What's killing the Ganga?

Nothing represents India's environmental problems as well as The Ganga river. Polluted to the hilt and sucked dry by dams, the Ganga suffers as the government pays lip service to its clean-up.
Alakananda near Badrinath temple (Image: Shitha Valsan, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY SA-4.0 Int) Alakananda near Badrinath temple (Image: Shitha Valsan, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY SA-4.0 Int)

"An eternal life free of sins" is the promise that comes attached with the magnificent occasion of Kumbh Mela. The 2019 Ardh Kumbh that takes place once in six years is just around the corner. Starting January 15, crores of people from around the world will take a dip in the Triveni Sangam—the confluence of the Ganga and the Yamuna. A lot of water will be required as devotees gather to bathe in the sacred river to wash their sins away. The waters for this will come from the Tehri dam in Uttarakhand. Tehri has been filled to the brim for Ardh Kumbh.

When the Uttarakhand government, headed by Trivendra Rawat, came to power in 2017, it made a pact with the Union Ministry of Energy headed by Piyush Goyal that the water in the Tehri reservoir would not be filled above the 825-metre mark. This was because of concerns raised by the local people with the Uttarakhand government regarding its failure to rehabilitate the people living 10 metres above the mark. As per the official statistics, 414 families are deprived of land-based rehabilitation. Every time there is heavy rain in the upper Himalayas, it becomes a cause of worry for the local people as the water-level in the country’s highest dam Tehri inches towards danger mark. The residential houses, fields and road links get flooded during monsoons. People have been demanding their rehabilitation for a decade.

But unexpectedly, the state government has gone back on its word. It had provided a sanction to the Tehri Hydro Development Corporation (THDC) to fill the water in the dam completely to cater to the Ardh Kumbh. The needs of the people of the mountain belt are being sacrificed for the religious needs of other people.

Villages near Tehri dam exposed to dangers of frequent landslides

Landslides are creating havoc in around 80 villages in the vicinity of the 42 sq-km Tehri dam reservoir due to constant erosion of the area by the reservoir water. Even when it is obvious that a major tragedy is waiting to happen, the government has failed to pay any attention to the grievances of the villagers. Generally, the rising water level in the dam during the rainy season compounds the problem for villagers as several houses develop cracks due to landslides. The THDC, however, has turned a deaf ear to all these issues.

A report was prepared by the Geological Survey of India (GSI) team that surveyed the villages after the water level swelled in the Tehri reservoir. People affected by landslides have neither been compensated nor rehabilitated so far. A collateral damage policy was formulated in January 2013 to rehabilitate the 414 families in the villages that are in the landslip zone. The tussle between the THDC and the state government continues on providing rehabilitation and the affected population has been left in the lurch while the matter lies with the Supreme Court. Not all bridges have been made so far in lieu of the 10 bridges that are submerged in the lake. In summer, when water goes down, it becomes very difficult for people to cross the river because of the absence of pathways.

Furthermore, sandy dust arises from the dried portions of the Tehri reservoir creating havoc in areas like Chinyali Saur that have been business centres. There is no solution to this. We (Matu Jansanghatan), a people’s organisation has written to the government as well as the THDC several times that the contract to extract and trade the sands belonging to the region should be given to the people of the affected villages. Committees can be formed so that problems originating from dust are resolved, local people get employment, illegal mining in Ganga in Haridwar is stopped and the state’s sand related needs are also met. However, the government continues to give preference to the mining mafia.

All talk and no action on the Ganga

The minister for water resources and Ganga rejuvenation, Nitin Gadkari recently made a statement claiming that the Ganga will be 80 percent clean by March 2019. Commenting on the Lakhwar-Vyasi dam under construction on river Yamuna, the second largest tributary of Ganga, he said that with the completion of this project, Yamuna will start flowing without any obstruction. The minister seems to be either clueless about the adverse impacts of these projects or is trying to fool people. He was speaking on the occasion of laying the foundation stone of 11 projects for cleaning up the 22-km long Yamuna river in New Delhi. The prime minister too, alleged that the previous government was unable to clean up the Ganga despite spending thousands of crores for it. He also went on to talk about accountability and will power on the issue of cleaning up the Ganga.

