take on the mighty river.” (Seeking the Beloved, translations of Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai’s Poems)
In the inky, starless night, beautiful Sohni plunged into the flooded River Chenab to meet her beloved Mehwal, knowing well that she will never make it to the other side. Sohni is one of the seven heroines brought to life by Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai, a remarkable 18th Century Sufi poet, mystic and reformist living on the banks of Indus. Sohni was the wife of a potter, in love with Mahiwal, a cattle herder from the banks of the Chenab. Like all poignant love stories, Sohni-Mahiwal’s tale was short-lived, but 300 years later, the legend of Sohni flows through the Chenab and lives on in the songs of peasants. In Punjab, the land of five rivers, they sing of Sohni, of the roaring, helpless river and of mad, wilful love. The narrative is so unwrinkled and dewy that till this day, silent figures sweep the modest tombs of Sohni and Mahiwal, hoping that their love will meet a better fate. Like Sur Sohni (Sohni’s poem) from Shah jo Risalo (Poetry of the Shah) prophecised:
Speaking on the occasion, Swami Avimukteshwara Anand criticised Union Water Resources Minister Uma Bharati for doing absolutely nothing for the cause of the river Ganga and said she seems more interested in her chair rather than the river. He also criticised Prime Minister Modi for claiming that he is son of Ganga, but doing nothing positive for the river. Swami ji said Nitin Gadkari seems bent on further destroying the river in the name of National Waterway.
Addressingthe seminar Nitish Kukar said that Bihar’s demand for the framing of national policy on desiltation of the Ganga and clearance of silt in the state is not a political issue, as the matter is related to larger environmental and biodiversity issues facing the people.
He added, “Concrete steps have to be taken to ensure incessant flow of the Ganga. Otherwise, cleanliness of the river is not possible.” Referring to the need to protect biodiversity, he said conservation of the Ganga dolphins is dependent on the cleanliness of its water. He added the Farakka barrage constructed across the river in West Bengal has led to slow flow of water between Buxar to Bhagalpur, and consequent annual flood and waterlogging during the monsoon.
Nitish recalled the devastating flood that the state had witnessed in the Ganga basin last year and said Bihar had spent Rs 1,058 crore over the last five years to prevent soil erosion. He appealed to the Centre to frame a sound policy on silt management, stressing that it should be prepared by making on the spot survey and assessment of the prevailing situation. Nitish said even the report of the committee headed by Madhav Chitale had accepted the problem of siltation facing the Ganga.
When on March 20-21, 2017, on the eve of World Water Day, India and Pakistan’s Permanent Indus Commission met in Islamabad for its 113rd meeting, there was a lot at stake besides the immediate issue or even the Indus Treaty.
Water sharing disputes across the country (and even beyond) are only going to escalate with increasing demands, and also with increasing pollution & losses reducing the available water. Climate change is likely to worsen the situation as monsoon patterns change, water demands going up with increasing temperatures, glaciers melt and sea levels rise. The government’s agenda of interlinking of rivers would further complicate the matters.
The ongoing Cauvery Water Dispute [iv] has once again brought the focus on interstate river water sharing disputes in India and what has been our experience so far. There is no solution of Cauvery water dispute in sight and the engineer-dominated Cauvery Management Board that the Cauvery Water Dispute Tribunal Award has recommended is unlikely to help matters. Continue reading “Inter state River Water Disputes in India: History and status”→
Diplomatic and military strategies, by definition, are not decided through public debates. So the jingoism around Indus treaty with Pakistan seems more like an attempt at sending threatening signals. But it will have multiple serious ramifications in any case, so it is worth deliberating about.
The 1960 Indus treaty has allocated rights of development on three eastern tributaries (Sutlej, Beas & Ravi) to India, and we have exhausted that entitlement almost fully. Attempts to use the occasional remaining flow will mean a huge impact in Indian Punjab, which is unlikely to resonate well with the people of Punjab. The treaty gave Pakistan dominant right of development of the three western tributaries (Chenab, Jhelum and Indus), India has limitations about water use (both in terms of quantity and manner of use) in case of the western rivers. India has not yet exhausted the entitlement in this case.
Above: Zindapir Shrine at Sukkur Photofrom: British Library
Perhaps we all have our pet projects which we wish would go on forever. I have been working on a Primer on Riverine Fisheries of South Asia for some years now (my office may disagree with the definition of ‘some’). Like a magpie collecting shiny knick-knacks, I keep collecting (quite serendipitously, or so I think) anecdotes and interviews and snippets on the subject. Continue reading “Jhulelal or Zindapir: River Saints, fish and flows of the Indus”→
In the most significant event so far on the issue of landslide blockage of Phutkal River in Zanskar Valley in Kargil District in Kashmir, the National Crisis Management Committee (NCMC) chaired by the Union Cabinet Secretary Shri Ajit Seth met on Feb 20, 2015 and approved the Action Plan whose implementation will begin within next 15 days and is to be completed by end of March. This decision is based on assumption that the snowmelt will cause landslide dam threatening situation only in April.
