GUIDELINES & FRAMEWORK ADVISORIES FORADVANCING POLICY FOR CONSERVING VAIGAI RIVER ECO-SYSTEMS PROF. S. NAGARATHINAM & DR. PAMPOSH KUMAR
Vaigai River is most celebrated river in Sangam Literature in Tamil. The river originates from Meghamalai Hills of Periyar Plateau of Western Ghats range in Varusanaadu in Theni District of Tamilnadu. In Silappathikaram, IlangoAdigal mentioned Vaigai as “Daughter of the Sky1”. The Jain Poet further mentioned that Vaigai wore the dress woven with all the flowers that fall from the plants along the river.
Madurai Kanchi another anthology mentions that “rain filled-up Vaigai and in turn, the river filled up the tanks and irrigated agriculture lands with water2”. This poem shows that during the ancient Pandya Kingdom river irrigation was institutionalized and streamlined. “Withdrawal of water from sluices for distribution by acceptable norms is till operational in many places3”. The network of tanks connected with Vaigai River in the districts of Theni, Madurai, Dindigul, Sivaganga and Ramanathapuram shows that the ability of Vaigai river as a water source to people of the region. Why does Vaisgai river get importance among public? and why did Sangam Poets eulogize Vaigaiearlier? – These two questions got only one answer that it flows mostly in the water scarce drylands. Recent Keezhadi excavations reveal that the water management system was well in place even before 2000 years ago in the ancient Madurai city. Now Vaigai River carries water occasionally during rainy seasons. To serve 2, 50, 000 hectares of land and provisioning of drinking water to the people of the district which falls along 258 KMs length of the river, have become difficult now.
The policies and issues related to water management have been a critical topic in Public Works Department of Govt. of Tamilnadu, Individual Organizations and Individuals. The public understanding of river and its eco-system is often felt in the social media deliberations and in group communications exchanged among interested public for conservation of Nature during Eco-Media School Programmes which have been strengthened also by project mode support from National Council for Science and Technology Communication, Department of Science and Technology, Govt. of India. The inputs for advancement of policy are envisaged here at a preliminary level especially for conservation action at grassroots for Vaigai River.
These advisories are offered as framework to help advance policy and people’s conservation action at grass roots level. As consultative advisory framework based on eco-media perspectives of socio─scientific nature, this publication of these guidelines is also intended to promote & support the initiatives for conservation of eco-systems of Vaigai River. With great faith in the socio─scientific inputs resulting from the application of these guidelines, we are sure they shall be much helpful to National& State Policy Making Agencies, Implementing Agencies, Non Government Agencies, and Stakeholders to further device their policies and actions.
The advisories are rooted in development and modelling of eco media approaches along four distinct axes of eco visioning cases for conserving river water ecosystems, especially Vaigai Ecosystems. The eco visioning is then extended to framework advisory as actionable co design of conservation support through eco media practice.
I. QUAD AXIAL ECO VISIONING (QAE) MODEL TO CONSERVE VAIGAI ECO-SYSTEMS
A) A CASE FOR RE─IMAGINING CATCHMENT & LAND USE:
Deforestations among catchment areas of rivers have been bringing a huge impact on conservation of source of water. Vaigai’s catchment is depending upon the health of Megamalai Hillsof Western Ghats range, hydrology of this ecosystem has been affected by many issues. Recent public attention over newspapers publications regarding deaths of elephants, deforestations and encroachments have alerted conservationists for thinking about much needed protection. Megamalai wildlife sanctuary is a protected forest area with 255 Sq. Kms of total 795 Sp. Kms. Development projects must be ensured with the sustainability of nature and environment of a catchment area and also nearbyHighwayvis areas. Encroachments in the Gandamanurforest area and other upper places in the catchment have since potentially affected the capacity of catchments and its ecological services.
While there are Tamil Nadu Hill Areas (Preservation of Trees) Act 1955, Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972, Forest (Conservation) Act 1980, Tamil Nadu Rosewood Trees (Conservation) Act 1994, all in force, the protection of catchment areas natural resources from conversion, occupations and encroachments calls for deep integration of public policies with public understanding of scientific aspects of conservation which can be effectively built by the eco cultural and communication domain of public life.
Conversion of land for cash crops also has impacts on green cover and wildlife. Rectification measures and protection measures should be the options for preventing damage by encroachments. This should be well taken for corrective actions with support of Government Agencies and departments including Agriculture, Environment and Forests, Planning, Revenue and Disaster Management, Public Works, Tourism, and Transport for protecting the catchment area. Such grave threats to the natural ecological places have a bearing upon the ecological flows of the river.
