Rahul Singh | May 31, 2022 | 7 min read
Mathabhanga river bifurcates into Churni and Ichamati river— the former flows towards the sunset (west) and in the opposite direction, the stream visible is Ichamati river (Photo: Rahul Singh)
Over 10,000 fishermen in villages on the Indo-Bangladesh border have lost their livelihood due to harmful, industrial waste discharged in the river and its distributaries
Chandpur, West Bengal: “When I send samples of the river water for testing, the people at the lab ask me whether I sent them samples from a drain,” said a dismayed Vinay Rai, as he began to talk about the current state of the Mathabhanga river.
Rai is a resident of Chandpur, a tribal-dominated village in the Krishnaganj block of Nadia district in West Bengal, located just 500m from the Indo-Bangladesh border. Mathabhanga is a transboundary river passing through India and Bangladesh.
But unlike other villages, where the river forms the lifeline of those residing on its banks, today, the Mathabhanga river, which flows through Chandpur, neither supports the livelihood of the villagers nor quenches their thirst. “The water of the river is so bad that it smells horrid and is not fit for any work,” said octogenarian Nano Gopal Roy, who has seen the steady decline in the state of the river.
Impact on people's livelihood
In Chandpur, fishing and farming are the primary occupations of the residents. “But due to pollution in the Mathabhanga river, fishing has stopped in this village for the last four to five years. Paddy and jute cultivation have also been affected,” said Rai, who collects river water samples for the Central Water Commission.
Chandpur is not the only village whose people have lost their livelihood. In fact, increased pollution in the Mathabhanga river has cost about 10,000 fishermen their jobs.
“The Matabhanga river has become polluted because of waste from factories in Bangladesh. The river barely contains any fish. We now work as labourers,” said Sukumar Haldar, who once earned his livelihood as a fisherman.
Ramesh Chandra Ghosh, a gram panchayat member of Govindpur, informed 101Reporters that people of the villages situated on the banks of the river — from Govindpur to Majhdia, Bijoypur, Banpur, Malighata, Taldaha, Shyamnagar, Mahesh Chandrapur, Durgapur, and Mangaldeep — are all affected by the pollution in the river.
“The river has become more and more contaminated over the past 10 to 15 years,” he said.
Apart from causing death of aquatic life, the increased pollution has also resulted in the decrease of the depth of the river. Moreover, agriculture and the manufacture of bricks are causing the river to shrink, turning it into a thin canal. Pollution has affected the underground water flow, and due to this, people's dependence on electric and diesel pumps has increased.
The root cause of the problem
It's popularly believed that the industrial waste released by Carew and Co. Ltd, a government distillery in Bangladesh, is the most significant pollutant of the Mathabhanga river. This has even been mentioned in the book, River Health and Ecology in South Asia: Pollution, Restoration and Conservation.
Anup Halder, a river conservation activist in Kalyani, West Bengal, explained, “Carew & Co. makes 100 types of products, including foreign liquor. Its untreated industrial waste is dumped in the Mathabhanga river, which enters India and splits into two parts near Majhdia — Ichamati and Churni. Churni is also a polluted river, which further joins the Bhagirathi; Ichamati joins the Sunderbans.”
This geographical breakup emphasises the far-reaching threat that the pollution of small transboundary rivers can have.
In India, the Central Pollution Control Board classified polluted rivers in 2018, which included 17 rivers of West Bengal, among which were Mathabhanga, Churni and Jalangi. The Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD) value of the Mathabhanga river in the 80km stretch from Madhupur to Govindpur is in the range of 10 to 20 mg/l, which is an indicator of its contamination. A BOD level above 3 mg/l is considered unfit for drinking.
The hazards of pollution
A polluted river flowing through a village poses many hazards for its residents. Explained Ghosh, “Earlier, we used to take bath in this river. But now, its water has become so polluted that even if the animals drink it, they get sick and sometimes die.”
Manoj Biswas, a resident of Bishnupur village stated that an increasing number of people are falling prey to diseases due to the toxic waste in the river. As an uncertified rural medical practitioner, or a local quack practicing for over 50 years, he adds that “contaminated water causes many skin diseases, as well as diarrhoea and cholera."
According to Dr Tarit Roychowdhury, a professor at the School of Environment Studies at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, pollution of transboundary rivers can even influence the local climate and rainfall. Due to excessive extraction of groundwater, the water level becomes extremely low, which can contaminate the groundwater with toxic pollutants like arsenic and fluoride. In all the 17 blocks of Nadia district, the arsenic status in groundwater is more than the recommended amount. However, he said that the maintenance of surface waterbodies, wetlands and rainwater harvesting can help maintain a healthy ecosystem.
A decades-long battle
Swapan Kumar Bhowmik, secretary, Mathabhanga & Churni River Rescue Committee, has been fighting against river pollution for three decades.
“But nothing has changed. As long as the Teesta river dispute continues, this will not be resolved,” he remonstrated.
The Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, and the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, mandate that industrial units set up plants and treat waste in compliance with set norms before they discharge them into waterbodies. Both the central and state pollution boards monitor the industries, but such standards are not effective in the context of transboundary rivers.
On November 4, 2019, the National Green Tribunal (NGT), which has been hearing the case, issued an order to set up an STP (sewage treatment plant) in the Ranaghat municipal area and also asked the state government to follow up with the Ministry of External Affairs on the issue of industrial development in Bangladesh. An ETP (effluent treatment plant) was installed there to stop the contaminant effluent. The order mentioned that in the fifth Joint Consultative Committee meeting with the Ministry of External Affairs, the foreign minister of Bangladesh said the process of setting up an ETP in Darshana Sugar Mill was under process. But Bhowmik stated that despite these orders, nothing had changed.
In 2020, the government of West Bengal prepared an Action Plan for the Rejuvenation of River Mathabhanga Nadia and also informed the Central Pollution Control Board about it. The action plan mentioned 13 components for the rejuvenation of the river and named Carew & Co’s sugar mill at Darshana in Chuadanga district of Bangladesh as the only reason for the pollution of this river.
On January 29, 2020, Bhowmik wrote a letter to the union water resources minister, drawing attention to the pollution of the Mathabhanga and Churni rivers and lodging an appeal to implement the NGT's November 2019 decision. But despite his efforts, the pollution of these rivers continues.
According to Anup Halder, in the last 75 years, about 100 streams and rivers had disappeared, but there's no documentation on them. One can only hope that action is taken to save the Mathabhanga and Churni rivers from suffering a similar fate.
Edited by Surekha S
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