Restoration debate: Conservation or destruction

Conservationists are up in arms against a project launched by the government to desilt rivers to control floods, which have become an annual phenomenon since 2018, alleging that it has led to unscrupulous sand-mining. While the government maintains transparency in works, conservationists are unconvinced

Updated - May 29, 2022 05:35 pm IST

Published - May 29, 2022 03:18 pm IST - KOTTAYAM 

 Men and machines at work on a sediment deposit on the Pampa. A scene from Vazhakunnam, near Kozhenchery, in Pathanamthitta.

Men and machines at work on a sediment deposit on the Pampa. A scene from Vazhakunnam, near Kozhenchery, in Pathanamthitta. | Photo Credit: Leju Kamal

Setting out southwards along Main Central Road beyond Thiruvalla, a township in Pathanamthitta, a vacant plot of land with truckloads of sand comes into view. ‘River sand with passes for sale’, reads a banner that hangs on a tree nearby. 

Ordinary it may seem, but the image offers a jarring contrast to another board that stands just a few 100 meters away. It declares that the second phase of rejuvenation of the Varattar , a river that has long ceased to flow, is under progress here.

The nine-km waterbody, a tributary of the Pampa that meanders through the three grama panchayats of Eraviperoor, Kuttoor, and Thiruvanvandoor and Chengannur municipality in Alappuzha, used to be the lifeline of people in the region and acted as a natural flood control mechanism between the Pampa and Manimala rivers, carrying the excess water during the monsoons. 

Indiscriminate sand-mining and encroachment over the previous decades sounded its death knell and it’s been reduced to a few wet patches of land.

For the past three months, men and machines have been working overtime to clear the silt and debris accumulated along the riverbed. Hundreds of truckloads of ‘construction-grade sand’ too have been driven out of it, which is now being sold off.

People’s concerns

As the volume of sand being taken from the river has increased, so have the concerns of the local people, who have started to fight the dredgers, worried about riverbed degradation and the impact on the riparian environment.

“Dumping yards for river sand, which also double up as selling points, have cropped up at least a couple of places while the ghat committees and the local bodies concerned are being consistently kept in the dark about the nature of rejuvenation works,” says Harish Kumar A.S., convener of the Varattar Protection Council, an outfit formed by local people. 

 The varattar, a tributary of the Pampa, where a river rejuvenation project is under progress.

The varattar, a tributary of the Pampa, where a river rejuvenation project is under progress. | Photo Credit: Leju Kamal

The Irrigation department, on the other hand, stands firm that the contractor engaged for the work has not violated any norms as stipulated in the work agreement. 

As accusations and counter accusations continue, in came the unseasonal rains that apparently slowed down the pace of works. The issue, meanwhile, has reached the Kerala High Court in the form of petitions moved by a couple of parties, including the Chengannur municipality. 

At the outset, the episode looks complicated and fraught. There are passionate environmental interests on the one side and administrative necessities on the other side. In the middle is a government trying to make the right decision. The issue, however, is not limited to just the Varattar alone.

Worrying reports have poured in from different parts of the State ever since the government embarked on a massive programme to clean-up the rivers to free river beds of silt and debris deposited during the floods in 2018 and 2019.

The project takes its cue from a finding by the Department of Irrigation that sediments weighing about 30,14,8879.46 cubic metres, which roughly translates to about 60 lakh truckloads, will have to be removed from the 44 major rivers to ensure smooth flow of water. 

Rivers in 5 categories

These rivers, depending on the size, have been split in to five categories, of which the six major rivers — the Periyar, Achencoil, Meenachil, Pampa, Manimala and Muvattupuzha are in the A category. Of these, desiltation has achieved considerable progress in the Achencoil here as 20% of the silt has been removed while works in the other rivers, except the Periyar, has reached just about 10%.

Among the rivers in the B category, desiltation has crossed the 35% mark while work on the 14 rivers in the E category is almost complete.  So far, approximately about 20 lakh cubic metres of silt has been removed from these rivers, as per the Major Irrigation department.

Ecological integrity

But whether it’s flood control or rejuvenation, conservationists are increasingly concerned about what’s going on in Kerala’s rivers. They fear the machine deployed by the work contractors to scrape through the top inches of the riverbed will also affect stability of the river banks. In the long run, it will compromise the ecological integrity of these riparian systems and cause less predictable seasonal water fluctuations, they argue. 

Over the past three months, river banks from the Pampa to the Bharathapuzha have witnessed protests of varying intensity against the alleged unscrupulous sand-mining in the cover of removing silt. In some instances, protesters even forced the work contractors to dump the sand extracted from the river back into the waterbody. 

The dissent reached its zenith with the All Kerala River protection Council — an apex body of various river watch groups in the State — openly urging the State government to cease the programme immediately. “Sand stocks worth thousands of crores of rupees are being smuggled out as silt. This government is allowing the mafias to plunder public property by diluting provisions of the Disaster Management Act, 2005,” it said in a statement. 

