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Saraswati, Where Are You?(In Search of a Missing River)

Updated on September 9, 2014
Ancient map of northern India depicting the course of Saraswati
Ancient map of northern India depicting the course of Saraswati | Source

Who is this Saraswati that we are looking for? Is it:

(a) a girl

(b) a cat

(c) some other pet

None of the above. We are wondering about the whereabouts of a missing river! That's right, you heard me right: a river, like a blue line haphazardly drawn by the not-particularly-steady-hand of a half-asleep and out-of-practice cartographer known more for being tipsy than sober, across the geographical map of India. I know how incredulous you are on hearing this, the moment your lower jaw hit the ground. You couldn't have possibly misplaced it somewhere about absent-mindedly or dropped it somewhere carelessly, did you say? There is no evidence of any individual committing so irresponsible and reckless an act as to cause the disappearance of the r. Nor could anybody have stolen it. Maybe it just slipped away, unnoticed? There is no way it could have accomplished the feat any more than a python potentially well-endowed enough to win the trophy for its copious size in the centenary celebration contest of a society for preservation and conservation of particularly humongous pythons, if such a society were to exist, could give the slip unnoticed from a roomful of wide-eyed admirers of snakes of the specific kind we are talking about. No, it is simply not feasible. The only thing that could have happened was ...... yes, you are right: it just disappeared in the thin air! Like it was there before you blinked but not a moment later. How did it happen?

Once the Best, Now Mythical

Saraswati was a river, acclaimed as the best of all Indian rivers by Rigveda, the oldest of the four ancient Hindu scriptures and which flowed during 6000-3000 BC from the melting glaciers of the Garhwal Himalayas to the Arabian Sea through the Thar desert. Later it was believed to have dried up in the desert. Pious Hindus still believe that Saraswati has not dried up altogether but has become a subterranean river which joins the confluence of rivers Ganga and Yamuna at Allahabad. For the hard-knuckled pragmatists, non-romantics and cynics of the here and now, it is today just a mythical river and no more.

Ms. Uma Bharati, Minister in charge of cleaning up of Ganga and rejuvenation of Saraswati
Ms. Uma Bharati, Minister in charge of cleaning up of Ganga and rejuvenation of Saraswati | Source

Restoration and Rejuvenation

The nationalist Government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has called for restoration and revival of Saraswati. Uma Bharati, Minister for Water Resources, has made a statement to this effect in the Parliament. "I have asked the groundwater recharge authorities to collect information, detect and revive the water sources and the roots of the river. Saraswati is not a myth but scientific evidence is now available to prove its existence,” she said. She also said that a lot of research has already been carried out in this regard in Gujarat. The Minister has asked for the water of a well in the fort at Allahabad to be tested to trace the source and route of the river that has disappeared.

Grand Scheme

Saraswati is, as a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) member was quick to point out in the Parliament, just not a river but a symbol of India's cultural heritage and, therefore, a symbol of pride for Indians. The great civilization of Harappa and Mohenjadaro had grown on the banks of the river. Ancient Hindu scriptures sing paeans on its glory. For a party which has always laid premium on the cultural heritage of India, the significance and importance of the proposed project of rejuvenation of Saraswati cannot be overemphasised. We may, therfore, expect a flurry of activities on the part of the government, the ruling party and it's sundry allies, like emotional speeches, chest thumping, etc, at least during an initial period of euphoria. A BJP MP has already appealed for the setting up of a research institute for the rejuvenation of the river in question. When the din of the first series of activities like speech-making and still-more-speech-making dies down, it would be back to business for everybody, leaving the proposed project to dry up or disappear like the fabled river itself!

Devotees of the holy river Ganga
Devotees of the holy river Ganga | Source

Precursor Project Precarious

You think one is being too harsh and cynical about a noble endeavour undertaken by a well-meaning government? Well, then, wait till you hear about what the Supreme Court had to say about the apparent lack of progress on the part of the government in another well-publicised project viz. cleaning up of the river Ganga. Recently, a three-member bench of the apex court pulled up the government for being slow in carrying out that project despite it being a part of BJP'S poll manifesto, focusing instead, on low priority issues, in what was seen as a veiled allusion to the tabling of the judicial appointments bill at the Parliament (the bill has since been passed).

The court observed that the ruling party's poll manifesto had stated that Ganga would be cleaned up on a war footing, people were waiting to see it happen but no one was showing any urgency. The Court also remarked that the current National Democratic Alliance government had not been handling the matter any better than the previous United Progressive Alliance government. Solicitor General Ranjit Kumar said that the government was ready with plans to address the problem but did not reveal the specifics! All these revelations in the case made in August 2014 on the hearing of a Public Interest Litigation filed by a green activist in, hold your breath, way back in 1985! The court went to the extent of observing that at the speed with which the government was handling the matter, it was hardly likely that the cleaning up operation would be completed before the next two hundred years! It also suggested that the cleaning up operation be carried out by focusing on stretches of about 100 kms of the river at a time.

Action Plan

To be fair to the government, it has since set up an inter-ministerial group, including the ministries of power, environment, surface transport and tourism to deal with various aspects of the problem. It has earmarked Rs.2,037 crore for cleaning up the Ganga and another Rs.100 crore for developing the ghats from Allahabad to Haldia.

Nothing to Show

Despite the huge amounts earmarked by the current government and huge amounts sunk by the previous governments in the cleaning up operations, there has been no discernible improvement in the situation. According to Shri Vijay Panjwani, counsel for the Central Pollution Control Board, the focus of successive governments has been on setting up of effluent plants along the river, which has had little impact.

Mr.Narendra Modi on the banks of Ganga vowing to clean up the river
Mr.Narendra Modi on the banks of Ganga vowing to clean up the river | Source

Result Needed Here and Now

With practically nothing to show yet in the matter of cleaning up of Ganga, the government has taken upon itself the Herculean task of tracing the source and root of Saraswati and restoring it to its original glory. Talk of being ambitious and thinking big! Having taken its ever so tentative baby steps hopefully in the right direction, the government has so much to do to clean up Ganga, with not much time available to it for this purpose. Else, further neglect and abuse of Ganga may some day result in the drying up and even disappearance of Ganga even before Saraswati is rejuvenated! It is not only the Supreme Court but also the people all over the world who are watching. Busy, as he must be, with innumerable state matters begging his attention, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had better personally monitor the progress of the cleaning up of Ganga on priority basis lest it should meet the same fate as Saraswati.

© 2014 Kalyanaraman Raman

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