NEW DELHI – Gagandeep Singh stands at the edge of a trench cutting through a sugarcane field in rural India. He looks down at a dozen or so men toiling in the mud in plastic flip-flops and bellows: “Dig!”
There is no time to stop, explains Singh, a district development officer, as the chop-chop-chop of small, crude shovels gouge the earth. It is the sound of history being made.
The work gang is part of an ambitious project to recreate a mystical Hindu river about 200 km (125 miles) north of New Delhi. They are digging a canal in Haryana state that will, the thinking goes, eventually run hundreds of miles through three water-parched states to the Arabian Sea. The nascent waterway has been given the green light from Singh’s bosses, but has yet to get final environmental or planning approval. A detailed government report is being prepared and, Singh says, he expects clearance, and the deployment of heavy machinery, sometime this year.
On one level, by eschewing red tape to speed a new water project, the enterprise reflects a kind of can-do pragmatism espoused by Prime Minister Narendra Modi that is spurring foreign investment in India. On another, it speaks to a nationalistic fervor that is alienating minorities, which includes the country’s 172 million Muslims, and some critics say represents a desire for a conservative Hindu agenda.
The speed at which the project has taken off in Haryana is exceptional for India and reflects political backing that extends to the highest levels of power. The state’s chief minister, chosen by Modi’s ruling party, announced in February the creation of a research initiative targeting the lost river, the Saraswati. In May, a worker on the project dug a hole in the ground and found water. The hole became a pilgrimage site, and newspaper headlines in India asked whether the Saraswati had been rediscovered.
Land of holy waters
While India is traditionally a land of holy waters, such as the River Ganges, the modern state has done little to preserve them. A report in late 2011 by the nation’s comptroller and auditor general, a government watchdog, found that despite more than 26 years of government programs to control pollution, river water in India “remains critically polluted.”
India’s Central Water Commission reported in May 2014 that of 387 river water-quality monitoring stations across the country, 100 showed levels of two or more toxic metals beyond permissible limits. Commission Chairman A.B. Pandya said in a recent interview that the nation’s total water storage is currently less than half what it should be. A project to interlink India’s rivers and divert water from surplus areas to those affected by drought, discussed for decades, is still not completed, he said.
Scientists tracking raw depletion rates of the world’s 37 major aquifers have found the giant subterranean lake feeding northwest India, where Haryana is located, is usually the worst on the globe, said Jay Famiglietti, a senior water scientist with a NASA laboratory in Pasadena, California.
‘Committed to Saraswati’s revival’
That is not hampering the pursuit of the Saraswati. In August 2014, Water Resources Minister Uma Bharti, informed the lower house of parliament that her government “is committed to the revival of the ancient Saraswati river.” Bharti’s office turned down multiple requests for an interview, saying she was unavailable.
Experts outside the ministry are reticent to speak about the science underpinning the politically-charged subject. One researcher who helped shape the nation’s agricultural policies said he wasn’t aware of the plans, although they have been widely publicized. Another, who played a pivotal role in water conservation, said he would rather not discuss anything to do with the Saraswati. A senior official at one of the main nongovernmental environmental groups in New Delhi said his organization hasn’t studied the matter.
Ashok Gulati, an agricultural economist at the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations think tank in New Delhi, called the enterprise, “a good wish and a good dream.” He suggested, though, “if we can protect our current rivers, that’s a better strategy than looking for a lost river.”
Named in Hindu sacred text
The Saraswati has been revered for as long as there has been Hinduism. It is named dozens of times in the religion’s first sacred text, the Rig Veda, as both water source and deity.
For Hindu nationalist groups, it carries a second significance: to prove the Saraswati’s existence as described in the Rig Veda could buttress claims that the text is more factual than mythical. And demonstrating a continuity between archaeological findings of settlements along that river’s former banks, wherever they may be, would underpin a narrative that Hindus are direct descendants of India’s original civilization.
To Modi and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, the Hindu national volunteer organization that trained and nurtured him for much of his adult life, it is a crucial step toward establishing a rationale for a nation by-and-for Hindus, said Aditya Mukherjee, a history professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. “So, therefore, they mess with history, and with geography,” said Mukherjee, a critic of Modi.
Mukherjee cited Modi’s remarks at the dedication of a hospital in October 2014, when he said depictions of the Hindu god Ganesha with an elephant head demonstrated scientific feats in ancient India. “There must have been some plastic surgeon in those days who put the head of an elephant on a man’s body,” Modi said, according to a transcript on his website. “And that was how plastic surgery began.” A video on the prime minister’s YouTube account shows him speaking earnestly to a silent audience.
Modi’s office didn’t respond to phone calls or a text message seeking clarification on whether he was serious, and for him to comment on the Saraswati project’s implementation and its backing from the RSS.
Asked about the initiative, RSS spokesman Manmohan Vaidya said, “Saraswati is not mythological. She was a real river.” Going forward, he said, “the central and state governments are looking into this — so funding will not be a problem.”
