Dead fish tell tales the case of Betwa proves. Tales which have the power to move a whole town in Madhya Pradesh and send the notoriously slothful official machinery into a whirligig of activity. It is all about a people's struggle to save the highly polluted Betwa river from becoming history

By Rajat Banerji
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

Dead fish tell tales

-- on december 6, 1996, coinciding with a Vidisha bandh call, Subash Yadav, deputy chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, graced the town of Vidisha with his visit. Addressing a gathering at the sslj college, he exploded a bomb: the state government and the entire official machinery had 'sold out' to the 'liquor mafia' - referring, obviously, to the infamous Som distillery and its stranglehold over the state's administration.

In itself, this was the first official affirmation of a sordid situation. Over the years, the Betwa river, lifeline of the obscure sleepy town of Vidisha in the Bhopal plateau, had degenerated into nothing but a sewer. A movement to restore this lifeline took shape gradually, cutting across social strata and political ideologies, blooming into an unignorable protest against the pollution of the river. The people of Vidisha - which has a population of just over a lakh - came together and rose as one."Nobody has the right to pollute the Betwa river, our source of drinking water," was their war-cry; it was a pronouncement that shook the very foundations of a state government.

The result: closure of a distillery owned by a powerful industrial house, identified as the major source of pollution, in the second week of December, 1996. Also, the cementing of a belief that any form of planning required the consent of the people, especially when it came to industrialisation and its resultant pollution. A quiet exit of an environment minister. And, on the face of it, a concerned government valiantly rushing to the rescue of a harassed people. After, of course, all the fish had died.

We the people
It was a people's movement at its best. A non-perennial river, the Betwa is an important tributary of the Yamuna. For most of the year, the riverbed remains dry, save for the few ponds of eutrophicated water, blue-green with algae. Increasing abstraction over the past 15-20 years has reduced this once-revered river (see box: From the days of yore) into a flow of muck and sewage.

An anicut (small dam) at Vidisha stores two months' water supplies for the town. During the dry months, the townsfolk rely on groundwater and water purchased from other sources. For a variety of reasons, groundwater in the area has become progressively less usable over the years. On July 16, 1996, this anicut was witness to a reoccurrence of a phenomenon previously seen in the late '80s and in 1993: thousands of dead fish collected at the site. This spectacle spurred on the movement against pollution in the river. The last straw, ironically, came in mid-September, when there was ample water in the river. Massive amounts of algae in the river prevented the water from being consumed; even the treated water was declared unfit for use.

"Here was a situation where even when there was water in the river, we didn't have water to use. We were outraged," says Dhiraj Shah, one of the architects of the movement. An engineer by training, he has been involved with highlighting the state of the Betwa for the past few years. "As far as we are concerned, the situation which had been on the boil for at least three years, simply exploded," adds Shah.

Vidisha's water requirement is almost four million gallons per day (mgd). But the existing treatment facilities have a capacity to treat and supply only two mgd. According to the Vidisha Nagar Palika (vnp), there are two anicuts in Vidisha. "The anicuts have a cumulative storage capacity of 25 million cubic feet of water. This corresponds to two months' water supply for Vidisha," states V P Sharma, a senior engineer with vnp. "The water that gets stored after monsoons is exhausted by January. After that, the water in the anicuts is bolstered by water from the Samrat Ashok Sagar reservoir. This arrangement works alright till April," he adds.

However, after April, this arrangement is discontinued as the water from the reservoir is used for agricultural purposes, and Vidisha suffers. People have to either purchase water from nearby towns, or rely on handpumps. The years 1995-96 saw extreme water shortage in Vidisha.

The 'think-tank' of the movement decided to launch a planned campaign against the state government, a decision which found ready support from various quarters. The local administration played the crucial role of keeping open the information channel to its citizens. All political parties decided to set aside their differences to work for this issue together. The entire business community also threw in its lot. "We took to the streets and made people sign letters, which pledged their support to the movement," says Shivraj Singh Chauhan, the member of parliament (mp) from Vidisha. "There was no distinction between individuals. We were one," he adds.

Denials and assents
Down To Earth (DTE) spoke to Yadav later. The deputy chief minister, however, was righteously indignant, saying that he had been misquoted. "All I did was express my anguish at the fact that the system was unable to bring to book the source identified as the reason behind pollution in the river. Reports carried out by the Madhya Pradesh pollution control board (mppcb) had proved beyond doubt that Som distillery, Sehatganj, was responsible for the extreme pollution loads in the river. And yet the system failed to act," he said.

