The Significance and Rejuvenation of India’s Rivers: Insights from Sri K Siddhartha

The Significance and Rejuvenation of India's Rivers Insights from Sri K Siddhartha
Sri K Siddhartha

In Conversation with Sri K Siddhartha: A Polymath, Earth & Space Scientist, Advisor to Multiple Governments, and Author of 50 Books

  1. What is the Meaning and Significance of the Identity of Rivers in India?

Rivers symbolize calmness and the unpredictability of life. The calm waters represent peace, while a strong river stream signifies challenges. In Indian culture, rivers play a crucial role in Sanatan Dharma rituals. The seven sacred rivers (Ganga, Yamuna, Godavari, Saraswati, Narmada, Sindhu, and Kaveri) are female and hold significant ritualistic value. Water from these rivers is believed to attract and transmit the frequencies of seven superior deities (Lord Shiva, Lord Shrirama, Lord Shrikrushna, Lord Maruti, Lord Ganapati, Lord Datta, and Goddess Durga).

India is known as the most sattva predominant place on earth because these seven sacred rivers flow only through it. Many yogis have undertaken penance on the banks of these rivers to acquire the principles of the seven superior deities in the universe. This water is used for the consecration of deity idols by sprinkling on them (abhishek). Rivers are seen as ecological entities, symbols of biodiversity, and holistic entities (Jal, Jeevan, Jameen, Jeev Jantu). They serve as healers physically, spiritually, and culturally, shaping and reflecting our identity and forming the backbone of our history, heritage, and culture. This is apart from their economic significance.

  1. How is the Loss of Identity and Respect Related to River-Related Problems?

Our loss of reverence for rivers and their holistic curative aspects has caused numerous problems. We blame rivers, use them as divisive lines rather than integrative ones, and treat them as commodities or dumping pits. Consequently, every characteristic of a river is seen as a demerit if it doesn’t suit the whims of the user, such as variations in river flow, flooding, drought, and erosion.

This misunderstanding has resulted in desertification, water, and food insecurity. Ecologically unsustainable levels of water use and fishing have affected water quality. Sand mining has disturbed the flow and aquatic life, and treating rivers as garbage bins has turned them into sewage lines. The decline of ponds, lakes, wetlands, and other water bodies in the floodplains, which provide a cheap high-protein diet in the form of small fish, is another issue.

The blame can be put on colonial thinking, a WOKE mindset, and a consumerist approach that convent education has taught children in India.

  1. Who are the People Most Affected and Who are the Complainers?

The people who complain are mostly the ones behind the problem, while those who protect the rivers and their habitats are the real sufferers.

  1. What are the Major Threats to Rivers?

Indian rivers face numerous challenges, including an age-old law, misuse of water resources, and continuous pollution. A huge population along river banks and economic growth aiming to make India a $5 trillion economy by 2025 have exponentially increased the demand for water. More than half of India’s rivers are polluted, and 11 out of 15 major river basins will experience water stress by 2025.

River pollution is a significant challenge. Untreated wastewater from urban areas, carrying a mix of sewage and industrial effluents, ends up in rivers during non-monsoon months. By 2050, about 35,178 million cubic meters of domestic wastewater will be generated from urban areas in India. Cities and towns are primary causes of pollution, with vast quantities of municipal and industrial waste discharged into rivers daily.

Many rivers and springs are disappearing due to hydropower projects diverting them into underground tunnels. Big dams, canal diversions, and hydropower projects are significant threats to rivers. The Indus and Teesta are among the eight mighty rivers likely to run dry from overuse.

The governance of inter-state rivers poses a major threat, as blame is often shifted and responsibility shirked off. Managing existing misuse of river water is another challenge due to a diminished respect for rivers.

  1. How Do We Rejuvenate Our Rivers?

We need to change our perspective of rivers. Despite growing awareness that a narrow engineering approach to rivers is reductionist, a more holistic perception of rivers is yet to emerge. Rivers play many important roles in shaping and maintaining the world’s terrestrial landmass and biodiversity, crucial for creating the socio-economic-cultural spectrum of all human societies.

Rivers do not cause floods; it is humans who move into flood-affected areas where rivers have the right to flow. If a river like the Kosi is likely to flood, humans should not settle around it.

  1. How to Conserve Rivers?

India’s economic ambition depends on how well it manages its water resources. We need to treat rivers differently by declaring them legal entities, defining a minimum environmentally compatible flow for each season, and establishing clear territories for rivers to prevent encroachment. A buffer zone on both sides of rivers should be created to protect them from erosion, encroachment, and dumping.

We need to rethink the governance of inter-state rivers. The Inter-State River Water Disputes Act of 1956 needs revision. The amendment seeks to replace multiple tribunals with a single tribunal and set strict timelines for decisions.

Water-saving practices must be adopted. Several initiatives have been undertaken in India for the judicious and efficient use of river water, including piped water distribution networks and micro-irrigation systems for agriculture in canal command areas. Proper water accounting should be adopted for continuous assessment of water use and saving potential across sectors.

Wastewater treatment and reuse projects need to be made financially viable by providing performance incentives to municipalities and private operators and utilizing low-cost, energy-efficient treatment technology advancements. The transition from water stress to water security requires thinking about the linkages between water, energy, food, and livelihoods at the river basin scale. Active participation of all stakeholders, including communities, is crucial.

A parallel channel should be made on both sides of rivers to take dirty water out of them. Massive afforestation in catchment areas and on riverbanks is urgently needed. Zero discharge of sewage and industrial pollution must be enforced by developing wastewater management in urban and semi-urban areas.

In the Himalayan region, conservation of springs is essential as most rivers in the region originate from springs. An appraisal of standard temperature pressure and an audit of the absorbed water of the river should be presented every year.

  1. Conclusion

We urgently need to shift our perspective to live in congruence with our rivers. Our rivers are national treasures and not commodities. They are life-making materials, vital parts of living, and integral to Jal, Jameen, Jeev, Jantu, Jeewika, and Jeevan. They tell stories, provide geologic, ecological, and biological support, shape culture and societies, provide transport, purity, and more.

Our challenge is not just water distribution but understanding rivers, burden-sharing pollution, and maintaining river water quality. A Sanatan way of life can help address most water-related issues and revitalize our rivers. The first step for river rejuvenation is to view rivers as living, spiritual, and legal entities at a decentralized level and then frame our inclusive policy of “Plan with Nature & Design with Technology.”


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