Rivers of Sorrow: Livelihoods of people living along India-B’desh trans-boundary rivers in peril

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India and Bangladesh share 54 trans-boundary rivers and earlier these rivers greatly supported the livelihoods of millions of riverine communities in both countries and facilitated the locals in numerous ways. However, over the years the condition of these rivers worsened, adversely affecting the economic condition of lakhs of people.

Though the Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI) and the Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA) have been jointly trying to boost trade and transportation using National Waterway-1 (Ganga river) and National Waterway-II (Brahmaputra river), the condition of the riverine communities has not improved.

India’s Jaipur-based think-tank and NGO — CUTS International — under a regional programme “Transboundary Rivers of South Asia (TROSA)” studied the rivers’ condition, the dwindling economy of the riverine communities and the forest and environmental situation along the rivers.

Senior Programme Officer of CUTS International, Sumanta Biswas said that increasing urbanisation, deforestation, intensive agricultural processes besides the effect of climate change have adversely impacted the normal course of many rivers leading to unpredictable floods, siltation, declining navigability and increasing erosion and pollution.

“Several dams were constructed for different purposes including power projects and irrigation and these have also stifled the downstream flow of waters. Due to heavy siltation during floods, the rivers have become shallow and wide causing erosion of their banks every year,” Biswas told IANS.

He said: “Due to scarcity of fish in these rivers, the fisherfolk are compelled to work elsewhere as labourers. For many decades, the riverine communities shared close cultural ties and similar lifestyles and depend on the rivers for agriculture, fisheries and navigation.”

Biswas said that the communities living upstream and downstream of the rivers have their diverse perceptions and interests to utilise the rivers and these dissimilar objectives often affect them and the rivers.

“Mutual misperceptions among the upstream and downstream communities need to be defused through consultative dialogue,” he observed and suggested that to save and secure the river centric livelihoods the rivers should be protected.

CUTS International officials said that the TROSA aims to reduce poverty in vulnerable river basin communities through increased access and control over water resources in the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM) basin of Bangladesh, Nepal and India, and in the Salween basin of Myanmar.

To highlight the concerns of the river communities along the trans-boundary rivers of Tripura, CUTS International organised “Nadi Baithak” (river meeting) at various places in the Meghna basin.

The “Nadi Baithak” is a platform that enables communities to learn more about their rights, identify issues they need to be concerned about, and raise their collective voices to stand up for themselves and protect their livelihoods.

Biswas said that unscientific and unregulated sand mining also largely affected the normal flow of water in the rivers in eastern India.

The NGO will soon submit its report on the prevailing situation and recommendations to the central and state governments.

CUTS International’s Executive Director Bipul Chatterjee said that three river basins – Ganga, Brahmaputra and Meghna — over the centuries have provided lifelines for the livelihood and connectivity of these regions.

“Unfortunately due to the political redrawing of our boundaries they are no longer able to do that. Therefore, the current initiatives talk about basin-wide river management through trade and tourism for better livelihood of local people who are dependent on these rivers and their tributaries and distributaries for their livelihood,” Chatterjee said.

Arati Bala Das in Khowai (western Tripura) said that when fish were plentiful in the rivers, the men were busy in fishing but with the gradual sinking of the rivers, there is no fish available in the rivers, enormously affecting their livelihood.

“We had also earned money through weaving of the fishing nets but now all these have been ruined, forcing us to look for new avenues,” she told IANS.

Bamboos were also once transported through the rivers to cater to the local bamboo based industries, but scarcity of water in the rivers stopped this.

CUTS International’s studies found that till the 1980s the Kushiyara, Barak, Gomti and other rivers of the Meghna river basin were frequently used for carrying on trade in stones, tea, jute and other products through the waterways.

However, due to excessive siltation, most river routes have become obsolete over the years.

One of the main challenges in both the river-based routes of Karimganj-Ashuganj and Sonamura-Daudkandi, notified by the Indian and Bangladesh governments, is poor navigability and river depth which makes movement of vessels difficult during the greater part of the year and especially during the lean season.

While small vessels of 500-600 MT can operate in a few of the riverine stretches of the Meghna river basin, larger vessels of around 1,000 MT can operate only during the four month rainy season.

“This is one of the key challenges faced by traders or businessmen in their endeavours to conduct waterways based cross-border trade in this basin. Dredging for expanding existing channels or creating new navigation channels, has been used from time to time by both India and Bangladesh as a stop gap solution,” the studies said.

“However, it is not a sustainable long-term solution. One of the reasons for that is frequent course changes of the rivers. Short term solutions for enhancing trade through these waterways could be through the use of smaller vessels which can easily navigate through these routes.

“However, long-term solutions would require a more comprehensive approach by both countries to tackle the issue of siltation through a combination of dredging, channel creation and fortification of riverbanks amongst others.”

According to the India State of Forest Report 2021 (ISFR 2021), released earlier this year, forest cover in the 140 hill districts of the country has shown a decrease of 902 sq km (0.32 per cent) with all eight states of the northeast region also showing a decline.

Arunachal Pradesh, that has 16 hill districts, has shown a loss of 257 sq km forest cover compared to the 2019 assessment, Assam’s three hill districts (- 107 sq km), Manipur’s nine hill districts (- 249 sq kms), Mizoram’s eight hill districts (- 186 sq km), Meghalaya’s seven hill districts (- 73 km), Nagaland’s 11 districts (- 235 sq km), Sikkim’s four districts (- 1 sq km), and Tripura’s four districts (- 4 sq kms).

The total forest cover in the northeastern region is 1,69,521 sq km, which is 64.66 per cent of its area.

The ISFR 2021 assessment shows a decrease of forest cover to the extent of 1,020 sq km (0.60 per cent) in the region.

(Sujit Chakraborty can be contacted at sujit.c@ians.in)

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