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Govt has failed to save India's rivers, admits water resources secy

Vishakh Unnikrishnan | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:38 IST

India is a land of 290 rivers. And 205 of them are in a critical condition. That's right, 70% of India's rivers - the lifeblood of human civilisation - are in a critical condition, as per a river assessment survey conducted by various representatives from across the states, including professors, academics and environment experts.

The experts met at the annual India Rivers Week programme, held at the World Wildlife Fund Secretariat in New Delhi.

Fourteen of these rivers are those classified as 'major' rivers, while 40 are 'minor'. The final list is expected later this month.

But that's not all. It's just the tip of this killer iceberg.

Shashi Shekhar, secretary, Ministry of Water Resources, River Development & Ganga Rejuvenation, admits that the ministry has failed to do its job - bring out an action plan to address the unabated exploitation of India's rivers.

Blame nexus between politicians and construction business

Shekhar's remarks were certainly unexpected; after all, it's not every day that the top bureaucrat in a ministry publicly blames the ministry and his political masters for failure.

He said there were various reasons behind the abject exploitation of rivers, river beds and flood plains, which had led to the level of pollution we are witnessing today - but a major reason was the nexus between political leaders and the construction business, in which many of these politicians had a vested interest.

Unchecked construction, he said, had led to the sort of flooding witnessed in cities like Hyderabad and Chennai, and damage to river beds and floodplains. He added that it was essential to inform the public that this was not 'development'.

He also took a crack at the additional responsibility of Ganga Rejuvenation that has been tagged on to the ministry by the present NDA government.

"The ministry is now renamed with the added clause 'river development and Ganga Reuvenation', but other than a name change, not much has been done," he said.

Shekhar also criticised the lack of government data that could help monitor and assess the state of rivers in India.

At the current rate of exploitation, Haryana will have no ground water in the next 15 years

"There is almost no reservoir in the country that provides the intended cost-benefit ratio of 66%, and only a handful of irrigation projects have used water efficiently. Sometimes the only reason behind the initiation of such projects is just for the sake of construction," he added.

He also stated that his ministry had failed to coordinate with other related ministries like environment and power.

"With the current rate of exploitation, Haryana will have no ground water in the next 15 years," he said.

Those present at the programme lauded Shekhar's honesty in addressing the matter.

"It is important that a bureaucrat is sensitive to the issue and speaks up. It is the first step towards policy change to protect rivers," said Manoj Misra, convenor, Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan.

Other important discussions

Other discussions at the programme ranged from inter-state conflicts, water sharing, hydro-power projects, drinking water supply, sanitation, pollution, flood control, river beds, estuaries, flood plains, wetlands, lakes, catchments and embankments, and biodiversity surrounding rivers.

The intention was to bring rivers back into the focus of governance.

Representatives and participants were divided into groups representing states in different regions. The various groups were tasked with putting together reports about the status of rivers in their states, with a view to classify rivers as 'healthy' (blue), 'threatened' (pink) and 'destroyed' (red), after assessing their health based on a number of parameters, including dams, pollution, biodiversity, encroachment and mining among others.

In the end, however, the house decided to have just two categories - red and grey - and zeroed in on a list of 'red' rivers, which included both threatened and destroyed rivers.

"There is no data today to assess and monitor the state of rivers today. This is a first such initiative," said Himanshu Thakkar, an expert on water resources and coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People.

On inter-state conflicts

On the issue of inter-state conflicts about water, Shekhar said the reasons behind these conflicts was that supply was far less than the various states' demands. He also said that the lack of an independent body to look into the matter of supply and demand was the reason why Karnataka had recently witnessed violence on the Cauvery water-sharing issue.

Opposition voices

According to Kapil Mishra, Delhi's water resources minister and senior Aam Aadmi Party leader, who attended the event: "The flow of the rivers and that of the governance of the country seems to be divergent. We need to bring bureaucrats, members of the public and civil society together to work on rivers."

Congress Rajya Sabha MP and former environment minister Jairam Ramesh, who attended the first day of the programme, added: "In six months, laws on water pollution, air pollution and forest conservation will be loosened. Rivers exploited either for transportation or for hydropower are going to be the new paradigm.

It's obvious that there are miles to go before river rejuvenation can truly see the light of day. However, acknowledgment of the problem is often the first step towards a solution. And many activists hope that it isn't too late to start work on river rejuvenation in right earnest.

Edited by Shreyas Sharma

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First published: 1 December 2016, 9:14 IST
Vishakh Unnikrishnan @sparksofvishdom

A graduate of the Asian College of Journalism, Vishakh tracks stories on public policy, environment and culture. Previously at Mint, he enjoys bringing in a touch of humour to the darkest of times and hardest of stories. One word self-description: Quipster.