A couple of years ago, we were travelling from Dehradun to Delhi and on my left was the massive Bhimgouda barrage which diverted the Ganga through Upper Ganga Canal at Haridwar. The barrage diverted the entire river, so that the downstream of the barrage, Ganga River was bone dry. Even for an agnostic like me, it was disturbing to see the mighty Ganga dried out like this so close to her origin. But just a couple of hundred meters ahead on the right were Har ki Pauri Ghats where Pilgrims were religiously performing Ganga Arati. There was a highly colored cement statue of Ganga precariously balancing on her gharial, in the middle of the canal.
The pilgrims were praying not to the river, but to the Upper Ganga Canal. The dry river is mainly used as a parking lot. This scandalous fact did not seem to make much of a difference to the pilgrims. Focus is on “water” and resultant “punya” not the river.
Last year, the Pushkarulu festival in Telangana which also includes a sacred bath in Godavari was in a jeopardy because Goadavri river was dry following a bad drought. What will happen to sacred baths now? Administration came up with a novel idea of drilling borewells on the river banks and installing showers in a row so that the business of acquiring Punya could go on unhindered.[i]
This year at Ardha Kumbh Mela in Ujjain, Kshipra River is flowing with waters borrowed from Narmada, while its own tributary, River Khan which flows through Indore is so polluted that rather than having it meet Kshipra (or cleaning it!), the Madhya Pradesh administration simply diverted Khan in the downstream, through a measure that cost more than 2700 Crores!![ii]
Despite the “Rivers are Mothers” rhetoric, Religious sentiments and River health does not seem to go together in India. It seems doubtful if the institutions of religion or their administrators and swamis understand rivers either
Considering this, I should not be surprised to see that Ramkund in Nashik has gone dry, but holy dips in Ramkund still continue. Ramkund is a sacred pool in River Godavari, just about 35 kilometers from the origin of the mighty River. It lies in the heart of the old Nashik City and holds tremendous religious significance as the place where drops of nectar fell during the epic fight between Gods and Demons. This time, tankers ferry and fill the RamKund regularly with borewell water[iii]. Pilgrims don’t bother where the water comes from as long as the Kund is full amidst a dry river and a trickle of sewage.
Ramkund and Godavari River have been predominantly dry since April 2016. It is reported that this has happened for the first time in 130 years.[iv] Following the drought year of 2014-15, in 2015 -16 too Nashik received deficit rainfall. A whopping 52 % deficit according to State Agriculture Department[v]. But 2015-16 is the year of the Simhasta Kumbh Mela and the administration does not want to see a dry RamKund. Since May, water from borewell and from Indra kund on Aruna River is being poured in the Ramkund…it takes approximately 5 lakh litres of water to fill the kund.
While monsoon 2015 in Nashik has been highly deficient, there is one more important cause for the river and Ram Kund to go dry.
The characteristic feature of the Goda Ghats in the middle of the Nashik city is massive amounts of concrete that masks the entire riverbed and banks. The river looks like a depressing grey, flat parking lot of a big shopping mall. Vehicles can be parked as close to the channel as possible, without actually falling in. River flow has been bifurcated in two streams with concrete steps leading to the water and a fake concrete island in between. Decidedly, Godavari River at Ramkund and Godaghat is mainly made up of grey, impenetrable concrete.
And according to many, it is this concrete which has been nemesis for Ramkund and the sacred Godavari river stretch.
I was walking inside the riverbed just a couple of meters upstream of Ramkund, in a place called Gandhi Talav. The sun was scorching and the riverbed could have been a playground. Downstream I could see the mirth of pilgrims as they frolicked in the Ram Kund with its borrowed water. Concrete under my feet was cracked and hot. Most cracks were wet, making an angular abstract drawing on the face of the dry riverbed. Across the river I saw a man waving at me from a dilapidated balcony of an old manor. It was Devang Jani.
Devangji is a Pujari (priest) of Kapaleshwar Mahadev Temple, one of the hundreds of temples that dot the Godavari Ghats. His ancestral home overlooking the Ramkund is more than a 150 years old. It is cool inside, as if its spring not summer. His home holds a living spring: The Uma Kund: which has cold, crystal clear water. Kapaleshwar Mahadev’s Abhishek happens only with waters from Uma Kund. The Kund has never gone dry in living memory.
But 200 meters downstream from there, concretised Ramkund is dry.
Devang Jani is no ordinary Pujari. He has filed a petition against Nashik Municipal Corporation, protesting against concretization of Godavari river bed. He maintains that concretization of the bed has effectively Killed the natural springs that replenished the river and regulates the base-flow in the several Kunds across the river. In many senses, it is a landmark petition touching and linking many aspects of rivers…. including surface flow, groundwater, environmental flows, cultural aspects, heritage and governance.
