Millennium Post

Death of a river

While the death of the Sahibi illustrates the general apathy towards rivers, the same applies to every river in India flowing in urban areas

Death of a river

In his book, The Biology of Belief, Bruce Lipton narrates a peculiar tree-killing technique practised by the tribes of the Solomon Islands. The tribals encircle a tree and curse it relentlessly. The tree eventually dies.Here, Lipton seeks to highlight the power of the subconscious mind to convert positive or negative sentiments into self-fulfilling prophecies. You may take Lipton's story with a pinch of salt. But, it appears to be working in the case of our commons (water bodies, grazing lands, sacred groves, etc).

While it may be difficult to pinpoint the exact moment these terms underwent degeneration, it seems to coincide with urbanisation, which came at a cost to our commons. Their value was lost on the community, with hassle-free availability of finite resources through utilities, predicting a disconnect with our natural heritage.

The Sahibi

A particularly poignant story playing out right before our indifferent eyes is that of the Sahibi nadi (river) aka Sahabi, Sahbi or Sabi. At one time, this river might have held perennial flow as is evident by the presence of several Indus Valley Civilization sites on its banks as well as those of its tributaries, the Sota, Krishnavati and Dohan.

Scholars have identified the Sahibi river with the Drishadvati river of the Vedic period. We have willfully overlooked the rich heritage the nadi represents. Presently, this ephemeral river rises phoenix-like from some of the aridest regions of India. It flows from the Saiwar hills in Sikar district in Rajasthan.

It goes forth, collecting the waters of almost 100 tributaries. In its upper reaches, the Sahibi drains parts of Rajasthan like Alwar and the southern districts of Haryana like Rewari. In its lower reaches, it receives the waters of the Indori nala near Pataudi and Badshah nala further north.

Beyond Pataudi to the north, the nadi extends in two directions: north-west and north. The latter course used to join the Yamuna via the Najafgarh jheel (lake) and drain number 6. The former used to link it with the Jhajjar depression and drain number 8, which also joins the Yamuna.

Downstream of the Najafgarh jheel on the Delhi side, the nadi used to drain into the Yamuna just before Wazirabad through a channel now famously known as the Najafgarh drain. The Najafgarh drain gets its name from the Najafgarh jheel.

Masani Barrage

Owing to its long passage through the arid and sandy country, the Sahibi flows with strength only during the rainy season. Heavy floods were recorded in 1845, 1873, 1917, 1930, 1933, 1960, 1963, 1972 and 1977.

To check the entry of Sahibi waters in Delhi, a regulator was constructed at Dhansa in 1964, along with a bund on the Delhi side of the jheel. Again, in response to the great flood in 1977 that affected far-off places like Janakpuri in Delhi, the Masani barrage was constructed on the Delhi-Jaipur highway near Masani village in Rewari.

Several smaller dams have also been constructed throughout the hills of Rajasthan to store rainwater. The construction of dams has restricted the flow of water in the nadi and it is now rare for water overflow from monsoon rains to reach up to the Masani barrage.

Downstream from the barrage, there is no flow in the Sahibi. The course of the Sahibi from the Masani barrage to Dhansa, where the river enters Delhi, up to Najafgarh jheel is either encroached upon or altered.

The construction of the barrage not only sealed the fate of the Sahibi but also that of Najafgarh jheel, along with the Najafgarh drain. One of the fundamental rights of a river is to flow. Another is to receive tribute from its tributaries while simultaneously paying tribute to a larger river.

Killing the Sahibi prematurely at Masani barrage and not allowing it to meet the Yamuna, is a violation of its fundamental rights. Amazingly, nature has a way to cling on despite humanity's best efforts to undermine or destroy it. Several important wetlands lie in a series along with the current and paleochannels of the Sahibi river.

While legislation is in place to protect rivers, the wheels turn ever so slowly. The River Ganga (Rejuvenation, Protection and Management) Authorities Order, 2016 is a document with an ambitious scope.

By the time strict enforcement of such orders happens, perhaps it may be too late for what is left of the Sahibi and its series of wetlands or it may call for the demolition of structures, which are found to be in its violation. Such post-facto actions are bound to be vociferously contested by the affected parties in the courts of the land, with no easy or quick resolutions.

Meanwhile, the Najafgarh drain is the largest contributor of sewage (55-60 per cent) to the Yamuna in Delhi, which, in turn, has been declared, alarmingly, dead for all practical purposes. The pollutants from the Najafgarh jheel and the drain are leaching into the soil and contaminating the aquifers.

However, it wasn't always like this. Sohail Hashmi talks about days that don't go back very far. Up to the 1960s, the drain had clean water to sustain fish and people used to catch fish in it.

Hashmi particularly narrates an event of the early 1960s, when a vanaspati (vegetable oil) factory at Zakhira accidentally discharged large amounts of vanaspati into the nearby Najafgarh drain.

Since it was winter at the time, the vanaspati solidified in the drain water. The water was so clean at that time that people in the surrounding areas collected the vanaspati from the drain for use in their homes.

Lessons for India

Sahibi's story is the story of all rivers in India. They have been reduced to the latter meaning of the terms nala and drain, especially in urban areas. This is true for not just water bodies but all commons.

Traditionally, Indians were known to live sustainably with nature. This is evident from the country's rich heritage in harvesting water or protecting endangered flora or fauna in sacred groves.

So, when did we stop caring for our water bodies and started discharging our domestic sewage into our rivers and streams turning them into sewers? The answer can be found in journalist and author Sopan Joshi's book Jal Thal Mal.

He attributes the degeneration of our water bodies to the modern sewer systems. Unlike the west, where the sewer systems are separate from the stormwater channels, in India, due to high costs, the sewer system has been merged with the existing stormwater channels in virtually all the cities.

Joshi rues the grim state of our water bodies despite half of India's population still not having access to toilets. He shudders to contemplate the plight of our water bodies when all Indians will have access to toilets connected to a sewer system.

Sopan Joshi further argues how we have continuously ignored the triangular link of our excreta with our water and land. Excreta, which correctly should have been converted into manure to enrich our soils, is being disposed of off into our water bodies, thereby polluting them — a clear case of a double whammy. DTE

The writer is a PhD scholar on urban water bodies. Views expressed are personal

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