All rivers require special status

Narmada in Madhya Pradesh

By Ritwick Dutta

If rivers are considered as living beings, we must recognise that in India today, they are an endangered species.
In his book, Animal Revolution (1975), Peter Singer popularised a term called ‘speciesists.’ According to him, “Racists violate the principle of equality by giving greater weight to the interests of members of their own race when there is a clash between their interests and the interests of those of another race. Sexists violate the principle of equality by favouring the interests of their own sex. Similarly, speciesists allow the interests of their own species to override the greater interests of members of other species. The pattern is identical in each case.”

The recent decision of the Uttarakhand High Court (Mohd Salim vs State of Uttarakhand) in declaring the river Ganga and Yamuna as living entity/legal person/juristic person, raises important questions similar to speciesists. It is important to point out that the HC has not recognised ‘rivers’ per se as living being/legal person. It has recognised only rivers Ganga and Yamuna and its tributaries as living entity/legal person.

This recognition is largely in view of the fact Ganga and Yamuna are regarded as sacred by Hindus and have a special place in the cultural ethos of the country. Though the HC has recognised that the two rivers provide sustenance to communities from the mountain to the sea, the main reason for conferring special status is the sacredness attached to the rivers.

Even at the national level, the Ministry of Water Resources has been renamed as the Ministry of Water Resources, Ganga Rejuvenation and River Development. The priority of the Central government is clear: water is a resource to be utilised, rivers have to be ‘developed’ (that is tapped and harnessed), while the river Ganga is the only river that needs to be rejuvenated. The Ganga has clearly been conferred a special status both by the courts and the government.

Notwithstanding the fact that the decision places Ganga and Yamuna on a higher legal pedestal than other rivers, the most significant aspect of the HC decision is that it does provide for a new perspective from which way decision/policy/law-makers should view rivers. It has held that Ganga and Yamuna are “breathing, living and sustaining the communities from mountains to sea.”

However simplistic this statement may seem, the fact is that the present legal and policy framework does not consider the river as either a ‘breathing’ or ‘living entity.’ On the contrary, it is viewed as ‘natural resource’ whose ‘potential’ has to be realised. It requires to be ‘tapped,’ ‘tamed,’ ‘harnessed,’ ‘dammed,’ ‘dredged’ or ‘linked’ in order to realise its full ‘potential.’

A river which is not subjected to any of the above processes and allowed to flow into the sea/ocean is viewed as a national waste. The Supreme Court’s controversial decision in the Narmada Bachao Andolan, Tehri and the River Linking cases is a reflection of the mindset which emphasises on the need to tap this potential of rivers to attain sustainable development. In a way, the HC decision marks a fundamental departure from the ecologically myopic views held by the courts till date.

Having said that, the court decision does have its shortcomings. Having conferred the unique status, it has invoked the principle of persons in loco parentis (that is, in place of parents) and has appointed the chief secretary and advocate general of the state and director, Namami Gange as the ‘human face to protect, conserve and preserve Rivers Ganga and Yamuna and their tributaries.’ According to the court, “These officers are bound to uphold the status of Rivers Ganges and Yamuna and also to promote the health and well being of these rivers.”

Conflict of interest

The problem is that, this is bound to lead to conflict of interest. The chief secretary is the secretary to the Cabinet whereas the AG is the highest law officer of the state government. Though Article 165 of the Constitution may give an impression that the AG is answerable only to the governor, in reality, he/she is a political appointee and defends the action of the state government before the courts.

Neither of them is an independent authority like the Comptroller and Auditor General of India or the Chief Election Commissioner. In such a situation, it is difficult to assume that either of them will be able to discharge their role as independent officers or representatives of rivers.

No judgement is perfect. A judgement is not a legislation and every word in a judgement need not be interpreted like letters of law. However, what is significant is that the HC judgement can be an important starting point for those fighting for the right of the rivers to flow uninterrupted.

If rivers are considered as living beings, we must recognise that in India today, rivers that are living and breathing, are an endangered species. They require special status and proactive conservation efforts. A ‘speciesist approach,’ however discriminatory, for all of the last free flowing rivers, and not just the Ganga and Yamuna, may be the last hope to save our rivers.

(The writer is an environmental lawyer and Managing Trustee of International Rivers, South Asia)

The above write up was first published in Deccan Herald on April 4, 2017 and can be read here

Are Ganga and Yamuna going to be ‘living entities’ only for Uttarakhand?

Allowing the river to be a legal entity means according it the right to live

Ganga at Jhala near Gangotri
Ganga at Jhala near Gangotri

“While exercising the parens patrie jurisdiction, the Rivers Ganga and Yamuna, all their tributaries, streams, every natural water flowing with flow continuously or intermittently of these rivers, are declared as juristic/ legal persons/ living entities having the status of a legal person with all corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a living person in order to preserve and conserve river Ganga and Yamuna.”

These were the words used by justices Aloke Singh and Rajiv Sharma of the Uttarakhand High Court on March 20, 2017 while declaring Ganga and Yamuna, two of the most sacred rivers in India, living entities.

On expected lines, the news break brought loud cheer from environmentalists and conservationists, not to mention even ordinary citizens who have deep aastha for Maa Ganga.

The Ganga is not only significant in view of the pride of place it occupies for its spiritual or cultural standing, but more so because it feeds almost 40 per cent of the country’s population.

