The Mathabanga-Churni-Ichhamati rivers, along with the Teesta, are among the 54 transboundary rivers shared by India and Bangladesh. Both countries are concerned over the longstanding Teesta dispute - and most other transboundary rivers shared with Bangladesh are being neglected. While Mathabhanga faces acute industrial pollution from Bangladesh, Ichhamati, which forms part of the boundary between with India, is facing siltation and encroachment, leading to only a thin flow of water in the dry season and floods in the rainy season that have left nearly 18,000 fishermen jobless.

People have forcibly occupied Ichhamati and use the land for agriculture. In a few areas miscreants are doing fish farming

The River System

Rennel’s map of 1764–66 shows that Ichhamati originates from Mathabhanga, which is a distributary of the Padma originating at Munshiganj in Kusthia district of Bangladesh, and enters India at Gede in the Nadia district of West Bengal. After flowing for 19 km it bifurcates into the Churni and Ichhamati at Pabakhali. The Churni flows for another 33 km before draining into the Bhagirathi at Payradanga.

Ichamati enters Bangladesh near Mubarakpur after travelling a length of 19 km in India. It flows for 35 km in Bangladesh and again enters India at Duttaphulia in Nadia. Ichhamati forms the international boundary between India and Bangladesh for 21 km from Angrail to Kalanchi, then again from Goalpara to the Kalindi Raimangal, and finally outfalls into the Bay of Bengal.

(Left) Revisional Settlement map of Ichhamati (Right) Railway bridge at Majhdiya on the Sealdah–Gede line

Ground Zero

While Ichhamati’s riverbed is 4.5 metres higher than Mathabhanga’s, the Churni’s is 15 cm lower. During the lean period the water level in Mathabhanga is higher than in Padma. As a result, no water enters Ichhamati during the dry season. In last year’s monsoon very little water entered from Mathabhanga to Ichhamati.

Discussing the problems Jyotirmoy Saraswati of the Ichhamati Banchao Andolan said, “The riverbeds in the area (Pabakhali to Nonaganj) need to be excavated so there is a flow of water during the lean season. According to the Revisional Settlement map, Ichhamati’s width was 90 to 115 metres from Pabakhali to Nonaganj, but now the width is only 10 metres.”

One of the causes of the silting of the river was the construction of a guard wall for the railway overbridge at Pabakhali in 1942, by British rulers to the connect railway from Kolkata to Banpur.

The river also faces the problem of forcible occupation of land. People are cultivating on the river from Pabakhali to Mobarakpur.

Prakash Debsharman has occupied the river and uses the land for agriculture

Prakash Debsharman, a farmer said, “This land belongs to us, we have been cultivating the land for three generations. We have legal documents, pattas (deeds) for the land and some of us have applied for pattas to the local body.” Local farmers occupying the river don’t want anyone to photograph or talk about the river.

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Rivers are being encroached on while the administration and political parties look the other way

Satyajit Biswas, MLA from Krishnaganj in West Bengal said that excessive siltation happened due to the rail bridge at Pabakhali. He was aware of the illegal encroachment upon Ichhamati. “We have planned several inspections, a few have happened... but no, action has not yet been taken.”

A road on the occupied Ichhamati’s riverbed

Even roads have been constructed in the middle of Ichhamati. Motorcycles, SUVs, autos are seen freely moving on the river. There is a market on the riverbed. These encroachments happened with the indulgence of the administration and political parties. Ujjal Mondal, who sells chicken meat on the occupied riverbed, said, “There is no fish in Ichhamati but you can find chicken in the river.”

(Left) Stalls and meat shops on the riverbed (Right) Roads have been constructed on the riverbed

Carew & Company Limited, a Bangladesh government run distillery dumping untreated chemical effluents into Mathabhanga (Photo: Special Arrangement)

The latest provocation comes from Bangladesh. “Carew & Co. (Bangladesh) Ltd., the only government-run sugarmill cum distillery on the banks of Mathabanga at Darshana in the Chuadanga district of Bangladesh, is dumping untreated chemical effluents into Mathabhanga 2-3 times a year. The chemicals have poisoned a 72 km downstream stretch of the river that flows along nearly 120 fishing villages in West Bengal. The entire stretch has become unusable,” said Sashankha Deb, an advisor at the Dakhhin Banga Matsajibi Forum.

Plight of Fishermen

Fishermen like Sasthiram Biswas said the pollution is killing the fish in the river. Their earnings have fallen drastically in the last few years, and like Biswas’ scores of fishing families are struggling to survive. People are being forced to change their profession. Haren Biswas quit fishing and became a rickshaw puller. It is difficult to find even one family here without a member who has migrated. The younger generation is migrating to Dubai, Qatar, Saudi Arabia for better livelihoods.

Jobless fishermen of Ichhamati: (Left) Haren Biswas (Right) Sasthiram Biswas

“I sent my younger son to Dubai to work in the construction industry. I paid Rs 90,000 to a local agent for the job and the required visa,” said Haren Biswas of Khalpara village in Duttaphulia.

Ashim Halder, a 70 year old fisherman in Kalopara village, quit fishing from Ichhamati as there are no fish in the river. He said that 30 years ago there were more than 35-40 kinds of fish to be found in Ichhamati. “Now I buy fish from the wholesale market nearby and sell it in these villages,” said Halder.

