Operation “ Clean up the rivers”


By Toki Blah

            Cleaning up the Wahumkhrah, the Umshyrpi, the Myntdu and the Ganol  rivers, like cleaning up its politics, has been a long standing issue before the people of Meghalaya. Both the rivers as well as the political system are foul smelling, dirty, corrupted and polluted and as some pessimists would swear,  on their  mother’s graves,  already beyond repair.  The NGT (National Green Tribunal) however seems to be made of sterner stuff and according to the Shillong Times, 22nd Jan 2018, NGT has instructed the Govt of Meghalaya to prepare a long term action plan towards initiating a common sewerage and waste treatment for the whole state. Primitive sewerage and poor waste disposal has been identified as the main cause for the pollution of rivers and streams situated near urban centres of the state. The restoration and preservation of these water bodies is now another NGT life line for the fragile deteriorating environment of this Hill State. Our gratitude goes to spirited social activists such as Sajay Laloo and Naba Bhattacharjee who took up the challenge with the NGT on behalf of the helpless people of Meghalaya.

            At this juncture it must be pointed out that a lot of people, and some of them educated folks who should know better, believe that Shillong, Jowai and Tura besides other semi urban centres of Meghalaya possess the finest night soil disposal system. It is the “Out of sight, out of mind” faecal disposal method built round the idea of the septic tank. People forget that the septic tank system is an elitist concept suitable only for bungalows with limited residents and spacious compounds. Transfer the concept of tiny septic tanks to high-rise urban buildings, with no compounds and with 30 or more residents per building and you have an affluent disaster in your hands! Walk round Police Bazar in the early morning when the septic tanks are emptied into the nearest drain to understand what I am saying. Each and every congested locality in town faces the same problem and all the filth ultimately ends up in our water bodies. Septic tanks are encouraged by the Urban Affairs Department  because it calls for zero administrative investment, monitoring and supervision. It resulted in Shillong being the main contributor to the biggest septic tank of Asia we lovingly call Umiam Tourist Resort!  The worst is that we pretend we don’t even know what we are talking about.

            Once upon a time there was a serious effort to bring about community participation in the cleaning up of the Wahumkhrah. It was based on the recognition that left to itself the river would prefer to remain as pristine as the day God created it. It is human induced  contamination from its catchment area, Shillong city, in both liquid effluents as well as solid waste, that has led to the condition the river now finds itself in. The realisation dawned on the organisers of the Clean The Wahumkhrah Campaign that (1) segregation of solid waste at the household level (2) Dorbar enforcement of such segregation (3) timely and regular collection of waste (4) sustainability of the project through identification of markets for the collected waste and (5)  establishment of a regular sewage system for night soil disposal were key ingredients towards cleaning up the Umkhrah. Incidentally it would also mean cleaning up Shillong itself as the two were complementary to each other. Dorbars were identified for implementing a pilot phase of the project before the whole city was to be covered. Alas, mandarins in the ivory towers of the Urban Affairs thought otherwise and the proposal never saw the light of day. 

            Today the NGT has stepped in with the same idea and there is now need to approach the cleaning up of our urban rivers in a holistic and realistic manner under the watchful eye of this regulatory body.  Doubtful if the Urban Affairs and its officials can dodge this one this time nor can the excuse be given that only the encroachers at 4th furlong are the culprits for soiling the Umkhrah, which is an emotionally appealing but factually flawed belief. No doubt unauthorised squatter and hawker presence contributes to the deterioration of the river  but we also have to accept that each one of us, residents of Shillong, do play our part in polluting both the Umkhrah and the Umshyrpi. The NGT has in no uncertain terms stated that “….septic tanks and soak pits are now obsolete techniques….”. It means they have to be replaced with a superior alternate waste disposal technology suitable to the modern day we live in. A modern sewerage system connected to modern sewerage treatment plants are the prime civic needs for most of the urban and semi urban centres of Meghalaya. The NGT has done its part. It is now for the Govt to step in. For this to happen, the public must play its role. We, the common people, can no longer allow our cities and our rivers to be converted into waste dumping yards. We must act by pressurising the Govt to act in a practical and purposeful manner.

            In recent days columns in the Shillong Times as well as in other journals of the state were filled with a public outcry  against the disgusting manner which political parties and individual politicians are adopting to impress the electorate during elections to the 10th State Legislative of Meghalaya. The complaint has not unnaturally been towards the concentration of political attention on the needs and requirements of the individual voter at the cost of the need of the community or the state as a whole. Candidates try to satisfy these individual desires running from the demand for school fees, school books, school uniforms, hospital bills, tin sheets, dinner and tea sets, umbrellas, attendance at weddings and deaths and of course the inevitable bundle of bank notes that are so widely in demand during election time. In the desperate race to woo the individual voter, community needs and requirements such as good education for our children, good health care centres for the sick and the ailing, good roads, safe drinking water, good housing for the poor, employment for the unemployed and good civic governance for our urban areas have been deliberately neglected. Our politicians get away with murder because we the public allow them to do so.

            The time to change this public apathy is now at hand. The time is ripe; appropriate and suitable for the change that everyone is crying for. Can we do it? Yes we can provided we get our act together. Let’s start where the NGT has taken the lead to demand for the restoration of our rivers back to their original purity. It is a desire that strikes at the heart of every resident of this state. Therefore can we join hands and enforce this NGT initiative? Can we look up to our indigenous elders, the Rangbah Shnong, the Nokma and their institutions the Dorbars to come together and lead a public outcry against the murder of our environment? Can we expect our pressure groups like the KSU, the FKJGP, the HNYF, the HYC, the JSU and the GSU to join hands and put up a united cry for steps to save our urban rivers?  This is not to say that we forget other pressing challenges facing the state and its people. It’s simply saying that here is an opportunity for everyone, Govt included, to come on board in a participatory manner to achieve something that everyone wants – Cleaning up our towns and cities and restoring our environment to its once pristine glory. Once again – Yes we can!


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