With Jammu’s sacred Tawi River facing extinction, all is not quiet on the waterfront

There was a time when Tawi accentuated the beauty of Jammu, but it now only tells a story of public desecration and administrative neglect.

Published : Jan 18, 2024 13:21 IST - 4 MINS READ

People move past the polluted banks of River Tawi in Jammu in March 2022.

People move past the polluted banks of River Tawi in Jammu in March 2022. | Photo Credit: Channi Anand

Flowing through the city of Jammu, the river Tawi, it is believed, was brought here by a local deity—Raja Pehar Devata—who wanted to use its waters to cure his father. Also called Surya Putri, the river had for long been the main source of drinking water for the people of Jammu, but, today, much of the river remains dry for the better part of the year. The solid waste that is thrown into the river both pollutes it and affects its flow of water.

Originating in Kailash Kund, a glacier in Bhaderwah of the Doda District, the Tawi River crosses into Pakistan’s Punjab province and falls into the river Chenab. There was a time when Tawi accentuated the beauty of Jammu, adding to the lore of its temples, but it now only tells a story of desecration and neglect.

Over the years, the quality of water in the Tawi River has deteriorated because of the waste the city’s sewers dump into it. Experts fear that the people in Jammu will face catastrophic consequences if time-bound initiatives are not undertaken. Bhushan Purnimoo, a Jammu-based environmentalist, pointed out that the river Tawi is responsible for irrigating hundreds of canals in the Doda District. “People think the river to be sacred, so they throw in it the large amounts of flowers that accumulate in temples. The entire sewerage of the city also flows directly into Tawi through 17 drains, making it one of the most polluted rivers in the area.”

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The Environment Awareness Forum, said Purnimoo, has issued through Greenpeace an appeal to save Tawi, a lifeline as holy and essential as the Ganga: “Tawi now barely has any water. From the dawn of civilisation, our elders have realised that free-flowing rivers are important to humans and the environment. They are the lifeblood of this planet, the most important freshwater resource on Earth, but no one can guarantee they will last forever.”

Underscoring the importance of Tawi, Purnimoo added the river provides a habitat to thousands of diverse plants and animal species, including valuable commercial fish stock. “It delivers sediments to the ecosystem, and helps protect cities from large storms and devastating floods. Concerned agencies should mobilise resources for the cleaning of Tawi, and immediate action should be taken for the removal of waste on the riverbed. Solid waste management should be incorporated into the Master Plan, catering to increasing requirements.”

A glimmer of hope

Locals living on the bank of River Tawi said authorities have been apathetic. Though citizens are repeatedly calling upon them to send garbage trucks and pick up collected waste, no action is usually taken. “The garbage comes not only from the local population, but the municipal garbage trucks also dump waste here, which poses a serious threat to the aquatic life of River Tawi,” said Kartik Kandiyal, a member of the environmental group Climate Front Jammu (CFJ).

Having come together under the CFJ banner, a small group of youngsters has begun to organise regular “Clean Tawi” drives in an effort to save the river. Anmol Ohri, founder of the group, told Frontline, “We have a ‘Friends of River Tawi’ WhatsApp group that has some 400 members. Through this group, we mobilise people every Sunday. Once our coordinators have announced the time and location, we provide reusable gloves on the spot. Though the waste problem persists, we have established a deep connection with our river.”

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According to Ohri, some of those who have participated in Tawi clean-up drives can now sensitise the people and authorities of Jammu, helping save the river for future generations. “Communities living around our clean-up locations have also been inspired by our actions. They have constantly helped us. Young children from marginalised groups also came out in large numbers during our Navratri drive. They asked citizens to not submerge their temple waste in our river. These young children are acting as frontline warriors.”

Ohri said the focus of his group is more on advocacy and community-building. “Those who think of Tawi as sacred must be encouraged to ask tough questions. Why, for instance, does Jammu not have the Tawi sewage treatment plants that were commissioned a decade ago?” Environmentalists like Ohri also highlight how the Jammu Smart City Project has focussed only on short-term cosmetic development, thereby failing to keep the environment healthy and sustainable. Ohri further believes that initiatives like the Tawi River Front project have endangered the lives of communities by increasing the chances of Tawi’s banks getting flooded: “Such projects have also threatened the existence of communities living on the island of River Tawi, where areas like Beli Charana have already faced catastrophe during the 2014 Jammu floods. At that time, they were cut off from the rest of the city for more than two months.”

If anything, the Tawi River makes clear that if we wish to celebrate the country’s sacred geography, we need to protect it first.

Mubashir Naik is an independent Journalist, based in Jammu and Kashmir.

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