In many small but significant ways, 2017 has shown that the idea of a river as a living thing is resilient and survives.
Multi-crore announcements, damming failures and the ‘birth’ of a new life form – if there’s one thing that has disrupted grandiose governmental plans this year, it has been rivers.
If rivers could speak, they would have a lot to say to us Indians. But since they can’t, the Uttarakhand high court feels they should at least be represented. This year, in a landmark judgment, the court declared the Ganga and Yamuna rivers and their tributaries in Uttarakhand to be ‘living entities’.
There are scores of living entities in our natural and built worlds that don’t always get justice or representation. These include endangered species and species that are imperilled but aren’t yet known to be so, for instance.
But a river is a collection of species rather than just one living being. It contains within itself sentient, appealing species like dolphins as well as lesser known varieties of molluscs, fish and plankton. In its body, a river is a collection of living beings, giving life, habitat and conduit to life. But in calling the river itself a living thing – perhaps in ontological fashion – the high court seems to suggest that the Ganga and the Yamuna should be represented in court if their ‘lives’ are found to be in danger. This also suggests that they have rights and that such dangers should be quelled.
How do Indians really feel about rivers? For one, we know that their ‘lives’ are in danger and yet we seem unconcerned. A CAG report in 2017 pointed out an attitude of almost-complete neglect towards the Ganga: “There was overall shortage of manpower, ranging from 44 to 65 per cent during 2014- 15 to 2016-17 in the National Mission for Clean Ganga. In [state-level program management schemes], the overall shortage ranged between 20 to 89 per cent.”
River rights are violated as well: remember that our ‘holiest’ rivers are also our dirtiest. It is also true that while activists and government departments call for ‘nirmal, aviral dhara’ (‘clean and uninterrupted flow’) and for restoration, notably of the Ganga, other plans involve dredging rivers such as through the National Waterways Act, piping their water for irrigation, creating ‘highways’ on rivers routes and preventing river water from going into the sea in their otherwise natural estuarine form. The Uttarakhand judgment has since been challenged at and stayed by the Supreme Court.
River interlinking – the act of artificially forcing rivers to join – for providing water for irrigation or other use has on and off been the agendas of various governments for decades. Under the present government, it has found vocal support in River Development Minister Nitin Gadkari. “Thirty river-linking projects have been approved, out of which work on three projects – Ken-Betwa, Par-Tapi Narmada and Daman Ganga Pinjal – will begin within three months,” he had said. The swiftly approved National Waterways Act, which envisages the construction of ‘river highways’ by dredging and channelling without environmental impact assessments, is afoot. Some tenders have already been approved.
If the Ganga is a living being, then one must wonder what she would have to say about being dredged and jetty-fied. While the river silently trundles on, carrying both garbage and trashy plans that don’t abide by environmental safeguards, it appears to manifest our bipolar outlook towards them.
On the one hand, there are dreams of the virginal, nirmal, aviral Ganga, a river that will not be touched, barraged or dammed – though rivers have already been irrevocably changed. On the other are the hyper-engineering plans that view the river exclusively as a body of water waiting to be piped, dammed or dredged.
Also read: Can Gadkari clean up the Ganga by 2018?
This image precludes the fact that the river is not just a body of water but also a body of life, home to several species that live through various depths and heights of the river bed. Gadkari has, for example, said that it is a ‘waste’ that a river flows into the sea. This argument does not consider that rivers create fertile and life-sustaining deltas as well as biodiverse estuaries in their denouement. This year, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature changed the status of the Irrawaddy dolphin, found in the Sundarbans delta and Chilika lagoon, to ‘endangered’ from ‘vulnerable’. This means that the dolphin, with its severely disturbed habitat, is one step closer to being gone forever.
The prevailing idea seems to be to find engineering solutions rather than environmental ones for river ‘development’, and this idea has enjoyed overwhelming institutional support. Ritwick Dutta, an environmental lawyer, wrote in April, “At the national level, the Ministry of Water Resources has been renamed as the Ministry of Water Resources, Ganga Rejuvenation and River Development. The priority of the Central government is clear: water is a resource to be utilised, rivers have to be ‘developed’ (that is, tapped and harnessed), while the river Ganga is the only river that needs to be rejuvenated.” There is also an excessive slant on rivers being ‘holy’ entities, a narrative the environmentalists Ashish Kothari and Shristee Bajpai have argued is ripe for the embracement by communal discourses.
Then again, there are some indications that a modicum of rights is being granted to rivers as natural, and not ‘engineerable’, beings.
The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has admitted an appeal against the Ken-Betwa river interlinking plan, which stands to drown 100 square kilometres of the Panna tiger reserve, because the water deficit and surplus figures have not been made public. The tribunal has also quashed a clearance granted to the Kashang river dam and asked Himachal Pradesh to take a sustainable approach towards building these megastructures. Interestingly, the body also said that the Gram Sabha should be part of the decision if it wanted a hydro-electric project.
The Uttarakhand judgment had suggested the chief secretaries and advocate generals, as stand-ins of the government, could be a river’s ‘parents’. Instead, could local governance institutions running on sound environmental principles be expected to assume this responsibility?
Beyond the courts and judicial activism, there is also evidence to suggest that rivers can be accorded rights or ecological integrity, even if by non-state actors. In 2017, a first-of-its-kind gazette for the Hindon river was created to deal with land use and river basin details. Its richness of detail recognises both the ecological character of the river basin as well as a representation of how land use has affected it.
The very-polluted Assi river is hardly discussed in the media but a pilot project has successfully cleaned up portions of it using coir logs and site-specific bioremediation techniques.
During deliberations by civil society and academia on ‘India Rivers Day’ in November, much of the discussion centred on wetlands that could be saved. Constructed wetlands have helped clean and restore water bodies. A notable example is in the ancient Neela Hauz lake near Vasant Kunj, New Delhi.
So despite enormous failures in cleaning or rejuvenating rivers, the discourse around these beings has stayed thankfully bifurcated; it’s clear that not everyone looks at a river and thinks “piped water source” or “highway for barges”, as a sterile and compliant entity. Through many small but significant ways, 2017 has shown that the idea of a river as a living thing is resilient and survives.
Neha Sinha is a Delhi-based conservationist.