The fact that most civilizations of the world flourished on river banks is more or less uncontested. The examples of early river-valley civilizations range from Indus Civilization near the Indus River to Mesopotamia along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, Egypt on the banks of the Nile, as well as the Chinese civilization near the Yellow River to name a few. Even today, most major cities of the world are situated on banks of rivers: Paris near Seine, London near Thames, New York near Hudson. The list is endless. The same holds true for cities in India too: Delhi on the banks of Yamuna; Allahabad at confluence of Ganga, Yamuna, and mythical Saraswati; Kolkata near Hooghly; Ahmedabad near Sabarmati and others. There is an intrinsic link between rivers and human life in most parts of the planet. Since time immemorial, human beings have relied on rivers as a source of livelihood in numerous ways. Navigation as a mode of transport becomes possible due to presence of rivers as waterways. Rivers are even worshipped in countries such as India. I argue that rivers as commons [i] has long remained a part of collective consciousness [ii] of people but advent of modernity with emphasis on individualism seem to challenge the erstwhile understanding. Its manifestation can be seen.

Advent of Modernity and emergence of Modern Nation-State

Modernity as a socio-economic and political phenomenon, with the promise for “progress” through reason, science, and technology started in post-medieval era in Europe, and later reached other parts of the world. So, is there one notion of modernity or are there multiple modernities? Not going into debates on modernity [iii], I mention that overall it is Western modernity, which has deep impact on Global South. There are many facets of modernity: industrialism, capitalism, money economy and others but I focus on nation-states.

Formation of modern nation-state had manifold objectives. As actor, it was supposed to plan development: in other words how to best utilize available resources: human population to natural resources such as minerals, land, forests, mountains, water, rivers, etc. Even the relationship between human beings and nature has changed. With advent of “modernity” and “progress,” controlling nature (by mining, damming, etc.) is overpowering other socially and culturally significant aspects. Rivers are no more source of livelihood, navigation or other services which they provide but are now used for irrigation, electricity, water supply, flood control, and dammed and diverted over long distances. River beds are source of sand and gravel as well as dumping ground and source of land to be reclaimed for construction. Notion of control and maximization of extraction has become dominant, and who gets what remains central to idea of politics in general, and applies to politics of rivers and water too.

Rivers as commons: Reality or Myth? Questions Ruchi Shree

Rivers as commons: Reality or Myth? Questions Ruchi Shree

Contested Perceptions of Rivers

In East and North East India, states such as West Bengal, Assam, and Bihar often face floods, and British rulers called rivers as ‘rivers of sorrow’ [iv]. Frequent floods in some rivers, and deforestation and degradation in their catchment areas often led to numerous problems in the states. In a booklet titled: Tairne wala samaj doob raha hai, Anupam Mishra argues floods have long remained a part of human history, but the perception of floods has changed in recent times. Earlier, people knew how to make use of floods for benefit and lived with them, but they are now seen as disaster. For him, floods are natural, and it is this modern way of thinking, which has made us forget friendly attitude of our ancestors toward them.

In South India, Tamil people not only take precautions against floods in Kaveri river but also celebrate floods in the river with festival called Flood of the Eighteenth [v]. The celebration is held on eighteenth day of Aadi (July-August), when thousands worship the river by throwing fruits and flowers in river water. They consider it day of rejoicing. We find such practices in Bihar and Assam (narrated by Dr Dinesh Kumar Mishra). In the same society, there is a possibility of different perceptions of floods, rivers, water, rivers as commons, etc.

Let’s take another instance of conflicting perspectives on the rivers. The way State as actor looks at a river is different from that of people. In post-Independence India, Nehru’s call to see large dams as “temples of modern India” [vi] asked for a new way of looking at the rivers. Idea of development, central to project of modernity, has shaped course of action taken by modern nation state in India too. The first five-year plan (FYP) provided for 3 major hydroelectric projects: Hirakud Dam on river Mahanadi in Orissa; Bhakra Nangal dam in Punjab; and Nagarjuna Sagar Dam on Krishna River in Andhra Pradesh. Damodar dams were already under construction before that.

Big dams were justified in name of collective good and since then country has witnessed construction of thousands of large dams on numerous rivers. On one hand, construction of large dams is matter of pride for modern nation-state in name of development, on the other it is about different forms of destruction, displacement, deforestation, and violence [vii] that it brings. There is also the issue of who takes decisions about projects, using what process, and who benefits. One of the longest battles against big dams, that is, the Narmada Bachao Andolan can be seen in this light as to how people’s perception of rivers is different from that of State.

SANDRP: South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People

SANDRP: South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People

Case of Himachal Pradesh: What happened to Rivers?

Himachal Pradesh is known for beauty of nature. Recently, I visited Dharmasala and McLeodganj for 3 days. As we started going towards mountains from Pathankot (Punjab), we got disillusioned at looking at the series of streams with hardly any water. From locals, we came to know that snowfall and rainfall has been less and availability of water in streams is low. However, water in streams should increase March onwards as ice on mountains melts in hot weather.

