If you are expecting "godman" Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev to save and revive India’s rivers, don’t hold your breath.
In case you live on another planet and missed it, Sadhguru has issued a rallying call to "Save Our Rivers", drawing in support from Bollywood biggies and politicians alike - Salman Khan, Anupam Kher, Andhra Pradesh chief minister N Chandrababu Naidu among others.
Sadhguru has diagnosed the ailment right stating that our rivers are dying. Perennial rivers are becoming seasonal - the Godavari ran dry for most of last year, rivers are losing their flows, for instance, Narmada by 60 per cent while some smaller rivers have vanished all together.
Our rivers (read lifelines) are choked by fifth, stilled by dams, reduced to toxic drains by our waste, effluents and our perception of rivers as giant dustbins.
Yet, I do not extend my support to the godman’s cause.
I find the rally almost superfluous in its content failing to address any of the real issues that plague our rivers. Himanshu Thakkar of the South Asia Network of Dams, Rivers and People also agrees, “The rally does not address the most serious problems rivers face: Mining of sand beds and boulders, pollution, deforestation, encroachment on river beds, biodiversity destruction, river-linking, river conservation policies (or lack of them).”
Here is what these threats will do to our rivers:
Flow of rivers throttled with back-to-back dams
So much so that it is estimated that if all proposed and ongoing dams (about 600) in Ganga were to come up, the river will be tunnelled almost all along its entire stretch.
Dams and hydro-projects have huge ecological and social costs – displacing people, submerging forests, reducing flows. In Chambal river, the 200-odd irrigation and power projects have nearly halved the available habitat for the Gangetic dolphin and the gharial, an ancient crocodilian of which fewer than a 1,000 remain in the wild. Further north in Himachal Pradesh, the Kol dam drowned a chunk of the endangered cheer pheasant’s habitat in Majathal Wildlife Sanctuary.
National Waterways Act of 2016
This Act will transform over 100 of India’s rivers, including the holy Ganga, into a busy inland waterway, along the lines of a National Highway to transport cargo. Rivers will be dredged to re-engineer them into navigable water canals, and will involve massive construction of barrages, embankments for port terminals etc.
The ships that sail will carry passengers, chemicals, coal, oil. Any accidental spill will be disastrous. It will be a death knell for the Gangetic dolphin, with over 90 per cent of its distribution overlapping the waterways.
Our flagship dolphin species is blind, it uses echo-location to "see" and sense danger, hunt food, find mates. But its world is set to become infinitely noiser, with the dredging and din of vessel engines and traffic.
Massive deforestation is reducing rivers to trickles of water. Take the Cauvery, which has Karnataka and Tamil Nadu (home to Sadhguru’s Isha Foundation ashram) embroiled in water wars.
Over millennia, the dense forests of the Western Ghats nourished its catchment and helped retain water on the hill slopes enabling slow percolation into streams that fed the river. Widespread destruction of forests has reduced this once mighty river to into dust tracts in parts before it dribbles down to the Bay of Bengal.
Sand mining destroys river banks that are nesting sites for turtles, crocodiles and gharials. The massive loot of this natural resource to fuel the construction boom in urban India not only changes the course and ecology of rivers, but leads to collapse of water tables, and thereby agriculture, along the traditionally fertile banks.
India’s ambitious and audacious river-linking project will reshape and realign the natural flow of 37 rivers, redrawing India’s geography. The very basis of river linking - damming "surplus" river water to direct the flow into those not so well-endowed is flawed.
No river has surplus water. Each drop performs a function - be it recharging groundwater to supporting aquatic life. The mega Rs 6 lakh crore river-linking project will cost India dear – economically, socially, ecologically. It will submerge 27 lakh hectares, drowning fertile lands, villages, homes, forests, wildlife sanctuaries, including the Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh.
While Sadhguru has spoken out against river-linking, this major threat features prominently in the campaign.
The lifeblood of civilisation cannot sustain life anymore. In a span of 40 years (1970–2012) the wildlife of the rivers - mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds and fish - has plummeted by over 80 per cent as per a World Wildlife Fund report.
To make matters worse, the cure may hasten the demise of the rivers. “The simplest solution,” says the Rally for River site, “to rejuvenate India’s rivers is to maintain a minimum of one kilometre tree cover on riversides and half a kilometer for tributaries.”
Plantations are an over-hyped nirvana for environment ails.
River sides do not necessarily need tree cover, indeed that may ruin the ecosystem. For example, planting of trees along the Chambal, which has ravines along its bank, will be an unmitigated disaster. Ravines are a unique geographical feature, and in its scraggy furrowed fords nurture wolves, fox, caracals, hyena and other rare wildlife.
"Rally for Rivers" upholds Narmada as a shining example, referring to the race to plant six crore saplings in 12-hours along the banks of river Narmada. But planting trees in haste with an eye on the Guinness World Records is not going to save "Maa Narmada" or Madhya Pradesh or the world as Madhya Pradesh CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan tweeted at the launch of this campaign in July 2017.
We need to let the natural eco-systems of rivers and river banks rejuvenate. Yes, we can plant and nurture shrubs, grasses aquatic vegetation along riversides, but I wonder if this campaign has room for nuances.
The cry to save our rivers should call for a policy that resolves the various threats listed above, not merely plantation of trees along riversides.
So, Sadghuru Jaggi Vasudev, you have got it right. Our rivers are dying. And as you say, each one of us who consumes water must rally to save them. But why does this rally conveniently ignore the serious threats – all of them sensitive and fraught politically - that our rivers face.
Populist ideas don't make ecological sense, unless backed by sound research, science and the guts to take on the real issues which plague our rivers and our lifelines.
Wearing blue symbolically or giving missed calls will not soothe the many insults we have heaped on rivers if we fail to address the root cause of their death.
The "Rally for Rivers" has drawn huge mass support which can potentially change the plight of our rivers if this energy is channelised to change policies that can give our rivers another lease of life. It will also serve the rivers - and us - well, if we view them in a difference light.
Change our perception of rivers beyond storehouses of water, and large garbage bins for our waste. Rivers are embedded in the Indian culture and spirituality, we hold them sacred.
Let’s not play God with rivers we revere as Gods.