Every time, there is a BJP-led government at the Centre the search for a river that had dried up 4,000 to 5,000 years ago acquires great impetus. Saraswati, the river in question, finds mention in the Rig Veda, Mahabharata, Ramayana and other ancient texts. It is said to be the lost river, which is believed to have joined the Ganga and the Yamuna at Prayag. The Atal Bihari Vajpayee government had plans to dredge up nearly 300 kms from Adi Badri to Sirsa in Haryana. Nothing came of the plans. The Narendra Modi government has revived the project. The latest initiative coming from the Haryana government is a plan to revive the long-lost river by releasing water into what the government believes is the river’s channel. There is also a long-term plan to construct a dam at Adi Badri, which is believed to be the origin of the Saraswati. The route is roughly synchronous with one of the dried channels of the river Ghaggar.
The significance of the government’s initiative, however, is not about understanding the past. Ostensibly a project that marries archaeology, satellite data and geology, reviving the Saraswati has more to do with the BJP’s political machinations than with an endeavour to unravel a 4,000 year old geological — or socio-cultural — phenomenon. It’s a quest that goes back several decades with enthusiasts describing the banks of the Saraswati as the epicentre of the Indus civilisation, which they identified as the precursor to the Vedic civilisation. It’s a project germane to the politically fraught, and regressive, question of who is indigenous to the country.
One of the theories about the lost Saraswati — held up by Hindutva votaries as well — is that tectonic changes snatched two of the river’s tributaries, the Satluj, which moved west, and the Yamuna, that turned eastwards. Though it cannot be said if the two rivers in question were the tributaries of the Saraswati, the theory of tectonic change seems plausible. Rivers are known to be susceptible to such changes: They change courses, lose tributaries, and even dry up as a result of such changes. Seen in such a light, what is it that is being planned to be restored? Can tectonic changes, thousands of years old, be undone? Is it possible to ally the river with two of its erstwhile tributaries? That these tributaries are in a sorry state is another matter.