Walking along the Indus

By Shrishtee BajpaionApr. 09, 2024in Environment and Ecology

Specially Written for Vikalp Sangam

In the mountain springs, northeast of Mount Kailash in Western Tibet, China, rises a river, Sengge Khababs (lion-mouthed) serving as source stream for the magnificent river Indus that has been nourishing civilisations since 2nd millennium BC. 

Indus River. Picture Credits: Shrishtee Bajpai

Last year, while sitting on the banks of river Indus, listening to its ruffle, caused by strong winds, surrounded by majestic Trans-Himalaya in Ladakh, we spoke to local government school children about rights of rivers. A shy young girl, hiding her face behind her friend, said hesitantly “the river has the right to sing”. It took us a few minutes to figure out who she was and where she was sitting but we were amazed to hear young children articulating this deep interconnectedness and rootedness with the river. Another kid, encouraged by the flow of conversations, said,  “The river has a right to play”. Play?! I wondered, “yes, to play with stones, birds, fishes” he quickly added. These poetic articulations of nature’s rights, personhood or relationship with the rest of nature are exemplary of what embodied knowledge is.

Indus has been an important source of sustenance for centuries. Apart from being the nurturer of one of the earliest human civilizations- the Indus Valley Civilization (also known as the Harappan Civilization); the river has shaped the culture, history, and traditions of the regions it flows through.  In Ladakh, where the river enters from Tibet, it continues to sustain agricultural lands along its banks. The traditional irrigation system in Ladakh involves diverting water through canals to cultivate fields and support agricultural activities in the otherwise arid and mountainous landscape.

Ladakh has historically been a meeting point for various cultures, religions, and ethnicities. The Indus river served as a conduit for cultural interactions between Ladakh and other regions along its course, such as Tibet, and Gilgit-Baltistan. This cultural crossroads has resulted in a unique blend of Tibetan, Indian, and Central Asian influences in Ladakhi culture, architecture, art, and traditions. Yet, over the last two decades with especially massive influx of mainstream tourism ( that has provided many livelihood opportunities) that has been ecologically destructive and added huge pressure on scarce resources such as water. The state and central governments have thought of ‘development’ in Ladakh in the same homogeneous, mainstream manner as in the rest of India.

Indus along with the unique landscape of Ladakh has been at the receiving end of this unbridled exploitation, plastic pollution, construction along the river banks, encroachments and privatisation of river catchment area, damming of the river among others. Over the last few decades, the glaciers feeding the river and water springs have been melting at a significant rate. This has been primarily accelerated because of climate change, greenhouse emissions but also heavy deposit of the region’s black carbon (or soot, a component of particulates). This in the long term has disastrous impacts on the downstream communities. Because of increasing air pollution, mountain springs are drying up which is creating scarcity for communities that are living in the mountains. The source of water catering to the Kulum village in Ladakh near the banks of river Indus has already dried up forcing people to migrate to nearby  villages or the city of Leh as ‘climate refugees’. 

To raise awareness on some of these issues but crucially to help the young generation in Ladakh to reconnect with the river and her ecosystem, the Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust along with Kalpavriksh, Pune organised a walk along the  Indus River  from Upshi to Phey village from the 11th to 15th July. Over the course of these 5 days, 30 students from Ladakh along with other river enthusiasts participated in the walk and covered about 90 Kms. All through the walk, students interacted with the villagers living along the banks of the river, learning and sharing about peoples’ relationship with the river and raising awareness about its ecological and cultural importance through films, documentaries, public discussions among others. In the process, participants learned about the biodiversity around the river including birds, plants, fishes among others.The days were filled with cultural performance, songs, dances that reverberated the importance of water and the river Indus among local communities. Padma Shri awardee, Morup Namgyal who joined the inaugural function of the river walk narrated several stories about the river and how it is believed that Ladakhis are brave because they drink water of powerful Indus. But the destruction of the river is destroying the collective identity of Ladakhi communities. “The river is suffering so much. We can see it and feel it. It is telling of the pollution of our own minds”  he added. 

Shrishtee Bajpai with government school kids in Phey village

Recognising the pollution of the river, cleaning drives were organised all through the walk and participants picked up the garbage along the Indus banks and interacted with the villagers on how it can be changed. “It is not easy to keep the river clean. Many tourists who come to Ladakh don’t relate to the river in the same way and pollute it” said one of the community members at Phey village, which over the last few decades has prohibited the entry of outside tourists to protect its local ecology. Several students participating in the walk agreed with this observation and realised that until Ladakhis don’t acknowledge the plight of the river,  outsiders can’t be stopped. There is a need to create spaces for young people to connect with the river, its biodiversity, its folk stories, what it nourishes and how all that is impacted by the unbridled pollution and mindless development. 

While on the walk, there were many moments when we stopped to look at the unique bird diversity around the river and  its spectacular plant and aquatic biodiversity. But also, we reflected on how we can nurture citizen science among communities. Experts shared tools for observing the plants, birds, and using apps like Inaturalist and others to know our species better but also creating a repository of biodiversity found in the areas. “Only when we know what surrounds us will we stand to protect it” said Padma Gyalpo , a young birder who was introduced to wildlife through similar training programs offered by SLC-IT in the past. As an immersive group, evenings were spent discussing how 351 river stretches in India are excessively polluted according to the the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). Moreover, dams and the pollution have been resulting in ecological imbalance, ruining livelihoods of fishers and farmers, and impacting human health. With climate change, unprecedented floods, landslides, and other such disasters are exacerbated, which are already threatening the safety of dams around the world, with more extreme weather events elevating the risk of catastrophic dam collapses. The fragile ecosystems such as the Himalayas and the Western Ghats (where most dams are proposed and/or operational) in India are already prone to disasters, which are worsened by climate change. 

But the evenings were also  moments to celebrate how communities are protecting rivers, singing, dancing and celebration of life. The five days concluded with a concluding function at Phey village where of course there was traditional dancing, singing and also reflection from the walk. “Greed is at the centre of many of the ecological and social issues that Ladakhis are facing today” said Mohmad Amin Loin, Assistant director of Fisheries department in Leh. “Until we question this paradigm of development, we won’t be able to protect this unique landscape” he further added. 

Shrishtee Bajpai with kids in Chumathang village talking about Rights of River Indus

The walk was a small attempt to rekindle our connection with the river by trying to understand its threats, its stories, its biodiversity, its historical & current significance. But critically, it was an attempt to highlight the starkest paradox of human existence that even as we depend for our lives on rivers, even as we revere them, we also pollute them, block their flow, divert them into lifeless channels, and desecrate them in every conceivable way. Many indigenous peoples and scholars have argued on how the  most profound impact of colonialism and linguistic imperialism is the replacement of a language of animacy with one of objectification of nature, which renders nature as lifeless and without agency.  Our existential challenge is how we can nurture ethics of care and bring  discourse that can alter the way we see the rest of nature. How can we become the voice for rivers that are being polluted, dammed, divided and  diverted. Humans make borders but rivers, birds, air don’t know these borders. So can we stand up for the rights of rivers to live, flow and be! 

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Read by the same author:

The River Speaks

This short story was inspired by a walk organised alongside the Indus river in order to raise awareness and help the youth of Ladakh reconnect with the river and her ecosystem.

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