River Paondhoi is best known today as a sewer running through Saharanpur city. Originally, however, it was an important source of drinking water for the city. In its heyday, the water of the river ran ankle deep, just enough to wash one’s feet. People coming into the city would wash their feet in the river giving it the name, Paondhoi.
The river originates from a spring in Sanklapuri village at the foothills of the Shivalik ranges, about eight km from Saharanpur city in western Uttar Pradesh. “As per folklore, Baba Lal Dass, a local religious ascetic who lived about 300 years ago brought the Ganga to this area where it debouches from the Himalayan ranges into the alluvial plains through his devotion. People revere the river by calling it Paondhoi Ganga,” says Dr P.K. Sharma, a retired professor of Geography from Meerut University.
The river empties into the Dhamola, a tributary of the Hindon. The city depends on groundwater which feeds the streams. Despite starting as a clean water source, it has become a sewer now.
How Paondhoi became a dead river
By the 1980s, the Paondhoi went from being a lifeline to thousands of people to a carrier of municipal sewage. Its waters had turned notoriously grimy and the river is now considered unfit for bathing.
The city and its adjoining areas are known for its polluting industries that range from paper and sugar to distilleries and slaughterhouses. They discharge untreated wastewater into the Paondhoi and the Dhamola. “Over 50 dirty outlets meet the river in just two-km stretch in the city,” says Dr Sharma who is the deputy secretary of the Paondhoi Bachao Samiti.
The Samiti has been cautioning people for years against polluting the stream. Many harmful pollutants were being thrown into the stream by the people, municipality and industries. Tanneries and slaughterhouses too were emptying waste in the waterway.
Dr Sharma was already active in the Jal Biradiri initiative in the area. Other concerned residents like Dr S. K. Upadhyay, a retired professor of botany too were alarmed at the shrunken state of the river.
The first river cleaning drive
The river was cleaned up in 2010 after concerned residents created a stink about the dirty waters. Sushant K. Singhal of Saharanpur.com, an independent media outlet in the city, who’s also a member of the Paondhoi Bachao Samiti had prepared the blueprint of the river clean-up in 2009. Singhal says that over 10,000 people were contacted to get their signed pledge to keep the river clean.
“We found out that motivating people was not enough. We needed authority to command various government departments like Nagar Nigam, Yamuna Action Plan (Jal Nigam), Saharanpur Development Authority, Pollution Control Board etc., besides support from the general public,” he says.
The Paondhoi Bachao Samiti was formed as a joint effort of government officials as well as civil society to clean the river. “Alok Kumar, the district magistrate along with the additional district magistrate Neeraj Shukla spearheaded the clean-up drive with the district administration as well as the city residents pitching in starting 2010,” writes Dr Virendra Azam in his book Gatha Paondhoi Ki.
The Paondhoi Bachao Samiti was set up with the district magistrate as its chairperson and the nodal officer and the additional district magistrate as secretaries. With the district magistrate at its helm, the government departments acted promptly. Civil society too was well represented in the Samiti which had a total of 22 members.
The action plan to clean up the Paondhoi was discussed at a meeting in May 2010. The existing budgets of the city’s municipal body were utilised for the clean-up drive. Children got involved in cleaning the river and a lot of awareness was generated among the citizens. The clean-up efforts involved removal of over 10,000 truckloads of silt, sludge and other solid waste from the river bed over four months. Over 30 households constructed septic tanks instead of draining the untreated sewage into the river.
Open drains were diverted into sewer systems and the Samiti also worked on waterfront development. Stretches of the river were fenced. Legal action was initiated against polluters, but the cases went nowhere. The media covered the campaign extensively. The members of the Paondhoi Bachao Samiti met on a daily basis to plan and assess the work during the four-month clean-up drive in 2010. The river was de-clogged and revived at a cost of just Rs 10 lakh.
The water quality of the river improved and the traditional Kewat Leela, a ritual of pulling a symbolic boat across the river held during Ramlila was conducted after 35 years. The success of the river led the principal secretary of urban development to issue a letter to district magistrates of 24 districts in Uttar Pradesh to emulate the campaign of river revival.
The unholy stink continues
“Nigrani Samitis (neighbourhood watch committees) were set up in 2010 to keep an eye on river pollution but they became defunct in the years that followed. The city could not make good on its pledge of slashing the flow of raw sewage and garbage into the river. With the Nagar Nigam itself draining its sewers into the river, how will people be motivated to do otherwise?” says Singhal.
The promise to cut the flow of pollutants into the Paondhoi was not met as district magistrates got regularly transferred and took little interest in the river revival. Some efforts are still underway and the river is cleaned up twice by the Ramlila committee just before monsoon to prevent flooding and again just before Dussehra.
It became increasingly clear that the condition of the river is slowly being reversed to what it was before. Like most conservation movements, this one too failed in working out a sustainable solution.
Smart city tag and plans to revive river once again
The Centre launched its flagship smart cities mission aimed at developing 100 smart cities over five years in 2015 with much fanfare. It was touted as the biggest urban reform in India but a look at Saharanpur shows that the project has not gained momentum. The city was selected in the competition in January 2018 at the last minute but due to the lack of preparation and zeal on the part of the municipal body, the mission’s work in the city is likely to lose track.
Under the scheme, however, Saharanpur will get Rs 500 crore from the Centre for implementing various urban infrastructure projects. An equal amount, on a matching basis, will have to be contributed by the state or the urban local body. Saharanpur city has formed a special purpose vehicle, a body created specially to take charge of smart cities and lead their development. It has also appointed Price Waterhouse Coopers as well as Infrastructure Leasing & Financial Services Limited as joint project management consultants. Not much progress has taken place and the city seems to be dragging its feet.
How far will this clean-up go?
“Though there is no denying that little work has happened on the ground, the smart cities mission did include our plan to revive the river Paondhoi. A riverfront development is proposed under the mission and there is hope if the project is taken up in a systematic manner and their speed of execution improved,” says Dr Sharma who served as a consultant in the project during the planning phase. The cost of the river clean-up include Rs 177 crore for sewerage and sanitation-related work and Rs 69.55 crore for waste management as per the Saharanpur smart city plan.
“It also has to be more comprehensive and include the clean-up of river Dhamola into which the Paondhoi drains,” says Dr Sharma. A plan is proposed under the smart cities mission to widen Paondhoi’s banks and deepen the river bed. Two check dams are planned at a distance of one km in the river’s upper reaches to maintain the river’s water level.
The question now is, will generous funding under the smart cities mission result in concrete advances in river clean-up? Will tons of household trash that line the river and form islands of refuse disappear? “The river revival effort has to move beyond cleaning up of the river and plug the sources of pollution—solid waste or sewage,” says Singhal who is now busy working on awareness drives in residential areas and schools on solid waste management.