Before the 2003 Kumbh Mela, the Nashik Municipal Corporation poured tonnes of concrete on the river bed for a stretch of 1.5 kms. This stretch is considered most holy and its banks host the Kumbh Celebrations and Shahis Snans. Devangji showed me old maps from 1919 depicting details of Kunds in the river. The 1.5 kms concretised stretch once held 16 Kunds, built mainly in the 17th and 18th Century. These were Gopika bai Tas, Laxman Kund, Ramkund, Dhanushyakund, Sita Kund, AhilyaKund, Sharangpani Kund,Peshwe Kund etc. The Kunds were built in Stone and allowed the groundwater to seep through inside the Kund.
Concretization completely drowned out and levelled 13 of these 16 Kunds. They cannot even be traced now. Only 3 Kunds remain today. And these too have at least 3.5 feet thick concrete layer sealing them off.
In the words of Hydrogeologist Himanshu Kulkarni, this is “Killing the aquifers. Kunds, all across the country, be it at Kanchedzonga or Everest or Cauvery, are springs, fed by groundwater. They bring groundwater to fore. They are groundwater discharge zones and points. Sealing them off with concrete is effectively killing the Kunds and the river stretches.”
Base flows from groundwater aquifers constitute a considerable proportion of river flows, especially in summer months. In basaltic strata while groundwater gets recharged in mountain slopes and higher elevations, it is discharged in low lying areas of river channels which have the lowest hydraulic head. Sealing off any chance of this groundwater to meet the river is ensuring that base flow does not reach the river. Add to this damming and absolutely no release of environmental flows, it is little wonder that the river and Kunds are completely dry. We do not have to wait for a severe drought for drying up the river. Concretizing a river bed ensures that the river stretch is killed.
Devang Jani may not have degree in hydrogeology (although he is learning fast). But he knows that the Kunds had live springs, just like Uma Kund in his house, and wondered how they could be sealed off.
He was not alone. Several Pujaris of Goda Ghats felt the same, but none came forward. He tells me in anguish, “Who cares about स्थान महात्म्य and तीर्थ महात्म्य? We are only supposed to chant these words without trying to grasp the meaning. I couldn’t do that anymore.”
“Why was Ramkund sacred? It was not only because drops of nectar fell in RamKund during Samudramanthan, it was also because it is the meeting place, संगम, of River Aruna and Godavari. It is where Godavari takes a decisive turn towards the south east, making her the fabled दक्षिण वाहिनी गंगा. But where is this Aruna River today? It is a river which finds mention in Puranas and originates from Ramshej mountains, holding religious and cultural significance. Where is it? In 1991 Kumbh Mela, Aruna River was completely buried and reclaimed. In 2003, remaining part was put into a pipeline. A river does not stop flowing only because you bury it, does it? In 2014 however, an entire road was built over Aruna… We ensured that the river died completely. Indra Kund, fed by Aruna still fills up with water, it does not go dry. We have built toilets and auditoriums over a sacred river.”
Rajesh Pandit from Godavari Gatarikaran Virodhi Manch (गोदावरी गटारीकरण विरोधी मंच) which has put up an exemplary struggle to save the Godavari added [vi], “Just upstream of Ramkund near the EK Mukhi Datta Temple was a well. It was so deep and wide that it was called as “Well of Seven Wells” (सात विहिरीची विहीर). The contractor who filled up that well told us that it needed more than 500 truckloads of debris to choke the well. Can you imagine that?”
But why did the well need to be choked?
“Because the administration thought it was a danger to the pilgrims. People may fall in it. Or it may be that funds had to be used…”
“The Gandhi Talav, again a part of riverbed which was reclaimed, it needed over 22 days to be concretised. That’s how long it takes to kill a river stretch. I saw it all from my balcony in 2002. But I was unsure about how to approach it then” says Devang ji.
“Just take an example of Dashawamedh Kund, a historic Kund opposite Neelkantheshwar Mahadev Mandir (निलकंठेश्वर महादेव मंदिर). It was supposedly built by Janak Raja. Today the Kund is flattened and a road passes over it in the river bed. According to the Nashik Gazette, 5 rivers-rivulets met Godavari at the Peshwe Kund, which is invisible today. The rivers were Varuna (todays Waghadi), Gayatri, Shraddha, Megha and Saraswati. Along with the Kunds, the rivers are lost too.”
“Haven’t the Kumbh Pilgrims and Akahada Sadhus tried to help you and the cause?” I wondered.
“Well, they did make some noise. Adhyaksha of the Akhada Parishad Shri Gnayndas Maharaj said that he will not bathe in the Ramkund unless the springs were rejuvenated.[vii] But these announcements did not last. Finally, I have realized that most of the pilgrims do not care for the river very deeply. They only care for water and their personal salvation. Water can come from anywhere. The Gomukh at Ramkund is fake and spouts Municipal Corporation piped water. But that does not seem to deter anyone.”
What are the main contentions and prayer of his petition in the High Court, I ask. “To completely dismantle the concrete poured in Godavari and free her groundwater springs and also to revive rivers which once met the Godavari. But the administration is asking us what is the guarantee that springs will be rejuvenated and there will be water after digging out the concrete.”