Feb 13, 2015: The picturesque Zanskar Valley in Jammu and Kashmir State in Northern India continues to remain under threat as one of the tributaries of the Zanskar River has been blocked by a massive 200 ft high landslide dam (equal to height of a 20 storey building). The landslide dam between Shaday Sumdo and Mar Shun in the Zanskar subdivision of Kargil district has created about 14 km long lake, whose size is increasing with every passing day. Life and properties of around 4000 people are at risk due to the possible flashfloods when the landslide dam breaches. Continue reading “Landslide Dam blocks Phutkal River, threatens Zanskar Valley: Update”→
The picturesque Zanskar Valley in Jammu and Kashmir State in Northern India is under threat as one of the tributaries of the Zanskar River has been blocked by a massive 200 ft high landslide dam (equal to height of a 20 storey building). The landslide dam between Shaday Sumdo and MarShun in the Zanskar subdivision of Kargil district has created about 8 km long lake, whose size is increasing with every passing day. The landslide dam is made of mostly fine grained debris & blocks 97% of the flow of around 50 cusecs flow at this period as per records. While the lake is frozen right now, the threat of its breach looms as soon as the melting season starts. The landslide dam was reportedly created on Dec 31, 2014, when a whole side of mountain soil had landed on the Phuktal River. The landslide lake has been accumulating water for over a month now. Continue reading “Landslide Dam blocks Zanskar River tributary, threatens Valley”→
Who has not seen a river? And who has then, not been moved by a fierce emotion? The common man sees its life granting blessed form, the government or CWC engineer sees in it as a potential dam project, the hydropower developers a site for hydro project, a farmer his crop vitality, fisher folk, boatspeople and river bed cultivators a source of livelihood, the industry & urban water utilities view it as their personal waste basket, the real estate developer as a potential land grab site, a sand miner as a source of sand and the distraught villager his lifeline. In earlier days, film makers used to see it as site for filming some memorable songs, but these days even that has become a rarity.
Rivers truly are a complex entity that invoke varied emotions and responses!
A river shifts in colour, shape, size, flow pattern of water, silt, nutrients and biota, in fact all its variables seem to change with time and space. The perceptions differ as one moves from mountains to plains to the deltas. The same stream displays a wide variance of characteristics that depend upon the land it flows through and the micro climate along its banks. Rivers many a times seem to mirror the local flavour of the land they flow through. Or is it the local flavour that changes with river flow? Clearly both are interdependent.
Today, as we talk of rivers, their rejuvenation and try to figure out their ecological flow and their health quotient , a good beginning to understand the existing rivers would be their classification modules. What defines a river? Which factors are used for their classification? How do we actually classify our rivers?
As far as the first of these questions is concerned, none of the official agencies have tried to define a river!
Possiby, the first post independence classification of river basins was attempted in 1949 by precuser institute of current Central Water Commission (CWC). Since then various organisations have followed their own methodology and criteria for basin classification and arrived at different numbers.
NIH (National Institute of Hydrology), Roorkee organises our 7 major rivers, that is the Brahmaputra (apparently this includes the Ganga and the Meghna), Godavri, Krishna & Mahanadi (that flow into the Bay of Bengal), and the Indus, Narmada & Tapi (which drain into the Arabian Sea) , along with their tributaries to make up the entire river system in our country. This is clearly problematic and chaotic, since it leaves out vast areas of the country and the rivers that flow through them.
A quick look at the classification based on these 3 aspects –origin, topography and the basin they form.
Based on Origin or Source
Depending on the origin or where they begin their journey from, there are the Himalayan (perennial) rivers that rise from the Himalayas and the Peninsular rivers that originate from the Indian plateau. The Himalayan rivers include the Ganga, the Indus and the Brahmaputra river systems along with their tributaries, which are fed throughout the year by melting ice and rainfall. They are swift, have great erosion capacity and carry huge amounts of silt & sand. They meander along the flat land, create large fertile flood plains in their wake and their banks are dotted by major towns and cities.
The peninsular rivers, on the other hand are more or less dependent on rain. These are gentler in their flow, follow a relatively straighter path, have comparatively less gradient and include Narmada, Tapi, Godavari, Krishna, Cauveri and Mahanadi rivers, among many others.
Based on topography
The Himalayan Rivers flow throughout the year, are prone to flooding and include Indus and the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna.
The Deccan Rivers include the Narmada and Tapi rivers that flow westwards into the Arabian Sea, and the Brahmani, Mahanadi, Godavari, Krishna, Pennar & Cauvery that fall into the Bay of Bengal.
The Coastal Rivers are comparatively small in size and numerous in number, with nearly 600 flowing on the west coast itself.
