This is the true story of a lost river. I live in Alwar district of Rajasthan state of India. it is a desert state known for Thar desert. It is also the largest state of India. Rajasthan state is criss-crossed by one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world called “Aravalli Mountain Range“. This mountain is a source to many rivers and springs in Rajasthan most of which originate and vanish with the clouds. And one of these rivers is a lost river, SAHIBI.
About the Commons and the Tragedy
Sahibi originates in Saiwar protected forests in Sikar district and flows in Rajasthan for 157 km before entering Haryana where it flows for further 120 km and then enters Delhi to become a tributary of Yamuna. Now a lost river, it was a source of fresh water for the inhabitants in 3 states of Rajasthan, Haryana and Delhi. It met the requirements for irrigation and day to day water needs of the people who lived on both sides of its banks.
The flow in river changed with the change of topography and season. In the certain areas the surface flow was considerable and in others it lacked a surface flow. In certain areas it flowed throughout the year, and in some it was ephemeral and only flowed in the season of monsoon. Along with its two tributaries it supported the livelihood of thousands of people. Until 1960s everything was well in the region.
The population boom in India post-independence brought crowds of Indian citizens and refugees which encroached upon land in the river’s floodplains. New villages were setup near Delhi and along the bank of river. During this they built bunds and check dams on the river to harness its full potential. This brought the inevitable floods of 1964 which damaged the check dams and caused damage to settlements.
A loss of lives and livelihood took place. Instead of learning from the incident. State governments made efforts to control the river and channelize it back towards the Rajasthan state. subsequently, floods of 1967, 1975, 1976 happened. Delhi had yamuna to support its population, haryana had many canals from other rivers, and in rajasthan people found dugwells and borewells more convenient. The land in its floodplains was very fertile which could very well be used for agriculture. It seemed like all of a sudden the river became Undesirable.
Events which followed
After these floods, the no. of dams and small bunds increased on the river. Ideally this should not have killed the river. But as mentioned earlier, the flow of river varied with topography. The areas which did not had water were flattened, filled and leveled to create agriculture fields. The place where the river originated saw something similar happening, entire catchment was dotted with little quarries both legal and illegal. Mining destroyed the catchment reducing influx of water and in the lower course; people cut its banks to encroach upon lands illegally. By 1980s it only flowed as flash flood during rain and eventually a few years later, it stopped altogether.
Present situation (after the depletion of the resource.)
Now all that remains is the empty drainage in certain places which shows that there is a lost river here. There are signage boards in all three states mentioning this is river drainage but no one seems to recognize it. Specially my generation. At the time of writing this, i am 24 years old and i have never seen a single drop of water in the drainage. Most from my generation do not even know if it was a river.
How can the situation be improved?(case study)
The states which are responsible for the destruction are also setting examples in some other parallel regions and for some other areas. One of the districts in Rajasthan state through which this river passes have achieved a remarkable feat. Alwar is also known for the revival of rivers back from dead. A non governmental organisation called Tarun Bharat sangh is at the helm of such achievements.
A river called “Arvari” which was also a lost river, has been revived back from the dead. Even though, the river is merely 40 km long but the reason i am citing this example is because the process of revival is very Basic to implement and can be replicated for any scale of project.
So what did they do to revive lost river?
They followed a step wise plan which they created after studying the local conditions, both physical and social.
- They organised the communities and villages which were established on the banks of river.
- Made them aware about the importance of the river.
- Through this organised effort, they forced the government to stop illegal quarries mining the aravallis.
- They secured the catchment of the river and removed the encroachment in the flood plains.
- Made a series of handmade check dams and bunds to slow down the runoff of rain water and store it in these check dams.
- hundreds of such small structures were made from locally available resources and free labour from the organised community of villages.
- Lastly, they made a governing body for using the river for irrigation, drinking purposes and also to maintain the structures.
All these efforts changed the conditions of river within a few years and it started flowing. Now water remains in it through out the year.
Who and What would it take to implement such ideas?
while the process is fairly simple, it can be mountain of a task to implement the process. It is not easy to bring people together for such a cause. The reality is, that a government agency cannot think of taking such a task in hand because instead of a river full of water, it would be a river full of vested interest and corruption. And even then it would be a lost river. At least that is what a big challenge is in developing countries.
One big achievement of Tarun bharat sangh was to develop a sense of ownership among the people about the river. But, it was not a fake sense of ownership but a real one. as soon as the river started flowing the local administration decided to take control of the river. The villagers in unison went to high court for this matter and won the ownership rights of that river. Now it is a public property in true sense.
We can learn from this case that ownership makes a huge difference in such cases. If people feel that they own the resource they are trying to save or they will actually be able to reap the benefits of their labor. They not only actively participate in such campaigns but they also achieve remarkable results. They have the strength to bring back a lost river. Ideally, it should be a combination of both a people’s movement led by a non governmental and not for profit organisation. Government should actively support such initiatives, if not monetarily than at least with the proper implementation of existing laws and by creating suitable legislation.