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The fight to save the Ganga is fierce but are we any closer to a solution?

A man reads the Gita on the Sangam waters.   | Photo Credit: PTI

Five years ago, Swami Atmabodhanand was a student of computer science at an engineering college in Kerala. That’s about as much as he reveals about his ‘past life’. He doesn’t reveal the name of the college he studied in or the place in Kerala where he grew up. “A swami must forget his past,” he says. But he’s happy to discuss his fasts. It’s the eighth one now, since he met Swami Shivanand, the founder of the Matri Sadan hermitage in Haridwar. Not eating for long stretches is an essential part of Atmabodhanand’s routine as it trains him to discipline his body and focus his mind on salvation.

Frail and dishevelled, Atmabodhanand hasn’t entirely given up nutrition. Three or four times a day, he has a concoction of lemon, salt, honey and water. It gives his body the nutrition it needs to keep going. “Once the body adjusts to this, it can keep going. This is well-known and part of our traditional wisdom,” he says. Far from being confined to a cot, Atmabodhanand is alert and mobile. He shuttles between the ashram’s cottages, fielding calls, reading petitions, lawyer briefs and appeals, and tending to the 30-odd cows and calves the ashram takes care of. And when doctors from the local medical college visit, he cogently describes his state of health and upon request routinely provides urine samples.

The doctor visits are a way for the state authorities and the police to spy on the ashram, he says. “I was once forcibly taken to the hospital and given an injection. I was told I had dengue and that my platelet count had dipped. When I was dropped back, I got sick… vomiting, dizzy spells. Another test by an independent doctor showed that the platelet count was normal. They are trying to kill us,” he claims.

In keeping with what has become a pattern at the bucolic Matri Sadan, Atmabodhanand’s fasts are less nirvana and more protest, against what he and several other fellow-residents describe as the government’s “wanton destruction” of the Ganga.

The hermitage, located on the banks of the Ganga, has already had its martyrs. Swami Nigamanand Saraswati succumbed after 115 days of fasting. He was protesting sand mining on the banks of the Ganga. With him began a pattern that repeats at Matri Sadan.

Swami Atmabodhanand on fast in Haridwar.

Swami Atmabodhanand on fast in Haridwar.   | Photo Credit: AKHILESH KUMAR

Hermits go on fasts, state authorities come calling, assess their health, spirit them away, put them on saline drips or medication, restore them to ‘health’, and drop them back. The government frequently enters into dialogue with the hermits.

Sometimes, the government passes an executive order prohibiting sand extraction or declares certain stretches in the river basin sacrosanct. This is usually a temporary truce and then a new fast begins. Facing the ashram temple is a great mound that serves as a memorial to Swami Saraswati.

The fast route

Saraswati’s death invited both publicity and controversy. His grandfather alleged that he was forced into the fast, but other residents disagree. “Either the government must accede to demands or allow us to continue fasting. Please don’t harass us by taking us to hospitals and killing us,” says Swami Dayanand, who handles legal affairs at the ashram.

Of all his fasts, Atmabodhanand considers this the most important. He is taking on the mantle from Sant Gopaldas, a Haryana-based hermit who had been fasting from June 24 of last year, and then, according to Matri Sadan residents, was “forcibly” whisked away to All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in Delhi. He was later admitted to Doon Hospital in Dehradun. There’s been no news of him since December.

Gopaldas had himself taken the baton from Swami Sanand, formerly known as G.D. Agrawal, professor, environmentalist and Ganga crusader, who died last October after an 111-day fast at AIIMS, Rishikesh.

Previous fasts had catalysed governments into action. Sanand had written three letters to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with a list of demands. This included discontinuing all hydropower projects under construction on the six major tributaries that water the Ganga; cancelling proposed projects; legislating the ‘Ganga Act’ (a Bill that lays out a management plan for the river basin); and allowing Ganga Bhakti Parishad, a group dominated by environmentalists and hermits, to have the power to decide on river matters.

The letters were not answered. For one month, Sanand fasted, accompanied by Gopaldas. In early October, Sanand was shifted to a hospital. As his health deteriorated, the Centre issued an order that Union Water Minister Nitin Gadkari described as “historic”.

It mandated that hydropower projects located upstream of the Ganga ensure a minimum flow is perennially maintained in the river. Two days after the order, Sanand died, and several activists decried the notification as a piecemeal effort.

Atmabodhanand says an impression has gained ground that Ganga is of interest only to Hindus in north India. “We need to show that the river is equally important to Hindus in the South too.”

Devprayag, a town in Uttarakhand’s Tehri Garhwal district, sticks out like a toenail in the Himalayan foothills. It is here that two great rivers, the Bhagirathi and the Alaknanda, which originate from Himalayan glaciers, travel about 580 kilometres and converge into the Ganga. From here the river flows to Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal before emptying into the Bay of Bengal. At Devprayag, it is impossible to imagine that the river has pollution woes. In winter, when snowmelt is the main source of water, the Alaknanda is turquoise, the Bhagirathi a deeper turquoise. On the banks of the river, carp and cuttlefish struggle against the force of the current.

“The Ganga cannot be polluted. It cleans itself,” declares Kailash Pandey, a priest in one of the temples in Sangam Ghat, the precise confluence of the river. “The river has survived for aeons and will continue to do so. It understands our needs, provides for us. Drinking its water is the highest form of purification.”

The dramatic point where the Alaknanda and Mandakini meet at Rudraprayag.

The dramatic point where the Alaknanda and Mandakini meet at Rudraprayag.   | Photo Credit: AKHILESH KUMAR

Because the Ganga is a melting pot of many rivers that originate in the snowy mountains and make their journey through forests (about 45% of the State is forest) it hosts a diverse microbial life.

