Our Bagmati

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During our school days it was not unusual for some classmates to play truant and head for Bagmati during monsoon floods to swim. The easiest way to learn swimming, the daredevils boasted, was to jump into the swelling river. Perhaps, it was in tune with adventurism typical of juveniles. This presumably still goes on as we occasionally read sad news of kids being swept away.

The Kumbheswor Pokhari in Patan was the next favorite option at other times as it was closer. The opening of swimming pool at the Dasharath Stadium provided belated opportunities for adults to learn the skills that they had not acquired earlier. The shortage of descent public pool continues to be worse as the population has ballooned many times. Despite availability of some exclusive club and hotel pools for public usage, it has largely remained beyond commoner’s reach. With lack of other recreational facilities it is no surprise that Kathmanduites flock to places of happenings, any happening, for that matter.

As for Bagmati, its water has depleted considerably due to exploitation while the level of pollution has risen considerably. Kathmandu Valley is said to be having about 57 recognisable flowing water bodies. Being entirely rain-fed, Valley rivers/streams have low discharge except during the monsoon. River banks are often taken to be a place of serene peace and quiet, and hence ideal for strolling and recreational activities. We are blessed to have such a meandering water body in our midst. But pollution and foul stench are a big put-off and much worse for those living on its banks either under compulsion or choice. The dismal situation is purely an outcome of extreme apathy on the part of stakeholders on either side. At the individual level, the problem is assumed solved if the foul sewage gets flushed or drained out to the downstream. Proliferation of locally-initiated drainage systems just feeds up larger volume of raw sewage straight into the river system. Kathmandu’s urban sewages have historically been flushed out by its rivers and we seem to be in no hurry to do otherwise!

A bold step was taken by “Bagmati declaration” group in 1996 wanting to usher a change in attitude by wishing not to be cremated on its banks so long as it remained polluted. The situation since then has turned much worse. Activist like Hutaram Vaidya gave the best part of his life in canvassing for Bagmati civilization and sensitising about pollution-free Bagamti. The river did not get into this state overnight. It is the result of countless number of small effluents channelled into the river over the years. Bagmati Safai Abhiyan is following the right track but the dissolved pollutant in the water is by far the biggest problem than floating or submerged garbage that often gets mentioned. No matter how quickly we want the river to be restored, the work will be almost intangible in effect and painfully slow, at best. The only solution is to stop soiled water getting into the river first and then be treated to bring down its BOD (biological oxygen demand) level safely down. Solid garbage may be less of a problem in contrast.   

Talking of tradition, mourners are often appalled at having to use Bagmati water in cremation-related rituals. Most choose not to speak, out of love and respect, for the departed than anything else. These rituals were laid when the term pollution did not exist. And following those are neither practical nor advisable under the present context. But making improvements does not come cheap as this was discovered painfully while running the Guhushwori sewage treatment plant. It turned out that the electricity bills for running the mechanical agitators were too high. Maintenance aspects have habitually been treated as one requiring least importance. Sadly, it was the single major reason for the failure of Kathmandu city core’s sewage treatment system built decades ago. About 1200 ropanis of oxidation pond area at Bagdol, just off the Ring road, stands as the proof of this apathy.

Lastly, we finally have an electric crematorium after over fifty years of brooding. It has been in news since the days of Kathmandu Nagar Panchayat as one was supposedly brought for installation at Teku. Was it such a complicated thing that it did not get installed earlier? It, at least, now offers a choice in the manner a body gets cremated. The opportunity to see a crematorium work came about a month ago and it seems to provide a dignified atmosphere even if the interior was much like a factory space. The two furnaces are definitely inadequate and more needs to be added at the earliest. Only hope it would not be too much to expect the present crematorium to run and maintained properly, and more get built at various other cremation sites too.

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