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The rivers, blue and black

Book>> Dirty, Sacred Rivers: Confronting South Asia’s Water Crisis by Cheryl Colopy, OUP, Rs 1,295.

By Praveen Singh
Published: Saturday 15 June 2013

Dirty, Sacred Rivers: Confronting South Asia’s Water Crisis by Cheryl ColopyIndian rivers and water resources have been the focus of many studies, and of late, these are being published with increasing regularity. Written by professional academics, policy makers, activists and journalists, the most refreshing of these are those written by journalists, who should not be considered lesser experts. Some of these journalists have long experience of covering environmental matters for several decades before attempting a full length book. What is surprising is when foreign journalists, even those covering environmental matters, attempt to write about South Asia’s rivers, which have their own very complex stories that are difficult to uncover as they are submerged in the historical sands of time. How can journalists with no formal training in academic research bring out these complex hydrological, social, cultural, historical perspectives on rivers, and their use and abuse? This question becomes even more relevant when one sets out to write about a basin as culturally and linguistically diverse, complex and populated as the Ganga.

Cheryl Colopy sets out to do just that—write about her various exciting, difficult and exhausting travel across the Ganga basin. The book is a product of much spirit and courage.  She travels the length and breadth of the basin, from the headwaters of the rivers in the stark and sparsely populated Himalayas to the densely populated plains and finally to the delta. At the same time, one should not label it as a travelogue; it is much more than that, though a good part of her narrative focuses on the trials and tribulations of travelling in remote and difficult locations.

It is not that an exercise as big as this has not been attempted earlier. The Centre for Science and Environment, through its various reports on water, has been documenting the various facets of water, but with the backing of an organisation dedicated to environmental issues and with the support and contribution of many people. Jalyatra also comes to mind. So one needs to commend the author for even attempting  this journey and sharing her insights, some of which are truly unique.


It is not just a dry technical account of rivers. Colopy weaves together different stories and discussions, but brings to the fore varied perspectives—that of 'experts’, commoners, engineers, social scientists, activists, and policy-makers. It's almost like a live discussion forum showing different perspectives, without being provocative or extremist. But most importantly she brings to the fore unheard perspectives of the voiceless masses.

The story revolves around the question of how south Asian rivers have been transformed from being considered sacred, living beings to commodities, and sewers for industrial and domestic waste. She maps this transformation maps for almost all the tributaries of the Ganga systems, in the process providing striking insights. While the consequences in each case is the same—tampering with the natural working of rivers to the extent that they no longer could be called rivers—she weaves together mythology, scientific discourses, political drama and technological blunders in a manner only a master novelist can do, without compromising with the reality that she captures through her seasoned journalistic eyes.

She also brings to the fore discussions on topical and contemporary challenges to the regions—climate change and its impact on the “water towers” of Asia, and the various disasters that have increased in their frequency and magnitude—glacier lake outburst floods, mishiyari, droughts and floods.

Hers is a balanced account which does not takes sides, and also does not force the reader to do so. While her account of the fate of the Yamuna, especially in its most polluted reach, is a damning indictment of the ways in which we have treated our rivers, she is almost praying for the success of a forgettable phase in India’s modern history—the Commonwealth Games, despite the fact that the things that happened in the run-up to the event are symptomatic of the ways we have mistreated our rivers. Similarly, all her accounts bring to the table varied perspectives which she gained through her interviews and interactions with several people.

The story is not just about South Asian rivers. Other important actors of her narrative are the people who have given these rivers a social and cultural form. What she does in the process is to mesh together the “natural” and “social” nature, something that is not so easily done even by trained academics.

What she does in the process is to bring to our attention varied stories strung together in a manner that would be an interesting read to many south Asians, including the so-called water experts.  Very few of us have, and will ever have, the opportunity and drive to go for such an integrated journey. This work acts as a mirror to the people of this region. To outsiders, this book is another deep gaze at the sub-continent—its people, culture and politics.

Praveen Singh is assistant professor, School of Human Ecology, Ambedkar University, Delhi


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