The Ganga’s last gasp

The Environment Ministry’s proposal to alter the eco-sensitive zone status of the first 100-kilometre stretch of the Ganga meets with resistance from the Ministry of Water Resources, and the Namami Gange project remains on paper.

Published : Jan 04, 2017 12:30 IST

The powerhouse on the Ganga at Uttarkashi, a 2013 picture. The government’s proposal to amend the ESZ notification would permit the construction of 10 hydroelectric power projects on a 100-km pristine stretch of the Ganga.

The powerhouse on the Ganga at Uttarkashi, a 2013 picture. The government’s proposal to amend the ESZ notification would permit the construction of 10 hydroelectric power projects on a 100-km pristine stretch of the Ganga.

IS the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government serious about cleaning up the river Ganga, or is the ambitious Namami Gange project a sham like many of its other announcements? Contrary to the government’s avowed commitment to restore and maintain the pristine glory of the Ganga, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has proposed amending the Eco-Sensitive Zone (ESZ) notification relating to a 100-kilometre stretch of the Ganga from its origin at Gaumukh to Uttarkashi. The Ministry of Water Resources has strongly opposed the proposal.

The notification—originally issued by the United Progressive Alliance government in December 2012 following a sustained campaign by environmental activists, including an indefinite fast by Professor G.D. Agrawal (“Penance for Ganga”, April 6, 2012)—restricted construction and environmentally degrading activities in the region. It stalled the proposed construction of 10 hydroelectric power projects (HEPs) that would have depleted the natural flow of the river to a great extent. Notably, this is the only stretch of the river that remains pristine; it gets heavily polluted its downstream journey to the plains.

In a meeting of the expert committee on the Bhagirathi Eco-Sensitive Zone on August 31, 2016, chaired by Dr Amita Prasad, Additional Secretary in the MoEFCC, the government agreed to amend the notification to permit the construction of 10 HEPs of less than 25 MW capacity and a combined capacity of 82.3 MW on the 100-km stretch of the river from Gaumukh. For this, the Centre asked the Uttarakhand government to initiate immediately a carrying capacity study as part of a Bhagirathi River Basin Cumulative Impact Assessment. On the basis of the recommendations of the study, the work on the 10 HEPs would begin.

The government has also decided to redefine the norms of “Steep Hill Slopes”, which had been limited to 20° according to the 2012 notification. The amendment would allow construction of roads and buildings on hill slopes. Besides, the government has agreed to reconsider restrictions on change in land use, from green uses such as cultivation of fruits and vegetables to non-green uses in order to meet the civic needs of a growing population. The Centre also proposes to allow riverbed mining in this stretch up to a depth of two metres.

State’s concern

Significantly, the Uttarakhand government has always opposed the ESZ notification and demanded that it be either rescinded or amended keeping in view the State’s requirements. The National Ganga River Basin Authority, which was constituted after the 2012 agitation, has listed strict dos and don’ts with respect to environmental degradation. It prohibits the construction of HEPs other than micro and mini plants (100 KV to 2 MW); extraction of river water for industrial projects; commercial mining of minerals and stone quarrying, felling of trees and use of firewood; polluting industries; discharging of untreated sewage and industrial effluents and the throwing of plastic carry bags into the river; and hazardous-waste processing units along the river.

Activities that were sought to be regulated with checks and balances include setting up of defence installations and other infrastructure relating to national security, pine plantations, introduction of exotic species, establishment of hotels and resorts, laying of electric cables, tree felling, water extraction for sale, and putting up of signboards and hoardings.

The guidelines cover an area of 4,179.59 sq km, the entire watershed of about 100 km of the Bhagirathi from Gaumukh to Uttarkashi, including 88 villages. The State was supposed to frame a zonal master plan within two years for any development activity in the area. Compliance with the master plan was to be ensured by a monitoring committee comprising a person of known integrity and administrative capability as its head and 10 members comprising representatives of the MoEFCC, Forest and Irrigation Departments, non-governmental organisations, town planners and the pollution control board, and environment and ecology experts.

