Why India treats its rivers like sewage

Nivedita Khandekar
Nivedita KhandekarSep 23, 2016 | 14:26

Why India treats its rivers like sewage

How many of you were aware that 2015-16 was supposed to be "Jal Kranti Varsh"?

It was what Uma Bharti, minister for water resources and Ganga rejuvenation, had announced at the inaugural of India Water Week 2015.

Events for rivers and water witness such announcements. As Delhi hosted yet another event – the International River Symposium – from Monday, September 12, 2016, there were two things that stood out for me: one, the issue of common man’s participation, rather the absence, and, second, the question whether we need to save rivers (or we need to work to save ourselves by leaving rivers undisturbed?) 


With droughts and floods, two most common geo-physical phenomena, regularly testing India’s patience every year, "water" is a subject that needs to be deliberated on and on, more so keeping in view the diverse weather conditions across the states.

Rivers are the lifeline for India but are generally in pathetic conditions – some of them on way of being lost as they go dry early each passing year and are quickly encroached upon; many of them dammed and most of them polluted.

In recent times, it has become a fashion of sorts to include "industry" as one of the stakeholders, especially since "treating sewage", "developing rivers" vis-à-vis exploiting hydropower potential et al turned into high value economic activity.

Going by the fancy, well almost fancy, nomenclatures such as "multi-disciplinary dialogue" clubbed with B2B exhibitions showcasing latest technology in the water sector, the events send out an impression that the common man is not a stakeholder.

While there is no doubt about meeting and discussing over and over again the fate of majority of the rivers, the missing factor – a prime stakeholder, the community – conspicuous by its absence makes for an even despicable discourse.


The common man, for whom rivers are not just water channels but an integral part of his emotional, cultural, religious and social fabric, feels lost in such high-decibel events.

Common man not absolved of crime of apathy

It is not just the common man’s deliberate omission from such stakeholder meets, but equally to be blamed is his/her apathy towards rivers/water bodies. A case in point is Yamuna river and Delhiites.

It was in 2013, when the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) had decided to reduce the city’s "O" zone – comprising Yamuna and the river front – by as much as 40 per cent to, what many believed, "pave way for regularisation of various illegal settlements and construction in this belt". (Delhi city is divided into various zones named alphabetically, O comprises the Yamuna river floodplain and the river itself). The public hearing to address any objections regarding this change saw a mere handful of people, majority of them river activists.

A man swims in the polluted waters of river Yamuna on a hot day in New Delhi. (Photo: Reuters)

Around the same time, the Delhi Electricity Regulatory Commission (DERC) was to conduct a public hearing regarding hike in tariff and the regulator had to actually rent out a huge auditorium complete with loud speakers owing to the overflowing crowds of Delhiites.


It is in such a city, the national capital Delhi, along the Yamuna bank that another discussion about the state of rivers – the International River Symposium - was organised by Australia-headquartered International River Foundation. And this time, it was not about just Indian rivers but also from across the world.

Events galore

Earlier too, events for discussing rivers and water abound. Research organisations, academician, industry, think tanks, basically anybody and everybody remotely connected with water keeps the deliberations on. But two events that stand out in recent times are "India River Day" that was held by civil society activists in November 2015 (a follow up of the India River Week in November 2014) and the "India Water Week 2016", a ministry of water resources event.

The India Water Week 2016 (an annual event) was a typical sarkari event with speeches of ministers and important personalities hogging more attention than real discussions. The important issues, which too were discussed, were relegated to technical sessions attended by few relevant persons from the field and industry with no participation of common man.

The other event, organised by civil society organisations, many of them with active volunteers actually working in the field, sought to discuss serious issues related to rivers and keenly followed up on the "Delhi Declaration: Let our Rivers Live" announced in 2014.

Ravi Singh, CEO of World Wide Fund - India, one of the co-organisers, had pointed out then that there is "76 per cent reduction in aquatic biodiversity over the years", a figure higher than the loss of terrestrial or marine biodiversity, showing the crisis rivers are facing.

The International River Symposium had a range of river and water related issues that are of concern to India and South-Asia – "Hindu Kush Himalayas: Role of Mountains in Water Security", "River Basin Planning and Strategic Management in Asia", "Advancing Hydropower Governance in Asia" (an international finance body backed event) and then the positive, good practices, sharing example from "Murray Darling Basin Plan". It also had a session on participatory community management of rivers with examples from Mekong basin.

But in all this, again, the participants were the media persons, the activists and academics. So where was the common man even as a "participatory" themed discussion saw no participation of the community members or the common man. 

Rivers for us or we for rivers?

Environmentalist Anupam Mishra always says: "Can we even compare our life span and a river’s life span? What is your mere 70-80 or even 100 years of life compared to a river’s millions of years? So, think of saving yourself. Do not bother to save the rivers."

What better example than that of the Ganga river. For the last few decades, governments of the day have had a continuous flip flop over the "dam-no dam-no big dam" policy, especially for the Ganga basin.

Ever wonder what does Ganga mean? The name is derived from "Gam Gachhti", the etymological root "gam" means "to go", the one that flows. As Anumpam ji says, "Will Ganga bother about dams if she decides to flow as she wants?"

Hope the International River Symposium and other organisers, both Indian and foreign, understand this.

Last updated: September 23, 2016 | 15:28
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