Environmental issues are political issues!

Not many journalists are interested in matters of the environment. Youthful conservation biologist and environment journalist Bahar Dutt is not one of them. For long she ran an animal ambulance for injured primates, helped set up a rescue centre for them, built rope bridges for the Colobus monkey in East Africa and spent a decade with snake charmers across India on a community conservation project on sustainable livelihoods.


As a television journalist, Bahar has reported on some of the biggest environment stories from the Arctic, to the rain forests of Indonesia. Her celebrated TV series Saving the Ganga for the news channel CNN-IBN ran in six regional languages including History TV 18 India and was one of the highest rated TV shows.

For the series she undertook a 2400 km journey, following the river Ganga from its source at the Gaumukh Glacier, across five states to the Bay of Bengal where it empties into the sea. In the second series she spent six months trailing the Western Ghats from north to south, meeting the people that inhabit one of the worlds ‘hottest hotspots’ and filming the unique biodiversity of this landscape for a programme entitled Saving India’s Western Ghats.

Here Bahar talks to The Lucknow Observer about the Gomti River adding that her environment investigations led to the shutdown of an illegal shopping mall on the river bed of the Yamuna, an illegal mine in Goa that was operating on forest land and helped halt the destruction of the wetlands that were home to the Sarus cranes in Uttar Pradesh.

Winner of the Green Oscar, in 2006 her reportage has helped push environment stories from an obtuse segment on television to primetime news space. Broadcaster, environment editor, writer and closet baker, she now lives a more ordinary life in New Delhi with her dog Musibat, or big trouble and her husband Vijay Bedi.

Are you aware that the Gomti river in Lucknow is dying?

I am aware of some of the problems that the river Gomti is facing, what worries me is that it’s the plight of most of our rivers. The moment they enter our cities they get reduced to sewage dumping pits. I have followed the river Ganga right from its source at Gaumukh past its journey over 2400 kms through all the states, finally to Sagar Island in the Bay of Bengal where the Ganga meets the sea. I saw a gamut of complex problems the river is facing every step of her journey, despite being India’s most revered. We had an ambitious Ganga Action Plan for our national river. I think the time has come to set up an ambitious plan for ALL of our rivers across the country.

As for saving our rivers, we have to follow the concept of aviral dhara- that is a minimum, uninterrupted flow for a river to maintain its basic characteristic. Right now we are exploiting our river waters so much, we divert them for hydropower in the Himalayas, then in the plains we build barrages and divert them for agriculture, while at the same time dumping a cocktail of effluents into the waters. How can any river survive after such abuse? I was just reading a scientific paper on the levels of heavy metal contaminants in the river Gomti.

What can government and civil society do to nurse the Gomti back to life?

I think we need active river conservation programmes similar to what we have for our forests. Yes we have had the Ganga Action Plan, but there was no community ownership of the ambitious programmes in it. Secondly, I think we need to be more serious about fining industries that dump their effluents in the river. Many industries get away with simply dumping untreated water laced with chemicals straight into the Ganga and its tributaries. I have seen this in many parts of Uttar Pradesh, and no one fines them. Just recently the National Green Tribunal fined sugar mills that were dumping all their effluents into the river and I see hope with the judiciary.

Give an example of how a particular river was rescued from your travels around the world?

I would not like to give examples from around the world as I am not sure if they are relevant in our country. But there are examples of citizens initiatives that have ensured success. Did you know for instance there is a Guddu Baba in Bihar who has been working tirelessly for the last 15 years to ensure sewage and dead bodies are not dumped in the Ganga? Or what about individuals like Anil Joshi, who has used the simple technology of the gharat or water mills all across the Himalayas to generate electricity? I think solutions do exist, unfortunately we are only interested in solutions that involve a lot of construction and money so there is scope for corruption.

Can the Ganga be cleaned the way Sabarmati was poured water from the Narmada?

I think the problems of the Ganga are very different from Sabarmati. I am extremely ambivalent about the plans to inter-link our rivers, if you ask the experts they all say we need to study their impacts carefully before advocating inter-linking of rivers. Even if you divert more water into the Ganga unless you intercept the sewage being dumped into it from our cities you are not addressing the problem. That’s the first step.

Did you know that in Varanasi in 2011 during the filming of our series Saving the Ganga, I met the late Veerbhadra Mishra, pioneer of the clean Ganga movement. He had proposed an innovative plan to clean the waters at Varanasi, through a series of interceptors, a simple low cost plan that has been languishing at the Prime Ministers Office for the last 10 years. Why cant we revive that plan?

What are real solutions to rescuing the Ganga and the Gomti?

The real solutions are tough ones, only because they require us to look at the river in a completely new way as a living breathing entity that supports all forms of life not just humans but a lot of biodiversity.

We will have to address what is happening to the Ganga in the upper reaches of the Himalayas. In my book Green wars: Dispatches from a vanishing world I write about the mega dams that are coming upon every stretch of the river. It was eerie but as we toured villages following the river Ganga, in 2011 for our TV series everyone from farmers to environmentalists predicted there would be large scale disaster because of the bumper to bumper dams being constructed on the Ganga. And exactly a year later the tragedy occurred.

Yes we need electricity but are we looking at the cumulative impacts of bumper to bumper dams?

Do we ever look at the economic and social losses from such disasters? I have also written about the real reason why the Himalayan Tsunami occurred in 2013. Yes there was heavy rainfall and it was nature’s fury. But the disaster was exacerbated by the way we are managing the river in the Himalayas. I do hope the new government will take steps to protect the river and declare it as protected at least on the first 100 kms of its journey from its source.

Crores of rupees have already been spent in trying to rescue the Gomti, what else does the Gomti need to breathe and to flow again apart from of course money?

Firstly it is heartening to know that we now have citizens initiatives in every city. In Delhi for instance we have citizens groups that are actively working on Saving the Yamuna. Likewise I have also heard about a group in Lucknow that’s been working on a Clean Gomti drive. We need to effectively mobilise such groups, and most importantly involve the people who live close to the river. Too often our river cleaning initiatives end up removing the poor who live off the river. I don’t know if a Thames like model should be applied in India.

As far as concrete steps that can be taken, I would be interested in knowing if the oxidation ponds that had to be constructed in the towns of Pilibhit, Lakhimpur and Sitapur and Barabanki were to be constructed on the orders of the Supreme Court way back in 2002? Have they been constructed or not? These would ensure that industrial waste is not discharged straight into the Gomti river. Citizens groups need to take these kind of questions to their politicians, so that environmental issues become political issues.

The late Veerbhadra Mishra, pioneer of the clean Ganga movement. He had proposed an innovative plan to clean the waters at Varanasi, through a series of interceptors, a simple low cost plan that has been languishing at the Prime Ministers Office for the last 10 years. Why cant we revive that plan? And Citizens groups need to take environmental questions to their politicians, so that environmental issues become political issues.

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