The State government, however, appears unfazed. The only concern that it now has is with regard to the slowing down of the works, which have lagged behind the schedule due to the unseasonal rains. 

Government’s objective

“Our primary concern is the removal of silt and restoration of the flood plains. About 20% of the works have been completed at some points and the project is expected to be completed ahead of the monsoon next year,” says Roshy Augustine, Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation. 

The works, according to him, have been awarded based on tenders and periodical inspection will be held to assess their progress and violation of agreement, if any.

“The government order pertains to just silt and debris and not sand. So, there is no question of sand-mining and if at all there is some sand, it will be a mix of silt and sand and not as standalone material. The sand thus collected will be sold through the local bodies concerned and the fund will be divided between the local bodies and the River Management Fund at a proportion of 70: 30,” he explains. 

Conservationists, dispute the Minister’s statement, argue that silt brought in by these floods is only a fraction of what these riverbeds contained before 1975 — the year when commercial mining of construction-grade sand began from the State’s rivers. “What the authorities are not telling us is the fact that there are huge volumes of sand underneath those sediment deposits, which have an aquifer effect on these waterbodies,” says S.P. Ravi, Director of the River Research Centre, Chalakudy. 

According to him, the riverbeds of all waterbodies had gone down by four to five metres since the commencement of sand-mining on a commercial scale in 1975. “Till the 1990s, our riverbeds used to stand at such a height that people were able to walk across almost all rivers in mid-lands during the summer. All that mining is a key reason why the water table in our rivers dropped dramatically over the past two decades. So much sand has been scooped out of our rivers that none of them has the minimum required sand deposit to undergo a clean up surgery now,’‘ he says.

The lower water tables, in turn, translate into decline in water quality and supply to surrounding wetlands. Everywhere, the process impacts the waterbody and its surroundings in ways that range from cosmetic to catastrophic. 

Fix benchmark

Calling on the authorities to fix the sand deposit bench mark for each river in the State, Mr. Ravi also accuses the government of surpassing the Kerala Protection of River Banks and Regulation of Removal of Sand Act in the pretext of flood control. 

Scientists warn that sand deposits in the rivers are anything but infinite. “Sand stocks on the riverbed can be a prized mineral, washed clean by running water. Yet it will be replenished by rock erosion only over a few thousand years,” says D. Padmalal, scientist and head, hydrological process group, National Centre for Earth Science Studies. 

He attributes the creation of sand stocks in the rivers primarily to the early Holocene Sea Level rise, which caused meanderings along the river courses and depositing of sand stocks along the midlands. The 2018 floods, according to him, may have propelled downstream a bulk of such deposits from the forested regions, which hitherto had remained untouched by the miners. 

“Considering the presence of several huge pits caused by sand-mining of the previous decades, these sediments must have been distributed along the riverbeds in a haphazard manner. If sand-mining led to lowering of our riverbed between five to 20 cm every year till it was banned, the flood phenomenon since 2018 may have elevated the river floors by just a few centimetres,’‘ he says.

The postulation sounds accurate during a walk along the banks of the Pullakayar, a river that burst its banks to wreak havoc in the settler villages of Koottickal and Kokkayar on the Western Ghats in October last year. The entire riverbed lies strewn with sand and boulders that hurtled down the Wagamon hills during the rain, which raised the riverbed by at least five feet. 

In view of the impending rainy season, teams of men and machines have swooped down on the waterbody to cut open the river channel to let the water gushing from the mountains to pass through. “We have no other option but to remove this thick blanket or else this flattened river is sure to spew more troubles this monsoon,” says a senior official with the Major Irrigation department.

The exigencies of local people notwithstanding, the works here too have not been without controversies. The locals were up in arms when the work contractor kept on gouging out the sand deposits instead of clearing the debris accumulated underneath the Koottickal chapath (causeway). The issue, however, was soon settled on an intervention by the political leadership. 

While acknowledging the troubles caused by the sediment accumulations at some places, river ecologist Jagdish Krishnaswami also points to the dangers in the wholesale removal of these layers. “Of course, the 2018 flood was a fairly big event and a lot must have happened in these rivers. But for so many decades, these waterbodies had not been getting sediments due to accumulation behind the dams,” he notes.

Hungry water effect

Removing too much sediment, according to him, may also create the hungry water effect, as water devoid of adequate sediment load will cause bank erosion in the downstream areas, posing dangers to bridges and other infrastructure. “Sediments are a natural part of riverine habitats. If at all sediments are taken out of the water at some places, it should go towards replenishing the streams and rivers that have sustained damages due to sand-mining,’‘ he says

Back in Varattar, local people fear that attempts are being made to mine sand from more areas of the river stretch even as the Irrigation Department strongly denies any wrongdoings. Things are progressing so transparently and the sand to be extracted from the waterbody is estimated to yield over ₹41 crore to the exchequer, they argue.

The intensity of local resistance, however, only appears to be growing . For, their concerns lie not in the loss to exchequer but in the sand itself. 

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