Is India Already In The Middle Of An Environmental Crisis?

In ancient West African folklore about the beginning of time, Òrìṣà are the spirits sent to Earth as humans to guide humankind on how to live on Earth. It is believed that worship of Òrìṣà is the path to finding inner peace and satisfaction. And worshipping Òrìṣà is the same as worshipping Earth and soil and water and seas and mountains and rivers. Because the ancient Africans knew Earth gives us life and all that we need to continue living. Mythological scriptures from all over the world are replete with stories of gods and divine beings who are actually forces of nature. And Indian mythology too. We have mountains and seas and stars who are gods.

And we have rivers who are still considered sacred. Who are prayed to in every part of the country. Who are seen as life-giving, all-powerful entities to be venerated and cherished at all times. We have story upon story about rivers – the Ganga, the Yamuna, the Saraswati, the Brahmaputra, the Godavari, the Kaveri, the Tapti, the Narmada, the Chenab, the Beas, the Chambal, to name a few – that have been part of India’s folkhore and history. Stories that both fill up religious texts and provide historical context for a lot of India’s cities that sprung up around the banks of these rivers. We believe a dip in our rivers can wash away all our sins and purify our souls. There are special festivals and offerings made for rivers in India.

Surprising then that a country that so reveres its rivers in books is willing to ill-treat them so badly in reality. In fact, we are actively destroying our rivers across the length and breadth of the country.

Our rivers are being choked. Everyday. By paper and plastic waste. By industrial effluent. By remnants of festivities. By rampant, unchecked construction. By illegal dumping of waste. By illegal sand mining. And by active (and often malignant) neglect.

And this ill-treatment of our rivers is resulting in every possible manner of bad news for India and her people.

According to a 2012 World Bank report – India: Issues and Priorities for Agriculture, India has nearly 195 million hectares of land under cultivation. And while the bulk of this land depends on rain, close to 70 million hectares still depends on irrigation. And it is rivers that provide the water these farmlands need. But with rivers drying out, lesser and lesser water is reaching these farms, resulting in lesser and lesser yields for our farmers. This has obviously been catastrophic for our farmers, as evidenced by the spate of farmer suicides across India in the past many years. But it is equally bad for the rest of India who doesn’t realise that the fate of the farmer is inextricably linked with their own. Lesser output for farmers results in lesser food reaching out markets, driving up the cost of available food and also making us, as a nation, rely on food imports.

Not that the river water that does reach farms results in bounteous crops either. Loaded with effluents from industrial and municipal waste, our rivers have become less givers of life and more bearers of life-threatening illnesses. This effluent-laden water is irrigating our fields and contaminating our soil and helping grow the rice and wheat and vegetables that we eat everyday. And yes, we are falling ill because of it. And dying. In large numbers.

Chemical waste in our rivers is affecting plant and animal life too. Equally, they are affecting aquatic life as well, directly impacting all the fish farmers who depend on these rivers for their livelihoods.

There are people who believe wars of the future will be fought over water. In India, that bleak future is already here. We saw people struggling for water across many parts of Maharashtra earlier this year. We saw Chennai dealing with an unprecedented water crisis that saw all four of the reservoirs supplying water to the city run dry. Residents were spending 1000s of rupees everyday just for a few litres of water. Offices and schools had to shut down. Police had to intervene in many clashes for water.

Sadly, neither Maharashtra nor Chennai seem like isolated, stray incidents. 21 Indian cities are projected to run out of water in 2 years. Including some of our biggest cities. More than 100 million people are likely to be affected. And climate change is making it worse, to the extent that 40% of our population may not have access to safe water by 2030. Ironically access to safe water for all by 2030 is one of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals. Safe to say on this goal at least, India is way short of meeting target. Amidst all this, India still managed to become the world’s largest exporter of water (in a manner of speaking). Clearly, there are some priorities that need to be corrected.

We need to accord our rivers the same reverence in practise as we do in holy scriptures. Enforce strict regulations on dumping of waste in rivers. All kinds of waste. Industrial waste, municipal waste, civic waste… none of that belongs in our rivers. We need the laws to be stricter and we need those laws to be enforced. We need laws to ensure that all wastewater is biologically treated and rendered safe by eliminating all pollutants and contaminants. But we also need individuals to be conscious and conscientious about the waste they generate and about how that waste is disposed. India doesn’t (yet) have the infrastructure to ensure all domestic waste gets treated before disposal. Individuals and housing societies and business parks need to unite and ensure all waste is segregated and all organic waste is composted and all recyclable waste is recycled.

Yes, the title of this post is a rhetorical question. India is – has been – in the midst of an environmental disaster for a while now. But together, we can lift India back to the gloriously green and rich land it once was. And together, we can ensure India always remains gloriously green and rich. Seeing how India is home to nearly 8% of Earth’s biodiversity, it is every Indian’s duty to preserve this rich bounty of Nature for our future generations.