For rejuvenating, not re-engineering, the Ganga

The forces of free market capitalism and demand for energy will trump all environmental concerns about the Ganga

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:37 pm IST

Published - July 16, 2014 01:28 am IST

IN THE DEATH THROES: Narendra Modi needs to ensure that the objective of reviving the dying Ganga is not compromised by various sectoral plans, programmes and projects. Picture shows a stretch of the river in Varanasi. Photo: R.V. Moorthy

IN THE DEATH THROES: Narendra Modi needs to ensure that the objective of reviving the dying Ganga is not compromised by various sectoral plans, programmes and projects. Picture shows a stretch of the river in Varanasi. Photo: R.V. Moorthy

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared his objective to >rejuvenate the Ganga , anxiety over the state of the river gave way to a sense of relief; there was finally hope for a river in its death throes. Also, the Minister of Water Resources was a known champion of the Ganga. However, satisfaction quickly changed to dismay because of a number of disturbing indicators.

Contradictions First, the new name for the Ministry of Water Resources is Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation. What does ‘river development’ mean? We get a clue from the phrase used commonly in the Water Establishment, namely ‘water resource development.’ In the language of the water engineer, this means harnessing more water for use through dams, barrages, reservoirs, canals, etc. A part of that meaning gets carried over into the term ‘river development’ — where development means development for human use. There is also the allied term ‘river training’ which seems to suggest that a river is a household pet or circus animal waiting to be trained by its human masters. The addition of the term ‘River Development’ to the name of the Ministry is thus an indication of the intention to build more projects on rivers. How does that fit in with the term ‘rejuvenation’?

A second disturbing indicator is the reference by some to the Sabarmati model. Sabarmati was not rejuvenated; a 10.4 kilometre stretch of the river was used as a receptacle for water from the Narmada, i.e., water from another river was used to create an artificial river front for Ahmedabad. From which river will water be brought to the Ganga, and for what length of the Ganga? Is the intention merely to create an artificial water front for Varanasi? I am sure this is not the idea. Reference to the Sabarmati model is therefore misleading.

Third, there is talk of >reviving the project announced in 2002 by Atal Bihari Vajpayee — the Inter-Linking of Rivers Project. Among the links forming part of that project is one from the Ganga to the Subarnarekha and the Mahanadi and then further southwards. How is a diversion of waters from the Ganga reconcilable with the idea of rejuvenation of the river?

Fourth, the ‘Save the Ganga’ movement has formulated the slogan of ensuring a nirmal (pollution-free) and aviral (uninterrupted) flow of the river. This phraseology has also been adopted by the IIT Consortium and the National Ganga River Basin Authority. However, a Cabinet Minister in the Modi government has declared the intention of building a series of structures on the river at intervals of 100 km. What will this do to the Ganga? What implications will this have for a nirmal-aviral flow?

Fifth, the same Minister has also talked about dredging and widening the Ganga for ensuring continuous navigability. First, human intervention harms the river and then a limited remedy is attempted through dredging. This would be for restoring part of the live storage (or pondage) lost because of the rise in the level of dead storage, and not for navigation, as the dam will obstruct navigation anyway, unless an elaborate system of locks is built. In a free-flowing stretch, where sediment build-up has not occurred, what would be the justification for dredging for navigation? In what way is dredging in a near-pristine stretch different from sand mining? As for widening the channel, it would be welcome if it meant that part of the floodplain gets protected. But dredging and widening in a near-pristine stretch is nothing but a re-engineering of the river. Does this constitute rejuvenation?

Finally, let us consider the recent meeting on Ganga Manthan. The term is evidently based on the mythological ‘samudra manthan’. What ‘churning’ of the Ganga is intended and what amrit or visha is expected to come out? What is meant is evidently a churning of >issues relating to the Ganga . It seems an ill-advised analogy.

The impact of projects This is not to accuse the government of double-speak. The government is indeed wholly committed to the task of >restoring the lost glory of the Ganga , but there are too many contradictory signals from government sources. The Prime Minister needs to intervene and ensure that the objective of reviving the dying river is not compromised by various sectoral plans, programmes and projects.

Above all, the concern that lay behind the study of the impacts of >multiple projects on the Ganga must not be forgotten. We have already done enormous harm to the river by constructing dams and barrages. It is high time we declared a moratorium on the building of any more projects until their impacts have been properly studied. The Ganga simply cannot take any more interventions, and some of the existing interventions may need to be undone.

In particular, while the impacts of some dams can be mitigated or offset, run-of-the-river (RoR) hydroelectric projects, misleadingly described as environmentally benign, are far more harmful because of two specific features. First, there are a series of breaks in the river between the point of diversion to the turbines and the point of return of the waters to the river. Does the river then still remain a river?

Second, these projects operate as peaking projects, i.e., the turbines operate in accordance with the market demand for electricity, which means that the waters are held back in pondage and released when the turbines need to operate, resulting in huge diurnal variations in downstream flows. The idea of ‘environmental flows’ is incompatible with the logic of RoR hydroelectric projects.

The forces of free market capitalism and the insatiable ‘developmental’ demand for energy will trump all environmental concerns as well as anxieties about the Ganga. Perhaps the death of our rivers is a price that needs to be paid for what goes by the name of ‘development.’ One can only request the government to be aware of what it is doing.

(Ramaswamy R. Iyer is a former Secretary, Water Resources, Government of India.)

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