Deforestation has been an issue all along the river flow. Here one can understand the contrast between state of Nature during Sangam Age and the one brought about due human activities of recent past. In the ancient past, river banks had appeared with large number of vegetations, greeneries and trees. Now, in the city limit we can see buildings in the close vicinities of river banks. Vaigai has become an evidence for this particular reference.
Catchment being vital lifeline for protecting eco-systems of Vaigai River, need to be classified as eco sensitive in varying degrees. This vulnerability judgement can arise from its re─scapingassisted with accuracy of estimation of forest cover, real time dynamics of bio─geodiversity & variabilityin monsoon ecologies& climatic phenomena, andecological defenses like afforestation, re─modelling land use, eco health assessments of critical sub─regions, are needs of the hour. Equally important are the enrichment of current eco cultural patterns with the public understanding of the emergent socio─scientific scenarios. Any policy framing, even though based well on public/stakeholder consultations, shall be responsive to emergent scientific knowledge only when public appreciation of science is effectively developed. This responsiveness can become a powerful basis for local authorities to have strong stand in devising their policies, for example for advancing their planning and construction approvals or even contemplating a separate authority on the lines of Wetlands Authorities since river basins approach offers too broad a scenario while the need is to develop a real-time computational & precision imaging approach to auditing ecosystems services. On the other hand, such a public mediated discourse on ecological audits of catchments and Vaigai ecosystems services can lead to intelligent response from diverse range of non─government actors for saving the Vaigai Eco systems.
B) A CASE FOR ECO VISIONING SANDCONSERVATION & BIODIVERSITY PROTECTION:
River beds are storage of water during slow flow of a river. Sand traps water and itself functions as a reservoir. So, extracting out the sand affects any river and, in the case of non-perennial river systems, the damage will be extreme. Sand helps non-perennial rivers in management of water with aquifers, seepages, dykes, etc., “Coarse sand and gravel in sand-rivers can trap and store 50 per cent of water in the voids between the solids of sand4”. Conservative measures for building sand dams with stone masonry in extremely affected areas, including urban areas, will also help to store coarse sand.
Sand is also a lifeline of Biodiversity in the river systems. For the purpose of helping the realization of objectives of United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) India enacted the Biological Diversity Act 2002 to protect biodiversity and endangered species living around the river.
The nature of river bed all along the Vaigai river appears inconsistent. Varusanaadu catchment which does have sand with all its potentiality but there is impact by sewage and plastic pollution upon the river bed, but enroute to Ramanathapuram, which is a parched district, the river sand has disappeared in many places. Additionally, bore wells on the river beds are also a classic case of ecocide in places deprived of ground water. The no-sand-states of river bed inside the city also need local support for initiatives like building sand dams to increase the ground water recharging capability which can make Madurai city smarter in ecological sense.
Vaigai river’s length and depth of sand should be measured and gradient of sand surface should be estimated and re─visioned for public information in order to help check the degradation and preventing loss of sand in any form. Like rock atlases, our youth should be groomed with Sand Atlases which should showcase clear links to aquatic and terrestrial bio diversity. Their account of a river’s life needs to thrive on evidences about assault upon or changes in sand forms and bio─geo diversity. Such eco visioning can instill ecological values and mindset and develop significance of sand wealth that there are countries like Singapore who had to resort to import sand to augment their coastlines. While river beds are greatly damaged by sand mining or extraction activities, similarly making roads along river banks or using river bed during dry season for other purposes have severe impact which add to the high cost of ecosystem rehabilitation. Therefore, the resulting eco visioning inputs, public appreciation and engagement should be invaluable for different agencies, authorities, and especially District Environment Impact Assessment Authority (DEIAA), under the district collector in having an open plan for improving the conditions of river, in addition to improving upon the sand mining potential tabulation for granting clearances.
C) A CASE FOR ECO HEALTH AUDITS
Changes in biological, physical and socio economic environments are interrelated. It is not very effective to handle their bearing upon human health and vice versa in segregated domains. Taking all health, ecosystems and human health, as one, the concept of “Eco Health” allows people to examine the vial interconnections and design effective solutions including conservation. Ecosystems approach to human well-being has been very prudently espoused under UN led global project completed in 2005, as Millennial Ecosystems Assessment─“Human well-being can be enhanced through sustainable human interaction with ecosystems with the support of appropriate instruments, institutions, organizations, and technology. Creation of these through participation and transparency may contribute to people’s freedoms and choices, and to increased economic, social and ecological security. ”5Therefore, any measure for protecting nature will look into the traditional values also with pragmatic involvements of advanced technological vetting in order to identify direct or indirect pathways of interaction between state of ecosystems & human well-being.
