Rivers are valuable natural sources for drinking water, provide sediments to floodplains, valley, and contribute to the rich biodiversity. They are contributors of ground water recharge to acquirers and interconnect the ecological and hydrological systems. They include different orders of streams and their catchments.

However, rapid urbanisation and economic development have negatively impacted this natural ecosystem. Dams constructed on rivers often alter their natural flow and disturb the natural sediment distribution patterns.

Rivers should have continuous flow in time and space, enabling them to have self-cleansing powers, and should have ecological flows in all seasons.

In India, most of the rivers are sewage carrying drains. The CPCB report (2022) suggests that out of 1920 river locations monitored during 2019 and 2021, about 43 per cent do not comply with the Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD) standard (outdoor bathing).

These are mainly due to the lack of adequate flow in rivers, discharge of untreated urban sewage and industrial effluents, leaching of agrochemicals, encroachments, indiscriminate mining of sand and pebbles from the riverbeds, and pollution from non-point sources.

River basin organisations (RBOs) should be established to take decisions on all aspects of river basin management.

Article 51 A (g) of the Constitution of India stipulates that every citizen has a duty “to protect and improve natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers, and wildlife and to have compassion for living creatures”. Thus, it devolves on all stakeholders to ensure that river water is not polluted. The National Water Policy 2012 mentions the need for conservation of rivers, prohibiting encroachments and diversion of rivers. It recognises the environmental needs of the floodplain.

In consonance with this policy, some States like Maharashtra have framed their policies taking into account aspects of river management.

The draft National Framework Bill (May 2016) talks about integrated river basin development and management, and mandates every State government to develop, manage and regulate basins of rivers through river basin master plan.

This Bill, unfortunately, is yet to become a legislation. The National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG) has proposed the Urban River Management Plan and adopted the River City Alliance (2021) selecting a few cities to plan sustainable management of urban rivers, which is laudable.

Unfortunately, the river water framework does not cover all dimensions of river management for restoring and maintaining wholesomeness of rivers and their tributaries. For instance, it is silent on river reservation zone policy to protect natural ecosystem alongside river and its tributaries.

Many countries have taken steps to consider river as a living entity, a measure that has helped in conservation and rejuvenation of rivers. River has been adopted as a legal person in Ecuador (2008), Bolivia (2011), New Zealand (2017), and Bangladesh (2018).

The Punjab and Haryana High Court passed an order in 2020 stating that Sukhna Lake in Chandigarh City is a living entity with rights equivalent to persons. In 2017, the Uttarakhand High Court declared Ganga and Yamuna and their tributaries as legal entities.

River rights

Across the world there is a concept of minimum rights of a river. The Universal Declaration of River Rights (as developed by Earth Law Centre 2017) are right to flow, performing essential function within its ecosystems, right to be free from pollution, to feed and be fed by sustainable aquifers, rejuvenation and restoration, and rivers to facilitate biodiversity management.

There is a need to re-examine the existing framework for river management in India at the central as well as State levels.

Sarkar is Distinguished Fellow, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI); Bharat is the Founder Director of Mu Gamma Consultants, Gurugram