The Empty Environmentalism of 'Rally for Rivers'

Trees are sexy. We don't hear of people planting grasses or thorny scrub or seeding wetlands with algae or seagrasses.

Across the country, coinciding in time on two separate occasions, two starkly different personalities were engaged in very different campaigns to save the country’s rivers. In September 2017, when the anti-dam activist Medha Patkar was waist deep in the rising waters of the Narmada river, Jaggi Vasudev, a flamboyant godman and yoga teacher, was racing across India in a bright green Mercedes SUV on a ‘Rally for Rivers’ (RfR).

In September 2019, Patkar was on a fast asking for the Sardar Sarovar dam’s gates to be opened to avoid the forced submergence of riverine forests and villages in Madhya Pradesh. Vasudev, meanwhile, was leading a motorcycle cavalcade to draw attention to his ‘Cauvery Calling’ campaign.

Patkar’s campaign to save Indian rivers challenges the diversion of water by large dams and river-interlinking projects and supports community struggles against industrial pollution, sand/coal/mineral mining and deforestation. Hers is an environmental justice struggle with farmers, fishers and adivasi arrayed against an alliance of contractors, politicians and big corporations.

Also read: Soon, We May Not Have a Cauvery River to Fight Over

Vasudev’s campaign, on the other hand, has recruited the support of corporations and politicians. Compared to Patkar’s grassroots struggle, Vasudev’s high-budget campaign is powered by a well-oiled social media machine pushing a simple campaign message: plant trees, save rivers.

Simplicity has its virtues. But in this instance, the simple message engages people to answer the wrong questions with a false solution. Vasudev’s proposal to plant trees will not increase rainfall or bring back water to our rivers. If done wrong, especially in a manner that lacks nuance, tree plantation can cause more harm than good.

Such misguided solutions sidestep inconvenient truths and root problems. They choose the wrong question because answering the right ones is difficult and will be opposed by the political and economic elite. Such interventions are designed to maintain the status quo, no matter how perverse. Fighting a dam project requires one to prioritise the needs of wildlife, indigenous populations and small farmers over the needs of large farmers and urban consumers. Planting trees does not.

Rally for Rivers’ and Cauvery Calling’s prescription to plant trees to increase river flow qualifies as a false solution.

To understand why, let’s examine the sole document RfR has placed in the public domain: the October 2017 draft policy recommendation for the ‘Revitalisation of Indian Rivers’.

Good diagnosis

Chapter 1 of the 761-page document contains a discussion on what ails our rivers. It begins with a beautiful story about the Buddha, who brought a handkerchief to one of his gatherings. He knotted the handkerchief and asked if it was the same as the old one. The monks around him replied that the cloth was the same but the form had changed. “What should be done to bring the handkerchief to its original state?” the Buddha asked. The monks responded that the knots had to be undone to restore the kerchief.

RfR’s document rightly observes that our river systems are all knotted up, and that “we as a nation, instead of unknotting them, have only been pulling the knots further apart through our interventions of building more dams and diverting more water to cities from the rivers.”

RfR classifies the problems our rivers into six distinct knots.

The first knot is titled ‘British Legacy of India’s River Management’ and discusses how converting water bodies and river banks from community-controlled spaces to state property disconnected people from their immediate nature. The section correctly highlights the disastrous consequences of applying European engineering methods, developed for perennial European rivers with unvarying seasonal flows, to Indian rivers with varying seasonal flows.

The second knot, titled ‘Deforestation’, discusses the impact of deforestation in catchment areas and the headwaters.

The third knot – ‘Overexploitation of Groundwater’ – connects groundwater and surface water regimes to explain how groundwater over-extraction depletes rivers’ flows.

The fourth knot is ‘Increase in Population’ talks of degrading land-use changes associated with clearing land for increased food production.

The fifth knot is ‘Pollution’, caused by the discharge of untreated industrial and household effluents into water bodies, the scourge of sand-mining and industrial agriculture.

The sixth and final knot is ‘Climate Change’, which will worsen the pressure on river ecosystems whose functionality has been “dramatically diminished” by water abstraction, damming, pollution and habitat modification.

