IT is 6 p.m. A couple of Hindu priests and a few men and women wait at the Manikarnika Ghat on the banks of the Bhagirathi, as the Ganga is known in the pilgrim town of Uttarkashi in Uttarakhand. Their heads are turned anxiously in the direction of the river upstream.
Suddenly, from a distance, the sound of water running over the rocky bed emanates. This causes a flurry of activity: the priests prepare for the Ganga aarti, the customary offering of lighted lamps to the river, and the devout begin chanting hymns in praise of the river. Someone in the crowd announces: Jaldi puja karo nahin to paani band ho jayega (lets get on with the puja fast before they stop releasing water). Around 6.15 p.m. a thin stream of water reaches the ghat.
The 100-odd-kilometre stretch between Gaumukh, near the Gangotri glacier from where the Bhagirathi originates, and Uttarkashi used to present all the different moods of the Ganga, that is, until the run-of-river (ROR) Maneri Bhali Phase I hydroelectric project, with an installed capacity of 90 megawatt (MW), was commissioned in 1984. The river was dammed at Maneri and the flow regime was diverted into an eight-km-long concrete-lined tunnel to feed the hydraulic turbines of the power house located at Tiloth in Uttarkashi. As a result, the river has been running dry on the 14-km stretch between Maneri and Uttarkashi, depriving the villagers living on its banks of the benefit of its natural flow. At Tiloth, the water is released back into the river but it runs ankle-deep most of the time, especially during the lean period.
Another 29-km stretch between Uttarkashi and Dharasu downstream is also virtually dry following the tunnelling of the river under Maneri Bhali Phase II (304 MW). The project is almost ready for operation.
To compound matters, the Centre and the Uttarakhand government have proposed four more ROR hydel projects upstream. While work on the National Thermal Power Corporations (NTPC) project at Loharinag Pala (600 MW) is going on at a brisk pace, work on two other projects, Pala Maneri (480 MW) and Bhairon Ghati (two phases), being executed by Uttaranchal Jal Vidyut Nigam Limited, has been stalled following protests by the local people and the environmental scientist G.D. Agarwal.
Agarwal, former head of the department of civil and environmental engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, undertook an indefinite fast in June 2008. The massive support his protest generated forced the State government to review these projects and stop work immediately at Pala Maneri and Bhairon Ghati, but the Centre (through NTPC) continued work at Loharinag Pala. Agarwal broke his fast after 17 days following the Centres written assurance to him that the Loharinag Pala project would be reviewed by a high-level expert group. On January 14, Agarwal resumed his fast as the work on the Loharinag Pala project continued even as the review was on. (On February 20, he ended his fast after the government promised to review the project.)
Agarwal contention is that if a 90-MW Maneri Bhali project (an enquiry under the Right to Information Act revealed that the project had never produced more than 40 MW even at the peak of production) could cause so much havoc, which is going to be compounded by the 304-MW-phase II project, the four projects upstream near the glacier will destroy the river total
Local residents agree that the projects that have already been completed cannot be undone, but they want no further damage to the river in the governments pursuit of indiscriminate development activities.
A study conducted by Agarwal, who has mentored the likes of the late Anil Agarwal, founder of the Centre for Science and Environment, Dr Ravi Chopra, director of the Peoples Science Institute, Dehra Dun, and Rajendra Singh, recipient of the Magasaysay Award and founder of the Tarun Bharat Sangh, is an eye-opener. He convincingly argues that the proposed projects do not deal with the issues of hydraulic feasibility, geological safety, economic viability and environmental impact as per standard scientific methodology.
This should be understandable once it is realised that the objective of the study was only to satisfy the formalities to obtain MoEF [Ministry of Environment and Forests] clearances and not any sincere or realistic assessment of likely impacts, he writes in his report.
