The Lukha River is dead: An obituary

By W. Passah

The river Lukha’s source is at the foothills of two hillocks Marangksih and Iakorsing west of Saipung. Overseeing the river is the Khaddoom range that wedges apart East Jaintia Hills and North Cachar Hills. The river is rich in aquatic lives. In the olden days anglers camping on the banks could hear the elephants and their leaders trumpet to say “sorry “to the jhumis in great numbers begging the beasts to leave the paddy unharmed. At times an alarm call of the barking deer being stalked by the royal Bengal tiger could be heard. The river finally descends unto the Surma river to meet with the Bay of Bengal where the sun scorches the waters to raise rain bearing clouds back to Lukha river all governed by cycle well timed unlike today in the world of climate change.
Fortunately or unfortunately East Jaintia Hills struck coal in the 1980s. With the exodus of cheap rat hole miners from as far as Bihar and Nepal, the mines soon reached the vicinity of Khaddoom villages. The Geological Survey of India on Statehood day 1972 announced the good news, “Limestone in the Abode of Clouds would last to eternity.” By 2000, the cement company by name Star Cement viewed the villages around Lumshnong and approached the then government of Meghalaya. Fortunately for Star Cement, Meghalaya then was too naïve and unaware of the possible environmental destruction awaiting the State vide cement production.
The Government of Meghalaya blundered in not consulting MCCL established in 1966 to at least calculate the energy consumption vis-a-vis the health of our power plants. At the time Leshka was not yet born. The then government granted license to not one but ten cement plants, five clustered around Narpuh Reserve Forest in an area of 25 square km. In 2007, 6 years after licenses were granted, the Lukha river turned blue. A team of professors of Chemistry and Zoology Departments of St Edmunds College rushed to discover pH level of water at 3.5 and PPM 3, and 7 being the minimum for aquatic life. The report was submitted to the State Pollution Control Board but as the report was damning and the agency a non-governmental one naturally it was shelved.
The blue did not become the writing on the wall, rather the government believed Star Cement when it attributed the cause of the blue waters to effluents from coal mines. As lethargic as these scientific agencies are always siding with the corporates, no surgical chemical analysis was ever done. Going through YouTube, the cause was said to be copper sulphate as its solution in water gives rise to blue vitriol exactly like Lukha blue. Had it been so, Meghalaya would be very lucky as copper would be in huge demand for future e-vehicles to replace electric vehicles which would do away with petrol or diesel engines. It probably was the ploy of these corporates to deflect blame from themselves. The Lukha river became a cause of worry in 2017 when swimmers experienced abrasiveness after swimming in the river. Sadly the discovery that a chemical – gypsum – the main ingredient used in cement which caused the blue colour was hushed up. Gypsum is calcium sulphate and its solution in water is either red or blue.
When the Lukha turned abrasive the SPCB ultimately invited Dr DP Mukhopadyay, retd senior scientist Central Board of Pollution Control New Delhi. Dr Mukhopadyay found the river elusive. But being an experienced scientist, he proceeded right to the source near Saipung. Descending, he discovered that at every confluence of the river with those from the coal mines or the abandoned ones, the river was clear. But when Lukha meets the river Lunar that carries all the human and industrial wastes of cement factories, the Lukha turns And here was exposed the folly of granting cement licenses arbitrarily.
Again the report was submitted to SPCB in 2017 but no cation has been taken. Instead three years ago Star Cement wanted to enhance its production capacity. It needed more limestone and eyed the 8.2 km area around the eco-sensitive zone of Narpuh wildlife sanctuary. Public hearings attended by NGOs from Shillong and locally and the villagers to protest against granting more forest land to Star Cement ended in smoke.
After a lull of two years the Union Environment Ministry granted permission to Star Cement without consulting the State Government. In the spring of 2021, Environment Minister James PK Sangma landed at the banks of the Lukha bank amidst villagers who did not understand English. He promised that he was going to bring American and German scientists to treat the Lukha. Now we are in February 2023 but there’s no sign of the scientists.
Right now Lumshnong is reeling under severe air pollution with flowers, garden vegetables and clothes turning grey. Children are having respiratory problems. Noise pollution as well comes from loudspeakers calling truck drivers till 3 AM. My friends there are now nocturnal creatures. Today the rare caves brought to global limelight by Meghalaya Adventurers Association with Israeli and German cavers are now filled with soil. The irony is that mineral-rich areas across India are inhabited by innocent tribals who are leaderless. Even if there are community leaders they are suppressed. Narpuh has no leader to rescue the people even after the confirmed death of the Lukha.
I pray that this story of the death of the Lukha awakens all Meghalayans to the roles played by our ministers/politicians in this remorseless murder of a river. The people in and around Narpuh have the power to save themselves by conscientiously pressing on the right EVM button.
Good bye Lukha river. Though dead you will always remind us of the sins of the political class.

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