Bringing back the ancient Saraswati river

River Saraswati shrine. Photo by Raj Srinivas/Wikimedia Commons.

  • The revival of the ancient river Saraswati, considered to be one of the holy rivers of India, has been on the agenda of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Haryana government since it came to power in October 2014.
  • With elections for 90 seats of Haryana’s legislative assembly expected later this year the efforts are gaining ground to revive the river that is believed to have disappeared around 6,000 years ago.
  • The river revival proposal to the expert panel of the environment ministry recently was returned as it didn’t meet the criteria for obtaining environment clearance.
  • Water experts emphasise that the methodology to revive the mythological river is flawed and the government should instead focus on reviving existing rivers like Yamuna that are dying with pollution.

Few months ahead of the legislative assembly elections in Haryana, efforts to revive the extinct Saraswati, a river from the ancient Hindu scriptures the Vedas, are back in focus.

The Saraswati revival project, proposed by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Haryana government, was recently submitted to an expert panel of the central government seeking terms of reference for environment clearance. The proposal was returned to the state as the proposal neither pertains to irrigation nor hydropower, cases where environment clearance for a river project is required.  

Considered sacred by millions of Indians, Saraswati is one among the trio of India’s holy rivers, along with Ganga and Yamuna. As per the documents submitted by the Haryana government in the recent case, around 6000 years ago the Saraswati river disappeared due to tectonic disturbances, impacting its tributaries. At present, those advocating for it, claim that the river is alive and flowing underground. 

After coming to power in Haryana in October 2014, the BJP-led Haryana government announced its intent to revive the mythical river. Among the various works proposed to achieve this, was the construction of Adi Badri Dam on Somb River, its piped link to the origin of the (currently non-existent) Saraswati River and the proposed Saraswati reservoir.

According to the state’s pre-feasibility report for this project, the Saraswati river system in the Vedic period included rivers like Ghaggar, Markanda, Chautang, Sutlej and Yamuna. 

The report referenced studies which have indicated that the Yamuna, as well as Sutlej, were tributaries of Saraswati river but around 3700 BC, due to tectonic disturbances in the area, Saraswati’s Yamuna tributary was diverted to its present course and Sutlej was deflected to the west later causing the disappearance of the Saraswati river. The report claimed the Saraswati originated at Adi Badri, a site of archeological and religious significance located around 40 kilometres away from Yamunanagar town of Haryana, at the foothills of the Shivalik mountains, near the Somb river.

The origins and course of the river, however, remain disputed in general discourse.

No environment clearance needed for Saraswati revival project 

The 2018 proposal for the revival of Saraswati river was recently considered by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change’s (MoEFCC) Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) for River Valley and Hydroelectric Projects, in its meeting on May 27, 2019. The project was seeking Terms of Reference, which are guidelines for conducting environmental studies of projects after which the project goes on for environment clearance. The proposal, however, was dismissed by the expert panel as it neither pertains to irrigation nor hydropower generation and does not need environment clearance. 

According to the minutes of the expert panel’s May 2019 meeting, the EAC observed that the present project aimed for the purpose of revival of Saraswati River is a “heritage project” with additional benefits like groundwater recharge, flood control, fish farming and recreation/tourism. The committee also observed that the current project does not involve any components of irrigation/hydropower generation and that it involves “infrastructure development”. 

“The above project activity in the present form may not be considered by this committee and therefore may be returned as it does not require EC (environment clearance) under the EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) notification, 2006,” said the minutes.

A senior official of the environment ministry explained that the committee considers and then recommends or rejects projects which are covered under the EIA notification 2006. “In this case, the expert panel has held that this project pertains to none of the reasons – irrigation work or hydropower generation – that are covered under EIA notification. So, the project does not require EC from the ministry,” said the MoEFCC official.

Though whether this means that the project could now go ahead without clearance from MoEFCC is unclear and the environment ministry official refused to say so. However, the officials speculate that the project, being sensitive in nature, could face legal challenges.

Adi Badri is considered the origin of River Saraswati. Photo courtesy of Haryana Tourism.

Environmentalists and water experts feel that the move to revive Saraswati could threaten the survival of other rivers in the state.

“The lone river that can be saved today in Haryana is the Yamuna river which, at present, is in a dying state. The Haryana government is completely ignoring it and has turned its eyes away from issues like industrial pollution falling into the river, from areas such as Karnal and Panipat,” Bhim Singh Rawat of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers, and People (SANDRP) told Mongabay-India. SANDRP is a network of organisations and individuals working on issues related to the water sector, specifically associated with large dams.

Deferred in 2018, the Saraswati revival project proposal returns in 2019

The proposal was earlier considered by the EAC during its August 2018 meeting. During that meeting, the EAC was told that the proposed 33.4 metres high and 160-metres long Adi Badri dam and Saraswati reservoir would help in recharging the groundwater in Himachal Pradesh and Haryana and that recharge will also take along the course of Saraswati River (as claimed by the project proponents). It would involve diversion of about 31.16 hectares of forest land. The estimated cost of the project at the time of the proposal is about Rs. 1.08 billion (Rs. 108.70 crores). 

