‘River Rejuvenation’ should move from just cleaning ghats to cleaning the river

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]s a TV journalist, I spent six months following the river Ganga on its mighty journey — I trekked up to the Gangotri Glacier, followed its lilting path through winding mountains, where it is diverted through tunnels for hydropower and greeted it at Rishikesh, where hundreds throng every day to offer prayers. I recorded with joy on my camera the bright orange streaks of the mahaseer fish, the dance of the Gangetic dolphin in Bihar and walked in the footsteps of a river turtle trying to find a place to lay its eggs. I ended my journey at Sagar Island, in West Bengal, where the river empties itself into the sea. These six months provided an engagement with the river as no other assignment. At every step of its journey, I observed, the Ganga is exploited for its water, for religious ceremonies, for power and, yet, very little was given back to the River Goddess revered by millions for her healing powers.

Hope lives

Yet, there was hope: in Uttarakhand, I met an 80-year-old man planting trees along the river; in Bihar, a professor working to save the dolphin; and, in Uttar Pradesh, a saint who was testing the waters and putting out data on the state of the river every month. This World Rivers Day, 2018 (last Saturday of September), I hope that our concept of ‘river rejuvenation’ moves from just cleaning ghats to cleaning the river, from building mega-dams to ensuring at least a minimal flow and, most importantly, to protecting the fish and the dolphin species that were once integral to riverine ecology.

Food for thought

But the NDA government has grand plans for the Ganga starting with the Inland Waterways project being planned from Varanasi, in Uttar Pradesh, to Haldia, in West Bengal. Nitin Gadkari’s shipping and water resources ministry wants to make this section of the river into a 1,620-km-long national waterways project being funded by the Centre and World Bank at an estimated cost of Rs5369.18 crore. The project proposes to build multi-nodal terminals at Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh; Sahibganj, Bihar; and Haldia, West Bengal. While it is being said by the project proponents that the utmost care will be taken not to damage the ecology, with the Ganga already under severe pressure, one is left wondering how these grand plans will help ‘rejuvenate’ the river.

Inspiration is right there

If there is an example of a river you would like to see in India that is free-flowing and still pristine (to some extent) take a look at the Chambal river. Passing through Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, the Chambal still has gharials and crocodiles and turtles and the river, itself, is relatively free from pollution. Many rivers in southern India, too, in spite of being pockmarked with hydel projects, retain their original character, along with being home to hundreds of endemic fish. They are referred to as the arteries of our planet and, every year, the world celebrates these waterways on World Rivers Day. This time, let us commit ourselves not just to ‘cleaning’ our rivers, but bringing back the life forms in them that do not know any other home.

(World Rivers Day is a global celebration of the world’s waterways, observed every last Sunday in September.)