Jal Panchayat & water awareness:
Soon after they got together, members of SAFE came up with the concept of ‘Jal Panchayat,’ a catchy Hindi phrase for ‘Water Awareness Meetings.’ Under this, SAFE volunteers travelled to villages like Kheri-Bhanauta, Saini Sunpura and Saberi in Greater Noida, talking to village pradhans (heads) and ordinary folks for hours. Villagers would be sensitized towards the criminal wastage of water made by running submersible pumps all day. Often, buffaloes and luxury cars would be leisurely washed with this water. Gradually, Jal Panchayats were taken to the urban sectors of Greater Noida like Alpha First and Gr. Noida West, where SAFE volunteers met RWA office bearers and other residents. People would be told about the need to stop rooftop water tanks from overflowing and start rainwater harvesting. Later, SAFE volunteers started going to schools and colleges like GR Global Academy (Dadri), HL International School and Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Inter College (Gr. Noida). Here, students were made aware of the latest Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) reports that say the groundwater table in Gautam Budh Nagar is falling at a rate of 1.5 meters every year, and saving water at home is a must. It was expected that the initiative would not just educate children, but they would, in turn, sensitize their families at home as well. In total, over 100 such ‘Jal Pachayats’ have been held over the last 10 years and more than 2,500 people connected to SAFE through them.
In Dec. 2016, SAFE collaborated with the district administration of G.B.Nagar, particularly the then-District Magistrate Mr. NP Singh, to make a beautiful video on water wastage (Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DRQvbCJwxC8&feature=youtu.be). The 2-minute long video was entirely scripted by SAFE and featured its male and female members as actors. The idea was to target the city audience, which often does not bother to save water or electricity. It was run in all cinema halls of Noida and Gr. Noida for one year for mass awareness. Besides, SAFE members run a hugely popular Facebook page called ‘Bund Bund Paani’ that posts text messages, photos and videos on water conservation. It has a following of over 2 lakh.
In 2016, SAFE members decided to start work on reviving ponds. Once a completely rural area, Noida and Greater Noida had around 800 ponds as shown by even existing revenue records. Historic and beautiful temples were built around the sacred ponds, annual fairs would be held and several rituals (such as in weddings) used water from them. In turn, the ponds would act as reservoirs, cleaning and storing rainwater for the dry seasons, and maintain the groundwater table. In 2017, SAFE founder Vikrant Tongad gathered some information on the status of these ponds to find that of the 800 mentioned in revenue records, only 400 remain on the ground. The rest have been encroached upon and erased. It was also found that Noida city itself had 250 ponds, of which none are visible now. Most of them have been turned into garbage dumpyards.
In June that year, a team of SAFE members, led by Vikrant, visited Jalandhar in Punjab to see Padma Shri awardee, Balbir Singh Seechewal’s, cleanliness work on the Kali Bein River. The members were hugely inspired to see sewaks (workers) uprooting water hyacinth (an invasive plant species) and weeds growing on the polluted river with bare hands. The sewaks were also planting medicinal and fruit orchards along the riverbank. SAFE members decided to come back and replicate these measures in the dying ponds of Noida and Gr. Noida. The effort began in a one-acre pond of Dabra (Gr. Noida) where Vikrant and others gathered over 50 volunteers, villagers, technical experts and local politicians to clean it. They manually removed tonnes of floating garbage from the pond and even set up small ‘natural sewage treatment tanks’ for the villagers (Seechewala model). These prevented the black water from being drained into the pond and contaminating it. These efforts culminated in the villagers naming the new-pristine pond as ‘Shaheed Sarowar’ after a local, martyr Suresh. Later that year, the government broadcaster, DD News, featured the success story of Dabra pond in a program called ‘Jal Shakti Samachar’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ye-fx2PgtTo&feature=youtu.be, relevant portions from 05:47 minutes to 08:25 minutes; also pls see https://youtu.be/geDEb2bugns) and clips from it were featured in an episode of PM Narendra Modi’s ‘Mann Ki Baat’ in 2019.
SAFE has since then replicated these efforts in over one dozen ponds of Gautam Budh Nagar like in Girdharpur, Ladpura and Haldwani. The project, successfully, continues.
Gr. Noida is blessed by nature with some beautiful wetlands like Surajpur (a 60 acre-large oasis across Dadri Road dotted by date palm trees and nilgais), Dhanauri (25 acres of lush water, rice fields and sarus crane in Thasrana village) and Hasanpur (at 90 acres, NCR’s largest wetland at Hapur). Unfortunately, these are also falling to anthropological pressures which SAFE has been trying to counter for almost a decade now.
SAFE’s most impressive work has been at the Surajpur Wetland which, till few years back, contained perennial standing water but has now become seasonal. Thanks to a real-estate boom around it, high-rise residential towers now stand on its catchment area, and the patch goes dry in summers. Every May-June, Vikrant and his associates make frequent trips to the Surajpur Wetland and immediately inform the UP Irrigation and Flood Control Dept. to open the Tilpata Canal, when the water level is running low. Standing water is essential to keep the fishes alive. SAFE has also planted over 1,000 saplings of native tree species like banyan, peepal, pilkhan, jamun and sehtush around Surajpur Wetland. Importantly, SAFE was instrumental in the UP Forest Dept. putting up five boards, that read ‘Nilgai prone area, drive slow,’ on the adjoining Noida-Gr. Noida Link Expressway in 2018. This was after Vikrant noticed that at least two nilgais (blue bulls) were coming under cars and dying every month while trying to cross over to farmlands from the wetland, and wrote to the Forest Dept.
