Rajendra Singh tells why he thinks India cannot lay claim to having any rivers any more, and why there is yet reason to hope

Stemming of global warming and protecting the environment may be discussed and debated at big international forums, and the money being invested in environment-related projects may run into billions, but when farmers rotate their crops and use organic fertilisers, or use traditional water harvesting methods, it is more commonsense than complicated terminology that motivates their actions. On the basis of such everyday actions, many within the reach of the ordinary individual, India's celebrated ‘Jal Purush', Rajendra Singh has achieved astounding results in water management and replenishment of rivers in the country. But the man with a following of thousands and who has inspired countless others still seems to count every drop as a blessing. So it was that this Monday when he was in the Capital to convene a meeting of the Jal Biradari, the “National Water Brotherhood” of his organisation Tarun Bharat Sangh, Singh was keen to hear the views of every member in the room, be they activists, students, agricultural workers or religious leaders. The soft-spoken environmentalist is in the midst of planning a rally to be held in New Delhi on June 18 to draw the authorities' attention to the state of the Ganga, declared India's national river but no better than a “drain” as Singh puts it.

“My understanding of the Ganga started with my grandmother,” relates Singh, with his penchant for combining the macro view with the micro, the universal with the personal that lends genuineness to a cause. “When I was hardly 10 years old, she took me to Haridwar. She removed my clothes, took a lota (brass vessel) from her cloth bag and poured water from the river on my head. Then she sent me into the forest, and when I came back she poured water again.” After a solemn ritual, she finally let him take a dip in the holy river, says Singh.

It was much later, as a young man, that he asked his grandmother why she had treated the Ganga at Haridwar with a reverence that called for elaborate religious practices, whereas she had never reprimanded him when as a little boy he had played on the canal fed by Ganga water in his village, even when he and his friends urinated into the water, competing to see how far each boy's ‘contribution' would flow! “My grandmother scolded me roundly for being so stupid that I didn't see the difference. She said, ‘What is the use of your studies when you don't understand a simple fact: a canal is made to satisfy people's greed. When you urinated in it, it would actually send nutrients to the crops. A canal is not the river.'”

So, says Singh, he recently remembered how his illiterate Dadi taught him about “Gangatva” (essence or spirit of the Ganga) and how a canal loses its Gangatva. A river, he says, is a living thing. “Its colours change with the rays of the sun. Woh mitti ka sparsh badhaati hai.”

Today, however, “Ganga Maa is really sick,” says Singh. He has toured along the entire route of the river, “from Gaumukh to Ganga Sagar and back,” and concludes that the state of the river is primarily due to three factors: The bad policies (“ku neeti”) of the government, the decadent actions (“bhrasht aacharan”) of the public and the failure of the people's leaders (such as the religious and spiritual leaders). “Raj and samaj (the government and the society) are greedy. But it is the duty of the sant, known today as the paryavaran vid (the environmental experts), to guide them. They too have shirked their responsibility. I can't absolve them.”

This is the reason, he says, that “there are no rivers left in India.” He emphasises that he is not making a statement for the sake of shock value. A river can be called one when its water is clean, fit for drinking, and when the living beings in it are healthy too. This cannot be said to be the case of the country's rivers. Singh explains that it has been scientifically proven that the pollutants that affect a river in India remain in the water for 45 kilometres after it leaves a city. “That is lucky for us, because in the U.S. the effect has been found to remain for 200 kms.” The river naturally cleans itself thanks to the atmosphere and the sun's rays, etc., he says. “But after 45 kms, the river will hit another town, so where is the chance to have a real river?”

Now, however, says Singh, he sees a glimmer of hope. Because the Ganga is a river that has religious as well as secular significance. And religious leaders are taking interest. In bringing together the secular, the religious and the scientific community — which are not necessarily mutually exclusive — Singh hopes that the rally on June 18 will galvanise the efforts of those who care for the environment and bring about positive change in the health of the Ganga.

What the waters want

These actions are required to heal the Ganga, says Rajendra Singh:

No waste water drains should be allowed to empty into the river. Waste water from human consumption should be diverted to agricultural use as appropriate

No new dams should be commissioned and those already commissioned should be made environment- friendly

Encroachment of the river's lands should be stopped by proper demarcation and notification. The land demarcated as the river's should be used only for the Ganga or for agriculture

Mining of sand, water and stone should be stopped

Norms should be made for using rivers (nadi reeti)

A Ganga Panchayat should be called