All about rivers - living and dying!

Author Abhilash Khandekar Last Updated: Friday, 3 November 2017 (18:55 IST)
Growing up and studying in schools subjects like civics, geography and history, we got to know that most civilisations came up around great rivers across the world. Cities and towns always had lovely relationships with rivers which are often called the lifelines of citizens and rural folk alike. A lot of literature is available in various languages underlining the importance of rivers over the centuries. 
Today the same 'lifelines' are begging for their own lives. It's quite a bizarre situation. Yes, rivers are dying and expect those who are dependent on them -- we the human beings living in cities,  to save them. Are we doing our duty ? 
At a time when one of the biggest public supported campaigns for saving Indian rivers had been kicked off in India by a non-environmentalist (a modern yogi and a mystic) Sadhguru, I was drawn to reading this wonderfully edited book on Indian rivers. Honestly, I had not read such an explanatory book dealing with different aspects of Indian rivers before this. 
There have been sundry accounts of rivers or some expensive coffee table books on one particular river like Ganga or Godavari but dealing with more than 20-25 major rivers across India in one scientifically written book is perhaps a first attempt. A range of real river experts and field workers have contributed to this volume which makes is very authentic and a scientific book! 
There are number of issues being faced by river systems in India which have been technically explained in it, adding to the immense value of the book.
What is unique about this book is the set of well researched articles written by people ranging from forest officers to IIT graduates and NGO heads to qualified hydrologists who have been studying river's life and it's science for decades.
Book's eminent editor Ramaswamy Iyer (he passed away last year) was secretary of the Water Resources Ministry in Government of India and as such a river veteran who also had authored India's first Water Policy in 1987. That the policy is hardly being used as a guiding tool to address water issues is a different issue altogether and needs a separate article.
That The Indian rivers are facing extinction is a fact we can't turn our eyes from. A systematic killing of the rivers has been going on for over decades and its worst impact is being seen now when river after river is giving way to sprawling cities and dams. Soon, I seriously apprehend, the relationship between a 'river' and its water would be part of a fable. 
Such is the hopeless situation. Yamuna is the case in point so also the disappeared Saraswati river that a generation before us also had not perhaps seen. Like Saraswati, many other small rivers are running dry or have just disappeared, thanks to the incessant increase in population and associated problems.
Expert writers like former IITIans Ravi Chopra, Dr Vinod Tare and Himanshu Thakkar, Rama Rauta, Kalyan Rudra, IFS officer Manoj Misra, Brij Gopal, Parinita Dandekar, Pandurang Hegde have extensively written about different aspects of Ganga, Yamuna, Cauvery, Narmada, Mahanadi, Godavari and the Indus System, among others. 
Three years ago many river experts had assembled in New Delhi and had deliberated on the actual state of the rivers and were struggling to come up with a definition of a river. This writer was part of the deliberations at the WWF headquarters in the national capital. This book provides one definition, based on that Delhi declaration: " A river is more than a channel carrying water; it is also a transporter of sediment; it is also the catchment, the river bed, the banks, the vegetation on both sides, and the floodplain." The totality of these constitutes a river. A river harbours and interacts with innumerable organisms (plant, animals and microbes). It is a natural, living, organic whole, a hydrological and ecological system.
One may ask : Why did the need to define a river arise? Has river not been part of our lives for thousands of years? The need to define a river comes at a time when rivers are dying and unprecedented efforts have been started to save them. It's because conservation becomes easier in the days of legal fights to save the rivers. The book has a chapter "Killing a River", in which author Kelly D Alley, an American professor of anthropology, talks of ill conceived hydropower projects and its dams which gather lots of muck and and does other things which bring a river under stress and its river system is ruined to a level where the river ultimately dies.
Author after author has taken up health aspects of different rivers and have dissected them. Reading all the stuff here is quite enlightening. The editors had first thought of collecting essays on healthy and sick rivers but soon they realised that those who have been studying rivers, have actually painted grim pictures of rivers in decline and thus there were not many references to 'living rivers'. 
