Crores of rupees are being pumped into the Ganga to clean it, but what India’s holiest river needs is to get back its majestic, water-rich original form as it meanders its way from the mountains to the ocean
Vimal Bhai | September 8, 2016
The government aims to profit from the longest river of the country by using it as a water highway. It has expressed interest in dredging lengthy stretches of the Ganga, building barrages and thus introducing a ‘cheaper mode of transportation’. This means that the exploitation of the Ganga will not be restricted to its headwaters in Uttarakhand where the river has been chained up in dams for various hydro-electric projects, but the misery of the river is going to be similar throughout its course in the plains.
In 2014, the new government renamed the water ministry as the ministry of water resource, Ganga rejuvenation and river development. ‘Namami Gange’ – a flagship programme of the prime minister – was launched soon after. People hoped that the misery of the riverine system was soon going to end and that their protector and benefactor had arrived.
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While money is being spent for cleanliness of the river, building toilets and sewage treatment plants, at the same time water highways will be marked which would ultimately spoil aquatic life, change the river’s behaviour and consequently impact the environment. Words like ‘dams’ and ‘environment’ have found no space in the documents prepared for river rejuvenation.
Under Namami Gange, the government is actually camouflaging its support to industrialists, capitalists, hydro-power projects and continuing to please their Hindu vote bank in the name of river cleanliness. Either they have failed to realise or have ignored the fact that the misery of the Ganga starts from its infancy. Namami Gange is nothing but commercial exploitation.
Union minister Nitin Gadkari, while stressing the river interlinking and water highways, goes to the extent of comparing the river with the Thames and Volga rivers. He must not forget that the Ganga is neither of them. It is a separate eco-system that unites a multi-dimensional culture from Uttarakhand to Sunderbans. Life and culture of people dwelling by its side depend on the river and its eco-system. You can’t convert that 2,525 km long vibrant eco-system into a cemented canal with motor-operated water vehicles plying in the plains, after the dams have shackled the stream of the river in the mountains.
During the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) rule in 2008, some people, including the seers and politicians, in a bid to stir up the issue started talking about a dam-free Ganga and slammed the government. Several self-proclaimed Ganga putras were born during this period. Following which, the government declared the Ganga as the national river in 2009 and subsequently local problems and sufferings were ignored. The plight of the dam affected people were ignored. Ganga was snatched from the hands of the people and was put into the kamandal of Hindutva. Saffronisation of the river took place and the next government presented itself as what I call a Gangawadi government. The BJP sought to entice the Hindu vote bank in the river basin. Terms like ‘Nirmalta’ (cleanliness) and ‘Aviralta’ (uninterrupted flow) were popularised. Sadly, nothing changed on the ground. You talk about saving cows, but you have failed to save the river which is nourishing people across five states. Saviours of Ganga born a decade back, including some prominent saints, scientists and experts, are now silent. Leave all other rivers, I say, just focus on Ganga. Your vision for Ganga is nothing if you don’t talk about dams.
Ganga minister Uma Bharti on one hand talks about releasing water in the river and on the other bats for dams. Is that possible? During a Ganga Manthan programme, organised just after she took charge of her ministry, she looked excited about her initiatives for the river. But at the same time, her behaviour was like a child who would look up to the elders of her family – Gadkari and PM Narendra Modi – to get the work done. I believe either the government is not allowing her to work or the minister and her bosses both are in favour of dams and waterways.
I have been associated with the anti-dam movement with noted environmentalist Sunderlal Bahugunaji since 1987. We have seen huge money being drained into the river in the name of cleanliness. However, over time, the river basin has narrowed down and the flow in the river has decreased. Even at present, cleanliness is being popularised setting aside the issue of dams. The money collected in the name of Ganga rejuvenation is actually deceiving people who are expecting Aviralta and Nirmalta. Of course, the government wants to clean the river as it wants the waterways to look cleaner. However, this step by the government would be pure betrayal for people who are eyeing a rejuvenation of the Ganga which is dying because its disease upstream is being ignored.
An adverse impact of dams is seen in the flood pattern of Ganga. There was a time when flood was considered good for a river’s health. The rich soil brought by the river would nourish the soil in the plains and thus bring prosperity for the farmers. However, the flood over the past two decades cannot be compared with the pre-dam era floods. This flood has less soil and more water. Now the Bhagirathi Ganga water is controlled by the Tehri dam and Koteshwar hydro-power project. The natural flood process has gone with the river’s changing pattern.
Due to dams there is acute shortage of water in some areas of Uttarakhand though these places are geographically near the river. Dams like Vishnuprayag, Maneri-Bhali and others divert the entire river into tunnels for power generation, leaving no water for the people downstream.
On the contrary, the government initiated online sale and despatch of Gangajal via India Post. If their intention is to provide the holy water to all, it must also provide Ganga to people living in the hills who despite dwelling near the Ganga have no access to the river to cremate their dead on its banks. Will the government and the dam companies release water for such people in the downstream who are not able to carry out their rituals?
The Ganga gave indications of its misery with the massive flood havoc in 2013. It is a well-documented fact that dams played a major role in that devastation. Several dams were damaged in the flood fury. It was as if the river was crying out, ‘no more dams!’
But we either failed to decipher her cry or just ignored it. In fact, instead of learning from the past mistakes, we are continuously mulling ways to exploit whatever is still available of the river in any form. The new exploitation would be in the form of waterways.
In its journey through five states, the river, as seen in its map, behaves like an infant in the upstream which grows into a kid, then teenager and later an adult in plains and meets the sea in the Bay of Bengal. In this journey, the river irrigates innumerable farms, gives livelihood to fishermen and boatmen, life to aquatic animals, unites religions, culture, witnesses festivals and rituals before meeting the sea. Now all this will disappear. Upstream the river will be shackled by tunnels and in plains there will be world-class water highways having clean water and STPs.
A free-spirited Ganga will be a myth.
Vimal Bhai is a noted anti-dam activist and convener of Matu Jan Sangathan.
He spoke to Swati Chandra.
(The column appears in the September 1-15, 2016 issue)
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