The sacred river that has forsaken Lahore

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Dec 29, 2013

The city of Lahore is synonymous with the River Ravi. Following the partition of 1947, just 13 years later, in September 1960, the rivers of the Indus Basin were also partitioned. The reality is that the Ravi no longer flows by Lahore.

What I write sounds unreal. To be honest I write this with sadness for it a reality no one in Lahore accepts. At the best of times because of communal hate it mars sane judgement on both sides of the scar. Every day that I pass over one of the three bridges where once flowed our beloved river, it is a fact that I am no longer crossing the River Ravi. What little water we see in the monsoon season is basically the floods that head our way when the once mighty river shows it anger in India.

It shifted years ago almost five kilometres to the east. Legally it belongs to India. Spiritually it is ours, but only in our imagination.

I write this piece because after studying the latest satellite imagery of the shifting course of the River Ravi in India, we see that it has moved almost 4.8 kilometres eastwards deeper into India. This process happened two years ago.

The River Ravi has been lost forever to us. This is the reality we must brace ourselves for. The folk song “Wagdi aye Ravi” is now meaningless to our children and our heritage is the poorer for this. Which river are we talking about anyway?

Let us return to the real world and see what exactly happened, and is happening. The Ravi originates in the Himalayan mountains in the Indian state of Himachel Pradesh, beginning from the glaciers that exist above 14,000 feet above sea level.

It flows past Chamba next to the Dalhousie hills and enters what is known as the ‘rain shadow zone’. Smaller rivers keep joining the Ravi along the way till it enters the Punjab plains near Madhopur and heads towards Lahore. From this point it cut across towards Kamalia and near Ahmedpur Sial drops into the River Chenab.

The problem started, or so international experts claim, because of the ‘bunds’ constructed downstream by Pakistan after the Madhopur Headworks, which was constructed during the British Raj to “facilitate the development of the inner western Punjab with a network of canals”.

But that was in 1902 and the target area then was the ‘Rachna Doab’ (between Ravi and Chenab) and the ‘Majha Doab’ (between Ravi and Beas). It was an excellent plan and opened up the dry plains of the Punjab between the Chenab and the Beas, with Ravi being in the middle. It also resulted in this area becoming the granary of the British Empire.

After the 1960 Indus Water Basin Treaty, a similar plan under the Thal Development Authority took place in the 1960s and 1970s with a further opening up of the dry areas beyond the Chenab.

This cannot be denied in the totality of the water situation. But then the middle river in the 1902 plan was handed over to the Indians in 1960, who agreed, after due payments, to supply the Ravi with agreed amounts of water for ten years.

This ended in the 1970s and since then, naturally, India tackled the problems that the shifting river was causing to its Amritsar and Gurdaspur districts. The ‘bunds’ that Pakistan built, and the one that encircles Lahore today, proved to be its undoing, at least the latest report by a British university says so.

I am no expert, but what I do know is that a plan to build ‘bunds’ on both sides of the river with a small barrage almost 15 miles downstream from Lahore was agreed to.

The idea was to create a massive water catchment area where once the Ravi existed. It was planned to catch the monsoon waters from the annual floods, so that the falling water levels around Lahore could be resupplied.

It is well known that the various Punjab governments, for some mysterious ‘unknown’ reason, have not taken up the project. Mind you the original plan for this ‘massive lake’ was the brain-child of the late Mr Zafarul Ahsan, the DC of Lahore in 1947, and later the first DG of the Thal Development Authority.

What we see today of the legendary River Ravi is just industrial waste created by us. It is lethal for we produce our own poison. The reality is that our beloved river has shifted further eastwards to the land of ‘Indra’, the deity of the mount of ‘Iravati’. The river has forsaken us.




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