The book was then named : Living Rivers, Dying Rivers, rather aptly. Ms Parinita Dandekar and Himanshu Thakkar (both of SANDRP) have been lobbying against dams on rivers. Dandekar says Western Ghats are rightly called water towers of peninsular India. Several east-flowing rivers and hundreds of smaller west-flowing rivers emerge and gain strength from the catchments of the WG mountains from Gujarat to Kerala. She names few of them like Bhima, Koyna, Godovari, Krishna, Tungabhadra and Cauvery.
While Yamuna and Ganga are fighting serious threats to their very survival mainly due to problems created by rapid and mindless urbanisation process and by the people who inhabit cities like Delhi, Agra, Kolkatta, Indore , Kanpur or Varanasi and exploit rivers while also ruining them in worst possible manners. Small time rivers like Shastri in Maharashtra, and Tamraparni in Tamil Nadu are also said to be under threat. Two rivers--Aghanashini and Bedthi in the ecologically threatened Western Ghats in Karnataka have been saved by people's action, but perhaps for the time being, says the editor in its introduction.
The authors have tried their best to cover as many rivers as they can, including three major systems that arise from Himalayas, namely Indus, Ganga and Brahmaputra.
Yamuna's plight has been described by two experts Brij Gopal and Manoj Misra and both wonder if the cities which sprung up on the banks of Yamuna such as Delhi, Agra and Mathura, would survive if their lifeline river does not? It appears that cities are directly affecting rivers existence.
Misra who spearheaded Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan (Let the Yamuna Live Campaign) from 2006 onwards when he realised that the river was being encroached upon from all sides in Delhi, writes that floodplains of rivers are equally important as the water stream itself. He terms river as a natural ecological system which is unique and dynamic and has a living component. We all know how much encroachments have come up on these floodplains. 
Dr Vinod Tare, IIT Consortium head for preparing the Ganga River Basin Management Plan (GRBMP), has in a detailed account on the Ganga, provided the historical and environmental perspective and has spoken about the Nirmal Dhara, the promise the Modi Government made to the country in 2014. "River Ganga's water quality was historically acclaimed and its life-giving, healing qualities were realised in ancient times" Dr Tare writes. He writes: "The qualities of Ganga water are: coolness, sweetness, transparency, high tonic property, wholesomeness, portability, ability to remove evils, ability to resuscitate from swoon caused by dehydration, digestive property and ability to retain wisdom ". 
The same river is now one the most polluted rivers in the country, necessitating first, the Ganga Action Plan (GAP) of mid-80s and now a separate ministry under Uma Bharti was created. That she could do little to clean Ganga and had to be shifted out is another story. The ministry was supposed to rid the national river of its pollutants and a massive Rs 20,000 cr had been sanctioned by GoI.
Dr Tare further adds: "However, the present-day river water quality is abysmal and poses a grave environmental threat to the region".
He concludes that Ganga has become a trickling stream of polluted water in much of the basin and hopes that if the recommendations made in the GRBMP are achieved in foreseeable future, the river can be restored. He also notes the national mood, cutting across social and political spectra, to urgently rejuvenate the ancient river.
Why I have extensively written about this river is because earlier the Congress Government had spent huge amount on its cleaning some 30 years ago and now Modi Government has earmarked whooping Rs 20,000 crores for the same cause, with multiple objectives--the main being Aviral and Nirmal Dhara--constant flow of the river and clean flow.
Other authors have taken up rivers like Narmada, relatively less polluted, and Tapi, Mahi and Sabarmati. Himanshu Thakkar, an IIT graduate who heads SANDRP, writes about Gujarat to say that Gujarat is third largest dam-building state in India after MP and Maharashtra, with 666 dams, including 68 under construction. He reminds us of the worst dam disaster of 1979 when Morbi dam burst killing many. "In India, there is no law that requires that if a perennial river is dammed, then the river must be allowed to have some flow all around the year. 
The book enriches the reader beyond any doubt, about all possible aspects of Indian rivers, their history, importance, environmental and geological issues and present status. 
Unfortunately, most writers end up saying the rivers are in an extremely bad shape. Will the government listen? Uma Bharti apparently failed to do much to Ganga rejuvenation and was shifted by the Prime Minister. Now all eyes are on Nitin Gadkari, the new minister for water resources, an enthusiastic go-getter, and a performer.
[ Writer is a senior journalist and writes about environment, politics and urban affairs. He can be contacted at [email protected] and Twitter Abhikhandekar1]
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