I was asked by one of the local engineering colleges near Karur, a tehsil town in my childhood, now a district headquarter, to be the guest of honour and address the students. This was in April 2013. My home village is located very close to the town, indeed across the river Amaravati, which forms the boundary of the town. My village was next to the river—between the village and river, there used to be a small irrigation canal. The canal always had waist-high water, and generally clean; Amaravati was always a perennial river, though during summer time water used to flow only in about a quarter of its width.
On the drive from Tiruchy airport to Karur that afternoon in 2013, I was quite surprised to see that Kaveri river, which always had plenty of water, one of the perennial rivers mentioned in our scriptures, appeared to be completely dry. I had not driven on that route for many years, and asked the driver of my taxi as to why there was no water in the river. He had come to that area only about five years earlier. He mentioned to me that he had never seen water in the river except briefly after the rainy season every year. As I reached Karur, I drove close to Amaravati and noted that there was not a single drop of water in the river. As I walked to the temple alongside the canal, I was astonished to see not a drop of water in it; in fact it had been converted into a sewer canal, where all the waste water and sewerage was diverted—uncovered as it was, the canal; surely it has to be called sewerage ditch now—raised a stink as I approached it. In the course of one day, I had discovered that three water channels, the Kaveri river, Amaravati river and village canal, all of which had 24x7x365 water flow had all become and probably irrevocably dry—indeed the canal had become an effluent and sewer discharge passage.
On finishing my lecture the next day, I drove straight to the airport at Tiruchy, flew to Chennai, took a connection to Delhi, landing there late the same evening. It was quite dark as I crossed the Yamuna by the DND on my way home. Suddenly a stench hit my nostrils—I asked the driver what it was; he looked surprised, mentioned to me that it was the foul smell emanating from the Yamuna. Yes, indeed, even the Yamuna has now become an effluent discharge canal. So much for our perennial rivers, mentioned in daily prayers: xaxs p ;equs pSo xksnkojh ljLorh] ueZns flU/kq dkosjh... referring to the perennial rivers of India—Ganga, Yamuna, Godavari, Saraswati, Narmada, Sindhu and Kaveri. Saraswati has long since disappeared underground, alas literally and figuratively; Sindhu (Indus) has been ceded to Pakistan; in one single day I discovered that Kaveri had become totally dry, and Yamuna is now a sewage canal; the count is on—it is a question of time before the others also go the same way. Within a month or so thereafter, one learnt that the Mandakini, a tributary of the Ganga, got flooded for a brief period, caused untold destruction and desolation, and swiftly ran on to the Bay of Bengal, to return to its normal thin stream. I wonder if there is any policy recognition of the criticality of the situation, the impending catastrophe—what the future has to portend in terms of water supply in India. A few years ago, one heard of a grandiose scheme to connect the major rivers of India—I do not know what the feasibility is. However, the way things are moving now, it may actually amount to creating a national sewage grid; I cannot comment on its desirability.
A country’s wealth is measured by the amount of water it has, and by the quality of education of its children. We know how in India, the world’s best human material is prepared for life on the planet, through abysmal lack of educational opportunity. On the other hand, rivers are all drying up, slowly getting converted to carry the national refuse. This is a matter for great
concern. I recall great ancient literature in Tamil referring to ‘wealth of water’ as a sign of prosperity; we need to introspect as to what we are slowly getting into.
The water table in Noida is visibly going down; Gurgaon has nearly reached panic stage with regard to water; in Bangalore, a cruel water mafia is emerging, supplying potable water to colonies at robbery rates; the recent drought in Maharashtra has an entire state reeling. Is the looming crisis seen by anybody? Are medium and long-term measures under contemplation, under implementation? Does anyone realise that a major water catastrophe is around the corner—does the PM or Planning Commission have any views on the subject that could jeopardise our future agriculture potential as well as even availability of drinking water. Is anyone thinking seriously to preempt the looming water crisis?
(Excerpt from Subramanian’s recently published book, India at Turning Point: The Road to Good Governance)