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Caring for the Rivers in India

"Today, India faces a situation where in the name of growth and modernisation, blatant abuses of the rivers and the water are being encouraged and condoned.  The reckless deforestation in the name of development is accelerating the death of the rivers.  The rivers are the life-blood of the country, let us save them, or else we all perish."

Dr. Nachiketa Das : January 12, 2008

Vyaasadev who composed Mahabharata and Durga Saptasati, towards the end of his life while still engaged in intellectual pursuits by the banks of the venerable Saraswati, observed that the magnificent civilisation that stood beside, and is nurtured by, the life-giving Sarawati, will disappear due to the moral decline of the citizenry.  His observation, nay prophecy, came true.  What he was referring to was the greed of the citizenry and their blatant disregard for, and rampant abuse of, natural resources.  The massive deforestation along the entire length of the Saraswati and gross abuse of her waters killed the river.

Indian civilisation grew along the life giving rivers of the subcontinent, the prominent being the Indus, the Ganges, the Bramhaputra, the Yamuna, the Saraswati, the Godavari, the Krisna and the Cauvery.  Ramachandra’s Ayodhya stood beside the Saraju, the Mahabharata unfolded beside the Yamuna, the Buddha taught beside the Phalgu, the Chanda Ashoka became the Dharma Ashoka and embraced Buddhism on the banks of the Daya, and in recent times Gandhiji established his ashram by the Sabarmati.

The Orissan rivers of Mahanadi and her distributaries Kathjodi, Birupa, Kuakhai; Rushikulya, Subarnarekha, Baitarani, Budhabalanga, Kharasrota, Brahmani, Salandi, Daya, Bhargavi, Chandrabhaga, and now extinct Prachi and Chitrotpala gave the state her fertile tracts that made her a prosperous agrarian land.  In olden times these rivers provided Orissa with her marine and riverine ports that harboured huge galleons departing for the far off lands of Java, Sumatra, Bali, Komboja, Malaya, Siam and Burma, laden with precious stones, silk, expensive textile, silver filigree, gold ornaments, and all manners of merchandise.  This maritime trade made Orissa fabulously prosperous.  The poverty stricken Orissans of the twenty-first century do not realise that Orissa cradled the immensely prosperous port of Tamralipta, and a world-class city recorded by the famous Greek geographer Ptolemy as the Pitunda Metropolia. 

The land of the five rivers (the Jhelum, the Ravi, the Chenab, the Bias and the Sutlej), the Punjab, in modern times has become the bread-basket of the country thanks to the Bhakranangal dam.  Hirakud dam on the Mahanadi, dams on the Tungabhadra, the Damodar, and on many others across the length and the breadth of the country have provided waters for irrigation, drinking and sanitation.  I am not interested in entering the debate into the merits or demerits of large dams, I merely wish to emphasise the importance of the rivers.  Many other rivers, the Periyar, the Narmada, the Tapti, the Sone, the Gandak, the Ghagra, the Kali, the Kushi, the Hoogly, the Padma, the Meghna, made India prosperous.

And all these rivers prospered due to the respect with which water was treated.  Even today, I notice vestiges of that reverence for water among the rural Indians, when I see them bathing in the Ganges, and for that matter in any water-way even in canals across the country.  They reverentially offer palmfuls of water in their folded hands raised skywards in appreciation of the benevolence of the nature, who holds and protects us.  The Vedic gentleness and the reverence for the earth and the environment are encapsulated beautifully in this age-old Sanskrit verse:  

‘Samudra basane devi

Parvata stana mandale,

Vishnu patni namastubhyam

paadasparsam kshyamasva me’

Which upon translation reads, 'Thy robes are ocean, Mountains thy bosom, My mother Oh Earth, The consort of Vishnu, I bow to Thee, Forgive me, For treading on You'.