Dry riverbeds in satellite images
Satellite images show dry riverbeds that some view as relics of the Saraswati of the Rig Veda. Interpretations of these and other geological and archaeological findings gathered over decades — which yield conflicting suggestions for the age, course and size of the river — are hotly debated.
Gagandeep Singh doesn’t have time for doubts. The development officer in Haryana’s Yamuna Nagar district has already overseen construction of 15 km (nine miles) of a canal that so far runs roughly 2.5 meters (8 feet) deep and more than 3.5 meters wide. The plan is to dam a seasonal river, funnel its water to a 160-hectare (400-acre) reservoir and then release the flow into a canal system along the purported ancient route of the Saraswati.
Its benefits include irrigation and flood control, Singh said, but the bottom line is “the government wants to show that this is the oldest civilization in the world.” While Singh, 37, is a Sikh, not a Hindu, he said he is a patriot and considers his religion an offshoot of Hinduism anyway.
Farmers struggle to get water
About 45 km (28 miles) from the district where Singh’s gang is digging, Rakesh Yadav says he is struggling to get enough water from the ground to irrigate crops on his family’s 32-hectare farm. Fifteen years ago, he could drill about 18 meters and reach water for wheat in the winter and rice in the monsoon season. Today, his wells need to be at least twice as deep, and some have been drilled to 60 meters (200 feet) just to be safe.
Identifying the Saraswati’s course would reveal “the best locations to track groundwater,” said Shashi Shekhar, the Water Ministry’s top bureaucrat, in an interview in New Delhi. “This is the economic reason — more than historical or mythological.”
Modi announced in a speech in 2015 that his government will spend 500 billion rupees ($7.6 billion) through 2020 on irrigation and other water-related projects. The plans cover everything from rainwater-harvesting to reusing treated waste water.
Still, there is currently nothing close to a national solution for water supply, the water commission’s Pandya said. “We are worried,” he added, sitting at a horseshoe-shape desk at the end of a long office in New Delhi. “We don’t have a short-term time frame where we know that we will be able to make a dent.”
Project to reclaim land
Singh and his boss, S.S. Phulia, the senior bureaucrat in Yamuna Nagar district, say they are reclaiming 800 hectares (1,976 acres) of land for the project and associated endeavors, such as a sanctuary for cows, which are held sacred by Hindus. The property being reclaimed was obtained illegally from the government by farmers and residents, he said. As the district official for village councils, Singh said, he is able to sign off on the acquisitions in his capacity as local representative. Disputes about encroachment on government land are decided in collector’s court, where Phulia is the presiding judge.
Phulia says the Saraswati initiative and the enthusiasm for it are just getting started. As Phulia nodded in agreement during an interview in his office, Singh stood by his desk and said of state officials that, “whatever funds are required, they will sanction it.” So far, 500 million rupees have been approved, Singh said.
Darshan Lal Jain, a retired state leader of the RSS Hindu group, has agitated for decades on the need to find the lost river. “It’s all one civilization,” Jain, 88, said, sitting in his bungalow home next to a photograph of himself and Modi taken at his granddaughter’s wedding in 2007. “This will prove that.”
Asked how he came to be involved with the Saraswati effort, Singh said that when he met Jain in March, “he said, ‘Start the project, digging should be started.’ ”
Friends in high places
Jain has friends in high places. The current chief minister of Haryana, Manohar Lal Khattar, served in the RSS under Jain and accompanied him 30 years ago on a ceremonial walk of what the organization claimed was the path of the Saraswati, according to Jain and another RSS official who was present at the time.
Less than four months after Khattar was sworn in as chief minister in 2014, he was setting up a Saraswati Heritage Development Board. In November, he ordered officials supervising digging in three districts to “complete the work at war footing.” Khattar’s office canceled an interview to talk about the Saraswati, and then didn’t respond to requests to reschedule.
Modi knew Khattar and Jain, having met both by 1996 as the point person for the state from the Bharatiya Janata Party, for which the RSS is an ideological parent, and is said to have been fascinated by the group’s claims that it had found the course of the Saraswati. Modi “took an interest in the project,” said Lakshay Bindra, a former RSS head in Jagadhri, the city where Jain lives.
In 2005, when Modi was chief minister in the western state of Gujarat, he decreed that a flow of canal water be diverted to what his administration said was the desiccated riverbed of the Saraswati.
In December, Bindra accompanied visitors to a mountainside spot where local tradition says the waters dribbling down a hill, and then through a small fountain centered on an ornamental cow’s head, is the Saraswati entering Haryana. Afterward, he rode on to the well where water was found in May.
A small shrine has been erected there, tended by Sahiram Kashyap, a 47-year-old man with a scraggly goatee and yellow tunic, who recognized Bindra’s connections. “I want the government to pay me,” Kashyap said in a pleading tone. “Make some arrangements for me? I am sitting here for the administration.”
The RSS man said he would see what he could do.