Following grand project of development undertaken by Indian state, Himachal Pradesh has seen massive onslaught, starting from the Bhakra Nangal Dam. Rivers as a source of water and as locations for building hydropower projects are eyed upon by States. They consider themselves as legitimate claimants of rivers and act as owners. We also had case of Sheonath River’s privatization [viii] in Chhattisgarh. In Himachal Pradesh, we see different kind of river privatization, where rivers are handed over to private and public sector companies for hydropower project development. Today, Himachal Pradesh has the largest number of hydropower projects and highest installed capacity, more than any other state in India.

So, from rivers as commons and as social and cultural entities and deities to river as private property has been a journey. We have come a long way, and long-held perception of ‘rivers as commons’ seems nonexistent in overarching presence of modern state as an actor or more of as planner, developer, or licensor. With the façade of scientific temperament, and stress on controlling nature, rivers are reduced to a source of water and power for the State. It scarcely matters that rivers are living ecosystems and flowing rivers provide services to society and are habitats for a variety of flora and fauna. The floodplains of a river is seen as wasteland by State and its agents. The series of illegal construction of buildings, specially resorts with titles: ‘hill side view’ on riverbed in Himachal is an example of that. Is such construction in hilly areas sustainable? In June 2013, Uttarakhand and in Sept 2014, Kashmir had a massive flood disaster. In April-May 2015, Nepal had a massive earthquake. Tourism as an industry is being pushed and after dams, now states like Himachal and others are on a project of tourism development. There is the famous case of Himachal Pradesh, where a politician diverted a river for his hotel. This was fortunately struck down by Supreme Court but others have gone ahead, as was apparent during the Uttarakhand flood disaster. We have examples of Sabarmati riverfront (Gujarat) encroaching into river flood plain and a few other riverfront development projects are in the pipeline in the other states.

To some extent, even perception of ‘rivers as commons’ which was imbibed in the collective consciousness of people has dwindled due to modernity. The modern way of thinking and living has replaced symbiotic relationship between human beings and nature with ‘nature as other’ and ‘nature to be controlled.’ It is a conflict between two world views. But, we can’t say the notion of ‘rivers as commons’ has become irrelevant. Numerous tribes in the North East and other parts of India worship rivers and mountains. One may look at the case of the Niyamgiri struggle in Orissa where local people fought mighty MNC Vedanta to claim right over mountains. To a tribal, the Niyamgiri mountain is a representation of deity, but for Vedanta it is just a source of mineral. The Judiciary has accepted tribal world view. In many cases, Judiciary has accepted public trust doctrine, but there are no well-defined norms as to how this is to be practiced, say in the case of the rivers. Last year, Judiciary declared Rivers Ganga and Yamuna as legal entities but not much could be achieved. Should we see the declaration as strengthening ‘rivers as commons’ or individual rights of rivers being more important remains a dilemma?

So, where is the case and practice of treating rivers as commons? What needs to be done to achieve that? Why has the judiciary not acted for achieving that? Why haven’t we made progress? What institutions are there to achieve that goal? What institutions do we need to achieve that? What changes do we need in laws and decision-making to make progress in that direction? Why has society which seems to care for rivers not cared to ensure that the State treats rivers as commons? What role has the media played in all this? Answers, unfortunately are not even blowing in the wind or flowing in any river. We will have to strive to find them.

By Dr Ruchi Shree (


[i] Perception of water as natural resource, and politics around it is shaped by positions ranging from water as economic good to water as human right to water as commons. Here, I use concept ‘rivers as commons’ to denote worldview that they belong to everyone and beyond ownership.

[ii] Collective Consciousness is concept often used in social sciences, especially in psychology and sociology. It is: “the set of shared beliefs, ideas, and moral attitudes which operate as unifying force within society’ (Collins Dictionary of Sociology). The term was introduced by sociologist Emile Durkheim in the nineteenth century and reformulated in the twentieth century by psychoanalyst Carl Jung, who uses term collective unconscious.

[iii] Scholars namely Eisenstadt argue that in the post Second World War period, modernizing societies refuted homogenizing and hegemonic assumptions of the Western model of modernity. Many of the Third World Countries such as India experienced ‘colonial modernity’ that is modernity came as by-product of colonialism. Modernity gave primacy to what it recognized as scientific knowledge, and thus other forms of knowledge prevalent in the societies were marginalized.

[iv] In 1954, an article in EPW titled ‘Rivers of Sorrow’ narrates havoc of floods

[v] The Story of Our Rivers, Part 2, by Al Valliapa, National Book Trust, New Delhi, p. 15.

[vi] A concept used by Nehru while inaugurating Bhakra Nangal Dam in Punjab in 1954. He used the concept for modern industries, power plants, steel plants, etc. It is not well known that in a speech in November 1959, Nehru called the blind push for the big dams as a disease of gigantism and advocated that irrigation and other benefits can also come from smaller projects.

[vii] One may read ‘Development and Violence’ by Ashis Nandy in his book The Romance of the State: And the Fate of Dissent in the Tropics, Oxford University Press, New Delhi (2003), pp. 171-181.

[viii] 22.6 km stretch of river was privatized. One may read ‘Privatisation: In Chhattisgarh, a River becomes Private Property’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 41, Issue no. 7, 2006.

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