Modi's $100 Million Search for a Mythical River

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The search for the Saraswati River is also a microcosm of a bigger Pan-India battle playing out between science on the one hand, and politics and faith on the other. 

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A cavalcade of police vehicles on the way to Adi Badri – a small village 25 miles from the town of Yamunanagar in the northern Indian state of Haryana – offers the first hint that something unusual is afoot. We cross sugarcane and wheat fields lining both sides of the road and climb a hill toward the Adi Badri temple. We are greeted by monkeys running riot, men in uniform patrolling the road and chants reverberating through the surrounding green Shivalik mountains.

India’s Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari, of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is visiting the temple, taking part in a Hindu ritual called a Hawan. He’s inaugurating a five-day festival celebrating the mythological Saraswati river. Villagers gather around, looking on. Gadkari won’t mind. It’s election season, and they’re his real audience.

A village of fewer than 1,000 people, Adi Badri is emerging as the focal point of a sharpening debate over the origins of the Saraswati, a river that is mentioned in ancient Indian epics but doesn’t exist anymore. That debate, which resonates widely in Haryana, is also a microcosm of a bigger Pan-India battle between science on the one hand, and politics and faith on the other, that’s playing out as Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeks to retain power in the coming national elections.

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India’s Transport Minister and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader, Nitin Gadkari, speaks at a function in New Delhi.

Source SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP/Getty

Local communities in this part of the state have long believed that the Saraswati once originated at Adi Badri. But most scientists and archeologists, while agreeing that an underground river did exist near the village, argue there’s no evidence that this body of water was the one mentioned in the epics.

Science doesn’t vote though. People do.

In 2017, the Modi government set up a Center of Excellence for Research on Saraswati River (CERSR) at the state’s Kurukshetra University, with an $800,000 budget. In January this year, Haryana’s Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar of the Hindu nationalist BJP launched 11 new projects worth $80 million to trace the path of the Saraswati, and then revive it. In all, the federal and state governments are putting $100 million into the initiative – that’s 10 times the total amount Haryana spends on education scholarships and subsidies for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. And Gadkari has promised that Adi Badri will be developed as a tourist destination.

It’s an emphasis that, on the surface, appears to appeal to at least some sections of the local population. The government’s moves represent “a major step toward bringing this country back to its culture, its roots,” says Sahiram Kashyap, a 43-year-old farmer and a priest at a temple in the nearby village of Mugalwali, where trenches dug in the fields offer evidence of the river revival project. Just how powerful faith can be becomes clear when Kashyap insists to us that the water in the well next to his family’s small hut comes from the Saraswati river. “This water has cured diseases, and villagers have faith in this too,” he adds.

But Haryana, a state that has traditionally been India’s breadbasket, is also staring at a mounting agrarian crisis, with outstanding farm loans that are 70 percent higher than the national average. Simmering frustration over that crisis could erode the goodwill the BJP is earning for the Saraswati project, conversations with farmers suggest. And for many in India’s scientific community, the project itself is a sign of a larger malaise that they warn could harm the country in the long run.

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Soon after he came to power in the summer of 2014, Modi demonstrated a willingness to blur the lines between myth and science. At the inauguration of a hospital in Mumbai in October that year, he claimed that the Hindu elephant god Ganesha was evidence of the fact that Indians had mastered plastic surgery several millennia ago.

Since then, the government-approved embrace of what scientists and rationalists dub pseudoscience has only gathered momentum. In 2015, the country’s top scientific meeting, the Indian Science Congress, accepted a presentation that claimed that ancient Indians had designed jets that flew on donkey urine. At the January 2019 edition of the Indian Science Congress, one academic claimed that the Kauravas — 100 siblings who are key characters in the epic, the Mahabharata — were proof that Indians knew the skills of in vitro fertilization and stem cell therapy before the rest of the world. The Indian National Science Association, a network of scientists, condemned the January statements.

I first want the government to address other issues … those of loans.

