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Killing the Ganga

VANDANA SHIVA comments on the ecological and social consequences of the proposed move to privatise the Ganga by a multi-national company.

FOR the first time since the construction of the Ganga Canal in 1847, water has stopped flowing in Har-ki-Pauri at Haridwar and through the Ganga canal that nourishes the entire western U.P. region of the Doab. Even the British colonisers did not stop the flow of Ganga at Har-ki-Pauri. Why has the Ganga disappeared at the peak of summer?

The argument that a bridge needs to be built for Ardh Kumbh in 2004 does not wash. Hundreds of bridges have been built since 1847; the flow of water in the Canal system was never stopped. And there is no imperative for beginning construction in the peak of summer when water requirement is greatest in agriculture and for domestic use.

The real reason seems to be engineer a water crisis — not a bridge — and use that to promote the idea of selling Ganga to private corporations like Suez. It also seems to be an experiment to test the social resistance of people to disappearing rivers — an inevitability if rivers have to be dammed and diverted for the grandiose $200 billion River Linking Project.

The privatisation of the Ganga by Suez is, in fact, an example of river linking — of bringing the Ganga waters to the Yamuna.

The Yamuna has already been killed by pollution and, in spite of millions spent on cleaning, it continues to be unfit for drinking. Now, the powers that be want to make the poor rural communities of Uttaranchal and U.P. give up their water rights so that Ganga water can be commodified and sold to those with money — Delhi's elite. The Sonia Vihar plant of Suez was inaugurated on June 21, 2002. It is designed to treat 635 million litres of Ganga water a day. The contract is between Delhi Jal Board (the Water Supply Department of Delhi Government) and the French Company Ondeo Degremont (a subsidiary of Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux — the world's biggest water giant).

The water for the Suez-Degremont plant in Delhi will come from Tehri Dam through the Upper Ganga Canal upto Muradnagar in Western Uttar Pradesh and then through the giant pipeline to Delhi. The Upper Ganga Canal, which starts at Haridwar and carries the holy water of Ganga upto Kanpur via Muradnagar, is the main source of irrigation for this region.

The plant at Sonia Vihar is being built at a cost of Rs. 1.8 billion. However, the Tehri Dam — of which Suez will be a primary beneficiary — has already cost Rs. 100 billion, and the construction is far from complete. Further, the pipe to be laid over 30 km to bring water from the Ganga Canal at Muradnagar to Sonia Vihar is being built at public cost. Suez is not bringing in private foreign investment. It is appropriating public financial investment. Public-private partnerships are in effect private appropriation of public investment. But the financial costs are not the highest costs. The real costs are social and ecological.

The people of Tehri can never be compensated for the uprooting of their lives. The women are still on a dharna, refusing to move, even though the contractors to break down the homes to force people to move. All water schemes in the dam catchment have been cancelled, both on grounds that the government has no money and on grounds that every drop of Ganga water must flow into the dam, not to sustain lives of local communities.

Privatisation of water denies local communities their water rights and access to water in two ways. Firstly, the scarce and limited water resources are diverted, from the poor to the rich, from the countryside to towns, from agriculture to industry leaving water famines where people have no purchasing power, and providing water to those who have destroyed their own water resources through waste and pollution. Secondly, the state itself shifts from its functions in providing welfare to the needy and most marginalised communities to the new function of providing public subsidies for private profits. Small, decentralised rural schemes are starved of both water resources and financial resources.

It is not just women of Uttaranchal who are bearing the social costs for bringing the Ganga waters to Delhi. Farmers from U.P. will also lose their livelihoods and irrigation. The Upper Ganga Canal is one of the oldest canals in Western U.P and irrigates about 9,24,000 hectares of land.

What does diverting water to Delhi mean for national food security? The annual water diverted to Delhi from the Upper Ganga Canal at the rate of 635 million litres per day will result in critical reduction in the production of food crops in the region, and thus possible destruction of national food security.

