Breathing life into Baitarani

The river basin of Baitarani is facing many challenges in these changing times. Initiatives are on to protect it.
Pranab Choudhury Pranab Choudhury

Pranab Choudhury has been actively engaged with the causes of the poor and the environment for more than a decade. A senior development researcher, practitioner and a consultant at Baitarani Initiative office at Kalinga Nagar, Bhubaneswar, Odisha, he focuses on issues related to agriculture, forest, environment and water sector in India and South Asia. 

Earlier, he has worked as a scientist with Indian Council of Agriculture Research for eight years. For his work in developing a participatory watershed model in the tribal eastern ghats, he received Vasant Rao Naik Award for Research Application in Agriculture in 2002. Pranab has more than 50 research papers to his credit which he has published in peer-reviewed journals and presented at many international and national conferences. He is the co-founder of Odisha Water Forum and a founder member of Odisha Nadi Surakhsya Samukshya, a group formed to protect Odisha rivers. He has also served as a member of the steering committee of the Forum for Policy Dialogue on Water Conflicts in India.

Due to his interest in innovation in the water sector and his belief in futuristic river basin resources management approach, he joined an NGO Shristi that is working on environment and river basin issues in Odisha as project coordinator and started coordinating Baitarani river basin initiatives in Odisha. 

He spoke to India Water Portal about the challenges that the Baitarani river basin faces and the possible solutions to them.

What is the Baitarani initiative?

Baitarani initiative is an attempt to optimise the use of knowledge, research and innovation in the development of the Baitarani river basin. In this initiative, we are trying to engage qualified professionals and volunteers to address issues related to the river basin at different levels like governance, environment, livelihood, forestry, etc.

Why this initiative?

No civil society organisation has so far attempted to bring river basin in India as a management unit in an integrated manner. There were government and NGO programmes around integrated watershed development and actions at the river basin were limited to catchment treatment. There was a need for an inclusive approach towards river basin development through citizen and stakeholder participation.

The inhabitants of the river basin were not aware of their role in its management. Neither were they aware of the implications of the development programmes taken by the government on the basin. There have not been any connection or communication between the upstream and downstream inhabitants and riparian communities along the main stream and tributaries, while the river connected them both longitudinally and laterally. Any form of public dialogue to address the issues around the river basin was absent. Meanwhile, incidents like river-bed rising, floods, mining, pollution, delta-salinity, mangrove-erosion, etc were rising threatening the basin resources and livelihoods. To trigger public debates, concerns and actions around the river basin, there is a need to develop a holistic perspective of the river in the society.

What are the challenges you are currently facing at Baitarani?

There are multiple problems. Baitarani catchment bears high pressure of mining and industrialisation, deforestation and has a vulnerable population of indigenous communities. Thanks to the many embankments and escapes, the delta gets flooded often. There are issues related to access, availability and quality of surface and groundwater, irrigation management, reducing fish catch and diversity, delta salinity and mangrove erosion. 

Based on our assessment of the basin, we had suggested Integrated River Basin Management (IRBM) for Baitarani to the government of Odisha along with the constitution of an inclusive river basin organisation (RBO). The government of Odisha had constituted the Baitarani River Basin Organisation in 2012, adopting Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) framework. Baitarani is the first RBO in Odisha which remains on paper and no concrete work has so far been done by the government. The RBO has excluded many stakeholders and focuses more on hydrology and engineering. 

Baitarani's water is increasingly being used for industrial consumption. There are plans to lay two pipelines from Keojhar to Paradeep for transporting iron ore through slurries by making use of Baitarani's water. This would affect the environment and the community life in the area. 

Baitarani is now one of the most heavily polluted rivers. The pollution is not only due to industries; faecal pollution is also a major contributor with no treatment plants of Urban Local Bodies (ULB) along the river. The river is also affected by high levels of manganese and chromium contamination. Hexachrome pollution is a major concern with high concentrations reported at Dhamra confluence, 100 km away from the mining area upstream.

There is a discrepancy in the state and central government data about the water availability in the river basin which is leading to a conflict between the centre and the state government. For example, Ministry of Water Resources says that the catchment area of Mahanadi basin is 141589 sq km whereas the Odisha government data says it is 132100 sq km. There are many similar examples like this.

Why there is this discrepancy in data related to rivers in India?

There is a lack of coordination between various government departments and external agencies that collect data. There is a need to widen data collection parameters, frequency and intensity of collection. We must consider standardising research methodology, decentralising and crowd sourcing data for transparency and efficiency. Data convergence through information available from different sources and management of the information of the rivers is the need of the hour.

Is it possible to revive the rivers in Odisha?

Yes, a positive trend has started. When we started working on issues related to Baitarani, some people's movement and dialogue related to rivers had already started in the Brahmani (part of Baitarani-Brahmani river basin). Over the past decades, we see sprouting of many socio-environmental movements around both big and small rivers. For the first time, the political parties of Odisha and Chhattisgarh participated in people's movement activities on the Mahanadi issue in 2010-11. Now, the government of Odisha is saying that the ecological flow of the river should be maintained. Things are working but the the pace is slow.

What are your recommendations to improve the condition of rivers in India?

  • There is a need to conduct an overall impact assessment of all proposed interventions across the length and breadth of the river basin in every 10 years with citizen participation.
  • To develop a river basin, there is a need for developing a common platform where engineers, industrialists, common man, farmers, fisherfolks, etc come together and debate, discuss and share their common concerns and suggestions to improve the situation. Right now there is no such platform.
  • We need to sit together and develop river basin plans based on water policy with correct data.
  • Convergence of data and technology is needed.
  • We should take the inhabitants and the biodiversity of the river basin into consideration while charting out development plans.
  • There is a need to inform people about all aspect of river basin plan and data because river is the lifeline of the society. Without transparency and people participation, the idea of sustaining and conserving our rivers is not possible.
  • We should allow innovation and use technology in developing better rivers for the people.

 

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