Bhagirath Prayas Samman and Anupam Mishra Medal awardees, 2017

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On the event of India Rivers Day, held on the 25th of November and hosted by INTACH India’s New Delhi Branch, the Organizing Committee presented the Bhagirath Prayas Samman for efforts made towards the revival of rivers and the Anupam Mishra Medal in recognition of outstanding media work focusing on rivers.

Bhagirath Prayaas Samman (BPS) constituted in 2014, is an attempt to recognize inspiring, outstanding, sustained efforts/contributions (Prayaas/tapasya) of river warriors/champions towards protection and conservation of India’s rivers. This year’s awardees were Meenachil Nadee Samrakshana Samiti, Kerala and Shri Mahavir Singh Sukarlai, Rajasthan.

The Anupam Mishra Medal has been initiated this year by the Organizign Committee in an effort to celebrate media professionals who have established an exceptional body of credible work on various aspects of rivers leading to changes in behaviour, public discourse, law and policy.

Meenachil Nadee Samrakshana Samithi, Kerala In appreciation of its dedicated efforts, in protecting and working to restore the ecological integrity of the Meenachil river feeding the Vembanad Lake – a Ramsar site in Kerala following a basin approach and an inclusive engagement process.

In the year 1989-1990, a group of like-minded individuals came together and prevented an ecologically unviable dam planned on the Meenachil river in Teekoy Gram Panchayat in Kottayam District in Kerala. Since then, this movement has transformed into Meenachil Nadee Samrakshana Samithi to work for the ecological rejuvenation of the river.  The Samithi adopted a basin perspective and a stakeholder centric approach to address multiple threats including catchment area degradation, water diversions, urban pollution, encroachment and sand mining.

As early as 1995, the Samithi engaged different stakeholders—Gram Panchayats, Zila Panchayats, Department of Local Self Governance, college students and wider community in a ‘Cheru Thadayanakal’ (check dam) campaign leading to the construction of large number of check dams in Eattupettayar, Poonjar, Teekoyar—key tributaries of Meenachil river. This led to recharging of aquifers resulting in an improved hydrological condition of the Meenachil river.

In response to growing encroachments, urban pollution and sand mining, during 2014-15 the Samithi stepped up its work with the launch of yet another innovative idea—the ‘Kavalmadams’ or local vigil groups comprising local stakeholders who met regularly (Kaval Sabhas) and discussed the state of affairs, the action needed and the action taken with respect to the river.

The Samithi through its green education programme (embedded in the local culture) and innovative campaigns like “Give our Meenachil Back” and ‘We can bring our Meenachil back to life”, captured the imagination of the youth in the basin and succeeded in inspiring them to take positive action.  Samithi expanded kavalmadams to include college (called “Dreams of Meenachilar”) and school (“Wings of Meenachilar”) students and inspired them to actively engage in catchment restoration through tree plantation, and awareness campaigns.

The work of Meenachil Nadee Samrakshana Samithi has inspired the Janakeeya Kootayma (People’s Unity) campaign, launched in 2017, which aims at re-establishing the hydrological and ecological links of Meenathra and Kodoor rivers—tributaries of Meenachil by removing encroachments and accumulated silt. Under the aegis of Green Fraternity, many organizations and the Government has come together to remove the blockages in the tributaries, freeing up encroachments, bringing back paddy cultivation in the area to improve water security and to restore the basin ecology, which will take the Samithi’s work to a different scale and level.

The Samithi’s work is exemplary for its unique ways in combining education, campaigns and local action, without any external funding support, leading to local ownership and collaboration to achieve scale for change and tangible impact.

Shri Mahaveer Singh Sukarlai In appreciation of his valiant and untiring effort, through campaigns, advocacy and litigation to reduce the industrial effluent discharge in Bandi—a seasonal tributary of the Luni river in Rajasthan.

Forty years of unabated pollution from textile dyeing and printing industries in Pali in Rajasthan has left the Bandi river toxic. The Common Effluent Treatment Plants could not make much of a difference as the volume of effluents generated was far higher than the treatment capacity. Cocktail of untreated, treated and partially treated wastewater accumulated in Nehda dam over Bandi, constructed for irrigation purposes leading to contamination of aquifers. Alarmed at the huge ecological and health impacts of the contaminated river, Shri Mahaveer Singh Sukarlai—then a fresh graduate — took up the cause of freeing Bandi from pollution. With this objective he founded, in 2004, the Sri Kisan Paryavaran Sangarh Samiti—a community based organization—and sensitized and mobilized farmers living downstream to demand their right for a clean river.

Several petitions and meetings with the Industries, District and State authorities neither yielded response nor relief from pollution. In February 2008, protesting against the short term and piecemeal approach, Shri. Sukarlai mobilized thousands of farmers who agitated for 20 days on the Bandi river and succeeded in attracting the immediate attention of the District Collector, who ordered rotational operation of the industries to meet the capacity of the Common Effluent Treatment Plants.

Business as usual continued. Not satisfied with the ad hoc manner in which decisions were made, Shri Mahaveer Singh Sukarlai through the Sri Kisan Paryavaran Sangharsh Samiti filed a Public Interest Litigation in the High Court of Rajasthan in 2012 demanding long term solutions including zero discharge of effluents in the river and compensation for the loss of ecology and wellbeing of farmers resulting from pollution. This case was transferred to the National Green Tribunal in 2014.

Shri Sukarlai’s legal interventions led to the closure of 200 units operating in non-industrial areas of Pali. This along with various directives of the High Court ensured that the volume of effluents generated came down from 34 million litres a day to 12 million litres. In 2016, all 500 industrial units were closed for 10 months by the National Green Tribunal’s order and perhaps for the first time the farmers received uncontaminated water from Nehda dam for irrigation purposes.

In over thirteen long years of committed work against pollution, Shri. Sukarlai has combined campaigns, advocacy and litigation to help reduce the effluent load on the river and thereby arresting the trajectory of pollution.

Arati Kumar Rao, an independent environmental photographer and writer, has been presenting a string of vivid reports with telling photographs and other art work on the slow violence of ecological degradation and climate change on ecosystems and livelihoods along South Asian rivers. She has particularly covered the Ganga and Brahmaputra basin, documenting the changes that developmental activities have brought to the region. She has extensively written on diverse issues related to freshwater degradation, while traversing down the major river systems of India, documenting lives lived, and has published outstanding media reports, fueled with tenacious reporting, breathtaking photographs and engaging writing. A landmark project of hers has been the River Diaries, which include narratives on the deep exploration of the ecosystems and communities that live around rivers.

The urge to tell stories through images and words was kindled when Arati was a teen, and through the years of her dynamic storytelling, she has captured rivers as living, pulsating, throbbing and wild creatures. The landscapes which got severely degraded by slow structural changes, often by dams, hydropower projects and barrages or “development”, both upstream and downstream along the rivers, inspired her to capture the plight of the people & biodiversity that bear the brunt of the impacts. Arati’s art of storytelling focuses on the real causes of the river degradation, which often get sidelined in conventional news reporting formats. Her stories poignantly highlight the need for keeping socio-ecological effects of dams, barrages, hydropower projects, navigation projects, thermal power plants, etc., in mind, and also involving the affected people in decision making, while planning for “development”, and hope for a world where development is planned as if all lives mattered.

Arati’s persistent coverage has created an example for environmental reporting which cuts across various mediums (including writings and photographs), with her work being published in leading national & international publications, including Dysturb, The Guardian, BBC Outside Source, Hindustan Times, Mint and National Geographic Traveler India. Her mantra has been to use photography as a tool to tell a story and to make every story count.