“The spiritual connection is lost.”: Professor Nityanand Jayaraman on rivers

Professor Nityanand Jayaraman is a writer and researcher based in Chennai. He investigates and reports on corporate abuses of environment and human rights, and is part of an anti-corporate collective called Vettiver Koottamaippu (Collective).

What do you think is problem with our rivers today?

Reductions in river flow because of upstream compoundment and extraction. Also the discharge of domestic sewage, industrial waste and agricultural run-off are some of the main concerns when it comes to river pollution.

When we have less water flowing and more sewage coming in, there is less dilution and as a result there is more concentrated contamination. The farmers of Punjab are to blame for the pollution as well.

The farmers of Punjab are to blame because you have dammed the rivers upstream for agriculture, irrigation and electricity purposes, so the flow is affected and what is needed for agriculture is extracted from the river and used on land to grow your crops. The river ends up having that much less water.

Then you have cities like Delhi that extract ground water or bring in water from the same rivers. The dams might give them water and they convert that water into sewage and this is discharged into the river.

Then you have industries doing the same thing. Let’s take Sterlite for example which was a big industry operating beyond the pale of law. So assuming that just by an industry being big, that they will be doing the right thing is not correct but you’re right that they have the capacity to do better. But, they won’t unless they are made to. The same thing goes for small industries. So, what we need to see is how you can fix the regulatory system.

It’s not about technology. If you want to have a cluster of smaller industries with a common effluent treatment plant there’s more room for cleaner investment methods. All those are in the realm of possibility. The issue is whether you want to do it. It’s not about tech. It’s about political will and a culture of integrity. If you don’t have that, if you don’t nurture that, you can bring in the most state-of-the-art tech and it won’t matter.

I don’t think that we are religiously connected anymore to the rivers, more ritualistic. The spiritual connection is lost. If there are religious leaders with foresight and visionary details, then they might be able to redefine things. Rituals need to change with time. It’s okay for a few hundred people at a time to practice those rituals on the banks of the Ganga.

But, remember that the ritual was not made in a time where they thought India would have a booming population of 1.3 billion.

I think that those connections are there, but right now those connections are there only in kind of very superficial conversations. It’s not in the hearts of people. We are not connected to our land in the way that one needs to be in order to take care of it.

It’s a spiritual, political and social exercise but if we look at things like Namami Gange it’s entirely technological. All the interventions are technological.

Why our present plans for rivers and their conservation do not suffice?

You are always good at two things: One you’re always playing catch-up, you’re interventions that you plan today will not materialise for the next 10-15 years. Contractors have to get their pays, all kinds of new parties will be coming in and governments will change and the whole process has to be done again.

So, by the time the plant is up and running, your total waste water load will end up being double that of what the plant was designed for.

With water, you can’t have partially treated water. It’s either treated or it’s not. So, you end up not really being able to repair the river.

Anything is possible but at the end of the day, what you see as the problem is the main challenge. If you only see the problem as waste water coming from an industry and not as culture that allows this waste water to be dumped without feeling really insulted by it, then if you can’t repair that then I don’t think that these schemes will work.

I think that we need to clean our heads before we can clean the Ganga. We need to clean the parliament before we can clean the Ganga.

Sand mining is hugely problematic for the rivers and is a very exploited activity. Sand does come every year but if we extract more sand from the river basin than what comes in every year, then you’re dipping into the principle amount and this leads to things like erosion.

This is hugely problematic but this is deeply connected to what we call development and this involves construction. Sand is the most mined mineral in this world and it’s hugely energy intensive. The emphasis needs to be to bringing in that spiritual link, repairing the politics and repairing the society.

Once that is done, then those technologies can be placed in a much cleaner social context and then they will work.

Some alternatives are finding new building materials or moving away from the old way of building. Instead of importing stuff from long-distances we can use locally sourced materials.

The reason sand is being mined is because there is only one form of building and that is concrete. Concrete is a problem because like plastic, it’s very convenient.

Because it’s so convenient, we ignore all the problems that come with it. So, if you look at traditional materials like baked earth, bamboo, wood etc. But when you want to build skyscrapers in the name of development then you screw yourself. You can’t get answers to all questions.

If we want to live as we currently do then you will have to live with a lost river and all the other problems that come with it.

Moving away from the norm, would it affect the economy and how can we remedy that?

If you care about the people you will plan out a way for a new economy. Take Covid for example, it resulted in massive job losses because it was unplanned. You can plan your change and not let it happen like this abrupt lockdown, but you do need a slow-down.

A slowed-down economy is good for the environment but in such an economy, how do you extract value to give people the quality of life that they want. So, that challenge is again a social challenge. Currently, there’s enough resources circulating through the economy – probably to give people a decent quality of life but most of these resources are anyway inequitably distributed.

The minority who have access to this or have influence over this are but an elite minority and we aren’t going to be willingly giving up our luxuries. I don’t think that it should forcibly extracted. So, how do we achieve a context where we are willingly able to subscribe to the notion of equity. That’s a political exercise.

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