From the lofty Himalayas to the Gangasagar, the Ganga basin – comprising the main river and its numerous tributaries – irrigates a large portion of the Indian subcontinent.

The slight change in water availability and the quality of Ganga, truly our national river, has a direct bearing on the economy of this region.

Treated/untreated sewage being dumped into Yamuna at Delhi
Treated/untreated sewage being dumped into Yamuna at Delhi

But, post-euphoria, reading the judgment by Uttarakhand High Court makes you wonder if the celebrations came a tad too soon.

Declaring the rivers, its tributaries and streams – essentially the entire basin – legal entities, the justices said: “The Director NAMAMI Gange, the chief secretary of the state of Uttarakhand and the Advocate General of the State of Uttarakhand are hereby declared persons in loco parentis as human face to protect, conserve and preserve Rivers Ganga and Yamuna and their tributaries. These Officers are bound to uphold the status of Rivers Ganges and Yamuna and also to promote the health and well-being of these rivers.”

Therein lies the catch.

The judgment is a major step in river conservation efforts, but it has a huge implication vis-à-vis the territorial jurisdiction of the high court.

In simple terms, it applies only to the state of Uttarakhand.

“(But) The decision can have persuasive value for litigants from other states to get similar orders for respective states,” said Ritwick Dutta, environmental lawyer.

The Centre, state governments, as also litigants from other states, can extend the judgment to their stretch of the rivers.

It is too early to know if the Uttarakhand government or the Centre will approach the Supreme Court against the Uttarakhand High Court’s decision.

But water being a state subject, the decision to accord similar status to the stretches in their territory will rest entirely with the states.

“Government of India – or for that matter, even the government of Uttarakhand – should not technically approach the Supreme Court. Else, all the talk of cleaning the Ganga river, the Namami Gange etc will be futile,” Dutta said.

Drains of Ganga and Yamuna

This was originally a case of removal of encroachment from the river’s floodplains – a common phenomenon in the hills of Uttarakhand, which had resulted in heavy loss of life and property in the 2013 disaster following the cloudburst.

The court had insisted on encroachment removal and the authorities paid no heed.

Not only this set of encroachments, but the rivers Ganga and Yamuna have also seen a host of problems: dumping of debris, dumping of treated/untreated sewage, encroaching the flood plains, building dams that obstruct the flow, diverting the flow of rivers for hydropower projects and haphazard planning – rather the lack of planning and illegal sand mining.

In fact, barring a few pristine stretches, the rivers had stopped being rivers – not qualifying on two simple, universal aspects that make any living river: aviral (continuous) and nirmal (unpolluted).

“People along the river Ganga are already going away from the river. The river no longer provides irrigation, the fish catch is declining, it brings increased floods each year, thus complain those staying along the river. The same people who revered it as Maa Ganga, are now saying, ‘We don’t feel this is our river’,” Siddharth Agarwal of Veditum, who has been walking upstream along the Ganga from Gangasagar, told me over the phone.

Starting last year, Agarwal has already walked 2,300km and is now traversing the snaking route near Uttarkashi, about 100-plus kilometres before Gangotri and Gomukh, the origins of the holy Ganges. “They don’t have any hope from the river.”

The Uttarakhand High Court echoed what Agarwal experienced while interacting with a multitude of people along the Ganga’s banks as part of his project “Moving Upstream”.

“The extraordinary situation has arisen since Rivers Ganga and Yamuna are losing their very existence. The situation requires extraordinary measures to be taken to preserve and conserve Rivers Ganga and Yamuna,” the court said.

Outlook needs to change

In 2013, the Kedarnath disaster had jolted everybody out of wits. Government and the people took to some remedial measures.

Committees were set up, declarations made and prayers held in reverence of the Maa Ganga. But, obviously, it was not enough.

Those who suffered and witnessed the destruction first hand described it akin to mythological “pralay (excessive flooding)” .

Be it the mythological pralay or the disaster that wreaked havoc, the message was loud and clear: mere obeisance is not enough, mere rituals of aartis and pujas are not enough, mere slogans of Namami Gange are not enough.

In 2014, the new dispensation at the Centre took over and one of the major decisions in the initial days was to declare the integrated Ganga conservation mission called “Namami Gange” to arrest the pollution of Ganga river and revive it.

The Union Cabinet approved an action plan to spend Rs 20,000 crore till 2019-2020 as part of the 100 per cent central sector scheme.

This was over and above the humongous budget spent as part of the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG), with no result.

But the moot question is: Have we adopted the right approach?

Have we achieved the balance between environment and development or have we let development (read human greed) to rob the river – overpowered the need of the river to live?

Allowing the river to be a legal entity means according it the right to live.

Are we prepared to pull down the already-built dams that obstruct the aviral (continuous) flow?

While the intention of the Uttarakhand High Court is laudable, what is alarming is it indirectly relieved the ministry of water resources, the nodal front, of any task (perhaps again playing the jurisdictional card) to ensure the protection of the river.

“The presence of the Secretary, Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga rejuvenation is dispensed with,” the court said after tasking the “parent-ship” of rivers Ganga and Yamuna to the director, Namami Gange, the chief secretary of Uttarakhand and the advocate general of Uttarakhand.

