actions related to river protection and conservation.
  • Prepare master plans for each river by inter-disciplinary committees, incorporating ecological and socio-cultural assessments and public consultations.
  • Outline the responsibilities of these committees, including the preparation of budgets, supervision of execution, and appointment of monitoring committees.
  • Legal and administrative actions against violations and call for regular surveys and research to ensure compliance.
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Click here for video recording of the press meet

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