In the Third week of March, while welcoming the rivers Ganga and Yamuna as legal persons, Justice Rajiv Sharma and Justice Alok Singh of the Uttarakhand High Court observed that they were inspired by lawmakers in New Zealand. Barely a week earlier, the New Zealand Parliament had conferred legal personhood to the country’s third longest river, the Whanganui, bringing to an end a more than 140-year old dispute.
In 1840, when the Maori tribes ceded sovereignty to the British colonists, the Treaty of Waitangi promised protection of their natural resources including the Whanganui. But the treaty was observed only in the breach, leading the communities, who profess a deep spiritual connection to the Whanganui, to take the issue of ownership of the river to the courts in the early 1870s. As the protracted dispute drew to a close, Maoris at the gallery in New Zealand’s Parliament broke into a song of celebration. Some wept tears of joy.
In India, in contrast, where the Ganga is known to have more than 100 names (some say even 1,000), there was scarcely any
rejoicing after the Uttarakhand High Court verdict. Even environmentalists were guarded in their response; some were sceptical. A month later, the Madhya Pradesh government’s decision to treat the Narmada as a person passed by virtually unnoticed — except for a few media reports.
Granting legal rights to the Whanganui took eight years of careful negotiation and intense public debate that was not without its moments of fun — New Zealanders joked if the river might now buy a few “hoppy” beers, vote or be penalised for murder if a swimmer drowns. The Uttarakhand verdict, in contrast, was a matter of few days of stolid courtroom deliberation.
Rivers, it seems, have gone out of the lives of large numbers of people in India, in cities surely. They do become part of public discourse, but only as items of disputes between riparian states, or as beneficiaries — or victims — of large projects or when they go into spate and cause havoc, sometimes even when they run dry. But the river as a part of people’s day-to-day experiences is rarely a matter of public conversation.
In an article in the environment fortnightly, Down To Earth, the Marathi writer Karuna Futane recollects, “The river was a mother and a bosom pal to women, children, farmers, cattle, birds, insects, animals. A visit to the river meant cleansing and freshening up, inner and outer. You went back from the river rested and healed”.
But it’s unlikely that rivers today will evoke the excitement experienced by the historian Tapan Raychaudhuri, as a child growing up in Barisal in what is now Bangladesh, in the 1930s. In his memoir, The World in Our Time, Raychaudhuri recollects, “The river flowing by our bungalow.was a source of endless thrills. There was the fear of drowning. And what were those dark things floating too close to one for comfort? Crocodiles or pieces of dry wood? Then there were Kanagats, small river sharks. “
The Hindi writer Phanishwar Nath Renu’s account of the Patna floods of 1975, in Rindjal Dhanjal, has forebodings of the disconnect between urban life and the ways of the river. Amazed at the hordes rushing to watch the rushing waters, one villager remarks, “When Danapur was getting submerged the Pataniya babulog did not even bother to look back. It’s your turn now”. Futane’s lament — in a different context — is more vivid. “When I told my sons I was going to write about my relationship with the rivers, they were surprised. What is there to write? And what rivers? They are just dirty nullahs. The truth of this strikes me when I look at the rivers now. Sewage and plastic bags,” she writes .
The Ganga is one such sorry receptacle of garbage. Over the three decades, much money has gone into cleaning this cesspool: More than Rs 1,800 crore under the Ganga Action Plan in its various avatars. The current government intends to spend more than 10 times this amount: Rs 20,000 crore over five years on the Namami Gange Project. But the project that took off last year is an improvement on its predecessor in very few respects. There are programmes to develop interceptor drains, plant trees and improve the composition of river species. There are also plans to develop Ganga Grams — villages where people will be educated in reducing pollution. Other than that, the project is a replica of the Ganga Action Plan in its emphasis on sewage treatment plants.
Such plants can only do so much because a large section of the country’s urban pollution lives outside the reach of sewerage networks. Under the Ganga Action Plan, for instance, the lag between the sewage generation and treatment never went below 50 per cent.
Water cleaned by the treatment plants also needs a final cleansing at the river. Where is the water for that? With more than 40 dams, barrages and weirs — and many more planned — the Ganga is drained of her lifeblood. Many of the 21 tributaries and distributaries of the Ganga are little more than seasonal streams — so are many other rivers in the country.
This state-of-affairs goes against a fundamental axiom of hydrology: A river has to keep flowing. The Ganga was once known to jump over mountains, a characteristic that gave her the name Lila Lamghita Parvata. As the Ramganga in parts of Uttar Pradesh, it changed course frequently, drawing flak in the folk song, “Tu kyun kunwari rah gayee ri Ramganga”.
Legalese can only afford a stunted — and drab — expression to such characteristics. The Uttarakhand High Court observes, “The Rivers Ganga and Yamuna, all their tributaries, streams, every natural water flowing with flow continuously or intermittently of these rivers, are declared as juristic/legal persons/living entities having the status of a legal person with all corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a living person in order to preserve and conserve river Ganga and Yamuna.” Its inspiration, the New Zealand Parliament, asked two members of the Maori community to represent the Whanganui. In India, where the river is venerated and abused at the same time, the Uttarakhand court took an easy way out of the paradox. It named the director of the Namami Gange project, Uttarakhand’s chief secretary, and the state’s advocate general, as the Ganga’s “legal parents”.
Divested of her adulthood, the ancient river should expect more of the same after the verdict.
Meanwhile, in Kerala’s Alappuzha district, a village panchayat has revived the Kuttemperoor, a channel of the Pamba and Achankovil rivers. The river, which was thick with weeds and had become a cesspool of pollutants in the past 10 years, was revived after 70 days of work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.
Will the feat of 700-odd people in Alappuzha, mostly women, change the discourse on rivers in the country?