The importance of the Ganga goes far beyond the nourishment and sustenance of people and their beliefs.
In the middle reaches of the Ganga, a small stream called Saloni joins the Ganga some 10 kilometres away from the city of Bijnor in Uttar Pradesh. The site of their confluence is ecologically significant. The Haiderpur Wetland, a UNESCO Ramsar site, is a vital ecosystem recognised by both national and international communities. Spread over 6,908 hectares in the Hastinapur Wildlife Sanctuary, it is one of the largest man-made wetlands in the world that emerged after the construction of the Madhya Ganga Barrage in 1984. It is home to over 320 national and international species of birds, many of them endangered. It falls in the strategic Central Asian Flyway, as a result of which several winter migratory birds arrive here from China, Russia and several other countries. There have been sightings of cormorants, partridges, white-tailed eagles, Chinese rubythroats, red-vented bulbuls, Baya weavers, among others. The wetland also harbours a rich diversity of animals and reptiles — wild boars, gharials, leopards, wild cats, cobras, kraits, monitor lizards, pythons among them.
The protection of this valuable natural resource is one of the commendable river conservation efforts being undertaken under the Namami Gange project in Bijnor and surrounding areas. Till a few years back, the land around the Ganga in the Haiderpur wetland was scattered with settlements and illegal encroachments. This land was claimed back and the villagers there educated on the need to conserve the Ganga and its ecosystems. Today, the conservation authorities are teaching locals as young as 10 or 15 about the rich biodiversity in the area, so that they can act as birdwatchers, animal and bird guides for tourists.
Bijnor’s relation with the Ganga goes back to the time of the Mahabharata. It is believed that Mahatma Vidur was banished from Hastinapur for opposing Duryodhana’s actions, more specifically, his disrobing of Draupadi. Vidur crossed the Ganga and set up his ashram on its banks close to present-day Bijnor — the reason why Bijnor is also called Vidurnagri. This ashram can be seen today as the Vidur Kuti Temple on the city’s outskirts and has Vidur’s footprints set in marble.
Besides sugarcane, Bijnor is also famous for views of the endangered Gangetic river dolphins. Here too, the Namami Gange project plays a leading effort in the conservation of the dolphins and the riverine ecosystems they inhabit from the twin threats of climate crisis and poaching. To accomplish this, awareness on the need for conservation has been spread among the fishermen who have moved on from fishing and are now finding employment as tour guides for river dolphin safaris in the area. On the river beautification front, ghats such as Bijnor ghat are being maintained impeccably.
In the villages and rural areas in Bijnor, Haiderpur and surrounding areas, people, especially women, are being trained as Ganga Praharis. To strengthen the people-river connection, the women are being trained in skills such as making candles, agarbattis (incense sticks) and tokris (baskets) from locally available materials such as the grass and flowers growing on the Ganga’s banks, for instance. The communities here are also being instructed on the importance of preserving the holy river and its ecosystems on which their livelihoods are dependent.
Another city in Uttar Pradesh, Meerut, shares two common threads with Bijnor. Firstly, it has an innate connection to the Mahabharata due to its proximity to Hastinapur, the capital of the Kauravas and the Pandavas. The second more inspiring link is that the city also boasts of its own successful river conservation project. Like the Saloni that flows close to Bijnor, the East Kali river lies in the proximity of Meerut. It is a tributary of the Yamuna that faces the problems of industrial discharge and sewage waste. For nearly 20 years now, Neer Foundation, a non-profit organisation, has tirelessly worked to conserve non-glacial rivers and streams in the Ganga-Yamuna basin and provide fresh water and alternative livelihoods to those living on their banks. The rejuvenation of the East Kali river also counts among the organisation’s success stories — so much so that the river was included under the ambit of the Namami Gange programme. The efforts at conserving the river seem to be three-pronged: awareness, research and on-ground implementation. Of note is the network of over 5,000 volunteers who conduct training programmes in schools on rainwater harvesting and water conservation.
The conservation efforts at Bijnor and Meerut show why it is as important to conserve smaller streams and rivers in the Ganga basin as it is to save the Ganga. Encouragingly enough, the Namami Gange programme seems to have a clear, well thought-out, executable blueprint of a plan to make this happen. The challenge now is to ensure a sustained execution of the plan for years to come.