To discover the 'rights of a river', first think like a river

Mahesh Basedia

Mahesh Basedia

The Ecologist

May 22, 2017

Debadityo Sinha

There is a growing global movement to recognize the rights of rivers, writes Debadityo Sinha. But rights alone are not enough. We must love and respect rivers, and even think like rivers to understand the vital functions they perform within landscapes and ecosystems, and so discover where their 'best interests' truly lie. And then we must be willing to act: protecting rivers and restoring them to health and wholeness.

Does the use value of river exhaust its whole value, or is there something beyond economics? Are there cultural, historical, emotional, aesthetic, religious and spiritual dimensions to a river's being that make it far more than a mere 'resource'?
We Indians have historically had a deep emotional connect with our rivers.

We see them as extension of our society, often elevating them to godly status.

While most rivers are treated as females (Nadi), there are instances where rivers have been treated as males ('Nad'). Many female rivers are also categorized as 'Kanya' or, unmarried female.

A glimpse of how Indian rivers are personified can be also found in the writings of Kaka Kelkar, in his famous book 'Jeevan Leela'. However, despite our deep cultural association with rivers, today, our understanding of rivers has changed remarkably.

A river is now treated as key to economic development measured by the big dams, navigation and other developmental projects which has diluted our understanding of a river from a life-line to a resource available for exploitation.

Recently the New Zealand government has granted the status of a 'living entity' to Whanganui river. Afterwards, the Uttarakhand High Court has also given similar legal status to River Ganga and River Yamuna.

Few days ago, in a public event Shri Shivraj Singh Chauhan, Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh promised that his government will soon introduce a bill to give River Narmada (see photo) the rights of a living being. It's expected that other state governments will follow soon.

Before this, however, it is critical for both citizens and the government to recognize and understand what constitutes the identity and existence of a river. Every river has its own characteristics, its own behaviour and an entirely unique ecology which it supports.

Only after that we can ask the secondary question-what do we mean by 'rights' of a river and what constitutes its 'best interest'?

Rights of a river

For this, we should first and foremost understand the river and how it functions. Then, the peculiar characteristics of our rivers need to be accepted, respected and protected if we really want to make 'rights' of a river meaningful.

When a river flows, it erodes the rocks and soil and carries the sediments along with its water and ultimately deposits them in its lower stretches before it meets its destiny in the ocean. Erosion, transportation and deposition are three basic life functions of any river.

For effective erosion and transportation of sediments, it requires uninterrupted flow (aviral) which would mean unobstructed flow of 'water' and 'sediments'. The deposition of sediments occurs mainly when the river flows through plains during floods and at the river mouth. Islands like the Sundarbans are result of such accumulation of sediments.

This process has been severely affected in last few decades due to obstruction of the River Ganga in the upstream. This has resulted in regular deposition of huge volume of sediments much earlier in states like Bihar and West Bengal which has now become a massive problem in itself.

A river not just flow longitudinally, but it also requires horizontal space to expand its spread, which in simple terms can be called flood. A river also repairs itself, creating new ways to flow which can be termed as a river's expression.

Read more at The Ecologist