Living Rivers, Dying Rivers
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Living Rivers, Dying Rivers

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Item Code: NAL741
Author: Ramaswamy R. Iyer
Publisher: Oxford University Press, New Delhi
Language: English
Edition: 2015
ISBN: 9780199456222
Pages: 497
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details: 8.5 inch x 5.5 inch
Weight 690 gm
About the Book

Rivers have always been worshipped in India, and yet they are in a deplorable state today. The Ganga, regarded as holy and formally declared as the national river, and the Yamuna, the river of India's capital, are mortally sick. Many other rivers in the country are declining or dying. It is difficult to find living, healthy rivers, and even the few that exist are under threat of decline. Heavy pollution is a major cause of this situation, but there are also other factors, such as excessive abstractions or diversions of waters, and violence to their physical components such as the river-bed, banks, floodplains, and so on. Underlying such abuses is a poor understanding of what constitutes a river.

This book goes into the present condition of several Indian rivers, their various states of decline or health, and the factors that have had an effect on their well-being. It explores also the deeply flawed attitudes and approaches towards rivers and towards the environment in general.

The chapters by diverse authors make a plea for a proper understanding of our rivers in all their complexity, for a healthy relationship with them, and for a radical re-examination of what constitutes true development. This compilation is important as a detailed river-wise account of the situation, and serves as an aid to understanding what has gone wrong (or right in a few cases) and what needs to be done in order to restore our rivers to vibrant health.

About the Author

Ramaswamy R. Iyer is Honorary Professor, Center for Policy Research, New Delhi.


For several years now, there has been widespread and deep concern at the deplorable state of the rivers Yamuna and Ganga. From time to time, there have also been disturbing accounts of the decline of certain other rivers. Very occasionally, there are reports about a few rivers that have remained relatively healthy and unpolluted. The circumstances and developments involved in those vague perceptions, both positive and negative, were sought to be explored in a series of monthly lectures/presentations by various speakers/presenters, under the overall title 'Living Rivers, Dying Rivers', at the India International Centre (IIC), New Delhi, during the period from 4 June 2011 to 25 July 2012. Most of the events were (and presumably continue to be) available in video form on the India Water Portal.

Though the present book is the outcome of that programme, it is not a compilation of the presentations. Proper papers in finished form (and not just written versions of the presentations) were asked for and obtained as contributions to a book. Moreover, it became clear that some additional papers would be needed, and these (as many as seven) were requested and obtained from selected scholars (other than the speakers/presenters). The contributors to the book form a diverse range: academics of different disciplines (engineering, hydrology, ecology, earth science, geography, geology, anthropology, economics); a retired government expert (pollution control); and activists/campaigners for rivers. It may be added that some academics are partly activists and vice versa.

The major part of the book consists of a series of chapters that give an account of the present condition of many of our rivers and of the factors that have had an impact on that condition. The book covers several of India's rivers and States, but not all States or all important rivers. The non-availability of some of the authors approached and the need to limit the size of the book are part of the explanations for this, but comprehensiveness of coverage of States or rivers was not, in fact, aimed at. What one wished to cover was the range of factors and forces affecting the life of rivers, and the diversity of ways in which a river might be living or dying. One hopes that this has been achieved to a reasonable degree.