This, believers swear and scientists confirm, gives it anti-bacterial characteristics. Several research papers, and a 2015 report by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute, attest to the presence of ‘phages’, organisms that feed on bacteria, keeping the river clean and conducive to sustaining a spectrum of life forms — fish, turtles and dolphin.

But several dams built over the decades, first on the Bhagirathi and now increasingly on the Alaknanda, obstruct the flow of water. This accelerates siltation, chokes the oxygen supply in the recesses of the river, and eventually harms aquatic life.

There is a ripple effect. The water loses its momentum lower down the course when the river extends beyond Haridwar, and from there it cannot deal with the immense volumes of sewage and industrial effluents released in Kanpur, Unnao and Allahabad. It leads to staggering levels of pollution, which extends all the way into Bihar and West Bengal.

Power or river

Therefore, say activists, environmentalists and hermits, the hydropower projects in the Bhagirathi and Alaknanda must be done away with. Hydropower is the main source of power in hilly Uttarakhand. There are 99 existing hydropower projects and 241 either under construction or in the planning stage by the government and private companies. These power projects are expected to generate about 27,000 MW of power, the vast majority of them from dams and barrages on the Alaknanda.

One of them is the 330 MW project in Srinagar in Uttarakhand. Nearly a decade in the making, the dam is a ‘run of the river’ project: meaning it doesn’t entirely obstruct the course of the river but rather re-routes it to ensure that it gains enough momentum to rotate a turbine and produce electricity. The project had its fair share of trouble for over a decade with locals protesting that they weren’t adequately compensated for the loss of land and displacement from the river’s altered course.

However, Bhopal Singh, a resident of Srinagar who led several dharnas against the project, was most perturbed because the project led to the submergence of the Dhara Devi temple. “The idol was uprooted and placed at another temple site. This happened on June 16, 2013, and look what happened; nature’s fury rained upon Uttarakhand,” says Singh. That year, from June 14 to 17, Uttarakhand received three times the normal rainfall and, as the Chorabari Glacier melted, was inundated by the heaviest floods in history.

Singh recalls the several days he spent in agitations and demonstrations. “We sat up nights protesting the destruction of the temple…. When the BJP government was in the opposition, they promised us that no hydropower projects would be built. Now that they are in power (both in Uttarakhand and the Centre), they have entirely flipped,” he says.

Out of flow

As I walk along the GVK project site, I see vast stretches of the river bed exposed and the water level so low that at some places I can even walk across to the other bank. “The natural flow has been altered but during the monsoons the water flow is torrential and we have a system of checks and alerts to warn people of floods,” a site engineer at the power plant tells me.

Municipal workers take a break in front of a mural in Allahabad.

Municipal workers take a break in front of a mural in Allahabad.   | Photo Credit: AP

Upstream of the GVK project, near Rudraprayag, where the Alaknanda meets the Mandakini river, is the 99 MW Singoli-Bhatwari hydropower project, being built by Larsen and Toubro (L&T) India.

Like several projects in Uttarakhand, this too has been sputtering and stumbling towards completion. “We have a March 2019 deadline,” says a senior site engineer, G.D. Thakur. “Hopefully it should be ready.” To enable it to generate its rated power, the engineers have bored a tunnel through a hill that snakes 11 kilometres before it emerges at the power plant.

After the Uttarakhand floods destroyed the foundations of the dam, the company had to rebuild it, hiking up the cost, and even build an alternate tunnel source to prepare for a possible surge of silt in the future from floods. “We will learn as we go, but that’s how such projects are. We are using the natural flow of the river and not stopping it, so where’s the danger?” he asks.

The danger, according to Sushila Bhandari, an activist who lives in a settlement near the L&T project site, is already visible. The forests atop the hill through which the tunnel passes are drying up. Regions in Uttarakhand that were naturally watered by the course of the river have run dry and there are perennial water shortages.

Ever since the Uttarakhand floods, there’s been growing disquiet — even in the government — about hydropower projects. Several committees over the years have said that the Uttarakhand floods exposed weaknesses in the design and the folly of not accounting for the environmental impact of the construction.

More recently, with the sharp decline in cost of solar power, hydropower projects face even more disfavour. “We will not allow any new hydropower projects in Uttarakhand,” Gadkari had stated when announcing the government order on minimum flows in the Ganga.

Techno babble

National Mission for a Clean Ganga (NMCG) is the nodal Central government authority that has been tasked with cleaning the river. Based in Delhi, it has at its disposal ₹20,000 crore to put in place a slew of measures to clean the river’s most polluted stretches — installing and improving drainage networks and sewage treatment plants, building better facilities to cremate bodies, restoring the forest ecosystem and so on.

Being a body of technocrats, its efforts are managerial and focussed on funding and putting in place mechanisms to ensure that States coordinate in executing the cleaning projects. In the last four years, it has spent about ₹6,000 crore but, say environmentalists, it has become more of an administrator of municipal works rather than a body that holistically addresses the pollution issue.

Officials at NMCG say that demands to shut down all power projects and take away the management of the Ganga from the government are untenable because it violates principles of secularism and would, in its own way, invite public wrath.

Says a senior NMCG official: “Imagine if all hydropower projects were shut down… people would complain about electricity and economic hardships. Many demands — such as putting ecological principles at the heart of cleaning the Ganga — are genuine, but these can only be solved gradually and not through hunger strikes.”

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Printable version | May 7, 2021 2:30:24 PM |

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