In Meghalaya, the Lukha River’s Brilliant Blue Masks a Darker Truth
Large-scale coal and limestone mining has turned a life-giving river toxic and destroyed riverine culture and economy, locals and experts say.
Ashwani still remembers his first glimpse of the Lukha river. “I was in awe of the colour of the river,” says the Delhiite, who visited Meghalaya at the end of 2020. He posted a photograph of a creamy-blue river reflecting the azure skies, girdled by the lush green Jaintia Hills on Facebook, so others could be in awe, too.
Instead, it was there, on Facebook, that his idyllic vision of the river shattered. A comment on the photo pointed out the image of pristine perfection was a misleading one: the Lukha river is highly polluted, which purportedly causes an annual blue-green algae bloom toxic to the life that once thrived in it.
“Fishes found dead as river water turns blue,” ran a Shillong Times headline from the time when Ashwani visited the Lukha. In fact, every winter northeastern dailies regularly run headlines on dead fishes found afloat on a stretch of the river between villages Khaddum and Sonapur, Meghalaya. They have been doing so since 2007 when the river, suddenly, turned blue during the season.
The Lukha river, draining the southern part of East Jaintia Hills, Meghalaya, is fed by tributaries — mainly the Lunar River and small streams gliding from the undulating hills of the Narpuh Reserve forest. Chiefly rain-fed, the river turns south after meeting the Lunar near Khaddum village, ultimately winding up into the Surma valley in Bangladesh via Sonapur village. Of late, like many other streams and rivers of Meghalaya, the Lukha has become a victim of the unsustainable large-scale mining of coal and limestone, allegedly responsible for the pollution that turns the river its surreal winter hue.
A river full of life
The Lukha river once teemed with fish. Even its name in the local language bears testimony to this fact — in Pnar, “Wah Lukha” translates to a “reservoir of fish.”
Not anymore, however.
Not even a mile away from the Sonapur-Umkiang highway bridge, where Ashwani had captured the river’s morbid beauty, the road is lined with seven dhabas once well-known for their earthy fish curry. Tackmon Gympad, 35, the owner of one, says that the river once gave him everything. “Before 2007, I had customers from Jowai, Lad Rymbai and Assam who stopped by my place for the fish curry. Now, we cannot even rely on fish from Lukha.” His dhaba, once heaving with 1,300 customers now barely gets 50, Tackmon says.
The toxicity of the river has disrupted the entire economic ecosystem, in fact. Chebar Talang is a fisherman from Sonapyrdi village, who struggles to make ends meet on the polluted river. “At present, people don’t trust my fish-stock. They go for the belly meat instead of the head,” Chebar said. Customers no longer buy the whole fish, out of fear of ingesting chemicals from the polluted water, and Chebar has lost income in supplying smaller cuts.
“Fishing was a lifeline for over 60% of the residents living downstream of the river. Now, everything is lost,” said Kwilnis Suchiang from Sonapur, leader of the Narpuh unit of the Khasi Students’ Union. Once upon a time, the Lukha’s fish were enough to sustain the inhabitants of the area. A kilogram of fish fetched Rs. 300 to 350, netting a daily income of around Rs. 1,000, Suchiang spells out.
Aside from sustenance and livelihood, the river also fueled a culture widely manifested through traditional boat races hosted by elders and through the spoken Pnar language. That culture, like so many other riverine societies, is on the decline, says H.H. Mohrmen, an environmentalist based in Jowai, Meghalaya. Gatherings are rare; the scriptless Pnar language is endangered. “The district council no longer leases the river to private bodies for fishing en masse,” because there’s no mass to lease to, Mohrmen said.
While fishermen continue to ply the river in summer after heavy rainfall dilutes its pollutants, once winter sets in, their options narrow. In the months of December till March, locals become daily wage earners, which could mean mining sandstone from the riverbed, working in the nearby Narpuh Wildlife Sanctuary, or laboring on crop plantations, he said.
