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Cover Story

Is there a way out of this unholy mess?

India's population creates a unique crisis for its rivers. Such high densities of people, now coupled with increasing industrialisation, generate a volume of sewage and waste no other country has ever had to deal with.

It is imperative that the Centre carries out capacity studies on all key river basins. These studies should not remain mere scientific publications to be discussed and dismissed.

Carrying capacity studies must envision the potential to exploit as well calculate the need that will emerge in years. All projects that are planned along river basins must necessarily be part of this blue print.

This does not, however, require more 'centralisation' of river planning. The Centre has enough fiscal and legal muscle to put through a plan that all riparian states along a basin must accept. After all, there are very few irrigation, power or sewage projects that can come up without central government funding.

The government should identify the 'ecological flow for the river basin' and provide firm legal teeth for its imposition. India won't be the first country to do so. Almost 30 other countries have done so. They have valued fresh water in the rivers. So must we.

But to value fresh water the government might have to start at the very basic - looking at sewage disposal and water supply as two parts of the same cycle. At the moment, even statistics on sewage and pollution load in our rivers is doubtful. The reason is simple: the state is not held accountable for the millions that live without a basic sanitation system, especially in the cities, or for providing clean water.

Three rights need to be recognised by the government to set things in order - the right to clean drink ing water, the right to minimum water for other use, and the right to sanitation.

It's not an easy task to achieve, but if India is going to clock 9 per cent growth in the next decade, it's the least it can do for its rivers and its people.

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