But as far as the movement was concerned, Yadav's 'misquote' proved to be the catalyst. The ensuing uproar in the state assembly galvanised chief minister (cm) Digvijay Singh into calling a meeting of concerned departments and people on December 9. Convinced that the Som distillery indeed was the polluter, Singh directed the mppcb to order its closure (see box: Smoke drama and apathy) .

"It was a combined effort," says K D Mishra, an assistant professor at Vidisha's sslj college and convenor, Paryavaran Vahini, the citizens' forum for action on local environment. "The collector had made available to us the findings of the mppcb team, and during the cm's meet, we were able to impress upon all around that we, the people, had the same information as they (the officials and ministers) did," adds Mishra. "The people must have access to correct information," reiterates Wasim Akhtar, collector, Vidisha. "The administration is here to help the citizens, and from our side, we didn't want to leave scope for any shortfall."

Muck, as sampled
Analysis of samples of Betwa’s water taken by MPPCB shows the contents to be far in excess of permissible limits — for instance, BOD levels were 140 times higher!


Lagoon no4
Som distillery
Indian standards for individual
effluents, on application on land
Appearance Turbid  
Colour Dark brown Nil
Odour Unpleasant No smell
pH 7.60 5.5-9.0
Dissolved oxygen - Not-specified (NS)
Chemical oxygen demand      (mg/I) 3087.2 NS
Chloride (mg/I) 4748.5 6000
Sodium (mg/I) 410 60
Potassium (mg/I) 6000 NS
Total solids (mg/I) 35636 NS
Dissolved solids (mg/I) - 2100
Suspended solids (mg/I) - 200
Biological oxygen demand     (mg/I) 14000 100
Nitrate nitrogen (mg/I) 3120 NS

Receptacle for muck
Madanlal Sharma, affectionately called Betwa ke baba (the old man of Betwa), who has been trying to educate the local people about the necessity of keeping the river clean for the past 22 years, spent between Rs 60,000-70,000 from his own purse for highlighting the plight of the river. "I had taken some people from Vidisha and the nearby towns to petition the President. I have tried to speak to all the important people visiting Vidisha, but there is little response," says the 74-year-old, adding, "This water used to cure diseases, and people would come here from all around the state to get well. Now no one wants to even bathe in it."

The 573-km river which Sharma is talking about, flows for 216 km in mp, joining the Yamuna at Ghatampur, near Hamirpur, in Uttar Pradesh. "The river is essentially polluted in the upper stages, in the water-scarce region of the Bhopal plateau," notes a study carried out by Sanjeev Agrawal of the central pollution control board in 1991. This study had examined the pollution loads in the upper stretches of the Betwa (Mandideep to Vidisha) in 1991.

The river's source is groundwater recharge near Jhiri village, less than 50 km from Bhopal. Over the years, however, with the loss of forest cover in this area, little or no recharge is taking place, and therefore, lesser water gets released into the river. The first entries into the river are two drains carrying industrial and domestic effluents from Mandideep, an industrial estate about 22 km from Bhopal.

The Betwa is joined by the Kaliasoth river (one of its tributaries) at Bhojpur village, a few kilometres downstream of Mandideep. The Kaliasoth brings with it New Bhopal's untreated domestic effluents. Between the Kaliasoth confluence and Vidisha, the Jogi Khar nallah joins the Betwa in Raisen district. This nallah flows past Som distillery - about six km from the river - at Sehatganj.

"From Mandideep's two drains, the industrial discharge into the Betwa is 300 cubic metres (cum) a day, and 250 cum of domestic effluents. The biochemical oxygen demand (bod) load from here is 42 kg a day," notes a mppcb study carried out to pinpoint the exact source of pollution after dead fish had collected at Vidisha in July 1996. "The discharge from Bhopal is approximately 11,000 cum of wastewater, which has a bod load of 1,200 kg a day. This is discharged into Bhopal's Third lake, through the Panchsheel nallah. The overflow from this lake enters the Betwa through the Kaliasoth river."

"During the monsoons, excessive wastes from the Mandideep industrial area enters the river as the area gets flushed by rainwaters. Som distillery has wastewater discharges of 600 cum a day," notes the mppcb report. Its treatment facilities include a methane digester-aeriater and holding ponds. The 'treated' wastewater is let out into lagoons, thereby adding bod loads of 6,000 kg a day to the lagoons. During monsoons, the wastes from the distillery and the lagoons are flushed into the Jogi Khar nallah.

Thus, the water that reaches Vidisha is essentially wastewater. Increased irrigation in the agriculturally productive countryside has reduced the flow of the water, thereby drastically cutting down the capacity of the river to assimilate these high bod, micronutrient and heavy metal loads; micronutrients and heavy metals result from industrial, agricultural and domestic effluents.

