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Unquiet flows the Ganga

The Ganga is India’s holiest river but also one of its dirtiest. Now 70 planned hydro projects on the river’s upper reaches have provoked yet more confrontation between environmentalists and a power-hungry India. Joydeep Gupta reports.

One man opposing hydro projects on the Ganga has been on hunger strike since January 2012. While he is periodically arrested and force fed, project supporters threaten a counter fast if construction is halted. The government grapples with conflicting “expert committee” reports and sets up one “review committee” after another. Environmentalists step down from the National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA) in protest; but the government refuses to accept their resignations. One US$163 million project to clean the Ganga is widely considered a failure, as the Ganga flows dirtier than ever. Another US$471 million clean-up plan is only just getting off the ground after three years.

But none of this has diminished the reverence with which about a billion people regard the river. From the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal, thousands of Hindus worship the river every day, a number that swells to millions on the occasions of the Kumbh Mela, a mass pilgrimage to the Ganga, long known as the largest gathering of humanity on earth.

Ask devout pilgrims if they are worried about the serious pollution in the river – some of it can be seen and smelt – and many will agree. In the next breath they will add to the pollution, saying the ritual prescribes they offer flower, milk, fruits and oil to Mother Ganga. Downstream, these offerings often mingle with the half-burnt cadaver of a person who wanted to be cremated on the banks of the Ganga, in the belief that this will free him or her from the cycle of rebirth.

Long-lasting and more poisonous pollutants are added by the leather tanneries and myriad other factories that line the river almost throughout its 2,500-kilometre length and discharge their effluents untreated. The only remaining stretch left unsullied by industry flows through the Himalayas, before the Ganga reaches the Indian plains in Haridwar. But now this relatively pristine stretch has become the arena of India’s latest hydropower war.

G.D. Agarwal spent his career teaching irrigation engineering at the prestigious Indian Institute of technology in Kanpur. Long known as a crusader for a clean Ganga, the man who will turn 80 this July is now spearheading the protests against the hydro projects on the Ganga, and has been on a hunger strike since January 15 this year. Since March 9, he has refused to even drink water. Every now and then, as his health breaks down, the police take him to hospital and put him on a drip. The media picks up the issue again; the central government promises more reviews; ministers in the state government of Uttarakhand (where the projects are located) denounce Agarwal as “anti-national” and “anti-development” once more; some NGO representatives in Uttarakhand capital Dehradun threaten counter fasts, and the standoff continues.

The immediate bone of contention is three run-of-the-river hydroelectric projects being built on the Ganga at Lohari Nagpala, Bhaironghati and Pala Maneri, all high up in the central Himalayas. Agarwal – who has now taken Hindu holy orders and likes to be known as Swami Gyan Swaroopanand – managed to stall the Lohari Nagpala project once in 2009 by going on a 38-day hunger strike. The government got him to break his fast by ordering construction to stop and appointing two expert committees to look into the project.

There are 17 hydroelectric projects already operating along the Ganga, with 14 more under construction and 39 others in the pipeline. Together, they will generate 10,000 megawatts of power. The upper reaches of the Ganga have been regulated for well over a century for irrigation, flood control and generating power. These projects are the latest in a long series.

One committee of engineers from the Indian Institute of Technology in Roorkee looked at the effect of the new projects on the river’s water flow. Another committee from the Wildlife Institute of India looked at the effects on freshwater plants and animals. Both concluded that negative effects could be minimised as long as the projects left “enough” water to flow freely down the main river bed. In run-of-the-river projects, water is channelled through tunnels and electricity-generating turbines before being released back into the river. While it is the most benign way known to generate hydroelectricity, a stretch of the river does carry far less water than before, and environmentalists worry about the effect on marine life.

There are other concerns too. Being the world’s youngest mountain range, the Himalayas are still very crumbly. So the Ganga and all rivers flowing down the Himalayas carry an immense load of silt, which replenishes the topsoil downstream and kept much of south Asia, south-east Asia and southern China fertile for millennia.

Engineers working on run-of-the-river hydro projects have to stop silt from entering the tunnels and blocking up turbines and pipes. The question remains – can the reduced flow in the main riverbed carry that silt downstream? Otherwise, the effect on the Indo-Gangetic plains – India’s bread basket – will be disastrous.

Agarwal and fellow environmentalists have rejected the two expert committee reports over this question of “free flow” of the river. Instead, they cite a 2010 report by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute, which said that the silt carried by the Ganga had a number of trace minerals that helped the river fight pollution, so a free flow was crucial.

