In the hit film of the sixties, Bipasha, the Damodar river was the backdrop of a blooming romance between Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen in Jharkhand’s Dhanbad district.
The same Damodar also featured in a recent Bengali blockbuster, Parivartan (The Change), set against the Maithon dam and starring actors-turned politicians Tapas Pal and Satabdi Roy.
For centuries, the Damodar served as a lifeline of Jharkhand, where it originates, and inspired poets, painters and philosophers. For ages, it was the metaphor for life itself. Not anymore.
Damodar is dying -- at some places reduced to a stagnant mass of slush, at others a mere trickle.
From its source at Chulhapani on the Lohardaga-Latehar border to Beonkhali in West Bengal where it meets the Hooghly river, the journey of nearly 600 km is littered with ravages of human activity -- from town garbage to untreated industrial wastes.
A recent survey by the Zoological Survey of India (ZSI) lays bare a shocking fact -- vast stretches of the Damodar have turned into “aquatic deserts” with no marine life left.
“Not long ago, most of us used to bathe in the river. Today, we fear even wading into the river as the water has turned poisonous,” says Awdhesh Sahi, a retired government employee in Nayasarai, a locality in Ramgarh, barely 150 km from the river’s origin.
What makes Damodar’s case special is the fact that the Centre has now linked it to the Clean Ganga project, with Union water resources minister Uma Bharti taking up the matter on a “war-footing”.
A river’s woes
Not very long ago, Damodar was known as the 'Sorrow of Bengal’; every monsoon the river would overflow and inundate hundreds of villages, destroying standing crops and killing humans.
The floods have long stopped, the river’s fury checked by numerous dams which have come up on it.
“But so have industrial units. These public sector units, mainly coal and power plants, are polluting the Damodar river,” says Jharkhand cabinet minister Saryu Rai, who had launched a Save Damodar movement in 2004.
The ZSI report says aquatic life “is negligible” along several places, including near the Telmucho bridge in Dhanbad and Phusro in Bokaro. Professor Amardip Singh of the Ranchi-based Xavier’s Institute of Social Services, who has also studied pollution in the river, said: “Aquatic life is under threat wherever industrial waste is discharged into rivers.”
Researchers said that this is primarily because industrial and domestic effluents have increased the value of chemical oxygen demand (COD) and biochemical oxygen demand (BOD), two scientific measures used to determinepollution in a water body.
For instance, a recent status report submitted by the state government states that near the Telmucho bridge, BOD was recorded at 7.2 mg/litre against the permissible limit of 2.5 mg/litre and COD at 92 mg/litre against a permissible limit of 8 mg/litre. In the Jharia region, the condition of the river is even worse with several coal washeries draining out the entire sludge into the river.
“Water treatment is an alien concept for those working in the washeries,” says Dharmendra Sharma, a social worker, pointing towards a drain in Phusro filled with viscous, black sludge gradually flowing into the Damodar.
However, all is not lost yet, feels ZSI’s regional incharge Gopal Sharma. “The river can be protected with political interventions,” he said.
On Friday, Uma Bharti attended a programme on saving the river and announced that the Centre will give funds “for the river’s rejuvenation”. “If industries pollute river water, they will have to take responsibility of its cleanliness, not the river development department,” she added.
Earlier this month, Union minister of state for power and coal Piyush Goyal set a three-month deadline to the Damodar Valley Corporation (DVC) and the coal-producing companies of Coal India limited (CIL) to stop polluting the Damodar river.
Saryu Rai, who organised the Damodar Mahotsav to create awareness hopes that the Centre’s intervention will help rejuvenate the Damodar.