Himanshu Kulkarni says that current Nashik Collector Mr. Pravin Gedam is a proactive official. “But he was also heading the State Geological Survey and Development Agency (GSDA) for some months. He knows the links of groundwater and rivers. It is infact GSDA’s mandate and responsibility to see that springs and groundwater which fed the Godavari are restored.”
I talked with Nashik Commissioner Pravin Gedam, who has taken significant steps for protecting Godavari in Nashik and initiatives like Green Kumbh. His take is “Mindless groundwater extraction using dugwells and borewells coupled with practically nil recharge due to very less rainfall ensures that except during heavy rainy season river in the upstream continues to be influent, that is absorbing water inside rather than releasing it through springs. It is argued that if concrete layer at Ram kund is removed then springs will ensure flow of fresh water. This will happen only if aquifer below if fully recharged. If it is empty, then it will in fact absorb whatever water is poured from outside. Yes, concretization of any river bed is a very bad idea. But removal of concrete is best done in present situation only if we are sure that fully charged shallow aquifers exists adjoining the river bed. If it is not, removal of concrete will see all water put from outside will be absorbed leaving the riverbed dry.”
“What could be the demerits of removing this layer? Naked feet of devotees will be exposed to river bed with stone chips etc., which may hurt them. Secondly the present concrete can double up as a tank bed in case it is decided to pump water into Ram kund from outside (They have done this in many religious and tourist places). If bottom concrete is removed, and springs do not appear then it will not be possible to store purified water. it will be a dry riverbed and nothing can be done. Someone needs to assure that 100% that springs shall appear with adequate water and only then it is proper to remove concrete bed. Is there any other decision? Putting water from outside is a reversible decision but removal of concrete is not.” Deputy Mayor of Nashik Mr. Gurmeet Bagga also supports this view.
It is sad to say that this is highly inadequate response, almost a lazy one and there are several things wrong with this.
Firstly, the Municipal Corporation does not have the right to tamper with the river bed and river banks. Period. The concrete is a detriment to baseflow component of the river and has to be removed. A riverbed cannot be compared to a tank, holding treated drinking water only for pilgrims to take dips in.
Secondly, there are many ways to ensure that groundwater abstraction is regulated, and groundwater is recharged by rainwater harvesting, watershed development and general better upkeep of the catchment. In fact, the 2009 Byelaws enforce rainwater harvesting and recharge in all new buildings and its enforcement is a responsibility of the Urban Local Body. The Groundwater (Protection and Management) Act 2009, Section 9, Para 7 empowers the State Groundwater Authority and the Urban Local Bodies to enforce rainwater harvesting and groundwater recharge to existing buildings. It also empowers the State Groundwater Authority and GSDA to restrict deep borewells and shallow wells, as well as extensive abstraction of groundwater from shallow wells.
Prima facie it looks like aquifers and groundwater table adjoining Godavari at Ramkund are not dry. Many wells still hold water.
Dry aquifers is not a fait accompli situation, nor is a dead river! In fact, the urban body can and should take proactive steps to contain such abstraction. But here the Commissioner himself is using the worst case scenario as a justification for not removing concrete and killing any chance of protecting the river.
While no one can guarantee that removing concrete will miraculously make groundwater spout into an otherwise badly managed river, we can and we should be working towards achieving that result holistically, today there is no attempt at all. On the other hand, one can be 100% sure that sealing off a Kunds will kill any chance of rejuvenation of the river.
In difficult circumstances, it is important to take decisions that are ecologically wise and not status quoist. The Commissioner has informed that a committer of GSDA officials has been constituted to study the groundwater scenario and their report is awaited. However, depleted groundwater table alone cannot be a justification for continuing one more ecologically damaging practice.
Vishwanath Srikantaih, Rainwater Harvesting and Groundwater Expert suggests that there should be a thorough study of the hydrogeology of the region. It may be possible that water may seep in if aquifer is dry, but there are many ways to revive the aquifer as well as the river. He adds that across the country something similar is happening. Pouring borewell water, while choking off an aquifer is like a dark comedy. He laughingly adds “Borewells will become the new gods of India soon, replacing rivers.”
It is most surprising is that religious sentiments have not lead to betterment of rivers… neither Ganga, nor Godavari, nor Kshipra. On the other hand, they have led to knee jerk, short term, costly, environmentally and socially destructive and at times problematic short cuts, holding no benefit for the river.
Pilgrims and devotees seem to be bothered only about water in the river. Is the religious importance of rivers in India so limited as it looks like? Today it seems that religion is counterproductive to the health of rivers as ecological systems.
Perhaps future may not be so bleak. Devang Jani is also a devout believer after all. And he is fighting for the River. Let us hope that more such Devang Janis help the ecological entity of a river, rather than worshiping dying and dead rivers blindly.
Parineeta Dandekar, SANDRP
[iv] http://www.business-standard.com/article/news-ians/nashik-s-ramkund-goes-waterless-in-130-years-pilgrims-worst-hit-116040700514_1.html, http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/in-drought-hit-maharashtra-nashiks-sacred-ramkund-dries-up-for-first-time-in-130-years/1/638295.html