Should both the ministers’ statements be seen in the light of the imminent elections in 2019? Because the reality is entirely different. The Ganga is far from restored and maintained even as demands to do so have grown from all quarters of society over the years.

The Ganga constitutes the five Prayags of the Ganges namely the Vishnuprayag, Nandprayag, Karnaprayag, Rudraprayag and Devprayag. While talking about the Ganga, we have to keep this whole sequence in mind. There are around 58 big dams that are under planning, construction or are operational in the Ganga valley. The flow and purity of the Ganga river are being discussed in the country with a lack of seriousness. The very government that came to power with the slogan of clean Ganga has put a question mark on this issue today.

The Ganga card is being redeemed in full measure around Kumbh. The cleanliness of the river is being advertised on television, newspapers and elsewhere. In the name of the Ganga campaign, Rs 22000 crores has been spent in big seminars and propaganda itself. Yet, there is no discussion on the plight of river Ganga in its very homeland, Uttarakhand, nationally. The government, hiding this truth, continues to further this muddle by encouraging dams.

Locals have been repeatedly complaining to the dam authorities against the leakage of water from the power channel canal of the Srinagar hydroelectric project. (Image: Vimal Bhai)

Do we need more dams?

The chief minister of Uttarakhand keeps meeting the central ministries to lobby around dams. None of the governments after the formation of the state have been able to present a report card of the dams built on the Ganges. Big declarations and big statements often come in favour of the environment and for those displaced but the ground situation is quite the opposite. The way security forces have been used in the public hearing of Pancheshwar dam on Mahakali and also on the Jakhol Sankri hydropower project proposed on the small river Supin shows how people are being terrorised and threatened to get the necessary approval for the dam.

The question is if the dams are meant for development, why are the locals trapped in lawsuits? In each dam, local residents are trapped in false cases. In none of the dam projects, rehabilitation has been done adequately or environmental norms adhered to. The questions raised with the government are left unanswered. Knocking the doors of the courts has seen the government siding with the dam developer. After having constructed the dam, the promises made to local people are completely forgotten.

In none of the dam projects, local people have got the benefit of even one percent power generation. Every affected family was supposed to get 100 units of electricity or money or both for a period of 10 years. This policy is also not being followed. The 12 percent free electricity provided by the dam developer to the state government is also being used for other purposes. As per the guidelines laid down by the central ministry of energy, the state is required to use it for resolving environment and rehabilitation-related issues. It should also be remembered that on the basis of a report released by the Central Electricity Authority in 2016, power minister Piyush Goyal told the country that there is no need for new projects in India for the next 10 years because we have excess electricity. Various power plants have been closed in Madhya Pradesh. The question is, are dams leading to development? If yes, shouldn’t the welfare of the local people be taken into account?

In light of these issues, 26-year-old young saint, Brahmachaari Aatmabodhanand from Maatri Sadan Ashram, Haridwar in Uttarakhand has been on a fast since October 24, 2018. Matu Sanghatan, as well as several members of the National Alliance of People’s Movements, have provided support to it.

What is the way forward?

  • Dam projects under construction should be shut with immediate effect and the harm done to the environment and the people should be compensated for.

  • The Ganga, which means Dhauliganga, Nandakini, Pindar and Mandakini, Alaknanda and Bhagirathi should be restored and allowed to flow uninterruptedly.

  • The government, by setting up a committee, should estimate the woes of all those displaced due to dams in Uttarakhand and the problem solved under strict scrutiny. The committee should include the representatives of the displaced and also recognised social workers from across the country.

  • The local people should be given forest lands as per the Forest Rights Act 2006. Other plans should be initiated for their sustainable development.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of India Water Portal.

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