Home >Home-page >Before beating plastic, India must save its rivers

Officials in New Delhi are busy preparing to welcome representatives of the UN these days. People from various parts of the world will converge here on 5 June for the World Environment Day. This year’s theme is “Beat Plastic Pollution". As the host, it is India’s responsibility to take a meaningful initiative on this issue. Though, plastic, in India, is only a part of the massive problem of pollution.

To begin with, some bad news. The stream of water in the Yamuna has become so feeble in Haryana and areas adjoining Uttar Pradesh (UP), that people are unable to even immerse the remains of their loved ones. As a result, instead of cremating them, nearby villagers have begun burying the remains. They are now waiting for the rains. After it rains, the Yamuna’s stream will once again get stronger and the souls of their ancestors can rest in peace.

This isn’t happening for the first time. The trend has only strengthened over the past three decades. The conditions have worsened so much so that the devout, who gather for the Ganga Dussehra in the border areas of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, don’t have enough water to carry out the aachman (a customary sip of holy water before the religious prayers). Some enterprising people have begun to deploy diesel pump sets on the banks of the Yamuna to provide them with water. One wishes they understood that this isn’t a problem that can be solved in one day.

After getting this news, when we started investigating, the correspondents from Hindustan found that the Ganga is also drifting into a similar situation. In Varanasi, right in between the main flow of the river, some islands of sand have emerged. These are so big and solid that some daredevil youth have been carrying out stunts on their bikes on these. As we already know, the Cauvery and the Krishna dry up for more than 100 days of the year, before they can complete their course. As they originate from the Himalayas, the Ganga and the Yamuna used to be exceptions. The Himalayan glaciers sent them to the plains and a number of small rivers also contribute. That these two rivers will reach such a scenario was something that was unimaginable till a few years ago.

Statistics from a number of researchers also indicate this decline of our rivers owing to widespread pollution. In its latest study, the Central Pollution Control Board discovered that the number of polluted rivers in India has risen from 121 to 275 over the past five years. The main reason is the sewage that flows into these rivers passing through 29 states. Will the future generations of Indians read about rivers only in history books? Will that unfortunate day come when we will have photographs and legends, but no rivers to speak of? Without rivers, where will India, known as shasya shyamla (a land always covered with a harvest) be?

The sorry state of our rivers is linked with the groundwater situation. A report by the Central Groundwater Board reveals that after Punjab and Rajasthan, Delhi is the third-most overexploited groundwater state in India. The groundwater crisis has affected 56% tehsils in the capital. The situation in other parts of the country is also bad. River pollution, shortage of groundwater and the use of all kinds of chemicals have led to the water in many parts of India becoming dangerous. According to the National Rural Drinking Water Programme, 1.47 million people staying in 16,689 areas of the country drink water with excessive arsenic. UP, Bihar, West Bengal and Assam are the most affected. If you have noticed many more cancer patients around you these days, this could be one of the reasons.

Not just contaminated water, air pollution too is choking people. A study by the Centre for Environment and Energy Development and IIT Delhi found that the rate of fatalities owing to air pollution has increased in the Gangetic plains. They say between 150 and 300 people per 100,000 are dying, owing to air pollution. A greater number of people are falling prey to diseases of the lung, heart and other similar ailments. Meerut and Agra have left other towns behind in this malaise. Will you still address Meerut as the “City of Revolution" and Agra the “City of Love"?

When rivers stop to be jivandayini (life-supporting) and air begins to choke cities, one should realise that everything will collapse unless corrective steps are taken. There is a danger hovering over Indian civilization.

While fighting this issue, our governments need to be sensitive and determined, and need greater public awareness. We should remember that it was nature that gave birth to human beings and we need it for our survival. We are the ones dependent on nature and not the other way round.

Shashi Shekhar is editor in chief, Hindustan.

His Twitter handle is @shekharkahin

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