Come the dry season and pollution levels in river Bharalu flowing through Guwahati city shoot up alarmingly. During the rains, storm-water flows rapidly overwhelm Bharalu’s carrying capacity, then flow out to submerge large parts of the city. But at this time of the year, only drain and sewerage water make up the river flow. Due to unplanned development and massive encroachment, the links of the river with its sources like the Bahini have long been spped. The Bharalu is already in the list of the country’s most polluted rivers drawn up by the Central Pollution Control Board. The high coliform concentration in Bharalu waters pose a serious risk of air-borne and water-borne diseases among people residing near its route. This is how things have been over the years with this river, choked to near death with untreated municipal sewage, a large part of domestic solid waste, industrial effluents and commercial waste-water, hospital waste and kutcha latrines on its banks. Government and public sector entities too have contributed to the relentless pollution of Bharalu. Back in 2008, a Planning Commission team was shocked on being informed that Guwahati city lacked a sewage treatment plant, and all its raw sewage was directly discharged into the Brahmaputra and Deepor Beel. This sorry state of affairs is yet to improve nearly a decade on, despite a countrywide cleanliness mission. As it is, Guwahati ranked 50th among 73 major cities in the cleanliness survey last year, came down to 134th this year with the survey widening to 434 cities and towns. When it comes to cleanliness, Guwahati has much at stake, for it was selected as a smart city from the Northeast region in the first round itself last year. Among the major components to make Guwahati a smart city is the project to beautify the Brahmaputra riverfront from Nilachal hill (on which the Kamakhya temple is situated) to Sukreswar ghat near the city centre. This strip takes a bend at Bharalumukh, where the Bharalu debouches into the Brahmaputra. Any visitor to this area will find all talk about riverfront beautification to be meaningless in the midst of constant flow of filthy, polluted and stinking waters of the Bharalu therein.
Can the Bharalu ever be cleaned? The Pollution Control Board, Assam (PCBA) in the past has mooted a range of measures to approach the problem from different ends. These include identifying major pollution sources and treating the waste water at the sources itself so that no untreated water is discharged into the river; enforcing strict compliance by PSUs and industries, housing complexes, hospitals etc; clearing all encroachments onto the river and restoring its tural flow; setting up a sewage treatment facility to be operated by Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC); building monitoring stations to regularly assess pollution levels in the river; conducting public awareness drives regularly; putting a stop to throwing garbage into the river; removing all service latrines located at Bharalu’s catchment areas; and so on and so forth. Very little has been done to implement these recommendations, despite many a scheme announced in the past to clean up Bharalu. As late as in May 2014, the then Congress regime took up a Rs 15 crore project for Bharalu beautification. But even its first phase covering a stretch of 1.7 km could not be completed by its scheduled deadline on 2015 end. Overall, the project covers 5 km of the river, involving dredging of its bed, erecting guard walls with iron nets atop to prevent encroachment and erosion of its banks, blocking garbage dumping, and setting up parks and modular toilets on its banks. The present State government should go all out to complete this project, along with reviving wetlands like Borsola Beel, Sorusala Beel, Silsako Beel, and of course, the Ramsar site Deepor Beel. Environmental experts and activists have been insisting that without ensuring the health of channels like Bharalu and Bahini along with the wetlands, there can be no protection of Guwahati’s ecology and civic infrastructure. To make Guwahati a smart city worth the me, its powers-be in Guwahati Development department, Guwahati metropolitan development agency (GMDA), GMC and other departments and agencies will really have to get their act together.