During the August 2018 meeting, it was mentioned that the proposed project is not a direct irrigation project and the “outcome of the project is the rejuvenation of Saraswati River, flood control and groundwater recharge.” However, on that, the EAC had observed that the aim of the project is not clear as it was mentioned that indirect irrigation is involved and diversion of water during monsoon period shall be carried out to rejuvenate Saraswati river. 

The EAC had advised the project proponent to firm-up the objectives of the project and come back to the MoEFCC for reconsideration for the terms of reference. It had clarified that the project cannot be accepted in the present form as it is not having any definite objectives and noted that the project is “deferred and shall be considered after submission of detailed information regarding quantum of culturable command area taken up for irrigation.”

The Haryana authorities re-submitted the detailed objectives of the project to the MoEFCC on March 25, 2019, after which it was considered by the EAC in its May 2019 meeting. 

Environmentalist Rajinder Singh, who is also popularly known as the “Waterman”, said, “The way the government wants to revive the Saraswati river would not only harm the Yamuna but would also impact the chance to rejuvenate the Saraswati river as well. Rivers can’t be revived by digging up the groundwater. The government’s efforts would only end up benefiting the contractors involved,” Singh told Mongabay-India.

“Saraswati river can be revived but not by digging up groundwater. Instead, the government needs to focus on increasing the recharge of the groundwater in that area,” Singh said.

Read more: Are clean rivers a distant dream for India?

Election season gives a boost to Saraswati rejuvenation plans

Elections for the 90 seats of the Haryana legislative assembly are expected to take place in October-November 2019. After coming to power in 2014, the revival of Saraswati river in the state has been high on the agenda of BJP-led Haryana government. 

In the first budget presented by the Haryana government, in 2015, an amount of Rs. 500 million (Rs. 50 crore) was allocated for the work related to the revival of the Saraswati river. Subsequently, in 2015, the state government formed the Haryana Saraswati Heritage Development Board (HSHDB) for rejuvenation of the river. 

In July 2017, the HSHDB and the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) had signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for restoration and research work on the Saraswati River according to which the ONGC will develop 100 wells on the flow path of Saraswati river. 

Then, earlier this year in January, the Haryana government approved 11 projects for the rejuvenation of the Saraswati River which includes works like construction of Somb Saraswati barrage, Saraswati reservoir and Adi Badri dam on Somb river. 

Efforts are being made to revive the Saraswati river that disappeared thousands of years ago. Photo courtesy of Haryana Tourism.

Bal Mukund Sharma, who is Haryana Congress’s spokesperson, is critical of the progress achieved in the project so far.  

“So far, the Haryana government has only done lip service as far as River Saraswati’s rejuvenation is concerned. No solid work has happened on this issue in the last five years. Neither proper budget allocation was made nor people were made aware of it. They only exploited it as an issue to get votes,” Sharma told Mongabay-India. 

But it is not just the state government that has been pushing for the Saraswati River’s revival. The central government, whether it was led by the BJP or by Congress, has not been far behind.  

In November 2016, the central government’s Minister of State in the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation Sanjeev Kumar Balyan, while answering a question regarding River Saraswati, had told parliament that they constituted an expert committee which had concluded that a large Himalayan born river flowed through the wide channel of Ghaggar-Hakara-Nara from the Himalayas to Rann of Kutch in Gujarat.

In 2013, during the Congress-led central government’s rule, the then Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office V. Narayanasamy had told parliament that the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) has studied the palaeochannels in northwest India and related them to the channels of River Saraswati. 

“An integrated palaeochannel map of River Saraswati has been prepared from the origin in the Himalayas to Rann of Kutch. The origin of the mapped course of the River Saraswati palaeochannel in northwest India was linked to Himalayan perennial source through Sutlej and Yamuna Rivers. The Government has made efforts to trace the origin of Saraswati river and has also constituted a committee for this purpose,” Narayanasamy had said. 

The minister claimed that the palaeochannels were validated using historical maps, archaeological sites, hydro-geological and drilling data. He also claimed that major Harappan sites of Kalibangan (Rajasthan), Banawali and Rakhigarhi (Haryana), Dholavira and Lothal (Gujarat) lie along the River Saraswati.

However, SANDRP’s Bhim Singh Rawat warned that the efforts of authorities to revive Saraswati could adversely impact not just the chances of reviving Saraswati but also the Yamuna river which is fighting for survival.

“It is unfortunate that the river Yamuna that can be saved and rejuvenated easily is being ignored. Instead, the government is focusing on reviving a river (Saraswati) that disappeared years ago. For Saraswati, they formed a board and allocated money as well. Steps like using groundwater to bring the river back to life and water of Somb river (that feeds Yamuna river) are very superficial and could well turn out to be counter-productive. The Yamuna river, which is already facing a shortage of water, could face a further reduction of water due to this. With such steps, neither Yamuna would be saved nor Saraswati will be revived,” Rawat cautioned.


Banner image: Saraswati River is considered to be one of India’s holy rivers. Photo by Raji. Srinivas/Wikimedia Commons.

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