Shravan Kumar, farmer

The Saraswati project has evoked similar concerns. Soumitro Banerjee is a professor and physicist at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Kolkata, and general secretary of Breakthrough Science Society, a nonprofit consisting of senior scientists fighting pseudoscience. Banerjee says there’s no doubt about the existence of an “old channel” of water that flowed near Adi Badri. “But whether that is the Saraswati River — there is significant doubt about that,” he says. The Saraswati, according to the epics, meets the other holy Hindu rivers, the Ganga and the Yamuna, at a town that until recently was called Allahabad [it was renamed Prayagraj by the BJP government to eliminate the reference to ‘Allah’].

Rivers info

Theoretical identification of the Saraswati River with the Ghaggar-Hakra River.

Source CC

But those working on the river revival initiative say they’re making progress. A.R. Chaudhri, director of CERSR, the center researching the Saraswati, says his team has “worked out the path of the river and the villages it crosses.” They now need to “validate the results” and track the part of the river believed to have flown through other states outside Haryana, he says. That, he adds, could take another 18 months.

Yet another of the many groups involved in the search for the river is the Haryana Saraswati Heritage Development Board (HSHDB), set up by the Modi government in 2015 at a cost of $16 million. The board works with geologists, hydrologists, archeologists, earth scientists and specialists from other allied areas to trace the path of the river. The board’s work exposing underground riverine channels has drawn criticism that it could lead to a depletion of groundwater. But Prashant Bhardwaj, deputy chairman of the board, rejects that charge, insisting that the project will in fact aid the state’s water supply by directing floodwater into reservoirs and strengthening riverbeds susceptible to erosion. “One needs to understand this project,” he says, sounding frustrated. “We are not taking groundwater. We will be using floodwater.”

Supporters of the project, such as nonagenarian Darshan Lal Jain, a prominent social activist, say patience is key. “These are big projects and such things take time,” he says. “We can’t expect this to become a reality overnight.” But time is precisely what many debt-ridden farmers say they don’t have — and that could dent the BJP’s plans in a state it won resoundingly in the national elections of 2014.

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In Mugalwali, a village of 262 families a few kilometers from Adi Badri, farmers are busy attending to their fields when we visit. Most have never heard of the festival — called the International Saraswati Mahotsav — that Gadkari, the minister, inaugurated in their neighboring village.

Belief in the existence of the Saraswati and its origins there is clear in every conversation we have. At the temple, as the Hawan continues, a policeman points to a spot where he says the river originated. I am asked to take off my shoes as a mark of respect. I do.

But even though they support plans to revive the mythical river, many farmers question the government’s priorities. More than 42 percent of Haryana’s farm households are in debt, and in 2017, the state government revealed that 53 percent of farmers had failed to repay loans on time.

“It will be great if Saraswati ji [ji is a suffix used as a mark of respect] comes to this village,” says Shravan Kumar, a 50-year-old farmer. “And it will probably help the villagers too, but I first want the government to address other issues … those of loans.”

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Darshan Lal Jain shows pictures of the sites where work is going on to revive Saraswati river in Yamunanagar.

Source Pradeep Gaur/Getty

The politics around the Saraswati project are sharply partisan. In 2003, when the BJP was previously in power at the center, it had launched a Saraswati Heritage Project, a precursor to the current initiative. But under the Congress party government that ruled between 2004 and 2014, the project was shut down after experts and parliamentarians questioned its merits in the absence of scientific evidence. The initiative to find and revive the Saraswati had a rebirth after Modi came to power.

For the country, the question of what passes off as government-backed “science” is equally critical as the politics of the Saraswati, says Banerjee, the physicist. That politics and science in India are increasingly hard to separate is clear. Sycophancy isn’t far behind either. At the January Indian Science Congress, one researcher claimed that Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton had “little knowledge about physics, and they misled the world with their theories.” He claimed to be working on his own theory of gravity. When his theory is accepted, he said, gravitational waves would come to be known as “Narendra Modi Waves,” and the phenomenon of gravitational lensing would be known as the “Harsh Vardhan Effect,” after the current science minister.

The government, says Banerjee, is making a mockery of science. “It was a joke,” he says, of the January conference. But it doesn’t remain a joke, he adds — alluding to the Saraswati project — when taxpayers’ money is involved. For the BJP too, it’s serious. And potentially, a game changer.

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