Anyone who passes by Chennai’s Cooum River inadvertently holds their breath to escape the stench from the contaminated water body. Cooum today is more of an open sewage than a river, so much so that the name is colloquially used when referring to someone who curses a lot— “when he opens his mouth cooum flows out.” As a child I thought that ‘Cooum’ was a profane word, until one day I accidently uttered it. On seeing me fluster, my mother assured that Cooum was not a dirty word but the name of a dirtied river.
Several years have gone by since the day I realised that the stagnant stinking black water I see by the EthirajSalai Bridge is actually a part of the 72km long River Cooum; however, the condition of the debased river has only grown worse through the years, in spite of the several hundred crores the Tamil Nadu government had allotted for its restoration.
The rape of river is not unique to Cooum in India as the list of dead rivers in the country and around the world seems to be mounting up year after year— India’s River Ganga, China’s River Yellow, USA’s River Mississippi, Israel’s River Jordan and the list goes on. There have been some hopeful cases of river restoration too, as in UK’s River Thames and Singapore’s River Kallang; however, the problem here lays on the human role in polluting rivers and of modern human beings’ relationship with nature.
Apart from using rivers as outlets for industrial waste and urban sewage, individual dumping of solid waste such as plastic and glass is an important factor in river contamination. Remember the last time you offered flowers to the river and dumped the plastic cover in which you carried the pooja articles along with it, or the Ganesh idol with toxic paint you dissolved in the river, or your relatives whose carcasses were set afloat on a river to help them attain moksha? Most religious rituals centred on the river are not harmful by themselves, in fact they were designed by our ancestors to promote human-nature dialogue and interanimation. Industrialisation, urbanisation and excess materialism have led to the degeneration of the human-nature relationship. The restoration of rivers demands the restoration of human-nature bond.
Human beings have never before practised detachment or apathy towards the nature to which they belong. The rivers in particular shared an emotional and intense relationship with the human beings and the cultures that evolved rooted in this bond. Rivers were the cradles of human civilizations and the ultimate source of life. Unlike today human society and economy did not always have a predatory relationship with nature, ancient communities and cultures maintained an effective symbiotic bond with the ecosphere.
Paripadal, a classic Tamil poetic work written almost 2000 years ago, depicts the harmonious existence of nature and culture along the banks of River Vaiyai at Madurai. The flooding of Vaiyai in the poems signifies the rebirth of culture and the beginning of a new seasonal cycle. In seventh poem from the Paripadal, the river banks break causing the displacement of people from their homes; however, despite the chaos created by the deluge, the farmers celebrate happily because they realise, despite temporary inconveniences, that the flooding proves beneficial to the community in long term, because it deposits fertile soil and silt on the plains. The cheerful welcoming of the river manifests the community’s ecological consciousness and wisdom in understanding the natural cycles.
The aspect the human culture has lost today is the consciousness and awareness of the integral role that nature, especially rivers, play in human existence. Modern human beings have lost touch with the sensuous and emotional contact that our ancestors had with nature. Today, as a part of protecting the rivers and promoting human bond with it, governments are trying to reconstruct the ethos of love for nature by legally sanctioning the personhood of rivers. Ganga and Yamuna Rivers in India and the Whanganui River in New Zealand are legal persons with rights and duties endowed; however, Ivo Vegter in his article “When a River becomes a Legal Person” published in the Daily Maverick prods the hypocrisy of the governments behind such actions, he says, “If a court creates the legal fiction that the river itself can sue, the proceeds of such a lawsuit will go to the river. And just as it cannot sue except through government-appointed human guardians, it cannot receive funds except through human beneficiaries selected by the court. The lucky few people who benefit will undoubtedly be environmental NGOs with armies of wealthy lawyers, and not the people actually suffering harm from pollution, reduced river flow, or other environmental degradation.”
Despite all arguments what one needs to focus on today is on the means to promote human-nature harmony. There is an urgent need for individuals to re-sensitise themselves towards our interrelatedness with nature and work towards a social ethos that promotes ecological wisdom in ideas and practises. Experts warn that the fight for water resources, especially river bodies, might be the cause for a third world war. Such a course of history is not unimaginable considering the water crisis already at hand and the rising dissatisfaction between states and countries on water sharing deals. In this scenario, it is the indispensable need of the hour to promote harmonious human-nature interaction and preservation of the water bodies for our future generations.
In the Native American culture, similar to Indian spirituality, rivers are more than persons, they are sacred. Chief Seattle in his 1854 speech says, “The rivers are our brothers they quench our thirst. The rivers carry our canoes and feed our children. If we sell you our land, you must remember to teach your children that the rivers are our brothers, and yours, and you must henceforth give the rivers the kindness that you would give my brother.” It important today to hold on to the spiritual connect human beings have with nature and rivers, to not just restore rivers for our own use, but to realise our responsibility in handing over nature in its pristine state to our future generations.
Picture Credits : indiawaterportal.org