Flash floods are often attributed to human activities that hinder natural course of earthly phenomena. Urban settlements on river banks, an ancient trend, are nowadays seen as a major factor of flash floods in cities. The casualty of over 5,000 in last year’s disaster in Uttarakhand could have be far less, had there been no buildings on the bank of Mandakini river in the Hindu pilgrimage town of Badrinath. The recent flash flood in Guwahati that claimed 12 lives is too attributed to encroachments on two-three main streams flowing across the city.
Though wars were fought over territorial disputes in the past, encroachment, as it is understood today, is quite a new phenomenon. No historian saw any wrong in civilizations coming up along great rivers such as Indus, Nile, Tigris-Euphrates and Yellow River or Huang He. It’s quite natural for human settlements growing along rivers since the latter provided food and transport, besides drinking water and irrigation. But, there was not much pressure of population on those cities like the present ones do. The earlier factors, except for the drinking water, hardly matter for urban settlements coming up along rivers nowadays. Some people just want a roof over them to take shelter. Others earn money by letting the space out, building hotels etc. Living by the rivers in cities, especially in India and other countries having horrible sense of cleanliness, these people, however, enjoy a ‘benefit’ – throw all kinds of solid and liquid waste directly into the once pristine rivers, without having to search for a garbage bin. There is a vast difference between the objectives of cities coming up near rivers now and then.
Urban settlements along rivers are now more of a hurdle than contributors of human civilization. The pressure of human beings on river courses has increased so much that many governments had to curb encroachments by conducting eviction drives, even at the cost of their vote banks. A small temple, built on the bank of Bahini river in Guwahati, was demolished during the post-flood eviction drive. Present prime minister and then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, who was seen as a poster boy of Hindutva, tackled encroachment in the state capital with an iron hand in 2008. Over 90 temples were demolished in Ahmedabad during the massive drive, making Modi unpopular among many hard-line Hindu organizations. It’s time people understood rivers are not meant for carrying dirt and filth only. They gave birth to civilizations and deserve respect accordingly.
(Published as editorial in The Meghalaya Guardian on July 11)