By Devki Pande
When my grandmother spoke about rivers, she personified them. She spoke about the greatest of them all, Gange ma, whose physical form courses through the North Indian plains and empties into the Bay of Bengal. Gange ma has been in existence before the Harappan civilisation, has lasted for millennia, and has seen kingdoms on its banks rise and fall. I was told of Yamuna, whose waters turned black when Shiva shed his grief for Sati.
In my great-grandmother’s time, the two rivers could be distinguished by their colours – the clear blue waters of the Yamuna and the silt-laden yellow of the Ganga. Today, the Ganga is the fifth-most polluted river in the world, and the Yamuna is almost dead – ironic, because Yamuna is the sister of Yama, the Lady of Life to his Lord of Death, in Hindu mythology.
Rivers flow, so they die when they are broken. But, blockages aren’t the main problem faced by Indian rivers. One of the reasons why the Ganga and the Yamuna are being emptied of their contents is rapid urbanisation and construction. The construction itself isn’t the problem, it is the untreated waste that is.
The Sahibi is an offshoot of the Yamuna; the rishis composed the first Vedas on the banks of its confluence with the Saraswati. The Sahibi river is the lifeline of Gurgaon, but not as one may think. Gurgaon obtains thirty percent of its water from the Yamuna, and sends back unregulated and untreated sewage through what is known colloquially as the Najafgarh drain. A liner system, therefore, is no longer the worst-case scenario for organic cities. Gurgaon’s is not a linear system of water, it’s a closed loop whose feedback unit is warped.
Another reason is that our rituals and festivities have begun disregarding ecology. The idols for Ganesh Chathurthi, celebrated a month ago, are no longer made of mud. They do not dissolve in the water. Instead, piles of plastic Ganeshas rise from water bodies – defeating the purpose of pandaals, which is the representation of the cycle of creation, immersion, dissolution and rebirth.
Indian philosophy revolves around full circles, but we have broken quite a few of them.
Settlements are planned without any regard for topology: the Brigade Gateway is a condominium in Bangalore built on top of a water artery, which is being cut off from the rest of the city for the sole use of the condominium. Rivers are being quelled: the Arkavati was a mountain river originating in the Nandi hills, and when combined with the lakes in the region, it was enough to satisfy Bangalore’s water needs. However, it has been suffocated by solid waste and sand quarrying. The situation is worsening as more attention is being given to the Kaveri.
If you look at a satellite image of India’s rivers, many of them look greenish-black, like a foot infected with gangrene. The rivers are sick, and are infecting everything around them, but many think that individual effort pales in the face of such a large mass. Or, we have stopped thinking of natural resources as living things, which makes us feel less guilty about plundering them.
To take off the pressure from rivers, we need to set up sewage treatment plants between cities and rivers, and declare catchment areas sensitive and prevent construction on them. The water table can be recharged by combining the concepts of wetlands and percolation. Bogs act like sponges: they absorb water, contain micro-organisms which break down waste into simpler substances, and filter sediments via percolation through several layers.
Traditional systems can be revisited. The kunds of Rajasthan are an ancient water-harvesting system which filter and collect moisture from the ground, utilising the natural gypsum formation of the soil. Dead rivers can be revived by creating bunds along banks, which allows underwater stream to build up and spill into the earth again.
My grandmother often muses about how the world was such a different place when she was young. She recalls using the waters of the Drona Sagar Lake when they lived in Kashipur, when today the Bellandur Lake in Bangalore is so toxic, it catches fire. It makes me think that sustainable planning isn’t simply about building in an eco-friendly manner, it is also about ensuring a healthy future for our descendants. It’s about making sure that time doesn’t corrupt, and that future generations will have no reason to reminisce.
The author is a student at Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology, and an intern at Contract Advertising Ltd. She has worked for Essel Vision Productions Ltd, developed education oriented content for Laugh Out Loud Ventures, and conducted workshops for underprivileged children in rural Uttarakhand.