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Thursday, March 04, 2021

The river must flow

Ascribing legal rights to rivers helps counter pollution, may revive water bodies.

Written by Bibek Debroy |
August 15, 2019 12:14:16 am
‘66 of 97 towns along Ganga have at least one drain flowing into river’ Rivers now have legal rights. In a way, it started with some rivers in Victoria. (File)

At the time of taking a bath, many people still recite a shloka. Without using diacritical marks, rendering a shloka in Roman is difficult. Nevertheless: “Gange cha Yamune chaiva Godavari Sarasvati Narmade Sindhu Kaveri jale asmin sannidhim kuru.” “O Ganga, Yamuna, Godavari, Sarasvati, Narmada, Sindhu, Kaveri! Please be present in this water.” Eric Newby’s Slowly Down the Ganges also quotes this, with the comment: “Prayer to the Seven Sacred Rivers recited by every devout Hindu at the time of taking his bath”.

There are many more than seven rivers in India. How many? Since there is no proper definition of a river, it is impossible to answer this question. One way to list is in terms of river basins, so that the main river and its tributaries are both included. For Himalayan rivers, one will then list the Indus basin, Ganga basin, Brahmaputra basin, Barak basin and so on.

Similarly, in the south, one will list the basins of the rivers flowing east (Godavari, Krishna, Kaveri, Mahanadi) and those flowing west (Narmada, Tapti). This still leaves some loose ends — minor rivers along the coast and rivers that don’t drain into oceans. Depending on what is included, there can be more than 100 river basins and more than 600 rivers in the listing.

Rivers now have legal rights. In a way, it started with some rivers in Victoria. Then, in 2017, we had the Whanganui river in New Zealand, and the Ganga and Yamuna. Because of news reports, most people know what Uttarakhand High Court said in March 2017, though there is now a stay because of an appeal before the Supreme Court: “All the Hindus have deep Astha in rivers Ganga and Yamuna and they collectively connect with these rivers.

Accordingly, while exercising the parens patrie jurisdiction, 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.

The Director NAMAMI Gange, the Chief Secretary of the State of Uttarakhand and the Advocate General of the State of Uttarakhand are hereby declared persons in loco parentis as the human face to protect, conserve and preserve Rivers Ganga and Yamuna and their tributaries. These Officers are bound to uphold the status of Rivers Ganges and Yamuna and also to promote the health and well-being of these rivers.” The Ganga and Yamuna obtained legal rights, but as minors: They needed guardians. Granting legal rights to rivers (and water-bodies) opens up a new area of environmental jurisprudence.

Why did the Ganga and Yamuna need legal rights? The core issue is pollution. The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) brings out reports on water quality in our rivers. Strictly speaking, these are measures of water quality along stretches of rivers. There is actually a hierarchy of pollution, based on levels of BOD (biochemical oxygen demand). However, one can legitimately argue that BOD is, at best, a partial indicator. There are other measures of a river’s well-being. If BOD values exceed eight milligrammes per litre, the river will be regarded as severely polluted. Between Wazirabad and Okhla, Yamuna has a BOD level of 32, 55 and 70, at three different places. Between Kala Amb and Narayan Garh, the Markanda river in Haryana has a BOD value of 590.

Lists float around of the most polluted rivers in the world, and the Ganga and Yamuna will invariably figure on these lists. Without contesting pollution in the Ganga and Yamuna, one should be sceptical of lists and rankings, both because of data problems (there are good data only for OECD) and because of the way numbers are used. Similarly, there are also lists of most polluted rivers in India and these lists will typically include the Ganga, Yamuna, Sabarmati and Damodar.

More often than not, these lists are based on CPCB findings and, therefore, mean stretches of rivers, not entire rivers. Somewhat more rarely, there are also lists of cleanest rivers in the world and cleanest rivers in India. For instance, stretches of the Chambal, Narmada, Brahmaputra, Umngot, Teesta and Tuipui are remarkably clean.

Ill-being of rivers is primarily due to raw sewage and industrial waste. Neither problem is new. In Britain, a Royal Commission on Sewage Disposal was established in 1898. Between 1901 and 1915, this produced ten reports. For decades, these reports were used to frame policy in Britain.

People may know of this Royal Commission. I suspect not too many have heard of Kashi Ganga Prasadini Sabha, established by concerned citizens of Varanasi in 1886. Its objective was to introduce drainage and clean up the river. The Royal Commission and Namami Gange are primarily about what the government does (though Namami Gange does have a public awareness component).

But the Sabha was about what citizens did because in addition to the government bit, the citizen bit is also needed. Today, the Thames is listed among the world’s cleanest rivers. “The appearance and the smell of the water forced themselves at once upon my attention. The whole of the river was an opaque, pale brown fluid.” This is from a letter Michael Faraday wrote to The Times in 1855. More than a century later, in 1957, the Natural History Museum declared the Thames biologically dead: The story of its rebirth dates to the late 1960s, not earlier. Similar to the Rhine time-line.

(The writer is chairman, Economic Advisory Council to the PM. Views are personal)

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