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New and Old Onslaughts on Rivers

Let me start this piece with three recent developments.

Riverfront Development and Beautification:

In early May 2017, a leading economic newspaper of the country carried a half page ad announcing auction of plots of lands overlooking the Sabarmati river in the heart of Ahmedabad city. The Sabarmati River Front in the city has been in the news in the last few years as a model of “river beautification”.

The reality is that Sabarmati is a dead river, and the only thing flowing in it was effluents and sewage. It was “rejuvenated” by water of the Narmada diverted into it from the Narmada canal – water obtained at a great cost of the displacement of lakhs of people and destruction of the environment. People living on Sabarmati banks in the city were evicted – and resettled only after a long struggle – to obtain clear patches of land along the river bank. This land was concretised to create a water channel of dubious beauty. Now, parts of the river front land are being put up for auction1 “to create iconic world-class mixed use, housing and corporate head quarter buildings, in a truly unique river facing setting”.

In other words, land and water that were obtained at massive human costs are now being offered for sale to large corporates and premier housing developers. The Sabarmati riverfront development represents in every way the usurpation of community resources like rivers and common spaces for the private use of the elite. It is now becoming the model for development of other riverfronts, like those in Lucknow, Varanasi and other places.

Inland Waterways:

On 9th March 2016, Parliament enacted The National Waterways Act, 20162, which received the assent of the President on 25th March 2017, and came into force from 12 April 2017 as per the notification of the Government of India3. This act has declared 111 rivers or river stretches, creeks, estuaries as National (inland) Waterways. This includes 5 waterways which had been so declared earlier, but where not much development has taken place.

While navigation in rivers, lakes and other water bodies has been around since centuries, this has been more in the form of smaller vessels, connecting places not too far from each other. The national waterways project now intends to create such large scale, commercial shipping and navigation systems in these 111 waterways. Converting rivers into waterways to make most rivers navigable throughout the year for heavy and large vessels will require massive dredging, river training works, straightening of rivers, construction of barrages, locks and gates and terminals and other facilities. This will not only affect the ecology and aquatic flora and fauna of the river, but will also have severe impacts on livelihoods of local people like fisheries, boating and riverbed cultivation. Once again, a new process of “developing” rivers which will displace the economies and cultures of local communities to favour big business, big players.

Mahanadi Dispute:

Sometime in 2016, the Government of Odisha raised a dispute with the Government of Chhattisgarh on the sharing of the waters of the Mahanadi, a river common to the two states. Odisha claimed that Chhattisgarh, the upper riparian, was constructing a series of dams and barrages to divert large amounts of water, and this would affect the flow into its boundaries. Chhattisgarh claimed that it was new state and had a right to develop its resources for its own use, and that there was plenty of water in the Mahanadi and so Odisha would not be affected. The dispute started becoming ugly and threatens to escalate. In the meanwhile, a group of farmers’ organisations, people’s movements and civil society organisations from both states have come together to hold joint programs, highlighting that it’s not an Odisha vs Chhattisgarh issue at all. The real issue is that both the states are diverting and planning to divert massive quantities of water from use in agriculture to use in industry.

Again, a picture emerging of water being diverted to large corporates and big business interests.

The developments in Sabarmati, in the inland waterways, in Mahanadi, all represents newer forms of an onslaught on rivers that has been underway for decades – in which their flows are dammed and diverted, in which the water (and the watercourse) is captured largely for the benefits of the rich and powerful, in the process of which the natural ecology, morphology, hydrology, even their physical watercourse is destroyed, and lives and livelihoods of local communities are devastated.

A Questionable Paradigm of Water Management:

At the core of this is the dominant paradigm of water management, dominant because it is controlled by and benefits the politically and economically powerful. The central tenet of this paradigm is that any water that is not used is a “waste”. Its most common articulation – stated in so many word in many an official document – says that any water of the river that flows down to the sea is a waste.

There are several other characteristics of this paradigm. Any water that is not used is indeed waste as per this model, but even this use must be for humans. If the water of the river or lake is being used by non-humans – like it is most of the time –then it is not considered as a valid “use”. And when we create infrastructure to make use of water for humans, we don’t care too much if this deprives other life forms, animals, plants of water.