Also read: Why Simply Planting More Trees Won’t Help Us Deal With Climate Change

Bad prescriptions

Activist Medha Patkar during her fast on August 2. Credit: PTI

Activist Medha Patkar during her fast on August 2, 2017. Photo: PTI

Vasudev and Patkar may broadly concur with the six diagnoses but such agreement is bound to be short-lived. Where Patkar is a fiery protestor keen to expose and untie all six knots, Vasudev is a careful oarsman anxious to cross the river without rocking the boat or muddying the waters.

The godman’s distaste for protests and protestors is no secret, and it is impossible to attempt to untie the knots without upsetting the state, the corporate sector or, generally, the powerful.

A month after 14 people were killed in a police firing at a peaceful protest against Sterlite Copper’s pollution in the south Indian coastal town of Thoothukudi, Vasudev tweeted: “Am not an expert on copper smelting but I know India has immense use for copper. If we don’t produce our own, of course we will buy from China. Ecological violations can be addressed legally. Lynching large businesses is economic suicide.”

If the law and the judiciary were up to addressing ecological violations, there would be no need for ‘Cauvery Calling’ or the Narmada Bachao Andolan. Indeed, reposing its faith in the judiciary, the Isha Foundation seeks to deal with the complex disease ailing Indian rivers quite simplistically: “The solution we are proposing is that for at least one kilometre-width on either side of all major rivers, and at least five hundred meters for smaller rivers, the land must have tree cover.”

In fact, after observing that “the watershed is the unit of operation for any sustainable work to revitalise rivers and underground aquifers” and that “integrated watershed management is … the soundest means to revitalise rivers,” RfR abandons the watershed concept because it is too much trouble.

RfR will neither take on campaigns to untie existing knots nor prevent new ones from being added.

Consider the following knots already in the picture.

The government has proposed a four-lane highway in the Cauvery’s headwaters, between Kodagu and Mysuru. This will require four lakh trees to be felled, according to the Save Kodagu and Cauvery Campaign.

In 2017 (the year RfR was launched), Kodagu district lost 400 acres of forest (mostly natural).

Electroplating, battery-recycling and metal smelting units in Bengaluru freely discharge sewage and industrial effluents laced with heavy metals into the Vrishabhavathi river, which merges with the Arkavathy to jointly contribute to the Cauvery. Bengaluru discharged 1,400 million litres of sewage into the Cauvery every day in 2015, according to a former irrigation minister.

The Karnataka government wants to construct a major dam at Mekedatu, at the confluence of the Arkavathy and the Cauvery. This will submerge 7,862.64 acres of the Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary and 4,619.63 acres of the adjoining reserve forest. If built, the dam will also impound up to 67 TMC of the Cauvery’s water, far more than the Krishnarajasagara reservoir. The water from the reservoir will feed further growth of the already grid-locked Bangalore city. More water means more sewage and more pollution in the Cauvery.

From Kulithalai in Erode, where the Cauvery expands to 1.5 km, the river bed is mostly sand. Miners meet about 60% of Tamil Nadu’s daily sand requirement – 525,000 tonnes – with sand mined from the Cauvery basin. Irrespective of its legality, the amount of sand that has been removed has harmed the river’s ability to remain a river.

RfR blithely sidesteps all these insults to the Cauvery:

If we demand dismantling of dams, or displacement of millions of people from floodplains, or shutting down of polluting industries which were set up over five decades ago, people will only cast rivers as their enemies. So while the knots related to human lands cannot be easily untied, we can certainly reduce the stress that such land use has brought upon river systems by adopting eco-friendly methods and technologies. Other knots like the loss of our cultural ethos and emotional connection to rivers, can be untied by working on our mindsets.

Notwithstanding extant dams and punishment for past pollution, if revitalising rivers is the goal, why then does RfR make no effort to confront new dam projects, ongoing sand-mining and increasing, and continuing, pollution?