As menace to health of Vaigai ecosystems, pollution has gone deeper by several feet below the river bed. Pollution by chemical fertilizers and pesticides originated from upstream agricultural lands should also be explored. Industrial effluent, throwaways including garbage, plastics, discharge of sewage and septic tank wastes accentuate the harm. During monsoons, people cannot enter into water gushing through the Vaigai river as it has changed drastically in the terms of cleanliness. As per criteria and status of polluted river stretches in India reported by Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) on Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD) is not at satisfactory level at Vaigai stretch in Madurai, CPCB measured >6 MG/L (milligram per liter)6. It means, drinking water source can be used after disinfection. The eco health audits must be designed to come out with effective mechanisms of waste management, checking upstream influx, and developing point of use specific eco─health index including water quality levels.
Such Eco─health Audits, besides informing advancement of policies, shall also leverage effective implementation of the Water Prevention and Control of Pollution Act, 1974, Municipal Solid Wastes (Management and Handling) Rules, 2000. It would also make scientifically aware and alert the Administration of Local bodies on regression or advancement of degradation of the Vaigai river ecosystems, not river alone, due to contamination by untreated sewage or polluted waste.
D) A CASE FOR ECO REGIONAL & INTER─REGIONAL APPROACHFOR ECO─JUDICIOUS WATER SHARING:
Vaigai River sustains only if it gets water from Mullai-Periyar River through Periyar Dam. This dam is governed by a lease agreement on 29th October 1886 between Travancore Government and Madras Government. This agreement permits TN Government to have land right contour at dam site for consideration of yearly lease amount for 999 years. It is essential to adopt eco─regional approach to workout inter─regional/inter─state cooperation for the States of Kerala and Tamilnadu for sustainably solving livelihood issues and peaceful life of people. S&T Information and Communication is essential for healthy interregional relations and countering the spreadpanic mongering messages in media. Much science is required to substantiate theories behindWater Induced Earthquakes. Hence, media should be infused with the central idea of resolving issues with S&T information inputs. Studies and scientific response should be built and promoted based on geomorphological features of Western Ghats, inter eco─regional issues in the catchment areas, and impacted flows of Vaigai. Protection of Eco-system and conservation of River should be seen through the lenses of Science and Technology and also traditional and cultural values. Social Ecology of Water perspective for quality, quantity, and reliability in water sharing should be in place as Tank system, which was well developed to a network during Pandya Kingdom period.
A separate study may be conducted to know the ecological damage, climate change impacts and damages caused by human activities in the catchment and river beds of Vaigai. It is time to redefine Riparian rights in scientific and eco─regional terms. New forms of rights and duties need to be configured with active support of eco media driven re─imagining. Then beneficiary habitations, whether downstream or upstream, both must reassess their relations and duties to water ecosystems. This would help design a more sustainable social ecology which should be promoted both by Governments and media. Only then, the mechanism of water allocation and distribution will then safeguard the water security of people downstream and also augment upstream ecosystems. A situation should be then hoped when flow is augmented at Attrangarai Village in Ramanathapuram – the confluence point of Vaigai in Bay of Bengal, where estuaries and coastal eco-systems are in peril, and when farmers downstream below the Nilayur Canal or in the last sluices of Vaigai Ayacuts are able to have enduring water security even in the face of failure in the monsoon or drought or even in the unavoidable event of water sharing conflicts. Judicious water sharing among districts should also be envisaged in the interests of downstream of Vaigai River. Informed and enriched by this public participation and eco media, the objectivity of the house policy of the media organizations which have editions and bureaus in both states, should then be based on the principles of ethics and values of protecting nature and eco-systems as a whole, not as disjointed regional domains.
II. ECO MEDIA FOR CO─DESIGNING THE HEALTH OF VAIGAI ECOSYSTEMS
The Quad Axial Eco-visioning(QAE) proposed above is extended below to framework advisory for developing actionable co design of conservation support through eco media practice.
