Magical. Beautiful. Serene. These were the words Vandana used to describe her childhood. In West Delhi, the street below our balcony bustled with the sounds of rickshaw drivers and children running. Vandana, meanwhile, has travelled back to 1979, on the banks of the Beas river.
Vandana’s father was an engineer, working as a concrete specialist for the construction of several dams across North India. He and his family were sent to job postings across the states of Himachal Pradesh and Punjab. He was a proficient government employee and also took deep satisfaction in the work he did. Vandana’s deep affection for nature budded as a result of the endless days she spent travelling along the banks of the Beas, Sutlej, and Ravi rivers.
Indus River Basin (Source: Kmhkmh)
The Beas, Sutlej, and the Ravi rivers, as well as two others, are collectively called the Panjnad (panj = ‘five’, nad = ‘rivers’). Panjnad is a Punjabi word that refers to all of the rivers, spanning across India, Pakistan and Tibet, that arise from the Himalayan mountains, stretching across the Indian subcontinent and merging into the Indus before finally emptying into the Arabian Sea. Each river carves its own personality and carries with it a snippet of whoever it encounters along each distinctive journey. The Panjnad rivers, their tributaries, and their drainage basin lie entirely between the northern route of the Indus on the western side and the Sutlej river on the eastern side .
These three rivers are just as much the storytellers here as Vandana herself. When Vandana speaks about them, it’s as if she can still feel their essence; the way they were, their significance, and how they were made to transform.
agar fursat mile paanī kī tahrīroñ ko paḌh lenā
har ik dariyā hazāroñ saal kā afsāna likhtā hai
BASHIR BADR 
Geographic Setting (Source: Aashi Sethi)
In 1967, Vandana’s father, Harinder, started working on the construction of the Pandoh Dam on the Beas River. Vandana was just a toddler when her family moved to Sundarnagar, Himachal Pradesh. For the next nine years, this was home for Vandana, and she quickly familiarised herself with the area on an intimate level. Back then, Sundarnagar was only a small town, and since Vandana’s family lived on a terraced hillside with other Pandoh Dam employees, she would spend a lot of time next to the water when Harinder would have to work late into the night.
Pandoh Dam on the Beas River (Source: Narender Sharma, Blue Particle Solutions)
Close to the dam construction site, there were temporary wooden cottages for employees and families to socialise, cook and enjoy the scenery. “There were no gas cylinders we could use for cooking back then. We would collect firewood from the forests or use cooking heaters to make our lunches. We would cook with any seasonal vegetables, sometimes even pluck certain veggies from the nature around us! Other times it would be chicken curry with rice. We would even use the concrete masonry bricks to set up the cooking fire.”
As the children ran up and down the hills and all around their picnic area, they would come across the smaller settlements scattered along the riverbank. Often, they spotted farmers and cattle herders who relied on the river for their livelihood. This reliance is clearly illustrated with Harinder’s involvement in the Sutlej river.
The Sutlej (pronounced Sa-t-luj) is the easternmost river of the Panjnad and the longest tributary of the Indus. By the time Vandana’s family moved to Nangal in Punjab in 1978, the construction of the remarkable Bhakra Dam had already been completed. The main focus of his work here was to divert the ‘kachhi neher’ (seasonal streams) into more permanent water sources for farmers. Vandana says- “We moved to Nangal but here, my father was not working with dams. His work was to do with the construction of irrigation canals that would bring water to the farmers across Punjab and Himachal. For the next couple years, he worked from offices in Nangal, Chandigarh, Bhatinda, and Sangroor.”
Sutlej River entering India from Tibet (Source: The Illustrated London News)
The scent of night jasmines evokes a specific memory for Vandana: she vividly remembers her walks to the Beas’ riverbanks, where the streets were lined with fragrant trees. She can still hear the sound of the gurgling streams flowing down the hillside to meet the river. The memory of chirping of birds in the foliage above her head are still fresh in her recollection as well.
On the other hand, the Ravi river connotes some alarming experiences, which are attributable to the involvement of one particular snake. “It must’ve been 7 feet long, it was jet black, and it crawled right past us. When we told some of the local villagers about what we saw, they said it must have been a cobra. I still remember how afraid we had been at that time, and how big of a deal this was even back then!” This incident took place on one of her recurrent visits to the Ravi riverbank where Vandana and her friend had been sitting on a large boulder. They were quick to distance themselves from the site soon after that.
But this is not to say she doesn’t reminisce about the Ravi any less fondly than the Beas or the Sutlej. When I asked her about her favourite association of the Ravi, she always tells me about the fish. In 1989, Vandana was living in Shahpur Kandi, Pathankot where her father was working in the construction of the Ranjeet Sagar Dam. Harinder’s closest friend, an uncle to Vandana, used to live in Hussainiwala Border (a town near the Indian border to Pakistan, some 11 kilometres away from Firozpur). He would send freshly caught fresh-water fish from the Sutlej, and prepare pickled fish for Vandana’s family all the way to Shahpur Kandi. She never knew the names of these fishes, but the aroma of frying fish would notify the entire neighbourhood what a certain household was having for dinner that night. As Vandana tells me about fisheries and fish curries, she compares it to the underwhelming taste and experience of frozen fishes that she buys from supermarkets today. This was nearly 30 years ago from when this article was written, but it is fascinating how clearly the human mind associates certain memories with senses.
Ranjit Sagar Dam on the Ravi River (Source: Vikramaadityasumbria)
Rivers have always been a resource to the populations living close to the banks, but for the families of engineers working on the dams, like Vandana and her friends, the rivers were just as much associated with holidays and recreation.
