Agar fursat mile paani ki tahriron ko padh lena
Har ik dariya hazaron saal ka afsana likhta hai
(Try to read the hue that the water depicts
A river carries along the stories of ages!)
-Bashir Badr, Urdu Poet
Trying to read what a river depicts is not very easy. Rivers bring along stories, which are as old as history. Often times it is said that rivers write history! The reality that the fresh water resources of the world are diminishing makes all those who strive to protect rivers have got a strong chance to be referred in history! Here is an interesting set of incidence which might well enter the pages of history, at least in the history of Indian rivers!
In March 2017, the river Ganga (Ganges) and Yamuna had become “living entities having the status of a legal person” by order of the Uttarakhand High Court. The order had come while disposing a public interest litigation regarding illegal sand-mining and stone crushing along the banks of the Ganga.
But soon, the Uttarakhand government challenged the HC’s ruling questioning whether people affected by the river floods could sue the state’s chief secretary and whether the state would have to bear any sort of financial burden. In July 2017, the Supreme Court stayed the Uttarakhand High Court order that gave the rivers Ganga and Yamuna the same legal rights as human beings, giving them the title of “living entities”.
However, the short-lived “living status” did invite warm response by many environmentalists. They assumed that the five decades of struggle to revive Ganga would get momentum with the “living status”. Because inadvertently, the “living status” had made polluting or damaging the rivers legally equivalent to harming a person.
While, the life of living rivers continues to be the same, the verdict about Ganga and Yamuna inspired the state of Madhya Pradesh to think on the similar lines. In May 2017 the state assembly passed a resolution granting river Narmada the status of a “living entity” and committed itself to the protection of its legal rights.
It would interesting to refer the story of Whanganui river, in New Zealand. A few days before the Uttarakhand High Court verdict on Ganga and Jamuna, Whanganui river, was also conferred the status of “living entity” by the local government there. But the demand from the local Maori tribe who lives in the banks of Whanganui river was a bit more. They had been fighting to get recognition for the river as their ancestor! The fight for the status lasted for 140 years, till it was accorded finally in March 2017.
There may be many more similar stories, which are yet to be celebrated. However, there are certain stark realities, which loom large while referring the Indian rivers, which were awarded the short lived the “living status”.
According estimates by NGOs, over 1,500 million litres of raw sewage is discharged into the Ganga every day. About 700 highly polluting industries are operating from its banks, which reportedly dump close to 500 million litres of industrial waste. Till the date, during the last four decades, Rs 20,000 crores have been spent on "cleaning the Ganga"! Recently Rs.2,100 crores was allocated for the Ganga Clean-up under the Prime Minister's Namami Ganga project. From this, only about Rs. 300 crores have been used while 1,700 crores lies unspent.
The Yamuna, the other river which was accorded “living status” in reality is a “dead river”! The dissolved oxygen level, which is crucial to life in the water, is negligible. Heavy toxic foam on its surface, when it flows is a common sight! There have been incidences of the river actually catching fire at some stretches close to Delhi in the recent past. The money from exchequer which comes to the tune of Rs. 2,000 crore, which was spent to clean-up Yamuna has made little difference.
In June 2017, an expert panel appointed by the National Green Tribunal has observed that the damage the Art of Living’s three-day cultural festival last year had caused serious damages to the floodplains of Yamuna, which would take at least 10 years to fix. The observation has come barely two months after the verdict of the Uttarakhand High court, which accorded “living status” to Yamuna! It is estimated in the report that about 420 acres of floodplains of the river Yamuna have been adversely impacted ecologically at different magnitudes. The floodplain is now totally devoid of water bodies or depressions and almost completely devoid of any vegetation!
Now, update about Narmada, the river, which was awarded the “living status” through a state legislation. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has launched a ‘Narmada Seva Mission’ for the conservation of the river, which is a lifeline of Madhya Pradesh, on 23rd March. Let us hope that the fate of projects to clean Ganga and Yamuna would not follow the Mission. The task ahead of Narmada Seva Mission is not simple. A study by the Madhya Pradesh State Pollution Control Board conducted in 2016 says that the river water was not conducive to sustain aquatic life or to be used for domestic purposes.
The story of short lived “living status” of two rivers and surviving “living status” of another goes like that. Let us hope that the rivers would become free from pollution help to flourish our coming generations!
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