Such arguments cut little ice when summer temperatures cross the 40 degrees Celsius mark and the fans stop whirring in power-starved India. State governments are expected to strenuously oppose the latest compromise formula advanced by Jayanthi Natarajan – the federal environment minister. She wants to ensure that each hydroelectric project lets at least half the river’s water run free. But that will reduce power generating capacity, and so the idea is under strong attack.

Any change in the flow of the Ganga will be crucial because it is India’s largest river basin. Its catchment area covers 26% of the country’s landmass, 43% of its irrigated area and is home to  nearly 500 million people. The catchment straddles 11 different states, which makes governance tougher, since water management is a state rather than a federal subject under the Indian Constitution.

The Ganga is a transboundary basin too, with important parts in Nepal and Bangladesh. India has separate water-sharing treaties with each country, and officials at the water resources ministry in New Delhi are confident that none of the hydro projects will affect the volume of water that flows to the downstream country Bangladesh.

India has many treaties with Nepal to build dams on various tributaries of the Ganga. These projects have not got off the ground, largely due to opposition from Maoists in Nepal. The World Bank carried out a strategic basin assessment in 2010 and 2011 that concluded that expected flood control benefits of these dams had been grossly overstated, though the assessment has not yet been publicly released. The governments of India and Nepal are said to be contesting the findings, while bureaucrats in New Delhi have also raised questions on the water flow data used in the study. India has a law that bans the public release of water flow data, so the World Bank had to depend on unofficial sources for its study.

There has been little progress on cross-state cooperation, though when the NGRBA was set up in February 2009 one of its stated aims was to adopt a “holistic river basin approach” to planning. The NGRBA has only held three meetings since its inception. The most recent meeting, held in April this year, saw yet more heated exchanges between environmentalists and proponents of hydroelectric projects. On June 6, prime minister Manmohan Singh set up yet another expert committee led to look into the impact of the hydro projects and submit its recommendations within three months.

While there is controversy over the quantity of the water that should flow down the Ganga unchecked, there is none over the quality. All experts and bureaucrats agree pollution is terrible and getting worse. The government spent US$163 million on the Ganga Action Plan, launched in 1985, that was supposed to clean the river by 2000. When this failed, the NGRBA was set up to tackle the problem.

Minister Natarajan told parliament in May the NGRBA will “ensure that by 2020 no untreated municipal sewage and industrial effluents flow into that Ganga. Projects amounting to nearly US$471 million have been sanctioned so far under the NGRBA for development of sewer networks, sewage treatment plants, electric crematoria, community toilets, development of river fronts, etc. Out of 55 sanctioned projects, seven projects have been completed and remaining projects are in various stages of implementation.” The central government is going to pay 70% of the cost, while cash-strapped states have been asked to pay the rest. On top of this, a World Bank assisted project to restore Ganga water quality – costing more than US$1 billion over eight years – was recently approved.

The worry is that this will be a lot more money down the drain, a concern also voiced by 47 members of parliament who wrote a joint letter to Natarajan this May.

Rajendra Singh, widely hailed as India’s “water man” and one of the three environmentalists who wanted to quit the NGRBA said: “Mother Ganga is really sick today, primarily due to three factors: the bad policies of the government, the decadent actions of the public and the failure of the people’s leaders. That is why there are no rivers left in India.”

He and other environmentalists are planning a big rally on June 18, and they see a glimmer of hope because a number of Hindu religious leaders have promised to join. Their participation in the campaign to save a river considered holy and worshiped every day is likely to be significant. Singh said his major demands were:

* No waste water drains should be allowed to empty into the river.

* No new dams should be commissioned and those already commissioned should be made environment-friendly.

* Encroachment on or along the riverbed should be stopped by proper demarcation and notification.

* Mining of sand, water and stone on the riverbed should be stopped.

* Norms should be set for using rivers.

* A Ganga Panchayat should be set up.

A “panchayat” is a village council, but theoretically it can be convened at any level. Many academics and planners believe that the only way to keep India’s holiest river flowing clean and strong is to mobilise a grassroots movement among the millions who use the river and pray to it every day. Even the government recognises that: “Lessons from earlier experience indicate that improving water quality in the Ganga cannot be achieved by plugging the infrastructure gap alone.” But now these lessons must be put into practice.