Rivers have always been worshipped in India, and yet they are in a deplorable state today. The Ganga, regarded as holy and formally declared as the national river, and the Yamuna, the river of India’s Capital, are mortally sick. Many other rivers in the country are declining or dying. It is difficult to find living, healthy rivers, and even the few that exist are under threat of decline. Heavy pollution is a major cause of this situation, but there are also other factors, such as excessive abstractions or diversions of waters, and violence to their physical components such as the river-bed, banks, floodplains, and so on. Underlying such abuses is a poor understanding of what constitutes a river.

A new book, Living Rivers, Dying Rivers, edited by Ramaswamy R Iyer, Honorary Professor, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, is an outcome of a series of lectures and discussions organised by the India International Centre, between June 2011 and July 2012. It has contributions by Kelly D Alley, Latha Anantha, Ravi Chopra, Parineeta Dandekar, Brij Gopal, Pandurang Hegde, Ramaswamy R Iyer, S Janakarajan, Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt, Chandan Mahanta, Dinesh Kumar Mishra, Manoj Misra, N C Narayanan, Ranjan Kishor Panda, Bhargavi S Rao, Rama Rauta, Shakil A Romshoo, Gautam Roy, Kalyan Rudra, Lalit Saikia, Leo F Saldanha, Vinod Tare, Himanshu Thakkar, Paritosh C Tyagi and R Umamaheshwari.

 The book goes into the present condition of several Indian rivers, their various states of decline or health and the factors that have had an effect on their well-being. It explores also the deeply flawed attitudes and approaches towards rivers and towards the environment in general.

The chapters by diverse authors make a plea for a proper understanding of our rivers in all their complexity, for a healthy relationship with them, and for a radical re-examination of what constitutes true development. This compilation is important as a detailed river-wise account of the situation, and serves as an aid to understanding what has gone wrong (or right in a few cases) and what needs to be done in order to restore our rivers to vibrant health.

"Unfortunately, as brought out clearly in this book, dying rivers far exceed living rivers. The fate of mountains like the Himalayas and Western Ghats, which are custodians of our hydrologic cycles, and our major rivers are intertwined. The loss of the river is also an index of the harm we are causing to the forests and biodiversity of our mountains," says M S Swaminathan, founder chairman of MSS Research Foundation, Chennai.

"Not only have river biotas suffered far more than forest biotas the world over, but rivers are vital to the livelihoods of a significant proportion of Indians, who are firmly anchored to the Indian soil. This book, a collection of articles by a group of people with diverse backgrounds but all sharing a passion for the well-being of India&’s rivers, therefore, constitutes a most significant contribution to the ongoing debate on the environment-development conundrum in India," observes Madhav Gadgil Research Fellow at Goa University, and Chairman of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel.