By Vinant Joshi*
How often have we heard similar slogans? But do we realize the depth behind them? Well, this is what we will see in this article. Humans recognize the importance of water, and rivers are given high importance worldwide; thus, Many major cities are situated on riverbanks. However, with modern development, we seem to make gallery statements about rivers’ importance and usefulness, backed by insufficient action. We seem to not care about preserving these significant water sources.
This is what Tapas Das is trying to address. Tapas Das hails from West Bengal. He is an activist trying to convey the importance of conserving rivers. Along with his fellow activists, the slogan he uses is “Nadi Bachao, Jeevan Bachao,” which translates as Save River, Save Life. Tapas Das points out that older generations have seen the Indian rivers like Ganga, Damodar, Teesta, Padma, and Mayurakshi, in their old glory with ample water flows and vibrant ecosystems. He draws attention to the Farrakka barrage, where the upstream water flow of the river Ganga has reduced by 45% over the years. All of this points to the consistently decreasing river water flows. Taking the example of the river Ganga, lives and sustenance of tens of crores of Indians are attached to the Ganga in one or the other way. High pollution levels and decreasing water flows of such a critical river will be devastating. Thus, he says that we must not just protect our rivers (Raksha) but rather conserve them (Sanraksha).
Tapas Das brings in the in-depth thought process needed regarding rivers. The general sense of development says take more water from the river. On the face of it, it makes sense, given that water is a bare necessity. To this effect, we have had and continue to have multiple dams and barrages on our rivers. All such structures reduce the water that flows into the sea. It intuitively seems logical that the water that flows out to the sea is a waste and should be arrested in its flow and diverted for human needs. However, how many of us know that freshwater, lighter than saltwater, makes a layer above the sea when it flows out? This layer evaporates faster than salt water, which contributes to our rainwater cycle. If progressively lesser water flows to the sea, have we undertaken detailed scientific studies to gauge the impact it will have on our rainwater cycle? It can potentially impact our Monsoons. Are we sure that will not further increase our endeavor to block more river water for our consumption? So we see a downward spiral here. We need some critical dams and barrages to help control water flows and floods and satisfy our water needs., Tapas Das says we have enough, no more barriers.
Now let us move on to the famed river linking project. Once again, it seems logical to connect flood-prone zones to drought-prone zones. It is an ambitious project that aims to control floods in flood-prone zones in India by diverting that water to drought-prone areas. However, once again, we need to consider the impact it will have on ecosystems. Tapas Das points out the example of a couple of rivers in West Bengal, which harbor the Boroli fish. If we look at the water just as H20, why are certain fish types found only in some rivers? He asks. He points out the critical consideration we must make when releasing water from one river system into another through this example. It is once again advisable to ensure a comprehensive understanding of the impact of our seemingly benign actions.
Let’s consider something else that Tapas Das points out. He points out the once vibrant fishing communities along the banks of rivers in West Bengal, yielding sweet water fish. This fishing activity provided subsistence to thousands of fisherfolk. Now, as dams and barrages came up, the fishing grounds were depleted. This led to the loss of sustenance for many fishing families, leading to the migration of these folks. So we established the water infrastructure in the first place for economic development, which in turn creates more jobs. However, in this process, we destroyed many income sources. So, have we ever thought of whether there was a net increase or decrease in jobs due to our infrastructure projects? Hence, we need to look at water resources like our rivers from a much broader perspective. Tapas Das explains this perspective as WEBLCS, which stands for Water, Energy, Bio-diversity, Livelihood, Culture, and Sediment.
So how do we address our water needs? How do we address water scarcity across multiple regions of our nation? He says we can address this by reducing our water usage. First, we need to reduce our wasteful water usage consciously. Second, we need decentralized water self-sufficiency of villages. Small projects like constructing farm ponds, ditches, and water slowing structures at village levels will ensure villages are protected from water scarcity. These structures have little impact on the environment and are not built on flowing water bodies; instead, they arrest rainwater, store it in small surface structures, and percolate it as groundwater.
In conclusion, the Nadi Bachao Jeevan Bachao movement is not another ill-thought environmental activity, but rather it hopes for a paradigm shift in the way we think of rivers. It urges a deep, comprehensive thought process before undertaking environment-altering projects. It promotes WEBLCS. It also points out that development in the past has happened at the cost of the environment in many instances. Therefore, we must act differently now.
*PGP student at Indian Institute of Management Bangalore