In addition, the ecological and cultural costs are high. The damming of the Ganga at Tehri has already converted it into a cesspool of stagnant water. The Gangetic plain is one of the most fertile regions of the world. In Bihar, farmers, before planting their seeds, put Ganga water in a pot and set it aside in a special place in the field to ensure a good harvest. It is this treatment of the organic as sacred that inspired Diana Eck the Harvard geographer to call the Ganges an "organic symbol".

For the Ganga's significance as a symbol is not just as a narrative. First, she is a river that flows with waters of life in a vibrant universe. Narrative myths come and go in history. They may shape the cosmos and convey meaning for many generations, and then they may gradually lose their hold upon the imagination and may finally be forgotten. But the river remains, even when the stories are no longer repeated. And it is this river that is disappearing as the market commodifies our most sacred symbols, our most vital needs.

But the Ganga is also being transformed from a river of life to a river of death both by the ecological consequences of damming as illustrated by the ecological risks of Tehri dam, and of diversion, as the disappeared Ganga in Haridwar and Western U.P. is showing.

The Tehri dam project is located in the outer Himalaya in the Tehri-Garhwal district of Uttaranchal. The dam will submerge 4,200 hectares of the most fertile flat land in the Bhagirathi and Bhilangana valleys. Moreover, the dam is located in a seismic fault zone. Between 1816 and 1991, the Garhwal region had witnessed 17 earthquakes, the most recent ones being at Uttarkashi in October 1991 and Chamoli in 1998.

In case the dam collapses due to an earthquake or any other fault, the devastation will be unimaginable. The huge reservoir built at such a height will be emptied in 22 minutes. Within 60 minutes Rishikesh will be under 260 meters of water. Soon after Haridwar will be totally submerged under 232 meters with next 23 minutes. Bijnor, Meerut, Hapur and Bulandshahar will be under water within 12 hours, says environmentalist Sunderlal Bahuguna. Thus the dam is potentially dangerous for large parts of north-western India, and large areas in the Gangetic plains could be devastated in the event of a mishap. The life of the dam is estimated to be not more than 30 years because of heavy sedimentation. Already, islands of silt are rising faster than the impounded water, confirming that Tehri dam will hold silt, not water and hence create floods, not prevent them.

The disappearance of the Ganga in the peak of the summer of 2003 is an experiment, a vivisection of our living rivers, our living cultures. It is an experiment to test how much violence as a society we can accept as mute dead witnesses of our own destruction. The people of Uttaranchal, U.P and Delhi can turn around this violent, abusive experiment to convert the lifeblood of our rivers into corporate commodities, and transform it into an experience for ensuring water justice and sustainability, and defence of our living waters.

Alternatives exist for Delhi. Delhi does not have to cannibalise the countryside of the Himalaya and Doab. At present Delhi has allocation of waters from the Yamuna, the Ganga and the Beas (Bhakra project), in addition to ground water resources. Delhi has sufficient water to meet its increased requirements of the next century and obviating the need to bring Tehri dam waters to Delhi.

Organisations are working to create awareness of and participation in sustainable water solutions to Delhi's water crisis and also with communities in Tehri and the Ganga Canal areas to sustain the Ganga.

On August 9, 2002, on the anniversary of the Quit India Day, more than 5,000 farmers of Muradnagar and adjoining areas of western Uttar Pradesh gathered at village Bhanera to protest the laying of a giant pipeline to supply the water from the Ganga to the Sonia Vihar water plant. The rally was launched from Haridwar — one of the oldest and holiest cities of India built on the banks of Ganga — where hundreds of farmers, together with priests, citizens and worshippers of Ganga announced that "Ganga is not for Sale", and vowed to defend the freedom of this holy river. Farmers and others in villages along the route joined the rally to declare that they would never allow Suez to take over Ganga water.

In March 2003, another Ganga Yatra took place, this time with Magsasay awardee Rajender Singh and Oscar Olivera, a leader of the Coalition in Bolivia which stopped water privatisation and drove out Bechtel. The Bolivian movement had the slogans "Water is God's gift and not a merchandise" and "Water is life". In India, our slogan is "The Ganga is not for sale".

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