The river gives us water and power, fish and fertile plains, reeds and recreation. What do we do in return?

The river flows on, but sluggishly. Its surface is calm and smooth. It turns a bend at a clump of bamboo, gently passes a grove of coconut, and now drifts along with scarcely a murmur. It is wide, too. The engineers had needed unspeakable amounts of concrete and rupees to build a bridge across and when that went into disrepair with age and neglect, they had needed even more to build another.

The only signs that the river is flowing at all are little waves lapping at the pillars of the bridge and at the rocks on the riverbed and the slow movement of a few floating leaves and twigs. On a little island in the river grows a clump of screw pine on which a cormorant perches, its wings held open to dry in the sun. Near the banks, slim and gangly water skaters briskly glide back and forth on the surface, even as energetic dragonflies zip around overhead. They somehow accentuate the river's stillness. And yet, an enormous volume of water flows past here every minute.

A white flock of river terns appears. The terns energetically flap their pointed wings but mill around in an effort to go slow with the flow. They swoop and pick off the surface of the river small silvery fish, floating strangely immobile on their side. It is easy work, for the fish are already dead. Dozens of dead fish follow, sprinkled and sparkling on the river, killed by poison or by the shock of a dynamite blast upriver. Some feed the terns, others drift here and there and below the culverts and into the nearby fields.

Origins

The waters had travelled far to get here. Blown by winds from across the ocean, meeting the great escarpment of the Western Ghats, rising as vapours and clouds, and bringing wafting mists and torrential rains, they had drenched the slopes of the mountains a hundred miles away. Not all the rain had travelled to the ocean, though much had arisen from the forest itself, ascending through millions of roots and stems and transpiring through billions of leaves and leaflets. The forests pump hundreds of thousands of litres of water into the air, and the air returns some of it, falling as rain, condensing as dew.

In the dense forest, the rain drips from the tree tops, down onto more leaves — leaves with pointed tips that gently drip the water down towards the soil. The water also courses down the tree trunks in shining sheets, reviving verdant moss and epiphytes, and gathering bits of bark and leafy debris on its way to the soil. The soil itself — that quiet player in the catena of water supply and transport — is almost unseen. A thick blanket of leaf litter and fallen twigs and branches covers it, holding it in place, along with an incredible mesh-work of fine roots. Even as the fungi, bacteria, beetles and termites eat into the litter-blanket, the plants top it up with new, spent material. The litter-blanket is crucial for the soil.

Some water flows overland, much sinks in, sponged by the leaf litter and soil. Below the surface, the water travels through pipes and aquifers far and wide, recharging ground waters, emerging as springs, and draining into streams feeding the wide river.

The clear waters from the forest join other waters; waters that gather the dust and carry the soil from the road-scars and the mine-wounds on the hill slopes. Waters deadened by passage through dams and reservoirs, through stagnant pools and ponds with hyacinth and algae. Waters carrying earth from furrowed and exposed soils under alien plantations of acacia and eucalyptus and from forests whose litter-blankets are harvested to enrich the nearby fields with nutriment. Waters course in with the wastes of villages, towns, and cities, the effluents of factories, and the oil and fuel spilled from lorries washed on the banks. The lorries shine after the wash and a glistening film of oil glides away on the river surface. Outside the paper factory nearby, more lorries line up with their loads of bamboo taken from the forests.

The river passes a rice mill. The mill faces away from the river, with a neat garden in front and a mound of waste dumped at the back, on the banks. Further on, there are houses, too, with their backs to the river. Sewage and farm run-off, effluent and debris, pesticide and poison, the river accepts all impartially, dilutes it, and covers the ugliness under a shimmering surface of quiet beauty. The flow of the river goes one way, our vision of the river remains perpendicular.

Familiar story

The story of the river seems so familiar. I can almost hear my school teacher's voice, emerging shrill and powerful from her corded throat. The river gives us water for irrigation, drinking, washing, bathing, navigation, and power. It provides us fish and fertile plains, reeds and recreation. But, does the river really give to us all this or do we just take it? And what do we give back, if anything?

We take the water there is but turn our face away from the forest-covered watershed that could bring more. We exploit the fish and the fertility but turn in our sewage and our wastes. We derive inspiration from its serenity, its space, and its glorious flow, but scarcely miss a chance to kill that very flow with a dam or barrage, a realignment or link, or a straightening of a curve with dynamite, concrete, and metal. We then proudly gaze upon the river thus engineered and canalised, only the river is there no more.

Over the water, the river terns fly briskly ahead. In handsome grey-and-white, with shiny black caps, red legs, and yellow beaks, they contrast sharply with the green-brown waters. In the evening light, to the gentle drone of insects, they fly purposefully forward, their heads pointed down scanning the river. The river terns make effortless progress even when their vision is perpendicular to the river. If our vision remains perpendicular to the direction we must take, will we make progress, too?

T. R. Shankar Raman is with the Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore. E-mail: trsr@ncf-india.org