In the sixties hit film ‘Bipasha’, the Damodar river was the backdrop of a blooming romance between the icons of Bengali film industry, Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen, in Jharkhand’s Dhanbad district.
The same Damodar, which means sacred in some local languages, also featured in a recent Bengali blockbuster ‘Parivatarn’ (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 also inspired poets, painters and philosophers. It was the metaphor for life itself. Not anymore. At some places, the Damodar river has been reduced to a stagnant mass of slush, while 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) laid bare a shocking fact. Vast stretches of the Damodar have turned into “aquatic deserts” with absolutely 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, 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 Woe
Not very long ago, Damodar was known as the ‘Sorrow of Bengal’. Every monsoon the river would overflow its banks 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.
“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 Zoological Survey of India(ZSI) survey report says aquatic life “is negligible” in several places, including areas near the Telmucho bridge in Dhanbad and Phusro in Bokaro.
Professor Amardip Singh of the Xavier’s Institute of Social Services, who has also studied pollution in the river said “Aquatic life is under serious threat wherever industrial waste is discharged into rivers.”
Researchers said that this is primarily because the values of chemical oxygen demand (COD) and biochemical oxygen demand(BOD), two scientific measures used to determine pollution in a water body, have increased because of industrial and domestic effluents.
For instance, a recent status report submitted by the state government states that near the Telmucho bridge, BOD was 7.2mg/litre, where 2.5 is the permissible limit and COD was 92mg/litre where 8 is the permissible limit.
In the Jharia region, it 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 in-charge Gopal Sharma. “The river can be protected with political interventions,” Sharma told HT.
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 public awareness on the river’s pollution, hopes that the Centre’s intervention will help rejuvenate the river, which will once again irrigate the fields and quench the thirst of millions of people. And, of course, once again inspire great art, from poetry to films.