The story of Kathmandu is incomplete without the presence of the Bagmati
All the great rivers of the world are awash with anecdotes; the Bagmati is no different. The river that runs across the Kathmandu Valley wasn’t always this filthy. A long time ago, she breathed clean water and flirted free spiritedly in a wide space. Her billows breaking upon the banks could be heard from a distance. And next to her, trees touched the blue sky. Today, the great river seems to be on the verge of collapse. The Bagmati has fallen silent and doesn’t flirt anymore. Her spirit has dwindled. I live by her in Balkhu and I still remember her happy days. In years past, I used to sit next to her and let my mind travel. Birds used to perch on the branches of the trees on her banks, and there was no stench interrupting her beauty. She reflected the orange sunset skies, while little kids splashed and played in her waters.
I have been told where a river starts a civilization thrives, which is why Kathmanduites owe their existence to the Bagmati. But the fact is, we who feel so necessary to boast of our existence have forgotten our past. Apart from names like the late Hutta Ram Baidya, fondly known as Bagmati Baa, who was recognized for his great love for the Bagmati, few have taken the time to help conserve the river. But Baidya, who coined the term Bagmati Civilization, too had given up by the end. He died convinced that we would ruin the river because it had become a source of income and because people had lost their connection to her existence. With few bothering to remember the Bagmati’s glory days, his contribution will probably fade in time, just like images of the river’s splendor have faded in ours.
“Hutta Ram Baidya was a legend. He didn’t want to control the Bagmati; he wanted the Bagmati to live free. He was against sand mining, gravel harvesting, and the encroachment of the river,” says Megh Ale, the founding head of the Nepal River Conservation Trust (NRCT), the organizers of the Bagmati River Cleaning Campaign. The NRCT’s efforts to clean Bagmati seem ambitious, and it’s hard not to be skeptical about their plans. But the team has been soldiering on, nonetheless. Their campaign includes awareness programs in schools (such as art, poetry, and plays aimed at saving the Bagmati’s grace), water sports, tree plantations, bird watching, cleanup activities, and workshops. These regulated projects round up people for the main cleaning program in the Bagmati River.
Although their campaign has been going on for fifty-five weeks, it is still not enough for a clean Bagmati, a reason why I’m skeptical about the results. Having said that, I have never been part of the cleaning campaign myself. The reasons for my skepticism may not reflect their efforts but I’ve based them on what I have seen. For one, I have been witness to trucks unloading garbage next to the river despite the many complaints of our societal group, and I have seen the encroachment of the river in order to make way for roads. I have also continually been witnessing the rising hill of refuse on her banks. In the end, I have been left with a feeling of disgust over what we have done.
However, the Bagmati River Festival that NRCT organizes every year has been getting an enthusiastic response. “The festival is much more than just about bringing people together and connecting them to the Bagmati. We believe people will help if they understand why it is integral to save the river,” says Ale. Unfortunately, the Bagmati River Cleaning Campaign still does not have a wide participation, although Ale is extremely passionate about it. “Never in my life did I think I would be a part of such a project,” he says.
Megh Ale points out five problems that have led to the Bagmati’s present condition - Kathmandu’s waste management, incorrect education, sewage pipes opening up to river outlets, the decline in water level, and the undefined laws and policies for river pollution. “The waste management in Kathmandu is terrible, and the children have also been deprived of the correct education when it comes to the environment,” says Ale. “The fact that we are all responsible for keeping the environment clean hasn’t been understood. Now, add to that the lack of laws regarding pollution, and what we have is a recipe for disaster.”
The solution to save the Bagmati becomes pretty clear once we realize that the drive requires our efforts most of all. A good place to start is by supporting the Bagmati River Cleaning Campaign. “Projects like this must be carried out regularly and should be supported by the public,” says Ale. “The river has been turned into a canal and since nobody is taking a heavier initiative, we haven’t been able to bring about the much needed change.”
The Bagmati River Cleaning Campaign is in its fourteenth year now, and Megh Ale has been working towards its goal with devotion. He still remembers the day he cupped a small fish in his hand while cleaning the river. The realization of something still living in the heavily polluted water came as a ray of hope that has kept him grounded in his ambition to clean the Bagmati. “Sagarmatha is our pride and Bagmati is our prestige,” he states. “We need to keep our prestige.”
For a majority of us, stories like this may still be unheard of because of our neglect of the Bagmati. We have only been able to observe her decline, and although she may never go back to what she once was, the river can still stay around to witness the coming generations. We can still save her memories and remind people of the civilization she began. We can always save the little beings that live in her water. We still have some more time to save her, and it can only be possible if we are willing to continue our stories with her. Because where water gushes, life follows.