Narayan Choudhary has mobilised communities to voice against issues such as encroachments and pollution of Darbhnaga’s waterbodies to revive the region’s natural and cultural heritage. Illustration by Sheena Deviah for Mongabay.

Narayan Choudhary has mobilised communities to voice against issues such as encroachments and pollution of Darbhnaga’s waterbodies to revive the region’s natural and cultural heritage. Illustration by Sheena Deviah for Mongabay.

Illegal encroachment of historical ponds

Choudhary said in the last two decades, illegal encroachers have filled ponds with waste, soil and other material, killing the ponds. With the disappearance of ponds, their ability to naturally harvest water during monsoon, will also be hit.

Three big ponds, Dighi Museum, Ganga Sagar and Harahi, that are 600 to 700 years old as well as other ponds that are about 200 years to 400 years old are also facing the threat of encroachment and dumping of garbage.

Choudhary questioned the government’s seriousness to save and revive water bodies. The government had launched a campaign in 2019 to free water bodies from encroachment and to help rainwater harvesting and groundwater conservation to tide over times of drought, flood and drinking water crisis in the state – it is now linked to the much publicised Jal Jeevan Hariyali Mission of Bihar, under which farmers get a subsidy to create ponds. This campaign is part of the Disaster Risk Reduction Roadmap 2015-2030, which mandates action for water conservation by concerned agencies. It was then claimed that the operation to conserve water bodies will focus on removing encroachment of ponds, lakes, canals, ahar and pynes (traditional water harvesting systems), drains, water drainage channels and rivers.

“The poorest of the poor have been displaced in the name of freeing water bodies from encroachment. Several ponds have been encroached upon and illegally filled in broad daylight since last year to date, in violation of guidelines of the court and the government,” said Choudhary. He said that ponds have been damaged in the name of renovation, under the mission scheme to revive them. “Most of the ponds are being turned into a deep dig hole,” he said. “Unlike other regions, Mithilanchal’s heritage is water bodies, mainly ponds, wells, network of rivers, their branches, sub-branches and wetlands. But we are not able to manage our rivers and their branches, the best natural gift.”

Encroachment in Dighi pond in Darbhanga. Photo from Narayan Choudhary.
Encroachment in Dighi pond in Darbhanga. Photo from Narayan Choudhary.

Mobilising the community and pushing the government to act

“It is a difficult task to save a pond due to apathy of government and local administration,” said Choudhary about his fight to protect old ponds even as illegal encroachers get away easily.

Roughly 8 to 10 ponds, mostly on the government land, were filled by illegal encroachers during the last two years, said Choudhary naming Moini pond, Baba Sagar Das pokhar, Dumduma pokhar of Darbhanga as examples. Another water body, the Makhnahi pokhar, was saved from encroachment by the local people’s resistance, he claimed.

“Our work’s result is that the local community has now started complaining against any attempt of encroachment of ponds and in some cases they protested to save ponds. It is a big relief for us that the local community have been putting resistance against encroachment of ponds either on the government or private land.” Choudhary told Mongabay-India in a telephonic conversation.

“Our approach is clear, we are committed to create awareness among the local community to save, conserve and revive water bodies.” he added. “In 2019, we submitted a brief report for renovation of traditional wells (kuaan) to cope with the water crisis based on people’s initiative of revival of traditional wells,” he said.

Now, TBA is working to prepare guidelines about renovation and conservation of traditional or cultural ponds.

Shifting focus from saving ponds to other wetlands

Due to personal health problems, Choudhary admitted that his work to save ponds was slowed down between the 2017 to 2019 period. And in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic affected work too. But Choudhary said that his group is working towards the decision taken a year ago – to save more water bodies including rivers and wetlands.

“For this purpose we have documented some facts about the Kamla River. Its main branch and branches, locally known as Dhar. Similarly, sub-branch of Dhar is known as Nasi or Fori or Baha or Choti Kamla or by other names. Kamla river, Dhar and its branches are connected with thousands of small and big wetlands and ponds. But the situation has changed now due to the construction of embankments that had destroyed traditional water sources to ponds and wetlands and its natural management.”

There are 10 dhar (branches) of Kamla in the stretch of 45 km between Jhanjharpur to Darbhanga followed by several sub-branches. But all these were dried after the government’s Water Resources Department (WRD) encroached upon the Kamla embankment project in the name of controlling floods. “Earlier, water from these dhars would spread out into many big and small wetlands, but natural water distribution was stopped. We will now mobilise people to put pressure to start distribution of water in a controlled way to manage floods and to cope with the water crisis. If dhars will be opened, it will give life to the river and revive it with water round the year unlike only during monsoon,” said Choudhary, adding that to get rid of the drinking water crisis, revival is needed of not only chains of ponds but also river branches, its sub-branch including dhar, bahaa, nasi, fori.

Choudhary’s supporters, Verma, Mishra and Jha, are on board with the latest plan to expand their conservation work to wetlands.

Verma, who has been living in Darbhanga after retirement, said that the new Jalashay Abhiyan will work as a pressure group to force the government to initiate moves to save ponds, dhar and wetlands.

Mishra meanwhile, said, an age-old connection of river and wetland has been snapped due to the construction of embankments, roads and railways and human settlement. These are the real culprits of the dying wetlands, he said, adding that in every village of north Bihar at least 5 to 10 percent is part of the wetland, yet there is no serious move at the policy level to save wetlands. Jha also added that the economy of north Bihar in fact very much depends on its water wealth including wetlands.

This article is originally published in The Mongabay.

 

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