INDIA RIVERS WEEK Inaugurated!

November 24, 2014 

“We deal with rivers with utmost unconcern and disrespect… India Rivers Week and India Rivers Forum is most welcome, will look forward to participate in it” says Jairam Ramesh at the India Rivers Week 2014 inauguration

Former Union Minister Jairam Ramesh, giving the inaugural address at the first ever India Rivers week emphasized “Ours is a paradoxical society. While we show a lot of respect for rivers socially, we deal with rivers with utmost unconcern and disrespect… India Rivers Week and India Rivers Forum is most welcome, will look forward to participate in it… If we want to save our rivers, the first step is to ensure that no untreated industrial effluent or sewage finds its way into our rivers.” Speaking on development objectives and the growing energy needs of India, he clarified, “Hydro projects may be a painful choice, but we cannot close our doors to it. What we can do is ensure stricter environmental regulations & their enforcement, a cumulative assessment at ‘basin’ and not ‘project’ level and the minimum environmental flow in the river itself.” He was critical of the current dispensation to dismantle all environmental regulations.

JRFormer Union Minister Jairam Ramesh speaking at the India Rivers Week-2014

Ramaswamy R Iyer, former Secretary to the Government of India stressed in his keynote said that rivers are, ”more than just water, and an integral part of our social, historical and cultural fabric.” He spoke on how we obstruct river flow, encroach flood plains, inflict pollution, and hold a economical, cavalier attitude towards it. In other words, “As an American engineer rightly said, we enjoy pushing rivers around,” he added.

Over 125 River experts, planners, researchers, artists, enthusiasts and activists from different parts of the country have congregated at first ever India Rivers Week being held in Delhi during 24-27 November to discuss, deliberate and exchange their experiences and ideas aimed at the conserving, rejuvenation, restoration of rivers in the country. The event is being organized by a consortium of NGOs including WWF India, INTACH, SANDRP, Toxics Link and PEACE Institute Charitable Trust, with additional support from Arghyam (Bengaluru), International Rivers (Mumbai office), and Peoples Science Institute, Dehradun.

Recently the Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley during his budget presentation pitched for inter-linking of rivers saying the move can yield “rich dividend”. Jairam Ramesh, former Minister, MOEF however stated “We seem to be indulging in the romance of ILR. We need to be more cautious in hurrying up the proposed Inter Linking Rivers projects,” he said, “and understand their ecological and environmental consequences better.” He urged for more debates on water agreement treatise and better co operation within states and also between the neighboring countries.

“Not only are our rivers misunderstood but mistreated and thoroughly abused”, said Manoj Misra, Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan. “We need to move beyond the understanding a river simply in terms of water.” What makes this event significant is that the practitioners gathered here, through their experience sharing session and discussions, “will generate, adopt and present a Nation River Charter at the end of the meeting.”

MMManoj Mishra, PEACE Institute, at the India Rivers Week-2014

This is the first of conclave to enable learning and promote river restoration skills and actions from sharing and exchange of ideas, experiences and practices. “There has been 76% reduction in aquatic biodiversity over the years. That figure is higher than the loss of terrestrial or marine biodiversity, showing the crisis rivers are facing and we need to act fast to address this crisis”, added Ravi Singh CEO, WWF  in his welcoming opening remarks.

Lack of true understanding and appreciation – amongst planners, decision makers, various government departments as well as the common man – of rivers as ecological systems that provide a number of ecological and economic services is a major reason for the sorry state of our rivers. No wonder, there exists no national policy or law that could provide our rivers security from death, degradation and unsustainable and unfair exploitation.

Ravi Agarwal, Toxics link, reiterated, “Rivers are diverse eco systems, where water is just a common defining system”, and hoped this ‘unique meeting’ would debate thoroughly on this complex issue.

A recent appraisal has found that there is no river in any of the top 50 cities in the country that is not sick or dying with river Yamuna in Delhi-Mathura-Agra and Ganga in Kanpur-Varanasi-Patna leading the list. Widespread devastations in Uttarakhand (June 2013) and J&K (Sept 2014) and Assam-Meghalaya in North East (September 2014) bring home the fact that disturbed rivers can become dangerous and highly devastating.

Dams, diversions, bumper-to-bumper hydro projects, diverted natural flows, encroached flood plains, embanked river channels, degraded catchments, destruction of local water systems and pollution of various kinds are causing this. Climate change uncertainties are expected to further compromise the integrity of our rivers.

Ramaswamy Iyer observed, “Disputes rarely come in question when a river is free flowing. Only when water distribution come into play, as in the case of large projects, and issues of power crop in, do conflicts increase.” Speaking strongly against the ‘run of the river hydro projects’, and their ‘green’ tag , he wondered “Can we survive the death of our rivers?”

Rivers have been dammed, diverted, channelized, encroached and polluted no end. Rivers, as ecosystems, have been poorly appreciated. With ‘Rivers in crisis’ as the theme, the Conference endeavors to devise an India Charter for Rivers and initiate an India Rivers Forum for Restoration of Rivers.

The compilation ‘My River Journey’, containing river journey accounts of 47 of the participants has been prepared, published and distributed at the IRW-2014, conclave on 24 Nov, 2014.

-From Sabita Kaushal, India Water Portal

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