Rivers of the Inland Drainage Basin are centered in western Rajasthan, parts of Kutch in Gujarat and mostly disappear before they reach the sea as the rainfall here is scarce. Some of them drain into salt lakes or simply get lost in the vast desert sands.
Island Rivers Rivers of our islands: A&N islands & Lakshadip group of islands
The Narmada River System comprises of the Narmada River that represents the traditional boundary between North & South India and which empties into the Arabian Sea in Bharuch district of Gujarat. Tapi river of the Tapi River System rises in the eastern Satpura Range of Madhya Pradesh and then empties into the Gulf of Cambay of the Arabian Sea, Gujarat. Its major tributaries are Purna, Girna , Panzara , Waghur , Bori and Aner rivers.
Also called the Vriddh (Old) Ganga or the Dakshin (South) Ganga, Godavari of the Godavari River System, originates at Trambakeshwar, Maharashtra and empties into the Bay of Bengal. Summers find the river dry, while monsoons widen the river course. Its major tributaries include Indravati, Pranahita, Manjira, Bindusara and Sabari rivers.
The Krishna River System includes Krishna river, one of the longest rivers of the country,that originates at Mahabaleswar, Maharashtra, and meets the sea in the Bay of Bengal at Hamasaladeevi, Andhra Pradesh. Tungabhadra River, formed by Tunga and Bhadra rivers, is one of its principal tributary. Others are Koyna, Bhima, Mallaprabha, Ghataprabha, Yerla, Warna, Dindi, Musi and Dudhganga rivers.
The Kaveri River System has the Kaveri (or Cauvery) river whose source is Talakaveri in the Western Ghats and it flows into the Bay of Bengal. It has many tributaries including Shimsha, Hemavati, Arkavathy, Kapila, Honnuhole, Lakshmana Tirtha, Kabini, Lokapavani, Bhavani, Noyyal and Amaravati. The Mahanadi of the Mahanadi River System, a river of eastern India rises in the Satpura Range and flows east into the Bay of Bengal.
Broader definition: Catchment area size
River basins are widely recognized as a practical hydrological unit. And these can also be grouped, based on the size of their catchment areas (CA). This easy to understand river system classification divides them into the following categories as tabulated below:
CA in sq km
No. of river basins
CA in million sq. Km
% Run off
Major river basin
CA > 20,000
Minor (Coastal areas)
Flow is uncertain & most lost in desert
Major river basins include the perennial Himalayan rivers- Indus, Ganga & Brahmaputra, the 7 river systems of central India, the Sabarmati, the Mahi, Narmada & Tapi on the west coast and the Subarnekha, Brahmani & the Mahanadi on the east coast and the 4 river basins of Godavri, Krishna, Pennar and Cauvery, which takes the total to 14. The medium river basins include 23 east flowing rivers such as Baitarni, Matai & Palar. A few important west flowing rivers are Shetrunji, Bhadra, Vaitarna & Kalinadi. The minor river basins include the numerous, but essentially small streams that flow in the coastal areas. In the East coast, the land width between the sea and the mountains is about 100 km, while in the West coast, it ranges between 10 to 40 km. The desert rivers flow for a distance and then disappear in the desert of Rajasthan or Rann of Kutch, generally without meeting the sea.
A need for details
Under India-WRIS (Water Resources Information System) project too, the river basin has been taken as the basic hydrological unit, but the country has been divided into 6 water resource regions, 25 basins and 101 sub basins, which are an extension of the earlier 20 basins delineated by CWC, as detailed in the ‘River basin Atlas of India’.  The details of the individual catchment area of these 20 river basins is tabulated here:
CA (Sq. Km)
River Length, km
Indus (Upto border)
Barak & others
Brahmani & Baitarni
West flowing rivers from Tapi to Tadri
Many independent rivers
West flowing rivers from Tadri to Kanyakumari
East flowing rivers Between Mahanadi & pennar
East flowing rivers Between Pennar & Kanyakumari
W flowing rivers of Kutch & Saurashtra includes Luni
Area of inland drainage in Rajasthan
Many independent rivers
Minor rivers draining into Myanmar & Bangladesh
Many independent rivers
Note: 1. River Length is only for the main stem of the river, does not include tributaries, etc.
Area of inland drainage in Rajasthan is not given in this reference, it has been arrived at by inference.
Indus basin is constibuted by six main rivers: Sutlej, Beas, Ravi, Chenab, Jhelum and Indus itself. Some tributaries of this system form independent catchment in India (e.g. Tawi river in Chenab basin) as these confluence with the main river only in downstream of the border.
Of course these methods only classify rivers based on their physical & geographical attributes, their drainage area, river length, volume of water carried and tributary details. For a detailed study of a river, what is also needed is its ecological assessment. The methods for river classification may be varied and still evolving, but this information is fundamental to better understand and map the rivers that criss cross across the country.
And definitely a first step to try and understand our rivers!