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On a mindless, destructive trip down the Narmada

P. Devarajan


INDIAN MUD OR flapshell turtle (top) caught in the Narmada. — Dinesh Kothari

Omkareshwar , Madhya Pradesh

One morning on a motorboat journey from Rampura village to Dhavdikund on the Narmada river, we heard the first sounds of some blasting. Our boatman Raju and Roshanlal Yadav told us it was dynamite used by fishermen to kill fish making the catch easy. It is a cruel practice, eagerly done by the fishing community along the Narmada.

At one place, Raju parked his boat and Dinesh climbed out to have a glimpse of the fish catch by two fishermen. They had also netted an Indian mud or flapshell turtle. Dinesh bought it from them and passed it on to this writer.

One had a close look at the bewildered creature before releasing it in the river. Freshwater or mud turtles are getting scarce.

The Indian Otter is rarely seen and some believe it has disappeared. People do talk of sambhars, deer, tigers and leopards in the forest around the dam zone areas of Omkareshwar and Indira Sagar. But in four days of travel we saw the little kingfisher, pied kingfisher, blue jay and a few other birds but no mammals.

Yet, there is talk of setting up three sanctuaries, which started with the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) study by the Wildlife Institute of India.

The report admits, "though none of the plant species are listed as threatened or rare in the Indian Plant Red Data Book, almost all species have established ethnobotanical values and form an extremely important resource source for tribal communities residing in the project area."

In his book, The Forests of Madhya Pradesh, M.N. Buch says the rocks in and on the Narmada river are amongst the oldest in the world dating back to pre-Cambrian and Paleozoic days.

Geologically the central Indian plateau, is a part of the Gondwana Plate and through it, running from west to east, are the only true rift valleys in India, the valleys of the Tapti and Narmada.

"Indeed, these rivers are amongst the oldest in the world predating the Ganga by at least 150 million years," Buch writes. The Narmada flows through a rift valley with the Vindhyas on its northern bank and Satpuras on the southern bank.

The UNDP-UNEP report explains that "the floristic and faunistic values of the project area are characteristic of the typical Central Indian well-drained forest ecosystem in the Vindhyan and Satpura ranges.

The forests in this bio geographic zone comprise dry deciduous teak (Tectona grandis) dominated forest with miscellaneous forest species forming several distinct vegetation associated in the project area."

The orderly ranks of teak stands reminded one of the sanctuaries in Melghat and Tadoba in Maharashtra. They could also be getting rare.

To mitigate the disaster of the series of dams on the Narmada, the EIA report had suggested creation of three new protected areas: Narmada National park (496.70 sq. km); Surmanya sanctuary (126.67 sq. km) and Omkareshwar Sanctuary (119.96 sq. km), making a total area of 743.33 sq. km.

Restoration and relocation of the otter and aquatic reptiles were also recommended. As of date, nothing has happened with neither a preliminary notification nor a final notification on the sanctuaries.

In the event, the forest department and other interests are busy cashing in on the green stretches. That remarkable forester, Captain Forsyth (quoted by Buch) had long ago said: "Even as early as 1889, the extension of a revenue settlement, which gave value to property in land, resulted in vast forest tracts being brought under the plough, whilst the need of the railways virtually exterminated both sal and teak from huge areas.

"The injury done to the forests and to the country by this most mistaken measure may never be recovered; certainly, it cannot be recovered in less than two generations of the people's life."

After 117 years, Independent India is on a mindless, destructive trip and this time round two generations may not suffice. Going by news reports, the State Government has decided to set up two sanctuaries and a national park: Omkareshwar National Park (293.56 sq. km), Mandhata wildlife sanctuary (69.24 sq. km) and Surmanya wildlife sanctuary (178.21 sq. km).

It adds up to a total of 541.01 sq. km far below the 743.33-sq. km suggested by the EIA of the Wildlife Institute of India.

The Narmada Valley Development Authority (NVDA) was to set apart Rs 37 crore for developing the protected areas with the Narmada Control Authority, a Central Government body given the job of "planning, implementation and monitoring of environmental safeguards."

Reports suggest the Madhya Pradesh forest department and NVDA are not agreed over the issue of fishing rights in the Narmada river fringing the sanctuaries. At present, water bodies adjacent to sanctuaries form a part of the protected areas (with fishing banned).

The State Government has set up a sub-committee under the chairmanship of Dr M.K. Ranjitsinh to examine the issue. At least 10 years have been lost and more could pass by before even the trimmed sanctuaries come into being.

Near a depot on the way to the Indira Sagar Dam, housing lopped and sawed trees, there is a board which reads: "Than, man, dhan, sabse upar van/van hi jivan hai; van se varsha, varsha se jal, jal se ann (Beyond, body, mind and wealth is the forest/ Forest brings rains/rains, water/and food comes from water)."

That may not make much sense in Bhopal or New Delhi.

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