Leading a movement to revive a river

The work of river conservationist Mustaquim Mallah with help from local people to revive the Katha river is a good example that river conservation is possible through local participation.
A “one house, one pot” symbolic water donation movement was conducted over the years for river Katha. (Image: Mustaquim Mallah) A “one house, one pot” symbolic water donation movement was conducted over the years for river Katha. (Image: Mustaquim Mallah)

People of Ramra, a village in the Kairana block of Shamli district of Uttar Pradesh have warm recollections of river Katha that joins the Yamuna below Ramra. Mustaquim Mallah, a 30-year old river conservationist recalls how his grandfather held many pleasant childhood memories of the river. "My great grandfather fished in this river. Our ancestors fought the British colonialists and the 15-km patch of land in between the Yamuna and the Katha served as a good hidey-hole. This was a well-forested area and the river once had gharials and crocodiles and it was tough to cross it," says Mallah who has been trying to revive the river since 2006.

Where is its origin?

“Some accounts say that the Katha emerged from the springs in the hills of Shivalik. The construction of the Eastern Yamuna Canal in 1830 led to the blocking of the river flow which dried the river up between Saharanpur and Rampur. The irrigation department records reported the length of the river as 92 km instead of 130 km,” says Mallah.

A study refers to the Katha as a small, leftover channel of the river Yamuna, which flows along the north-west side of the Eastern Yamuna Canal command area and joins the Yamuna near the village Mawi. The study using remote sensing images confirms that the track of the Katha is clearly visible because of less elevation than the adjacent area. The construction of the Eastern Yamuna Canal put an end to the river. A report by the central ground water board states that the track between Krishna and Yamuna rivers is drained by the Eastern Yamuna Canal and the Katha nala flows through it forming a depression along the track with development of reh (a salty surface crust found on the soil) all along the course.

School students at an awareness raising camp about the lost channel and the need for its revival. (Image: Mustaquim Mallah)

Distressed by the dead, lifeless river, Mallah, who was initially associated with the Yamuna Sewa Samiti, Ramra, set up the Kewat Mallah Ekta Sewa Samiti to raise awareness about the lost channel and the need for its revival. Most people were not convinced and Mallah knew his actions would provoke awe, mirth and confusion, and that many would question his sanity.

Despite being on the verge of giving up hope, Mallah was reassured by Bhim Singh Rawat, a river conservationist who was associated with PEACE, a Delhi-based NGO at that time. Mallah recalls how Rawat was confident that they have a chance to revive the river. Also, how Manoj Misra, convenor of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan, a Delhi-based organisation working on the river Yamuna guided him in tracing the source of the Katha.

Misra, along with others, helped establish that the Katha is indeed a tributary and not just an old channel of the Yamuna. Sohan Pal, who was heading the Yamuna Sewa Samiti, Ramra updated them that its origin is from a johad (village pond) in Harpal village in Saharanpur district. Based on this firm lead, the group went and traced the Katha’s source in a johad in Nayagaon aka Nayabans village near Harpal village. Misra says that they found the johad lined by old trees of peepal and ber and a significant presence of birds. They also found the eroded channel of the stream both on the ground.

As per the Google map, the Eastern Yamuna Canal does not cross it. But, that’s the status now. It’s possible that the river emerged from the Shivaliks and was blocked by the Eastern Yamuna Canal. In either case, it is likely that the river also dried due to degradation of natural vegetation in the catchment area, valleys and plains; over-exploitation of groundwater, soil erosion and massive plantation of exotic trees which suck the groundwater table dry.

Construction of check dams in the riverbed hurts the interests of the land mafia which has encroached a lot of riverbed land. (Image: Mustaquim Mallah)

“Shivpal Yadav, then a minister in the Akhilesh Yadav government, promised to divert excess water from the Yamuna during monsoons to revive the Katha. The proposal was passed but never implemented as it hurts the interests of the land mafia which has encroached a lot of land in the riverbed. The present government also has sanctioned Rs one crore for reviving the river but no work has been done yet,” says Mallah. 

A people’s movement to revive the Katha river

Reviving the entire river stretch was a tall order and looked impossible. So, the Kewat Mallah Ekta Sewa Samiti, with support from Dehradun-based Natural History Research and Conservation Centre (NHRCC), decided to take up one kilometre stretch of the riverbed and revive it. Prof. Umar Saif, a wildlife scientist led the work from the side of the NHRCC. The main work was done by the villagers from Malakpur, the site of the lake and a dozen other adjoining villages such as Ramra, Jhinjhana, Nanglarai and Mohammadpurrai which donated labour to retrieve the entire ecosystem of the barren riverbed to turn it into a lake. In Malakpur, they were supported by Anand Kumar Saini, gram sarpanch of Malakpur and Umed Alvi, a social worker.

A check dam being constructed at Ragana on the Katha river. (Image: Mustaquim Mallah)

The riverbed was dug up to level the surface, construct several check dams (five-ft high and 40-feet long) to utilise rainwater and nearby water sources to feed the lake. The idea was to prevent the water of the Katha drain straightaway into the Yamuna.

A “one house, one pot” symbolic water donation movement was conducted over the years in which children and adults participated enthusiastically by contributing labour for over two weeks in 2016. Sarpanches of several gram panchayats showed interest considering the work could be done through MGNREGA. The proposed work entailed the construction of check dams, ponds and biodiversity restoration.   

But unfortunately, the area received poor rains in 2016 (35 percent deficient) and 2017. The check dams were flattened by the land mafia. This meant the river needed augmentation from some other source like excess water of Eastern Yamuna Canal during monsoons. This can be stored in the check dams and used subsequently. In 2018, they were lucky and were able to reconstruct the check dams and store lakhs of cubic feet of water.

“There is a regulator in village Ramra on the Yamuna river from where water is released during excess monsoons. This can be done every year and the backflow can be used for recharging the groundwater in the area,” says Rawat.   

What Mallah and the locals in the riverside villages are trying to do is seminal. Mallah has received awards from the government of Delhi and UNICEF along with the government of Uttar Pradesh for his work in national pulse polio eradication programme and the Ram Manohar Lohia excellence award for his efforts on river revival.

After years of river protection-related activism, Mallah is now pursuing his Bachelor’s in Social Work from Jamia Millia Islamia and feels that children and youth should be the key players in river restoration work.

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