Vedic India, saw earth as the Mother, and treated the land that sustained us with utmost respect and humility.  Modern urbanised Indians consider themselves too smart to show any respect towards the earth, water and the environment.  Today, India faces a situation where in the name of growth and modernisation, blatant abuses of the rivers and the waters are being encouraged and condoned.  The reckless deforestation in the name of development is accelerating the death of the rivers.  The rivers are the life-blood of the country, let us save them, or else we all perish.

>>> Scroll down to read rest of the Story


I have often heard the argument that the population pressure is leading to deforestation.  This argument is only partly correct.  Population density of Japan is 340 persons per square km, which is more than the population density of India of 330, yet 70% of the land area of Japan is under forest cover, where as in India the forest cover is a miserly 20% and shrinking by the day.  Orissa has a population density of 240 and has a forest cover of 31%, a slightly better figure than the national average.  In India deforestation is the result of various factors, wrong policies and public ignorance being two of them.

Every individual in India, rich or poor, big or small, regardless of the status and position in the society, should consider it a moral duty to plant a sapling on his or her birthday every year.  Only such an act of planting trees by all the citizens would bring about the required change in attitude to appreciate the importance of trees and the environment.  These actions will regenerate the forest cover, perhaps within a generation or two, and will rejuvenate the dying rivers.

Afforestation may rejuvenate the smaller streams but may not be enough to save the big rivers though.  In matters of human health, at times, medicine alone is not enough, and surgery becomes necessary.  Managing the health of the river system, at times requires similar drastic measures.  Indian river system, which might already have suffered irreversible damages, may have to undergo surgical operations.  Surgery for the rivers may mean dredging the channels, construction of dams and embankments, even changing the courses and interlinking them across the country. 

The Government of India supported by a favourable judgement by the Supreme Court wishes to embark upon the hugely ambitious project of interlinking the rivers of the country.  The President of India championed the idea, and now experts have started discussing the issue.  The benefits of interlinking the rivers could be vast; floods and droughts could be banished from the country.  Fresh water, the most precious natural resource could be prevented from rushing into the seas and wasted.  Interlinking the rivers of India would be a massive project, the likes of which have not been seen in the world.          

The idea of interlinking the rivers of India, however, is not new.  The last independent Hindu king of Orissa, Mukundadev also known as Mukunda Harichandan, during his 8 year reign from 1559 to 1568 AD conceived of linking the Ganges with the Mahanadi.  In 1560 when Sultan Giasuddin Jallal Shah of the Suri dynasty of Bengal invaded the northern part of Orissa, Mukundadev confronted and defeated him, and chased him all the way to the Ganges at Varanasi.  There on the bank of the Ganges, Mukundadev constructed the exquisite set of stone stairs of Triveni-Ghat, which the Orissans consider a place of pilgrimage as holy as the Prayag.  He initiated the excavation of a canal linking the Ganges at Triveni to the Mahanadi at Cuttack. Unfortunately Mukundadev died fighting the Muslim invaders, and the state of Orissa fell into the hands of the Muslim Sultan of Bengal in 1568 AD. The grandiose plan of Mukundadev of linking the two rivers was, needless to say, abandoned. 

In 2006, a friend of mine Dr Gujja Biksham, who is a Senior Policy Adviser of Living Waters Programme at the World Wide Fund for Nature - International in Switzerland, along with two others: Yoginder K. Alagh and Ganesh Pangare, has edited a book entitled Interlinking of Rivers of India: Overview And Ken-Betwa Link. This well-researched 194 page book published by the Academic Foundation in collaboration with The National Civil Society Committee on Interlinking of Rivers of India raises awareness of the issues of managing the rivers. 

Post operative care invariably requires continuous and prolonged intake of medicine, and the medicine for managing the health of the rivers is afforestation.  So whatever we do, let us not forget to plant trees.

(Author is the Director, NRI-Enviro-Geo-Tech - Australia, Sydney & presently based in Hiroshima, Japan)



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