Last week when Sabarna Saraswati met me at a roadside tea shop in Duttapulia, a small village in Nadia district of West Bengal, he was busy in taking calls from his team members. He had just finished a mammoth job, leading a team of 450 people who have cleaned 12 km of Ichamati river in the past two weeks. Now he is taking another tough job to create ten plastic-free villages in Nadia.
Sabarna, 26, with a masters in zoology, changed his career plan and started working with the communities living along the bank of the river. He started his journey from the river’s source at Majhdiya, which is more than 125 km. He has covered more than 65 villages in Nadia and 24 North Parganas districts, to know the ground reality. He plans to continue until he reaches the end of the river. Along the journey, he’s gathering as much information as possible about the local community, environment and economy.
Ichamati river is among the 54 trans-boundary rivers shared by India and Bangladesh. It is one of the neglected rivers which are facing siltation, pollution and encroachment for decades—leading to only a thin flow of water in the dry season and floods in the rainy season. The path of this river is much critical, it has multiple horseshoe-shape turns, and Ichamati forms the international boundary between India and Bangladesh for 35 kms upstream from Nonaganj to Narayanpur and 21 km downstream from Angrail to Kalanchi.
One of the causes of Ichamati’s silting was the construction of a guard wall for the railway over the bridge at Pabakhali, in 1942, by the British to connect railway from Kolkata to Gede. As a result, no water enters Ichhamati during the dry season. Explaining the problems further, Jyotirmoy Saraswati of Sreema Mahila Samity, a nonprofit in Nadia, said, “The riverbeds from Pabakhali to Bhajanghat, roughly 12 km stretch, need to be excavated—so there is a flow of water during the lean season. If the Revisional Settlement map is anything to assess, the river’s width was 90 to 115 metres, but now the width is only 10 metres. People forcibly occupied the land and started cultivation on the riverbed in this area.”
Sabarna’s initial plan was to gather information from villagers living along the river, process the data, mobilise the community and finally reaching their voice at the government level for solution. As a rough estimation, nearly 15,000 fishermen are left jobless as there are no fishes left in the river. “Fishermen’s earnings have fallen drastically in the last few years, and they are struggling to survive. Out of the 50 river pumps, few have stopped working as the water level has decreased in the river. Agriculture is severely impacted this year in two districts. People can’t use the river in the upstream area and are being forced to change their profession,” he said.
With 400 local villagers, mostly from the fisherman community, and 50 supervising staff members, Sabarna started the cleanup project on August 16. The primary job was to uproot the water hyacinth growing on the 12 km stretch (from Narayanpur to Khagradanga in Nadia) of the river to speed up the water current. And it was not an easy task to uproot the plants as they were embedded deep in the river bed.
Moreover, the stagnant water of the river became extremely unhygienic and caused skin diseases to several. “At one point, I thought I wouldn’t be able to complete the task within fifteen days as we faced some resistance, but my young teammates made it possible. I worked with forty youth who supervised the whole cleaning project,” Sabarna said. Another significant achievement of the initiative is that they were able to wipe out 31 illegal small bunds used for fishing (Badhal), within this stretch of the river.
“We cleaned just a small portion of the river, we have more areas to cover, but the main problem lies in funding. The cleaning job requires huge funds. When the government is reluctant to do their jobs, the corporates should come up and invest in the water resources. I’m grateful to Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited for taking up this project as their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) activity. The ground water table in Nadia district is already in a critical position, and several blocks are marked as an arsenic hotspot in the latest Central Ground Water Board study. So, this is the right time to think about existing water resources and invest in integrated water management,” he further explained.
To make this effort sustainable, they used uprooted hyacinth to make vermicompost. “Altogether, we have constructed 80 concrete tanks in the area, and each of them has the capacity to produce 60 kgs of fertiliser every month. After using this fertiliser for local farming, the excess can be sold in the markets. This will not only be an income generation for the local community but will also ensure that the villagers keep cleaning the hyacinth from the river,” said Jyotirmoy Saraswati of Sreema Mahila Samity.
Answering why they have taken up this project, spokesperson of Bharat Petroleum Corporation said, “We are committed to supporting people doing extraordinary work for society, and we found that this project has a larger impact in the community. We’ve already supported water projects in other parts of the country; now we are expanding our support to water resource conservation in East India. Apart from this, we hope that the vermicompost project will sustain and promote organic farming in future.”
However, Sabarna is planning to put numbers of fish in Ichamati to rejuvenate its ecology,
and he is hopeful to start the next phase of cleaning of the river.
The story was developed as part of Earth Journalism Network Media Fellowship.