At the outset, a word of explanation about the tide Living Rivers, Dying Rivers seems necessary. When the tide was initially thought of, the expectation was that the chapters in the book would highlight both healthy rivers and sick rivers, though not in equal numbers. However, it was found that most chapters tended to present grim pictures of rivers in decline, and that there were not many references to 'living' rivers. Even the few 'living' rivers (for instance, the Shastri river in Maharashtra and the Tamraparni in Tamil Nadu [TN]) are said to be under threat, and the fear is that they might not remain 'living' rivers much longer. Aghanashini and Bedthi in the Western Ghats (Karnataka) are said to have been saved by people's action, but perhaps only for the time being. Similarly, the rivers of the North- East have remained relatively free-flowing and clean ('pristine') because of the absence or limited nature of human intervention, but that situation is changing. A large number of hydroelectric projects are planned in the North-East and some are already under construction, and very soon the rivers of that region may merit inclusion in the list of rivers under threat. In particular, the most well known of them, the Brahmaputra, is now the victim of project planning by both China and India, with Bangladesh also involved in the controversy as the anxious lowest riparian. One shudders to think of what the future holds for this once mighty river, the hapless Tibetans who live on and care for the permafrost, which has been described as 'the Third Pole', and the people in India, Bhutan, and Bangladesh who are likely to face the consequences of interventions in this river by the state, whether Chinese or Indian. However, the term 'Living Rivers' has been retained in the tide, both as a kind of Banquo's ghost, that is, as a reminder of an absent category, and as a muted expression of hope of what might still be possible. When requesting contributions from a number of authors, the terms 'dying' and 'living' were not defined. Pollution was uppermost in one's mind, but one knew that rivers may turn sick not only from pollution but also from other causes. It was left to the authors to give an account of the state of particular rivers, or cluster of rivers, and explain whether they were living or dying, and in what sense. As a result, there is an interesting range of approaches to the stated theme of the book. The diversity in the understanding of the terms 'living' and 'dying' springs from the diversity in the backgrounds of the contributors: academics, technical experts, activists, etc. The intention was to let different voices speak in their respective ways about the state of the rivers with which the speakers were concerned. No rigid framework was prescribed for the chapters, no structure was indicated, and no uniformity of style or length was laid down. All that the writers were expected to do was to explain whether a given river was dying or living in their own ways of thinking, what factors led to the present state of the rivers, whether the situation (if bad) was remediable, and what needed to be done. This explains the diversity of perceptions and approaches; and the backgrounds (academic, expert, non-governmental organization [NGO], activist) explain the mix of semi-academic, semi-popular styles. This diversity of contributors, perceptions, and styles was not an inadvertent but an intended feature of the book.

Three other features need to be explained. First, in talking about 'rivers of Gujarat', 'rivers of Kerala', etc., the intention was not to assign rivers to particular States. There were several reasons for adopting a mix of rivers and States as the organizing principle. The organizing principle is, in fact, primarily river-wise- Yamuna, Ganga, jhelum, Brahmaputra, Kosi, Bagmati, Mahanadi, Godavari, etc. However, it was necessary to bring in several other rivers, major and minor, and it seemed practical to cluster them by the States. Besides, the planned chapters were not meant to be about the totality of particular rivers or their basins; the driving concern was with the state of the rivers and the factors leading to their deterioration, and this had to be looked at from certain points of observation: Yamuna from Delhi; the Ganga largely from Uttar Pradesh (UP); Kosi and Bagmati from Bihar; Godavari from Andhra Pradesh (AP); and so on. This was one more reason to proceed by States. Lastly, the writers are based in States and it seemed practical to ask them to write about a river as it passes through their respective States. Thinking in terms of States was thus partly a matter of convenience, particularly for identifying possible authors.

Second, this book represents a quest through India. There had to be some kind of sequence in proceeding from river to river. After considering different sequences, I adopted one on the basis of an imagined journey: we start with the river of the national capital; go on to the national river; proceed northwards to the Indus; thence eastwards to the Brahmaputra and other rivers of the North-East; southwards to the rivers of Bihar and West Bengal; further south, along the coast to Odisha (Mahanadi); down the east coast to AP (Godavari) and TN; and turn around at the southern tip and proceed up the west coast to Kerala, Karnataka, the Western Ghats, Maharashtra, and Gujarat. There is some rough logic in that progression, and the route can be traced on a map.

Third, a question that arose was whether the general thematic chapters should precede or follow the river-specific chapters. This was a difficult decision and was based partly on the actual sequence of the writing. The progression was not from general chapters to illustrative case studies, but from a series of river-wise chapters to general reflections.

As now organized, the main (primarily) descriptive part of the book is followed by the last few chapters that form a kind of coda. The coda consists of thematic and analytical chapters, but there is no sharp distinction between the main part and the coda. The former contains not merely description and information but also reflections and analyses; and the latter contains not merely analyses and reflections but specificities as well.

That was a broad overview of what the book is about. What follows is a synoptic view of the contents of the book (capsule previews of the various chapters) for the reader's ready reference. Brij Gopal, in Chapter 1, adopts the analogy of a living organism. He points out that the Yamuna is totally devoid of its 'lifeblood'; that its organs have been removed or irreparably damaged and are in a state of decay; and that it is unable to perform any of its natural functions. He feels that a 'multiple organ transplantation' may be called for. Moreover, a river does not exist in pieces; a river's health can be assessed only in terms of the entire 'system' of its tributaries from source to mouth. The problems of the river are spreading gradually in all directions. Almost all tributaries of the Yamuna have been similarly affected by fragmentation, abstraction, pollution, and channelization. He comes to the conclusion that the Yamuna is a dying river, nearing its end.