a) MONITORING DASHBOARDS FOR ECO─STRESS THRESHOLDS:
Today, public perception of ecological stresses is lacking scientific ground. Complex causal factors behind ecological imbalances remain a focus of academics and public practices and development paradigms remain disconnected therefrom. Any decision making, engagement with policy advancement and emerging implementation or solution initiatives naturally lack public engagement and support. Eco Media has powerful role in store for serving as a mirror which can alert the development agencies that some parts of the bottom of the seemingly inexhaustible ecological resources are now too visible. It can also have scope for greater scientific insight, lent by eco digital skills, that can predict at varying temporal scales the trajectory and flag the tipping points of no return situations. Like city of Portland, Madurai too must strive at strategic locations to have community dashboards giving updates about ecological imbalance thresholds, like, its shrinking greenspaces, eroding biodiversity, piling waste and expanding wastelands, Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) levels at certain strategic points of the river, etc.
b) BENCHMARKING FOR ECO CULTURAL DIVIDENDS FOR BUILDING RESILIENCE OF VAIGAI ECO SYSTEMS
While Madurai embarks upon journey to create its place as Smart city, it should also factor in the eco smartness which must be ensured that services received by downstream inhabitants pay back the upstream ecosystems in terms of livelihood options, sustainable use of their resources, renewable resource development, enriched forestry, and watershed development. Earlier native fishing was a livelihood for many even in the towns and urban areas of the Vaigai river. It has now vanished because of the continued drought and failure of water flow.
The chain of water supply through channels and sluices to the tanks within the Madurai city have been weakened. This in turn reduces the water inflow to the tanks, hence affects the supply ability of tanks. Factoring in health and sanitation of public, a longitudinal study along Vaigai with sociological perspective should be measuring the effects in the terms of water availability.
Building constructions, electric wires and other works have immediate effect on trees. Planning for cities without disturbing existing nature will be a challenge. Underground electric wires, ducts for other cables will be suitable options if demanded by stakeholders. While Eco Activist groups have been demanding for ensuring the protection of trees inside the city, urban green space, responsible recreational natural areas of the cities should be protected and maintained.
Today, eco media skilled youth are need of the hour. They shall possess the constructive mindset which can help develop benchmarks for the ecologically aware inhabitants, developers and rehabilitators alike. These shall guide the Vaigai civilization today in particular, and India at large, to eco vision and fulfill its responsibilities of giving back to ecosystems.
While it is important to have an idea of measures like Ecological Flows, minimum flows that sustain eco systems services, it is equally important to develop effective constructs, better called ‘eco media constructs’ which describe minimum/optimum inputs by the downstream inhabitants in terms of energy consumption reduction, energy renewal, carbon efficiency or carbon neutrality, solar use efficiency or passivity, water used efficiency or water footprint reduction, land use patterns, afforestation, bio diversity protection, agri resource/minor forest resource processing, etc. which are necessary to allow a natural state for river eco systems, especially upstream ecosystems.
Such Benchmarking of Eco─cultural Dividends possible from and actionable by today’s Vaigai civilization is the missing link between rapid eco cultural desertification, future energy starvation and faster depletion of renewable resources on the one hand and practices and uses adopted by people and policy planners on the other. This should engage the young minds as Young Community & Policy Advisers. Eco Digital skills, eco─scaping and eco health assessments are the skill sets which can render an empowering eco media in young hands.
The results from such field works would be a source of immeasurable value to stakeholders like policy planners, local and regional development agencies, CSR wings of corporates, media, town planners, etc. Town planning should be in line with the services ecological systems natural resilience in mind.
Benchmarking and participatory efforts to deliver these dividends shall be greatly assisting implementation of provisions of Environment Protection Act, 1986 which will be useful for development agencies, local bodies, panchayats in offsetting the environmental costs or minimize the damages, protecting the lifeline rivers and balancing the development activities.
c) ECO CULTURAL PERFORMANCE AND YOUTH ENGAGEMENT
Youth Engagement is important as they carry the conservation measures with them to their children. Conservation of a river’s ecosystems should also come from the past glory of the river and meaningful intervention for restoration and rehabilitation. Keezhadi Excavations have shown to the world that Madurai City had a civilized society, technological advanced society in the terms of trade, crafts, settlement and in urban life. All this was possible because of the eco cultural contributions centered upon a Vaigai River centric living. Sangam Literature recorded the people’s connect with the river, but now we rarely find marks of all those contributions of river’s ecosystems. So we should know why should we act because we have the responsibility of safeguarding and handover of eco cultural assets to next generation. People’s knowledge, attitudes, and practices should also be monitored in the light of information sharing from first two advisory categories.
Based on our experiences with Eco Media Practices7, a framework advisory is offered below, indicating the group of broad indicators, which would need further customization or development of location specific set of micro indicators, along with methods of assessment and analysis8─11 for Eco visioning and Eco Media Developed, which are amenable to a group of 5 youth which can effectively handle the activities over a week to few months duration for each of the category indicated.