The remains of our rivers

Men dip their shaven heads into a smelly puddle of water amid chants and the chimes of temple bells. Some are here to pray, some for the funeral rites of loved ones.

By Jaideep Hardikar in Nashik, Satara and Marathwada
  • Published 25.05.16
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Men dip their shaven heads into a smelly puddle of water amid chants and the chimes of temple bells. Some are here to pray, some for the funeral rites of loved ones.

Ram Kund, on the Godavari's hallowed banks in Nashik city, is one of the four holy sites where the Kumbh Mela is held once every 12 years.

But something unusual is afoot: the Godavari - "Ganga of the South" - is withered by drought. So, Ram Kund has to do with a green, filthy pond created on the parched riverbed by municipality water tankers.

TANKERS TO DRY SOURCE, NEVER-SEEN-SCENES ALONG GODAVARI AND KRISHNA

The almost dry bed of the Godavari at Gangakhed in Parbhani district of Marathwada, around 600km southeast of Nashik in Maharashtra. The tiny dots in the middle are women scouring for water in puddles in the riverbed. This photograph was taken in the first week of May. Since then, matters have worsened
Through a tube snaking out from a tanker, water is being fed into Ram Kund, a place of pilgrimage along the banks of the Godavari in Nashik city, as the river has gone dry this summer
In Mahabaleshwar,  Dhondiba Sonu Mandre, the priest and guard at the Krishnamai temple, points to the mouth of an animal statue from where a stream flows out and grows into the Krishna river. The otherwise unabated flow has now stopped, for the first time in his memory.
Pictures by Jaideep Hardikar

Civic employee Somnath Gotarne, 30, and his co-workers make 80 round trips a day with their lorry-mounted tanker, each time fetching 6,000 litres of water from the nearby Indra Kund, an old dug-well.

"Luckily, Indra Kund seems to have enough water to last this summer," Gotarne grins.

"This must be the greatest irony of our times - tankers filling a river," says Satish Shukla, Ram Kund's chief priest. There's another: pilgrims performing rites in tanker water.

Shukla, a former councillor aged in his 70s, does not remember ever seeing a waterless Godavari in Nashik. But this summer the river has dried up almost along its entire stretch of 1,440km from the Western Ghats to the Bay of Bengal off Andhra Pradesh.

While a third of India is in the grip of drought following successive bad monsoons, the worst hit are the Godavari and Krishna basins. That's an area that includes 80 per cent of Maharashtra, north and central Karnataka, and the whole of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.

About 400km southeast of Nashik, at the popular hill town of Mahabaleshwar in Satara district, another septuagenarian, Narayan Zade, is also worried.

The Krishna, which originates with its four sister rivers from the perennial springs there, has turned a dust-bed.

"I've never seen the Krishna go dry at source," says Zade, a vagabond known in the town simply as "Baba".

Zade is sitting at the Krishnamai temple dedicated to the river, which too travels east to the Bay of Bengal off Andhra.

Two of the Krishna's sister rivers, the Gayatri and the Savitri, flow westwards into Konkan and the Arabian Sea. The Venna meets the Krishna on the plains of Satara while the Koyna meets her near Karad, further south.

The last two are dry too, though two or three upstream dams at the Sahyadri's foothills still hold some water to meet the drinking needs of nearby cities and villages.

"See that?" says the temple watchman-cum-priest, Dhondiba Sonu Mandre, pointing to an animal-shaped stone gargoyle. "The stream used to squirt out of its mouth non-stop, but no longer."

Tankers are increasingly the source of water for lakhs. Latur, in the catchment area of a tributary of the Godavari called the Manjra, now receives water by train.

Water in the bore-wells and dug-wells is sliding down by the week in places like Aurangabad, Jalna, Beed, Nanded and Adilabad.

Bathing is a luxury; people are using leaves as plates since they can be thrown away after meals.

Women spend between 5 and 8 hours a day fetching drinking water from distant hand pumps wherever they promise to yield some water.

Several women and girls have died while carrying water - of heat exhaustion or drowning, or because they fell into steep wells. Farmer suicides are rising.

Water cuts have been introduced in villages and towns along the Krishna in sugar-rich Satara, Sangli and Kolhapur.

Maharashtra had spent thousands of crores on lift-irrigation schemes that promise drinking water. "Where's the water to be lifted?" asks social activist Dhanaji Gurav in Sangli.

Sugarcane and horticulture fields have dried up. The only activity that seems to be on is digging or boring wells, or Jal Yukta Shivar works, a water conservation programme using huge excavation machines.

Hundreds are migrating to cities like Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore and Hyderabad for the summer. Relief camps have mushroomed for drought migrants in Mumbai.

Trimbakeshwar in Nashik and Mahabaleshwar in Satara are far removed from the acutely water-scarce and perennially drought-prone regions in the plains. But the drying up of the two major rivers has had a cascading and lasting impact on the water situation downstream: over 100 million people, close to 80,000 villages and 200 small and big towns in four states are clamouring for drinking water.

Even the town of Trimbakeshwar, one of the 12 revered Jyotirlingas in India and 40km north of Nashik from where the Godavari originates, is witnessing water cuts for the first time in memory. "We are getting water once in every three days now," says Pradeep Akolkar, a Brahmin priest who also doubles as a photographer for a Marathi daily. "Can you believe this, we are at the source?"

Massive land use pattern changes in the Western Ghats and deforestation have contributed to the problems in the basins of the rivers that originate in those mountains, ecologist Madhav Gadgil said at his home in Pune. "It's the outcome of an extractive economy: of mining, sand, water and rocks."

Pradeep Purandare, a former professor at the Water and Land Management Institute (Walmi) in Aurangabad, put it succinctly. "Drought is topical," he said, "water crisis structural."

"We have dammed the rivers unscientifically in the upper basins depriving the lower stretches of water."

One good monsoon, Gadgil said, may end the meteorological drought momentarily, but it won't fix the problem.

In Mahabaleshwar, a stone's throw from the Krishnamai temple lies a three-acre farm where Younus Ismail Nalband and wife Roshan Bi grow strawberries and mulberries. Mahabaleshwar grows 80 per cent of India's strawberries but production has taken a hit this year.

A drought in Mahabaleshwar, where the annual average rainfall exceeds 2,000mm? Nalband shakes his head ruefully.

From a lone bore-well on their farm that still yields some water, the Muslim couple send two buckets for the priest at the Krishnamai temple to perform the daily puja.

"It's only for Krishnamai," Roshan Bi says. "She (the river) gives us prosperity; we just pray she flows freely again."