A toxic undercurrent
In the 13 years that have passed since the first bizarre blue episode, there have been interventions aimed at cleaning up the Lukha, both by locals and by statutory organisations. The Meghalaya State Pollution Control Board released an investigative report in 2012 that ultimately blamed acid mine drainage (AMD) and mine run-off from the coal mines for the pollution. The paper, “Seasonal Variation of Water Quality in Lukha,” pointed out that low pH, high concentration of sulphates and calcium, low dissolved oxygen (DO), and high biological oxygenation demand (BOD) in the Lunar tributary could be responsible for the changed composition of the Lukha.
The Lukha is now a highly alkaline river that experiences an annual, toxic blue-green algae bloom, according to Rajkamal Goswami, a conservation scientist at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment (ATREE). From the river’s place of origin throughout its catchment areas in the Narpuh Elaka, culprits dot the landscape: coal mines in Khleihriet and a dozen cement factories in an eco-sensitive zone near the Narpuh Wildlife Sanctuary. Still, the pollution control board’s report stopped short at holding any of these industries accountable. “The Meghalaya Pollution Control Board is supposed to visit the site and file the report themselves, but they ask the cement factories to submit instead,” says Rajkamal.
The pollution from these sites is obvious, if not documented. Villagers dwelling near the Lukha and its adjacent tributaries have lost potable water, and their land has lost fertility. “Since 2007, the production of paddy and fruits hasn’t been good enough,” the headman of Khaddum village, Ruota Khawbung, said. The area — formerly known for the cultivation of oranges and pineapples — no longer bears fruits. This period correlates with the expansion of mining and other industries across 77.94 square kilometers of community forest in the Jaintia Hills Autonomous District Council (JHADC) between 1994 and 2014, according to a Telegraph report — part of a larger trend across all of India.
Coal mining is banned in Meghalaya, on paper at least, though limestone mining is legal. Cement factories, in order to remain in the region and benefit from the local supply of a key ingredient, have forever dangled the carrot of employment in front of the locals. “For factories to get clearance, they scout either for areas which are either not forests or owned by the community under the Sixth Schedule,” said Rajkamal, referring to the constitutional provision that safeguards the rights of tribal people through the formation of autonomous district councils (ADCs). The industry’s piecemeal expansion was designed to suit the Environment Site Assessment inquiries conducted by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF), said a source who didn’t want to be named out of fear for his reputation.
This begs the question of whether existing laws are adequate to cope with the accelerating environmental change. “The State is least bothered to even collect mineral royalties from cement factories, forget other violations. Even if you see people in surrounding areas covered in cement dust, the system in place won’t let you prove it,” says Mohrmen.
The Joint Director of the MoEF, Meghalaya, declined to respond to an email seeking details on the reason for clearance of cement factories in protected areas bordering the Narpuh Reserve forest, of which the Lukha river is a crucial part.
A lost cause
On Dec 21, Suchiang, the Narpuh unit student leader, sounded his concerns about the Lukha’s pollution to the JHADC in a memorandum and demanded an inquiry to ascertain the cause of the blueing mystery. But answers have not been forthcoming.
Protest has been the traditional response, in such situations, reaching flashpoints in other parts of India, such as a rally of 5,000 farmers against the construction of a Nirma Cement plant on a wetland in Bhavnagar district of Gujarat, and the resistance to the handing over of 90 acres of pasture land to the Ultratech Cement Plant by the villagers of Khamar Nuagan and Kolathapangi in Orissa.
But in Meghalaya, the point of no return has passed — the Lukha region is already economically dependent on its polluting industries. Daya Lamare, village secretary of Sonapyrdi village, was an earlier champion of the protest against the expansion of Star Cement in Lumshnong; today, he is keen on finding middle-ground solutions that ensure growth without the destruction of the riverine ecosystem.
Progress is slow and uncertain. Cement factories have been convinced to install sewage and effluent treatment plants so far, Daya said. Next in tow is an ambitious project signed with Delhi-based Trinity Impex International to revive the river by using endemic algae strains that would effectively remove toxic compounds from cement manufacturing and coal mining effluents.
Until then, the Lukha will flow on in its annual toxicity, its peaceful blue surface belying the loss of a deeply loved and life-sustaining river underneath.
Aatreyee Dhar is an independent reporter who is passionate about underreported health and environmental issues from Northeast India.