By Tufan Neupane

This is the first in a two-part series on livelihoods and conflict along the Mahakali river.

Bishnu Bahadur Budha – a resident of Bhimdhatta Municipality-12, in Nepal bordering India, – manages the expenses of his 8-member family by processing and selling stones, gravel, and sand. The riverbed of the Mahakali is the main source of income to pay for the expenses of his aged parents and school-going children. The river causes panic when it swells unexpectedly, but they are still dependent on it for almost 9 months (September to May) a year.

“The task of collecting pebbles and sands is not easy,” he said. Nevertheles it provides him with an income. “I need not have to go overseas to support my family. It gives a good income 7-8 months a year, which has helped support my family.”

“If 1-2 members of a family engage in this task, it helps support a family. But, fields and a gharedi (a piece of land for house construction) could be purchased if 5-6 members of a family worked,” He added, “I have seen many people in my village who have purchased fields and a gharedi.”

The family of Jasma Sona in the same area also depends on the Mahakali. Her house is on the bank of the river. She is afraid to sleep many nights in the rainy season due to the fear of the river entering her house. “We face difficult situations. We find no place to keep ourselves safe,” she said as she processed sand in the last week of December. “This is the season of exploitation of stones, pebbles, and sands. It has created a job (for us). We have been making our livelihood by selling these things.”

According to a study conducted by World Wildlife Fund (WWF) last year, those engaged in this work “earn NRs. 162,000/year (USD 1500) which is marginally higher than the nations per capita income of USD 1,012 (FY 2017-18).”

There are many who work on this trade alongside other work. The Sona community is a traditional fishing community, but they also collect construction material manually as well.

This, though, is now changing as local governments have started hiring contractors for the jobs of collecting stones, pebbles and sands, and fishing. With the loss of income has also come rampant criminality and over-exploitation.

In 2012 Bishnudatta Joshi of Bhujela was flooded out of his house. The Nepal Army, Armed Police Force and Nepal Police had shifted the people when the river started rising, but livestock and food grains could not be saved. Since then he was living in a hut, and his new house is under-construction.

Mahakali1_1921

In this image: A settlement by the Mahakali, where many are dependent on the river for their incomes. Image via The Third Pole/ Ram Singh Dhami

A four-lane bridge is going to be constructed over the Mahakali. He received money as compensation. Pointing to an area on the flowing river, he said, “That is where my field used to be. Now river water flows over it. The river destroyed seven kattha (a kattha is a local unit of measurement, approximately 338.63 square metres) of field. This is not a single case. Every one of my area has lost something.”

His neighbour, Dhananjaya Joshi, lost 6 kattha of land to the river. The river from which they had received their livelihood had consumed their earnings.

New operators, flouted rules

Under the new Nepali Constitution promulgated in 2015, a federal the local government at the municipal level have received the authority to collecting and sell river resources. They need to give a certain amount of revenue to the provincial government. The local governments have outsourced this to contractors, and this forms the main source of income for the local government.

The Mahakali municipality has announced a call for tender, and the Bhimdatta municipality has already hired contractors. The Bhimdatta municipality has given authority to Bhawani Construction to collect stones, pebbles and sands, and to collect revenues from others who collect the river resoures. For this purpose, the municipality has opened the sites in Bhujela, Airi and Piparaiya of Ward No 11, 12 and 13 respectively.

According to 'Environment Conservation Regulation, 1997' stones, pebbles and sands can be collected from the river only after an Initial Environmental Examination (IEE) report is carried out. Bhimdatta Municipality has prepared such a report. The Regulation directs that up to 250 cubic meters of sands and pebbles can be collected everyday once the IEE report is prepared. While collecting materials no machines like excavator can be used, they should be collected manually.

It needs an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report to collect more than 250 cubic meters of sands and pebbles. Neither the Bhimdatta or Mahakali municipality have produced such reports. Himalaya Singh Airi, an engineer working with Bhimdatta municipality, admitted that river resources have been exploited without having an EIA report.

According to the IEE report, river resources can be collected nine months a year. During this period, 67,500 cubic meters, worth NPR 5.2 Million (USD 45,210), of river resources can be collected.

The company hired by the Municipality has not limited itself to collect only to 250 cubic meters of river resources as recommended by the ‘Environment Conservation Regulation, 1997’. Airi says that such a standard can not be implemented in Mahakali River. “The contractor has agreed to pay NPR 44.4 Million (USD 386,000) to the Municipality as per the agreement, and one doesn’t bother to pay such a huge amount just to collect NPR 5.2 million (USD 45,210),” he said. “Not all the provisions of the Regulation can be implemented.”

Without an EIA this is no understanding of what bit can be exploited safely, and which bit will of the river system will be endangered. No one has monitored the work to see what amount of river resources are collected every day, how they have been collected, what kind of machines or equipment have been used, what measures have been taken to minimise risks for labour.

Himal Chand, the Ward Chair of Ward No. 11 of Bhimdatta municipality says that policy needs to be formulated for multiple usages of the river, and the municipality should move ahead accordingly.

The IEE report allows only manual labour but contractors have been using excavators. The District Police Office (DPO) had seized three excavators and arrested the drivers. The Superintendent of Police Dinesh Acharya – who headed DPO Kanchanpur at that time – said that excavators were seized for illegally exploiting river resources in Piparaiya Ghat of Ward No. 13 of Bhimdatta municipality, and were released on the condition that there would not be a repeat. However, river resources were exploited using the excavators in the same place without any hindrance said locals.

The Mahakali municipality – which covers Nepali lands on the next side of Mahakali River – has not prepared the IEE report. Bir Bahadur Sunar, Mayor of Mahakali Municipality, states that his Municipality will use the same report prepared by Bhimdatta Municipality.

“We are new [municipality]. We are not able to follow all the standards and are learning slowly,” He said, “We do have a report prepared by Bhimdatta Municipality. It works for both sides of the river. Why prepare another report?”

The river is changing

River resources have been exploited on both sides of the river, due to which river banks are deepening, and the middle parts of the river are raised like islands. The river water is now flowing from low lying banks of the river.

Mahakali2_1921

Above photo: A new bridge is being built across the Mahakali. The Third Pole/ Ram Singh Dhami

This has impacted bridge construction over the Mahakali River, due to which the river is getting diverted into the middle of the riverbed over a two-kilometre distance.

As locals lose their livelihood, and the environment is being critically degraded, the government is now looking towards different types of environmental exploitation.

Lekhraj Bhatta, the Minister for Industry, Commerce and Supply – says that the government is doing groundwork for the study river resources exploitation. Till now the river is the main source of construction materials, and the government is in a mood of diverting people’s attention towards mines, he says.

The Department of Mines and Geology has identified 91 locations in 14 districts for the exploitation of construction materials like stones, pebbles, and sands. Bhatta said the Ministry of Industry, Commerce, and Supply is preparing for the tender calls for the exploitation of those locations.

Banner image: Machinery use is banned for the removal of material unless an environmental assessment is done first, but no EIA has been done. Image via The Third Pole/ Ram Singh Dhami 

The Third Pole is a multilingual platform dedicated to promoting information and discussion about the Himalayan watershed and the rivers that originate there. This report was originally published on thethirdpole.net and has been reproduced here with permission.

Copyright © 2020 Firstpost - All rights reserved