Sorrow of rivers

Print edition : November 07, 2008

The poster announcing the film festival.-PICTURES: THE BANGALORE FILM SOCIETY

A documentary film festival in Bangalore helps create awareness about the water crises of the future.

VOICES from the Waters, the third edition of the documentary film festival on the theme of water, was held recently in Bangalore. Organised by the Bangalore Film Society (BFS), which claims that this is the largest film festival on the theme in the world, it showed over 70 documentary films from India and abroad. Several award-winning Indian documentaries, such as The Rising Wave, The Black River, Waters of Despair, A Hole in the Bucket and Mahua Memoirs, were screened in the presence of the films directors, which gave the audience a chance to interact with them.

Water is simply life, Rajendra Singh, 2001 Magsaysay Award winner and reviver of many dead rivers in Rajasthan, told Frontline. There are difficult times ahead if the documentaries are to be believed. Many parts of the developing world, including India, will be hit by severe water crises in the coming years. Studies predict that by 2025 much of India will face serious water scarcity. A study conducted by the Asian Development Bank says that the increase in population in the South Asian region has already led to a 70 per cent decline in the per capita water availability in the region from 1950 to 1995. Add to this the problems of water mismanagement, frequent floods, overextraction of groundwater, water pollution, inter-State disputes in the allocation of riparian resources, and the recent moves in parts of the country towards privatisation of this communitarian commodity, and we know that a comprehensive long-term policy in this sector is needed.

The festival, which was inaugurated by the film director Shekhar Kapur, had as its opening documentary an aural ode to the river Narmada. This short film, Raga of River Narmada, directed by Rajendra Janglay, tracks the rivers journey and presents vignettes of its life while a dhrupad raga is played in the background.

Several of the films challenged conventional ideas of development. The relevance of massive dams and large-scale mining projects was examined in The Rising Wave and Mahua Memoirs. The relocation and submergence of Tehri town and surrounding villages after the construction of the Tehri dam forms most of the content for The Rising Wave, directed by Yask Desai and Shweta Kishore. An award-winning documentary, it also looked at the changes brought about in the lives of those relocated and their hopes and aspirations, which were belied at the town of New Tehri (see Frontline, September 12). The film challenges the idea that big dams are the only solutions to the water problems of the country.

"MAHUA MEMOIRS" explores how communities are resisting state-sanctioned encroachment.-

Mahua Memoirs, directed by Vinod Raja, introduces the audience to the world of traditional forms of agriculture, which are not harmful to the environment and which provide sustenance to local communities that live off the land. The discourse of development that dominates policymaking at all levels in India is questioned in this film through the changes that have been wrought in the lives of the Adivasis living in the forests of the Eastern Ghats. The validity of displacing settled communities has gained a notorious legitimacy over the past couple of decades in India, with the state selling its natural buried wealth for a pittance to foreign companies. The film brilliantly explores how local communities are resisting this sanctioned encroachment, which disrupts the local environmental balance and changes the very nature of these communities. Many Adivasis in the region have already lost their lives in the course of protesting against the presence of the massive mining projects.

Of late, organised religion is often associated with aggression, but Surendra Manans film The Black River shows how organised religion can be used to fulfil a social responsibility. It highlights the efforts of Sant Balbir Singh Seechewal to clean up the the Black River the Kali Bein in Punjab. The head of the sect of Nirmal Sikhs in Punjab, Sant Seechewal commands a respectful religious following. He mobilised it to lead a community project to clean up the 160-kilometre-long river, which has rich symbolism in Sikh history. With the growth of industry over the past decades in parts of Punjab, the Kali Bein got completely polluted. Seechewal, along with his religious followers, has been involved in cleaning the river for the past eight years, leading to its revival.

Inter-State river disputes, sand mining, and pollution from industrial effluents are the bane of the Palar river, a major source of drinking and agricultural water for northern Tamil Nadu, on which the film My name is Palar is based. The river has its source in Karnataka and flows briefly through Andhra Pradesh before leisurely flowing across northern Tamil Nadu. There is considerable resentment among farmers and residents of Tamil Nadu because check dams are being constructed in Andhra Pradesh and the height of dams are being increased in Karnataka.

In the book Water Conflicts in India: A Million Revolts in the Making, 63 case studies chronicle various inter-State river disputes in India. If not tackled comprehensively, many of them could flare up to become larger riparian disputes, which have caused significant strife in the past. Directed by R.R. Srinivasan, the documentary also shows how effluents from tanneries and illegal sand mines along the course of the river are destroying it.

Examining the issue of drinking water supply in Chennai, A Hole in the Bucket, directed by Leena Manimekalai, takes a critical look at the pattern of water supply in the city by documenting three stories over three days. It takes a look at the lives of members of a marginalised community who live on the beach and do not have access to water even for very basic requirements. The second story looks at the life of a farmer who has turned into a water seller, while the last story documents the wasting of water that takes place in one of the citys largest apartment blocks. The film shows the disparity in the distribution of water resources in the city.

Director Srijans Waters of Despair was screened at the right time because vast parts of Bihar recently experienced floods. His film looks at the floods that ravaged the same area in 2007 and the deceitful mayhem that took place in the management of the relief measures. Apathy of the state with regard to long-term planning, combined with an indifference to the plight of the victims, many of whom are members of the backward castes, ensures that people living in some parts of Bihar remain extremely vulnerable to floods.

A host of international documentaries were also screened. These included The Return of Cuyahoga, H2O Up For Sale, The Carbon Connection, Oil Spill in Lebanon, The Edge of the World, Drying up Palestine, The Arctic is Melting and Up the Yangtze. Most of these critically appreciated films use case studies of rivers or geographical areas to bring out the inherent flaws in large-scale water management and the casual attitude many countries have to understanding the seriousness of the situation.

The seminars that were held on the sidelines of the festival addressed serious water-related issues. In such a scenario, the initiative taken by the BFS to create awareness about the dire situation is laudable. Founded in the 1980s in Bangalore, it has played a pioneering role in the screening of films that push the boundary of what defines the aesthetic.

Says George Kutty, BFS secretary: A more inclusive definition of the aesthetic must be striven for and this is what we are trying to do at the BFS by having a film festival on the theme of water, consisting of only documentary films. While we also screen avant garde films, we are trying to show documentary films so that the audience is made aware of significant contemporary issues. The BFS is slated to conduct the same film festival in other cities in the country in the coming months in order to create more awareness about the issue.

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