“I couldn’t watch a life-giving river dying, so I decided to do something,” says Basanti Behen, the crusador who was awarded the Nari Shakti Samman by president Pranab Mukherjee at the Rashtrapati Bhavan on March 8 for her efforts to save the Kosi river in Uttarakhand.
In the summer of June 2003, the Kosi registered its lowest summer flow near Almora, a mere 85 litres per second,compared to 790 litres per second in 1991.
The district magistrate declared that water should be used for drinking and not irrigation. Police was deployed to stop farmers from taking the water. The annual rainfall in Almora fell from 1,059 in the 70s to 752 mm in 2004, exacerbating the drought, which affected 13 districts.
That’s when Basanti launched her campaign. She started by educating village women not to cut trees for firewood, to save the 168 km long Kosi, which originates in Kausani and merges with the Ramganga in Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh. Initially, people were incredulous, and she was often told, “these villagers don’t listen to the district magistrate, what makes you think they will listen to you?”
But that did not deter Basanti, now 58, who formed 200 women’s groups called ‘Mahila Mangal Dal’ that pledged to save the river by using only dead wood, planting lakhs of broad-leaved Oka trees, stopping hotels and resorts from siphoning off water, and preventing and putting out forest fires.
“We would walk to scores of villages to tell people about the need for protecting the environment and sometimes used street plays to get the message across,” said Pushpa Bora from Buruda village near Bageshwar , who accompanied Basanti in 2008.
Their efforts have yielded some visible improvement. “The river had become a mere trickle at some places, but afforestation and awareness has improved flow, even though all 13 districts in Uttarakhand are drought-affected,” said Tulsi Sah who lives in Bageshwar.
“The Kosi is a non-glacial river and gets life from rainwater and the river will die if the surrounding forests of the catchment area are depleted”, said Profesor JS Rawat , former head of geology at Kumaon University, Almora , who has been monitoring the river since 1992. “The difference is visible as the catchment area is now full of trees that will eventually help the river, but we need an action plan to save the forests and catchment areas to prevent all non-glacial rivers from dying and and turn into seasonal rivers that flow only in the monsoons,” said Rawat.