Ganga at Varanasi
Ganga at Varanasi

In fact, it is the ministry of water resources, and in turn, the government of India, that should be the real parent of the rivers Ganga and Yamuna in the light of the new status.

Uma Bharti, the Union minister for water resources, had launched a “Save Ganga” campaign prior to her appointment in 2014.

“Mujhe Ganga ne bulaya hai (Ganga has called me),” Prime Minister Narendra Modi had famously declared soon after his victory from Varanasi in the 2014 general elections.

With such illustrious prodigies at the helm of affairs, Maa Ganga should be confident that Modi (by extension, the government of India) and Bharti (the ministry of water resources) would definitely extend the “Living Entity” status to the entire length of river Ganga? Will they?

(This story was first published by Daily O and it can be read here

Indus Waters Treaty must change for environment, not to choke Pakistan’s lifeline

The pact must bring riparian nations China and Afghanistan on board amid changing climatic conditions.

Ten days after the dastardly terrorist attack at Uri in Jammu and Kashmir, much water has flown down the Indus. The Indus Water Treaty 1960 (IWT) that governs the water-sharing arrangement between India and Pakistan has suddenly hogged all the limelight with scores of people demanding its abrogation to choke Pakistan thirsty.

Under this treaty, India and Pakistan share the waters – Pakistan uses almost 80 per cent of the water from the basin – of six rivers that flow through India towards Pakistan. Of these, India has complete rights over Sutlej, Beas and Ravi, while Pakistan uses Chenab, Jhelum and Indus.

On Monday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was briefed about the options India can exercise vis-a-vis the IWT following which it was declared that India will be dramatically reconfiguring the usage of its share of the waters in an as-yet unexplored manner.

Apart from steps to increase/expedite its water storage infrastructure and carrying out “non-consumptive” use for its as-yet grossly under-utilised, under-exploited share as per the treaty, an inter-ministerial group will look into India’s rights on its share.

Without going into the technical details, grand as it may sound, and legally valid too, fact remains that the provisions for utilisation of our own water share are likely to take many years to materialise.The inter-ministerial group can do a better and faster job.

Time for a relook

To start with, the 1960 vintage treaty falls short on several counts. Shakil A Romshoo, professor and head of the department of Earth Sciences at Kashmir University,advocates a relook at the Indus Water Treaty from the climate change perspective and maintaining ecological flow – points which are not part of the original agreement. The treaty talks of distribution of water only between India and Pakistan, but nothing about maintaining environmental flows.

India happens to be the middle riparian state for the transboundary Indus river system. The Indus drainage basin stretches over 1.1 million sqkm area across Afghanistan (9 per cent), China (8 per cent), India (38 per cent) and Pakistan (46 per cent).

While India and Pakistan remain the largest stakeholders due to the size and volume of the waters and vis-à-vis their usage, Afghanistan (a small area due to Kabul river) and China – as Indus and Sutlej originate in Tibet – too are part of the basin. The river system in the basin includes: Ravi, Beas, Sutlej, Swat, Chitral, Gilgit, Hunza, Shigar, Shyok, Indus, Shingo, Astor, Jhelum, Chenab and Kabul.

The Indus Basin Knowledge Platform correctly unfolds the Indus basin scenario,: “The Indus Basin epitomises a grand challenge due to its high poverty rates, high groundwater extraction, increased environmental degradation and risk of floods and droughts due to climate change.”

Stating the direct impact of climate change on water, the intergovernmental panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has already warned in its report that changes in precipitation in a warming world will not be uniform. The intensified hydrological cycles will see fewer rainy days, but more intense rainfall on those days.

This directly leads to floods, something similar to what Kashmir Valley witnessed in September 2014. Since 2010, Pakistan has had a number of alarming floods causing huge loss of life and damage to agriculture land/property.

Beyond the India-Pakistan binary

With such extreme climatic events predicted to occur in greater frequency, it makes more sense to take a holistic look at the entire basin. Going beyond the geo-political strategic conditions, it becomes imperative to look at the whole basin through changing climatic exigencies, which will mean the involvement of Afghanistan and China.

Glaciers in the Kashmir Himalayas and Karakoram ranges contribute to the majority of water flow in the basin while the contribution from China (Tibet) and Afghanistan is far less. But involving China becomes important also because of the gaping hole – a dark zone when it comes to knowledge about geographical and climatic conditions in the Tibet Autonomous Region from where both Indus and Sutlej originate, even though not many are aware about the exact developments taking place in the region.

The many stakeholders of Indus River System
The many stakeholders of Indus River System

China has managed to keep a lot of secrets there. In fact, there is lack of transparent mechanism on data sharing. Himanshu Thakkar of South Asia Network for Dams, River and People explains: “In June 2000, Siang area in Arunachal Pradesh experienced exponential rise in water level. Similarly, in August 2000, Sutlej river area in Himachal Pradesh experienced exponential rise in water level. In both cases, there was no record of heavy rainfall. So where did that water come from? China totally declined any hand in it.”

He points us to a medium-scale dam on Indus, which China built without informing the downstream users, near Demchok in Ladakh. As per a report in the April 2010 issue of Journal of Defence Studies, the dam was located by Alice Alibinia, a British journalist and author of Empires of the Indus , while tracking the source of the Indus in Tibet.

