Rivers don't have borders

After having improved the state of the Rhine, Europe is cleaning up the Danube. A lesson for India

Published: Saturday 04 July 2015

The Rhine flows through one of the most heavily industrialised belts in the world. It flows through countries that have had a very long and bloody history of hostility -- remember the two world wars and the holocaust. In the 1970s, the river was in a pitiable state. A few industrial accidents shook European society. Something had to be done. Two decades later, salmon travelling up the Rhine teach a lesson: abuses perpetrated to the natural world can be undone, even in an industrialised area. Europe is now busy cleaning up another of its flowing legends, the Danube (see pp 40-47).

How do we understand this from India? A great river valley civilisation and a holy status of rivers in Hinduism notwithstanding, India's main rivers are some of the filthiest in the world today. When Europe can manage to clean up its rivers, even when they flow through different countries, why can't India cleanse the rivers that have cleansed its soul over millennia?

It is not that easy. One clear distinction is that the society that cleaned up the Rhine had created a level of economic prosperity that allowed it to look beyond short-term gains. India's rivers flow through extremely poor regions where industries provide vital employment. So, should we just forget about cleaning our rivers and our environment? And let governments come up with knee-jerk reactions after court orders, as has happened recently in Delhi? Cleaning up the Rhine didn't require knocking at the doors of the international court of justice. Just a vigilant civil society. When governments try to manage what they don't understand, you have a polluted Ganga and a dispute over sharing the waters of the Cauvery. When the civil society works closely with people, there can be success stories like the now famous case of the Arvari in Alwar, Rajasthan where a river parliament negotiates the upstream-downstream conflicts.

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