No More Tears for Lukha

By H H Mohrmen

The Lukha is one of the most talked about river in the state because it is the obvious symbol of the fate of a river which flows through the coal mining area. While reams have been written about the plight of the Lukha the call to save the river seems to fall on deaf ears.

The first time this scribe wrote about the dismal condition of river Lukha was in 2007 after the incident when the water in the river turned blue in colour and in the process killed thousands of fishes all along the river. Yes, the discolouration of the water has killed all the fishes in the river. Lukha was called the dead river because the dead fishes which floated on the river have emitted foul smell which permeated the entire stretch of the River for days together. Since then the fishes have  completely disappeared from the river.

The Lukha is now called the Dead River because the water laced with acid has killed all the aquatic life in it. Till date people lament about what they saw happening to the river and all the dead aquatic animals that floated on the river or were swept aside to the river banks on those few ill-fated days. They also nostalgically recall the days when fishing was the only livelihood of the people in the area.

Lukha is the confluence of two rivers, Lunar and Lukha which originate from two opposite directions. The Lunar originates from the Myndihati area and the source of river Lukha is from the famous hill in the Narpuh forest known as u Lum Ïakor Sing. The two rivers converge at the confluence below Khaddum village. U Lum Ïakor Sing is connected with the legend of the Sutnga dynasty which was later called the Jaiñtia Kingdom. From the confluence onwards the name Lunar is conveniently negated and the river is known only as Lukha till it reaches Bangladesh and there is a beautiful story which explains why this happens.

According to folk tradition Lunar and Lukha were sisters and lived happily before this incident happened. In a nutshell, the story has it that one fine day the sisters decided to compete against each other and the challenge is to see who is the faster of the two. And because it was a market day the challenge was to see who amongst the sisters could reach the market located in the plain areas first. Lunar started first while Lukha took it easy and was combing her hair and knitting it into plaits and Lunar which flows rapidly over the hills and valleys was way ahead of Lukha. After sometime Lukha was shocked to see that Lunar was leading and thought of ways to slow Lunar down. She thought for some time and then using her powers Lukha decreed a stone nearby to fall on the course of the Lunar. The huge stone fell in the middle of the path on which Lunar was about to run and blocked the river’s flow downstream. Lukha managed to slow down Lunar’s flow and reached the market ahead of her.  This according to the folk story is the reason why from the confluence onwards the river is known as Lukha only while Lunar has lost her name.

The stone which Lukha caused to block the Lunar’s flow is known as ‘moo-set’ meaning a stone which blocked or obstructed and one can still see the stone today a little distance upstream of the confluence where Lunar meets Lukha. The story is meaningful even in today’s context because during the lean season the water becomes acidic and changes its colour to sky-blue because of the acid mine drainage which flows from the Lunar but at the onset of summer the rain-fed Narpuh forest discharges fresh water to the Lukha giving the river its annual lease of life. The wonder of nature works in marvellous ways and the Narpuh forest and forest along the bank of the river release fresh water to Lukha to rejuvenate the river.

Nature’s wonder has been doing its annual cycle around Lukha since 2007 which also helps cause the Lukha annual rejuvenation where fishes return to the river with the coming of the fresh water. Fishes from upstream of Lukha and also from the streams and tributaries of the river which were not affected by mining have their annual sojourn to the Lukha. Every summer fishes from these streams swim in search of food in the main river Lukha when the water is clean. It is said that even fishes from the plain areas swim upstream in search of food during summer because the water is clean.

There is a hope for reclaiming river Lukha once again for good if the forest which feeds fresh water to the river are kept intact, but the government has other plans. The Meghalaya State Pollution Control Board before allowing the Star Cement Company to start another mining at Brichyrnot an area located on the banks of river Lukha, as per rule, organised a public hearing in October 18, 2019.

NGOs and pressure groups led by the organisations of the six villages downstream of river Lukha opposed the hearing and had successfully stopped the hearing. It is not every day that you have prominent pressure groups like the Khasi Students Union, the Jaiñtia students Union, the Jaiñtia Students Movement and other groups joining hands in supporting the same cause. But the hope that pervaded last August was dashed to the ground when this time around the organisation of six villages decided to support the hearing proposed to be held on January 30, 2020.

The about-turn as claimed by the organisations is because the government had sanction rupees two crore to rejuvenate Lukha. Now the question is the whether the proposed process of reclamation of the river is backed by any study. Has any study been conducted to find out the cause(s) which led to water discolouring and reasons why the river is bereft of fishes during winter?  Has any pilot test been done to confirm that the proposed process is effective and it is certain that it will help reclaim the river?

If in just one visit the District Administration of East Jaiñtia Hills District can come up with solutions to reclaim Lukha, then why hasn’t it been done earlier? What takes it so long to save the river when it looks like the DC already has a readymade plan to clean Lukha? The other question is also who are the experts that the District Administration engaged to draw a plan to reclaim Lukha and how long will it take to clean the water in the river? If the DC East Jaiñtia Hills has not even taken the advice of the Meghalaya State Pollution Control Board to save the river, then he really is a genius and the CM should award him with the start-up award that this technology can be replicated elsewhere. The DC must also be possessing a magic wand if he believes that the river Lukha can be rejuvenated once and for all with rupees two crore only. But the esteemed readers need to be reminded that this is the same District Administration which has failed the state and in it people in the way it handles Ksan tragedy and the same administration which turns a blind eye when coal is illegally transported from the State to Assam, to the cement companies and even to Bangladesh.

The irony is that limestone mining involves clearing of the same forests which helps recharge clean water to the Lukha during summer. Water and forests are two sides of the same coin; one cannot exist without the other. In fact forests feed water to the river and if there is no forest then there is no river, so if we destroy the forest then we also kill the river.

The mining lease will be like opening a Pandora’s box because adjacent to the site where the Star Cement proposes to start its mining activity, is limestone rich land which is owned by Topcem another big cement company of the region. If mining is allowed at Brichyrnot to Star Cement then next Topcem will seek permission to mine near the Star Cement proposed mining site. Then the vicious cycle will continue until Lukha will run dry one day.

The hope for reclaiming Lukha is dashed to the grounds once again and this time it will be for good. The incident now is much more painful because it was a Brutus-like stab. It is a stab from the people who live close to the river, the children of Lukha themselves. What would be more painful for Lukha than the fact that on January 30 while the Meghalaya State Pollution Control Board conducts the hearing on the application to issue mining lease to the Star Cement, the people of the area like the emperor Nero of infamous Roman will be celebrating the Lukha festival. How ironic! And pathetic too!

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