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India's riverine crisis

This is a truism that needs to be shouted from our rooftops. The Indian State has emerged as the biggest destroyer of our environment, and it is doing so intentionally and willfully. Numerous examples illustrate this point. One of the most recent instances is an interview with S P Subudhi, the managing director of the Forest Corporation of Uttarakhand (FCU), who proudly disclosed that the FCU had been conducting mining activities in 10 rivers running through forested areas of Dehradun, Haridwar, and Kumaon, from which they earned a revenue of Rs 150 crores in 2021–2022. Meanwhile, after completing the required formalities, they plan to extend mining operations to an additional ten rivers in the state, with the potential to earn Rs 875 crore in the current year.

Mining in the riverbeds has proven to be immensely profitable, to the extent that forest authorities from neighbouring states like Uttar Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh have approached FCU to explore similar mining schemes in rivers that flow through their forest areas, hoping to reap hefty profits.

The FCU is also promoting the felling of whatever little greenery remains in the Himalayas. Earlier forest laws prohibited the government from directly buying tree logs from private individuals (as opposed to government-appointed contractors). Now, farmers are being encouraged to cut down trees and sell them directly to the FCU. According to the FCU’s warped logic, this approach will encourage farmers to start planting trees on their land and enhance Uttarakhand’s green landscape, disregarding the fact that while it takes only 10 minutes to bring down a tree, it will take at least 20–25 years for a sapling to grow into a tree.

The Uttarakhand Chief Minister, Pushkar Singh Dhami, personally travelled to the capital to meet the Minister of Environment and Forest, Bhupender Yadav, on February 18 to request permission to continue river mining as the mining lease had expired. Instead of banning this destructive process due to FCU’s failure to meet legal requirements, ‘temprorary’ permission was granted.

In practical terms, this means that instead of the government making efforts to enhance the resilience of our natural ecosystems, hundreds of rivers in Uttarakhand, including the Gaula river (as an example of a dying river), which originates in the middle Himalayan mountains and flows into the Ramganga and then the Ganga, are being mined for boulders, stones, gravel, and sand—essential materials for our booming construction industry.

Most of these small rivers carry little to no water for most of the year, but during the monsoon, their volume can increase 800 to 1,000 times. The removal of these materials accelerates water flow, raising the risk of the river changing course and also of flooding during the monsoon. The faster flow also reduces groundwater recharge. But the most dangerous aspect is that since much of the mining is done without proper scientific methods and with government permission to mine up to three metres in depth, scientists believe this poses not only tectonic risks but also increases deforestation and the systematic erosion of our natural ecosystems.

The rate of sand mining in our rivers has also seen a quantum leap, with most of these illegal sand mining operations being run by local politicians who see this as a low-risk, high-profit venture. According to the MoEF, over 100,000 cases of illegal mining are reported every year. This works out to be 8,833 incidents every month, 294 incidents every day, and 12 such operations every hour. The majority of these cases go unreported. The most dangerous aspect of this mining is that it will facilitate the lowering of our river beds, affecting the flow of the river. Huge craters will end up contaminating the river aquifers, as has happened in many rivers, including the Yamuna and Hindon rivers.

The government seems to blindly believe that they are only mining smaller rivers and not touching larger rivers, forgetting that the civilizational legacy of our major rivers, which goes back 6,000 years, is not something we owe just to our large river systems, such as the Indus, Ganges, and Yamuna, but also to the thousands of smaller rivers that feed into these larger rivers. By destroying our rivers, the government is in effect destroying not only our cultural legacy but also our country’s water security, which stems from the great Himalayan mountains and the rivers that flow from them.

It is a fallacy to think that the public is not aware of what is going on. Following the disaster in Sikkim, the Youth for the Himalayas sent out a message that was a strong indictment of the central government, describing the disasters taking place in the Himalayas as ‘State sponsored’. This young team blamed the central government for having emerged as the strongest advocate for building large dams in the ecologically fragile upper Himalayas and for the concretization of our rivers, which has resulted in a series of disasters.

It is not just the NGOs that are indicting the government in highlighting issues of growing water scarcity. Two years ago, Niti Aayog highlighted how India has become a water scarce country, given that its per capita water availability had fallen below 1000 cubic meters. This was at a time when India had developed a highly water-intensive pattern of agriculture. Most of our major cities have run out of groundwater, and water for these cities is being transported from areas located hundreds of miles away. The World Water Index shows that 70% of the water in the country is contaminated, with India being ranked 120 out of 122 in the Water Quality Index.The World Resources Institute’s Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas for the current year ranked India among the 17 countries, home to a quarter of the world’s population, that are facing `extremely high’ water stress and are close to `Day Zero’ when taps will run dry across the nation. The Water Risk Atlas ranked water stress, drought risk, and riverine flood risk across 189 countries. India was ranked 13 in `extremely highly’ water stressed countries, which has three times the population of the other 16 countries.

Instead of safeguarding our scarce resources and our thousands of years-old riverine heritage, the government, the MoEF, and its umbrella institutions seem hell bent on destroying them. While climate change will undoubtedly show its tentacles in the coming years, a deliberate attempt to destroy our water resources in order for state governments to earn a fast buck will only hasten our nemesis. It is now time for the youth and the public at large to come together to ensure that this scarce and invaluable resource is protected, for it remains the very foundation of our civilization.

(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist)

(Published 26 October 2023, 19:38 IST)

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