The making of a river

"The revival of the river will give us more water for irrigation. While the river has a religious significance, it is vital for farming. We had heard that the Chief Minister will come when water will released. That did not happen," said Harinder, a landowner at Uncha Chandna village

Written by Khushboo Sandhu | Updated: August 15, 2016 5:12 am
Haryana’s Yamunanagar district,river saraswati, Saraswati Heritage Development Board, Uncha Chandna, haryana govt, Adi Badri, india news A villager shows the algae floating on Saraswati. Express Photo by Jaipal Singh

From Uncha Chandna, a village in Haryana’s Yamunanagar district, about three feet of water now flows through a channel that the Haryana government has deemed to be the route of the River Saraswasti.

Uncha Chandna is where earlier this month the Haryana Irrigation Department inaugurated its version of the Saraswati with a little bit of help — 100 cusecs to be exact — from the Dadupur-Nalvi feeder canal that brings water from the Yamuna to meet the irrigation demands of 225 villages in three districts of the state, Yamunanagar, Kurukshetra and Ambala.

Like it or not, this 100 cusecs of Yamuna water — one cusec equals 28.317 litres of water — from the feeder canal is now the water of the Saraswati. And at the time of writing, some 10 days after the inauguration, these cusecs had flowed up to Kurukshetra, 40 km to the south, surmounting the caving in of the sides of the channel at various places from the shock of the surging water.

After crossing Kaithal district, and crisscrossing Punjab for about 4 km, the water will merge with Ghaggar — a total distance of 153 km — with help from a booster shot of another 100 cusecs in the coming days.

Some 55 km north of Uncha Chandna is Adi Badri, commonly believed as the starting point of the “lost” Saraswati, in a wooded part of Yamuna Nagar close to the Shivalik foothills. The Irrigation department has already cleared a route on 37 km of this distance so that the River Somb, a small tributary of the Yamuna which runs its course in Yamunanagar, and its little rivulets here and there, can all be linked and flow without interruption towards Uncha Chandna, so that they can join the man-made Saraswati. The work on the remaining 18 km is proving tough. For along the route from Adi Badri to Uncha Chandna, lie many villages, whose fields are in the way of Mission Saraswati.

The government says there are land revenue records to prove that the fields have come up on what used to be a river. Privately owned land will be acquired for the

The idea that there was a river called Saraswati comes from references to it in the Rig Veda. Academics, historians, archaeologists, geologists and other scientists, believers and non-believers remain bitterly divided about its

The Dadupur-Nalvi canal that feeds water to the river. The Dadupur-Nalvi canal that feeds water to the river.

Liberal historians hold the view that the people of the Vedic age were migrants from what is now Central Asia. They view the Saraswati Mission as an attempt by Hindutva lobbies to draw a connection between the Vedic period and Harrapan culture to prove that the people of Vedic India were indigenous. Their Hindutva counterparts denounce them as pushing a “Marxist” view of history.

The BJP government in Haryana wasted little time in announcing its plan to find the Saraswati after coming to power. Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar had termed the project to unearth Saraswati as a “mission to keep alive the soul of a community”, making no effort to hide the saffron colour of the project.

A Saraswati Heritage Development Board was quickly set up, and work began. But the foundation for the revival of the river was actually laid by the previous Congress government led by Bhupinder Singh Hooda that completed the construction of the first phase of the Dadupur-Nalvi canal in 2009.

The BJP government’s efforts got a boost when water was found in the dry river bed of the river at Mugalwali in Yamunanagar district in May last year. People flocked to the site to offer prayers and take the “holy” water. The government got the digging done under the Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. The work was initiated on April 21.

District Development and Panchayat Officer, Yamunanagar, Gagandeep says, “After passing through 41 villages from Kaithal district, the river course enters Rajasthan and from there to Gujarat. There is satellite imagery of ISRO and Survey of India maps to show that the river existed here. We also have revenue records that show a river. These records were matched with the depressions. Some pieces of pottery were also recovered from the site that shows that a civilization existed here, which means there must have been a river.”

Project Saraswati is a package of other measures, including flood protection, promotion of eco and pilgrimage tourism, water conservation and improving the ecological balance. The government had announced a budget of Rs 50 crore for various works to be undertaken.

Three dams are also planned to ensure the river flows perennially. One of the dams will be at Adi Badri, another at Lohgarh and the third at Haripur. Officials say that river Somb floods the fields during the monsoon. A reservoir will be constructed at Uncha Chandna to channelise this water. While the reservoir is likely to be constructed in a few months, the dams will take two to three years to complete.

In March this year, the Centre set up an expert committee to review the available information about the river from studies already conducted. In a meeting of a multidisciplinary committee held recently at Delhi, discussions were held on the possibility of hiring consultants to promote tourism around the river.

The findings following excavation at Rakhigarhi has led officials to make claims that the river flowed here as Harappan settlements are known to have come up along riverbanks.

 

A board at the entrance with a picture of goddess Saraswati welcomes visitors to Saraswati Nagar, a village that is 1 km ahead of Uncha Chandna, in the direction of Adi Badri. Till February this year, it was known as Mustafabad. But going by its present condition, Saraswati might not want to be associated with this place, and pilgrims and other tourists would be shocked if they came.