Tree planting

When one is overwhelmed by the complex mess that our natural system is, planting trees or swachhing our Bharat one plastic bag at a time can be a great escape. Trees are sexy. We don’t hear of people planting grasses or thorny scrub or seeding wetlands with algae or seagrasses.

For example, D. Narasimhan, a noted botanist and the former head of department at Madras Christian College, strongly disagrees with the proposal to plant a belt of trees for 1 km along riverbanks.

“Riverbanks ought to have riverine vegetation that varies from one section of the river to the other. Grasses, shrubs and wetlands – not merely trees – are essential for the integrity of the river and riverine habitats,” he said. “Tree-centred economic considerations can often conflict with ecological goals.”

In the absence of a masterplan for Cauvery Calling, RfR could rebut any criticism by saying all concerns will be addressed during implementation. But such rebuttal lacks credibility: Cauvery Calling has already begun to raise money – Rs 42 per tree, not per clump of grass or thorny scrub – to plant 242 crore trees.

This is an audacious number. The Cauvery’s main channel is 800 km long, from source to delta. Its principal tributaries – Harangi, Kabini, Shimsha, Hemavati, Arkavathi, Suvarnavathi, Lakshmana Thirtha, Lokapavani, Bhavani, Noyyal and Amaravati – have a combined length of 1,860 km. If either bank of the Cauvery and its tributaries were to be planted with 242 crore trees, that would translate to a plantation density of 454,887 trees per sq. km (or 1,841 trees/acre).

This is seven-times higher than the 250 trees/acre plantation density mentioned in the RfR document. Assuming a poor survival rate of 50%, this would mean more than 900 trees an acre. Even the Amazon rainforest has only 400-750 trees/hectare (160-300 trees/acre) – between three- and six-times lower than what has been proposed for the length of the Cauvery and its tributaries. This is a ridiculous proposition. In arid and semi-arid stretches of the Cauvery basin, such a high density of trees would deplete groundwater and desiccate the river.

Also read: Of the Classes of Environmental Regulation, Grasslands Are Poorest of the Poor

One study found that optimum groundwater recharge occurs at intermediate tree cover in seasonally dry tropical areas. In such areas, closed productive forests may lead to low groundwater recharge due to higher total transpiration and high interception of rainwater at the rootzone for tree growth.

Even in terms of sustaining river flow, high-density tree plantations can have quite the reverse effect of intercepting and reducing surface runoff, at least in certain seasons. Converting erstwhile grasslands to tree farms will only worsen the water situation.

A 2017 article by four scientists from the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, Bengaluru, remains the most exhaustive and sober critique of the Isha Foundation’s tree plantation campaign. The authors argue that the link between forests and climatic phenomena like rainfall is significant only when changes occur at regional or continental scales. “A 1-km [line] of trees along rivers is unlikely to impact local rainfall patterns,” they conclude.

If RfR wishes to heal India’s beleaguered rivers, it has to move beyond planting trees and invest more in arresting deforestation, pollution, sand-mining and diversion of water. The politician-contractor lobby needs to be confronted squarely.

In the absence of such commitments, those who are considering making the Rs 42 per tree donation must also consider the old saying that a fool and his money will soon be parted.

Update: At 4 pm on October 1, 2019, it was brought to The Wire’s attention that the Isha Foundation plans to plant 242 crore trees in a third of the Cauvery basin, not along the Cauvery’s banks. The author clarified thus:

A third of the Cauvery basin is spread over 24,200 sq. km. Planting 242 crore trees over this area will mean a planting density of 400 trees/acre. Even if all trees are to be planted covering every acre of agricultural land (53,376 sq. km) in the basin, the density only drops to 182 trees/acre – comparable to the Amazon’s 160-300 trees/acre. Add the area under forest (16,636 sq. km), including tracts of the Western Ghats, and the proposed density comes to 140 trees/acre. To achieve this average, one will either have to uproot standing trees to make room for new ones in the denser parts of the Western Ghats or plant at a higher density in the plains and open landscapes. The numbers just don’t add up.

Nityanand Jayaraman is a Chennai-based writer and social activist.