China has huge economic interests in the region due to the Northern Route of the proposed China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) falling in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir.

What the CPEC means for two riparian countries. Photo credit: The Express Tribune
What the CPEC means for two riparian countries. Photo credit: The Express Tribune

So, on one hand, the actual portion of Indus (both the river and the basin) is very less in Tibet, on the other, China indirectly gets a say in the much larger area – including the Ladakh ranges of Aksai Chin occupied by China and the PoK portion of Karakoram.

Remember, the Indus – starting in Tibet – after passing through Ladakh travels through Gilgit and Baltistan in PoK, and then flows through the Pakistani plains before finally draining into the sea near Thattha in Pakistan. China also conducts a lot of military activity in the Ngari area of the Tibet Autonomous Region, where it has also been promoting large-scale tourism in the Kailash Mansarovar region, an area that lies directly northeast of Himachal Pradesh and where Sutlej too originates.

Given the geo-political situation in the region, bringing China and Afghanistan on board sounds a far-fetched idea for many. The reasons are obvious. An expert at a recent dialogue on the Indus basin described the four countries of the river system as a “Matrix of Paired Opposites”. Hostile: Afghanistan-Pakistan, India-Pakistan; Friendly: China-Pakistan, India-Afghanistan; Neutral: Afghanistan-China. Of these, India and China are convergent on global issues, but divergent on regional issues.

It may indeed seem a far-fetched idea at this juncture – and China has not shown any interest in any kind of data sharing, and refused as yet any bilateral treaty with India vis-à-vis the rivers shared by the two countries. But considering the fast-changing climatic conditions, a collective data set (including data about precipitation – snowfall/rainfall, melting of snow, soil erosion, dams and storages on rivers and other spatial and temporal weather aspects) for the much-needed water balance in the region is missing. Work is in progress at many levels, but the efforts are isolated and scattered.

The Indus Water Treaty does not have an exit clause, but there are provisions for making changes that are mutually agreeable. While Pakistan may not agree to change the provisions as it gains a massive 80 per cent share of the water as per the treaty, Indus is the country’s lifeline – it will have to sooner or later take into consideration the changing climatic conditions and hence a need for a comprehensive arrangement.

Perhaps, India – as a middle riparian country – can act as a bridge between the upper and lower riparian countries.

This story was first published by DailyO portal of the India Today group on September 28, 2016. It can be read here

The three wonders of the ancient world solving modern water problems

In Peru, Kenya and India, NGOs are helping communities overcome water scarcity using wisdom from the past


Chand Baoli at Abhaneri in Rajasthan (Pic by Sagar Kulkarni)
Chand Baoli at Abhaneri in Rajasthan (Pic by Sagar Kulkarni)

Across large swaths of the Thar desert in western India, traditional techniques for harvesting the little amount of rain that falls has helped people survive the powerful effects of the sun for centuries.

The most beautiful of these are step wells – known as baolis in Hindi – large, stone structures built to provide water for drinking and agriculture. Baolis have existed for at least 1,000 years and were constructed in towns and alongside serais (travellers’ inns), across the desert and into Delhi.

Baolis exist in all shapes and sizes and are essentially reservoirs built into the earth. Groundwater is pulled up from a circular well at the bottom and rainwater is collected from above. A set of steps – on one or more sides of the structure – lead down to the water level, which fluctuates depending on the amount of rain. More recently, electric pumps have been installed in many baolis to help retrieve the water.

“Step wells are etched into people’s collective memory so deeply, they are now part of their DNA, passed on from one generation to another,” says Farhad Contractor of the Sambhaav Trust, an ecological conservation group.

Today, many baolis have fallen prey to rapid urbanisation and neglect. In Delhi only around 15 survive but local groups are fighting to protect and preserve them. While 700mm of rain falls on Delhi every year, half of the city has been declared a dark zone – where the groundwater level has depleted so much that the rate of recharge is less than the rate of withdrawal – by the groundwater authority. Rainwater harvesting, therefore, is key to a secure water supply for India’s second-biggest city.

One such baoli restored by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) was built in the 14th century in Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti, a medieval village in Delhi named after Sufi saint, Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. In 2008, parts of the baoli walls collapsed due to sewage water seeping into the structure and the local residents using it as a rubbish dump. The pool was drained and the rubbish, garbage and sludge that had accumulated over the past 700 years was removed to reach the foundation of the baoli some 80 feet below ground level. While the water in the baoli is still not potable, it can be used for cleaning and agriculture.

Experts say the baoli model can be replicated anywhere in the world with similar climatic conditions and physiological features. Contractor has been invited to Morocco where he is working on a project to build baolis and smaller wells, known as beris in Hindi.

Agrasen Ki Baoli in Delhi has gone dry since last few years as its catchment has been concretised.
Agrasen Ki Baoli in Delhi has gone dry since last few years as its catchment has been concretised.

But large baolis need large catchment areas, and in Delhi space is an issue. While the majority of the physical structures of baolis are protected – some by being sited inside historic monuments – urban development in Delhi has had a greater impact on their water levels; storm drains divert rain away from baoli catchment areas.

