The destruction of the Umtrew River

A lot of noise has been made about river pollution of water way in the coal belt of Meghalaya, however not much talk has been done on the other rivers in the state. Threats exist to the health of these picturesque rivers that wind their way down narrow valleys.

The Umtrew River flows through mostly the Ri-Bhoi district. A number of dams vital for electricity generation lay along its path. It acts as a border along the Nongkhyllem Wildlife Sanctuary along a certain stretch. Its value towards preserving wildlife cannot be exaggerated.

I have numerous memories of playing along its banks as a child, I used to remember seeing fish swimming along its banks, crustaceans like crabs and shrimp could be easily found and wild otters would swim playfully. Now however the river is barren. Fish are rare, wildlife is scarcely to be seen within the vicinity, runoff from factories and farms have turned the water hazardous. The sandy banks of my childhood are disappearing to nefarious business enterprises.

The first major threat to the wildlife is the illegal fishing and hunting along its banks. During early dry season such as February, March and April, hundreds of would be fishermen flock to this river. Most use tackle or nets which are reasonable, but a very large number however engage in the use of dynamite to catch fish. This practice of “Blast Fishing” is illegal under The Fisheries Act, 1897. Not only that, the question arises as to where these people even managed to get a hold of dynamite? India supposedly has some of the strictest laws on the planet regulating use of explosive substances, yet there seems to be no shortage of it, which raises the specter of terrorists easily getting a hold of these explosives. Perhaps the government should start doing proper inventory checks of construction and mining sites?

The second major threat to wildlife and their habitat is the rampant illegal sand mining going on along the banks of the Umtrew River. Hundreds of workers of questionable nationality engage in the illicit activities along the shores. One can only imagine who directs the activities of these industrious individuals.

The third major threat is poaching, as a child, seeing hornbills, wild fowl, monkeys, hoolock gibbons, deer, etc was considered normal on visiting these forests. Sadly, I haven’t caught a glimpse of such wildlife in years. What I do catch glimpses of in plenty however, are men carrying crude guns shuffling through the forests. As much as I can understand that local villagers need protein, perhaps some regulations on hunting wouldn’t go amiss?

Finally, logging seems to be a huge problem. Trucks carrying massive logs, many probably hundreds of years old. Massive trees that used to line the side of the roads have all but disappeared. Habitat for unknown number of species lost.

Where is the law in all this you may ask? Where are the police or forest guards? In my years of visiting, I have never actually seen a policeman patrol any of the roads that interlink thousands of small hamlets and villages. Wait, I saw a police jeep drive swiftly by, once, it was during Republic Day a long time ago, but other than that, the police seem largely absent from the region. A generally lawlessness prevails. There are forest guards too, but generally they are few in number and largely ineffective. They do not have the weapons, vehicles or manpower to chase after criminals and are largely confined to patrolling near their own quarters.

I wish I could say there is hope or a bright side, there is none. Ri-Bhoi district is currently poor and poorly educated. 49.94 per cent of such families with altogether 32,590 households are in the BPL list.

All the recipes for an environmental disaster; desperate, malnourished and lacking jobs are prevalent among the people of Ri-Bhoi. Adding apathy by the authorities to the whole situation and well, let’s just say, nobody should bother holding their breaths.

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A student in Shillong - a strong believer in democracy, liberty, equality, rationality and secularism. He hopes to fix the world, or die trying.

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