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River Subarnarekha


THE RIVER

Translated literally, Subarnarekha means 'streak of gold'. With a drainage area of 1.93 million ha this smallest of India's major inter-state river basins is a mute host to effluents from various uranium mining and processing units. While most rivers in the country are classified -- depending on the pollution load -- on a 'best designated use’ basis, the Subarnarekha defies any classification, as the existing parameters do not include radioactivity.

The rain-fed Subarnarekha originates 15 kms south of Ranchi on the Chhotanagpur plateau draining the states of Jharkhand, Orissa and West Bengal before entering the Bay of Bengal. The total length of the river is 450 kms and its important tributaries include the Raru, Kanchi, Karkari, Kharkai, Garra and Sankh rivers.

POLLUTION
The only streaks visible in the river are those of domestic, industrial or - incredibly - radioactive pollution. Subarnarekha's rich resource base has spelled doom for the basin. Between Mayurbhanj and Singhbhum districts, on the right banks of the Subarnarekha, are the country’s richest copper deposits. The proliferation of unplanned and unregulated mining and mineral processing industries has led to a devastating environmental degradation of the region. Improper mining practices have led to uncontrolled dumping of overburden (rock and soil extracted while mining) and mine tailings. During monsoons, this exposed earth flows into the river, increasing suspended solid and heavy metal load in the water, silting the dams and reservoirs.

Quarrying of construction material, such as granite, basalt, quartzite, dolerite, sandstone, limestone, dolomite, gravel, and even sand, has created vast stretches of wasteland in the river basin. Used and abandoned mines and quarries are a source of mineral wastewater and suspended solids.

Subarnarekha also has to bear radioactive waste that enters the river through seepage from tailing ponds of the Uranium Corporation of India at Jadugoda. It has three productive uranium mines, all within a 5 km radius: Jadugoda, Batin and Narwapahar.

The uranium ore is mined from underground and brought to the surface. Uranium is then extracted and processed to make 'yellow cake', an ingredient used to fuel nuclear plants. What is left behind are 'tailings' or effluents comprising radioactive products, which are mixed into slurry and pumped into tailing ponds. These ponds, each covering about 160 ha of land and about 30 metres deep are situated between adjoining villages.


No standards have been met in their construction and no measures taken to control the emissions. Overflow and seepage from the tailing ponds ultimately ends into the streams that feed Subarnarekha. These radiations pose the greatest threat to human health, as they harm living cells, often leading to genetic mutation, cancer and slow death.

Subarnarekha is the lifeline of tribal communities inhabiting the Chhotanagpur belt. Once these communities made a living out of the river's gold and fish. But today the polluted Subarnarekha has little to offer. Between 5,000-6,000 families of local tribals, including the fishing community of Dharas, residing on the riverbanks from Mango in Jamshedpur to Bharagora, have been affected by the river’s pollution.

Oil and slug deposits on the riverbed deter the growth of moss and fungi, vital food for fish, hindering the movement of Hilsa fish from the Bay of Bengal to Ghatsila. Even sweet water fish like sol die in large numbers during their breeding season. Reports reveal that villages in the region around Ghatsila such as Kalikapara, Royam, Jadugoda, Aminagar, Benasol and Baraghat are suffering from skin diseases. The male fertility rate has also declined. Unfortunately, people have not been active in protecting the river as yet, when they could do well and take an example from other social movements in other river basins.

GOVERNMENT ACTION
Government action has been all but absent in the basin. Although the National River Conservation Plan (NRCP) intends to clean domestic waste generated from Jamshedpur, Ranchi and Ghatsila, industrial pollution and runoff from mines is supposed to be tackled by respective State Pollution Control Boards.

As most industries and mines in this basin fall in Jharkhand state, the onus of checking pollution falls squarely on the state's Pollution Control Board, which has a particularly poor record in this regard. While the NRCP would definitely provide welcome amenities to the three earmarked towns, it would be premature to hope for an overall improvement in the quality of the Subarnarekha's water until the pollution control board carries out its duties.

Till then Subarnarekha, the ‘stream of gold’, will continue bearing the brunt of industrial indifference and government's neglect.


 
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