He says that even basic issues such as simulation modelling, taking into account the impact of similar existing glacier-fed projects such as Maneri Bhali or Tehri, was not done to assess the real impact on the environment. He says primary matters such as pre-project (namely, cycles of the flow variation, water spread, water depth, velocity and silt load) or post-project impact were not assessed. Even the question of the impact on the aquatic ecology, including migratory fish, algae and benthic invertebrates, was brushed aside without proper consideration. According to Agarwal, some of the things that should have been considered, but were not, are the loss of forests and terrestrial vegetation; the impact on wildlife, migratory fish species, benthic flora and fauna, algal growth and blooms and fossil valleys; and the consequences of quarrying for raw materials, transport and construction activities.
Apart from the harm caused to the cultural tradition associated with the river, as was evident during the Magh Mela in January, the annual event when pilgrims take a dip in the river, the caging of the river has, most importantly, reduced its natural flow drastically. In January, the local people even petitioned the District Magistrate for the release of enough water for the ritual bathing.
According to a rough estimate, over 80,000 people are going to be directly affected as the river disappears into tunnels.
Local activists, such as Surendra Singh Rawat, Maheshwari Bhatt, Meena Srivastava, Jai Hari Srivastava, Shashikant Shastri and Hemant Dhyani, have resolved to take their fight to save the Ganga to the streets. They want no help from politicians and high-profile sadhus and saints, as this only results in media hype without producing effective results. Following Agarwals fast-unto-death last year, several high-profile environmentalists, the yoga guru Swami Ramdev and Swami Swarupanand Saraswati, the Shankaracharya of Dwarkapeeth, besides Vishwa Hindu Parishad leaders including Swami Chinmayanand, met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in September to demand the restoration of the pristine glory of the Ganga. This resulted in the Prime Minister bestowing, on November 4, national river status on the Ganga.
The Prime Minister admitted that there was a need to replace the piecemeal efforts taken up in a fragmented manner in select cities, with an integrated approach that sees the river as an ecological entity and addresses issues of quantity in terms of water flows along with issues of quality. He also announced the setting up of a national river basin authority to monitor issues relating to the Ganga. This authority, to be headed by the Prime Minister himself, is supposed to have Chief Ministers of the riparian States as members. But the matter rests there. The authority is yet to be constituted. Only the Secretaries of the States and Ministries concerned have held discussions until now.
Agarwal said he ended the fast because he believed then that the high-profile personalities who had come out in support of his cause would pursue the case to its logical conclusion. But since that has not happened and the entire issue is once again caught in a bureaucratic time warp, he decided to resume his protest. For me the issue of saving the Ganga is like a tapasya [vow], and this time I am not going to let anyone disrupt my tapasya without achieving the results. Even if I have to sacrifice my life for this, I will do that, he told Frontline.
He said Swami Ramdev and others who hogged the media limelight last year had actually disrupted his tapasya by misleading him into believing that they would go all out to achieve the desired results. Maybe their motive was something else, to gain some mileage for themselves, some publicity, he says without rancour.
What makes people like Agarwal cynical about any effort by the government to save the river is the performance of the Ganga Action Plan (GAP), the massive river cleaning project approved by the Rajiv Gandhi government in 1985. Agarwal describes the GAP as the biggest official loot of public money with no accountability fixed. This inference is borne out by a report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) as well as one by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of Parliament. The CAG report, dated December 13, 2000, which became the basis for the PAC report, detailed the official loot of public money in clear terms. It categorically said that diversion/misuse of funds to the tune of Rs.36.01 crore by States such as Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal had been noticed and that funds had been misused/diverted for unrelated purposes such as the purchase of vehicles, computers and photocopiers and the construction of an office.
The CAG report also listed incorrect reporting, parking of funds by the Bihar government in personal accounts, and unutilised funds to the tune of Rs.72.62 crore. It also talked about inflated reporting of expenditure, loss of interest, and unutilised balances. The CAG stated that during 1993-2000 (the period of audit) Rs.655.23 crore was released to implementing agencies in various States, while only Rs.587.63 crore was spent; the rest was either diverted/misused or left unutilised. It noted that during the period of review, the Central Ganga Authority, the body constituted to oversee the implementation of the GAP and headed by the Prime Minister, met only twice, in 1994 and 1997. Besides, even when shortcomings in the implementation of the programme were brought to its notice, it failed to follow up with corrective measures, the report said.
