Green strictures for Chhat puja on the banks of River Mahananda in North Bengal

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Darjeeling, October 10, 2017: Based on the directives of the National Green Tribunal, the district administration, Darjeeling has issued strictures that worshipers have to strictly follow during the forthcoming Chhat puja in areas through which the River Mahananda runs . Violation will invite stringent action the administration has warned.

Chhat puja is an ancient Hindu Vedic festival historically native to Bihar-Jharkhand and Eastern Uttar Pradesh of India and the Madhesh region of Nepal. The devotees usually make offerings to the Sun God.

Green strictures for Chhat puja on the banks of River Mahananda in North Bengal

Water bodies namely ponds and rivers have an important role in the Chhat puja with bathing followed by offerings an integral part of the festival. Having a large Bihari population, Chhat puja is also commemorated on the banks of River Mahananda in Siliguri in North Bengal. The puja falls on October 26 this year.

Hearing a PIL filed by Kolkata based environmentalist Subhas Dutta, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) took cognizance of the reckless dumping of waste in Mahananda river and issued notices to the West Bengal government, state pollution control board, Siliguri Municipal Corporation and its Deputy Commissioner in March this year.

The order issued by the District Magistrate, Darjeeling (order number 9/c dated October 9, 2017) states that the NGT, Eastern Bench, has passed orders to protect the River Mahananda from pollution and forbidden construction of temporary bridges on the occasion of Chhat puja.

The order for Siliguri and Kurseong subdivisions (through which the Mahananda flows) of the Darjeeling district include no construction of temporary bridges across part or whole of the river will be allowed at any place. No excavation of the river bed, dumping of sand bags inside the river or other changes affecting the course of the river will be allowed.

Devotees will have to ensure that no puja material and waste is dumped in the river. To avoid stampedes devotees should be spread across the banks and not crowd in pockets. Split bamboo or net barricades, if necessary may be built upto 3 feet from the river banks to allow access into the water.

A joint survey by the irrigation department; PWD; North Bengal Construction Division; representatives of the district administration, Siliguri Municipal Corporation and Pollution Control Board will take place before October 15 to identify the stretches on both sides of the river where devotees can congregate for the ritual.

"Any person who violates this order may be liable for imprisonment and fine of Rs 10 Crore and rigorous imprisonment of 3 years by a competent court (for violating the orders of the NGT.) Any excavators or other instruments being used to excavate or alter the river bed without prior permission will be seized" warned Joyoshi Das Gupta, District Magistrate, Darjeeling.

Vigilance teams comprising of officials of Siliguri Municipal Corporation, Irrigation Department, PWD, Pollution Control Board and the District Administration will be present to ensure compliance of the order of the NBT. Police will also lend a hand to ensure law and order and public safety.

A meeting was held between the stakeholders including representatives of Chhat puja celebration committees in Siliugri on October 6 and the strictures were communicate to them. "They have also been given copies of the order of the NGT" added the DM.

Following the October 6 meeting there was a hush hush campaign launched in Siliguri alleging that the district administration will not be allowing Chhat puja this year. This had caused great resentment amongst a section.

However sources claim that the rumor campaign was being done by the River mafia who have been indulging in unchecked quarrying and other illegal activities. "The order will be affecting the River Mafia also and so they are trying to create unrest" stated a commentator.

When questioned on this Dasgupta stated "Why won't Pujas be allowed? We will only ensure that it is a pollution free festival."

The Mahananda river originates in the Himalayas at an elevation of 2100m in Kurseong in the Darjeeling district. It flows through the Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary and descends to the plains of Siliguri. It then touches the Jalpaiguri district to enter Bangladesh and after flowing for 3km returns to India.

After flowing through the Uttar Dinajpur District it enters the State of Bihar and flows through Kishangunj and Kathihar in Bihar to enter West Bengal again in the Malda district. It joins the Ganges at Godagiri in the Nawabgunj district of Bangladesh.

A recent study on the quality of water has labeled Mahananda as the most polluted river in North Bengal.

The green groups have welcomed the move by NGT and the district administration but want it to be a year round affair to ensure a pollution free river.

"Encroachment on the banks of the river is the biggest problem. The encroachment has reached till mid river. From the Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary to Phoolbari in the Jalpaiguri district there are around a lakh people who reside in encroachments on the banks. Along with this open defecation, cattle sheds, piggeries, illegal quarries, car washes make it the most polluted river in North Bengal.

Indiscriminate dumping of Municipal waste of Siliguri town into the Mahananda is a major cause of concern. Dirty linen of most of the hospitals and nursing homes are washed in this river. Most of the flora and fauna including fishes have already become extinct. We want the district administration and the Government to adopt year long measures to ensure a pollution free river" stated Animesh Bose of Himalayan Nature and Adventure Foundation (HNAF.) The Foundation has been spreading awareness to make river pollution free.

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