Bring­ing a long-lost sa­cred In­dian river back to life

Top of­fi­cials back a search for the sa­cred wa­ter­way “They mess with history and with geography”

Bloomberg Businessweek (Europe) - - Contents - −Tom Las­seter and Ar­chana Chaud­hary

Ga­gan­deep Singh stands at the edge of a trench cut­ting through a sugar cane field in In­dia. He looks down at a dozen or so men toil­ing in the mud and bel­lows, “Dig!” There’s no time to stop, says Singh, a dis­trict de­vel­op­ment of­fi­cer in Haryana state, over the chop-chop-chop of small, crude shov­els goug­ing the earth.

The work gang is part of a project about 124 miles north of New Delhi to re-cre­ate a river named Saraswati, which has been revered for as long as there have been Hin­dus. It’s named dozens of times in the mil­len­nia-old sa­cred text, the Rig Veda, as wa­ter source and de­ity. The plan is to dig a canal along the Saraswati’s pre­sumed route—per­haps even find­ing ev­i­dence of its past. The canal, if all goes ac­cord­ing to plan, would wind its way through three parched states be­fore emp­ty­ing into the Ara­bian Sea on the Gu­jarat coast. The wa­ter will come from a nearby sea­sonal river that ap­pears dur­ing the mon­soon and will be dammed up and di­verted to the canal.

Some crit­ics are con­cerned the project is meant to sup­port a con­ser­va­tive re­li­gious agenda that

The speed with which the dig has taken off re­flects po­lit­i­cal back­ing up to the high­est lev­els

will alien­ate In­dia’s Mus­lims and other mi­nori­ties. For Hindu na­tion­al­ists, proof of the Saraswati’s ex­is­tence could but­tress claims that the Rig Veda is more fac­tual than myth­i­cal and that to­day’s Hin­dus de­scend di­rectly from the founders of In­dia’s orig­i­nal civ­i­liza­tion.

The project needs fi­nal en­vi­ron­men­tal and plan­ning ap­proval from sev­eral dif­fer­ent of­fices, but Singh says he expects clear­ance—and ac­cess to heavy ma­chin­ery—soon. The speed with which the dig has taken off re­flects po­lit­i­cal back­ing up to the high­est lev­els. The state’s chief min­is­ter, a mem­ber of the rul­ing party of Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi, an­nounced in Fe­bru­ary a re­search ini­tia­tive tar­get­ing the river. In May a worker on the project dug a hole and found wa­ter. It be­came a pil­grim­age site and made head­lines.

In 2005, when Modi was chief min­is­ter of the western state of Gu­jarat, he de­creed that a flow of canal wa­ter be di­verted to what his ad­min­is­tra­tion said was the dry riverbed of the Saraswati—a project of more lim­ited scope, rem­i­nis­cent of the cur­rent dig­ging in Haryana. The state de­clared in an an­nual re­view of its record: “The state gov­ern­ment has per­formed great ef­fort for the an­cient Saraswati river to make it live again.” Singh says so far 500 mil­lion ru­pees ($7.5 mil­lion) have been ap­proved for the Saraswati.

Al­though In­dia is a land of holy wa­ters, such as the Ganges, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment has done lit­tle to pre­serve them. A re­port in late 2011 by the Comptroller and Au­di­tor Gen­eral, a gov­ern­ment watch­dog, found that de­spite decades of cleanup pro­grams, river wa­ter “re­mains crit­i­cally pol­luted.” Sci­en­tists track­ing de­ple­tion rates of the world’s 37 ma­jor aquifers say the one feed­ing north­west In­dia is usu­ally the worst, ac­cord­ing to Jay Famigli­etti, a se­nior wa­ter sci­en­tist with a NASA lab­o­ra­tory in Pasadena, Calif. Modi’s gov­ern­ment says it will spend 500 bil­lion ru­pees through 2020 on ir­ri­ga­tion, rain­wa­ter har­vest­ing, and re­lated ef­forts. But bu­reau­cracy of­ten gets in the way.

Lit­tle is ham­per­ing the search for the Saraswati. In Au­gust 2014, Wa­ter Re­sources Min­is­ter Uma Bharti in­formed the lower house of Par­lia­ment that the gov­ern­ment “is com­mit­ted to the re­vival of the an­cient Saraswati river.” Bharti’s of­fice turned down re­quests for an in­ter­view.

To the Rashtriya Swayam­se­vak Sangh, or RSS, the Hindu vol­un­teer or­ga­ni­za­tion that trained and nur­tured Modi, it’s a cru­cial step to­ward es­tab­lish­ing a ra­tio­nale for a na­tion by and for Hin­dus, says Aditya Mukher­jee, a history pro­fes­sor at the Jawa­har­lal Nehru Univer­sity in New Delhi. “So, there­fore, they mess with history and with geography,” says Mukher­jee, a critic of Modi. RSS spokesman Man­mo­han Vaidya says, “Saraswati is not mytho­log­i­cal. She was a real river … the cen­tral and state gov­ern­ments are look­ing into this. So fund­ing will not be a prob­lem.” Satel­lite im­ages show dry riverbeds that some see as relics of the Saraswati. In­ter­pre­ta­tions of th­ese and other find­ings yield con­flict­ing sug­ges­tions for the river’s age, course, and size. Find­ing the Saraswati would re­veal “the best lo­ca­tions to track ground­wa­ter,” says Shashi Shekhar, the wa­ter min­istry’s top bu­reau­crat. “This is the eco­nomic rea­son—more than his­tor­i­cal or mytho­log­i­cal.”

Singh has al­ready over­seen con­struc­tion of 9.3 miles of the canal, which runs roughly 8 feet deep and more than 10 feet wide. Even though ben­e­fits in­clude ir­ri­ga­tion and flood con­trol, Singh says, “the gov­ern­ment wants to show that this is the old­est civ­i­liza­tion in the world.” Singh is Sikh, but says he’s a pa­triot and con­sid­ers his re­li­gion an off­shoot of Hin­duism. Ashok Gu­lati, an agri­cul­tural econ­o­mist at the In­dian Coun­cil for Re­search on In­ter­na­tional Eco­nomic Re­la­tions in New Delhi, calls the en­ter­prise “a good wish and a good dream.” He sug­gests, though, “if we can pro­tect our cur­rent rivers, that’s a bet­ter strat­egy than look­ing for a lost river.”

The bot­tom line The search for a lost river in north­west In­dia has re­li­gious and ide­o­log­i­cal over­tones.

The plan is to dig a canal along the Saraswati’s pre­sumed route, and maybe find ev­i­dence of its past

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