Manoj Misra (Chapter 2) finds the defining characteristic of a river in its gravity-driven, unceasing, unidirectional flow of water and sediments from its origin to the end, and notes that as it moves, it creates (and is created by) its own physical environment. The 'living' component of a river system is its biota (plants and animals), many of which are endemic. Misra argues that a river cannot be understood unless it is seen in its entirety. He does not use the 'organism' analogy of Dr Brij Gopal but his identification of the factors impinging on the health of rivers has some similarity to the latter's account. Misra traces the origins, evolution, and progress of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan as a public campaign for the restoration of river Yamuna, which has promoted a better understanding of rivers, helped to establish river-side community organizations called the Nadi Mitra Mandalis (Friends of the River), and devised a People's River Health Index or PRHI as a participatory tool to assess the state of the health of a river stretch.

Rama Rauta (Chapter 3) is anguished by the present condition of the national river, Ganga, and is a passionate advocate of the cause of restoring the river to its aviral characteristic and nirmal state. She outlines both short-term and long-term measures to save the Ganga. The former include, among other things, the full empowerment of the National Ganga River Basin Authority, the declaration of the Ganga as a national river by parliamentary legislation, the prohibition of the discharge of sewage into the river, the promotion of organic farming eschewing chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the provision of disincentives against the addition of pollution to a river, and the declaration of the Uttarakhand region as a National Spiritual Heritage Zone. The long-term solution would be a radical change in our ideas of development to a Gandhian vision.

Vinod Tare and Gautam Roy, in Chapter 4, begin with an analysis of the failure of the Ganga Action Plan running since the 1980s, and identify its weaknesses in design, implementation, monitoring, evaluation, and regulation. They proceed to give an account of the comprehensive Ganga River Basin Management Plan (GRBMP) which has been under preparation by a consortium of seven Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) from 2010 onwards. They point out that GRBMP takes account of the river's unique climatic-geologic- ecological identity, identifies local anthropogenic activities causing severe damage to the basin, and envisages urgent corrective steps to promote wastewater recycling; sustainable agriculture and infrastructural project designs; and integrated natural resource management. In view of the Ganga basin's exemplary historical role, they entertain a modest hope of its salvation.

In Chapter 5, N.C. Narayanan attributes the failure of pollution abatement plans, such as the Ganga Action Plan Phase I, to a perspective of centralized wastewater treatment which is capital/energy/management intensive, which, in turn, leads to the choice of institutional models such as public-private partnership or PPP. The author points out that PPP cases are largely public funded, with a host of tasks to be carried out by the State, particularly by the very same urban local bodies (ULBs) whose assumed lack of capability and motivation is the stated ground for preferring the PPP approach. It deprecates the implicit preference for 'hi-tech' solutions and suggests the exploration of alternative approaches that stress the need for a variety of solutions combining different context-specific tech- nological options, scales of operation, and financial and institutional models. It argues that this can best be planned at the local level by enhancing the capacity of ULBs with mechanisms to ensure trans- parency, accountability, and informed participation by the people; and that only such a course would make pollution abatement in the Ganga affordable and sustainable.


List of Abbreviationsxiii
List of Tables, Figures, and Boxesxix
1The Yamuna: Living or Dying?13
2The Yamuna: An Extreme Case28
3The Ganga: A Lament and a Plea44
4The Ganga: A Trickle of Hope52
5The Ganga: Pollution Abatement Strategies-A Review of GAP77
and Emerging Institutional Models
6The Indus System: Changing Environment in the Jhelum101
7The Brahmaputra and Other Rivers of the North-East149
8Embanking Rivers: The Bagmati in Bihar182
9The Rivers of West Bengal: Dying, Living188
10The Mahanadi: A Great River in Distress205
11River as a Feminine Presence: Godavari in Andhra Pradesh219
12In Search of a Living River: A Journey across Tamil Nadu240
13Between the Living and the Dying: Rivers of Kerala266
14Karnataka: Cauvery in Death Throes293
15Living and Dying Rivers of the Western Ghats314
16Endangering a Heritage: Rivers of Maharashtra328
17The Narmada and Other Rivers of Gujarat339
18Caring for Our Rivers: An Overview364
19A Law to Protect Rivers379
20What Hydroelectric Projects Do to Rivers389
21Killing a River: Failure of Regulation408
22Towards a More Comprehensive Understanding of Rivers421
Afterword by Ramaswamy R. Iyer435
Annexe to Afterword445
Notes on Editor and Contributors469
Sample Pages

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