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'Don't divide the world into East and West on ecology'

December 20, 2017

India's rivers are drying up and much of its valuable fertile land risks turning into desert. Ecologist Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev told DW how he is bringing people together to protect land and water.

Deutschland Sadhguru auf dem Global Landscapes Forum in Bonn
Image: DW/I. Banos

DW: Rivers in India are drying out and dying. What happens if we continue with the business-as-usual approach?

Sadhguru: Many studies show that if we just continue, in the next 15 years nearly 60 percent of India's rivers could become seasonal. This means it only flows for part of the year and that will be because whenever it rains, it will flow. But our ability to hold the water in the land and let it flow for the entire year is gone. There's a beautiful saying in south India about the Kaveri river — I grew up on the banks of Kaveri — that Kaveri should come walking, she should not run. That means she should flow slowly, only then will she benefit us. So to flow slowly there must be substantial vegetation, because that's the only way you can make it happen. But right now people think, making dams and stuff, that they can make it slow. That can be an immediate result, but that's not the real answer. It's vegetation which does this and if we go about business as usual, we are unleashing a disaster with 1.3 billion people at stake.

Drought in India. Photo credit: Getty Images/AFP/S. Panthaky.
Sadhguru: nearly 25 to 30 percent of India estimated to become a desert within a decadeImage: Getty Images/AFP/S. Panthaky

Your Rally for Rivers campaign has engaged a huge part of the Indian population in protecting water resources. What are its aims and what has it already achieved?

I started this project called Project GreenHands 22 years ago because the depletion of water and soil in the southern state of Tamil Nadu was so heavy, we thought we will increase the green cover and we planted 32 million trees. But then I realized it doesn't matter how much you do as an individual person or an organization or a group of people.

It is not really a solution on the larger scale unless we have a policy which clearly states where we want to take our ecological status right now, how it should be in the next 50 years and how it should be in the next 100 years. If you don't have a clear-cut policy and if the administration or the governments don't invest in this direction, both in terms of policy — in terms of lawmaking — and in terms of investments that they make, there is never going to be a solution.

So the Rally for Rivers was mainly to bring a policy which has a gestation period of 15 to 25 years. But which government is going to invest in a policy which takes 25 years to produce results? Because the government's lifespan is five years. Nobody wants to commit their resources for such a long-term policy. This is why I want to get a large-scale yes, a big yes, from the population. So with 162 million people supporting the rally, once this kind of support came, now all the governments, all 18 state governments, are with us now.

A youth walks over a dried-up river in India. Photo credit: Getty Images/AFP/S. Kanojia
A dried-up river in Allahabad, India - scenes like this may become more common in the futureImage: Getty Images/AFP/S. Kanojia

And the aim is to plant trees along riverbanks?

I'm not trying to plant trees. Yes, we will do all that anyway but that's not the important thing. Only 4 percent of India's river water is glacial. The rest of it is all forest-fed. Forest-fed means the precipitation that happens.On average we have only 40 to 45 days of precipitation in the country. We should be able to hold this in the soil for 365 days. That is only possible if you have substantial vegetation. But 75 percent of the riparian land is in the farmers' hands and there are population and livelihood pressures there. So we are trying to convert crop-based agriculture into tree-based agriculture, into horticulture, into medicinal trees and into timber trees so that the farmer can earn much more than what he is earning right now.

At the same time, we do ecological service to the river and also to the soil and everything else. In India, many farms are growing three to four crops per year.  So you take out 1 ton of crop from 1 acre of land. What it means, is you took out 1 ton of topsoil. How do you put it back? The only way you can put it back is the leaves of the trees and the animal waste. Trees are already gone a long time ago, animals are all being exported in a huge quantity.

So how are you going to put back the organic content into the soil? Without soil being organically rich, its ability to retain water is completely gone, its ability to retain moisture and support bioactivity is gone. So we are turning soil into sand. It is estimated in the next five to 10 years, nearly 25 to 30 percent of India will become desertified. So putting back trees and bringing back animals into the farm is a huge part of the draft policy.

The River Ganges. Photo credit: Reuters/D. Siddiqui
The waters of the River Ganges in India are becoming an increasingly-scarce resourceImage: Reuters/D. Siddiqui

Water consumption in the western world, in countries like Germany, is many times greater than in India. Is this something the western world needs to focus on more?

Definitely. One thing we need to do is, we should not divide the world as East and West when it comes to ecology, because ecology is a global phenomenon and we have to address it as a global phenomenon. Of course there are local solutions, but on the whole we have to look at it as one Earth, which is what it is. So it is no western Earth and eastern Earth. It is just divisions in our mind.

If you don't look beyond that then they will continue to have these problems because I think I can use more and you should use less. I will preach ecology but I do what I do, that's not going to work. So we have to bring awareness to every human being, irrespective of where they live. We have to become conscious. Once we become conscious, I am very sure, to the best of our intelligence and capability, we will do our best.


Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, known worldwide simply as Sadhguru, is an Indian mystic leader and environmentalist who is behind the Rally for Rivers, Project GreenHands and Action for Rural Rejuvenation programs.

This interview was conducted by Ajit Niranjan it has been edited and condensed for clarity.