There is no shortage of sign boards directing visitors to a Saraswati temple and a dham in the village, nor of garbage strewn around the site with pigs and stray dogs foraging in it.

Anil Chauhan, an agriculturist who frequently visits the temple, says it has expanded over the years. He feels there needs to be more upkeep in case the government wants to promote tourism.

“Adi Badri gets a lot of visitors and has tourism potential. However, if the government wants to attract tourists here then care has to be taken for maintaining this place. It needs to be spruced up,” he said.

Another person, who has a shop in the area for the past three decades, says that with the change in name, the situation seems to have worsened.

“There is an absolute lack of maintenance here. How can the government hope to attract tourists? Even when I am selling packed items in my shop, the filth outside turns people away. I have seen the mounds of garbage increasing by the day. The government talks of Swachh Bharat campaign. It seems this village has been given a miss,” he said on condition of anonymity.

At a little distance from the Saraswati temple is a cremation ground. The route of the Saraswati river passes the rear side of the cremation ground. The ashes of the cremated bodies are dumped into whatever water there is now from the Somb. The water has a layer of algae floating on it, and the sides are lined with garbage.

Baldev Kumar, a tubewell operator, says the manner in which the river is being polluted it looks like “Narakwati”. He said, “The sewerage from several villages enters river. If this continues, then the purpose with which the government has undertaken the project will be defeated.”

Prashant Bhardwaj, deputy chairman, Saraswati Heritage Development Board, says the problem is being experienced at several villages but says it strengthens the evidence for a pre-existing river. “Cremation grounds were constructed on the banks of rivers. This is another piece of evidence that the Saraswati was present here. We are giving the option to villagers that alternative sites will be allotted for the crematoriums so that the river is saved from pollution,” he said.

He added attempts are also being made to create awareness among people to not pollute the water of the river.

He said this was not a problem only of Saraswati but of the Ganga and Yamuna rivers as well. People also need to make a contribution, he said.

 

This is not the first attempt to find the Saraswati. In 1985, Dr V S Wakankar, an archaeologist and Padma Shri awardee, claimed to have traced the basin of the Saraswati from Adi Badri to Kutch. A group of 30 experts, including the incumbent Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar, travelled on the route from Haryana to Gujarat from November 19 to December 20. Khattar who was a pracharak then was part of the yatra for three days.

In 1997, a Saraswati Research Centre was established at Chennai. Two years later, Haryana got a Saraswati Shodh Sansthan, headed by Darshan Lal Jain, former RSS president of the state. Between 1999 and 2000, during the time of the first Vajpayee-led NDA government, even the Indian Space Research Organisation got into the act to trace the route through GIS mapping. In 2002, the Centre notified a project for conducting multi-disciplinary study of the river. NDA’s former Culture Minister Jagmohan ordered excavation in Haryana to trace the river, a move that was viewed by the Opposition as furthering the saffron agenda.

Jain, ever the active campaigner for the Saraswati, says satellite imagery has shown the presence of the river. “It is no longer a myth,” he said. “Over the years, people have encroached upon land from where the river flowed. This needs to be cleared. It would facilitate in flood control and facilitate utilization of water.”

But now both Congress and Indian National Lok Dal have termed it a BJP ploy to divert attention from its failures and broken promises.

Undeterred by the opposition, the Khattar government is now planning to set up fellowships for the study of Saraswati river. At present, as many as 64 different departments across the country are involved with the Saraswati river project.

Politics and religion aside, Harinder, a landowner in Uncha Chandna village, feels the revival of the river will bring some benefits for the farmers.

“It is during the monsoons that we are assured of a steady supply of water in this river, otherwise we are dependent on tubewells. This is impacting the water level. The revival of the river will give us more water for irrigation. While the river has a religious significance, it is vital for farming. We had heard that the CM will come when water will released. That did not happen,” he says.

While debate rages among academics and historians over whether the river ever existed, for the residents of the Uncha Chandna and other villages on its path, the Saraswati river has always been present.

Seasonal rivulets flow through many villages in this part of Haryana. They fill up during the monsoon and dry down in the other months. People in these villages know them as the Saraswati, and have always done so in their memory. They see these rivulets as having originally come from a bigger river that dried up with time.

Chaman Lal, the sarpanch of Mali Majra, another village ahead of Uncha Chandna, says since the time he was born, he has known there was once a bigger river that flowed past his village called the Saraswati. “Our elders told us about it. The government is trying to revive the river along its entire route. Over the years, farmers started cultivating crops right next to the route of the river. As the river bed dries up during summers, some parts got encroached as well. This obstructed the smooth flow of the river. Also, the landowners do not want the government to use machines to clear the path of the river as their fields will get damaged,” he said.

Chaman Lal adds that over time, sewerage water and garbage are entering the rivulets. He fears this will finally end up in the new Saraswati, when the rivulets all get linked up. “The government needs to ensure that untreated sewerage does not enter the river. There will be no point spending crores of rupees on the project if the pollution is not stopped,” he said.

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