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Why are we neglecting our life-giving rivers?

By Mahesh Vijapurkar
June 22, 2011 15:28 IST
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We can still clean up India's rivers only if have the resolve. That is, the resolve both of the people and the authorities, the former for good behaviour the latter to ensure that once cleaned up, they stay that way, says Mahesh Vijapurkar.

A man stood at the edge of a lake that supplies water to Portland city, in USA's Oregon state, and urinated into it recently. It was soon emptied of all its eight million gallons of water because the authorities were sensitive to the 'yuck' factor -- how a person would react if there was a wee bit of much-diluted urine in his tea or orange juice. The authorities were quick, decisive and were willing to spend. It had a population, one assumes on the basis of this act, which was sensitive to hygiene and the need to keep the lake clean; it supplied drinking water. They spent $36,000 in the bargain.

Now cut to India and to Haridwar. A young sanyasi, Swami Nigamanand Saraswati died after a 114-day fast protesting against the pollution of the Ganga, India's holy river though others would swear that Namada deserved that honour. Ganga is polluted from the moment it enters the plains and comes into contact with the civilisation it gave rise to and sustained.

He died unsung but for the accident that he gave up his life, coincidentally in the same hospital's very same intensive care unit to which Baba Ramdev was admitted.  He was noticed only because suddenly the media realised they had ignored an epic battle held in the boondocks while Baba Ramdev -- who later turned out to have a messy set of credentials and sense of values -- was the cause celebre.

The guilt seemed to trigger some stories of the valiant fight but the cause of the fight remained quite hazy. Not all the facts about the pollution of the river which agitated Nigamanand found space. It made up to the extent of reporting how VIPs thronged the place he died, a minister said he had warned Uttarakhand of the pollution and then banned all mining. But the issue of rivers being dirtied, almost irretrievably, remains.

Yes, media insularity is a factor. But in the later development we missed the wood for the trees. As if the cause did not matter at all. It is the other way around. It matters as much, actually more than the cause for which Baba Ramdev put up some shenanigans at the New Delhi's Ramlila Maidan. The river is as significant to sustaining life as corruption is in debilitating a democracy and depriving the people of their rights.

The point is Nigamanand was fasting at the pollution being caused by the illegal mining at almost the initial stages of its course, when it just enters the plains from the narrow valleys, at Haridwar. He was not speaking about the general state of Indian rivers, including the Ganga, but what was happening to a holy river in a place which Indians hold in esteem. The unspoken emphasis was: if this is what the river is close to its origin, then imagine how it would be down its course. And, much of the same goes for other rivers.

To stick to -- deserved as it is -- criticising the media for its mote in the eye, rest of us are likely -- in fact, we have -- missed the wood for the trees. The import of that agitation, whose length we know, its support base we do not, is yet to sink in. In fact, I would wager that so insensitive we have become to the significance of rivers to our lives that we are unlikely ever to let that import ever sink in. We mess with the rivers we call holy and do little to clean it up. A river to us is a place where an unseen hand fills up every monsoon for us to fiddle with.

Indians have literally turned their backs on the rivers despite our ancient civilisation having been riparian. Look at any town or city and the river would not be a major feature of its sweep but a dirty drain that passes behind it. Drinking water is tapped, and consumed after expensive but inadequate cleansing; note the presence of a water purifier in every urban home despite paying municipal taxes for clean drinking water. Into the same river, we discharge our muck unmindful of what it does to other habitations downstream.

Of the 14 major river systems in India, there is none which is clean. Forget them being pristine. Such pollution is not just throwing of dirt but effective strangulation where the chemicals deprive the river the much-required oxygen. Look at the Yamuna in the heart of the national capital and it would epitomise the scant respect we have for the rivers in general. You would be hard put to find a single town or city that does not heap filth of all kinds on the life-giving rivers.

Since we continue to get the water and consume it mindlessly, and since we are troubled not so much about drinking water as we are about its absence in droughts when vegetable prices spiral if available, a filthy river does not intrude our consciousness. The urban dwellers identify less with a river than the rural folk do though the lives of both sections are intertwined with them. The urban people are the worst offenders.

Nigamananda tried to kindle that but failed; he will be remembered not for the cause but for dying unacknowledged for the 114 days of fasting. It is not his fault but ours alone.

No, it is not a lost cause yet.

We tend to compare rivers of today in the developed world and say, look, how clean it is. How integrated it is with the life of a city which it abuts or passes through. Look, you can just dip your glass in it and drink it untreated. Yes, but they too were dirtied by the people before being cleaned up. The Thames was so horribly dirty and stank that the parliament had to close down for long enough to have the river cleaned up and restored. The River Rhine which touches five European nations was cleaned up as a single river system deserved to be in an integrated manner. Today, that river is a joy to behold.

Much the same can be done of the Indian rivers but only if have the resolve. That is, the resolve both of the people and the authorities, the former for good behaviour the latter to ensure that once cleaned up, they stay that way. We have the Clean Ganga campaign which left behind nothing in decades except for slogans. Then we have the National River Conservation Plan. But where are we? The rivers save for some mall pristine stretches, are fetid, the people indifferent and the authorities ineffective.

Mahesh Vijapurkar is a Thane-based commentator on public affairs.

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