The draft ESZ notification was put up in the public domain in July 2011 and the final gazette notification was issued in December 2012. Ever since, the Uttarakhand government has been demanding that the notification be either rescinded or amended, saying that the Centre had overlooked its objections to certain provisions in the draft. On May 6, 2013, the then Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna (who was then in the Congress), along with some of his party colleagues and State government officials, met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with regard to this. He also met the then Union Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan and requested her to take action.

In a three-page letter, Bahuguna said the notification had been issued without following due procedure and without consulting the State government. He said that while the draft notification mentioned the area that could be affected as 40 sq km, the final notification enhanced this a hundred times. Besides, he said, the draft had put a ban on hydropower projects of 25 MW and above, while the final notification banned all hydel projects and this would rob the State of significant sources of revenue in future. “Projects with a capacity of 1,743 MW, which are in various stages of development, cannot be executed any more apart from the already incurred expenditure of Rs.1,061 crore going waste…. Such a sensitive decision has been taken by the MOEF without consultations at the field level,” he wrote.

He also pointed out that the strict guidelines in connection with tourism-related activities, restriction on the number of pilgrims for the Char Dham yatra, and a ban on construction of roads would cause anger among the local people and pilgrims and compromise national security in the strategically located border State. He told the Prime Minister that the State already had regulatory mechanisms to deal with the issue and hence there was no need for additional administrative hurdles in the way of development. He also said that besides causing unrest among the people, the final notification had legal loopholes in it. “Keeping in view the huge public resentment and also the legal lacunae, I request you to kindly rescind the notification of the eco-sensitive zone in its present form with immediate effect,” he said.

But the issue got brushed aside after the heavy rain and devastation in June 2013, the largest impact of which was felt in the temple town of Kedarnath.

In the course of time, Bahuguna was replaced by Harish Rawat from his own party and the NDA came to power at the Centre. In December 2014, the State Assembly passed a resolution demanding that the Centre withdraw the 2012 notification. Rawat met Prime Minister Narendra Modi and impressed upon him the need to either withdraw the notification or at least amend it. Now, with the Centre agreeing to amend the notification, there is widespread fear among environmentalists that once the restrictions are eased, the entire purpose of declaring the area as an eco-sensitive zone would be defeated.

Man-made factors

Besides, they fear the impact of natural disasters will get enhanced manifold from man-made factors such as unmitigated construction, rampant cutting of trees in forests, and blasting of hills for road construction, as evidenced by the Kedarnath tragedy. “Once permission is given for power projects up to 25 MW or for riverbed mining up to 2 m, or for construction of roads on hill slopes, then where is the guarantee that the stipulated norms will be strictly followed? So far we have seen rules getting flouted with impunity. How does one ensure that now this will not happen?” asks Mallika Bhanot, an activist of Ganga Ahvaan, a public forum established in 2006. She is also a member of the monitoring committee on ESZ.

Significantly, a petition on the construction of 24 HEPs on the Ganga and its tributaries in the State is pending in the Supreme Court. In August 2013, the apex court ordered the Centre to constitute an expert body to ascertain the contribution of the existing/proposed HEPs in the June disaster. The committee submitted its report to the Environment Ministry in April 2014. The report unambiguously stated that HEPs caused the destabilisation of slopes, which resulted in landslides, and that mud and sediments deposited into the riverbed raised its level, causing flooding. Besides, mud and silt released by the projects caused havoc in downstream areas in Srinagar and the flattening of vast areas. The expert body also found that as conventional mitigation measures had not succeeded in giving satisfactory results, far more effective steps were needed.

In this context, the committee mentioned that declaring the 100-km stretch between Gaumukh and Uttarkashi as an eco-sensitive zone could prove effective. In fact, the committee went a step further and recommended that such measures be taken for all the rivers in Uttarakhand. Now, with the ESZ notification on the verge of being diluted, it is anybody’s guess how effective the Centre’s Ganga rejuvenation programme will be.

Critics say it is surprising that the NDA government, which is committed to cleaning up the river and restoring it to its pristine glory, should agree to the regressive demand from the Uttarakhand government. It is also inexplicable why the Modi government, which has announced over 1,000 projects worth Rs.20,000 crore in its five-year term to ensure a free-flowing and clean Ganga, should agree to proposals that would seriously impact its natural flow.

