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Riversutra gone all wrong

Where does our water come from and where does the sewage go? Ours is a story of mixing it all up

Last Updated: Jun 05, 2012, 07.48 AM IST|Original: Jun 05, 2012, 07.44 AM IST
Have we ever thought of a society that can lose something as ubiquitous as a river? No. Then think again. When I was researching for my book on urban water and sewage—called Excreta Matters—I learnt some hard truths. I learnt that we are already a generation of lost rivers. I found countless instances where a city’s drain—called a nullah today—was actually once a river. Delhi knows today the Najafgarh drain which spills the city’s guts into the Yamuna.

But what is not known is that this ‘drain’ has its source in a jheel (lake) that a river once flowed from, the Sahibi. Now the Sahibi is gone; what has replaced it in living memory is a drain, which is not water, only pollution. Worse, new Gurgaon, arising out of the nothing that surrounded the hills of Delhi, is now dumping its sewage into the same Najafgarh Jheel.

The Budha Nullah in Ludhiana is called a drain, because it is that, full of stench and stain. But not so long ago Budha was a darya, a river. It had freshwater which flowed clean. One generation has changed its form and its name.

The Mithi is maximum city Mumbai’s shame. When the floods drowned the city in 2005, the city learnt that it had a clogged drain called Mithi. This drain is still full of pollution and encroachments. But what Mumbai does not realize is that Mithi has not shamed the city, the city has shamed Mithi.

This drain, which originates near the city, was really a river. It was called a river. It flowed like a river. But today even an official environmental status report only knows this living river as a stormwater drain. One more city has lost its river in one generation.

But why are we surprised? Today we take water from our rivers, for irrigation, drinking and now to build hydroelectric plants to meet our insatiable energy needs. We take water, we give back waste. The river does not flow any more with water. It disappears under the load of excreta and industrial effluents. Maybe, there will be a time our children will forget that the Yamuna, the Cauvery or the Damodar were rivers.

They will know them as drains, only drains. We will then be a society that has committed hydrocide—deliberate murder of our water bodies.

On this World Environment Day, we need to pledge that we will not allow this to happen. This will require us to know more about the connection between the water we use and the waste we discharge: connection between our tap, our flush and our river.

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