‘Missing the wood for the trees’ is a popular English proverb, which is commonly used when one goes after a minor detail and resultantly misses the larger picture. But in its origin must be the fact that a forest as an ecosystem and a whole is much larger and important than mere collection of trees that it is popularly seen as.

Something similar and yet no less damaging has been the popular identification of a ‘river’ with the ‘water’ that flows in it. Thus just like a logger for whom a ‘wood’(forest) means nothing more than timber that he must harvest for conversion into products, no matter what happens as a result to the forest as an ecosystem, for a developer (with few notable exceptions), a ‘river’ is nothing but water that must be utilised to meet human needs.

Here lies the real tragedy that our forests as well as the rivers face, with one notable exception. The forests with an all India service, number of laws and a listing in the Constitution’s concurrent list has prima facie a lot going for them in terms of protection and sound management, while for the rivers there is hardly any of the above.

There is no ‘river law’ in the land and whatever institutions exist in the form of Central Water Commission (CWC) in the Union Ministry of Water Resources or the National Rivers Conservation Directorate (NRCD) in the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests remain steadfastly ‘water’ focussed. It might be interesting and educative to contrast this situation with the late 19th Century when the then British colonists had enacted the River Conservancy Act, also called the Madras Act No VI of 1884, for the conservancy of rivers in the Madras Presidency.

For rivers, currently lost in a watery grave, the common refrain, when their protection has been talked of, has been that since ‘water’ in the Constitution is a ‘state’ subject, there is little that the Centre can do for the rivers, if the States choose not to act. But here lie one of the greatest constitutional myths.

The fact is that the Constitutional framers under Entry 56 of the Union List (List I) had actually put all the ‘inter-state rivers’ (there is hardly any river which is not inter-state) under the stewardship of the Union government and had even made ‘water’ as defined and listed under Entry 17 of the State List (List II) subject to the provisions of Entry 56. So the Constitutional truth is that right to ‘water’ as a state subject is actually conditional and not absolute as is commonly understood.

But there is an unfortunate catch: for the Centre to invoke Entry 56, it has to appropriately first legislate, which it has till date failed to do except in the enactment of the River Boards Act, 1956 which itself, with only advisory role, has been drafted in a very water-focussed manner, presumably because in those early days of the Indian Republic, river as an ecosystem was poorly understood.

Now that ‘rivers’ resulting from advances made in ecological studies dating largely from 1990s onwards have been firmly established as living natural ecosystems which can turn ‘sick’ or remain ‘healthy’ depending on the health of their various components, they deserve better treatment from our law makers.

Enacting a “National Rivers Commission Act” that would have the ability and the authority with penal provisions, to ensure that our rivers remain healthy is a necessity of the hour. A ‘healthy’ rives entails assured ecological flows, secured flood plains, vibrant aquatic and riparian biodiversity, and to retain the ability to recharge the aquifers and to form the alluvial and coastal deposits on their path.

To sum up, the rivers must be restored by law to play their original and critical role in the local, regional and global hydrological, nutrient and climatic impacts and cycles. Lest ‘sick’ rivers become one of the worst causes as well as indicators of the menacing climate changes becoming perceptible by the day.

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Mighty river, breathe easyDecember 9, 2012