Urban Streams of Shillong: A River or a Drain?

Ankan De on the “beautiful” #rivers of #Shillong

I write this piece on World Water Day and there is a certain ironic quality which is difficult to ignore.

About a week ago, half way across the world, in New Zealand, something extraordinary happened. After a struggle of 140 years (the longest running litigation in the country), the Maori tribe of Whanganui iwi were able to establish the legal status of Whanganui river as a living entity. While from the legal perspective, this itself is an intriguing achievement, it is important to not miss the underlying principle or motive. This historic move allowed an indigenous group to establish the greater philosophy: instead of approaching the river as a natural resource with ownership and management considerations, the Whanganui prefer to treat it as a living entity. This thought process is the result of the belief that Maori tribes consider themselves to be a part of the universe and the natural world where they are “one with and equal to the mountains, the rivers and the seas”[1]. Gerard Albert, their chief negotiator, further elucidated the position with the statement that Maori’s feel that “rather than us being masters of the natural world, we are part of it”. The approach to nature and the natural environment is not something unique to the Whanganui Maori’s but is also something which has been prevalent in these parts of the India until recently.

This extraordinary incident has had a cascading effect, something which also affected India. The impact was so significant that a couple of days ago an Indian court in the state of Uttarakhand decided to recognize the Ganges and the Yamuna as living entities and cited the New Zealand example as the basis of this ruling. This matter was originally taken up by officials as a result of the lack of co-operation between the Central Government and the States of Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. It is the same lack of co-operation which has witnessed the direct drainage of billions of litres of untreated domestic and industrial sewage, directly into the river bodies[2]. While the legal implications of this will be discussed and debated, it has successfully highlighted a renewed interest in the Republic of India to protect and improve rivers, the driving life force behind all ancient civilizations.

While such developments maybe sweeping some parts of the world and India as well, it pains me to see the state of affairs in Shillong, the same city which was once touted as the Scotland of the east. Thousands, if not millions of litres of untreated sewage finds its way into the rivers and streams of the city. Communities directly dump all kinds of solid waste into the river and stream bodies. All previous public rage and initiatives seem to have missed the mark with respect to bringing about definitive change. What is more alarming is that younger people don’t perceive these water bodies as streams and rivers but consider these water bodies as “drains” and “nullahs”.

What probably were once scenic and beautiful rivers and streams have been reduced to smelly black waters, full of all denominations of solid waste conceivable and something which people only stop to consider, when they have the dire urge to urinate. Seldom can one be seen to stop to enjoy. These were the same waters where the grandparents and parents might have once played in. These are the same bodies in which people sought refuge during the summer, what can be better than a swim in the gentle waters? But now, I am sure people are afraid of even remotely touching the Waters. As dark and grim the situation may seem, it is far from irreversible. In fact, it can be resolved with determined action and involvement of all the communities which live on the banks and the legislators who represent them.

Let us now focus our attention on a very specific little stream which runs alongside the boundary of the Kelian Memorial School. The stream is crossed by all and sundry, while going towards the Woodlands hospital. Over the past few months the river bed in that stretch has been completely dug up and now construction re-bars have now been planted within the streambed itself. Constructing pillars and other structures “in the stream” is possibly illegal and defies common sense. There was an earlier NGT ruling dated January, 2015 (Nababrata Bhattacharjee Vs Chief Secretary, State of Meghalaya & Ors) which addressed “unauthorized structures” which were built on the banks and were contributing to the pollution of the stream. Based on the earlier ruling some of the unauthorized structures were subsequently removed. But in this case the irony lies in the fact that the structures which have been constructed “in the river” has actually being sanctioned by the PWD department (it had been briefly stopped by the urban department). It then becomes a question for everyone to ponder, if government departments so openly disregard rivers, what can be expected of civil society? Could this be avoided if there was better convergence and coherence between departments? A huge conundrum is presented as well, while some departments and efforts of the government focus on trying to improve the health of rivers, there are other departments which engage in developmental activities which are detrimental to health of the same rivers and streams.

Some of the official statements regarding the stream next to the Kelian Memorial High School is concerning if not disturbing. It demonstrates a certain lack on environmental sensitivity which is a trait of paramount importance, given the stewardship of the natural resources which is vested in the powers that be. In the curious case of the stream next to Kelian, there was an official statement made which clarified that a parking lot was not being built but concrete slabs were to be placed to cover up the stream.

One need not be a fluvial geomorphologist or a hydrologist or a stream restoration expert to say that rivers and streams don’t get restored by covering them up. What is required is strict legislation and the support of civil society which can then attempt to address the problem at the root instead of a  superficial attempt to treat just the symptooms.

Here the “development”, not to be confused with a parking lot is, is supposed to replicate the success of Jacobs Ladder? Slabs of Concrete which is supposed to save the stream from pollution while providing better passage for vehicles? I prefer not to get caught up in semantics, while a parking lot and a slab are different things, if it’s meant for better passage for vehicles, it implies that the river will be covered up, and that the river bed will be dissected by construction (something which is easily visible and discernable-even to a lay observer). While the efforts of the legislator concerned can be applauded in terms of looking out for the constituency, it is not grounded upon any scientific basis and violates what would be considered the basic tennets of sustainable development. Covering small stretches of a stream does not prevent all the untreated waste water from draining into it, most of it originating in the upstream reaches. Neither does it address all the garbage which is dumped into the river upstream.

The act of covering up merely obscures the grime and filth from the public view and does little to improve the water quality or the health of the stream. On the other hand, it reduces the area for phyto-remedial action of the stream (that is the process by which sunlight and aeration naturally helps to improve the quality of the water and in this case treat the greywater which is dumped into it like clockwork). Based on the statement, what is most alarming is that the heads of authorities have not been properly informed by the engineers designing the project. It seems that the head has been assured that the stream “is not to be harmed during the project”. I am sure that view presently held is likely to be changed if the concerned engineers had been more transparent with the nature of the interventions. Actions such as these, also highlight the immediate need for developing appropriate Flood Plain Zoning maps.

Given the state of affairs and the speed of work. It is without doubt that the said structure will be completed in record time (by Shillong standards). But then it should provoke some thought, if rivers our rivers and streams are dirty, do we clean them by covering them up with slabs? If digging up the river bed and establishing concrete columns does not count as harm to a river, then what does?

Coming back to the whole example of how India has now recognized the Ganges and the Yamuna as entities with human rights, the closest example to explain is this scenario is that of a cancer patient. If this stream was a cancer patient suffering from renal cancer, it seems that the doctor instead of prescribing dialysis treatment has decided to stick some knives into the body of the patient, all in the name of “treating” the patient.

Meghalaya is a small state and its indigenous traditions have long advocated the protection of nature. Some of the sacred forests are testament to that incredible legacy. In many ways Meghalaya is slowly taking a lead with its environmental forwardness. But there are often regressive forces which threaten to confiscate the new legacy that it is trying to forge in the national and international stage. Today we stand at a precipice of change, one from which there may be no turning back. Our actions today will determine if subsequent generations decide to call this waterbody a stream or a drain.

While it is difficult to predict the future, the greater question which lies in front of the reader is that once the slabs are in place, what will the reader choose to call this water body: a river or a drain?


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/16/new-zealand-river-granted-same-legal-rights-as-human-being


[2] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/21/ganges-and-yamuna-rivers-granted-same-legal-rights-as-human-beings



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Ankan De Written by:

Ankan De is a river enthusiast

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