Degradation of forests destroys perennial nature of rivers

It is not only the origin of rivers but the entire ranges of forests that are the mothers of numerous streams and tributaries, which ultimately feed the major rivers.

Many rivers originate in the Western Ghats and Central Indian forests and are lifelines for millions of people. Rivers originating in the Himalayas are fed by the melting snow during the summer months, whereas those originating in the forests remain perennial if the forests are intact. Even rivers like the Ganga and Yamuna from the Himalayas are not entirely dependent on Himalayan snow.

Many important rivers originating in the forests of Central India merge with them. Son river, originating in Amarkanthak and Ken river in the forests of Katani, Madhya Pradesh, merge with the Ganga and Yamuna, respectively.

Among the major rivers of peninsular India, Cauvery, Tungabhadra, Krishna and Godavari originate in the Western Ghats while the Narmada, Tapti and Mahanadi originate in the forests of Central Indian states like Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Odisha.

It is not only the origin of rivers but the entire ranges of forests that are the mothers of numerous streams and tributaries, which ultimately feed the major rivers.

The forests of Amarkanthak give birth to Narmada, Johila and Son rivers. Johila merges with Son, while many rivers originating from Satpura and Pachgarhi landscape end up in Narmada.

The forests of Bastar are catchment for the all-important Indravathi river, which merges into the Godavari. River Mahanadi originates in Chhattisgarh while Tapti originates in the Multai area of Betul district, Madhya Pradesh. Godavari takes birth in the Western Ghats forests near Nashik. Similarly, the Krishna, Tungabhadra and Cauvery also originate in the Western Ghats forests of Maharashtra and Karnataka.

Our country is dependent on these rivers for irrigation and power, and it is absolutely necessary to preserve the forests supporting them.

The roots of trees in natural forests of high biodiversity value, along with the top layer of soil, absorb moisture during rains, thus releasing water during non-rainy seasons. The flow of water in streams during the summer months is thus maintained, making the flow perennial. If the trees are damaged, the water-holding capacity of the forests diminishes and the rainy season will have more of runoff, which in turn means more soil and moisture losses. Soil losses from catchments result in siltation of reservoirs. The summer flow in streams, tributaries and rivers deplete.
Recently, I had an occasion to lead a team of experts for a security audit of Tiger Reserves (TRs) of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. Both states are found to have taken some important steps for conservation of forests and wildlife.
Earlier, the buffer areas of TRs were under the control of territorial forest divisions, only the core areas were managed by the TR. Despite a 10-year-old directive from the National Tiger Conservation Authority, states apprehended suspension of working in buffer forests and did not bring core and buffer under a unified command.

Now, Maharashtra has transferred a sizable portion of buffer in all TRs to the control of TR management. Madhya Pradesh has gone a step further and brought all notified buffer under unified control. It is high time Karnataka, too, brought the core and buffer of TRs under unified command.
Maharashtra has recruited and trained personnel for a Special Protection Force for each of its TRs.

The force is well-equipped with arms and ammunition to meet the challenges of illicit cutting of trees and hunting of wild animals by armed gangs. The only TR in Karnataka with a special tiger protection force is Bandipur. The force was recruited and trained in 2011-12.

Subsequently, many in the force were transferred out and the state did not recruit and train fresh candidates.

Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh are ahead of Karnataka in relocating families from the core areas of TRs. Growing human and livestock population inside forests are the main reasons for encroachments, illicit felling of trees, grazing, forest fires and hunting.

The Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, specifies that TRs should be inviolate. Taking the Forest Rights Act, 2006, into consideration, families have to relocate on a voluntary basis. Relocation cannot be forced on anyone. The rights of tribals and forest dwellers have been recognised in Melghat Tiger Reserve. Thereafter, the value of the property is assessed and a relocation package becomes more attractive for the beneficiaries. The Melghat TR management has already relocated 17 villages and is on track to relocate another 17.

Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh are making attempts to secure the corridor between Melghat and Satpura. This helps in securing the forests of Madhya Pradesh in Betul district, which is the source of numerous streams feeding the Tapti river. The Satpura landscape is also the catchment of many rivers like Tawa, Denua, etc. These rivers finally merge into the Narmada. Some 37 out of 43 villages in the core area of Satpura TR have already been relocated. The remaining six villages are along tourists route between Pachgarhi and Matkuli and have hardly had any negative impact on conservation. The TR management of Satpura has been awarded by the Government of India for this wonderful achievement. Madhya Pradesh is now removing settlements from even buffer areas.

Madhya Pradesh has initiated a special drive of planting trees in the catchment of Narmada. Natural vegetation is to be preserved and rejuvenated for revitalising these rivers.

Artificial plantations cannot compensate for the loss of natural forests. Karnataka has launched a scheme called “Neerigagi Aranya”, which means “forests for water”. The scheme should not only focus on planting but should include protection and rejuvenation of natural forests. Closure of the area can bring the forests back.

The best way to preserve rivers is to bring the catchments under the Protected Area network. Unfortunately, this generally does not find favour with the political masters.

(The writer is retired Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Karnataka)

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