Another wetland where SAFE has done considerable work is Dhanauri. Being a water-rich area, farmers here prefer to do rice farming, using a lot of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The run-off from this ends up in the wetland. SAFE members have held several meetings with farmers here counseling against this. A major concern here was poaching as Dhanauri annually hosts several domestic and winter migratory birds like the Northern Shoveler, Purple Swamphen, Greylag Geese and Sarus Crane. Often, shootings would take place for bird meat. SAFE wrote to the District Forest Officer (DFO) of the area asking for a guard to be deployed here and the same was granted. SAFE also wrote to the Hapur DFO and got the boating and fishing business at Hasanpur Wetland stopped, for which men would deliberately scare away birds with fireworks. SAFE is also trying to get Hasanpur officially notified under the Wetland Rules (2017).
River rejuvenation (Hindon & Yamuna):
UP’s Gautam Budh Nagar District, where SAFE is based, has a river of its own called ‘Hindon.’ This 300-km long rain-fed stream originates in the forests of Shivalik Hills in outer Himalayas. It travels seven districts of Uttar Pradesh (namely: Saharanpur, Shamli, Muzaffarnagar, Baghpat, Meerut, Ghaziabad and GB Nagar) before finally merging with Yamuna in Noida. Hindon has a special place in Hindu mythology, associated with lord Shiva and even called ‘Harnandi’ in our ancient religious texts. However, with the growth of unregulated industries and townships along its course, it has become a dumping drain for raw sewage and chemical effluents.
Looking at the condition of Hindon in its own work area, SAFE decided to do something about this. In 2014, Vikrant exposed the nexus of illegal stone crushing units that had set up business along Hindon in Ghaziabad. They illegally washed Badarpur (red silica), mined from the Aravalis, with Hindon water and made the river turn red. Vikrant made the media aware of these happenings (https://www.dailymail.co.uk/indiahome/indianews/article-2878318) and wrote to the UP Pollution Control Board (UPPCB) resulting in action against the units. In 2017, Vikrant was also made a part of ‘Hindon Bachao Samitis’ set up by the UP Govt. in all seven districts covered by Hindon. As part of this, Vikrant attended several meetings on how to improve the river’s condition and took part in official plantation drives along Hindon in GB Nagar district.
In 2018, looking at the rising number of cancer cases, and other skin and digestive diseases, among habitants downstream of polluted Hindon, SAFE wrote to the GB Nagar administration to set up health camps. In January 2020, it got a presentation from students of the Guru Gobind Singh College (Delhi University) — who are a part of the global group, ENACTUS — to set up a ‘trash barrier’ on Hindon. The barrier would catch several kgs of floating garbage like polythene, tetrapacks, bottles, etc. daily. SAFE advised them to do so on Hindon at Gaur City (Gr. Noida) and since then, few hundred tonnes of trash has been collected and handed over to the local municipality. This finally prevented the trash from going into Yamuna and later, Ganga River.
SAFE has also held over one dozen cleaning sessions on Yamuna riverbank at Chhat Ghat, ITO. These were organized with volunteers, students and corporate members under CSR.
Environment Clearance (EC) of bridges:
In early 2014, SAFE received several telephonic complaints about how construction work for the ambitious new Signature Bridge in Wazirabad area (north Delhi) was damaging Yamuna River. The project — first conceived in 2007 after a school bus fell down the old and narrow Wazirabad Bridge killing 28 children — planned to install a new “cable-suspended link” over Yamuna. This was near a locality called Majnu Ka Tila. Many local citizens, who contacted SAFE in 2014, provided photos of how tonnes of debris were being dumped into the river to flatten it and enable heavy vehicles to move on it. This not just compacted the soil, destroying vegetation and river flora, but also choked the river into a tiny stream.
A team of SAFE members soon visited the spot and were shocked. The River Yamuna here had almost disappeared. Instead, large trucks were rolling on the dry riverbed and all construction material — ready-mix cement, mortar and steel girders — was laid out on it. Even jhuggis of construction labourers had come up here who also defecated on the riverbed.
In July that year, SAFE filed a petition in the National Green Tribunal (NGT) over why such bridge projects should not seek an Environmental Clearance (EC). Those days, only construction of highways, buildings and townships were covered under the union govt.’s Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Regulations 2006 and had to undergo an “ecological impact study” by Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) experts before legally commencing. The court issued notices to project proponents and deliberated for six months over whether ‘bridges’ should be included. Finally, in January, 2015, it gave a ruling in favour of SAFE and said, “Since the Signature Bridge covers an area of over 1.5 lakh sq. mtrs, it has to be considered under Entry 8(b) of the Regulations and obtain an EC.” Besides, the judges also ordered MoEF to make amendments in the EIA Notification so that all bridge projects over a certain size seek an EC.
Since then, this judgement has led to several big infrastructure projects all over India either reluctantly applying for an EC (and therefore, undergoing the green audit) or being pressured by the public to do so. This includes the Bengaluru Steel Flyover project, an ROB proposal at Kandla Port (Gujarat) and an elevated road over Arthla Lake in Ghaziabad.