Isha Foundation’s Rally for Rivers initiative to plant trees alongside river banks appears impractical and lacks scientific rigour

 Jaggi Vasudev, head of Isha Foundation, flagging off Rally for Rivers initiative in Coimbatore on September 3 (Courtesy: Isha Foundation)
 Jaggi Vasudev, head of Isha Foundation, flagging off Rally for Rivers initiative in Coimbatore on September 3 (Courtesy: Isha Foundation)

NEW DELHI’S Indira Gandhi stadium was the venue of a grand event on October 2. A month before that, Isha Foundation, a Coimbatore-based non-profit that runs yoga and self-help programmes, had launched Rally for Rivers, an initiative to save India’s rivers, under which a cavalcade of about 20 vehicles had travelled over 9,000 km, across 16 states, culminating in the function at the stadium.

Launching the initiative at Coimbatore on September 3, the head of the Isha Foundation, Jaggi Vasudev, popularly known as Sadhguru, had suggested that a 1 km-wide green patch should be created on both sides of all the rivers of the country throughout their lengths. This would make people aware of the importance of rivers, control the micro-climate and reduce vulnerability to extreme rainfall events, he had said. Experts, however, are of the view that the idea is not just impractical, but lacks scientific basis.

In an e-mail response to Down to Earth, Jaggi Vasudev (see ‘Afforestation will stabilise rainfall patterns’) said 4 million hectares (ha) is needed for planting these trees, of which 25 per cent is owned by the government, 65 per cent is private farm land and 10 per cent is delta. The government and private owners will be encouraged to turn their lands into agroforestry plantations, says Jaggi. This can be problematic. A study by the Rights and Resources Initiative, a global network advocating rights of indigenous people, and the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in 2016, found conflicts over 1.2 million ha in the country. Another 4 million ha could only add to the problem, especially because India will be the world’s most land-scarce country by 2050, as stated by the Economic Survey 2016-17.

The belief that the trees will help control micro-climate is also not backed by research. On September 7, researchers from the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), a Bengaluru-based research organisation, wrote in the Economic Times that the connection between land cover and climate change is quite tenuous, and so is the link between forest cover and river rejuvenation. They also said that at many places rivers are dying because of over-exploitation of groundwater and planting trees may aggravate the problem.

Even the agroforestry idea is not practical. “It will be profitable only in areas where the rivers are close to a timber market,” says Soujanya Shrivastava of Delhi-based non-profit Centre for Science and Environment.

`Afforestation will stabilise rainfall patterns’

Jaggi Vasudev, head of Isha Foundation, says the Rally for Rivers has been conceptualised in consultation with foresters and hydrology experts 

How much land is required for the plantation on river banks? 

All the major rivers in the country run for around 20,000 km—that means 40,000 sq km on the river banks (1 km on both sides of the river). Around 25 per cent of this land belongs to the government (except in a few Himalayan states) and it must become forest (There is no data of land ownership on the riverside. This is an approximation from a state government’s cursory mention about the ownership of land). This needs to be forested with native and endemic forest species. The government land can be forested for a lateral distance of over 1 km. Even the entire government land can be converted to forest land. This can be done quickly as it doesn’t involve a lot of stakeholders. This intervention has the potential to exhibit change in microclimate and stabilisation of precipitation.

Of the farm land, around 10 per cent is delta land which we can leave as it is. So 65 per cent is farmers’ lands where we want them to shift from regular crops to tree-based agriculture. There is no need to acquire any land for the proposed solution. We want farmers to only transition from regular farming to treebased agriculture. We have observed that when a farmer transitions from field-based crops to tree-based farming, his/her income multiplies.

What is your view on water sharing between states? 

Right now there is not enough water flowing in a river. Even perennial rivers have stopped to flow all round the year. The flow in the Cauvery and Krishna rivers has fallen by 40 per cent, and the Krishna doesn’t meet the sea for around three-four months a year. Given this scenario, the upper riparian and lower riparian states are bound to fight for water. For example, there is a fight over the Cauvery between Karnataka, the upper riparian state, and Tamil Nadu, the lower one. I am not on either side of the fight because I was born and grew up in Karnataka but now I am in Tamil Nadu. I am making it very clear, I am on the side of the Cauvery. For thousands of years, Cauvery flowed and there was no conflict. It is only now, when the river flow has depleted, that the fight has started. So we need to augment the source to increase the water flow, so that both the upper and lower riparian states benefit. The entire work we are proposing is for revitalisation of rivers to augment the source of the river. We must burst the myth that only the upper reaches and origins of the river are the catchment.

Will your drive help recharge water?

The relationship of trees and rains is recognised scientifically. In our culture this recognition is ritualistically followed by creation of sacred groves. These sacred groves were nothing but a composite of a threshold number of trees that seed rain. Especially in a leeward state like Tamil Nadu, where we get rains from receding monsoons, this was the only way rain happened in the inland areas.

Our policy recommendation has been based on an extensive review of scientific literature, and with the involvement of experts covering the entire range or related scientific disciplines, including forest experts, hydrology experts, and scientists from the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University. There is a strong consensus that afforestation will stabilise the micro-climate and rainfall patterns in a given region, lead to better retention of rainwater in the soil and recharge of groundwater, and lead to more stable rainfall due to rain seeding ability of trees from ET [evapotranspiration] from the leaves and other rain seeding material (like pollens) that they give out. Details of the scientific basis can be found in the draft policy recommendation book that we will release shortly and open it for comments.

(See full interview here.)