In the cause of a river
Shivraj Singh Chauhan says the issue of dead fish (1993) was "taken up in the state assembly", and that "representations were made even to the President, Shankar Dayal Sharma. Even though the distillery was ordered shut, the distillers obtained a stay order from the Gwalior High Court. Subsequently, the government wasn't able to vacate the stay." Sporadic protest marches in Vidisha followed, but little else happened.

The formulation of the national river conservation plan (nrcp) in July 1994 for pollution abatement in 46 towns located on 18 rivers gave Vidisha some hope; Betwa was one of the rivers identified to be cleaned. The pollution abatement schemes for Vidisha, estimated to cost Rs 4.87 crore, received administrative sanction from the ministry of environment and forests (mef) only in August, 1995. While elected representatives like Chauhan kept the issue alive in the state capital, the Paryavaran Vahini pushed the issue at the ground level. On December 12, 1995, a public discussion was organised where the collector, elected representatives of the people and concerned citizens discussed not just the issue of pollution, but also alternative sources of drinking water for the town.

"A semi-perennial river, the Bes, runs about 1,500 m par allele to the Betwa at the anicut. This river remains unpolluted, and gets water from the Halali dam," says Basant Jain, vice president of the vnp. "We considered the possibility of diverting some water from here for Vidisha." During the dry spell in 1996, money for this work was sanctioned and the Bes waters were supplied to Vidisha.

However, when the dead fish collected at the anicut in Vidisha in July, some citizens, including K D Mishra, immediately went to assess the situation for themselves. Having worked on fish toxicology for the past 15 years, Mishra realised that as the fish were already dead, the root of the problem lay somewhere upstream. Along with Wasim Akhtar, he retraced the route of the dead fish.

"As we had been through an almost identical situation in 1993, we reached Som distillery at Sehatganj in Raisen district. Here we noticed that there were clear indications at the Jogi Khar nallah that wastes from the distillery had been flushed into the river," says Mishra. In 1993, the then collector of Vidisha, C P Arora had also traced the pollutant loads to the distillery.

This time, the inspection team went to the distillery accompanied by Raisen's collector A N Tiwari. Satisfied that wastes from the distillery had indeed entered the river, they sent messages to the mppcb and the chief secretary, Madhya Pradesh. The mppcb was directed to constitute a committee to pursue the issue and submit its report within a week's time. This report, instead of being released by July 25, reached Vidisha only on October 13, following numerous reminders, and only after the issue had snowballed into a full-scale movement.

"But as the danger had passed, and normal water supply had resumed within two-three days, the issue seemed to cool down somewhat," says Dhiraj Shah. On September 15, when there was plenty of water stored in the anicut, the problem of algae in the river overtook the besieged town.

At this juncture, it was realised that one vital ingredient was essential: the people's open support. On September 22, all these parties held a meeting at the collector's office to assess the situation. They decided that a team of Vidisha's citizens would travel upstream and identify each source of pollution that entered the river. This work completed, they decided to take the matter to the people. The deadline, November 10, was declared sankalp divas, or a day of pledge.

On d-day, the people took out a procession in the town, speaking to others on street-corners, educating them on the issue. Somewhere along the line, the Vidisha Traders' Association - representing the 24 traders' bodies of the town - also joined forces. "We joined the movement as it concerned us all. Everyone in this town, whether he is a big businessperson or a daily wage earner, drinks water supplied by the vnp. While some do have handpumps, even that water is not always fit for drinking," says Devraj Arora, president of the association. "This is also a holy city. The polluted river prevents people from taking a dip during auspicious occasions."

Arora says that their association is keen to scrutinise all future development plans, especially industrialisation, in the areas that have an impact on Vidisha. "It's not as if we will sit at home once the distillery is closed. The message we have for other towns that are on the receiving end is that if you want to do something about an issue, you certainly can," he adds.

The untiring efforts of all concerned paid off on November 13, when they received the mppcb committee report. This coincided with another important development in the movement. For three days (November 14-16), people of the town were stopped on street corners and asked to sign the sankalp patras (letters of pledge). In the process, they were individually educated on the issue, and their future support pledged.

"We were skeptical, to begin with," says Dhiraj Shah. "But the response was overwhelming and we had to print thousands of extra letters. In all, around 20,000 letters were signed on those three days. When reports of such mass support reached Bhopal, they had to take note of the issue. To make the official machinery work, we need to raise an issue in a planned and proper manner. We have the habit of saying that the system doesn't work. But we have rarely ever tried to make it work."

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