However, even in human use, there is a hierarchy. The needs of the powerful, the rich, are a priority. Needs of others – the poor, Dalits, tribals, women – merit a place only much lower down, on the periphery of the water planning and management. Not surprisingly, not only are their needs not being met, but existing structures that helped them survive are being destroyed by the developments led by the dominant paradigm.

Last but not the least, the dominant paradigm sees water as a good, a commodity that can be bought and sold, that is mainly useful for economic and commercial purposes, to the exclusion of the multi-faceted roles that water plays as a sustainer of life, as a part and parcel of ecology, as a integral part of people’s culture, society and identity.

The implementation of the dominant paradigm has led to dead and dry rivers, polluted waters, destroyed ecology, and devastated communities.

Challenging the Dominant Way:

The dominant way of looking at water and rivers, of managing them, has been continuously challenged by affected communities, social and environmental activists and by those working for sustainable and equitable development. Over the last many decades, this has evolved into an alternative paradigm of looking at water, a paradigm that talks about meeting the needs of all humans, not just a dominant section, at the same time also ensuring water for the needs of non-humans, and doing this in a manner that preserves, conserves and restores natural water bodies, and respects the multiple roles played by water.

Transforming the way water is managed from the current paradigm to the alternative paradigm is a huge challenge, a challenge that a number of people are struggling to meet. And there are some indicators of change. Without being too optimistic, and acknowledging how powerful vested interests are, we need to look at these changes more as strategic leverages that struggles, movements and campaigns can use.

Here, I want to discuss one of the most important developments in this, that of environmental flows.

E-flows – Overturning the Dominant Paradigm:

Environmental flows or e-flows, in simple words, is nothing but the requirement that a river must continue to flow. As a concept, it is nothing new.

For decades, dam affected communities, environmentalists, concerned citizens have been saying that we cannot divert all the waters from a river (or any water body), and that the river must continue to flow, to maintain its ecology, and to provide for the livelihoods, social and cultural needs of riparian communities. In the last 10-15 years, this concept has been transformed into a more structured and formal, multi-disciplinary field known as environmental flows. The important thing about this approach is that it is at once a scientific and political process, where knowledge and people come together to determine how the river can continue to flow and also satisfy our needs. 

A widely accepted definition of e-flows – from the Brisbane Declaration is that e-flows describe “the quantity, timing, and quality of water flows required to sustain freshwater and estuarine ecosystems and the human livelihoods and well-being that depend on these ecosystems”.

In recent years, the government as well as the establishment has accepted the need to maintain environmental flows in our rivers. The National Water Policy of 2012 states:

Ecological needs of the river should be determined, through scientific study, recognizing that the natural river flows are characterized by low or no flows, small floods (freshets), large floods, etc., and should accommodate developmental needs. A portion of river flows should be kept aside to meet ecological needs ensuring thatthe low and high flow releases are proportional to the natural flow regime…

While the legal regime has still not properly incorporated e-flows, it is finding increasing acceptability and space. For example, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change is making e-flow releases mandatory when giving environmental clearance to new dam projects, even though the actual quantum and pattern of these e-flows is still being determined on an ad hoc, unscientific and non-participatory manner.

The importance of e-flows comes from the point that it completely overturns the dominant paradigm of water management. The dominant model says that any water that flows away into the sea is a waste. The e-flow approach requires that significant quantities of water must flow down and into the sea, to keep the rivers flowing.

Strategic Approach Needed:

The increasing acceptance of e-flows (and of several other key principles of the alternative model) offers important leverage points. But huge challenges continue to be there. Traditional ways of capturing rivers and water for the elite, without thinking about the consequences for the ecology or for the masses, continue. This is seen in the massive plans for building hydropower dams in Himalayas, or in the ambitious plans of Inter Linking of Rivers. At the same time, newer methods like waterways development and others mentioned above are also being pushed in a big way.

Thus, we have to keep both these processes in mind and act strategically to push water management in the country in a more just, equitable and sustainable direction.