Diwan Singh, an activist with non-profit Natural Heritage First, says that even though many baolis in Delhi are surrounded by buildings, the wells can still be recharged. “Catchment area management is the key. In the small areas of land between the baolis and buildings, rainwater harvesting pits could be built to divert rainwater away from the storm drains,” he says. “Once in the pit, water will percolate through the soil and recharge the nearby baoli, allowing modern development and ancient structures to co-exist side by side.”

(This was one of the three parts of the original longer story published by The Guardian, which can be read here)

‘Manual scavenging-free India’ still a distant dream

Is the government really serious about rehabilitation of manual scavengers?

New Delhi: It is centuries old, most inhuman of the practices. And unfortunately, despite the rule of law, it is rampant in large pockets, including in the national capital of Delhi, across India.

Manual scavenging – what the Centre even failed to acknowledge exists till the Census 2011 figures held an unhappy mirror – continues unabated more than a year after the ‘Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013’, which came into force in February 2014.

Manual scavenging practice from a village in Uttar Pradesh (Photo Credit: Safai Karmchari Andolan)

And circa 2015, the government is still not sure how many persons – almost all of them from lower and lowest of the lower caste – are engaged in this insensitive blot of a profession. While public in general are least bothered, the government is indifferent. Activist in this field are having a harrowing time even convincing the government to do surveys and rehabilitate manual scavengers. Allotment of funds, non-implementation of schemes and most important, lack of punitive measures for non-compliance have simply left much to be desired.

Government data claims there are only 12,753 manual scavengers

Manual scavenging practice in Bihar (Photo Credit: Safai Karmchari Andolan)

According to the information provided by Vijay Sampla, the Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment in the Rajya Sabha last week, manual scavengers are found in 13 states. The minister provided a table of state-wise data – contested by activists – which claimed there are 12,753 manual scavengers in India and over 10,000 of them in Uttar Pradesh alone.

The state/UT data as per the latest information available on the basis of survey undertaken in the States/UTs from 13 states is as follows:


State Urban Rural Total 12753
33 Uttar Pradesh 2404 7612 10016 78.54%
30 Tamil Nadu” 979 NA 979 7.68%
25 Odisha 386 0 386 3.03%
16 Karnataka 302 0 302 2.37%
28 Rajasthan* 284 NA 284 2.23%
19 Maharashtra* 139 NA 139 1.09%
5 Bihar 137 NA 137 1.07%
34 Uttarakhand 137 NA 137 1.07%
14 Jammu & Kashmir 119 NA 119 0.93%
35 West Bengal 98 NA 98 0.77%
2 Andhra Pradesh 89 NA 89 0.70%
27 Punjab 64 NA 64 0.50%
7 Chhattisgarh 3 0 3 0.02%
1 Andaman & Nicobar Islands 0 NA 0
3 Arunachal Pradesh 0 NA 0
4 Assam NA NA 0
6 Chandigarh 0 0 0
8 Dadara & Nagar Haveli 0 0 0
9 Daman & Diu 0 NA 0
10 Goa 0 NA 0
11 Gujarat 0 NA 0
12 Haryana 0 NA 0
13 Himanchal Pradesh NA NA 0
15 Jharkhand NA NA 0
17 Kerala 0 NA 0
18 Madhya Pradesh NA NA 0
20 Manipur 0 NA 0
21 Meghalaya 0 NA 0
22 Mizoram 0 NA 0
23 Nagaland NA NA 0
24 NCT of Delhi 0 0 0
26 Puducherry 0 NA 0
29 Sikkim 0 NA 0
31 Telangana 0 NA 0
32 Tripura 0 NA 0

A quick look at the table tells even a lay person how faulty and incomplete this data is. Uttar Pradesh has been candid to return a figure of 10,000 plus – although there are more persons involved, activists say – but other large states have either not given any data, resulting in NA, as in case of Delhi and Madhya Pradesh, or simply given nominal figures. For instance, West Bengal has 98 and Punjab has just 64 manual scavengers. More about other states later.

It’s no rocket science to understand that the sole cause for continued practice of manual scavenging is the existence of insanitary latrines. So, ideally, the task at hand should be to identify those places, people involved and rehabilitate them into other livelihoods. However, it is better said than done.

The government – smug after passing the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013 – is sitting on surveys, reports and requests by NGOs and activists working in the field that have provided documentary evidences about the ongoing practices.

For instance, as per the section 5 of the MS Act, 2013, construction of insanitary latrines and engaging of manual scavengers from the date of commencement of the Act i.e. February 6, 2014, is prohibited. The Act also provides for identification of insanitary latrines and their demolition/ conversion into sanitary latrines on a time bound basis.

“But our experience is otherwise. We have submitted number of reports, photo/video documentary evidences, taken officials from the Ministry to the field, but to no avail. The government does not even want to recognise such things exist,” said Bezwada Wilson, national convenor of Safai Karmchari Andolan.

As per the 2013 Act, the municipalities, Cantonment Boards and Indian Railways authorities have been mandated to construct adequate number of community sanitary latrines within a period of three years from the date of commencement of the Act to eliminate the practice of open defecation. And when that happens, automatically the persons working would be rendered unemployed. (Hence), the Act also provides for identification and rehabilitation of the existing manual scavengers.

So far so good. Albeit, as it turns out, all such good things remain only on paper.

