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The story of Kahn: A river swallowed by the spreading city of Indore

Skand vivek Dhar | Updated on: 9 February 2017, 8:50 IST

India's mini Mumbai, the financial capital of central India, Indore is the city of dreams if one believes what CM Shivraj Singh Chauhan has to say about his state's biggest city.

With an estimated annual nominal GDP of around Rs 14 billion, its continuing growth has tried to match these words.

The price paid for industrialisation includes the river Khan or Kahn, as it is now known. The Kahn traces its origin to the same mountain at Umaria village that gives rise to the river Kshipra.

The latter is among the holy rivers of Hinduism. One of world's largest religious gatherings-Simhastha Kumbha- is held after every 12 years on the banks of the Kshipra at Ujjain.

The 'holy' price for growth

Reduced to a black nallah for the non-rainy part of the year, the Kahn river is the biggest source of contamination for the Kshipra. An overwhelming majority of industrial waste is dumped into its 21-kilometre stretch that flows through the urban areas. Saraswati, a tributary that emanates from the same mountain, joins the Kahn at Indore.

"The city was founded along the banks of the Khan river by the Holkar dynasty. It was an outcome of the Mandsaur Peace Treaty signed between the East India Company and Maharaja Malhar Rao Holkar in 1818," informs Kishore Kodwani, a social activist in Indore who is working for the purification of the Kahn.

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We can find pictures of people bathing in the Kahn water up to the decade of the 50s. Religious rituals were regularly performed alongside the river," Kodwani adds.

Development devours the river

According to Kodwani, the problem began in the 60s and the 70s. It was the time when Indore witnessed a rapid wave of industrialisation. The number of mills established during the period was directly proportional to the swelling of the city's population as migrants poured from all across the country.

Few cared for the burden of the waste that this development produced. It eventually went into the rivers, as the infrastructure remained underdeveloped. Like the size of the city, the volume of the sewage disposed into the Kahn river is only increasing with time.

"In the name of infrastructure, we built the ring road, several bypasses, new colonies, parks and The Bus Rapid Transit System (BRTS) or Ahilya Path. However, the waste management was left to the Kahn river. The very river that was the reason for the foundation of the city is now throttled by its growth," rues Kodwani.

The data released by the Indore Municipal Corporation estimate the daily volume of sewage from Indore at around 270 million liters per day (MLD).

The combined total capacity of the existing sewage treatment plants is not more than 90 MLD. In other words, approximately 190 MLD of untreated sewage is added each day to the Kahn river, which eventually pours into the Kshipra.

The city of Ujjain gets its water supply from the same polluted river.

The encroachment

According to Geetesh Dwivedi, a journalist based in Indore, "The sewage is not the only problem afflicting the Kahn river. The mindless encroachment of its catchment area and 33 slum colonies have swallowed a great part of the river. Its flow has greatly reduced because of the illegal constructions cropping in Kahn's catchment area."

Dwivedi claims that the human waste produced from the slum colonies also flows into the Kahn river. Besides, illegal colonies have mushroomed along the banks of the river.

As a result, the river has changed course at some locations. People have erected retaining walls on others, further restricting its natural flow.

The Centre's apathy

The plight of the Kahn river was first noticed by the Union Government around 32 years ago. In 1985, the then State Minister for Housing and Environment Mahesh Joshi got New Delhi's nod for a flood control project that was to revitalise the Kahn.

However, the plan to clean the river was aborted even before it began. The Centre scuttled it stating that Kahn was just a nallah, not a river.

Similar projects for the revival of the Kahn were chalked out in 1992, 2006 and 2011. But, none of them came to fruition.

The latest attempt at saving this dying water resource came in 2016. The state government and the Indore administration prepared yet another blueprint for cleaning the Kahn just before the Simhastha Kumbh fair in Ujjain. The Rs 2,179-crore proposal was shot down in New Delhi.

"A large proportion of the money sought by the MP government for cleaning the Kahn river was meant to remove encroachments from the catchment area and rehabilitating the people thus affected. The Union Water Resources Ministry cannot meet these expenses. It is the job of the state government," says Shashi Shekhar, the Union Water Resources Secretary.

Shekhar, however, clarifies that his ministry would be willing to help if the state government comes up with an amended proposal for rejuvenation of the Kahn River.

Over a year has passed since the Simhastha Kumbh. Yet, the fate of the Kahn River continues to be the same. Although, the National Green Tribunal's (NGT) order has forced the local administration to take some corrective steps towards clearing the river's catchment area.

CP Shekhar Basti, the largest of the 33 slum colonies along the Kahn, has been relocated.

Edited by Jhinuk Sen

First published: 9 February 2017, 8:50 IST
 
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