Jaggi Vasudev wants to plant trees along every waterway and is crossing the country to raise support
Indian guru's drive to save rivers is timely but questionable
The Mercedes G63 SUV, painted bright green and blue, is a week into a month-long drive across the length of India. Inside sits Jaggi Vasudev, turbaned and bearded, a spiritual guru to millions who is trying to rally Indians around the cause of saving the country’s rivers.
It is a noble aim, for India’s polluted and mismanaged waterways are in dire need of saviours. But the solution Mr Vasudev is proposing is misguided or, at worst, outright wrong, experts say. And both he and the backers of his campaign have themselves been embroiled in breaches of environmental regulations.
Mr Vasudev, who started his Rally for Rivers campaign on September 3, the day he turned 60, heads the Isha Foundation, a non-profit that promotes its own form of yoga as a means to attaining its goal of "cultivating human potential". The foundation has a sprawling campus in the south Indian city of Coimbatore and claims to have seven million volunteers who help run its operations around the world.
Fondly called “Sadhguru” — or “true guru” — Mr Vasudev counts among his followers many of India’s most celebrated actors, politicians, cricketers and journalists. Several of them issued statements of support when he announced his plan to drive 7,000 kilometres, from the southernmost tip of India through 16 states to the Himalayas in the north, to raise awareness for his campaign.
India’s major rivers are rapidly drying up or turning toxic with pollution, Mr Vasudev said in his campaign literature. Around “25% of India is turning into a desert,” one bullet-point reads. Another: “By 2030, we will only have 50% the water we need for our survival.”
“Four decades ago, the rivers in my native village were flowing in full capacity and they were a sight to watch,” said Virender Sehwag, a retired Indian cricket star, as he flagged off the rally week. “I want to see that again and that is the reason I support this cause.”
During his journey, Mr Vasudev is encouraging people to call the campaign’s phone number to show their support. He hopes to cite this support when he presents the Indian government with his suggested policy solution: to plant a kilometre-wide belt of trees on either side of every major Indian river.
“Forest trees can be planted on government land and fruit trees on farm land,” the Isha Foundation’s website proposes. “This will ensure our rivers are fed throughout the year by the moist soil. This will also reduce floods, drought and soil loss, and increase farmers’ incomes.”
On Saturday, as Mr Vasudev's caravan passed through Bengaluru, capital of the south Indian state of Karnataka, it was announced that his foundation and the state government had signed an agreement to plant 250 million trees along riverbanks.
Mr Vasudev commands a massive audience, and his campaign is bound to raise levels of awareness about India’s severely stressed rivers. But the solution he champions ignores how complicated the rejuvenation of water bodies can be, said Veena Srinivasan, who works on hydrology and water resources at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment in Bengaluru.
A comprehensive effort to tackle the problem would have to include detailed hydrological studies, cutting down on water pollution, recharging groundwater stocks that are presently overdrawn, and changing how river water is diverted or used for irrigation and dams.
“This is not the first large-scale effort at tree planting,” Dr Srinivasan told The National. “My own experience with this is only with eucalyptus, which was actively promoted in the 1980s through social forestry programmes.”
Research has shown that trees such as eucalyptus, which are commonly used in afforestation drives, tend to suck up groundwater supplies instead of helping recharge them, she said. Further, while trees can certainly help prevent large-scale erosion of riverbank soil, they do so only in locations that are prone to flash floods.
Regulations already exist to control pollution in rivers; what is really needed is their thorough implementation, said Rakesh Jaiswal, an environmentalist in the city of Kanpur who has been campaigning for decades against pollution in the Ganges.
“Not a single person has been penalised for polluting the river, despite court orders,” Mr Jaiswal said. “There is lack of dedication and honesty at every level.”
The credibility of Mr Vasudev’s campaign — conducted, as several Indian media outlets have pointed out, in a gas-guzzling SUV — is also shaken by the environmental reputation of the Isha Foundation and its backers.
The Tamil Nadu government has acknowledged that several buildings on the foundation’s campus have been built illegally. A Chennai-based environmental NGO has also petitioned the National Green Tribunal to stop the foundation from conducting large cultural festivals that affect or encroach upon adjoining forested land.
One of the sponsors of Rally for Rivers is the Adani group, a conglomerate of companies based in Gujarat. In 2014, an environment ministry committee found that an Adani port project had violated several rules and proposed a penalty of 2 billion rupees (Dh115 million). Last year, however, the government under prime minister Narendra Modi — who is known to be close to Gautam Adani, the group’s chairman — waived the penalty.