Manual scavenging practice from a village in Madhya Pradesh (Photo credit: Safai Karmachari Andolan)

The rehabilitation will happen only when the manual scavengers are identified. Going back to the table above, if we are to believe the government, there are only about 12,753 manual scavengers in India. Only one state – Uttar Pradesh – came forward with a figure of 10,000, if not 100 % accurate but towards reality while the rest of the states either did not conduct the survey or did not do it properly.

For instance, bigger states such as Andhra Pradesh has just 89 persons as manual scavengers while Tamil Nadu has 979, Karnataka has 302, Jammu & Kashmir 119 and Maharashtra 139.

Who would believe that?

Women walking as part of the Maila Mukti Yatra (Photo credit: Rashtriya Garima Abhiyaan)

Women manual scavengers demanding a total ban on the inhuman practice walked to Delhi as part of the Maila Mukti Yatra (Photo credit: Rashtriya Garima Abhiyaan)

It was in 2010 when women across the country – who had carried out a Maila Mukti Yatra under the banner of Samajik Parivartan Yatra – had met the then Union Social Justice Minister Mukul Wasnik when the government had audaciously declared there was no manual scavenging remaining in India. As a result of this pressure, the government appointed four committees/task forces in January 2011 to enumerate actual number of people involved in manual scavenging. Things did not move as desired and the government remained reluctant, mostly in denial mode. Then, the Census 2011 data released in 2012 nailed the government lie. The activists had then insisted that the survey should be a joint survey – government official and activists/NGOs together – as no one had any confidence in any of the government machinery.

The ‘House Listing and Housing Census, 2011’ data released by the Registrar General of India in March 2012 provided number of households – more than 25 lakh – by type of latrine facility, including latrines from which night soil is manually removed. It clearly showed that such latrines existed in all states/UTs except in Goa, Sikkim and the UTs of Chandigarh and Lakshadweep.

So, reluctantly the states agreed for the survey. While few started in right earnest, others dragged their feet, more in the denial mode and less due to their capacity to do. The reasons for non-compliance were varied.

Delhi, the national capital territory of Delhi – right under the nose of the Central government – is a classic example of how the babudom finds excuses. For all the months that no work was done for carrying out the survey, Raju Sharsar, the chairman of the Delhi Commission for Safai Karmcharis (DCSK) blames the President’s Rule in Delhi during last one year. “We are still carrying out the survey. There was literally no work going on during last one year due to President’s Rule. (Now) We are hopeful that it will be completed in 60 days,” Sharsar said.

And what about rehabilitation of people who have already been identified? “Sorry, no work has started for rehabilitation,” was Sharsar’s candid reply.

Just how far away from the reality the state governments are is exposed by Ashif Sheikh of the Rashtriya Garima Abhiyaan (National Campaign for Dignity). “Census 2011 threw up a figure of 27 lakh dry toilets across India. Even (then Minister) Jairam Ramesh agreed to conduct a survey in census towns. (But) states such as Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh straightaway disagreed and claimed the Census data was wrong,” Sheikh said, adding, “After much persuasion, some states agreed for survey at the district-level. Some of them are not agreeing to it even on paper, forget on ground.”

Ashif Sheikh of Rashtriya Garima Abhiyaan during the Delhi meeting after Maila Mukti Yatra. The meeting was attended among others by then union minister Jairam Ramesh) (Photo credit: Rashtriya Garima Abhiyaan)

He also pointed out how whatever is being done under the name of ‘survey’ is hogwash. “The ongoing survey is being conducted only at the Census towns. It cannot be termed as state-wide data as no survey is happening across remaining areas of the states. Moreover, the definition (of a scavenger) under the 2013 Act has been widened to include anybody who is doing manual cleaning. It includes sewer workers manually cleaning septic tanks, sewer/manholes, it includes those safai karmcharis employed by Indian Railways to clean railway tracks/platforms manually etc. Whatever surveys are being done, are considering only the traditional form of manual scavenging.”

The survey in rural areas is to be done by the Socio Economic Caste Census (SECC), which will throw up yet another set of figures and put rest to unusual figures presented by the government in the Parliament, activists believe. But that too has not started yet.

No survey, budget lapses

The first year – 2011 – the government had allotted Rs 65 crore for the survey. March 2012, the government said, it could not spend the money. “Next year, the budget was revised to Rs 10 crore, same was the reply in April 2012. Again in March 2013, nothing,” Wilson pointed out.

A look at the data on the Ministry of Social Justice is testimony to the apprehension of the activists. Under what the government calls as the ‘Self Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers (SRMS), introduced in 2007 with an aim to rehabilitate “remaining” manual scavengers and their dependents in a “time-bound” manner, the budgetary spend was as follows:

(Rs. in crore)
Year B.E. R.E. Expenditure
2006-07 1.00 56.00 56.00
2007-08 50.00 50.00 25.00
2008-09 100.00 100.00 100.00
2009-10 100.00 100.00 50.00
2010-11 5.00 5.00 Nil
2011-12 100.00 100.00 Nil
2012-13 100.00 100.00 20.00
2013-14 570.00 70.00 35.00
2014-15 448.00 Nil (Till 15th January, 2015)


As per the buget for 2015-16, the government has earmarked Rs 460 crore for the SRMS despite the fact that data from years 2011-12 onwards showed a declining trend in expenditure.

