The Isha Foundation has proposed a weak, single-point solution for the multi-faceted problem that is the revitalisation of a river.
C.P. Rajendran is a professor of geodynamics at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, Jakkur, Bengaluru.
A river is a unique feature location in India where life and death merge as one. A glance at the daily activities along the ghats in Varanasi, on the banks of the Ganga, encapsulate this: humans use it to sustain life as well as destroy the dead, in the same water. Such intimate man-river interactions are hard to find in this world. As social scientist Sudhir Kakar once said, the Indian body stands less segregated from the environment and is in constant transaction with it, in contrast to a sharply bounded Western body. This is one way of explaining our psychological fixation with rivers.
However, despite our civilisational attachment and the culture-specific reverence, we have now ended up dirtying the waters, finding ourselves almost at a point of no return.
There is now a growing awareness that India’s rivers are dying; even some of our spiritual ‘gurus’ are distressed by the fact that our rivers are on their ‘deathbeds’. The latest to join the expanding crowd of river lovers is Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, the founder of the Coimbatore-based Isha Foundation who recently led a countrywide campaign with the call, “Everyone who uses water must rally for rivers”.
Jaggi Vasudev was also instrumental in preparing a 760-page draft policy document plus some recommendations, titled ‘Revitalisation of Rivers in India’, available on their website, with the help of some select professionals and volunteers and which was presented to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on October 3. It is a document full of good intentions, lots of data data and scholarship – but short on the science and workable recommendations. Nonetheless, their efforts need to be applauded because this author agrees with Carl Sagan, the renowned astrophysicist and science communicator – and also an atheist – on finding common ground with religious people in developing models of sustainable life.
In fact, who would disagree with the second Encyclical Laudato Si, written by Pope Francis, on the global ecological crisis? This papal document seeks dialogue with all people and is not meant only for the bishops of the church or the lay faithful, as used to be the case.
Similarly, the document prepared by Isha Foundation also seeks conversation with not just the faithful but everyone on the environmental mess that India finds itself in. The document deliberates on how to revitalise depleting rivers and seeks ways to restore them to their original splendour. It rightly says that the rivers need to be recognised as a ‘national treasure’ and that the protection of rivers – while ensuring full ecological flows – should preserve innate biological, chemical and physical properties of the water. It emphasises the requirement of minimum environmental flow to sustain flora and fauna in the ecologically sensitive zones along the rivers.
It lists major factors that led to the drastic depletion of the rivers, including over-exploitation, deforestation, pollution from industrial and agricultural sources and climate change. But surprisingly, the document ignores the mindless construction of dams – a major factor that led to the deterioration of rivers in India. It has not only impacted the minimum environmental flow and sediment influx – it has also destroyed ecosystems affecting the livelihood of millions of marginalised people living in the downstream parts. There are many examples of how dams and weirs affected river-flow and wreaked havoc India’s northwest and the east.
While the document mentions how we blindly imported and adopted a structuralist approach towards river ecology from Europe, it falls flat by not taking a bold stand on current issues of such nature. For example, an intense discussion is presented in the report on the Indian government’s mega-project to interlink rivers, which many experts have warned will finally end up being unsustainable and likely leave behind defunct dams and irrigation canals. The river needs its water to flow; interlinking rivers will sound their death knell.
The idea of ‘surplus water’ is a misnomer. Such an approach ignores the role of such ‘surplus water’ in protecting productivity in the floodplains, estuaries wetlands and coastal fisheries. The Isha Foundation acknowledges and weighs the pros and cons of all these inter-related issues but does not take a stand on the interlinking of rivers. It only recommends a silver bullet solution of tree plantation and agro-forestry on the river banks as a panacea for river vitalisation. Such a weak, single-point solution for a multi-faceted problem at hand falls disappointingly short of achieving its target.
Ecologists advocate discretion in introducing vegetation without taking area-specific ecological sensitivity into consideration. The choice of vegetation to be planted there will also need physical processes and the local geomorphology to be analysed. Although enhancing vegetation cover important for river bank stabilisation, the increased water availability depends on many other regional parameters.
The social forestry projects should not end up as excuses for industries to ease environmental norms. Restoring a river can’t be successful unless it is recognised as a series of activities meant to enhance the physical and biotic processes of a river in a way that helps maintain ecosystems in their natural state. There is no silver-bullet solution for this problem. A river is to be considered as one of the entities within an interrelated ecosystem and it should not be treated as a channel that is transporting water. The ancient settlers on the banks of the Indus intuitively knew this. This is why they approached the river with the dignity and respect it deserved.