WAI, MAHARASHTRA : Thursday was the peak of the Pushkaram, India’s river festival that visits the country’s 12 most revered watercourses – one every year. This year it’s the Krishna. Lakhs of people took the holy dip in the river’s muddy waters, along its 1400 km journey from Mahabaleshwar in the Western Ghats down to Hamsaladeevi on the coast of Bay of Bengal, cutting through four states, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.
The last time the Pushkaram came to the Krishna in 2004, barely 0.4 billion cubic metres of its water survived the passage to the sea. It had once been a torrent, disgorging 57 billion cubic metres into the Bay of Bengal, until the 1960s.
Today, in 2016, despite a reasonable monsoon, barely a drop has reached the sea. At the more popular pilgrimage centres, kind governments let out water from the reservoirs for the bathers’ benefit. At several places, pilgrims made do with a notional dip, getting a wetting from the showers set up by thoughtful municipalities.
The Krishna is a river in crisis. Barely two months ago, it was in fact a river in absence. In the midst of a vicious summer, it was an apocalyptic droughtscape of parched riverbeds, cracked earth and farmer suicides in all its four states.
Even at its mythical source, flowing out of the mouth of a sculpted cow at a revered temple in Mahabaleshwar, it had dried up. As a deity, the Krishna is a living presence to the millions who populate its basin. As a physical being, however, the river is dying.
According to a report published by the Central Water Commission in 2014, there are a staggering 660 dams, 12 barrages, 58 weirs, six anicuts and 119 lifts in the Krishna basin. Given such man-made hindrances, the Krishna’s discharge into the sea, which is essential for maintaining the ecosystem, is down to an accidental trickle, happening only during the monsoon months between July and October.
For the rest of the time, she is nothing but a slave harnessed to human need, leashed and put to work to meet the ever-expanding needs of agriculture, industry and urban agglomerations.
Add to that the dumping of industrial, agricultural and human waste across the four states, and what you have is a river that is in crisis on par with the Yamuna. Tests of its water samples, especially in the first leg of its journey in Maharashtra, have shown consistently high levels of pollution.
And yet, governments have more plans for the Krishna. A day before the Pushkaram festival began on August 12, Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu, fresh from impounding the Godavari to supply water to the bathing ghats on the Krishna in Vijayawada, announced an ambitious plan to link up the Krishna and the Penna, yet another river in absentia.
The journey from the notional birthplace of the river to its confluence with the sea is a passage from the symbolic to the shambolic.
At Mahabaleshwar, it begins as an enthusiastic brook and at Hamsaladeevi, it’s fully spent.
At Satara, barely 60 km into its 1,400 km journey, the signs of the Krishna’s taming and enslavement show up. Further along, past historic battlefields and 20th century temples, we are witness to the struggle for survival of a river goddess.