According to the government’s revised scheme, those identified as manual scavengers – and ironically, only one from each family – are provided one-time cash assistance. “The identified manual scavengers and their dependents are provided project based back-ended capital subsidy up to Rs 3,25,000 and concessional loan for undertaking self-employment for a period of up to two years, during which a stipend of Rs 3,000 per month is also provided,” reads the government scheme document.

But as with other government claims, activists punched holes in this claim too. Sheikh claimed, “Rs 280 crore has been spent till date on 3.4 lakh beneficiaries, the government claims. But if we see the number of people who are actually rehabilitated, it is far lower – just 81,000 till date.”

Wilson said his organisation estimated there are close to three lakh people directly involved in manual scavenging as per the traditional/conventional manner and the numbers are likely to increase exponentially as and when those defined as scavengers under the new definition are included.

The only good thing – if at all it can be termed as one – is the government admission in the same Parliament reply: “Existence of manually serviced latrines in the States/UTs points to the fact that the practice of manual scavenging is yet to be fully eliminated.”

Okey, so what do you plan to do, dear government?

But this semblance of an assurance does not seem to ensure that further implementation is set to be any better.

Explaining the unused funds at the end of each fiscal, V K Parwanda, deputy general manager of the National Safai Karmcharis Finance and Development Corporation (NSKFDC), said, “The survey started late and is further delayed. (So) we are late in disbursing one-time assistance for the beneficiaries. We are now asking for comprehensive proposals (for another round of survey) from states for a fresh realistic assessment.”

The Ministry of Social Justice did hold a meeting on March 18 wherein the Centre asked all the states again to complete the survey as early as possible. Parwanda assured that the government was keen on rehabilitating each and every manual scavenger and claimed, it had started publicity till village level for identifying such persons, preventing them to continue such work and rehabilitate them. The ministry has claimed to have put in place a helpline for the purpose.

Will that work? Does that show commitment enough? As per Section 21 of the 2013 Act, Executive Magistrates, who have been conferred judicial powers of first class, are empowered to try any offences committed under the Act.

Fair enough. But government has no data whatsoever if any action has ever been taken under this section.

Women manual scavengers during the Delhi meeting as part of the Maila Mukti Yatra (Photo credit: Rashtriya Garima Abhiyaan)

But the problem is not even that. It is not to do with what offence anyone commits under the Act, but more to do with the lack of action – rather lack of interest – by the government authorities in doing what they are supposed to do. Wilson pinpointed the problem: “Unfortunately, there is no punishment in the Act for non-performance by government officials not keen on doing what they are supposed to do!”

This write up was first published by on April 4, 2015 and it can be read here

India claims plan for new energy mix is a game-changer

The huge India One solar thermal power plant in Rajasthan. Image: Bkwcreator via Wikimedia Commons
The huge India One solar thermal power plant in Rajasthan.
Image: Bkwcreator via Wikimedia Commons

While the political spotlight focused on the  world’s two biggest polluters − China and the US − in the run-up to the Lima climate talks, pressure is mounting on India to set emissions targets to help prevent the planet overheating.

NEW DELHI, 10 December, 2014 − India’s contribution to global carbon emissions was only 7% last year, yet there are fears being expressed in the western world that rapid population growth and development will mean this vast country will soon be a major polluter − like its neighbour, China.

For the world, it is a continued worry that if the country soon to have the largest population in the world develops − as China has − by burning coal, climate change will surely get out of control.

No commitments on climate change have so far been made by India, as it waits to see what the developed countries offer to prove they are serious about aid, technology transfer, and targets to reduce their own emissions.

Carbon tax

But while priority in India has been given to development − particularly providing electricity for the millions who live without it − and tackling poverty, the newly-elected government has made a promising start on recognising the importance of climate change.

It has a new energy policy centred on an ambitious increase in solar power capacity − from the current 20,000 megawatts to 100,000 MW in five years. There is a Rupees 5 billion ($80 million) budget this year alone for “ultra mega” solar projects. And a carbon tax on coal has also been doubled for the purpose of subsidising solar and other renewables.

Prakash Javadekar, India’s Environment, Forests and Climate Change minister, said before heading for the UN climate change conference being held in Lima, Peru: “This game-changer energy mix will give us enhanced energy efficiency and save 50 million tonnes of coal. That’s a huge contribution to the world, and will affect our emissions. We will walk the clean water, clean air, clean power path.”

“Both solar and coal power will increase,
but that is our energy mix”

There have been reports about a possible announcement next month – when US president Barack Obama visits New Delhi − of the year in which India intends its greenhouse gas emissions to peak.

However, Javadekar refused to set a timeline, despite the apparent pressure after the US-China joint declaration that the US will reduce emissions by 2025 and China’s will peak by 2030. All countries are supposed to inform the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) by March 2015 of their action plans for emission reductions.

Javadekar said India is putting in place several action plans for achieving the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions as part of the 2015 agreement. But he made clear that the “peaking year” will not be the benchmark set at Lima; it will be “India’s contribution” − and will be much more than expected.

India, which is expected to surpass China’s current 1.3 billion population by 2030, has always defended its position, as its emissions are less than 2 tonnes per capita, compared with about 7.2 tonnes in China and 16.4 tonnes in the US.

“Our growth cannot be compromised,” Javadekar said. “We have the right to develop, and our priority is to eliminate poverty and meet the aspirations.”

