NEGLECT OF OUR REVERED RIVERS(A thought ignited on the eve of World Water Day, we talk & celebrate every year, But is that enough?)
Recently, while cleaning my book shelves, I came across an old cassette containing songs of the Bollywood film “JIS DESH MAIN GANGA BEHATI HAI”. As it was a film I had seen during my college days, I sat down to listen to the cassette. The old memories immediately returned, and with them came a flashback of the golden days of hostel life.
The time was 1955 to 1961 and the place was Allahabad. My college was located on the banks of Yamuna river. The confluence of the three great rivers, Ganga, Yamuna and the mythological hidden Sarswati, known as sangam, was just half a nautical mile from our location. The college had a dozen of its own cutter boats which were a big hit with all the hostellers, particularly those with an interest in rowing and swimming. Spending few hours of the day at or in the river was the usual routine of most of the students living in the hostels then.
Could we drink the river water directly without any hesitation? That was a question that never even occurred to anyone in those days. Both the rivers were not only revered as sacred but their water was unquestionably clean, hygienic and perfectly fit for human consumption.
But that was then! In 2012, I happened to pay a short visit to Allahabad, after a period of over 50 years. The beautiful memories of the past were so strong that on reaching Allahabad, I could not resist an urge to go and visit my college and its beautiful river front with the hope of seeing the boats lined up along the banks, carrying the college insignia and furling colorful flags. But where were the river and the boats?
Sadly they were all gone. The river which had almost touched the parapet of the college premises had now drifted two or three hundred meters away. It was no more the magnificent, over a mile wide, river that I had left in the 1950s, but rather looked like an ordinary stream. The college boats, I was told, were sold off too as few students were interested in water sports due to the polluted waters. The worst thing one noticed was the heaps of garbage littered all over the river banks.
I had left Allahabad in early 1961, and after completion of the initial training, was commissioned in the Indian Army in mid June 1963. As luck would have it, my first posting was in an elite Mountain Artillery regiment which at that time was stationed at one of the cantonments in Uttar Pradesh. The regiment had just returned after taking part in the Indo-China war of 1962 and was in the process of recouping & re-organizing. This period of calm did not last long and its batteries were ordered to urgently move to forward areas on the Indo-Tibet border. The battery, in which I was posted, was assigned to move to a forward location in the Garhwal region. (An artillery regiment consists of four batteries, each equipped with four mountain guns). Since this was for the first time that the army was being inducted in the area, every operational and logistic detail had to be worked out from scratch. We prepared ourselves accordingly, and a special train was requisitioned to bring the battery comprising of over 200 men, 100 or so horses and mules, guns, and other arms and equipment to the railhead at the foothill of the Himalayas. That railhead was Rishikesh, at the time a small religious town full of big and small temples that were lined up along the mighty river Ganga. Thus my association with Ganga was again revived.
We moved from Rishikesh to our destination on foot, following the track which ran along the river and reached our post in twelve days, covering a distance of about 150 kilometers. The movement of the battery was difficult and strenuous, as at many places the track had either been washed away due to landslides or was too narrow to negotiate with the horses and mules carrying full loads. During the journey we also had to take into account many other factors such suitable camping sites en route, transport of food & fodder for the men and animals, security considerations, communication and so on. Yet at no stage was the requirement of water ever considered. The reason was simple. The fast flowing rivers, streams and waterfalls along the route provided ample guarantee of clean and potable water. Unfortunately, can anyone afford to neglect the requirement for water to day if undertaking a similar military move? The answer simply is no!
Incidentally, that trip was also when I learned that the river Ganga is only named as such from Dev Prayag about 40 kilometers upstream from Rishikesh where the rivers Bhagirathi and Alaknanda meet. My long stay in the region also gave me the opportunity to explore almost the entire Indo-Tibet border and its numerous passes leading into Tibet. The most interesting aspect of these explorations was the realization of the love and respect the local people have for the river Ganga. This is one reason why so many tributaries are named after the Ganga, including Dhauli ganga, Dharma ganga, Gauri ganga, Hanuman ganga, Rishiganga, Akash ganga, Patal ganga, Garud ganga, Birahi ganga and Ramganga.
The two incidents narrated above were to elucidate the condition of our most revered rivers, the way they were fifty years ago, and their terrible condition today. No doubt that India has made tremendous progress in various fields in the past four or five decades. But it has also maintained a blind eye towards the preservation of the most vital element that is required for the very survival of all living being on this earth: water!
All along the Ganga and its tributaries, where earlier stainless steel, brass or copper containers to carry holy water were sold to pilgrims, one only finds rows and rows of plastic water bottles of various brands. After all, most of the river water is now not safe to drink. According to some experts, over 19,659 tons of garbage and other harmful chemical wastes are dumped every year in the Ganga alone. Uttar Pradesh alone accounts for 55.4% for this dumping, while West Bengal shares 18.8%, thus achieving the first & second positions in this contest for self-destruction.
Worse still, our blind religious faith also contributes significantly to polluting the Ganga. For instance, in Varanasi alone, over 32,000 bodies are cremated at the Ganga’s two cremation ghats every year and use 16,000 tons of wood. If we take into consideration the number of such cremations in other cities and towns along the river, the amount of wood used and pollution of air and water is astounding. Why can’t the government and the society work towards banning such damage to the environment and instead ask people to perform such rituals at electric crematoria instead?
The scenario looks even bleaker when we view this issue in terms of international relations and its complications, particularly viz-a viz our neighboring countries. For instance, it is a well know fact that most of the rivers in northern India originate from the Tibetan plateau. Can there be any guarantee that China will not divert the course of some or all of these rivers to quench the thirst of its own parched northern areas? This should be of particularly serious concern as China has already built a number of dams on rivers flowing into India, including the Brahmputra, the Sutlej and the main Indus streams. Can we imagine the consequences if some of the Ganga’s tributaries that originate in Tibet and pass through Nepal to eventually join the main river are diverted by China to meet its own need?
We know that the holy river Ganga desperately needs fresh water from its tributaries, and rivers from Nepal alone account for 46 per cent of its flow. Their contribution grows to 71 per cent during the lean season. This is an issue that our foreign policy must address urgently and forcefully, particularly when our past experiences on treaties with China have not been encouraging.
Moreover, Asia is a comparatively dry continent, with less than one-tenth of the fresh waters of South America, less than one fourth of North America, one third of Europe and even a little less than Africa. Despite this, Asia is also the world’s largest and most populous continent, with India and China holding the bulk of the human populations.
In many ways, both countries are already drawing on tomorrow’s water to meet today’s needs and at this rate, that day is not far when India at least will be forced to import water from abroad. This has major consequences for our dreams of becoming a strong, developed nation, as we cannot move forward while we lack the most vital of resources. Not surprisingly, and as many experts predict, there is a good chance that the next war will be fought over the issue of water!
In conclusion, one must emphasize that India’s prime concern today should be to conserve its water resources instead of planning manned missions to the moon.
By MG Singh