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Saving River Sal

Locals must support dredging for better water quality and marine life

The Sal River faces a serious threat to survival. Years have been wasted in debating on how to save it.  Chief Minister Pramod Sawant has expressed serious concern: the presence of E-coli in the river has reached a dangerous level. The river has to be dredged at the earliest if it has to be saved. The state government has sought financial help from the Centre for dredging the river and restoring it but would carry out the dredging with its own funds if there was delay in sanctioning of funds by the central government. The government has a plan to dredge the mouth of the river first and then carry out dredging upwards in the later stages. However, more than funds, the state government might find overcoming local protests more problematic. Chief Minister Pramod Sawant has to be firm in getting the dredging through, because the river would not survive if he does not. 

Even as the government has proposed the second phase of dredging of the river after having completed the work on desiltation of the river, local residents, especially fishermen, have raised objections. The opposition could cause delay in the execution of the project, which could further ruin the quality of water in the river. They blocked dredging on at least two occasions in 1999 and 2006. Local fishermen argue that dredging is going to disturb marine life, which is the main source of their livelihood. There is also fear among the local fishermen that the government was trying through dredging to create opportunities for entry of water sports operators and other tourism-related businesses. The apprehensions of the local fishermen need to be allayed. Local public representatives could play a major role in convincing the opponents of the purely ecological intent of the state government. Unlike in the past, the state government appears to have taken the opposition seriously and has sought to allay their fears. The officials have made presentations at the panchayat levels and held meetings with panchayat representatives in the presence of Captain of Ports to demonstrate how dredging would help fish spawning and improve the quality of water and hence marine life.

The government has attributed the presence of high level of E-coli in the Sal River to discharge of sewage from various sources and has drawn a plan to crack the whip against those discharging sewage into the river. The water resources department has begun the process of identifying those discharging sewage into the river and issuing notices to them to stop the discharge or face stiff action. While the government has taken steps to save the river from total destruction, it remains to be seen whether the local communities and the panchayats which have been opposing dredging lend their support to the government plan. It always happens that any changes are resisted by local people who see it as a threat. Their fears are also fed by the coming of new forces to exploit the natural resources they have been using. The concerned officials therefore have a tough task at hand to convince the local people and winning over their approval to the project.

The government should not limit its exercise to just the River Sal as other rivers in the state too are contaminated with the E-coli levels being at very high levels in them. The government must draw a master plan to cleanse all the rivers. While the government has proposed to cleanse the River Sal of the pollution by dredging it, it should ensure that the required funds sought from the Centre are given to them at the earliest. It would be a pity to see the project of dredging of the river held up for paucity of funds. Successful completion of work on the River Sal would help the government undertake similar projects elsewhere and cleanse all the rivers of E-coli and other contaminants. The civil society has a significant role to play by convincing locals on the dangers posed by presence of E-coli in the river and the advantages of dredging and cleaning of rivers. As release of sewage has been a major factor for contamination of rivers, the authorities should identify and act sternly against the guilty.

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