In Conversation With The ‘Guardian Of Rivers’ In Maharashtra

Posted by Tanima Ray in Environment
April 26, 2017

Wetlands are important ‘entities’ which provide goods and services to the entire biosphere. These vital entities are disappearing rapidly.

The reasons behind this ecological havoc are habitat destruction, pollution, over use of resources, invasive species and encroachment. The immediate negative effect of this erosion is felt by the people who depend on natural resources i.e. fishermen and farmers.

For the conservation of natural resources, including wetlands, and the livelihood of these communities, a holistic approach is important.

In turn, the management of the whole river basin becomes essential wherein we have to consider various anthropological, ecological, economic, educational, cultural, political approaches to save natural resources ensuring a sustainable livelihood.

Nilesh Kamalkishor Heda is one of those rare river ecology scientists who is working out a way to save these dying rivers in the Amravati (Maharashtra) Division. He is not just a man holding a PhD in the subject but is also actively implementing his learning.

The following is a conversation with Nilesh about his work:

Saving rivers has been a roaring concept lately, starting with the Narmada Bachao Andolan to Ganga Action Plan. What is the specific issue regarding Vidharbha at this movement?
Nilesh: Siltation. A river starts from a source and flows down into the basin. To revive or save the river, its basin needs attention. The basin is 80% agricultural and is subject to excessive erosion due to which there is siltation which is blocking the rivers and reducing water flow.

What is your strategy to reduce this ‘siltation’?
Nilesh:The only remedy is to check soil erosion and this can be done through massive plantation and compartment bonding in fields. Earlier the farmers followed compartment bonding widely. Now the new generation lacks this awareness.
We have developed water sheds for the farmers and plan to do stream treatment projects where you stop the water and conserve it, but this is short term conservation. Changing cropping patterns also maintains the water level.

What else affects the river ecosystem?
Nilesh: Basically rainfall, source of water and aquifer are the key elements of a fresh water resource. The uneven rainfall, drying out of sources and use of fertilizers and pesticides are the other key factors after siltation that affects the ecosystem. Pesticides’ being the poisonous and harshest among all takes the lives of organisms living in water leading to loss in fishermen’s income and water scarcity affects the farmers.

How long does it take to revive a river?
Nilesh: A long time, 12 years. It is a slow process which is why we need to unite and strengthen the farmers first because they are the ones who can bring this change.
We are coming up with farmer co-operatives and advanced farming methods to help the farmers. One of our organizations is ‘Greenza’ which is extensively dedicated to productive and sustainable farming.

Can you throw light on the water crisis in Vidharbha?
Nilesh: Vidharbha has a water crisis mainly because of the lack of awareness. Fortunately, the Amravati division has ample amount of assured rainfall i.e. 1,200 mm, but the western Maharashtra faces a lot of droughts. Amravati has the least exploited aquifers in the state mainly because the farmers have no money to draw the water from underground.

Is there any role of ‘rain water harvesting’ in this conservation?
Nilesh: Yes, there is. But rooftop harvesting is fruitful only in urban areas. Farmlands need better techniques, awareness and infrastructure to conserve rain water which is not possible due to lack of funds.

What is the role of government in this?
Nilesh: The Maharashtra government has launched the ‘Jal Shivar’ scheme to tackle the water crisis in the state. The Chief Minister has laid out promising visions of the future. But the ground reality is different. There are no funds and the conservation process is haphazard. A river which is being depleted for human use can only be saved by humans. Bringing in advanced machines to replace farmers is not going to help them. Comparatively, the central government’s NREGA scheme is a better initiative.

As you are a man of rivers, what is your personal opinion on declaring Ganga and Yamuna as living beings?
Nilesh: Forces of nature have been worshipped by the tribals for thousands of years. It is not a new thing. And it is sensible to call them living beings as they harbor innumerable life within and sustain billions who depend on them.

For more on Nilesh’s work, visit