“In Sundarnagar, there weren’t even many schools in the area- there were only two back then. On the weekends, we would take long walks to the riverside of the Beas. A group of us children would get together, and we would be accompanied by grandparents, family friends, and house-help.”
The Beas river springs from the Rohtang Pass and flows through Kullu Valley. It eventually joins the Sutlej river before carrying onwards across Punjab. Along with the river Vandana’s journey also carried her across Punjab.
“We used to go visit the dam to witness the opening of the dam gates. It was a popular tourist activity to come and watch the water being released from the dam,” she reminisces, “and you could also see ‘panchakkis’- water operated flour mills on our way to the riverbank.”
At one point, Vandana brought up a Bollywood movie from the 70s, ‘Jheel Ke Us Paar’, “The shooting for that movie was done at Sutlej Sadan a few years before we moved to the region. It’s a beautiful rest house on the banks of the river.” The rest house was a building equipped with lounges and well-maintained lawns. There were kitchens open for guest use and rooms for visitors to relax or to gather for recreation. Similar sadans were started to be built on the banks of every major river across northern India, prioritising the role of these rivers as recreational sites over their cultural importance and the livelihoods that depended on them. They were simply used as sites whose main purpose was to cater to human contentment.
Ravi River in 1880 (Source: British Library)
Vandana’s relationship with the rivers is thus one that comprises both reverence and apprehension; a sentiment shared by many who realise the powers held by these natural forces. She admits that sometimes fear crept up while being in the presence of nature. It was violently ingrained into all minds, but those of children in particular, to never wade too far out into the river. But one summer, her family was at a riverside picnic when her mamaji (maternal uncle) decided to go for a swim. The river was shallow, but the young Vandana remembers being deathly afraid for his safety in face of the flowing current, and she wasn’t the only one. Some of the other older members of her family were similarly petrified.
Vandana’s fears were not unfounded. She is part of a generation of people who view rivers as formidable despite all the efforts to tame it, but ultimately, they are a force to be reckoned with. The combination of natural and human-made environments raise the risk of unlucky accidents and natural disasters. Increased incidences of accidental flooding caused by human error, for example, call for increased precautionary measures. One of the most recent and catastrophic incidents took place in 2014, when a group of engineering students on a study tour in Himachal Pradesh got caught by a sudden release of water on the Beas from the Larji hydropower project. The flood caught them off guard, and led to the death of 24 students .
iii. MEMORIES OF CHANGE:
Having lived in Delhi for 32 years, Vandana’s memories are tinged with a mellow shade of wistfulness. If she were to go back today, she doubts that she would meet the same rivers she knew in the 1970s. The terrain has drastically changed to make way for highways, houses, and for other anthropogenic activities.
“It used to snow in Sundar Nagar once every couple of years, but it doesn’t snow there anymore. The hills used to be laden with dense forests and there was a sparse number of vehicles on the narrow roads,” Vandana reminisces. Today, the same serenity will not be found there. Vandana’s sister, who was a toddler when they lived near the Beas River, recently visited the area. She tells Vandana, “Didi, nothing here is like how you described it.”
Vandana also brings up some concerns she has about the state of the rivers, namely the overwhelming pollution and increased flooding. She thinks about the abundant biodiversity that thrived in the area years ago, and then about their deterioration today- “We used to pluck off fruits from trees and be able to eat them as we walked, that’s how clean the environment used to feel. Rising pollution is a big concern today.” The health of these rivers at the local level falls to the government- namely the state and municipal governments. Ignoring the river’s plight will have far-reaching consequences, affecting not only the immediate environments, ecosystems and their biodiversity, but will also catastrophically affect the communities downstream that rely on these rivers for their livelihoods. Frequent flash floods and heavy rainfall tend to block roadways and highways, as well as having adverse effects on regional agricultural activities .
Local NGOs have pointed out that municipal ignorance and corporate disregard are key enablers that are allowing the discharge of untreated sewage and solid waste directly into the river. This not only contaminates the water but it poses an enormous risk to both human and environmental health. One prominent example is the dumping of trash on the banks of the Beas River, but the disposal of untreated household waste and construction debris into the rivers are also pressing issues that need to be addressed .
Vandana had the opportunity to be close to three out of the five Panjnad rivers, the last one being the Ravi. The Ravi river flows along the Pakistani border in Punjab for around 80 kilometres before it crosses over and ends its journey by merging with the Chenab river. In addition to everything else, the Panjnad rivers are heavily regulated and divided by India and Pakistan according to the Indus Waters Treaty of 1960. However ultimately, these rivers arise from various locations but are a core part of not only the geography and the source of many livelihoods, but are also a core part of the identity of Punjab, the land of five rivers.
The histories that give rise to Punjab today cannot easily be untangled. Rivers play a multifaceted role in our cultures, our income, our religions, and our literature, particularly considering they are encompassed in everything from environmental resource conservation to cultural heritage to diplomatic relations. The geopolitics of rivers are deeply intertwined with the history and culture of Punjab, making it complex and challenging to start to unravel. However, personal stories, anecdotes and testimonials like Vandana’s are an integral start to understanding the true importance and depth of this crisis today.
Terrain Map of Indus River Basin (Source: Wikipedia Commons)
A special thanks to my aunt, Vandana Suri, for sharing her stories, her time, and for always offering words of encouragement.
 MacLagan, R. (1885). The Rivers of the Punjab. Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society and Monthly Record of Geography, 7(11), 705–719. https://doi.org/10.2307/1801407