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  • Shriti Das

Led by the rivers

Blog Stories - People Called Shillong

Two inseparable celestial sisters decided to descend to earth from the heavens. Somewhere in the journey one of the sisters lost her way while the other reached the earth, she was filled with anguish. She cried inconsolably for her missing sister and her tears ran like a river – the Umiam River. Umiam translates to ‘water of her eyes’. The Umiam River was dammed to create a reservoir near Shillong, known as the Umiam Lake but colloquially called as ‘Barapani’. Barapani is Hindi for ‘big waters’. Located near the Shillong-Guwahati Highway, the river’s poetic name and annotations are a metaphor for the plight of the ecological concerns that shroud Shillong.

Naba Bhattacharjee, a Shillong resident and environmentalist was posted in Arunachal Pradesh when he came face-to-face with the state of the Umiam Lake. The Umiam Lake has been a part of Naba Bhattacharjee’s journey through life, literally and metaphorically. “Once while home from Arunachal, I had stopped on the way at Barapani Lake on the Shillong-Guwahati highway. There was an old road where we hiked, picnicked in our school days. As kids we could see our reflections clearly.” But the clear pristine water was no longer there. It was black with soot, dust, grime and lubricant, garbage and plastic bottles rolling in the slimy waters.

“I thought if I continued to accept the status quo, the day I grew old and came back for good, there would be very little that I could contribute to – to something that is so close to my heart.” It set into action, a domino effect. Rather, a reverse domino effect that addressed, environmental concerns to sociological and educational challenges that affected Shillong. “I decided to come back home. To memories of childhood, of clean streets, few cars, where in the mornings the roads lined by trees shone as if someone had washed them early before the city woke up. I resigned from service in 2005 and in 2006 I returned to Shillong. When I came back, the concrete jungles, the city and the surrounding hillsides denuded of its greenery hit me.”

The transformation from green to grey had occurred in a span of ten to fifteen years. For a year Bhattacharjee trudged across hills, catchments and villages in and around Shillong to analyse damages. He established, “The forested hills supply drinking water to entire Shillong. Seven rivers originate in the hills and feed the city. Illegal felling of trees had led to damaged catchments. I approached the Khasi Darbar, local MLA and the administration and induced them to intervene and arrest the destruction of the green cover on the hills.”

Next he addressed the faulty and unorganised sewerage disposal system in the city that had tainted the Umiam Lake, reflecting back on the rivers. Bio-medical waste and construction debris were dumped in the rivers. Many families used service latrines cleaned by manual scavengers. Everything was released into its rivers. “The city lacked an organised garbage collection system and its rivers bore the brunt of this neglect. I fought for two years with the government and filed public interest litigation. The case is under appeal in the Supreme Court of India. I appear myself. It’s my pet project.”

And again it was the river that led him to realise another drastic change. Shillong boasts of a polo ground, a golf-course among other British endowed legacies. The Umshyrpi and Wahumkhrah rivers flow through the heart of Shillong, across the polo grounds. The grounds were used for equestrian sports during the Raj. In his childhood Naba and his friends had played cricket on the British-constructed pavilion. “It was a huge open space with Assam-type architecture. Now, multi-storeyed concrete structures have mushroomed around the pavilion. The colonial architecture, the open spaces had disappeared. The lush green had gone. The place where we played cricket had gone to football. I stepped in to salvage whatever was left.”

Some 75 percent of the land was invaded by construction. Naba convinced the government to give them the remaining 25%. Or the sport would eventually die. The government obliged and granted the land for cricket. Naba Bhattacharjee started slow and small, “I started with three or four officials. We didn’t have money. We ourselves dug and levelled the ground, carried debris. We started inter-school competitions as well as a trophy in women’s cricket in my mother’s name. With the help of the late Purno Agitok Sangma, I met Sharad Pawar, Chairman of the Board of Control for Cricket in India at the time. After many tribulations, we got affiliated in 2009. We conducted some BCCI tournaments on our grounds. We got Dilip Vengsakar, Venkatash Prasad, and Sandeep Patil among others to visit and encourage our young players.”

Apart from cricket, he also tried reviving the golf course which is bisected by a vehicular road. A road passing through a golf course defies its entire purpose. “The road creates a hindrance. A golf course needs unhindered space. The fairway has to be green or you can’t play. Picnickers frequent the area. They litter, sit, run and dance on the grass. We deployed guards, but how do you stop people unless you cut off the ground completely and make it exclusive. To salvage the situation, we built water bodies, started rainwater harvesting.”

A man has only twenty-four hours in a day. Seven days in a week. Fifty-two weeks in a year. Naba attempted to reverse twenty years of ecological damage, with support, nonetheless. Shillong was his personal project, it still is..

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