Earlier this year, a court declared that Ganga and Yamuna rivers should be treated as "living entities". But is that enough to spread awareness about saving the rivers in the country? Eco-warriors don't think so. On World Environment Day, activists in Agra have demanded that rivers of India be declared a "national asset".
They also demand a national rivers policy and a central rivers authority, on the lines of National Highways Authority of India (NHAI).
"The rivers have been reduced to vast sewage canals in most Indian cities. They are without water and the liquid that flows down has hardly any properties of water," activists said.
In March this year, the Uttarakhand High Court - while hearing a PIL related to division of properties between Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand - said that holy rivers Ganga and Yamuna be "treated as living human entities".
Highlighting the plight of rivers in the rest of the country, Jagannath Poddar, convener of Friends of Vrindavan - an NGO - said: "The rivers are choked with highly toxic pollutants, industrial effluents and sewer waste. The flood-plains have been usurped by encroachers and state government agencies seem helpless in preventing dumping of municipal solid waste alongwith debris from construction sites."
Akash Vashisht, a petitioner against river encroachment in the National Green Tribunal(NGT), told IANS: "Without oxygen, the aqua life in the rivers has been decimated. A plethora of agencies responsible for water and river conservation, have been at loggerheads, without a clear policy frame to guide their work. Looking at the deadlocks over river water sharing and maintenance of river ways, the time has come for a fundamental shift in our approach and vision. The long-pending problems can be resolved only when a Central Rivers Authority is constituted and the rivers of India are declared as a national asset."
River activist Devashish Bhattacharya pointed out that almost 80 per cent Indians depend on water from about a dozen rivers, but we still have a callous attitude towards these "life-lines".
"Without a comprehensive national policy framework governing siting of dams, barrages, hydro-electric projects, canals and water-ways, guided by ecological sustainability, India stands doomed. If our rivers die, can we survive?" Bhattacharya asked.
Shravan Kumar Singh, vice president of the Braj Mandal Heritage Conservation Society, in his paper, said multiple authorities including state and central pollution control boards, the Ganga and Yamuna Action Plans, the water commission and the frequent intervention of the NGT had created a highly chaotic scenario, in the absence of a central legislation on rivers of India.
"In 50-odd years we have failed miserably to rejuvenate our rivers and the municipal bodies plus the industrial organisations have further compounded an already complex issue."
Activist Ranjan Sharma said disputes among states on water sharing and the continued denial of rights of the downstream cities on water resources calls for a central legislation to constitute a national rivers authority with full powers to monitor, manage and execute the national rivers policy.
It needs to be recognised that rivers are not just water bodies, "but they are an integral part of our living heritage sustaining faith, culture, traditions and nourishing life through supply of a precious natural resource, water," said Shailendra Singh Narvaar, an eco-activist.
A unanimously-adopted resolution during a meet on Saturday said, "rivers have to be recognised as a national asset and to avoid disputes among states the ownership of the rivers alongwith the floodplains should wrest with the Central Rivers Authority, on lines of National Highways Authority of India (NHAI). The NDA government should take up cleaning (dredging and desilting) of rivers on a priority, both to rejuvenate rivers and to create additional storage capacity to recharge underground reserves which in most parts of India have gone dry. We can no longer ignore the growing water needs of the expanding population."
The paramount concern for the moment should be how to maintain a minimum flow round the year to ensure that rivers do not die and lose their identity, senior hotelier and founder president of the Agra Hotels and Restaurants Association said.
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