Unless there is natural flow in the river, its rejuvenation will only remain a dream. In reply to a question in the Lok Sabha on December 1, 2016, the government claimed to have spent Rs.9,419 crore on 128 projects, but the water quality remains below standard.

In another reply in the Lok Sabha on the same day, the government admitted that the water quality of the Ganga, which had been monitored by the Central Pollution Control Board during 2013-15, did not conform to accepted norms. The government said the water was found not fit for bathing because of a high biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) on various stretches of its journey, namely, between Raiwala and Haridwar in Uttarakhand, Kannauj and Trighat in Uttar Pradesh, and Berhampore and Ulluberia in West Bengal. The government also admitted that except for a few stretches, the water quality did not conform to the faecal coliform criterion of 2,500 MPN/100 ml. (MPN is most probable number.)

Contractor-politician lobby

Environmentalists lament that the contractor-politician lobby, which has been instrumental in hyping up the fears on the ESZ notification, seem to be succeeding in its design. According to Nitin Pandey, a green activist from Dehradun who maintains a blog, the opposition to the notification is nothing but a pile of lies. “The truth is that if anyone is harmed by this 41-page document then it is the construction lobby, the mining mafia, the timber mafia and the rich people who want to make big hotels in the area. There is absolutely NOTHING in the notification which harms in any way the common man who resides in the area. On the contrary, the notification strengthens the hands of a common citizen, much to the chagrin of the moneyed exploiters of Uttarakhand, whose exploits of Uttarakhand’s natural resources will now be curtailed,” he wrote in his blog.

According to him, there has been a motivated and baseless campaign against the notification with the intent of scaring the common people. “On the contrary, the truth is that the lives of residents of all villages and towns in the area will be made more secure, safe and immune from exploitation by moneyed people. It contains nothing other than common sense issues which our State government should have implemented on its own, without waiting for the notification. Why our leaders give out factually incorrect statements is anyone’s guess,” he wrote.

Water Resources Ministry’s objection

However, a strongly worded letter written by the Secretary, Ministry of Water Resources, to the Secretary, MoEFCC, on September 30, has brought to the fore the differences within the Modi government on this issue. The letter, of which Frontline has a copy, unambiguously states that it is highly unfortunate that the Ministry of Water Resources has wrongly been mentioned as having agreed to the terms when in reality it had not even sent a representative to the meeting.

The letter says: “It is highly unfortunate that there was lack of knowledge with reference to the background of the declaration and the notification for Bhagirathi Eco Sensitive Zone. It is pertinent to note that the area was identified as of grave importance since it is the only last pristine stretch of the river Ganga which is the national river and is of immense cultural and spiritual significance in the country.”

The letter further says that the meeting, which was convened to discuss the zonal master plan, had overstepped its mandate by discussing the provisions of the ESZ. Asking for the notification to be immediately withdrawn, the letter says the part about HEPs was the most unfortunate as “there is no point in studying or analysing the carrying capacity of the Bhagirathi and the tributaries in the catchment as this completely defeats the purpose of conserving and protecting the Ganga.... The Wildlife Institute of India [WII] submitted their report on the same in 2012 clearly stating that the Bhagirathi river basin is of critical biodiversity value and with the construction of hydropower projects the high biodiversity of this area will be compromised. This very important report of WII has been ignored by the MoEF &CC.”

Besides, the letter says the definition of “steep hill slope” cannot be changed arbitrarily, nor is a closed-room assessment of riverbed mining appropriate. “A generic principle has been recommended for application without any discretion,” the letter says.

It says the outcome of the meeting will adversely impact the conservation and protection measures in the country and the meeting was conducted “perhaps without adequate know-how of the background”. The Ministry of Water Resources has demanded that the MoEFCC immediately withdraw the proposals as “there is no requirement for any studies pertaining to hydropower projects in this area since that is NOT our mandate. Our purpose is to facilitate the implementation of the notification true to letter and spirit and currently that very purpose has been altered with these minutes.”

Environmentalists are hopeful that this assertion by the nodal Ministry for carrying out the Namami Gange Project will make the Prime Minister see reason and reject the MoEFCC proposals.

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