The CAG concluded that the action plan, which was launched with the objective of restoring the water quality of the Ganga and its tributaries to bathing level, was not able to achieve its goals despite a total expenditure of Rs.901.71 crore over 15 years.
The PAC headed by Buta Singh, which submitted its report on February 4, 2004, corroborated the CAGs findings. It said that the government had released Rs.987.88 crore towards the implementation of the plan, and the States had reported an expenditure of Rs.901.71 crore until March 2000.
The report said: There were heavy shortfalls in the achievement of targets of creation of assets and facilities under the plan. Even those achievements were poor indicators of the extent of success of the GAP schemes as most of them had not functioned either fully or functioned partially for varied reasons. The committee noted that the plan could achieve only 39 per cent of its primary objective of sewage treatment. Censuring the States as well as the Centre for the failure of the plan, it said the Centre failed to monitor the schemes effectively. The monitoring system of such a prestigious and important plan is the weakest link, the report said.
It also noted that the GAP was a piecemeal solution for a complex problem and failed to treat the river ecosystem in its entirety. It found it strange that despite the fact that shortcomings had been pointed out in successive audit reports, the Centre did not take any remedial steps. Further outlining the callousness of the governments involved in the plan, the committee said that although it had called for evidence from the Chief Secretaries of Uttarakhand, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal, none of them had turned up. Only Secretaries of the departments concerned attended the sittings. In the case of Bihar, neither the Chief Secretary nor the Secretary concerned turned up; nor did they explain their difficulty to the committee, it said. The Chief Secretary of Bihar did not even reply to the queries raised by the committee. Deploring the attitude of the State governments, especially Bihar, the PAC recommended that responsibility should be fixed on erring officials.
Given this background, those genuinely concerned about the river want it to be allowed to run its course. They demand that the government immediately stop tampering with the natural flow of the river, especially in the upper reaches of the Himalayas, and draft rules and regulations in keeping with the Gangas national river status. In this respect, they want all work on the hydel projects in the Himalayas to end.
If the high-level expert committees observations are any indication, the government will go ahead with the power projects. The committee has reportedly told the government in its report, submitted on February 5, that at no place between Gangotri and Uttarkashi, are religious practices observed on the river banks and that tunnelling the Ganga could actually protect the river from littering and dumping of waste and thus save it from pollution. It has reportedly maintained that even in mythology the Ganga is referred to as vidyut vahini, meaning it can be used to produce electricity. What takes the cake is the committees reported observation that the Ganga, which is already known by a thousand names, should be called Tunnel Vahini in keeping with the times.
Power Ministry officials told Frontline that the government had gone out of its way to meet the concerns expressed by Agarwal and others but it could not stop work on the project as work has already begun, Rs.400 crore has already been spent, and we have committed another Rs.2,000 crore. Besides, the contracts have been given and we are legally bound by contractual obligations. According to Jaynat Sriniwal Kawale, Joint Secretary (Hydro), Ministry of Power, although the expert committee has recommended the release of only 3-4 cumecs (cubic metre per second) of water during the lean period, the government on its own has agreed to release 16 cumecs, which is almost the same as the natural flow.
Besides, we are also willing to set up an independent mechanism to monitor the flow of water, he said, adding that what was reported from Maneri was totally unjustifiable but the people needed to sit down and discuss how to strike a balance between environmental concerns and development and creation of infrastructure. He said the government had told Agarwal that no other project would be undertaken on the Bhagirathi after the completion of Loharinag Pala.
Agarwal has, however, rejected the contention and demanded an immediate halt to the ongoing work at the Loharinag Pala project site. He says the issue is not about quantity but about restoring the natural, unhindered flow of the Ganga.
Angry over the expert committees observations, people in Uttarkashi have submitted a memorandum to the Prime Minister demanding action against the committee members for making a mockery of the river and hurting their religious sentiments. They are also planning to lay siege to the road leading to Loharinag Pala in order to halt the movement of materials for the project.