Objections raised

Asked how India will address objections raised by developed countries to it digging more dirty coal, despite its ambitious solar programme, Javadekar insisted: “We are not going on the ‘business as usual’ path − although we are entitled to it. Both solar and coal power will increase, but that is our energy mix. We are doing our own actions under domestic legislations.”

There is a rift at the Lima talks between the developed and the developing countries on the issue of capitalisation of the Green Climate Fund under the 2015 Paris agreement, and this has already seen the G77 group of nations banding together.

Sunita Narain, director general of the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environmentthinktank, referred to this in talking about the “politics of climate change”, and how the global south is being short-changed by the global north.

She said climate change talks are about achieving clean economic growth, but, 25 years after talks began, the world is “still procrastinating and finding excuses not to act”. – Climate News Network

(This was originally published by Climate News Network on December 10, 2014 and it can be read here

South Asia slow to act on water threats

The Ganges river delta in Bangladesh and India Image NASA World Wind via Wikimedia Commons

Satellite image of the vast Ganges river delta in Bangladesh and India
Image: NASA World Wind via Wikimedia Commons

A study of the five countries sharing and relying on the Indian sub-continent’s great rivers shows that Bangladesh is the only one that is taking climate change seriously

Even before this year’s delayed and inadequate monsoon recently brought some relief to the Indian sub-continent, researchers discovered widespread concern by local experts that their governments are mismanaging the water supplies on which a billion people depend for survival, and giving insufficient attention to climate change.

A new report, Attitudes to Water in South Asia, explores domestic water management and transboundary water issues in five countries – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan. It focuses on two river systems, the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna and the Indus-Kabul basins, which are vital to the lives of a vast population.

Chatham House – the home of the Royal Institute of International Affairs − worked on the report with India’s Observer Research Foundation, and similar partner organisations in the other four countries. Their findings are based on evidence from almost 500 interviews conducted in the five countries in 2013 with a range of water experts, government officials, policy-makers and decision-makers from NGOs and the private sector.

Observing that water is “highly politicised in the region, with strong links to food security and the livelihoods of the large proportion of the population dependent on agriculture”, the report underscores the relation between the domestic mismanagement of water in each country and the failure to address transboundary water relations.

Few agreements

“In spite of the shared river system and the interdependencies, South Asian governments have signed few bilateral water agreements and no regional ones,” the report says. “Those transboundary water treaties that do exist face criticism on a number of grounds: for time periods too short to too long; and for their lack of provision for environmental factors or new challenges, such as climate change.”.

Yet the ability of countries in South Asia to deal with the possible effects of climate change will be in part determined by their ability to manage water, and also how they deal with weather events such as floods and droughts.

“The majority . . .  expressed concern that their governments
were giving the issue of climate change insufficient attention”

While many respondents across the region felt that other immediate concerns were more pressing, the majority of those interviewed expressed concern that their governments were giving the issue of climate change insufficient attention,” said Gareth Price, a senior research fellow at Chatham House and lead author of the report.

For instance, in Afghanistan, even where respondents had some knowledge of the body responsible for setting government-wide policy on climate change, they were equally certain that the amount of practical action on ground was virtually zero.

In Bangladesh, where most respondents were acutely aware of climate change and its possible effects, many said their government was doing better. There was a general consensus that ministers had made climate change a priority by setting aside funds for adaptation and mitigation.

However, Afghani and Bangladeshi respondents noted the lack of availability of important policy documents − currently available only in English − in local languages..

And Indian respondents felt that climate change was not a major priority for the government, although it was widely recognised that it could wreak havoc on the country.

“Inadequate water storage leaving farmers vulnerable to the vagaries of weather suggest an urgent need for appropriate investment in such facilities in order to not just increase agriculture production, but also to ensure farmers have an option to adjust to changing climate,” the report says.

Food security

Climate change could also have a big impact on the transboundary water relations, the report warns. Some respondents from India and Bangladesh feared that a variation in the timing and intensity of monsoons could affect agricultural production and weaken food security, “driving tension between the two countries over access to water in a dry period”.

Interviewees from Nepal perceived climate change as a “future threat”, in comparison with immediate challenges and the need to increase access to water and electricity. Most respondents felt that Nepal’s approach was “inadequate” and pointed out the gap between national plans and local implementation.

Pakistani respondents believed their country’s approach to climate change lacked “urgency”. They particularly pointed out that a Ministry of Climate Change had recently been reduced to a mere division of another ministry, and had had its funding slashed by 62%.

Brink of cataclysm

The report quoted a climate change expert working with the Pakistan government, who said his country stood on the brink of an environmental cataclysm, with the seasonal monsoon shifting away from traditional catchment areas towards Afghanistan. “This trend, reinforced by climate change, [has]increased the likelihood of extraordinary rainfall patterns, cloudbursts, and flash floods,” he said.

The researchers’ recommendations Include: improving domestic water management, and rainwater harvesting; enhancing data collection, data sharing and discussions between the five countries, particularly in relation to floods and droughts, and the management of watersheds and river basins; easing water demand through less water-intensive crops and irrigation methods.

They also stress that existing treaties should be revisited, ensuring that they address technological advances, environmental factors and climate change. – Climate News Network

(This was first published by Climate News Network on July 7, 2014 and it can be read at )