Ashim Halder (70) a fisherman of Kalopara village, quit fishing from Ichhamati as there is no longer any fish in the river

Bipul Biswas, another fisherman from Kalopara, is a father of five. “I quit fishing and went to Kerala to work at a construction site, but returned last November when the labour contractor refused to grant me leave during Durgapuja, and deducted Rs 20,000 from what he owed me,” said Biswas. Now he also buys fish from the wholesale market and sells it in the villages. “It is very tough for a family of six to survive on Rs 5,000 a month,” he said.

Bipul Biswas, a fisherman from Kalopara village, migrated to Kerala to work as a construction labourer. He returned last November after facing abuse

According to the Dakhhin Banga Matsajibi Forum more than 18,000 fishermen have been so affected due to Mathabhanga-Churni-Ichhamati pollution.

Protest, Politics and Negligence

Currently the Dakhhin Banga Matsajibi Forum, Sreema Mahila Samity, Ichhamati Banchao Andolan are fighting for this issue, and the Mathabanga O Churni Nadi Banchao Committee has been raising this issue since 2007.

In May 2017 the committee petitioned the prime minister's office seeking a resolution through diplomatic channels. Earlier, it had gone to the National Green Tribunal, which directed the centre to take up the matter with Bangladesh in September 2016. Meanwhile the committee wrote directly to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina apprising her of the NGT’s order.

As there are no fish left in Ichhamati jobless fishermen play cards the whole day, and resell fish from wholesalers

Bibartan Bhattacharya, a leader in this environmental movement said, “Both the state and central governments are aware of the ground reality, but no positive step has been taken yet. The government’s callous attitude is killing our river ecology. At the centre they are busy with Gau Mata (Mother Cow) but nobody thinks about these rivers - though rivers are treated as mothers in India.”

Bhattacharya questioned the Bangladesh government’s intention as well. “How does a country allow its factories to the destroy ecology of a foreign country? And why is our government maintaining silence?”

Referring to State Pollution Control Board data, Sashankha Deb of the Dakhhin Banga Matsajibi Forum said, “A test in 2016 indicated that the water of Churni is highly polluted. The biochemical oxygen demand in the water is as high as 12 mg/L, against a normal of 4-5 mg/L, due to organic substance. In this condition the chances of survival for fish are very low, but unfortunately to date no action has been taken by the state pollution control board.”

Fishermen held a 72 km cycle rally along Ichhamati in November 2018 (Courtesy: Sreema Mahila Samity)

In 2018 the committee organised several protest rallies. Protesters demanded immediate demolition of the badhals (blockades) put across the riverbed by miscreants, excavation at Ichhamati from source Pabakhali to Nonaganj, steps by the government to stop pollution flowing into the river from Bangladesh, and financial support to the fishing communities. Along with these demand Jyotirmoy Saraswati of Ichhamati Banchao Andolan said “the state government should construct pillars to identify the actual boundary of the river.”

Initially the local administration agreed to take steps to issue fishermen identity cards and demolish the badhals, but the process was stalled due to the intervention of some leaders of the governing TMC.

Incumbent Trinamool Congress MLA from Krishnaganj Satyajit Biswas denied the allegations against their party workers, saying, “I personally raised the issue in Bidhansabha, and the chief minister is aware of the situation. Partial excavation was done at Swarupnagar in North 24 Parganas district but nothing happened at the river source.” To stop pollution, “the central government should take immediate action and negotiate with Bangladesh,” he added.

When Sheikh Hasina visited New Delhi in 2017, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee demand the cleaning up of the Mathabanga-Churni rivers. This was perceived as nothing but tactics to delay a Teesta waters agreement with Bangladesh. The fishermen here alleged that CM Bannerjee waives taxes for farmers but she has no scheme for jobless fishermen.

Even two years after the demand was made, Bangladesh has done nothing.

On August 6, 2018 the National Green Tribunal noted that for the last two years almost, “beyond stating that a Detailed Project Report has been prepared and financial assistance has been sought, no action has been taken on the ground level, and the Ranaghat Municipality continues to dump pollution” into the river.

At a recent hearing in November 2018 the NGT expressed its dissatisfaction at the pace of work.

The Solution

Environmental experts unanimously agreed upon one point: India must ensure that no untreated chemical effluents are coming into Mathabhanga from the Bangladesh side. If Bangladesh will not take any action, the Indian government must construct a water treatment plant on Mathabhanga.

Jyotirmoy Saraswati of the Ichhamati Bachao Andolan pointed out that the Bangladesh government is making a huge profit from Carew & Co. (Bangladesh) Ltd. So why is it reluctant to make a treatment plant at their factory and stop dumping untreated chemical effluents into Mathabhanga? he asked.

According to publicly available data the Bangladesh government has been filing profits year after year. In the 2016-17 fiscal year they earned a profit of BDT 58 crore (INR 49 crore) from Carew & Co.’s distillery unit.

Second, after Mathabhanga and Churni get fresh water, Ichhamati should be excavated and a river boundary constructed to stop illegal encroachment.

Third, as the Dakhhin Banga Matsajibi Forum and other organisations demand, the government must provide financial assistance up to Rs 5,000 per month to each fisherman until the situation returns to normal, and it must distribute government identity cards to fishermen.

Finally, the railways must think of alternatives before constructing any bridges over rivers.

Many calls and text messages to Sumit Gupta, the District Magistrate of Nadia, went unanswered.

​Tanmoy Bhaduri is a Kolkata-based independent photojournalist and writer who focuses on social, cultural and environmental issues.

(Cover Photograph: A tributary of Mathabhanga, bifurcating into Churni (left) and Ichhamati (right) at Pabakhali village in Majhdiya)